On June 28, 1969, five fabulous queers fought back against institutional oppression by refusing to cooperate with a police raid at the gay bar The Stonewall Inn. Armed only with their street fighter moves, superhuman abilities, and the power of disco, these sexy freedom fighters staged a three-day battle against an army of cops, giving no ground until New York was transformed into a rainbow paradise.
No, wait, that scenario is of more recent vintage: June 22, 2008, when the free Flash game Stonewall Brawl went live on www.burningvillage.com. Based on a concept by gay cartoonist Eric Orner (The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green) and produced by Boston-based game design company Metaversal Studios, Brawl turns the Stonewall Riots, the event that marks the birth of the modern gay rights movement, into an action packed video game in the mode of classic side-scrollers like Street Fighter.
"It’s kind of a mash-up of history and fighter games," explains Metaversal’s Jay Laird. "We’re parodying a video game genre, that beat ’em up genre, and using the story of Stonewall as the framework. It’s an homage to both of those things."
"I’ve long thought there was something incredibly cinematic about Stonewall," Orner says, explaining why he thinks the event lends itself to a larger-than-life treatment.
"Greenwich Village late at night during a heat wave...all different types of gay people colliding in one of the few public venues available to them---a seedy, mob controlled dive. The picturesqueness of this scene has always made me want to create stories based on the event."
Although it’s meant to be all in good fun, news of the game was met with suspicion. In a June 15 post on the LGBT blog www.bilerico.com, Blogger Waymon Hudson worried, that "a video game of a shirtless gay man beating up cops for points is an uncomfortable concept." Although Hudson and other bloggers liked the idea of sharing the Stonewall story, many feared that the game would glorify violence or whitewash the real Stonewall heroes, many of whom were people of color and/or gender variant.
"We made the mistake of sending out the first screen shot featuring the white male character," admits Laird. "Although the only known mug shot from Stonewall is a white hippy guy, everybody of course thinks of the black drag queens and other people as the stars of Stonewall." The bloggers might fire back that the game only features one person of color, but so far the blogosphere has been quiet.
Perhaps everyone is too busy playing the game to comment on it. Metaversal estimates that over 1,000 people have played the game since its launch, and Laird notes that the number of Google hits for "Stonewall Brawl" has increased by an order of magnitude since the game went live.
"We [wanted] to pay some sort of homage to Stonewall that’s fun and funny without seeming to make fun of it," explains Laird, admitting that can be a delicate line to walk. He stresses the empowerment of gay characters fighting back against an oppressive system. "I would love it if the world were a perfectly peaceful place," he argues, "but given the number of watershed events in history that happened around violence ... why can’t we seize our own moment?"
Laird speaks with a thoughtful enthusiasm that seems to have infected all of Metaversal Studios since he hit on the idea of turning Orner’s Stonewall characters into a video game. The two had been talking about collaborating on a project for some time when Orner, who was learning Flash programming, sent Laird an animation he was working on. It was a lightbulb moment for Laird, who immediately turned to his nearest co-worker - a straight man - and asked, "What do you think about a video game based on the Stonewall Riots?"
"That would be awesome," came the response, a sentiment that the entire company soon echoed. Other professional commitments prevented Orner from participating in the game’s development, but he gave his blessing to the project. "Eric did a third of the work already, with his character designs," says Laird. Still, the Metaversal team had to put their other projects on the back burner to get the game completed in time for New York Pride. Laird insisted that all the developers learn about the history of Stonewall in addition to researching old-school video games.
"We talked about involving multiple characters," Laird recalls, "to give more a sense of the collective nature of Stonewall, but that didn’t fit with the street fighting theme." It also would have made the game forbiddingly complex.
Another lightbulb moment came when one of the animators gave Rainbo a special attack: a (literally) flaming kick. "That really got the game to the wacky level it’s at now," Laird laughs. Soon every character had a special power, like Chuck’s electric roller skates and Thelma’s sonic headbutt, and the game was infused with a giddy, campy sense of humor. Historical inaccuracies, like a disco-fueled power-up, snuck their way in. Laird hopes players will have fun instead of carping about anachronisms.
"It’s all in good fun," he concludes. "Videogames are all about having the chance to play roles you can’t in real life."
Adds Orner, "If a game can pique the interest of a young gay, bi or trans brother or sister in the actual events at Stonewall, then I’ll be very glad."