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Re: Unteralterbach visual novel (was: Re: Introduction)

Bas Wijnen <wijnen@debian.org> writes:

> Summary: I've tried the game, and don't think it's suitable for
> Debian.

Summary: I think I have understood Bas' objections and agree to an
extent. However, I disagree with his conclusion that the game is not
suitable for inclusion in a free operating system software collection.

> Welcome, Nils!
> (Keeping you separately addressed because you were in the message I'm
> replying to; please say so if you are subscribed.)

Thank you. I happen to be subscribed to the debian-devel-games list.

> (Also, I've seen remarkably few replies to this; for anyone replying,
> please keep debian-devel-games@lists.debian.org in the loop.)
> On Tue, Mar 04, 2014 at 08:39:20PM +0100, Mateusz Jończyk wrote:
>> 2014-03-03 18:37 GMT+01:00 Nils Dagsson Moskopp <nils@dieweltistgarnichtso.net>:
>> > I am not that interested in most video games, as I think they
>> > contain needless grinding. However, I am interested in games with
>> > interesting mechanics or story,
> I agree that those are often very interesting.
>> > I am somewhat anxious about packaging Unteralterbach, as it may show
>> > - depending on player choices - content pertaining to sexual abuse,
>> > bdsm, consent, moral panics, slut shaming, virgin shaming, religion,
>> > etc. and makes fun of the german federal police and several
>> > contemporary public figures. However, I believe that the author has
>> > handled these issues in a suitable manner, delivering a compelling
>> > story based on these themes.
> This got me interested, so I went to check out the game to see how bad
> it was, and if it would be suitable for Debian.  I'll give facts first,
> then my (perhaps not so relevant) opinion.  I am Dutch, and understand
> German, so that was no barrier.

Thank you for actually going out and having done that. I appreciate your
honest effort to give a third-party evaluation. Many people critical of
something do not ever do that.

> First of all, I didn't finish the game, and certainly didn't examine all
> possible paths; I only played it a bit to see what it was like.  I think
> I got a good idea, but the ending may seriously alter some things I'm
> saying.  Then again, I didn't stop playing for writing this post; I
> stopped because I couldn't handle it anymore.  I think you'll understand
> after reading the rest of this post.  This is relevant, because it means
> that even if the ending "fixes" some things, it will not be seen by all
> players.

This actually does surprise me – lots of people I know have played the
game and the most common reason to stop playing was that it was “too
much text”, implying those people just don't like visual novels. But
then they all happen to be male and female 20-somethings who are
comfortable with contemporary imageboard culture.

>> > I am going to start with trying to package "Bernd und das Rätsel um 
>> > Unteralterbach" - a visual novel set in present-day bavaria containing 
>> > (optional) erotic content
> The erotic content is not optional, AFAICS.  Only the abuse is optional.
> The first time you get to a point where you can see it, you have to
> click a button that says "I'm mentally ill and want to see this".  Given
> that these are (drawn) images of child abuse, I think they are actually
> criminal to possess in many countries (including mine, the Netherlands,
> so I have already deleted the game).  I'm pretty sure we cannot
> distribute them in Debian, not even in non-free.  So for the rest of the
> post, I'm assuming that those images are not in the game.

As far as I understand it, in Germany, for a text / recording / drawing
to be a criminal matter, it must depict actual abuse – meaning a child
has to be abused for the document to be created. Off-topic: Does this
mean that the stereotypical hentai comics that commonly depict rape,
child abuse, dismemberment etc. are not legal to posess in NL as well?

Quote: <http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2013-06/kinderpornographie>

> Demgegenüber sah sie bei "kinderpornografischen Romanen, Zeichnungen
> und Zeichentrickfilmen" den Strafgrund der Regelung nicht als erfüllt
> an, weil deren Besitz nicht dazu beitrage, dass Kinder als
> "Darsteller" bei pornographischen Aufnahmen missbraucht würden.

As the plot does not rely on the shock value of abuse images, I do
understand completely that you find it disturbing even without them.

>> Seriously, I have visited the site of the game and from one of the
>> screenshots (with the small girl with horns) it seems like the game
>> has something to do with child sexualization. I am not fluent in
>> German, but the text there seems to also suggest so.
>> It would be best to disable the contentious content in Unteralterbach
>> as without it the game is playable (as You stated) and hopefully quite
>> fine.
> Your impression that it has "something to do with child sexualization"
> is a formidable understatement.  That's what the entire game is all
> about.  The protagonist starts working for the police department going
> after child pornography producers.  These producers turn out to be the
> children themselves, who use magic to make adults cooperate.  Some
> remarkable features:
> - With only one single exception (which may well turn the whole story
>   around eventually, but didn't so far), _ALL_ children in the game (all
>   of them girls) use every opportunity they get to exclaim how much they
>   like sex.

I think this happens only on game paths where the protagonist is a
pedophile. I also found it odd that there are only girls in town – I
would have found it more plausible if the villagers thought that an
adult male virgin might be gay before considering him a pedophile.

> - However, apart from that, the girls are very realistic; they don't
>   expect you to see through very obvious things, in a way that children
>   wouldn't.

Though I consider the game well-written, I did not notice that
before. Certainly adds to the slightly-off small-town atmosphere.

> - The entire community is entirely focused on child abuse.  Everyone is
>   talking about it pretty much constantly.  For example, when the
>   protagonist is found sneaking around, he is immediately suspected of
>   it; not of any other crime.  This can be part of the setting, but the
>   protagonist (who is new in town) doesn't notice it as something that
>   stands out for him.

The setting is certainly deep inside a moral panic about child abuse.

Quote <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_panic>:

> Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and
> social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the
> matter at its center is taboo.

Regarding not noticing this, I believe this to be a strong hint that the
protagonist is seriously mentally ill – even on story paths where he is
not a pedophile. Note that further along the “pedophile” path, he sees
people speaking against child abuse as demons, believes child abuse as
his holy mission and sees himself as the only sane person in town (every
one else being controlled by the demons, obviously).

A descent into madness is actually is not an uncommon story element in
non-game settings – for reference, see the following TV Tropes pages:


I think that development of the game started against the background of
the 2009 German internet censorship debate, where media were constantly
talking about child abuse and Ursula von der Leyen (at that time federal
minister of family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth) did
describe sexual abuse in political speeches. I am quite sure about the
connection – as the game contains the character “Ursula, ruler of hell”:

(The following screenshot depicts a demon saying that to get child
protection super powers you must expose yourself to hell radiation.)

I usually shy away from trigger warnings, but you might not want to read
the following quote from a v.d. Leyen speech if the game disturbed you:

> Meine Damen und Herren!
> Ein Mädchen im Grundschulalter wird mit einem Besenstiel
> missbraucht. Ein Säugling hängt gefesselt von der Decke und wird
> vergewaltigt. So schildert die Staatsanwältin Hantel-Maschke […]

As far as I remember, at that time many people took her at face value,
very few publicly challenged her assertions that there is lots of “child
pornography” (I prefer the term “[sexual] abuse imagery”) to be found on
the open web and that producing child abuse imagery is a
“Millionengeschäft” (literally “million [euro] business”).

> - The protagonist starts out as hating the abusers and going after them,
>   but gets confused when he finds out the girls are doing it all by
>   themselves.  The player gets to decide how to handle this confusion,
>   but the option of becoming an abuser is hard (but not impossible) to
>   avoid.

Most people I know had it the other way around and it did take them
multiple tries to get to the “pedophile” path even when trying. I do not
have the source code (yet), but I strongly suspect the value of the
“pedophile” game variable to be “true” at the beginning of the game and
being switched to “false” through various means – like triggering a sex
scene with an adult or coming late to work (first decision of the game)
– I have not managed to switch the plot to the pedophile path after
having made a single decision that switched the variable to “false”.

I consider the way the game handles plot forking a stroke of genius, as
it is not immediately obvious on which plot paths you are. There are at
least two opportunities for sex scenes with adults (the red haired woman
and the baroness) until it the game plot considers the protagonist to be
a pedophile. I have read about people who only played non-pedophile
paths (where the protagonist is still not sane).

In general, I believe it not to be immoral to show young people longing
for sex. I do however, believe it to be a moral hazard to allow people
below a certain mental capacity to consent to actions that likely result
in mental or bodily harm. That being said, fiction is still fiction.


> - There is magic and some hints to (hallucinogenic) drugs, which may
>   turn out to have a lot to do with the situation.  There is one girl
>   that says "you can't help us", indicating that it isn't as voluntary
>   as it seems.  But those are (so far) only very vague hints, that don't
>   really influence the overall atmosphere.

Believe me, even if playing the game without any sexual abuse and even
on story paths without triggering sex scenes, it gets worse – way
worse. Unteralterbach happens to have no single “good” game over.

Note that the game is way longer than most free (as in beer) visual
novels I know of – it took me several days to play through even one
story path. So the tension is built up somewhat slow, indeed.

> And by getting to the atmosphere, I also leave the facts and start about
> my opinion.  I was very disturbed by the way that sex with children is
> presented as initiated by the children.  I would be disturbed by just
> presenting them to like it, and this is a step further.  I'm assuming
> the artists are trying to achieve exactly that[1], but for me they're
> going too far.  There are a few reasons for that.

I also assume that it is a major point of the game to disturb players.

Slightly related: A woman I know once wrote about being sexually abused
as a child (cannot find the text) and remembered liking the attention at
the time – even though she now considers it abuse. Quite some readers
were disturbed by the revelation how she felt towards her abuser.

Note that in-game, there are boundaries. For example, one of the police
men (who is implied to be a pedophile) advises the player to “look, but
don't touch”. It is up to the player to disregard his advice.

A player feeling that abuse is inevitable might mirror the dissociative
feelings of an actual abuser feeling guilt and regret – it seems to be
an illusion, since as far as I have played there is always a way out.

The game also reflects on the nature of consent – questioning age of
consent if on the pedophile path and debating how it is possible to
consent to something like rape fantasies on several story paths. It
obviously makes fun of the second wave feminism attitude towards sex,
representing it distorted / over-the-top (“just say no” being depicted
as “say no every single time, even if you want sex”) – I think it shows
that the author is fully aware of the topics that her game touches.

Relevant in-game dialogue, screenshots are in German and safe for work:

> Firstly, for "healthy" people like myself, seeing this (even with the
> abuse images turned off, there is still a lot explained in the text)
> causes remembering it at inappropriate moments (which is any moment that
> I'm not playing the game).  I very much dislike this, and it is the
> reason I stopped playing.  This need not be a reason to exclude the game
> from Debian, but it may be, IMO.

I am terribly sorry and hope you get better. I have not yet seen anyone
exhibiting more than casual disgust towards the game's content. I even
know people who were sexually abused who found the game more funny (or
even arousing) than disturbing precisely because it is so over-the-top –
reacting to it similarly to a splatter horror movie or non-mainstream
fetish porn.

In light of this, it seems imperative to me that even if Debian accepts
the game, there should be a strong warning in the description text. How
does the games team handle games that right now? After all, there are
lots of games in Debian where the primarly goal is killing everthing.

To be honest, most of those games I have seen have way less immersion
than Unteralterbach, but the way they present a grim subject matter as
something funny must have been topic for discussion before, hasn't it?

(Disclosure: I consider killing strictly worse than sexual abuse.)

> A more serious objection is the effect that it has on the "mentally ill"
> people that the game mentions.  I fear the effect that this game may
> have on them, could be to convince them that sex with children is not
> always a bad thing.  The fact that the children are so realistic
> otherwise may add to this risk that they may not keep fantasy and
> reality separate.  Their mental condition will surely stimulate that
> line of thinking.  In some cases, that may lead to more child abuse.  I
> would certainly not want to be responsible for that (in a broader sense
> than just legally).

I think that the same argument – that the content might be a “hook” to
people considering a deed – comes up every single time when discussing
media containing taboo (often violent and / or pornographic) content.

Scientifically, the question seems to not have been settled one way or
the other: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_pornography>

As an entry point, I would recommend this analysis of sex crime data:

Unteralterbach actually includes dialogue making fun of that argument
and its proponents at multiple points. I consider the “pedophile” story
path to be a parody of the argument: The player becomes a pedophile
after looking at child abuse imagery when working at the police.

Contrary to your impression, I consider the children not realistic at
all – they are just not as obviously off as most adult characters are.

> For that reason, I would advise not to include this game in Debian (and
> not to spend your time on packaging it).  But note that I'm not setting
> the rules here.  If you feel strongly that it adds value to the system,
> feel free to explain why, and please also explain why you think that my
> objections are less important than the contributions.

I believe “Bernd und das Rätsel um Unteralterbach” to be a polished
Ren'Py game, both a work of art and a good example of several things
other games currently in Debian do not present. Technically, it is well
written, drawn and composed (soundtrack is over 50 minutes long) and
demonstrates how you can do things with Ren'Py that depart from the
normal visual novel flow (like the Ace Attorney mini-game or the Day of
the Tentacle end-game). Plot-wise, it has an unsympathetic protagonist,
a long story with several endings and may evoke seriously uncomfortable
feelings in the player / reader, something that contemporary games do
rarely, if at all (in my opinion, only Jason Rohrer games come close).

You may not agree with me that games too often contain a sympathetic
protagonist who, even if wrong, is not obviously mistaken, but I think
it is hard to argue that Unteralterbach is not technically excellent. I
believe it to be better than many games that are neither free as in beer
nor free as in speech – Unteralterbach will soon be free in both ways.

> Finally, I'm pleased to see someone here who is interested in packaging
> visual novels.  I like that concept, and would certainly like to see
> more of them in Debian.  Just not this one.

Two other visual novels I am fond of are, sadly, entirely non-free. Has
anyone talked to Christine Love about freeing source code and assets?

“Digital: A Love Story” is a story of a romance in an 1980ies style BBS:

“Don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story” is a story of
a teacher who spies on his students' communication and dates a student:

The latter actually is one game I would compare to Unteralterbach in the
way it presents its subject matter – student-teacher relationships are
considered inappropriate, spying on pupils' private lives is verboten.

> [1] And as for the artists, they have done a great job here.  This game
>     looks very good and has obviously taken a lot of work to make.  It's
>     a pity they didn't choose a different subject.

In one ending of Unteralterbach, you get a phone call from “Axel Toll”,
probably meant to be conspiracy theorist Axel Stoll. I suspect that a
possible sequel including him would be only slightly less controversial.


Nils Dagsson Moskopp // erlehmann

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