SweetXheart, by Catt Small (2019)
Asleep. Kara is asleep.
You are asleep. You are Kara.
This is the poetic incantation that kicks off Catt Small’s intimate epic SweetXheart. The next thing players are told is that this is the beginning of a new week for Kara—or, rather, for themselves—and that they are empowered to decide whether this is going to be a good week.
What follows this introductory screen is a cascading series of tiny choices that amount to a whole lot. The first thing is a vibrating cell phone telling us it’s time to wake up for school. We have to slide the lock screen to shut the alarm off, to enter our first of five days. We learn more about ourselves as we wake up in Kara’s bed. First we see a ceiling and a window. Then we see another first-person view of a little tuxedo cat on our chest as well as our own brown arm. As we continue to enter the perspective of Kara, we at last see her face as she takes a comforting shower and find ourselves in the body of a young black woman.
The next thing we are faced with is a dress-up game that allows us to mix and match various articles of clothing as we figure out what to wear to school. Kara has thoughts about each of the items as our cursor wanders over our wardrobe, each one invested with personal meaning. However, a clock is counting down. We have a lot of options—they’ll narrow as the week progresses and used items can’t be worn again—and making the right choice is hard. And it’s going to be the first choice that determines how our day goes. We can take too long, but if we do, we will have taken too long and that holds consequences for the rest of the day. The right choice can be a confidence booster or can leave us feeling insecure.
A little mood monitor resides in the upper left corner of the screen for the duration of the game’s five days. As players, we have control over the choices that result in the changes to our mood, but the way the world responds to us and our choices can prove unpredictable. And some things happen to us regardless of whether we want them to or not. And what ultimately determines our emotional experience depends on the reaction the world and its denizens have to us, our reaction to that reaction, and so on.
One such unpredictable-but-predictable factor comes from the cat-callers. A variety of men appear on the sidewalks we take through the Bronx that will get us to and from our hour-long train ride to our art and design college. We see these men before we pass them—and before we know whether or not they’re going to say something to us. Like random encounters in an RPG, we know we’re taking a risk just entering the field, but we have no choice. We don’t know whether what we’re wearing is going to draw their unwanted advances, their ridicule, or their indifference. We don’t know whether we have it in us to talk back, or whether just walking away is going to be the better choice for our safety and our mental health. But we have to make the choice quickly.
In her press materials, Small tells us that SweetXheart is “an autobiographical visual novel about race, gender, and microaggressions.” Kara is a remarkably resilient and positive person—expressed through the undeniable sweetness and cuteness drawn across her face and the game’s colorful aesthetic—but that resilience has its limits. The game explores aggressions both micro and macro—leveled at Kara on every front—through almost countless micro interactions. The men on the corner are just the start. The game brilliantly exposes the vulnerability a young black woman like Kara—who is Kara, ever so specifically—faces at every moment of the day and the complex emotional game she has to play to maintain her positive attitude. The player cannot complete Kara’s week without being made to dwell on this constant exposure.
The game’s surface is deceptively simple and smooth. Every day in SweetXheart is filled with dozens if not hundreds of small choices that branch out in ways that boggle the mind to ponder. While the mood monitor is a constant reminder of where Kara is emotionally in the moment, the game invisibly tracks a lot more about your choices than a net status quantifier like that can reveal.
The game’s final screen informs us there are multiple endings we can pursue. What fascinates me about this game’s structure is that no matter what ending you arrive at on Friday night, the overall narrative for each playthrough is surely going to look different. Who you talk to at your internship matters. Whether your mom is going to make dinner tonight and whether you offer to help matter. Whether you tell a cat-caller to fuck off or attempt to ignore him alters the narrative trajectory of the game in ways with rippling implications.
The game is magnificently complex and it brilliantly defies optimization. There are good and bad choices in a given scenario, yes, but the individuals that you encounter and the systems of bigotry and oppression that they and we all operate within leave the choices available to you perilously up in the air and unforeseeable.
There are aspects of Kara we don’t know about until they arise in the game’s story. This is a wise choice on Small’s part. This is a relatively undramatic, uneventful week in Kara’s life, actually! By relying on largely quotidian, ordinary scenarios, the game works a subtle but powerful magic. It quietly raises questions about intersections of systems that offer and deny untold volumes of privilege (racial, gender, geographic, economic, et cetera) and limits us to one alternate body that has to negotiate her place in them.
A game about embodying an identity should necessarily cause a reflection on one’s own identity. For a white man like me, anyway, this game offers an experience of being in the world that, in my own day-to-day life, I might be aware of intellectually but still remains invisible due to my immense privilege. When I stop playing I stop being Kara, but I begin to wonder about Kara’s life up to the point I joined her and then as it continues to unfurl past the arbitrary ending point at which I’ve arrived. Who is Kara? I’m not Kara. I can’t hope to walk in Kara’s shoes and understand her whole life, but—for me anyway—SweetXheart renders what I cannot see somewhat visible. Catt Small worked on this game for over five years. I expect I’ll be thinking about my week as Kara for much longer.