• Working on curse the darkness as a female game designer, or finding a way to neutral ground

    by  • May 9, 2012 • Design & Art • 2 Comments

    So, my husband and I have a new game company, called Play Attention Games, Inc. Our first game, curse the darkness, is currently in Kickstarter phase. Our release date is August 2012, barring major catastrophe. Needless to say, I’m very excited.

    I’ve worked in the RPG industry for over 10 years now, from editor to writer to developer, in-house and freelance. I’ve worked on some major titles, Shadowrun and D&D among them. My favorite ones have always had better representation for gender and racial diversity – the recognition that having male and female characters of different shapes and sizes and ages and colors and backgrounds represented as heroic and active was important, not in making the game realistic (because a game with magic or supertech or dragons is not going to be realistic no matter what) but because it gave the people who play the games a chance to see themselves in it—a chance to identify with the characters made possible within the world, which is one of the things roleplaying is all about.

    Even in the best of most of those games, there’s a default setting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—settings give us flavor, backdrops, gorgeous mental scenery, and something to fight back against. It does mean, though, that those aspects are pre-determined for you. Even if you change one thing about a setting to fit your playing group better, there are countless others that linger behind. Being able to fight and change something within the world means that other things are still there: some of which are good, some of which are less so. What isn’t filled in by the game itself is filled in by players and game masters, who pull from their own life experiences and knowledge to set the stage… which means, inevitably, that there is only so far we can get from ourselves in social and cultural expectations of what the world is and what our places in it are, whether for good or bad. In curse the darkness, the etch-a-sketch of the universe has gotten a few hard shakes, and the setting regretfully insists that you to leave those expectations at the door.

    The thing that is different about curse the darkness and that I find very freeing about the game as a woman, is that the default setting is life without superimposed cultural boundaries. Ideology is dead, without regard to race, creed, color, nationality, or religion. It’s been ten years since it died, and every attempted resurrection has come to rack and ruin because He would rather kill those who hold those ideas than allow it to come back even a bit – and along the way, he’s dismantled infrastructure and killed… well, not everyone, but the numbers are staggering. Nowhere is safe and no one is untouched; not money or power or virtue or love or skill or hate will save you, because even the brightest light casts a tiny shadow, and that’s all the opening He needs. It is horrifying and freeing and horrifying all over again, and it’s one of the most original games I’ve encountered as a result.

    The default setting of this game is that your preconceptions about life and cultural and social and gender and racial and economic roles are done, finished, kaput, not allowed. Every character might have their own views, but the voices that would inculcate them in you and your children and your children’s children have been largely silenced. Part of this, granted, is a portion of the post-apocalyptic package. It’s part of that theme, the idea that the larger social context is missing and people have pieced it back together themselves in a sort of Frankenstein’s monster effect. The biggest difference to me, however, is that there are forces in place preventing people from doing just that. So when you make your character… what do they know? What do they do? What stops them from doing or being or knowing whatever they want? What would you do if no one stopped you?

    What this means, in play, is that there is no one to judge whether you look right, or sound right, or do the right things for the person you’re supposed to be. Oh, local people might, but you can travel anywhere through the Shadows, so you can get away from them and go somewhere else. You are never trapped anywhere, or rather, you are equally trapped everywhere. It is not society doing the trapping, though, and the forces that oversee everything… well, their only rule is to enforce, on penalty of death, everyone being nice to each other, as ironic as that is.

    curse the darkness encourages you to think about what your beliefs are worth to you and why you prize them the way you do. What is worth dying for, or conversely living for? What are you willing to risk death to do or avoid? Where is your identity when the common identifiers we hold up no longer have meaning? And over the top of all of that lies the question, to what extent to the ends justify the means? If you want something worthwhile but it requires terrible actions to enact it, at what point do you become worse than the thing you want to destroy?

    Playing curse the darkness is fun because it doesn’t address any of that directly, even though these are the questions that come up during play. You are asked, through your characters, to decide whether to fight to change a world determined to do the right thing no matter what the cost, or whether to give in and accept an unjust world dedicated to reshaping the worst humanity has to offer. In that middle space, however, while you are deciding, you and your characters are free to act without boundaries other than the core rule: be good to one another, and even that is enforced sporadically these days.

    I love that our game asks difficult questions and gives you the freedom not to answer them. I love that your characters can be anything you want them to be, regardless of gender, race, age, handicap, or sexual orientation because the one rule of play is that all that real-world baggage has been forcibly left at the door—you can bring it in with you, as we all do, but you do so knowingly. That one word, “knowingly,” forces us to examine those beliefs as we choose them, asking us where our privilege lies and whether or not this is a hill we’d be willing to die on if it came to that. In doing that and in making it fun, curse the darkness makes itself welcoming for everyone as well… and that is all I could hope for in any game I’m a part of.



    I'm Michelle Lyons-McFarland. I'm currently a PhD student in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University, and I'm also a writer and editor in the RPG industry and have been since 2000. My husband Matthew McFarland and I have a game company together called Growling Door Games. I not only write and edit (and even some design) but I play too, everything from tabletop to console to card to board to occasional minis games (the cost keeps me from jumping straight in). I have a vested interest in gaming as a woman on both the macro and micro scale, from moderating on RPGnet to attending cons to finding work in the field.

    2 Responses to Working on curse the darkness as a female game designer, or finding a way to neutral ground

    1. avatar
      May 9, 2012 at 16:44

      Several of our gaming friends recommended this as a project to financially support on Kickstarter so we did! Looking forward to it!

      Thumb up Thumb down +2
      • avatar
        Michelle Lyons-McFarland
        May 10, 2012 at 16:08

        Yay! glad to hear it. If you have any questions, just let me know.

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