Critical Play: Playing like a Feminist

For this critical play, I played one night, hot springs, a short PC game by npckc. one night, hot springs is an interactive fiction game where you play as Haru, a trans woman living in Japan who gets invited to a hot spring (onsen) by her childhood friend. Throughout the game, you can make decisions about how to respond to other characters and situations that determine the outcome of the game.

This game draws on intersectional feminism– that is, it presents the perspective of women outside of white, upper-middle class, cisgender feminism, and it forces players to consider queer individuals outside of the western cultural context– in this specific case, Japan. Things like hot springs / public baths (which often require nudity with complete strangers), and school uniforms are very strongly associated with gender and pose strong social barriers for trans people in Japan. One night, hot springs is an effective feminist narrative precisely because it introduces players to a perspective that lies outside of the expectations of a patriarchal society. As mentioned in the reading, a good feminist story “tell[s] stories not just about women but also about characters who face the adversities set forth within our mainstream cultures.”(58) Haru faces microaggressions from several different characters within the game– for example, the front desk employee who gave her a weird look when she turned in the guest forms, or when Erika asked “was Haruto your name when you were a guy?”

One important feminist theory incorporated into the game is the idea of agency. As mentioned in the reading, “agency is a necessary part of the feminist definition of equality”(61). One night, hot springs provides agency to the player in the form of letting players pick dialogue choices at certain points in the game, which then determine the “ending” that the player reaches. Through this mechanic, the player is able to explore “the role and weight of choices as well as power” (61-62) in society. Players are forced to make choices and navigate relationships with other characters– by having the agency to make those decisions, they are no longer passive observers of a story but active participants that “[have] a will to act and speak back to systems of power”, which is the “essence of how we can redefine the status quo of hegemonic power structures” (61).

The format of the game (a sort of choose-your-own-adventure) is also deeply intertwined with a feminist perspective on narrative. As mentioned in the reading, our cultural sense of narrative is one that is linear with a singular climax. However, feminist scholars argue that queer and feminist narratives often exist in a “never-ending narrative middle.” One night, hot springs is not a linear narrative– rather, there are narratives that branch off from every pivotal decision in the game.

One thing that the game does well is that it is very straightforward to learn how to play. The player only has to make a decision between two choices, and there is an option to play with hints (the hearts in the top left of the screen).

One thing that maybe could be improved in the game would be the number and types of different endings in the game. There’s only one really “bad” ending (in contrast to about 6 “good” endings) If more endings were added, that might be able to express a broader scope of the trans experience to players.

Discussion Question: What other ways can we bring queer and feminist narratives into games? In one night, hot springs, we explore Haru’s perspective as a trans woman, but would it also have been effective to explore Manami’s or Erika’s points of view?

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