Choice of Games on Gender, Sexuality, and Authorship in IF

A British ship of the line.  A huge sailing ship with three masts and ten or so sails. It has two rows of windows along the side, many of which are opened to reveal cannons. A British flag flies at the top of the tallest mast.

A British ship of the line. A huge sailing ship with three masts and ten or so sails. It has two rows of windows along the side, many of which are opened to reveal cannons. A British flag flies at the top of the tallest mast.

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.

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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21 Responses to Choice of Games on Gender, Sexuality, and Authorship in IF

  1. Jargo says:

    I really like the trick with the “reverse patriarchy” world when choosing a female gender. I am a bit envious at pure text based game developers because, this is not really recourse consuming.

    What would be interesting if the “Choice of Broadsides” game would be localized to a other language. The whole gender-switching language trick would be a bit harder in french or german.

    • Alex says:

      There’s so much in the game that made me grin from a gender perspective; having a vision of a “matriarchal” society is really interesting and entertaining.

  2. Kimiko says:

    Too often the ‘historical accuracy’ excuse is used by game developers though. When you’re writing for a current-day audience, I say contemporary norms trump historical accuracy when it comes to inclusiviness. These Choice Of Games folks get it right.

    • CM says:

      Man, people have been using the “accuracy” excuse for as long as I can remember. It’s what forced 9-year-old me to play a Senator instead of a Jedi in Star Wars because, you know, we’d never seen any proof that girl were allowed to be Jedi.

    • 8mph Ansible says:

      For me, it often depended on the context of the matter/product, be it historical or fantasy or fantasy that draws from history or whatever. Yet for some subjects, some supposed “accuaracy” doesn’t work.

      I guess it would be a case-by-case thing? In some cases it would severly hamper or disenfranchise a part of the would-be audience & participants. I remember coming across some discussions for the Pirates of the Burning Sea MMO (I think that’s the right one), where posters inquired and discussed about avatars like can they play a female character, will the avatar only be white, what sort of restrictions will be placed on your character if they’re not a white male.

      Headdeskingly sad to see, there were a few who honestly believed that if your character should have some restrictions depending on whether your character was white or not, male or not, white male or not. But thankfully developers everytime stated that avatars would not be restricted for not being white or male to the chagrin of some.

      -Ani8

    • Maverynthia says:

      I like the fact that they kept historically accurate as “same sex crew” rather than “all male crew”. Since they decided to only flip the pronouns. I also like being called a Gentlewoman than Lady, as “Lady” has connotations to it. (I seriously hate gendered words like Lady, virgin, and the like.)

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        “Lady” has connotations to it? Is it in like the same league as ‘virgin,’ ‘maiden,’ etc.?

        And now that you mention it, I’m gonna push myself to use “gentlewoman” from now on–especially during my attention announcements where I use the phrase “ladies gentlewoman and gentlemen” where it often comes up.

        -Ani8

        • Maverynthia says:

          It’s in the same league as those, yes. I’ve often been told by my mother that things I’ve done were not “ladylike”. Basically not demure, virginal, maidenlike, subdued, etc… However you never see this for boys, they are simply told “That was not polite; that was rude; etc.”

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        “Lady” has connotations to it? Is it in like the same league as ‘virgin,’ ‘maiden,’ etc.?

        And now that you mention it, I’m gonna push myself to use “gentlewoman” from now on–especially during my attention announcements where I use the phrase “gentlewoman and gentlemen” where it often comes up.

        -Ani8

  3. nanasuyl says:

    Nice to know game developers who are worried about these issues. I guess they’re a rare breed. More choices should be available in more games, although I also enjoy those where you play as a already designed character. I think how much the game creators have depends of what kind of game they’re making.

    I’m not going to complain about The Legend of Zelda because I can’t choose if Link is a girl or if he is gay (I would like to be able to play as Zelda though).

  4. Jargo says:


    nanasuyl:

    Nice to know game developers who are worried about these issues. I guess they’re a rare breed.

    its more that they have the luxury that they only have to duplicate words and not voicelines and 3d models. ;)

    but i bet it was a some work to do this and it is great that they made the effort.

    • J says:

      Relative to the amount of work each takes to make, they’re about the same effort – replacing each of the pronouns in the game requires many, many If statements, especially using their mostly-linear scripting language (we’ve been messing with it since we found these awesome games last week). Triple-A games will take a lot more work, modelling and such, but compared to the amount of modelling the rest of the game will need, it’s not much more work. As an aspiring games developer (only for Flash so far), it really disappoints me to see all these excuses about the amount of work it would take when I know you could at least make an effort for very little extra work.

      One of the little details I really liked in Choice of Broadsides was that when you chose a matriachal society, the ships also changed pronoun! It’s such a small detail, but it showed how much effort they put into these games, which is really great.

      • Jargo says:

        i wonder why Choice of Broadsides uses the “many many if statements” approach. the simplest way would be having two version of the whole text database one for the patriarchal version and one for the matriarchal version. or to use some sort of macro word for each title and pronouns that will be replaced.

        And i don’t get the argument the modeling is triple A titles would be much more work but compared to the rest of the modeling it would be “very little extra work”

        • Maverynthia says:

          The simple version would have variables where the pronouns and words are,
          if pronoun=F then $word=she
          Thus:
          “The Captain raised the cutlass then $word swiped at the pirate with it.”

          It’s that simple really… no need to clone databases at all.. that’d definitely take up space..

          • Jargo says:

            thats what i meant with “use some sort of macro word for each title and pronouns “

      • Maverynthia says:

        I noticed that too, though it could be effort by ineffort. If it’s a simple switching formula, then all shes would be rendered as hes.
        Which shows laziness on the part of other company programmers that it was “So hard” and took “too many resources” to do just that. When it was “simple” for the Choice Of people to do.

        It really just shows that Triple-A companies aren’t really Triple-A at all and just lazy/sexist

        ;) My car is referenced by a male pronoun.

        • Jargo says:

          Maybe i take this to personal as a programmer but i never meet a lazy programmer in the video game development. so its more about priority decisions and those really are often made on a sexist basis.

          And when developers say something about “too many resources” they don’t mean the programmers they mean the content. speak work time for artists and voice actors.

          as a example take a generic world war 2 shooter with a Broadsides like gender-switch:

          -> all character models has to be changed and duplicated
          -> all voice files has to be changed and duplicated
          -> you cant use prerendered cut-scene videos, or have to duplicate them

          that’s a lots of work and so its a lots of money. so what i want to say a AAA studio will only do this if they and their publisher think it will sell better with this feature. would it sell better in relation with the costs?

  5. Godless Heathen says:

    Can I say, I found Choice of Broadsides really and truly fun. I wasn’t very good at it, but I didn’t care.

    I felt a strong attraction to Villeneuve when I played, but I didn’t have an option to pursue something romantic. In the end, I was fairly happy that the main character and Villeneuve had a close female friendship based on mutual respect. I was forced to kill her for Queen and country, and I think it would have had less of an impact if she’d been lovers with my character.

    Playing as a female Naval officer trying to romance the men was rather funny to me. I tried to impress someone by talking about my exploits and they looked bored, as I’m sure many women of the time being courted by men were probably stifling their own boredom in order to be polite. I kicked myself when I found I was doing exactly what I cannot stand about every male love interest in period literature!

    • Alex says:

      I looooove Villeneuve, she is so great. I was one of the people who chose to read more into the interactions with her before they added the romance option, so I was super psyched when that was added. But it’s also awesome that a strong friendship could develop as well.

      I have yet to get a happy ending, which is so disappointing XD Must keep trying!

  6. Asilic says:

    I buy Divinity 2 recently, I cannot play it because I’m always on either Choice of the Dragon or Choice of Broadsides! Those games are great! (And because Divinity 2 is not very good lol)

  7. Ikan says:

    Holy cow, this game looks awesome! Thanks, Border House, for putting a spotlight on both this developer and their efforts. The Internetz: awesome!

    Now I’m off to spend hours poking around at the Choice of Games website. +50 excitement!

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