"Break The Game" — Looking for Queer Community in A 8-bit World
There's no rulebook on how to navigate others perception of you
This piece is part of the Tribeca 2023 coverage here on “I Care About…” //
*This piece was written by A. Tony Jerome who has since deleted their substack
At under an hour and a half, a lot of ground is covered (especially if you, like me, came in with minimal knowledge of Narcissa Wright) in Break the Game. We watch the documentary set up a past where Narcissa was the apple of the public gaming eye and we follow her as the gaming community rips her from it after she comes out as a trans woman. Determined to gain 20,000+ viewers as she attempts to speedrun The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we follow her through archival footage shared with director Jane M. Wagner, starting in 2017.
for those un-initiated — me, exactly five days ago — speedrunning is when you finish a game as fast as possible, often exploiting flaws in the game’s code. It’s also where the title of the documentary gets its inspiration. You can check out other speedruns here.
I need you to know that I am OBSESSED with game art, especially pixel art, and it is lovely and wonderful and so BRIGHT and adds so much.….character to flashbacks. In this case, it keeps us in Narcissa’s world where a real-life camera cannot follow. The art interspersed within the documentary is brilliant and made me want to play certain parts over and over again after watching the documentary the whole way through the first time.
“If I don’t [...], I’m failing out-doing my past. And I can’t stand for that.”
— Narcissa Wright, Break the Game
Arguably the child of found footage (ex: Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity), a subgenre of visual storytelling called ScreenLife is where movies and television tell stories mostly (if not entirely) through computers, cell phones, and the apps that come along with them. Think Missing, Unfriended, and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Break the Game has a type of storytelling that falls under this (mostly), and for those not used to it, it can feel claustrophobic.
For many —especially queer and/or neurodivergent people who’ve made several spaces for themselves online —it can just feel a little like home. But, home is not always comfortable and does not always know how to hold you correctly, especially when you need to change or grow.
Knowing how differently people will treat you when you come out is many folks’ greatest fear, and seeing that play out through this documentary is eye-opening and disheartening, but at turns, strangely comforting. After you come out, in spite of how others treat you, you still have life to live and some of those parts can be really, really good.
This is a documentary that cares deeply about Narcissa and shares her story in a way that could be handled as clickbait in any other director’s hands. It’s not in it for the numbers, the shock value, or the titillation that most trans women’s stories fall prey to. Documentaries sometimes ask us to forget that there is more to the subject but this one tells a full story, rather than just a piece of someone’s life. It’s told with tenderness and care for the person opening herself up to an audience once more.
“I’m just kind of like sitting in my room playing games, but now there’s always people who know who I am.”
— Narcissa Wright, Break the Game
I am, by no means, a gamer. I play games. I love games. I have attended the amazing Game Devs of Color every year since it went online and have the damn time of my life — tickets for this year are on sale now! — but I avoid gamers with nearly every fiber of my being.
Though it isn’t a horror film, two things made me react to it as such: the proximity to the danger that one faces as a marginalized person and surveillance.
I think something that we often forget is that when you turn on the camera, yes, you’re inviting people to watch you, but you can rarely account for what their intentions are for tuning in.
I dabble with the idea of streaming every time I enjoy a game and want to remember the first time I played years from now. I even go update my Twitch profile when I play with friends. If there was a way to have a Twitch channel just for them and then gently add more people as I trust them, I’d be on board. But as soon as I know someone I don’t know is watching, my capability basically just goes out the window.
Even more than that is fearing for my safety and the safety of those I love, which Break The Game touches on in more detail.
If Call of Duty: Mobile’s running public chats of racist insults and threats of sexual harassment weren’t enough to dissuade me from streaming, SWAT-ting surely is. SWAT-ting is obtaining a person’s personal information and calling the police telling them that they are somehow a threat to others’ safety.
As someone who changes VPNs as many times as I brush my teeth, got the Targus camera cover as an alternative to the Post-It over the lens, and has privacytools.io bookmarked — this is a terrifying prank to me. The absolute privilege of voluntarily calling the police on people and assuming that the harassment will end in them still alive angers me on a level that doesn’t make me just see red, it makes me inhabit every shade of it.
It felt like enough to keep me from playing games online at all. But the pandemic and FOMO when my friends would play inspired me to ease back in through things like Call of Duty: Mobile and games via itch.io. I’ve tried to be careful to not make any waves but even though in the gaming world I’m a nobody (thank God), there is still a nagging feeling of dread every time I log on.
After watching Break the Game and reading about the queerness of the game she plays, I’m really out here about to play Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom! One of my favorite writers, Niko Stratis (check out their coverage of Chasing Chasing Amy) has an essay on Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, she writes:
“There was no tower high enough for me to see all the places I had been that I didn’t quite remember, despite evidence of my time there being all around. There are only so many texts you can receive to provide evidence you were ever real at all.”
I didn’t know there was a video game out there that could speak to my blackouts, my inability to remember who I am, or if I even existed even when people experienced me almost all the time. After reading Niko’s essay, I went even further and was doubly convinced when Linda Codega from Gizmodo shared, “Link has been described by many trans people as an “egg-cracker”—someone (or something) who makes people realize they’re transgender.” Many gamers talk so highly of Link and how he often brought them a mirror they needed to see themselves in as trans and nonbinary people.
I’ve been having a tough time for a while about being a black nonbinary person. I’ve accepted that very few people are going to gender me properly, that deadnaming just seems to be a thing, and that this is another reason people will want to hurt and/or kill me — being black, autistic, and not male wasn’t enough apparently.
Watching Narcissa continue to play (both in-game and in life) when the odds are against her is a humbling, humanizing, and ultimately, hopeful experience. I left feeling like something important in me was waking up, and as I deal with some online harassment myself, watching this documentary came at the perfect time.
There is no perfect way to deal with how others perceive you and how they share those perceptions. It is usually a graceless, terrifying experience, and there is no rulebook for how to navigate it. But having stories like Break the Game that do not shy away from the truth of that — while still reminding us it may not always be this way — makes it a necessary addition to not just the documentary canon but is key knowledge and a peek into the world of the gaming community.
If you’re interested in playing at least fifteen Zelda games from the early 90s up until this year, Polygon has an article for you.
Support & Subscribe <3