(Content Warning: This article includes discussions of Conversion Therapy, which inevitably is a discussion of homophobia and torture of a physical and psychological nature. While nothing is in graphic detail, please be advised.)
So lately, I’ve been part of the Beta Test campaign for Nerdy City’s new title: Commandroids. Like most of NC’s recent titles, Commandroids is a loving tribute to the media of the 1980’s with a slightly horror twist. In the case of Commandroids, the properties of Transformers, Robotech, Go-Bots and Voltron take center stage. Symbitron warriors make bonds with human teens to strengthen themselves against the Corrupt Nemesites and their human slaves.
The game is set in the fictional Bullrush County, a small area between Orlando and Miami, along the major highways. It’s 1987, guns and drugs travel freely and Bullrush is almost a nerve center of vice. Located several hours in to the Everglades is the Daytona Juvenile Rehabilitation center, and all of the human characters are teens sentenced to the facility.
I play Daniel Sylvaine, a rarity in Miami at the time: A Goth. He’s also openly queer and has had relationships with multiple men and women during his young seventeen years of life (several of the other player characters have at one point dated him, regardless of gender). One of the things about the 80’s and especially its media, was that there weren’t many openly gay characters, let alone any others under the queer banner. What if a character was out and open and unabashedly unafraid.
So in came Daniel, Goth Prince of Bullrush. Part of the punk scene, he has enough street smarts to know the games being played by the power players in the region while staying out of it as possible. So his being arrested and sentenced for drug trafficking is ironic, especially as the Sherriff of Bullrush recently caught Daniel in his son’s bedroom. Most of the guards, especially the head CO and a large chunk of the population are racist bigots, some outright members of white supremacy groups. Daniel walked in to Daytona Facility prepared to Andy Dufrene the entire situation until he aged out and disappeared in to the Miami Neon.
And then a white supremacist came up to him and others and said he owned them. Cue the beating on the white supremacist, with Daniel writing on his forehead “We Are Not Owned”.
This setting is one that requires a lot of trust between GM and player. I don’t recommend it for the casual player. I trust Sean Jaffe, and there have been some course corrections in how Daniel was to be seen. Daniel wasn’t playing to be a stereotype of gawking at boys in the yard. He was going to be working out in the yard. He wasn’t going to tart up for anyone, or be in any way camp. He’s a theater nerd who has survived the eccentricities of Bullrush County for his entire life. He is, at heart, a survivor.
And then, a few episodes in, we learned more about the people who own the facility, who fund it. Several of the megachurches in the area have been funding it, and several of the children there have ties. And so, in one conversation, Sean casually mentions that Daniel is familiar with the facilities of one of the churches, having gone through one of their conversion therapy camps previously.
So, hi, I’m Craig Page, and I have a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. I got to study about Conversion Therapy, aka ‘Pray the Gay Away and if not, Electro Shock works’ method of ‘treatment’ for people who identified as queer. It is seen in modern psychology as an evil perversion of the practice and has lead to numerous instances of suicides and post traumatic stress. It's torture and brainwashing for the sake of achieving some fanatic's idealogical purity. Armed with that information, I blinked, and went “Oh. So we’re dealing with THIS level of evil. Cool.”
Again, this takes trust between GM and Player. You don’t just hand someone that piece of detail about their background unless they A) understand what it means and B) are willing to roll and role with what it means. And then, several more episodes in, we find that the rehab center is going to be turned in to one of the camps to deal with current plot and to double down on their nefarious practices. Enter Daniel, usually aloof, looking at the other players and demanding that they kill him if it comes to pass. None of the other characters had gone through the process, none of them know what's coming. And Daniel's breakdown is enough to get everyone with a shred of decency on the same page about escaping. Even one of the NPCs, a cop who recognizes what Daniel is going through, talks very openly about shared experiences with PTSD.
Daniel is one of the few characters I’ve been this engrossed with over the years. Largely because through him, I get to fight the real monsters. I get to look at the things that corrupt a field of study I’d spent my life learning, that have seen countless people —many children—dead and broken. And, in some small way, on tuesday nights, I can confront that. I can fight them.
And if that isn’t the power of gaming, I don’t know what is.
And this is still all before the robots have come in. That may be a shock to players, but it’s really ingenious storytelling. Radical Shadows is about a break from the normal, and strange things have more gravity once you’ve established what “normal” is in your world and with your characters. I’ll probably write more on the subject later, or prod Sean to write one of his own.
But I’m interested to see what will happen to Daniel when he meets his Commandroid. I already know she’s a medical transport taking the disguise of a Winnebago. I know that she is reserved and doesn’t talk much. I know that, in theory, he can be a source of socializing she might need and she’s a place of safety for him. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when they are both opened up to their world now transformed.
Commandroids is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign. I am a contributing writer for it, helping with content and with writing the Fate Core Translation. For the sake of openess, the article you are reading now was going to be done Kickstarter campaign or not. If you like what you’ve read, and would like to support Commandroids (and me!) please consider pledging to the campaign. Later!