• Thoughtful Game Development Does Not Preclude Awesome

    by  • February 8, 2013 • Design & Art, People & Events • 1 Comment

    In my previous post, I mentioned that I was hired by Andy Kitkowski to write an alternate setting for the translated Tenra Bansho Zero and got Andy to explain some of the cultural differences important to keep in mind when discussing some of the more problematic aspects of Tenra.

    Going into the project, I already had a lot of mixed feelings about Tenra. Very early on in the process, Andy had posted some of the “gooier” (as he calls them) art pieces on a forum and asked for opinions, and I was pretty strident in voicing my dislike of the style. Now, yes, It’s easy to pick out Tenra’s art as being pretty fail-worthy:

    She must be using lots and LOTS of garment tape

    (I find it telling that now that the artist behind Tenra is in a long term monogamous relationship with a woman, his art style has suddenly shifted away from the realm of the boob-tastic. It’s funny how sometimes new relationships can make us question our creative patterns.)

    But there were other problematic aspects to the default setting than just the boobular art. I think a lot of the time it’s easy to focus on game art that gratuitously sexualizes women, because that’s the low-hanging fruit of fail that’s easiest to go after. But let’s face it, game settings can be another huge source of fail in gaming. Case in point: the recent Kickstarter for a game called “Going Native” about Native American tribes fighting each other. (I’m not going to link to it. You can Google it easily if you feel you need to see it.) Because nothing says “sorry about that one time we committed genocide against you” like cultural appropriation.

    Because many gamers tend to hand-wave and think that “it’s just fantasy” will excuse the problematic bits of their favorite game settings. So I thought it was worth picking out a few things that had particularly bothered me about the Tenra setting and talking about how I “fixed” them in my new setting.

    The dilemma: beautiful slave women and crypto-Natives

    The first major thing that bothered me about the default Tenra setting is the description of the Kugutsu – living dolls that are brought to life by their creators. Kugutsu are bought and sold like pieces of artwork, despite the fact that the setting is explicit that Kugutsu are alive and sentient. This rang a number of alarm bells for me. Yes it’s possible that you could have a pretty interesting character arc about the conflict between ownership and personal freedom. But Tenra is designed to be a game that lets you throw a bunch of anime tropes in a blender.

    There’s nothing saying that you can’t use it to tell such nuanced stories, but the system (or what I know of it) doesn’t support it enough that I felt comfortable with that as a setting element. Especially given that their status as property is mentioned mostly as an aside, something that is secondary to what’s really important about the kugutsu: they’re really, really pretty.

    What made me even more uncomfortable is the fact that the setting text specifies that male Kugutsu exist, but they’re pretty rare. Most Kugutsu are female. (Because, you know, who’d want a pretty MALE slave?) And did we mention that Kugutsu are highly sought after as nighttime companions? Oh but don’t worry! It’s because they can go into your head and give you nice dreams, all Inception-style. Yeah. Not at all because they’re super-hot and don’t get to have any say in how their owners use them.

    Now I’ll give the creator some credit; I don’t think that the implications of this really occured to him. I think he was just jamming on some familiar anime tropes (they’re kind of like “superhuman robot” meets “sword princess”) and didn’t really stop to examine what he wrote past “hey that sounds cool”. But still, I was giving that portion of the game text major side-eye as I was reading through it. Maybe that’s not what the creator intended, but I’ve got enough baggage that it definitely made me uncomfortable.

    The other major problem as I saw it were the oni – essentially crypto-Natives who used to be the dominant population on Tenra before humans came. The game text goes on to paint them as what sounds suspiciously close to the “Noble Savage”, citing how gentle they are and how well adjusted their society is and how they live in close harmony with nature – yadda yadda yadda. And then it takes a left turn into horrifying genocide. As it turns out, the oni are being hunted to extinction by the humans because they have “heart gems” that can be used to power the giant robot armors that are used as the dominant method of warfare on Tenra. So you have a peaceful race of noble savages who are being oppressed and killed by a colonial aggressor in order to take their resources.

    … yeah.

    Again, I come back to the intent of the system. Were Tenra a game about nuanced social commentary, I might not have such a problem with this. But this, too, seems like a case of “the author thought this was cool” and not a whole lot of real examination of the implications.

    The fix: bake that conflict into the setting

    The challenge I was left with in addressing these two real difficulties is that with the oni, the central nature of their conflict was baked into the rules. There are endless rules governing mecha characters, and those require oni heart gems to make. No getting around that. (The matter of the Kugutsu was a bit easier, since that was more an issue of description rather than rules.) So I got to thinking. If I’m going to get stuck with this awful conflict, is there a way I can bake that into the setting in such a way that makes it a central issue?

    And that was how I came up with the concept for my Final Fantasy-inspired take on the Tenra universe. Instead of a multitude of small nations fighting each other, as exists in the default setting, my new Tenra was dominated by two huge empires fighting for supremacy – one a nation based on technology and one a nation based on magic.

    Because it was hugely important to me to fit the oni into the setting in such a way that did not re-victimize them or paint them as noble savages, I took great pains to incorporate them in such a way so as to not adhere to either stereotype. In the past era in my setting, when the techno-empire began to rise to power, the oni made an alliance with the magic-empire and eventually became part of the ruling class, thanks to their inherent magical powers. So instead of victims or cardboard cutouts, they get to be sophisticated elites with complex motivations.

    Making the oni’s story one of the central elements of the setting also made it very easy to address the problem of the Kugutsu in a satisfactory manner as well by dropping a Kugutsu rebellion into the middle of my magic-using empire. My new oni were a people who rose from the status of hunted outcasts to ruling elite, so given that past how would they reconcile their laws that kept Kugutsu in bondage? It’s a small change, but it took the most problematic aspect of the Kugutsu – their status as property – and made it an intentional jumping-off point for story to happen.

    Now I didn’t want this to be a story about a monolithic evil empire versus an opposing good empire, because that would be boring. So I made the magic-using empire dogmatically Imperialistic – an aggressively colonial force who conquered their neighbors to spread their brand of “enlightenment”. And there you have the bare bones of a setting that can make some pointed social commentary and provide a rich and complex sandbox for groups looking to start a campaign off with a bang.

    Final Thoughts

    Being socially conscious isn’t something that just happens. I don’t mean to make this all sound easy, because it can be hard sometimes. I’ll be the first to admit that I have my share of privilege. In developing this setting I had to make a real effort to examine my motives and the implications of what I was writing. Getting friends with different perspectives to look over your work is vital! Because inevitably, they point out things that you didn’t mean to get wrong but did.

    But taking the extra effort is worth it, because your product will appeal to a wider audience than just Straight White Male Gamers. This is great from a social angle – not alienating people is always a great thing. But it’s great from a commercial angle too, since you’re netting yourself a much larger potential pool of buyers.



    I’m an occasional game illustrator, and game designer, long-time LARPer, and player of tabletop roleplaying games (mostly indie games). I have a terminal addiction to board games. I also play both PC and console games – mainly RPGs of all stripes, but I do enjoy puzzle games like Katamari as well. My main source of gaming notoriety, however, is the feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am a photographer and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.


    One Response to Thoughtful Game Development Does Not Preclude Awesome

    1. avatar
      February 8, 2013 at 16:18

      Just curious, I know you spoke with Andy at length how many other folks did you confer with, if any? Were there specific skills or experiences that you sought out if you had such discussions?

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