Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp: A Disability Perspective
In this project, I analyzed one of Watercress’ (my game development studio) previous games, Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp, from a disability perspective. Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp follows a disabled POC main character and her trans partner as they solve a ghost’s murder mystery. This project came in three distinct parts.
The first part was an initial playthrough of the game, taking roughly three hours, with a write-up based on initial impressions and further breakdown with disability and intersectionality as the focus. While this is a choice-based game, for the sake of brevity, the “true ending” is the focus of the paper and the initial playthrough. During my playthrough of the game, I wrote down notes on certain factors of representation, with particular respect to dialogue and interpersonal interaction between the disabled, trans, and normative characters within the story.
The second part involved an interview with one of the original writers and leadership on the project, over roughly two hours. This writer is a disabled trans person, offering unique insight into the intended final product and representation within Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp. This interview largely centered around the intent of the initial project, the development cycle of the game, the representation within the game, and the personal connections between the diverse team and the project they released. An abbreviated text write-up of the interview was included, and this interview helped inform the end product of part one’s game breakdown. For the sake of context, I will place the interview first before the analysis in this post.
The third part involved running through an accessibility checklist, which is also provided, with a short write-up on how the game rated, and on accessibility as a whole within the industry. This checklist was provided by GAG (Game Accessibility Guidelines), a website with numerous resources for making a more accessible gaming industry. The checklist was then modified by my studio’s programming department, removing accessibility requirements that do not pertain to visual novels. This primarily takes controls and content into consideration, and the ultimate write-up goes into further detail on the rating I give the game, and why the game came to have that rating. From there, I explore why many games have similar ratings, with a short explanation of how inaccessible games are, and why. I have also included a link to an accessibility talk I gave at an industry event last year, as a resource for all to use.
My goal for this project was simple: Explore a project my studio produced through a disability perspective, gain further understanding of representation and intersectionality, and determine where the project may have fallen short, with the intention to use this project as an opportunity to improve disability representation and accessibility in all of my future projects. After much reflection, my approach to representation and accessibility has changed, with a greater focus on both factors for all future releases. In particular, ensuring the development of projects allows time for disabled workers, and that all games meet a minimum requirement of accessibility before the final release is even considered. Likewise, much of this was unknown to me until now – disabled voices are often unheard even unintentionally, and ensuring they are heard will be a prerequisite for all future projects of mine in the future.
Can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, what positions you held on the project, and what parts of the development cycle you contributed to?
“I am Penelope X. Pilbeam, and I was originally a lead writer on Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp. I was eventually escalated to Co-Lead on Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp. I also did a lot of the scripting, some of the editing, really every corner of the game has some of me, for sure – including [some of] the art assets ’cause I did create a ton of those myself.”
This game follows a disabled woman of color and a trans man as they navigate difficult social and paranormal situations – was any of the narrative pulled from developers’ personal experiences?
“Yeah, obviously none of us have a missing limb – none of us are amputees that I know of, but Ginger [The Project Director] was someone that had a lot of chronic pain, obviously I have a lot of trauma in my own life that went into the character, so Alex as a protagonist had a lot of pathos from both of our lives that sort of blended together. Ginger talked a lot about how her health problems were pretty scary, her chronic pain that I don’t think at the time she had an explanation for – I don’t remember, but the only thing that she could do was take Ibuprofen, and eventually she’d become immune to Ibuprofen so it was a countdown, which was scary for her. So, that went into a lot of Alex’s characterization.”
“Chronic pain looms much larger in Alex’s life than the fact that she’s missing an arm, because the idea was that she was really fucked up by being in this car accident, and so, the trauma was more than just the visible, it was the invisible, it was her body and then her heart – she was genuinely fucking traumatized by this horrible accident she was in, so that was the idea. You can actually see in the game, very little of Alex’s pathos as a character is in the fact that she is literally missing her arm, outside of the fact that that’s how her powers work. Most of it is rooted in her unseen damage, that stuff that is unrelated to her amputation.”
In working on a month-long project, how did you and the other writers prepare for the topics and people you’d eventually be representing in the game?
“I think that obviously we wanted to design these characters, so Alex went through a lot of different permutations as we went along. We started out conservatively, we didn’t know how liberally we wanted to go with the framing of the story – obviously Ginger and I are pretty leftist, we were both on Tumblr a lot during 2014, so we didn’t want to do a story about a bunch of white people, we wanted a diverse cast, so we were trying to figure out how far we could push that envelope without it seeming overwrought or unbelievable. To some degree, Alex being an Indian-American was because she was based on an actual person – the actress who played Mara in House of Anubis, which Ginger drew from liberally to create her proposal originally. We wanted our character to look like that one, even though Mara wasn’t the main character of House of Anubis. That was the main reason why she was Indian, and not like Mexican or something like I am – because it was based on that character, a reference of that character.”
“Caelum, was again, based on some guy from the show originally – someone that Ginger liked a lot. That character was a major part of her original proposal, so it was always kind of a done deal that he was going to be in the game, but I was trying to figure out how to make him more interesting than just a straight guy, so we decided on him being trans because it just made sense for the character, especially given the overarching theme of traumatic pasts and baggage from “yesterday”. So, that was really important for us. I don’t think I would have enjoyed writing Caelum nearly as much if not for the fact that we did make him trans. So we did stuff like that, figuring out how we could persuade ourselves to like these characters and be interested in them, and it just went from there.”
“Basically, we had these characters, and we created Genevieve, she’s the one “normal” person in the game – normal in the sense of privileged – the kind of person you’d expect to see in these sorts of stories, the person that’s always cast in any ghost story visual novel. She’s the one character that is a privileged, white, cis girl – of course, she’s a ghost, and she’s kind of a villainess in this story, so it’s interesting that way, and that dynamic is interesting, and comes into play in that story. It was really just a matter of hashing out these characters, their beef, their various traumas and such, and developing a story around them. It was meant to be a very character-centric story, we weren’t going to do just a ghost story, it was plotted more like how a CW show would be plotted. Lots of relationship drama, family drama, stuff like that.”
What inspired the concept behind the project, and considering the month-long development cycle, how well do you feel that the finished product reflects the original concept?
Given more time, would you have changed anything?
“[It drew inspiration from] House of Anubis, it was a Nickelodeon show, part of the teen-targeted Nickelodeon programming, dealt with slightly more mature themes, but still very much a Nickelodeon show, paced and scripted like one. Ginger was, what 19? She was young. With our age difference definitely came different approaches to how we wanted to write the story, even though we were very simpatico. I had watched the show at her behest, to better understand her creative vision for this game – it was her proposal, I wanted to create something that she felt like she had been the architect of. I wanted to have a firm grasp of what she meant, what she was trying to accomplish, what vibe she was trying to go for.”
“I wasn’t trying to go into business for myself with this VN, I was trying to help Ginger make her vision reality. So, while I do feel like I wound up having way more of a practical role in making the game happen, the intent was always to make Ginger’s game. It was a matter of Ginger taking on more than she could handle as an 18-year-old who was doing college at the time, and me being a much more experienced VN developer, who was much older and had much more free time on her hands. While I do feel like I created most of that game, I feel like I created it to spec. It was never about me, it was about Ginger – so when Ginger had to withdraw towards the end of development because of her own health problems, and because of her life, I do feel like most of the game ended up being my creation – but again, I wasn’t trying to create my own VN, I was trying to make her’s. She was the lead writer, the director of the project, but it wound up being very different from how it would have turned out if she had done all of the things I had done for her, very little would have stayed the same.”
“If I had a year to work on this project, there would have been more characters, the gameplay aspect would have been longer, we created more for this game than we wound up being able to put into the game. We only had so many voice actors, so many artists, they could only draw so much – it wound up being a very self-contained game with a very small cast.”
Alex, the main character, communicates through her missing arm into the realm of the dead. What was the inspiration behind this choice? Are there any other aspects of Alex (and Caelum) that you want to highlight?
“Actually, I will tell you what the inspiration behind that choice was, because it’s very interesting. A long time ago, many many years ago, I had a concept for a deconstructive Harry Potter fan fiction – it was a parody of what they call a Peggy Sue fic, which is when somebody goes back in time in their own body to do a choice differently. I had the idea of this character who was Harry Potter, who had gone back in time to inhabit his childhood body, but wound up not being incarnated into the right body – basically, it was a commentary on the ethical ramifications of killing your past self to take over their body, and so, he misaims his spell to go back in time to change the future, instead of taking over his own body, he takes over the body of Pansy Parkinson or something, ’cause that makes it more starkly clear how fucked up this concept is. At one point, he was going to try and acquire his old wand, and so he touches it, and he creates a paradox universe reaction, and his arm explodes – Pansy’s arm explodes – and leaves him with a stump. The moment he touched the wand, he killed the possibility of himself in the future existing. He destroyed that timeline, which killed him, which means he’s now a ghost inhabiting a body. The whole thing was that he was going to have an arm that was a ghost arm because he’s a ghost possessing a body.”
“Obviously I never wrote that fanfic for many, many good reasons, but I had had this idea of an arm that is thrust in the realm of the dead. They’re missing their arm, but they have a ghost arm, it’s vestigial, and it can manipulate the spirit world the way that a normal arm manipulates the physical world. This gives Alex the power to affect both – which is why she’s such a powerful character. That arm was reflective of the fact that even though she is alive, she has been through enough trauma that she’s partially a ghost. ‘Cause ghosts are souls left restless from trauma, she has enough trauma that if she had died, she would be a ghost. But she did not – she did blow her arm off – and she’s an aberration because of her being stuck in two different worlds. In the wall between the living world and the spirit world, there’s a hole and her arm is stuck in it and she can’t take it out. That’s how that idea evolved. […] I had actually written so much, I wound up drawing so many ideas from that outline for other projects that I have worked on, like ontological ideas of being alive, and death in the soul, strength in the soul, the qualities of the human soul, these are all things that I had been thinking about as a worldbuilding thing, and so, for Alex, I had had this idea lying around unused, so why not give her that power? That’s how she wound up having it.”
“Caelum was much more easy to design, ’cause Caelum was much more Ginger’s character, which is why Caelum is so simple, because Ginger doesn’t go as wonky into the weird ontological existential weirdness as I do. This is a genuinely good guy, who happens to be trans, and has a bad relationship with his parents, and that’s it. He was raised catholic, obviously that informs a lot of his pathos. The one thing I will say with Caelum is that, even though he was always envisioned as a trans man, it was a stroke of luck that he wound up being voiced by a trans man actor, because not even Maxi (Voice Acting Director) knew at the time that his friend was a trans man, so it kind of fell out that way. And we didn’t know it until after the game came out, and he was like, “this was my first time actually getting to voice a trans man like myself”, and were like, “wow, we’re really fucking glad you voiced the character.”
It’s been nearly four years since the release of this project, and a lot has changed since then – do you have any thoughts on contemporary media representation of underprivileged and marginalized groups?
“It’s trickier than it used to be – it is less obvious, now. People want representation in games, but they won’t simply go support somebody’s work just because it has marginalization in it. So, that’s a thing. You can’t simply market a game based on, “oh hey, it has a trans man character in it” because that’s not enough to motivate people. You have to do that, you can’t opt out of it either, but you have to do more than that – that on its own is not enough to impress people. It’s hard especially because, I want to write stories about trans people – absolutely I do – but I don’t want to write stories that are about just being trans and transitioning, as my transition was almost a decade ago – I’m over it. I just want to see characters like me doing cool things in stories I like, I don’t want to read my one-millionth trans character figuring out they’re trans, coming out of the closet and doing all of the shit I did ages ago that I’m over, I want to see trans people be heroes and shit, I want them to be in genre. I don’t want to just tell transition narratives, ’cause they bore the shit out of me. I know that a lot of people are less far along than me and they want to read those, and maybe they will never be tired of those, but for me, I’m done.”
“We’re coming up now on a very electrified third rail, about the proportion of trans male representation in games and in fiction versus trans female. Look at the new Star Trek show – “Hey we’re adding two trans characters to the cast!” and both were assigned female at birth, one was nonbinary but both were AFAB actors. It’s like, okay, you’re not representing me. These are characters that are self evidently not trans women. But you think you have completed your obligation to represent us with these characters who are not us, and obviously trans men frequently believe the opposite, they believe that trans women are hyper-visible – they’re right, but we’re hypervisible as boogeymen that people want to murder. It’s not really like we’re getting positive representation. When a trans man is represented in fiction, it’s usually fairly well – you simply cannot say the same about trans women. I think that’s part of the problem that’s been going on, part of the discussion. What is good trans representation? No one is ever going to be happy with trans representation because none of it is enough, but there’s a lot more intra-community strife based on the subject. I didn’t mind in 2018 when we did Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp, I was like, “Hell yeah I want Caelum to be a trans man” and I wasn’t thinking like, “well yeah let’s have a trans woman”, like “there must be one”, I want this character to be a trans guy. Nowadays, I don’t know if I’d do that – I love Caelum – I just think that my priorities would be different, my sense of what I would feel comfortable writing about would be different, so, it would just be different – I would be coming at it from a different emotional place, with different objectives as a writer.”
Lastly, do you have any writings or projects in the works, or anything you would want to point readers to?
“I do have my Patreon, but the next big thing I’m hoping to get done for Watercress [our studio] is that anthology series, I still plan on doing that as a Christmas present – it’s a fun exercise to write fanfiction essentially for these old games, these epilogues basically, that celebrate the past. I’m working on Avitus, and that’s basically it for now.”
[Note: The anthology series is a series of epilogues for old games we developed in the past. Avitus is our flagship project, of which more info can be found on our studio Twitter, linked below.]
Links to Penelope’s Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/nymphomachy
Watercress’ Twitter here: https://twitter.com/teamwatercress
Impressions and Breakdown
Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp, a game developed by Watercress, is an excellent case study in the interaction between disability representation and the individuals who write such stories. The game follows Alex, a disabled Indian-American, who reaches into the spirit world through the use of her amputated arm. She, alongside her trans-masc friend Caelum, solve a murder mystery in their dorm, ultimately fighting off a dangerous wraith and living to enjoy their lives together. In reading this narrative, and in deconstructing the representation therein, the representation of each of the characters is ultimately progressive. This is determined through the interpersonal relationships within the story and the narrative operation of the prosthetic arm in the plot – all given great perspective by the individual experiences of the writing staff.
When exploring the relationships between the two lead characters and the rest of the cast, three points of contact are worth deconstructing: the relationship between Alex and the dorm mother Jianmei, Alex and her co-lead Caelum, and Alex and the ghost Genevieve. Each serves to highlight different perspectives on disability, race, and gender, culminating in a diverse representation of the problems trans and disabled people experience in contemporary society.
The interactions between Alex and Jianmei, the house mother, represent the “well-meaning” normative reactions to disabled people. Their very first interaction, where Alex arrives with luggage at her new dorm in Act 1 Scene 1, follows as such:
Jianmei: "Do you need help with your bags?" Alex "N-No thanks; I've got it." Jianmei "No, seriously! I can help! It must be hard with that arm, so I can assist you!" Alex "You don't need to, please! I'm used to it." Jianmei "...Are you sure?" Alex "Yes, absolutely."
From the moment Alex arrives at the dorm, Jianmei pushes this idea that Alex needs to be helped because of her physical disability – her missing arm. While not many would openly talk about the arm – and perhaps giving Jianmei a bit more credit, she does back off eventually – her insistence that Alex needs help because of her disability betrays an infantilization perspective of the disabled. This is largely accurate, something that many people with disabilities must suffer through, despite their ability to exist as adults. This is later expanded upon later in the narrative with Alex noting that Jianmei frequently stares at her arm.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Caelum and Alex gets off to a similarly awkward start, but one that shows the difference in perspective between Caelum and Jianmei. Meeting in the hallway, Alex uses her prosthetic to waive to Caelum, and he responds “I like your… arm?” (Act 1 Scene 2). This faux pas is something quickly worked around by both students, as Caelum eventually normalizes disability and relates with Alex through his own experiences with his catholic family. This is explored through a certain camaraderie – both are underprivileged and marginalized people. Importantly, Caelum, a trans male student, is forced to live in the women’s dorm due to the university’s poor management. This relationship portrays the intersectionality of gender and disability, with both groups being heavily underprivileged and abused by society.
As the story progresses, they confide in each other, with Alex talking of the traumatic death of her parents in a car accident (the same accident that took her arm), and Caelum’s experiences living with parents that hated him for being transgender. When Alex eventually explains to Caelum that she can feel ghosts with her missing hand, rather than doubting her immediately, Caelum jumps to action, asking what he can do to help. This display of trust, and this ability to suspend disbelief for the sake of his friend, shows a deeper understanding between the two characters than they have with the other members of the game’s cast. This is a progressive approach to their portrayal, as both characters avoid tropes and cliches while supporting each other with realistic approaches to their problems.
The last relationship to explore is between Alex and the ghost that plagues her dorm life, Genevieve. As a rich young girl murdered by her father in the early 1900s, she shows the vindictive, capitalistic approach to disability. Alex is a means to an end – only useful due to her ability to interact with the spirit world, and therefore capable of freeing her from her purgatory. When Alex proves to place her own life over the “life” of Genevieve, they have a physical confrontation, with Genevieve attempting to pull Alex away from her work. Here, the intersectionality between race and disability comes to the forefront.
Alex takes a stand against Genevieve, enforcing her agency, and tells the ghost off: “Did you simply assume that because I had brown skin, I’d just be another one of your servants? Piss off.” (Act 2 Scene 6). Genevieve backs off after this, allowing Alex to command her own life, but the damage is done. The ghost, and much of the world around Alex, sees her as something to be used, or thrown away – the worth of a life defined by their use to society at large.
While each of the character dynamics is important for the disability representation in the game, the real meat comes in what the prosthetic arm itself represents. The crux of the story revolves around Alex’s ability to sense and communicate with spirits through her “ghost” arm. In the interview with one of the lead writers, it was revealed that this was a specific choice to highlight the seen and unseen – how the most visible disabilities are not always the most debilitating or life-changing.
Chronic disability is an often underrepresented side of the disability spectrum, one that is incredibly hard to handle respectfully. Media stigmatizes it as drug abuse, depression, suicide – only a sliver of what disability covers. Here, the missing arm is a physical representation of the traumatic event that disabled Alex – the car accident. In this car accident, both of her parents died, and her arm was taken from her. In the same way that ghosts are created by traumatic deaths, a part of Alex was likewise killed, leaving her in the in-between, living in both realities while holding neither as her true home. This representation of disability is progressive, highlighting the importance of disabled voices, as they share unique perspectives that cannot be understood otherwise.
This representation goes deeper than just the narrative. Many of the writers on the project were disabled, especially in the case of the Project Director, Ginger. Suffering through chronic pain from an unknown source, the anxiety over her own worsening condition and her growing immunity to painkillers informed the position Alex would eventually take within the story. Disability, and becoming disabled, can be a terrifying experience, especially if it is the result of an already-traumatizing event.
This holds true with the transgender experience as well. Like disability, it isn’t something that can be “treated”, it’s a unique experience, it’s part of who you are. Like with disabled communities, transgendered people face limited access to important community resources, and have been historically marginalized and silenced. Both Alex and Caelum see this in each other – as did the developers of the project – and the narrative allows them to speak their experience into reality, to gather agency in a society that wishes to remove it.
- Watercress. Cautionary Tale: “Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp”. Windows PC version, April 2018. https://watercress.itch.io/cautionary-tale.
In playing through the game, I took extensive notes on how accessible the game is to greater audiences, with particular respect to the disabled community. While I believe the narrative is an excellent representation of disability and intersectionality, the game itself falls woefully short in how accessible it is to a wider, non-normative audience. While I have included a checklist going through much of the accessibility options needed in modern games, I will expand upon it here and relate it to general, informed observations of the gaming industry at large. For the sake of brevity, I will explore two important aspects of game accessibility: motor access and cognitive access. This means that I will not be talking on subjects like content warnings and options thereof – albeit those are incredibly important as well.
From the very first interaction with the game, it becomes apparent how poor the accessibility is. The intro cinematic is unskippable, the main menu requires a left click of the mouse to even access, and the UI is poor and visually unappealing. It is a general rule that games like these – visual novels – need to have mouse-only and keyboard-only functionality, and it’s becoming a greater necessity to include gamepad-only functionality as well. This game is marginally accessible with mouse-only, and is completely unplayable in other modes.
For cognitive access, it isn’t much better. There are no font-change options, and while the text is relatively dyslexia-friendly, allowing for increased text size is a must. Some events in the game include flashing lights that cannot be disabled, and some of the transitions involve fast-moving objects, which also cannot be turned off. Accessing each individual game is an entirely visual process, with no subtitles for each game (as Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp was part of a three-game anthology). Buttons don’t have visual indicators for selection, and some important narrative portions of the game are done through audio only, which is particularly bad.
While contemporary Watercress games handle accessibility better, this serves as a great example of how accessibility is often considered in game development – it’s a stretch goal. Some studios can afford it, but accessibility is often not taken into consideration for pre-flight or pre-release standards. People with disabilities cannot access all of the games that normative people can, and this isn’t something we can blame on the disability – in many cases, if the developers spent more time on accessibility and considered it a foundational part of the game, it would be accessible.
From a personal standpoint, going through the game for this final project was a great exercise. I’ve had the opportunity to see how our games used to be, what our games are like now in comparison, and what we can do to better ourselves in the future. Watercress is already undergoing an accessibility patch for Beyond Yesterday’s Grasp and the anthology Cautionary Tale as a whole, and I hope that other game developers will take the time to look at what they can do better as well.
Link to Accessibility Sheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1IIomb-CFSuylxE4wfzry3hCjFy0LQ_UsKrJ9511q0vY/edit?usp=sharing
And, as promised, here’s a link to the accessibility talk I gave last year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcFHcRyErTw
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” ~Tristan Barber