One of the sad things about a blog like The Border House is how much of our time we have to spend criticizing. If we’re not careful, that can lead to a negative atmosphere or to people labelling us as nothing more than whiners who like complaining for complaining’s sake. This isn’t true. The reason that so many of our posts are negative and critical is that many more games get issues of social inclusivity wrong than get them right.
It’s a pleasure, then, to be able to report upon a game that gets many things spectacularly right: Echo Bazaar by Failbetter Games. This is a web-based game which uses Twitter and Facebook for authentication and to populate lists of friends, but which otherwise operates largely independently. In it, you play a character newly arrived in Fallen London: an alternate version of Victorian London in which the city has “fallen” and is now stuck below ground, due to a deal struck between the Traitor Empress (Victoria) and the enigmatic Masters of the Bazaar. This leads to a combination of Victorian mores, Lovecraftian creatures and a deep sense of mystery, which ensures a top-notch narrative which keeps the game entertaining long after its simple mechanics would otherwise warrant.
So far so good, but not really something that warrants a post here. However, you only have to get as far as character creation to see some of the game’s attitude towards inclusivity, as you’re presented with this:
After this, the game continues to impress. Fairly early on in the game, you get an option to pursue a relationship with either a struggling artist (male) or his also-struggling artist’s model (female) and you’re in no way restricted in your choice based on your gender. Later on, you have another choice of romances, either with a barbed wit or an acclaimed beauty. When I first saw this, I was disappointed. I’m a lesbian and would much rather pursue a relationship with a woman in game, but at the same time, I’m much more interested in someone who gets by on their brains rather than their looks. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The barbed wit is a woman, and the acclaimed beauty is a man, and a person of colour to go with it.
Many important and incidental NPCs are female. Men are able to wear dresses if they so choose. The secular and the religious are presented as alternatives with neither one being inherently superior to the other. I could go on, but what it boils down to is this: in this game, I can imagine my character as being who I want to be and not who the game designer thought I wanted to be. This enables me to connect better with my character, and keeps the game interesting to me for longer.
The thing that I’ve really noticed, though, is how amazingly simple all of this is. Allowing crossdressing or same-sex relationships only requires not explicitly forbidding them. Making an incidental NPC female instead of male just means writing “her” instead of “him” in a line of text. These things are not at all difficult, but are still far too rare, so it’s a delight to see a game that gets it right.