WordPlay 2018 Acknowledges the Political Relationships in Game Writing
From exploring the ins and outs of editing anthology games, to what cults can teach you about the principles of game writing, to discussing how to approach topics like Brexit and Trump, 2018’s WordPlay was all about acknowledging the inherent politics of narrative-driven games.
Hand Eye Society’s annual Toronto Reference Library event was as vibrant as ever. There were over 20 narrative games showcased in its arcade, 6 enlightening talks, a morning workshop by Josh Labelle about using social media to tell interactive stories, and an afternoon LARP session by Xalavier Nelson Jr. which was surreal, hilarious, and centered on Nicholas Cage. What stuck with me most over the course of the event, however, was the strong undercurrent of politics driving game writing and discourse.
Laura Michet, known as the editor of award-winning anthology game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, gave the keynote speech which explored her experience editing for 26 diverse game writers. The core of her talk was explaining how the success of their ambitious game about the truth in tall tales was due to managing the writing according to bite-size vignettes, and learning about your power as an editor to set writers and their creativity free. We often think of game writing in terms of what makes it into the project, but rarely do we consider how the editorial process affects what stays in or what is kept out. Michet also thoughtfully drew attention to how important the artwork was in WTWTLW for inspiring its memorable vignettes.
What resonated the most with me from Michet’s talk was her advice to become more aware of style guides and how their historical baggage can sometimes restrict game writers idiosyncratic styles. In her experience, she found that customizing a unique and minimalist style guide for WTWTLW was necessary, with one of its rules doing away with traditional punctuation in order to accurately capture the dialects of a variety of characters from dustbowl-era America. She ended on a note that underscored how now more than ever, game writers needed to consider how the games they work on share parallels with current events. WTWTLW may be set in a folkloric 1930s America, but issues of climate change and environmental refugees still loom large (perhaps larger than ever) in 2018. Now is the time that games as a storytelling medium need to own their politics.
Xalavier Nelson Jr. followed up Michet’s talk in a zany yet poignant way, adding to her conclusion. On the surface of it, Nelson Jr.’s talk was about how mowing lawns as an unassuming teen in Washington for a local organization that turned out to be a doomsday cult reinforced the principles of game narrative design. I know how that sounds, but let me get to the subtext of his talk. At the heart of Nelson Jr.’s talk was how his personal history and its surprising ties to local politics surprisingly served to inform him in his game writing career. His talk demonstrated how our real life interactions teach us about designing digital interactions. Although related with his unique brand of surreal and dark humour, Nelson Jr.’s talk was about validating all the experiences you go through in real life, no matter how harrowing or strange. In an oblique yet clever way, his talk underscored not just which rules we often need to break in game narratives (like “show-don’t-tell”), but the fact that games as cultural objects are never divorced from politics. Game writers are all part of some political framework, whether local or international, and as such the games they produce will be influenced by having lived within that framework.
Miriam Verburg of Bloom Digital and the helm of Later Daters, a dating sim about finding love during retirement years, also explored game narrative design from a deeply personal angle. Games and mainstream culture often focus on youthful power fantasies and ignore a whole world of experience from the elderly. Old age and the fear of death have prevented many game writers from exploring diverse perspectives. Ageism is still prevalent on both ends of the spectrum, which is part of why Bloom Digital’s first game Long Story tackled queer teen love. But ageism towards the elderly is particularly troublesome in game writing, because despite elderly people being a wealth of knowledge, they have been shamed, ignored, and patronized routinely by popular culture and media. For example, although there are indie titles like Laundry Bear’s A Mortician’s Tale, Florian Veltman’s Lieve Oma, and Broken Rules’ Old Man’s Journey, which approach death and old age from a positive and progressive stance, these titles are perhaps some of the only projects of their kind. And research for accurate and varied characterization is a particular challenge, because elderly participants are wary of encountering more ageism invalidating their life experience. Verburg outlined how documentaries, progressive portrayals of the elderly in art house films, and some visits to retirement communities for interviews helped them create the archetypes for each of their characters in Later Daters.
The most sobering yet eye-opening archetype created from this research was “The Caged Bird”, which captures how the elderly grieve in private, and how that grief is amplified when they have an LGBTQ+ identity and have lost their partner. In learning of how the struggles against ageism have created a sort of secret society amongst the elderly, Verburg spoke on the concept of queer time, and how we all have arbitrary milestones set for ourselves in life. Ending on the note of continuing to look for research participants for Later Daters, Verburg encouraged the audience to think about how diverse representation of the elderly could reduce ageism. Verburg’s talk was a good reminder of how game writers should never shy away from pursuing topics that are controversial or difficult in games, especially when there are important revelations we could make about ourselves and society in the process.
Alex Scokel and Arthur Protasio, of Obsidian Games and Fableware Design respectively, tackled more technical issues of game narrative design. Their talks were about the struggles of balancing the needs of an IP versus keeping the integrity of your game’s unique narrative intact. Scokel approached the issue in terms of procedural generation and how it can affect development costs and resources, while Protasio spoke about how vital reinvention is for games that concern universal narratives like the legends of King Arthur. Regarding Scokel’s talk, which was aimed more at industry professionals, made me reflect on how during this past year the gaming industry at large has adopted a mindset of “too big to fail” regarding the cost of making video games. In addition to being well-researched and crafted to suit the medium, game writing has the additional burden of needing to be cost-effective, especially at the AAA level. Localization, voice overs, and editing can make wordy scripts very expensive. Procedural generation added to the mix can make the whole affair that much more sticky and can marr the quality of the writing, resulting in a less marketable product. On this last note, Scokel’s talk connected with Protasio’s talk in terms of the business of game writing and how the right tone for your characters can sell that writing to an engaged audience. Protasio worked with Fableware Design on Sword Legacy: Omen, a game which tackled the Arthur legends from the perspective of Uther Pendragon (who fathered Arthur in the legends). His talk explained how over the three and a half years of development taught him and his team at Fableware that they needed to look at what source texts (both for writing and visuals) prompted the best game narrative design. From the start of the project, Fableware knew they wanted to re-imagine the King Arthur story, but realized their 1990s Disney aesthetic for the graphics were at odds with the grim battle system. This issue was solved, in the middle of their design cycle, by shifting their aesthetic to a darker one inspired by both earlier Disney (1985’s The Black Cauldron) and texts like Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King book series. Protasio’s parting statement advised game writers to consider an IP in its totality, and how consistency of game mechanics, visuals and writing tone are all equally important in that regard. Game writing, is not just about the “word bits” as Rhianna Pratchett once discussed.
The event closed with a brief yet illuminating talk by Greg Buchanan, creator of the political games Paper Brexit and Paper Drumpf. His talk was the perfect way to end a WordPlay focused on the political, with advice on how to approach politics in games without pushing away your potential audience. This talk continued the thread of the previous talks, that of considering how one’s personal ties to politics feed into the games you play and design.
For me, a biracial Canadian woman, games like Assassin’s Creed: Liberation which explored the identity and politics of a biracial protagonist like Aveline de Grandpré tied sometimes in very direct ways into my experience with prejudice and being at home with several different cultures. Other games like Metal Gear Solid surprisingly spoke on the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons in one of its endings as of the game’s release year, with Final Fantasy VII echoing similar themes of environmental and political threats caused by overpowered corporations. In high school I played the Xenosaga series, which explored religion and its connections to power structures, important for me as an agnostic person who was negotiating where my faith lay then. And in recent years I’ve played the Nier series (both Gestalt and Automata) and Spec Ops: The Line, both of which have tackled how war is meaningless and how we dehumanize our enemies in war.
Buchanan made a striking statement about designing games that are explicitly political: focus on the relationship to the political, not necessarily just the politics themselves. To engage an audience with a political game, you need to remember that identification with your characters and meaningful mechanics are paramount. Buchanan connects political games to another performative art in this regard, Greek political theatre, which taught critics and playwrights alike that the best tragedies manipulate the boundaries between home and state.
On the whole, WordPlay 2018 was an important and timely event. 2018 has been a roller coaster year for politics globally, and with AAA studios denying or not commenting political motives/themes in their games (Ubisoft’s Farcy 5 and The Division 2, as well as Bethesda’s Fallout 76 spring to mind), Hand Eye Society’s event was a good reminder that nothing is divorced from politics. Video games aren’t created in a cultural vacuum. Although some of the defensiveness over criticism is understandable, in that video games have often been criticized in an overgeneralized way (“video games make people violent”, “video games encourage gambling”, etc.), the fact still remains that video games (and their production) are political. Think of the toxic culture of “core gamers” and sexism examined at Riot Games, the ArenaNet trigger firings, the Telltale Studios mass-firing, and the crunch culture at Rockstar Studios that produced Red Dead Redemption 2. Games are created by people who participate in and are influenced by politics, and AAA studios should keep in mind that while they’d like to avoid PR messes entirely, it’s better to proudly own the politics in their games. Moving forward, if we want to continue elevating games and their narratives to the next level, we can’t settle just for highly-marketable yet deeply irresponsible power fantasies. We need to hold games to a higher standard, and WordPlay 2018 provided several strategies for doing just that.