Degrees of Lewdity: Conversation with Vrelnir

A few months ago Vrelnir, Degrees of Lewdity’s developer, left a comment under my review of his game. Ecstatic, I reached out and asked for an interview (to which he agreed). During our conversation we discussed DoL’s use of violence, navigating the tricky politics of going on “gender bends” around town, his favorite erotic games, and how he spends time IRL.

Last post unpacked the notion that social norms around sexual expression and gender identity are tied to a psychosocial space that lies between that which is sacred and profane. In an attempt to delve through this space, I explored various time periods and pulled from an array of sources such as grind films, anti-porn feminists, psychoanalytic views on cyberporn, Mary Douglas’s Dirt and Purity, Deleuze’s reading of Masoch, and Beauvoir’s defense of De Sade. If we think of art as something that lives within the realm of possibility, then transgressive art as a genre utilizes this space in ways that force viewers to confront taboo. Erotic games take this one step further by expounding on the ways in which video games call for active, involved “players” as opposed to more passive forms of viewership. Games like Degrees of Lewdity explore this within the realm of eroticism where unique forms of fantasy fulfillment take place.

In the time that has passed from that post to now, many discussions previously thought to have been settled in the States are being reopened and arguably face new threats. Roe v. Wade’s 49th birthday passed recently, all the while the Supreme Court and lower courts in states like Texas are slated to curtail or roll back federal protections. A recent bill meant to strengthen voting rights died on the floor while many red states passed legislation that some say will make voting far more difficult, a path recently made possible after the Supreme Court gut a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which previously allowed for laws deemed discriminatory to be blocked before being put into practice). Census data was collected in 2020 which means the US is due for political redistricting, though there are claims that the Trump administration went to “unprecedented” lengths to interfere in this process. When all of this is taken into account, especially when we examine recent rulings passed down by new court appointees, it appears quite likely that a whole generation of conservative-leaning legislation could be headed our way. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is one of the largest armed struggles of its kind in recent history and has already led to the large-scale displacement of over a million people. The UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill stirs controversy as opponents claim such a measure increases authority to strip individuals of their British citizenship and places more obstacles in the way of asylum seekers.

In other ways, a real pushback is becoming to form against the idea of “life as it has always been.” While many states in the US have or plan to put in place legislation that may limit voting access, others have expanded their respective programs. New York City has extended voting rights to noncitizens so they can now vote in local elections. Changes are being felt at the workplace, as well. The Great Resignation, in which employees began resigning from their jobs en masse in the US as COVID began to ravage the country, has continued despite high levels of unemployment. As of the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary this situation has only intensified, with resignation rates reaching 3.0 percent–4.5 million as of November. This has had a ripple effect, with 30 British companies agreeing to pilot 4 day work weeks. Similar studies are currently underway or are set to start in the U.S., Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In many ways, this shows that what we consider norms or customary can be subject to change in certain instances due to public pressure and active resistance. The 8-hour working day as we know it is one such example and it is the result of many conversations, movements, efforts of resistance, and legislative action that called for improved conditions.

Opening up discussions that challenge long-held notions around capitalist work ethic is no small feat. Many of these issues are ones that have not been touched in decades, though an argument can be made that Occupy showed a short but vital revival. A global force may be brewing–one against modern-day work culture which is in many ways invigorating to see though timing makes it bittersweet. Climate change has progressed to the point that impact can be visibly felt, as Olympians begin to note drastic differences in the weather. Individual attempts at reducing one’s carbon footprint, while admirable in some sense, reek of the same myopic liberal martyrdom that has failed to solve other industrial waste-related crises. While the soil upon which we stand and live faces great peril, we are being offered commercial flights to Mars.

Politics belongs to the realm of ontology. History, tales of conflict and territory, alliances and network formation, generates arguments over physical land and borders which (when mixed with elements of myth-making) creates nations. In this case, “A political myth is the work of a common narrative that grants significance to the political conditions and experiences of a social group,” yet it differs from other forms of storytelling like narrative. Society propagates and flourishes through a process of production-reception-reproduction. Myths proliferate against the backdrop of a “social unconscious” which differs from Freud’s individual unconscious and Jung’s collective unconscious, a space fostered through socialization. “Iconic images slip into the social unconscious through a process of socialization that begins very early in life” (Bottici).

Political questions are connected with the distinction between private and public. Everything “personal,” a blurry, ill-defined sector is often placed under private as category, away from the state and its public duties. Sexual activity, often relegated to the private realm, is anything but immune from disciplinary techniques and mechanisms of control that permeate other areas of society. Sexual discourse in its present form orbits mainly around risk aversion, safety, and prevention. Sex is often first discussed with each of us (if at all) by way of child production, presented as a vague appeal to science in the form of an informative tale, sometimes framed as requiring a prerequisite like, “when two people really love one another,” or it is here we are introduced early to a very particular familial arrangement, “when a mommy and daddy…” often with marriage implied (Duvert). Later on well after most of us are at least somewhat sexually experienced, techniques and tips on how to actually give pleasure are packaged in the form of classes, sold as exciting sensual excursions for middle-class couples.

All images were provided to me by Vrelnir

Our sexual “education” also comes to us by way of porn. Pornography is kept out of and away from all forms of positive implication, structure, and protocol being tied to science education allows, while it is also barred from artistic consideration or study except during times when culture aligns in such a way as to make a path for porn by attaching attributes like “chic” to it, with all its class driven attitudes and expectations. More broadly, pornography as distinct category and term refers to its own exclusion from an “every day” sphere that pornography-as-category demarcates by its function. Both our formal introductions to the world of sex through the family and informal interactions with depictions of sex are negatively impacted by particular forms of organization, the former of which is marked by a preset social arrangement which frames a narrative centered purely around conception, the latter of which is affected by nature of even being named a category at all. It is through this classification that pornography can be managed, packaged, and distributed according to the same customs as other economic spheres but one that’s profitability is tied to the nature of its perceived obscenity. This kind of obsession with conception in particular keeps other “questions of the body” trapped within a narrow framework filled with repetitive, predictable retorts. A legislative spectre has moved in lockstep with the formation of pornography-as-modern-category, entangling everything from literary and media censorship to sex education. Paradoxically for all appeals to science and reason “the talk” gives us, many cultures in modern society limit, obscure, or tiptoe around contraception (even preventing pregnancy is married to child-rearing under the umbrella of “family planning”). Whatever traces of biological salience exist are perverted into making sex easier to cast aside as “dirty,” with all its negative connotations, or used to form weaponized measures of purity.

Erotic games allow us to explore sexuality and encourage imaginative thought in unique ways. As visual sandbox game, Degrees of Lewdity acts as an erotic choose your own adventure game. Instead of definitive conclusions, Degrees contains several soft-bad endings, areas where the player must try and exist in a space where the odds are stacked against them, from an asylum whose conditions are far from ideal, to a BDSM-related farm. As your PC navigates its harsh surroundings we are afforded access to a digital governmentality, the ins, and outs of a particular social network. From here it is possible to trace how power is distributed among various institutions, the lattice of which creates a municipality, and includes many examples of the ways in which power can be both productive and oppressive.

The town, a central part of the larger setting in which the PC lives lacks a formal name, though it is sometimes referred to as “Rapeville,” “Rapechestershire,” or “Nuttingham” by DoL’s community (yes, actually). This land of pure debauchery supposedly exists by the seaside somewhere in the present-day UK. While it exists near a body of water, it is also connected to a larger farm area and has a system of transport. Chronologically, the game starts from late 2019 onwards, though it should be noted that DoL was released in June 2018. The town’s mayor Quinn is fairly absent, often tending to duties deep within town hall, an area made inaccessible to the player. In addition to a very real police presence, the town and nearby forest contain areas for commerce, ports for shipping and trade, areas for agriculture, a school, hospital, and religious center.

In this universe bribery is easy to come by and can be used as a way of appeasing certain members of DoL’s larger apparatus (particularly police). Overall, violence within DoL is forward-facing and seemingly rampant. Logs of serious crimes tend to “go missing,” while petty crimes can result in long stints in the town’s Pillory. In general, levels of corruption are seemingly high and overt in times when governing structures and mechanisms for oversight are particularly weak. When we apply this analysis to DoL’s inner workings this seems fitting, especially if we take into account that almost every “node” which makes up the town’s governmental architecture is extremely hierarchical and the police function as one of the most visible and active arms of governance. Once you reach the highest level of authority for any given disciplinary sphere (be it your doctor, headmaster, or priest) there is no one you can turn to, which clears space for abuse to occur.

All the ingredients that could possibly generate a town rife with crime exist within this setting, especially if we take into account that corruption—particularly governmental corruption, is able to flourish in times or areas where media is controlled directly by the State or when penalties are made particularly harsh towards political dissenters, reporters, and news outlets. Leaders often take advantage of citizens in times when access to knowledge and education is limited and/or heavily edited. In the town where you reside your history teacher serves as your only source of information regarding where you live and believe it or not, it’s thought that this town could have taken a different trajectory long ago. Your headteacher is also a patron at the local strip club and will not hesitate to propose to you if they encounter you. As head of the neighborhood’s orphanage, Bailey is both the very person in charge of how you live and the one who sets the very obstacles around which you must navigate.

According to Vrelnir the poor way in which your PC is treated is due to their particular “status” which says a lot about the world of Degrees since, like an abandoned youth, you are often on the receiving end of some of arguably the worst treatment this society has to hold. While your town values education greatly, (tutoring is well rewarded and one of few jobs that can be completed with no lewd outcomes) you are otherwise often at risk. Taking into consideration that elements of modern technology exist within DoL’s universe (people can and will not hesitate to take photos of you which can increase your “fame) adds another layer of complexity beyond a litany of human and animal interactions made possible within this world and helps us better consider the ways in which violence is embedded within this game at varying levels of scale.

Further information about this town’s lore can be found in the game’s “debug mode.” Here it is possible to find a piece of scrapped content where a local radio show claims that Quinn is embroiled in controversy as, “The investigative commission is in the process of determining what happened to the money earmarked for the renovation of the city’s orphanage and asylum. As reported by anonymous sources – someone from the city council may be involved in the loss of money.” According to this report, Quinn is set to comment on these allegations in a special statement to the town and its citizens. It’s open-ended as to how this information should be taken and this is because, unlike many other games, almost all of Degrees of Lewdity’s game items can be accessed in some way through this can only be done through the use of external software. Technically this bit of information deemed the “sunshine radio broadcast,” falls under this category and is not accessible within the game itself, though it gives good insight into this environment and helps strengthen the case that Quinn is aware of the town’s corrupt nature but chooses to turn a blind eye, something his in-game actions leave more ambiguous.

The mayor only makes one “official” in-game appearance, attending a renovation after-party for the town’s cafe (should you choose to work there). During this planned public event, Quinn prevents Bailey from halting your speech, but they also dismiss disparaging comments your PC may try to make about conditions at the orphanage and the truth behind the cafe’s special “cream buns” (you’ve been adding your own masturbatory fluids to the mix on occasion). Any attempt to notify the public about Bailey, who is being congratulated at this event, is not only discouraged but is quickly waved away as Quinn defends the orphanage as one of the town’s “oldest and ‘most esteemed’ institutions.”

It can always be said that what a player decides to put their PC through depends on how they identify and choose to relate to their character. Personally, I found it hard not to feel some level of empathy for my PC due to the number and severity of assaults that occur throughout the game. Luckily, these tended to become less cumbersome as I continued playing. In my case, all the dance classes I’d taken and long shifts at the strip club I’d powered through resulted in granting me more strength and speed. Armed with more strength meant I was eventually able to hurl insults at possible attackers or mean-spirited citizens and could physically fend them off or run away if needed (sometimes). Of course, the feeling I got as I experienced these issues during gameplay is not akin to actual assault. The adjective I reached for most often while describing how it affected me was “annoying,” but it was interesting to note the ways in which such encounters altered your trauma and awareness levels, with the potential to make my PC’s actions more unstable and made me more susceptible to other actions as the game went on. Being overwhelmed for prolonged periods can lead to fainting. It happened to me. A lot.

After a while of passing out around town and vicious bouts of bullying at school I figured, fine, I’ll head over and give Doctor Harper a visit. The town’s hospital is where they offer hypnosis sessions which can result in several sexually suggestive outcomes and pills aimed at trauma and stress management. Over at the pharmacy where a seated nurse ignores me, I stare at shelves of pills aimed at altering body growth (like reducing or increasing breast size). Higher levels of control improve confidence. Awareness is effectively a measure of one’s purity.

The pharmacy, hospital, and implied pharmaceutical network allow when combined with a choice of clothing, for autonomous methods of body modification. Not only does one’s flesh become a site for “play” and experimentation but how those choices are recognized by NPCs dictates how others view you within the game and your subsequent treatment. With a dash of realism, close-up encounters can result in eroticism, violence, or both, part of which hinges on the body’s correspondence to and deviation from gendered encoding.

Unavoidably, much of my conversation with Vrelnir was informed by my own personal gameplay. I peppered in details from how I chose to navigate the game, but admittedly, there is much more to the world of Degrees that I did not explore in-depth or vehemently avoided. For instance, there is Eden, a resident of the woods who under the right conditions may choose to kidnap the player or purchase them from Bailey. She is one of a few characters that can be bonded with if your Stockholm syndrome becomes intense enough. The game is also rife with toggleable options that range from forced body writing or branding to sexual encounters with animals, insects, and other “natural forces,” like swarms of various small creatures which can lead to anal impregnation in some cases. Such pregnancies can lead to one route through which you can make a living if you choose to try and avoid the orphanage: selling your small parasite babies.

Within Degrees even dogs are horny and will take advantage of you if they’re able, a quick trip to your neighbor’s attic can result in vicious spider infestations, and gardening is just another site for potential eroticism and/or violence. Any attempt to handle Bailey’s tough demands involves taking one of two routes: maximizing connections within the “real” world or retreating further into “nature.” Taking the latter route increases the chance of full integration with your surroundings and opens a path towards spider impregnation and wolf transformations.

None of this is to disparage Degrees of Lewdity or write it off as simply “a rape fantasy” game. In fact, this game takes what is a popular trope within many hentai games (for reasons that are too broad to touch within this post) and allows the protagonist to reclaim their sense of self through sexual acts where they feel in control. It should be noted that the PC’s ability to manage difficult feelings by performing lewd acts is raised over time, which may require players to push their boundaries even further to achieve similar if not less of an effect.

From random encounters on the street, to “car dates,” to trying to do odd jobs for people throughout the town, all areas carry some threat of danger. Try as you might to escape your debt, this is an unavoidable fixture within this game and will accrue even in your absence from the orphanage. Additionally, certain scenes within Degrees will not occur until you return to town. What seems like an obvious, sensible reaction to your plight has been permanently shelved, as mods have met community requests for in-game ways to kill Bailey with a resounding, no.

It is through an examination of how power is disseminated throughout this virtual town that players can better understand violence and ways in which it can become enshrined within institutions at a larger, macro level. Interpersonal conflict and altercations can be dealt with through combat or lewd acts, which folds violence in with eroticism. If, “Violence, and death signifying violence, have a double meaning. On the one hand the horror of death drives us off, for we prefer life; on the other, an element at once solemn and terrifying fascinates us and disturbs us profoundly” (Bataille, Erotism, 45) then this fictional town is a space rife with sites that carry such complexity.

How would you explain the premise of the game for someone who hasn’t played?

Degrees of Lewdity is an erotic game where you take the role of an 18-year-old girl or boy in perilous circumstances. You must manage trauma, stress, and your sense of control while living your day-to-day life and fulfilling the demands of your exploitative landlord. You navigate around a town and its surroundings by clicking hyperlinks. However, you will often be accosted and forced to defend yourself. You can choose how to defend yourself but will always be on the defensive. You can try to fight off assailants, or give them what they want. As your landlord’s demands worsen, you may be forced to take more risks. There are opportunities for positive, consensual sexual interactions. These are the best way to manage the aforementioned trauma, stress, and control.

There are various characters in town that might help or hinder you. Often both.

What led you to develop DoL in the first place? On the game’s blog, it states that you started Degrees with practically no coding experience?

I played a ton of lewd games through the 2000s and 2010s. Something about them grabbed my attention in a way other games didn’t. It got to the point where I was playing untranslated Japanese RPG maker games, and just trial and erroring my way through. They often touched on something I didn’t have the language for. A connection between the game’s mechanics and the sexual elements, that expressed the latter in a way other erotica media did not, to me. You’re right that I had no coding experience. I wanted to try making my own game but didn’t think it was feasible for that reason.

Any erotic games that you liked in particular?

There were a bunch I liked. Sengoku Rance comes to mind, though that one has a translation, and approaches things very differently to DoL. Going further back, I remember playing this dating sim on Newgrounds. I think that was the first lewd game I found. I think was just called Simdate? It’s been a while. Neither of those are RPG maker games though. A lot of those had untranslated titles, so I wouldn’t know what to call them.

Another place I found games was 4chan’s /dgg/ general thread on the /d/ board. There’s a game called Free Cities. It’s made in Twine, and the dev [who used to post in that thread] notably had limited programming experience before starting. That inspired me to try making a game myself.

I noticed that your game functionality relies on collaborative efforts with others. Did you start out entrenching yourself in this community before making DoL or did it kind of happen as you went along?

The community grew around the game and its development. It’s the most wonderful thing about the project. I had posted on /dgg/ before, but anonymously. It wasn’t until I first shared DoL there that I adopted a name. I meant to share the game elsewhere, but the game spread through word of mouth, and I still haven’t.

If DoL spread mainly through word of mouth, then how did you first get wind of its popularity?

This is the first thing I’ve made and put out there. Blogspot tells you the sites people link from when visiting your blog. So I was checking daily to see if the game had spread somewhere new. Also, just the number of comments on my blog is indicative, I think. And view counts on other sites that host the game and share that information.

What led you to build the game around the themes you did? Upon playing your game, I was particularly into the trauma, stress, etc, scale and how some features were interconnected and interrelated.

I’m glad you like the way that things are interconnected. High trauma can be managed as long as the PC has a sense of control. The main way to restore control is to push the boundaries of the PC’s inhibitions, performing acts they feel are transgressive. Control is used to explore the connection between desire, inhibition, and trauma. Sometimes I worry that the game comes across as sex-negative, which wasn’t my intention. The game drives the PC to perform consensual lewd acts for the sake of managing control and trauma, to avoid a negative rather than gain a positive. Originally control was an on/off switch. Performing a transgressive act gave you control. Being assaulted cost you control. I changed it to an incremental bar for the sake of gameplay. So you can fight off a handful of attacks before needing help.

[Many] RPG maker games often involved sexual violence, but in a hentai way with no lasting impact. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it got me thinking about what a game that took things a little more seriously could look like. A very early build of DoL, over a year before I shared the game, took place entirely in the player character, or PC’s bedroom. They were awoken and assaulted by an intruder. The aim of the game then was to survive the attack with as little trauma gained as possible. The trauma-related traits that are still in the game, nightmares, panic attacks, dissociation, and such, were almost like a negative score. Things were tooled such that it was very possible to max trauma from that one encounter. I was kinda venting at this point. Making the game felt soothing. I was happy with how things worked, and the life sim aspects grew from there. That’s not to say everything about DoL is super serious and realistic, but I wanted to explore things a bit differently.

Definitely. DoL certainly has a serious note to it that really struck me. Upon playing I was extremely frustrated by constantly getting attacked/harassed, especially at school, but I also found elements of arousal injected into these scenes.

I hear that as criticism a lot. The frustration from the constant attacks. When I was thinking about the limitations preventing me from making a game, my inability to program and make sprites came to mind. Game design is easily overlooked. Though I think things have improved. I should mention that some of those RPG games did involve long-lasting consequences after an assault, they were just a rarity.

Assault is a pretty reoccurring theme throughout this game. Why is it such a feature of this world?

From the perspective of most of the townsfolk, it isn’t a visible feature of the world. The player character is in a vulnerable situation, though not uniquely so. They experience some of the worst of it. From a more meta standpoint, I wanted to explore what it might mean to be in a situation with such an uneven power balance between yourself and others, and in what ways that could be overcome. I felt exaggerated violence would be a good way to approach this. People have said it’s a game about being bullied and abused, but I’ve never seen it that way. It’s about overcoming.

Do you think from your standpoint, through personal experience or creative influences, that this is a broader topic that’s reflected in the world at large (irl)?

Oh certainly, though I wouldn’t say it reflects any specific situations.

From personal experience, I know how easily violence can be normalized. There’s a sense that this is just the way the world is. Two people passing each other on the street can live in very different worlds, in a sense. Let alone people who live in a different part of town. Or maybe I just live in my own head too much.

Do you mean that violence can be normalized in situations where anonymity is increased?

It can. That said, you don’t need to look far to find examples of rampant abuse being tolerated, sometimes for years, even where there is no anonymity.

The game often gives people the impression that the setting is just rife with violence. And it is, but you only have that information because of the role you adopt.

On that note, what about Kylar? Within this game, he functions as a stalker for the protagonist. I’m curious, of course, as to how you came to shape him as a character, but also how he can be seen as a “bizarro Avery” in a sense. In some ways, the way his character unfolds could be viewed as a possible trajectory Avery could have taken, had he possessed less wealth and charm.

Kylar’s overwhelming characteristic is their interest in the protagonist. This is kinda true for many love interests, though none reach the level of Kylar. The others feel like they have other things going on. Everything in Kylar’s world revolves around the protagonist. They’re very much an antagonist. They’re meant to contrast Whitney, a popular delinquent, which is why the two characters have something of a rivalry.

It’s interesting that you’d connect Kylar and Avery, but you’re not wrong. Kylar has a privileged background, like Avery, though he game hasn’t dived into that yet. They also share a potentially violent interest in the protagonist. But they depart from each other dramatically where social standing is concerned.

I haven’t thought about it before, but you’re right. Not much would have to be different for Avery to have ended up in Kylar’s shoes.

Of course, I have to ask who your favorite NPC is.

I like them all in their own ways! Eden is the easiest to write though. Sydney has a special place as they were mostly written by PurityGuy, a contributor. The characters I write can’t surprise me.

Eden scared me. I mainly went on dates with Avery or spent time with Robin at the orphanage.

I’ve found Eden has been very hit-or-miss with players. It’s okay to have characters like that though.

Well, sure. I critique the way I played the game a bit for sticking too close to reality, working at the coffee shop, etc. Definitely one of the more interesting things about the game in retrospect is its more fantastical elements, like spider impregnation.

Oh yeah. Some things I’m driven to add because I have something I feel I need to say. Sometimes it’s simply for the sake of Lewdity, I feel inspired by something that aroused me. And sometimes it’s swarms of spiders. I’m not sure where that came from, except it felt right to include.

More broadly though, I like the fantastical elements as they can dig at the nature of things closer than the mundane at times. The PC isn’t obligated to interpret reality as other people might.

It’s definitely interesting that within DoL, one’s autonomous expression (even within such an assault-ridden landscape) can soothe or appease the PC at times. It’s also interesting that pushing one’s boundaries within the game has a ladder-type effect where more is “needed” to achieve the same results.

Aye! The execution still needs work I fear, but I’m confident it’s the right direction. So the game could be interpreted as saying “people only do lewd things because they traumatized,” and could be construed as sex-negative. Again, not my intention.

Is this a critique that’s thrown at you a bit?

It’s not, funnily enough. I’ve only received a handful of angry messages about it. Which makes my concern about it interesting. I worried the game’s content would upset a lot of people, but it’s been received extremely well.

What do you think led you to develop dol at the time you did? Boredom? Curiosity?

A family member was going through a health scare when I started making DoL. I’m not sure if that’s what prompted me to get started, but I was questioning a lot at that time, and a few of my other habits changed then as well, so maybe. As for my home life, I’ve lived alone the whole time I’ve been making DoL.

That’s interesting! Do you think your habits have been affected by the pandemic? You’re in the UK, I’m guessing?

Aye, I’m in the UK. My habits are less affected by the pandemic than most, I think. I didn’t leave home much except to go to work anyway, and work didn’t change much.

Makes sense. What kind of shows/other forms of media do you enjoy?

I don’t watch much television or film. I play games and read nonfiction occasionally. Making DoL cannibalized most of my free time.

As for the type of games, I’ve spent too much time playing Paradox strategy games, Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Stellaris. I keep going to back Dwarf Fortress too. And Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead.

Do you find yourself interested in other forms of transgressive media (if we can apply that term to DoL)?

My favourite new game this year was Cruelty Squad, which satirizes violence in a way I found compelling. And weirdly therapeutic. That game transgresses against typical visual and audible sense, so not the same kind of thing, but it’s what’s come to mind. I played Disco Elysium earlier this year as well, and it blew me away. That’s a slightly older game though, I was just late to it.

One thing DoL seems to offer is an exaggerated depiction of violence and other themes that force the player to explore these topics in a critical way. That’s sort of looping back to my initial frustrations during gameplay.

It’s a tough one. I want players to have an entirely enjoyable time playing the game, ideally, but the lack of consent of the part of PC is important, and the player is affected by that. They consent to play the game, but not necessarily to every little annoyance. People occasionally ask for the PC to be able to reach a state where every encounter becomes consensual. This isn’t planned outside the existing “soft mode”, as it would run contrary to the point of the game.

Well, yes. I don’t think frustrating players is necessarily a bad thing.

True. It can communicate something. And transgression causes discomfort anyway. There’s value in ugliness as well. The aforementioned Cruelty Squad demonstrates this literally, but I think it applies more broadly.

I think transgression is inherently beautiful. I’ve always been drawn to it, at least. It’s a lightning bolt in the night, inherently beautiful, but sometimes illuminates ugliness.

I found Avery’s character to be particularly interesting in that following them can show the player a very particular, if not exaggerated, kind of “high society.” What led you to develop them the way you did?

The other love interests are either the PC’s peers or exist on the fringes like Eden. Avery represents a different dynamic, and a different threat Abuse enabled by uneven power relations is core to the game, but Avery is more direct about this. They’re “nice” if you play along, but the PC doesn’t get much agency in the relationship. Or rather, agency is penalized.

Definitely. Their interaction seems more based on being familiarized with a certain code of conduct.

That’s right. They’re not like Eden, or even Whitney, who are quick to resort to brute force. Avery has expectations. They have societal support, though they’ll still resort to force in the end. In a sense, they tread similar ground to Bailey. They both could be expressed better by making life difficult for the PC if they don’t get what they want. Their bag of tricks mostly involves different flavours of fisticuffs at the moment.

Oh yeah, Bailey. He seems deeply troubled and aggressive. What’s his deal?

There are plans to explore that in the future! Bailey is more a force of nature at the moment, pushing the character to take more risks than they are a character in their own right. This works in a way. They’re supposed to be threatening, after all.

I ultimately kept Avery as a secondary love interest because they do serve some purpose especially when it comes to helping make Robin’s life easier. They’re also fun from time to time if you do exactly as they say. However, while they steer clear of explicit shows of violence (at least in my gameplay, I could be wrong) I wouldn’t consider what they show towards the PC to be love, per se. It’s kind of like they always think of their social standing and are concerned with that above all else.

Avery likes having you hanging from their arm. Maybe it’s for show, but I think there are other desires there. They certainly don’t like being shown up in public though. I find myself glad you haven’t encountered Avery’s violence. They’re unfinished as a character, and encountering their rage at a later point in the story might be more interesting.

Most love interests are about the same age as the protagonist. The older love interests stand out from each other more dramatically. Avery is the window into a certain social stratum that the protagonist otherwise has very little access to.

So you think they have the capacity for love? Is it just accompanied by equal disdain if evoked?

They have the capacity, but I’m not sure if the PC will ever witness it. I’m not sure anyone will again.

The capacity for love can’t be destroyed, but it can be rendered inert.

What about Robin?

Robin is a fan favourite. They began as a character meant to demonstrate that there were others in the same boat as the PC. That is, under threat from Bailey. It’s been pointed out that Robin is popular because they’re such a sweet character in such a terrible world. This is true, but I think they’re also popular because they allow the PC, and by extension the player, to adopt a heroic role. Not an uncommon role in games, but uncommon in DoL. It’s a dash of normalcy that I hope reinforces the exaggerated violence of DoL’s setting.

I don’t think I could write those scenes now. I’ve become too attached to the character to write about such terrible things happening to them.

I wanted to ask you more about the role the doctor and hospital play within the game. It’s telling that in such a world even places of care like hospitals can’t be trusted. Upon visiting, the player is given pills that make them dizzy. Was this influenced by personal events you brought up earlier or purely fantasy?

The pills lower awareness! That could be what you want though. Depends on whether or not you want to see the tentacle monsters. None of the institutions in DoL can be trusted, and the hospital isn’t exempt. It’s loosely based on personal experience. I’m not sure I could write pure fantasy when it comes to interactions with other people and social organizations. My experiences are going to creep in. [Many] NPCs are drawn from my experiences. I have to be able to relate to them to be able to write them. It’s part of why I like Sydney, they’re somewhat alien.

Oh yes, my mistake. In terms of personal experience do you think personal frustrations with English institutions have played a role in your life?

Kinda, but institutions make up such an important part of the developed world. It would be odd to not have some frustrations. Though maybe the institutional structures here in England are worse than elsewhere. Many were designed to subject people to the will of the ruling class, and I don’t think we’re past that. The PC in DoL is often subjected by one institution or another. The prison is the most recent addition.

One reading that can be applied while playing the game is that it is simply overrun by violence, but the point I took away after playing was more that it is violence that exists and is handed down by larger institutions. It is interesting, however, that you bring up that this violence is not experienced by all characters or NPCs within the game, though it does seem that almost all characters fall on one side (victimized) or the other (perpetrator). If one’s PC exists as the largest conduit for such violence, then why is this?

That’s a good question, and one I’d like the game to explore more in the future. Simply put, it’s because they’re vulnerable. Their entity in the social fabric is not afforded protection from violence. They have no parents, nor authority figures that are looking out for them, aside from a few with limited power. The institutions aren’t designed to protect them either. Their relationship with Bailey is at fault. Or rather, the fact their relationship with others is controlled by Bailey. Bailey’s the only one who could really protect them. I guess Bailey does protect them to an extent.

Bailey isn’t the source of the violence, but they mediate it. The source is structural, but the game doesn’t dive into that topic too much. I’m not educated at all on it.

Another interesting feature of the game, which we keep indirectly bringing up, is the ability to choose/alter, change, the genders and presentation of both one’s PC and NPCs within the game. Not only that, but certain options are different for the PC, depending on how they present. How did you come up with this idea?

I wanted Degrees of Lewdity to be inclusive, and allowing players to choose the gender of the protagonist and NPCs is the single best way to accomplish that for an erotic game. I think that’s the main reason I wanted to be flexible there. I’d feel guilty leaving people out.

I’ve always felt that most gender is in the eye of the beholder anyway, with people attributing masculinity or femininity to identical actions depending on the person performing the action. I still think this is true to an extent, but people do feel that certain characters work better as one gender or the other. They don’t necessarily agree on which is which though.

I also feared that restricting either the protagonist or NPCs to a particular gender would work against the points we discussed earlier about violence being invisible, and vulnerability to violence depending on one’s place in the social fabric. It could be argued that the game was throwing stones from a glass house.

The game being text-based, with cute androgynous sprites, makes this flexibility far easier than it would be for many other games.

On that note, there’s extreme agency given to the player in terms of how one can augment their biological body (supersizing or preventing breast growth as an example) as well as some recognition by NPCs of clothing/how one dresses within the game. In DoL if you are “dressed a boy” within this universe but are “found out,” then you are subject to violence. I don’t think I have a particular question here, but maybe this is something you’d like to elaborate on? Free Cities, which you mentioned, is more “zoomed out” in terms of examining how structural influences can play out within the game.

The townfolk in DoL have a particular understanding of gender and can respond violently if that understanding is challenged. I wanted to add weight to the decision to crossdress or to avoid crossdressing. A risk of heightened violence is a simple and appropriate way to accomplish this. You might have to go out of your way to appear more gender-conforming just to make yourself safer.

Free Cities also has a lot of biological freedom, but you play the role of a tyrant augmenting other people’s bodies. In DoL you’re more subjected by power, and the setting is very different. I usually prefer “zoomed in” erotic games, as they feel more authentic to the reality they’re reflecting. Free Cities is great though.

It is! I find the level of control and choices offered to be almost overwhelming, though. I do enjoy that DoL is accompanied by lots of images. Helped me really become submerged in the experience.

Yeah, I took a couple of years break from Free Cities, and so much had been added in the meantime. I need to relearn it.

Back when I played it, you could already decide what gender meant, and violently enforce it on people who disagreed. In Degrees of Lewdity, NPCs decide what gender means, and violently enforce it on you. Or attempt to. We’ve quite recently added a setting, thanks to a contributor, that gives you some control over the way NPCs perceive the protagonist’s gender though.

I’ve had lots of help from contributors, including when it comes to art. Keeping the sprites simple was the right idea I think. A little art can go a long way.

DoL also has a very real underworld presence, there are strip clubs, one can become a prostitute and go on car dates, or devote themselves “to a life of skullduggery.” The inner workings of nightclubs in this world seem pretty thought out. What do sex work and thievery add to the world of DoL for you? Why add this layer in particular?

Sex work and thievery are natural inclusions, given the PC’s situation. Right from the beginning, I knew an underworld like this would be necessary. Similar to how the protagonist can be pushed to engage in increasingly lewd acts in order to maintain their sense of control, Bailey’s demands can push them to transgress other limits in order to make money. So the protagonist is pressured to profane the social fabric, not out of spite, but out of necessity. It’s not hard to find options to commit crime, but choosing to take those options might not seem appealing until the noose tightens.

Sex work fits both categories, lewd and criminal. Options here can be unlocked through promiscuity, but also by fear of Bailey.

What about the option to add “fluids” to food in the cafe? This is more of an aside, but I’m genuinely curious.

You mean the cream buns?

Yes!

That counts as criminal! But I must admit, that whole arc is kinda comedic in its premise. “What if your bodily fluids could be used to make exquisite cuisine?” Well, that would be a great way to make some cash! It’s not a fetish of mine funnily enough, but I know some people are into it.

It’s hilarious.

I’m glad you think so.

It ties into the farm content. There’s a chance, should you refuse to give in to the blackmailer who discovers what you’re up to, you could end up abducted.

What do people in your life irl think of the game?

The people I know irl don’t know about the game. I don’t think I’d be spurned for it, but I would be very embarrassed.

I’m quite private.

So you like to keep a separation between your community and friends online and irl? Does it seem odd, then, that you spend so much time away online?

That’s right. I keep the worlds separate.

Even before DoL I spent a great deal of time online, mostly just playing games. DoL has cannibalized a bit more time than that, but I’ve not had any queries. It’s odd not being able to share your interests with irl friends. I felt a bit crazy back before I shared DoL online, having this hobby that I felt so enthused about, yet was unable to discuss.

Why do you think you don’t talk about it with others? Do you think you express yourself differently online and would anyone be surprised if they knew that you’ve made such a game? What about in your romantic relationships?

I guess I worry about disturbing people’s impressions of me. They wouldn’t guess I’m making an erotic game, as far as I know. I don’t think I express myself much differently online. I might be a bit more open, but I’ve been called private in both.

I’ve been chatting with someone online recently, and they’re aware of and enjoy DoL. If we meet up, it’ll bridge the gap between the two worlds, which would be interesting. I think previous partners would be surprised, however.

How about irl hobbies?

Irl I don’t get up to much. I’m fortunate to have friends I can play physical games with, board games, and such. I enjoy walking. I live in a good place for it. I’ve started reading again recently as well. I don’t have as much free time as I’d like, but there’s nothing I’m willing to sacrifice for it.

I’m reading Human, All Too Human by Nietzsche at the moment. I tried reading it in my early 20s, but I’m getting a lot more out of it now.

18 thoughts on “Degrees of Lewdity: Conversation with Vrelnir

  1. There was an aim for a specific audience in mind, but the developer wanted to hit all the outer rings for far diverse points, meaning that It strayed from its origin so as to earn income to make their game more profitable which I respectfully. Also

    Anyway, /hgg/ says -well anything really.

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    1. But muh poor oppressed mainoreetees and ramen in the west? muh systemic raycism/seksim?
      It’s an all encroaching cult, you read the interview? they see imagery and symbolism everywhere.

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    2. My good friend sadgirltheory seems to have missed the boat on the March of Progress. Imposing edifices of Continental abstrusion are yesterdays news; if you can’t fit your hot take within a twitter soundbyte or less, you are probably too white and too male to be invited to the party.

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  2. Great interview! I’m delighted to see that so many of the elements of the game that had an impact on me (especially wrt gender) were intentional. DoL continues to be the porn game that’s had the strongest emotional impact on me and it’s lovely to see it’s coming from such a thoughtful place.

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  3. Enjoyed reading the interview, certainly it cast light at a lot of aspects of the game I never noticed before despite being a member of the community for a while. Vrelnir always had been like an omnipotent god-figure surrounded by a suite of contributor-saints, to gain insight into more personal aspects of his life has somewhat demystified the picture of him in my mind, but only slightly. I’d love to hear even more thoughts surrounding the game and it’s birth from a more game design inclined view.

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  4. Damn, that prose is thick as soup. I also found your need to cram every possible woke talking point into the intro pretty tiresome. I couldn’t even finish the article, and I’m passionate about erotica as an art form and likely agrees with your perspective. I’d recommend less intro, less unrelated political takes, and more focus on the topic in question. It really just comes off as the writer having low confidence. Trust that your audience will read your other works, you don’t have to fit every one of your beliefs into a single article. I’m genuinely sorry if this comes off as harsh criticism, I intend it to be constructive and honest.

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  5. In agreement with the others, the whole prelude became an incredibly rare tldr situation for me.

    I gave it a good go at reading through, but continued to ask myself: This is relevant why? Quite regularly, and was only confirmed that none of it was relevant when I read the interview, and the actual points on the game slightly prior to the interview starting.

    You’re only going to hurt your articles if you show your hand that blatantly and your hand is for the entirely wrong game we’re playing to boot.

    Once things got back on track for the actual interview, that went pretty well, credit given to Vrelnir where it’s due on not swallowing the full bait and catching the hook I’m suspecting you tossed his way at times though with certain questioning.

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  6. I enjoy the game, came to the article because it was mentioned. I have not finished reading the article yet, but I noticed that prelude, almost everything up to the cow onesie image, read very much like an academic article. Though I may not agree with some of the views expressed, it was still very interesting to read.

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  7. An interesting bit of correspondence between the two of you. It’s not often that you can find meaningful perspective on these types of games, so to see the difference in your thought process behind certain actions and events was intruiging.

    With that said, a large amount of the political bits here aren’t well recived. Personally, I found it intersting how you associated certain aspects of the game to real-life events or situations. I’d like to believe you were displaying more throughough interest to what was going on rather than creating a political schpeel for namesake of owning a blog.

    Degrees of Lewdity is heavily connected to 4chan, with much of the playerbase being active users, including several contributors. Unfortunately, most if any beliefs that do not fall in-line to the common ‘anon’ aren’t well percieved. It usually doesn’t extend beyond useless critiques or inward facing comments, but nonetheless is equally annoying.

    Overall, I reccomend others reading this, or those who have yet to finish reading it to do so with a more open mind and maybe even some nuance. Well done.

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  8. This was a great interview. I have a lot of thoughts about it, and less confidence that I can actually collect them into a coherent body of text and express them, though, so forgive me if this is going to be a bit all over the place.

    I also found out about your blog, like Vrel’s game, through /d/, but I’m afraid I’ll have to contradict the other anons and also stan the preamble. Disagreements aside (“politics is in the realm of ontology”? asks the little kantian voice in my head incredulously. No! It’s ontology that belongs to the normative sphere, and often to politics themselves. The theoretical use of reason could never wear the crown of autonomy for itself, to be self-standing. I’m being a bit facetious, I’m not sure how much practical difference this actually makes, but I wanted to indicate that we don’t share the same influences), the approach, of relating our entertainment -even the h-games that, like other sexually explicit content occupy a chunky space of our lives but occupy it very *awkwardly*, obscured, barely acknowledged , with not only their narratives, but the very commitment to having a serviceable narrative at all, belittled disproportionally compared to other fiction- to our broader social reality and trying to interpretively derive some meaning from them, is not misguided at all. It makes for interesting treatments and I think it can reinforce our interest in, and the depth of our engagement with, what is effectively interactive erotica.

    In fact I’m also looking forward to the inflection point where this sort of serious treatment and reflective attitude is internalised in them to improve said material. To an extent, and as you’ve both noted in the interview, this is exactly what DoL does in incorporating more realistic trauma mechanics (I still remember the first time I thought I could get away with stealing clothes from the mall, and ended up in the pillory. I was surprised by how the system incentivised me to act realistically, trying to fight people off uselessly until I was in too much pain to struggle, resigning myself to the abuse, then alternating between trying to flail uselessly again and pleading with them to show mercy when they wouldn’t stop coming at me, until they utterly rekt my character’s psychology and she was hospitalised in the asylum. The psychodrama of this is sexually appealing and narratively compelling in its own right, but it would be entirely absent in a typical h-game, robbing the character of a genuine arc and the scene itself of any emotional resonance, not to mention of two thirds of its potential to arouse someone who, like me, fetishises stockades and other BDSM implements, because of how putting someone in them affects them psychologically. Not just as an aesthetic decoration incorporating a human body. Many games feature pillories, none of them made me feel a pillory scene this hard, because none of them take it seriously). I think this inflection point is urged forward by your sort of serious treatment that can identify and praise such elements, and I’m very happy to therefore encourage it as well.

    I think the same reflective attitude also comes out in Free Cities’ acerbic wit (still stunned by the, admittedly hard to find, loss paragraph of the daughters of liberty quest, both the indignant way the revolutionary asserts her real name before killing you, and the hilarious final line “Your cause of death is that of many an oppressor — an aneurysm of the cerebellum, in 9mm Parabellum”) and this overwhelming sense you get playing it that, not only are you clearly evil, you occupy a position where it is impossible, no matter how kind, understanding and compassionate you try to be, to actually be genuinely good. It’s no wonder, imo, that these two have been the most popular d-games of the past decade, and monopolised attention vastly more than any of the asinine porn “comedies”, rudimentary flash games, and tedious RPG maker RPGs that dominate the field (with rare exceptions, of course. This doesn’t extend to the likes of say Violated Heroine). I don’t believe these games would work if they weren’t a bit more reflective and serious about their world-building and characterisation. Part of what is attractive in them just is the way they specify the social context and the psychological realism and complexity they inject to their characters. Many people don’t realize this, but then, to paraphrase Hegel, you don’t need to learn anatomy to appreciate a drawing –but you will still not appreciate it as much if the depicted anatomy is all over the place.

    Anyway, yeah. Good review, great interview. I don’t know if you’re interested in pursuing this project further in the future, but critical reviews of h-games are literally non-existent, and I, for one, would like to read your thoughts on more if you haven’t abandoned this blog.

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