While you slaughtered Uruk and their friends in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, one developer was setting them up on dates.
Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim sounds goofy. It really is an upcoming romance sim starring orcs, those brutish “monsters” from fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings. Developer Mitch Alexander thought up the idea during NaNoRenO 2015, a game-making jam where developers have only 31 days to create and complete a visual novel. On a basic level, Tusks is a dating sim like any other — only in this case one about “smooching hot monster boys,” Alexander told GamesBeat by email.
“I definitely don’t want to pretend it’s somehow more ‘worthy’ or ‘respectable’ than other dating sims simply because I’m about to spend a lot of time harping on about what ‘orcishness’ means to me personally,” he said.
But at Tusk’s core is a lot of big ideas about how orcs are a metaphor for “the other” and about the genre itself. Orcs “are everywhere in generic fantasy media,” Alexander said, “and are often unthinkingly rooted in any kind of real-world bigotry you care to name, from racism — specifically anti-blackness — to misogyny, to ableism, to cissexism, to colonialism. These things are apparently justified because orcs are inherently evil, immoral, depraved, violent, or predatory, which is exactly the same tactic that’s used to justify prejudice and violence against members of marginalized groups in real life.”
To the world, orcs are ugly and evil. Alexander uses them to “celebrate ugliness, imperfection, and things that don’t quite fit — because that’s something a lot of people can identify with.”
Tusks’ story (it is a visual novel, after all) begins at the end of an event called the Uá, where orcs gather together to “share stories, assemble new families, find work, [and] settle rivalries” before returning to their everyday lives.
“It’s a kind of orcish and orcish-adjacent pride event,” Alexander said. “The player is looking for a group with which they can travel north to the Highlands of Alba — for what reason, the player gets to decide — and the rest of the game follows them day by day on their fortnight-long journey north with the group they find. Each day, a new event takes place that gives you a little more insight into each member of the group, how they relate to each other, why they’re heading north, and how they experience orcish culture. And during the evenings, the player can spend time with individual members of the group to get to know them better.”
One of the ways Tusks innovates on the visual novel genre is by exploring that sense of community rather than focusing on the player-character alone. NPC Autonomy is a system that Alexander built that gives characters more voice and agency. It leads to different reactions and outcomes — not all of them in the player’s favor (which is why the feature is optional).
“For example, there’s a moment early in the game where you can choose to name the group that you’re travelling with,” Alexander said. “With NPC Autonomy turned off, the decision about the group’s name is left completely up to the player — what they say, goes. With NPC Autonomy turned on, you instead get the chance to suggest a name, which is then voted on by the other characters — based on a random factor, variables that track their attitude towards the player, and, hopefully by the end of development, variables that track their like or dislike of certain words or phrases.
“Not only that, but characters can even suggest their own names for the group, which again goes to a vote, which you can also participate in. My hope is that it makes the group feel more like a community of individuals rather than vassals to the player’s whim, which makes it easier to tell the story of this group and how each of its members relate to one another.”
Getting to know the orc in you
These orcs are true characters with complicated lives and feelings. One of the orcs, Ferdag, is the group’s warrior, which creates tension in that he has to reconcile that responsibility “with ideas like the role of violence and nonviolence in the face of persecution he’s faced,” Alexander said, and issues like how his size influences people’s first impressions of him.
“If after finishing Tusks I see even just one discussion thread where fans delve deep into one of the character’s perspectives and what they mean to them personally, in a similar way folk do for the cast of the Dragon Age series, I know I’ll have done really well,” Alexander said.
Another aspect of visual novels that Alexander has rethought is protagonist dialogue. In Tusks, players can decide whether to have their character’s thoughts vocalized and shown onscreen — or only appear once, as part of a set of choices.
“As it turns out, there’s no easy answer — some people felt their characters only came alive when they spoke or added their own twist to dialogue, some people preferred reading their own interpretation into dialogue options for their specific character and that dialogue that seemed out-of-character felt jarring, and so on,” Alexander said.
“So, with Tusks, I’m including a simple option where you can choose to have your character’s line of dialogue appear onscreen after it’s been chosen or not. It doesn’t solve the problem completely, but it does nudge the game a little bit closer to allowing players to inhabit their character as they see fit.”
Orcs of every shape, color, and size
These design choices emerged in many ways from the tight structure of NaNoRenO, which “spurs your creativity and gets you thinking about how to use those constraints to your advantage,” Alexander said.
“For example, because visual novels are typically made up of character dialogue and player decisions, it gets you thinking about ways you can make interesting character-driven games.”
Tusks opens up a way for people to empathize with each other and embrace their differences — their body sizes and types as well as their attitudes, beliefs, backgrounds, and even disabilities. Tusks lets you choose how you want to define your relationship. It’s a choice that matters, given that openness and understanding about sex, relationships, and gender is so important today in real life.
“Even though the history, lived experiences, culture, and relationships of women who are attracted to men and men who are attracted to men are often vastly different, we’re still often treated as interchangeable palette swaps of one another simply because we’re both attracted to men,” said Alexander, “never mind that despite that attraction, we form relationships with different men altogether — respectively, men who have sex with women, and men who have sex with men.
“While I think there definitely are instances where our differences may not be so pronounced as to be important, there are some things unique to the perspective of a woman engaging in a relationship with a man that are never encountered in a man engaging in a relationship with a man, and vice versa, and I think we deserve games and other media written by people who really understand those dynamics and can do them justice.
“For me, Tusks was an opportunity to make a game that was unequivocally, unapologetically gay, without any caveats,” Alexander said, “and without falling into that trap of games that ‘allow’ the main character to be gay but treats their experience through the game as identical to that of a straight/male protagonist — regardless of their gender and sexual orientation — rather than something with its own codes and signifiers.”