14. There Is a Reason They Call It a Theater

Dr. Hunt as an anime-style visual novel character: a stern woman with gray hair in a topknot bun and a cream cardigan over a tan blouse.
Visual novel screenshot portraying Dr. Hunt in her office, a blue velvet armchair and a vase of dried pampas grass behind her, in a buttoned-up cream cardigan and tan blouse with a bored, stern expression. Text: "Dr. Hunt interlaces her fingers together and steeples them under her chin. The gesture feels vaguely ominous."

There is a reason they call it a theater is a freeware visual novel I developed for Microsoft Windows and macOS using the Ren'Py visual novel engine. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Vyshali, a twentysomething Eelam Tamil American woman pursuing an M.F.A at Columbia University. One day, inexplicably, she begins experiencing baffling symptoms that filter into strange, troubling dreams, followed by a rapid decline in health that forces her to relearn what she thought she knew about society, medicine, and herself as she searches for answers. A creative writer through and through, she imagines a biocultural personification of her pain to make sense of it, a peyththai doppelganger whose appearances range from compassionate to ambivalent to foreboding. As her mysterious condition worsens, Vyshali must account for biomedicine's predisposition towards classifying women's pain as psychosomatic, hypochondriac, and hysterical, and she must also reconcile her transformed capacities with the inexorable demands of academia. Between physicians, professors, and the externalized personification of her pain, she must decide whose counsel to heed.

A fictocritical autoethnography with overtones of horror, this visual novel simulates a set of experiences common to immigrant and immigrant-descended patients with non-apparent chronic illness. Ableism. Racism. Precarity. Suicidal ideation. Hauntings. As Vyshali, you will make sense of the latent revelations of your bodymind, with illuminating or dire consequences.

Visual novels engage sight and hearing, creating an atmosphere through art style, music, and sound effects. This padalam uses digital affordances to induce a variety of affective states: for nondisabled players, a temporary, embodied sense of the inner turmoil and self-annihilation of becoming-disabled; for disabled players, a reassurance that experiences of isolation, stigmatization, self-loathing, and psychiatric and physical symptoms — even or especially unusual ones — are common, and so is misabled joy (Charmaz, 2002; Malabou, 2012; Sheppard, 2020).

Mary and Sara as anime-style visual novel characters in a sunny apartment.
Visual novel screenshot portraying Mary and Sara in a sunlit apartment decorated with plants. Clutching her arm at the elbow, Sara wears a purple half-hoodie, a green tank, and black yoga pants; her blond hair is loose with her bangs clipped back. Mary's reddish-brown hair is short and spiky, and she wears jeans, a gray vest, and a black button down, and has one hand raised excitedly. Both of them are smiling. Text: "There's a yoga mat on the floor, and Sara gestures at me to lie down on it. I roll my shoulders back and arch my back in a slight stretch, grimacing at the cracks, then lie down."

Interactive fiction insists on your complicity. You click to continue, and by clicking, you tacitly accept and advance a series of situations that are painful, problematic, traumatic, and common for women — particularly Black and darker-skinned women of color. You can choose options I never had. You have the luxury of exploration, save states, five discrete endings. You can go back whenever you like. I relapse, recover, worsen with time, and experience this story perennially, but you can stop the game.

Operating system requirements: To play this game, you need Windows XP or Mac OS X 10.6 or higher. If you are a Mac OS user, you may get a message stating that "the app cannot be opened because the developer cannot be verified." To open the game, select Cancel rather then Move to Trash, then navigate to Security & Privacy/General and select the Open Anyway button next to the app's name. After downloading, extract the zip archive and launch the application in the main game folder. While playing, click or hit Enter to advance the text. You can hit Esc to save, load, and access the expanded navigation menu. You may want to periodically save your game, especially when you are presented with a choice.

Be aware that this game occasionally uses startling sound effects and slow flash transitions.

Credits: There is a reason they call it a theater is copyrighted © 2022 by Vyshali Manivannan under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Background images are from Pixabay and Unsplash and are licensed to the public domain under the CC0 and Unsplash licenses, respectively. Character sprites were created using Mannequin. Music and sound effects are from FreeSound.org and are licensed to the public domain under under CC0. References are cited in-game with footnotes and are listed in the credits sequence at the end.

(–42. Padam: Introduction)