Sunday, June 16, 2024

Queer Expression in Teardown: Smashing your way to euphoria

For me, a specific success of Tuxedo Labs’ Teardown is the inclusion of a can of spray paint in your initial destruction toolkit. It says one thing, this game is meant as a place for a player to take up space. Like most of the destruction-kit you get to unlock, it’s not a hi-tech tool at all, but simply an offering that permits vandalism as integral to the game’s idea of how play works. This is liberating as a player, and as a queer person, living and expressing myself in usually a very limited, internal way, to be able to plaster the walls of the maps in slurs and attacks that have been used against me and people I love, and then destroy those words, in a kind of cycle of owning and then destroying that harm.

I have often felt let-down by spaces for queer existence, especially outside of the gender binary, in games and games media because of the manifold factors of representational emptiness, conflict with a game’s failings with other representations and messages, and the fightback from a culture of transphobia and homophobia from several sides. I felt that this year with The Last of Us II, with Watch Dogs: Legion, and, in a different way, Call of Duty: Cold War. These huge games that put stock in meaningful representation, attracted some queer dissatisfaction, but had that drowned out by the oppressive, heavy culture of phobic ‘debate’ that follows us around. When it truly feels like someone, somewhere will always have it out for queer people just trying to exist and play, no game has allowed me to express that frustration, that anger that living in a cycle of multilevel media persecution creates… Except Teardown.

While in general, I’ve always thought  content ruled over gameplay, because of how well-written and designed narratives will get me to tear up, Teardown gave me an eye into how that might just have been caused by the limits of gameplay up to now. Powered by the game’s impressive voxel-based maps and destruction physics, the ability to tear apart its scenic settings, or any other map you might upload yourself, with a blowtorch, bombs and bad driving, is a real triumph of prioritising depth of gameplay.

Teardown queer
Source: Steam

When I play the game I’m content in the satisfying catharsis of blowing up a millionaire’s mansion and feel free to be a queer, non-binary jerk, spray-painting, throwing pipe bombs through glass and crashing through walls. Since the game’s campaign mode is also super relaxed about how raising an alarm works, and the only thing waiting to jump you is a helicopter, it’s freeing to not always feel the heavy repercussions of some graphic police brutality, conversion-therapy-backstory, or other fresh hellish torture weaponised against you.

That’s not to say the game adopts an arrogant ‘political neutrality’. While there is a disclaimer at the start about not supporting similar real-life activities, Teardown’s campaign is aimed directly at cycles of inequality. It focuses on your family-owned demolition firm going under and turning to crime as relief, pulling demolitions and heists for rich rivals in your district, and soon plunging the region into chaos as a result. While hired for this by the super-wealthy you make extra money playing them off of each other, stealing their valuables. Though you are ultimately extorted into similar work for your freedom by the police. It’s a timely farce about the corrupt, self-serving powers behind money, justice, and property, which is a lot from a game mostly about smashing stuff to bits.

While I am happy for the general advancement of fictional representation of marginalised sexuality and gender in games and other media, it’s always going to be just one tool for enriching our spaces of play. Games are so broadly important to modern queer history and the contemporary experience that thinking through the odd ‘representative character’ in major studio games is severely limiting. It’s not just stories told from some place of corporate compassion for the queer player, it’s the whole thing. It’s in the communal spaces, the tools, the structural freedom given to us by games too.

For me, Teardown has been the most expressively queer game experience of 2020 due to the amount it actually lets me express the inner turmoil, the loneliness, and to tear apart those things that oppress.

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