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"We don't think it's possible to capture every queer experience with a single work": The philosophy of Unsighted

"The 'true' ending is the one you got and experienced."

Spoiler warning: This piece contains spoilers for Unsighted.

Every once in a while, along comes a game I just can't stop thinking about. Sometimes it's just because of a single moment, like the boss fight with Ludwig, The Holy Blade in Bloodborne. Or like how Nier slowly lets you in on its story through multiple playthroughs. More often than not though, it's because of how the world is realised. And I don't think 2021 had a more fleshed out world than the metroidvania Unsighted. So to attempt to unpack what makes the game so interesting, I sat down with the duo that makes up Studio Pixel Punk, Tiani Pixel and Fernanda Dias.

For some reason, 2022 has seen a small trend of developers advertising just how much is in their game. Techland clearly believed that Dying Light 2 taking 500 hours to fully complete was a good advertising point. Games can be so overwhelmingly stuffed and desperate for you to do every last thing they have to offer by littering the map with quest markers. Unsighted too, is a game with a whole lot to do, but it won't get upset at you if you don't do everything.

Borrowing from a range of games, Unsighted places its protagonist Alma, an android, in a world where time is constantly running out. The energy source that powers automatons, the in-world name of the androids, is fast depleting, and both Alma and every NPC in the game has a timer which counts down to the moment they turn unsighted, a state of being where you lose all sense of self. So of course with that time limit, designing a game that encourages you to do everything wouldn't work.

The Unsighted launch trailer.Watch on YouTube

"The word you used, 'content', is something we're not big fans of when talking about art, be it movies, games or books," Pixel answered me when I brought up the point that games like Dying Light have 'hundreds of hours of content'. "It makes everything feel like a product that you have to consume the moment you paid for it, and then move on to buy more content somewhere else. We believe that this mentality leads to games that are bloated with 'content' and with very little room for reflection on the concepts of the game, or re-examination of the medium."

Unsighted is absolutely a game that challenges the triple-A ocean of standard game design. That timer is one of the most anxiety inducing experiences I have had in a game in years. Of course to some that might sound like a bad thing, but occasionally we need experiences that aren't always pleasant. "In such discussions it's often said that exploration games shouldn't be on a timer, it’s not good game design because it can make players anxious," said Dias. "That's definitely the most controversial aspect of the game, but it's exactly what we wanted to toy around, and we don't believe there's a right or wrong way to do these things."

It's not like the timer prevented the LGBTQ+ Brazilian developer from stuffing the game full of secrets. In fact one of the biggest secrets of all is an incredibly difficult one to find. As mentioned, every character in the game is on a timer. This of course means there are a variety of endings to be found, and if you aren't quick enough, the ending you get won't be so happy. But there is a way to undo it all.

The game harbours a literal time portal, but to access it you need to craft a special key from various parts. And to find those parts, you need to find areas that are essentially not signposted at all. But that's part of the point. "The idea behind the time portal is for it to be a very hidden secret that the community has to join in and talk about to find it," said Pixel.

And the community did come together to uncover the secret, one so well hidden even their publisher Humble Games weren't aware of it. Once you find it, you can travel back in time, retaining all of your upgrades, but everyone's timers are reset, meaning you can get a much happier ending.

Pixel Punk wants to be clear though, that this isn't the "true" ending by any means. "We believe making this judgement about what is the 'true' or 'false' story is completely against our vision of the game. The 'true' ending is the one you got and experienced," said Pixel. And Dias points out that the most complex ending isn't something you need to experience, as the duo thinks, "it can lead to this frustrating will to consume everything a game has, even when you feel like you're already happy with your experience."

Unsighted is a beautiful game.

I know I didn't experience everything the game had to offer (unlocking the portal of time proved quite the challenge, one I couldn't overcome), but hearing the ending I got is just as true as any other was the kind of validation I don't feel I get from many other games. It reminded me of FromSoftware's games, in how if you don't really know how the games work: the ending you get is the ending you get, and that's OK.

But I was pretty determined to get a so-to-speak 'good' ending, for one particular reason. Pretty much all of the characters in the game are queer, but with no specific labels attached to any of them. And so as much as I could, I wanted to provide a happy ending for the characters, as media as a whole is filled with the trope of queer stories endign badly. This is something Pixel Punk are conscious of too, but with the various narrative routes players can go down, they also didn't want to claim they are representing every aspect of queer life.

"We don't think it's possible to capture every queer experience with a single work, and we don't attempt to do it," said Dias. "We tried to write something that reflects our own experience, which is varied in and of itself, and that indeed has a lot of sombre moments, but it's also a story about happiness, about moments big and small and even about catharsis."

Often the 'queer media with bad ending' trope comes as a result of being written by cisgender, heterosexual people. But Pixel and Dias are both LGBTQ+, so obviously understand how to approach these subjects with the respect they deserve. And they're also right; there are plenty of sad moments in the game. Yet they never feel gratuitous, and while set in a futuristic, impossible world, some of the events that take place could easily be something that happens to any one of us, happy or sad.

Unsighted presents a very complicated world, one where truth is what you make of it. But knowing that it's OK to not see everything, to take what you're offered and leave it there, is a refreshing change of pace from the usual triple-A affair. While I do still play the big budget titles, I am definitely burnt out on them. They often don't reflect my own experiences as a queer person, and they certanily don't respect my time. Unsighted remains a memorable game for so many reasons, but the main one is that it feels like it cares about me, and that is quite the rare experience.

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