The most badass gaming initiative you’ve never heard of
Played on: Mac OS
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Developer: C.M. Ralph
Publisher: C.M. Ralph
The Aim of the Game
There are hundreds of places across the internet for gamers to wallow in the misery that is representation and diversity in the world of video games. This is a valid complaint, and representation needs to be better for sure, but what this mini-series is going to strive to be is a source of information for people looking for the times when the industry has done well.
Because honestly, I can find hundreds of negative reviews of games at the click of a button where the only female character’s whole personality is ‘love interest of protagonist’, LGBTQ+ representation is slotted in as a joke reference, and people of colour written out as soon as the ‘quota’ has been filled.
The world (and industry) can be miserable enough without my adding to it, so let’s get going on Sunshine Post #3 – Caper in the Castro.
So Why Did I Break Theme Now?
I have to admit, in keeping with the first two sunshine posts I did originally plan on finding the first game that depicted the LGBTQ+ community (a French title Le crime du parking) but that… well. Let’s just say I couldn’t forgive myself for referring to that game in any positive context regarding either the LGBTQ+ community or their treatment of women in general. 1985 was a strange time. The same French studio brought out another… questionable title that year with equally uneasy portrayals.
Next came a title called Moonmist in 1986. While very far from the insulting caricatures created by Froggy Software, Moonmist’s LGBTQ+ storyline could only be found in one of many branches. Not quite what I was looking for. I wanted to find something that definitively featured a member of the LGBTQ+ community, without being a strange overly-exaggerated caricature of a human.
And then I found Caper in the Castro.
It was exactly what I was looking for.
Not only does Caper in the Castro heavily feature members of the LGBTQ+ community, but the protagonist herself is also a member of the community.
You are put in the shoes of a lesbian female private detective called, in a hilariously tongue-in-cheek decision, Tracker Van Dyke. Tracker’s best friend, a drag queen named Tessy La Femme, has recently gone missing from the Castro (a historically gay neighbourhood in San Francisco) and it is up to our detective to ‘track’ her down.
The game itself can be completed quickly enough, I think I got through it in under an hour. The writing is engaging and witty, full of references and nods to the gay culture at the time. Any fans of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ or more especially ‘Pose’, which is set in the same era, will recognise a lot of these as they pop up throughout the game.
I did enjoy these ‘underground’ (at the time) references and the quirky nature of the game. But it was the circumstances surrounding this game, even more so than its trailblazing content, that impressed me.
C.M. Ralph’s Best Judy Realness
The creator of Caper in the Castro, C.M. Ralph, moved from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay area in 1988.
(Side note: While I can find no direct sources that outright state Ralph’s orientation outright, based on her use of self-inclusive language when referring to the LGBTQ+ community experiences in interviews I am assuming for this piece that she at the very least does not identify as heterosexual.)
It was the stark difference in the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community between the restrictive Southern Californian environment and the liberal San Francisco that inspired the creation of Caper in the Castro. Ralph has said that it was her gratitude to this new community that inspired her to give something back.
I don’t know about anyone else reading this - but my first thought when trying to find a way to do good would not be to design a game. But thankfully this was what occurred to Ralph, and so Caper in the Castro was born.
What Ralph did next is almost unimaginable in today’s capitalism-focused society, she distributed a game free of charge. And in 1989 there were no sneaky microtransactions to catch you out later. Ralph put in the hours during her personal time and distributed her work, entirely for free, on different Bulletin Board Systems (BBS).
I had no idea what a BBS was (am I young or just ignorant? Please don’t tell me which) so in case anyone reading this is as clueless as me I found out that this was pretty much what it sounded like. A computer server running software that allowed users to connect to the system using a terminal program - ie an electronic bulletin board.
So Ralph used these BBS… things. To distribute her game… somehow. Something to do with telephone lines and a lot of crying and praying it would work. Either way, Ralph only asked the players who enjoyed her game for one thing in return.
For them to donate to an AIDS charity of their choice in lieu of payment.
In this way, it was also one of the only games in the 80s/90s to reference the AIDS/HIV pandemic, despite the fact that this was the era in which it was discovered. And when it became the source of mass hysteria and prejudice worldwide towards individuals in the LGTQ+ community.
Talking the talk, and sissying that walk
Caper in the Castro doesn’t just refer to the HIV/AIDS pandemic though. Its insidious creep into society in the 80s was the main theme of this game.
The larger goal of the antagonist, named Straightman, is to infect the wine at the game’s gay bar to wipe out Castro’s gay population. If your character makes the mistake of drinking this wine you will be met with the bland message of “The house wine has been tainted with a deadly, fast-acting bacterial virus and there is no antidote. Sorry.” This is likely a jab at the callousness of the attitudes the world had at this point to those suffering from HIV.
It's funny and poignant all at the same time.
Two Piece and a Biscuit (Translation: Secret to Success)
Despite the roaring success of this game among those the frequented LGBTQ+ friendly BBSs, Ralph later decided that while success in what would have been a minor subculture in the 80s was great - bringing Caper in the Castro to a wider audience would mean maybe she would also see a profit.
And this wider audience was unlikely to be the kind to donate to AIDS/HIV-focused charities at the time, so there would be little value in ‘sticking to her guns’ and losing potential buyers.
Ralph straight washed the game herself. Poorly. The game was renamed Murder on the Mainstreet. The bar The Gayme became The Game. Tracker Van Dyke became Tracker MacDuff. Tessy La Femme the drag queen becomes Tessy La Rue the supermodel. Ralph sold her LGBTQ game to Heizer Software and made money out of a game that would originally have horrified the conservative ideals of the 80s.
And the straight masses enjoyed Murder on the Mainstreet, blissfully unaware that a significant portion of the script they found so witty and punchy was slang from a disregarded subculture.
Like The Village People before it, Caper in the Castro had hidden in plain sight.
Caper in the Castro has one of the most interesting histories to a game that I have ever found. And it almost became just that, a part of history.
For years there were no known floppy discs of the original LGBTQ+ Caper in the Castro. The usage of BBS (again how it works is still beyond me) for some reason also contributed to the unlikelihood of this game surviving. But in 2017 Ralph found a floppy disc with Caper in the Castro while moving. She sent this to the Strong National Museum of Play to find a way to access the data on this disc.
After a great deal of effort, Caper in the Castro was recovered. And now it rests, eternally memorialising the efforts of gaming’s contributions to the fight against AIDS/HIV in the 80s, in the gaming archive where it can be played by any who feel the urge.
Play this game if…
You want to experience a slice of LGBTQ+ history
You enjoy witty writing
You like point-and-click adventure games
The first image has been adapted from the free wallpaper available here
Inspiration for using the newspaper was taken from lgbtqgamerarchive, but a screenshot was taken here
All other pics are taken from the internet archive