Text and Politics
So, our games have a lot of text. Why do I do it? Well firstly I think it adds character to the game and helps build a universe. Having someone talk about the things they believe or have done in the past without needing to show it is a great way of fleshing out our universe.
Secondly I think so many games are all corporate and straight to the point, they have no soul and feel very direct about their objective, play the game, enter the loop to level up and give us your money. I want to build worlds that are enjoyable to explore, and characters that are memorable in their own right. I also remember working with big companies like Lucasarts and EA, and text volume is a huge thing, as is what you write, it has to go through a lot of processes that eventually water down the content to such a degree that it becomes meaningless generic game stuff, “Look at that bad dude, he is bad so let’s defeat him” or “Here is an inoffensive joke suitable for everyone and guaranteed not to offend”. So I enjoy the fact that not having any form of editorial between what I write and what goes onto the screen allows our games to be more expressive that the majority of what is out there.
Another reason is that I feel it’s good to make some commentary on some of the things that happen on our planet. So putting characters in to our games that have characteristics or opinions about these issues allows me (and players) to explore some issues from alternate points of view. Take for example “Toad Boss” from the last Vikings, he is an overly pushy vegan, he says things like:
“TOADINGHAM, HAS BOTH TOAD AND HAM IN THE NAME. I AM VEGETARIAN AND I DON’T EAT HAM OR TOADS, BUT I HAVE MADE SOME VERY GOOD VEGAN ALTERNATIVES WITH THE MANY TYPES OF MUSHROOM THAT GROW HERE, AND I WILL DEFEND THEM UNTIL THE END! PREPARE TO FIGHT!“
“THIS IS TOADINGHAM, HOME OF ME! I COMMAND THE TOADINGHAM ARMY, AND WE WILL REPEL YOU, EVEN IF THIS VILLAGE WAS RIGHTFULLY YOURS! I RULE THIS PLACE NOW, AND SUBJECT MY SUBJECTS TO A LIFE OF VEGANISM WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT! REMEMBER PIGS ARE FRIENDS, NOT FOOD!”
Toadboss has this opinion that is kind of preachy and annoying, he even seems to force his people to be vegans which isn’t particularly cool.
If I put myself in the mind of a player, I might think veganism is stupid, and want to defeat this guy as fast as possible, equally if I am someone who disagrees with using animals for food, I might see him as a conflicted hero, he goes about things in the wrong way but ultimately has a good intention.
It’s these deeper ideas that I use that make me hope some of the characters have a depth uncommon in a lot of games. I don’t want to make a game that’s full of opinions and social commentary, first and foremost our games and exactly that, fun games. But after 20 hours of seeing the same characters over and over, it’s nice to see “Generic Spider Boss” as someone who has a bit more depth than just being a sprite on the screen. And while most people don’t event read the text, those that do hopefully find it funny, and in some cases surprisingly thoughtful.
The core idea is that by having characters that have their own opinions we can present ideas from both sides of the argument. So far I have covered all kinds of subjects from taxation, racism, sexism, greed, corporate growth, wasteful consumerism, games companies not shipping products, to why there are bugs in our games.
Recently someone commented in a google play review for our game: “As a woman, the things that the chick in the options menu says makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure if I should be offended or not. Remove or rewrite her and I’ll give it a 5 star”. This comment inspired me to write this blog, so I will write for a while about sexism in games, and sexism in our game.
So when it came to writing the options lady I came to the realisation that we had mainly been focusing on male white Vikings dudes, as they are the atypical people players would expect to meet in such a game. While we have added a lot of women and some non-white Vikings this is something that is a fairly interesting issue. I don’t want to go too deep into it, but in design there is clearly a balance between what people expect to see and your own design contribution to make it unique. It’s seen a lot in science fiction design theory and other things like the way Disney approach character development. Essentially this is how it works, when you think of a Viking, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Yes – it’s a white guy with a horned hat and probably a big beard. In a game about Vikings, if half of them are women, and half of them are non-white how does that make players feel? On a subconscious level (if not a conscious one) it probably makes think that this game is not a very authentic Viking experience.
I don’t want to be a person who hides behind the excuse that just because it’s what everyone else does, I should do it too, but I have to run a business at the same time as makes things I feel comfortable with. Obviously there are countless commentaries on the videogame industry pointing out that 99% of heroes in games are white men in their mid-thirties, and then in some cases (the last of us) the strong female roles are made into less pronounced characters in the games marketing assets so as to not break with expectation of what an action game should be.
I find it interesting that we have ended up with an industry so apparently racist and sexist, but does it mean that all videogame consumers are in fact racist sexist idiots? Well no I don’t think it’s that simple, I think it’s partially down to what people expect. If we go back to the question of “what does a typical Viking look like”, we can ask the same question again “what does a typical videogame hero look like” Sadly the answer is a white guy in his mid-thirties with a stubble, probably holding a gun, look at action movie posters, look at books it isn’t just games that are impacted by this. From a business standpoint it’s important that consumers understand what they are buying from the moment they see it, but that doesn’t make it right.
So what can I do? Well I always make a point to try and strike a balance between what people expect, and what we can do to surprise them. Our next game has many King type characters, but the remit for the art was that they are all asexual, no king should particularly look male or female. That was the idea, in some cases they ended up looking more one way or the other but being a small company I don’t have the money to go back and redo things just for the sake of our morals, but it’s important to note that the intention is there.
So back to the options lady, most the things she says are jokes about heavy metal, or the fact that there is an options screen, she does however say the following:
“I AM NOI A FEMENIST, BUT I THINK THIS TOWN HAS WAY TOO MANY MEN, I THINK ODIN IS DISCRIMINATING”
“IF I WERE A MAN, I WOULD MAKE THIS GAME EVEN MORE GENDER SPECIFIC THAN IT ALREADY IS, I CAN DO ANYTHING A MAN CAN, SO WHY AM I LOCKED UP IN THIS OPTIONS SCREEN”.
Perhaps what I was trying to say got lost in the way I wrote it, but the intention was that she is making a commentary on the lack of female characters inside the town, and that the game is unfortunately more gender specific than is cool. It’s funny because it’s a direct result of the “what’s the first thing that comes to mind” questions I talked about before. I feel I can only break so many conventions per game, before I break the universe I am trying to create in player’s minds. So the options lady, is intended to be a self -aware moment inside the game that we have fallen prey of the expectations of society by making our game not gender and race neutral. I am not happy about it, but it’s a balance I have to consider all the time.
I think this blog post makes our games seem like they are full of politics and opinions, the vast majority of “The Last Vikings” 3000+ lines of dialogue focus on the game, and the characters inside it. First and foremost we make games that set out to be just that, fun and entertaining ways of enjoying yourself.