Choice of Games, creators of inclusive web-based multiple choice games like Choice of the Dragon, recently released a new game called Choice of Broadsides, a naval adventure in the style of the Horatio Hornblower novels. (Both games are available to play for free online in your browser as well as on the iPhone/iPod Touch and Android.) During development of the game, the creators asked the community for opinions on how to handle gender terminology in a setting that is deeply sexist. Adam writes:
We wanted to avoid embracing the sexism of both history and of the source materials we draw on, but at the same time, we concluded that having a mixed-sexed Royal Navy would be both too complicated to implement and would also make the Jane Austen inspired bits of the game very strange. So instead, we let the player choose the sex of the protagonist, and then that choice defines whether the gameworld is patriarchal or has all gender roles reversed in a matriarchal society.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how it works. It’s not too difficult to code, it lets us include the assumptions of the day while still letting people play female characters, and some of the jarring mismatches between expectation and practice may be thought-provoking, especially when playing the female version. But it has created some difficulties with terminology. Historical gendered terms have a lot of baggage– “Mrs.” does not have the same connotation as “Mr.”, but “Ms” feels anachronistic even in a gender-bent world.
What follows is a thought-provoking discussion that is well worth reading. The results can be seen in Choice of Broadsides, a game which improves on Dragon in every way, notably with a more engaging story and more interesting characters. In another interesting post, Heather explains the choices made with regard to gender and sexuality in Broadsides, explaining that it’s more complicated to deal with humans in a real-world-based setting than dragons in a fantasy setting:
Is the game, on a whole, historically-accurate enough to feel like a Hornblower novel… and at the same time, does it change enough variables to allow the player to play as a character type with whom s/he identifies? Can the player do most of the things (make most of the choices) s/he wants to? And is it fun when s/he does?
AND—once again, remember you’re writing a game, not a novel, so you have to consider the scope of the project, too. “How difficult will that be to code” is also a constraint.
Initially, these considerations led the team to allow players to play a gay character, but not to allow for a same-sex romance or marriage, since it’s something that would not have been socially acceptable in the time period the game is based on. Heather continues:
Well, okay then, what if it wasn’t socially acceptable? How about a vignette where you can pursue something illicit and secret? There was a lot of illicit same-sex love and sex in the real Royal Navy; Winston Churchill described that august body as characterized by “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” But none of the three of us wanted to present same-sex relationships as illicit, shameful, and the sort of thing that gets you cashiered if you’re caught. We had no desire to perpetuate those views, even in the name of historical accuracy; nor did we think any player would find that fun to play.
However, after many folks in the community voiced their interest in Villeneuve, a recurring character who is always the same gender as the protagonist, the creators decided to change the game and add a vignette where the player can romance (but not marry) Villeneuve if he or she wishes; endings were also added to reflect this change. The change led to this post about the role of authorial intent in interactive fiction:
Our target should be to offer every option that a reasonable player, playing within the norms of the setting/genre, would want to pick. We should then try to make all of those options play out in a way that is cool–perhaps not victorious, but cool. We can’t cover every option, of course, and we have to constrain which choices we offer at all–in “Choice of Broadsides,” you can’t choose to be a cavalry officer instead, even though that would (within a certain broad understanding of the genre) be a perfectly reasonable option. We just don’t present the choice at all. But if someone could, playing reasonably, want to pick an option, we should make that possible. Whenever a player says, “I wanted to do X, but the options wouldn’t let me,” we’ve failed a little. We’ve gone beyond the parts of the authorial role that we need to retain–what happens when you do X? What sorts of choices are possible at all? and gone into the parts of authorship that are better given to the player–what’s this character like? What will the protagonist do when faced with a tough choice. I think that shares the role of author most effectively.
By that standard, we failed initially in “Choice of Broadsides”, because people playing a gay protagonist wanted to have the option of taking actions to pursue a same-sex relationship at a point in the game where it appears appropriate.
Adam focuses on IF, but I think much of what he writes about is applicable to any game that seeks to have players experience a story. What makes games so interesting and unique from other media is interactivity, yes, but being interactive means relinquishing some authorial control and handing it over to the player. Game creators can’t and shouldn’t try to control how players experience every moment of their game, otherwise it’s not a game any more. As Adam puts it, “If the player of a game has any meaningful agency, then they are part of the storytelling team.” But there must be some sort of control, otherwise the game would be impossible to create, let alone play. So where is the line drawn? These are tough questions that the Choice of Games team is tackling, ones that game developers have been asking for some time now. Every game has different goals, so the answers are likely different for every game that is created, but they do come to some conclusions that should be thought-provoking for anyone interested in collaborative storytelling.
Thank you to the Choice of Games team for sharing their development process on these topics with the community! It will be interesting to see how the issues evolve as the team takes on different settings.