Those who know of Anna Anthropy most likely know three things about her. 1. That she is the designer of some singularly unique games, with a clear fondness for classic arcade tropes. 2. That she is a male-to-female transsexual, and LGBTQ and Gender themes are often present in her work, and 3. That she is a provocateur extraordinaire, and the way she has expressed her thoughts and opinions have been... divisive. To put it kindly. This combination alone would make an autobiographical piece of experimental interactive art of hers of interest. However, when the specific subject, the experience and struggles of the past six months of hormone therapy, is territory unexplored by flash gaming, it becomes impossible to ignore. Dys4ia is a very personal experience, almost uncomfortably so. Still, it is a raw and poignant work.
Gender Dysphoria, as referred to in the title, is discontent with the biological sex and/or the gender one is assigned at birth. Its clinical definition as a mental disorder, as well as the conflicting theories of causes and proper treatments, are the subject of immense controversy, but it is clear that, as with all struggles of identity, it can make for much inner turmoil. As mentioned in the game's intro, Dys4ia is but one individual's story of their struggles. The story takes the form of rapid-fire arcade mini-games, all of which are controlled with the [arrow] keys. The game is separated into four sections, progressing through the months of therapy.
Note: This game features low-rez pixel nudity and frank discussion of personal issues of sexuality. The purpose and effect is in no way titillation, but it is still a game for mature audiences. Also, the gameplay shifts quickly enough, that those with epilepsy should take care when playing.
Analysis: Like many pieces of interactive art, Dys4ia toes the line between "a game that tells a story" and "a story told through the framework of a game". However, as artistic flashes go, it is game-ier than most. If the retro graphics and gameplay are used only in so far as they advance metaphor, then at least they are done by someone who knows the music as well as the notes. There's a lot of life present in Dys4ia's chunky pixels, and in any case, the power of the story being told makes up for a lot. It may not be possible to lose the game, but then again, if the game is to stay true to personal experience, what sense could an alternate ending make?
Even with all its gaming influences, it's obvious that Dys4ia would not exist if the author did not want a platform to share her thoughts. She wants to give others a peek into her world; a world admittedly not often covered by media of any kind. As laudable and intruiging as that is, there's a lot that can go wrong. Even if the message is as simple as "It Gets Better", works with a message often are in danger of falling into pretentious soap-boxing. Dys4ia is not altogether devoid of that, but it is successfully mollified. First of all, there is the game's humor. This game is surprisingly funny. Part of it is the hilarity of the unexpected: we don't expect garish colors and WarioWare in what is, at its heart, a medical and relationship drama. It's not certain if Dys4ia contains the first gaming depiction of a Rapid Oral HIV test, but it's probably the first time we've see what one would look like on the Atari 2600. However, Dys4ia goes beyond shock value, with some exceedingly clever bits of physical comedy and dialogue as well. It's not quite laugh-out-loud, but sometimes, a constant half-smiles can be just as good.
Another thing that keeps the game grounded is Anthropy's willingness for self-deprication. This rages from from the goofy, like a small mini-game about wriggling into a tight shirt, to the extremely serious. Dys4ia doesn't shy from showing the legally and medically questionable actions Anna took in her personal quest. While clearly she believes her actions to be ultimately justified, it is praiseworthy that the story depicts warts and all, and indeed makes it a stronger work.
How receptive you are to Dys4ia will depend on your thoughts of any of a dozen personal issues. Then again, it is a very personal game, the kind where objective assessment is made extremely difficult by both what the content and who the author are. Overall, Dys4ia is a short, oddly sweet, 4-bit poem of a game that'll take only five minutes to play. Positively or negatively, it's likely something that's going to be thought and talked about.