Gaslamp Games and the saga of continuing awesomeness

You all remember Dungeons of Dredmor, right? And you remember how its developer, Gaslamp Games, was pretty awesome?

I’m happy to report that they seem to be at it again. In a recent blog post, they talk about their attitude towards featuring characters of different races in their upcoming game, Clockwork Empires. Here’s the money quote:

We feel it’s important to have people of all colours in the game, basically. I’m not going to get into the exceedingly grim history of 19th century colonialism here, but I assure you we’ve had a lot of internal discussions about how we can possibly approach making a game vaguely based on the Victorian era without being ridiculously offensive.

Honestly, I don’t envy them having to make those sorts of decisions, because they’re certainly not trivial to make. (I am reminded of how Failbetter Games approached the same issue for Echo Bazaar but seemingly reached different concusions.)

What I don’t expect is for Gaslamp to suddenly find a solution that will be perfect in every respect. I highly doubt such a solution even exists. What I do expect is for them to give it their best shot, and for it to be a whole lot better than if they didn’t even bother trying to address it.

It’s very gratifying to see at least one developer continue to take this sort of issue seriously.

10 thoughts on “Gaslamp Games and the saga of continuing awesomeness”

  1. Speaking as someone whose people had a history of victimisation under western colonial imperialism, I don’t think it’s awesome at all just because they had the basic decency of not being ridiculous offensive while making something in a genre which is going to be offensive on principle.

    Yes, I’m definitely not looking forward to the game at all. Just being aware of historicla atrocity doesn’t change the fact that it has a premise rooted in colonial nostalgia. Steampunk doesn’t necessarily have to pander to the oppressor and can have the actual “punk” in it by being about resisting oppression. But from what I read of Clockwork Empires, it seems that the players are filling the oppressor’s boots.

    1. Exactly…

      My reaction was “if they have to wonder if such a thing is even possible, then why do they want to do it?” I mean it’s not like they are FORCED to set a game in the Victorian era. This is a cash cow theme right now, but no one forces them to make a steampunk game if they don’t want to, especially a game where the focus is all on the colonizer.

      I looked at their promo poster. UH. I can see they are …trying? With the irony and all? …I think it’s not really working. (To put it mildly.)

    2. I personally don’t think it necessarily has to be about glorifying oppression or colonialism, even if it’s not “punk”.

      Your comment did remind me how polarizing this is for some people, though – in fact, enough to write a rather lengthy defense of steampunk as a genre, at least when it goes ahead and properly acknowledges what was bad about the 19th Century.

      I tried to be even-handed; feel free to tear it apart.

      1. You might want to look at Jaymee Goh’s posts and Beyond Victoriana. Apologies if you’re familiar with these sites, but since you did not link them and linked to other blogs, I thought maybe you weren’t familiar with them and you’d be interested. (Be sure to check out Jaymee’s list of primary works! A lot of cool stuff there.)

  2. I’m glad they’re making the game diverse. That’s great! I don’t know really anything about Dwarf Fortress, so I’m curious to hear more about how it will play and what the context is. I initially thought it was like Civ, where you are building an empire, but that doesn’t seem to be the case? It’s more like you are in charge of one city? Not sure. I’m keeping an eye on this one.

  3. Oh, boy. (Hi!) I’m going to try to reply to the gist of comments made above as best I can.

    Disclaimer: I’m speaking my own opinion for myself and not as a representative of Gaslamp Games, etc etc.

    Right, so with that just said, I’d describe Gaslamp as run by a bunch of progressive guys with what that implies. We want to Do The Right Thing and be The Good Guy (and yes, the founding partners are all indeed guys). This gets complex when we’re dealing with PR w/ gamers in general, our various personalities within the company, and all the horrors that can be categorized under the word “business”.

    Upon consideration, I agree that Steampunk reveling in Victoriana is indeed a very difficult and problematic genre to work in. The effects of its history are close enough to hurt – and do. (Versus, say, a game in the mode of a medieval or classical historical period which is much more historically distant.)

    Should we even mention Lovecraft? Good god, the man had some ugly notions. It helps that he’s been dead for a century. But still, it takes me aback to think that half his monsters are the product of some kind of sublimated anxiety about “race mixing”. Or something; who knows.

    As for Clockwork Empires: yes, the player is placed in the position of the oppressor. They’re a bureaucrat in an empire modeled very roughly on Victorian Britain – an empire which absolutely did terrible things. Many games place players in such a position with varying degrees of success and self-examination. Or not. Generally leaning toward less self-examination, admittedly, see: Colonization, which removed slavery from history, Europa Universalis, which made it a very abstract game mechanic, or Civilization which did similar, kinda, or Hearts of Iron where you can play as Nazi Germany (but without swastikas and the Holocaust is not even touched).

    Is it the right move to whitewash (word choice intentional) history to make a game less unpleasant? Does it not do injustice to history to bowdlerize it? But on the other hand, it’d be an ugly game indeed that intentionally reveled in brutality and cruelty for it’s own sake. I bet we could all name a few. One could simply not make games in settings with objectionable content, sure. But can’t a piece of art be authored without authorial approval of everything contained within? A crime novel about a murder does not necessarily approve of the murder, a game about the history of European colonization need not approve of it. A game in which a player shoots other people need not approve of shooting people.

    Take for example: a few years ago some white power enthusiast made an awful death camp simulation game; horrifyingly offensive, basically. But then Brenda Romero’s (last name Braithwaite at time of release) “Train” covered similar ground, putting the player in the role of an official loading people onto trains /to death camps/. Clearly she does not condone the events depicted in the game she made, but it was indeed the game’s content. What I wish to say with this comparison is that it is possible to put the player into the uncomfortable position of an oppressor without approving of that oppression.

    Back to Clockwork Empires, our situation is a bit different: we’re trying to make a game which will indeed make money — presumably “fun” and “appeals to many people”– rather than gallery art which does not necessarily have to do those things. We tend to make games that approach their subject with humour rather than minimalist sobriety. We’re not making a historical game about history but rather a game set in a genre which draws heavily on certain historical flavours and references.

    At this point I’m not sure how to proceed with my comment. So um. Basically, we’re financially committed to making something like what we’ve described publicly thus far. There’s a lot of problematic material hiding in Steampunk (and Lovecraftian Horror) and we’re trying to do the best we can with it, trying to find a tone and authorial viewpoint that *works* for a game while also not falling into the sort of “humour” or tone which relies on cynically attacking minorities. Nor do we want to make a game that revels in cruelty for its own sake and gives it authorial approval.
    Hmm. We don’t always totally succeed on all points, no doubt. But we’ll always listen to what y’all have to say about/to/at us and try to do our best with it.

    (BTW, much appreciated the link to the Echo Bazaar interview. I sent it to the other Gaslamp partners to read. It’s very good to read about someone trying to deal with the same problems we are and how they tried to address them.)

    1. Cheers for weighing in, David. I am one of several folks here who bought Dungeons of Dredmor specifically because of the way you designed and spoke about its female character. (Also, the game rocks!) Since then I’ve heard other good things about your company, mainly on this site. I think Gaslamp Games is definitely one of the most “trustworthy” companies out there, and that you can pull this off too. It’s on my watch list, though Steampunk is not normally my thing at all.

      For anyone who’d like to know how Gaslamp views humor in games, have a look at this video:
      http://casualconnect.org/lectures/design/congratulations-you-died-humorous-writing-for-dungeons-of-dredmor-nicholas-vining/

    2. I have a solution I’d like to suggest: Make the Colonial Oppressors black, and make the Savage Natives white. You can then feature colonialism in your game without cutting close to anything that actually historically happened.

      I always found that the best part of games like Europa Universalis was to play as one of the African nations then fiddle the history files to give yourself 50 technology in every category before promptly going off to ‘discover’ Europe and see how they like being shot at for a change.

      If Clockwork Empires featured the ability to do a similarly cathartic role-reversal I think that would vastly improve it as a game. Additionally this could serve as a pretty good starting point for a critique of colonialism. When white people play the game and see injustices happening to people that look like them perhaps it could go some way to educating them about what that kind of thing actually feels like?

      P.S. Being multiethnic myself, I can attest that I am definitely *not* a sea-monster and Lovecraft is completely wrong.

      1. I have a solution I’d like to suggest: Make the Colonial Oppressors black, and make the Savage Natives white

        I’d really strongly advise against that. Fiction with this premise is overwhelmingly racist crap. Maybe it’s possible to do a “black people oppress white people” scenario respectfully but I have yet to come across such a work, in any kind of media. I’ve heard that Noughts and Crosses was good – haven’t read it yet – but it’s by an African American author, not a white author. That’s about the only one, and there are dozens of counterexamples usually by white American authors that I’ve had the misfortune of coming across.

        Just for a recent one (a novel, not a game), search for “Revealing Eden”. THAT’s the kind of thing that’s likely to happen. Race-swap is not as easy as gender-swap.

    3. It’s really cool that you decided to jump in!

      The effects of its history are close enough to hurt – and do. (Versus, say, a game in the mode of a medieval or classical historical period which is much more historically distant.)

      I found the Dragon Age series very racist and – yes – personally hurtful even though it’s set in a pseudo-Middle Ages setting. I don’t think it matters if something is historically distant as long as it is related to things which are still ongoing. To bring a different example, Serbians feel very strongly about the Battle of Kosovo Polje (in my experience at least) and it was in 1389!

      As for Clockwork Empires: yes, the player is placed in the position of the oppressor. They’re a bureaucrat in an empire modeled very roughly on Victorian Britain – an empire which absolutely did terrible things

      This reminds me of Eichmann, actually. (And I think I can guarantee you that I’m not going to be the only person making this comparison. – This is not a threat, G-d forbid, just some advice ;] )

      Generally leaning toward less self-examination, admittedly, see: Colonization, which removed slavery from history, Europa Universalis, which made it a very abstract game mechanic, or Civilization which did similar, kinda,

      I’ve only played Civilization from these and I think precisely its abstract nature makes it very enlightening. For example, before playing Civilization I never realized that a large standing army needed to earn its keep somehow, which explains a startling amount of present-day US policy. ;]

      it is possible to put the player into the uncomfortable position of an oppressor without approving of that oppression.

      It is, I agree wholeheartedly, but that’s not the impression I got from the promo materials!

      : we’re trying to make a game which will indeed make money — presumably “fun” and “appeals to many people”– rather than gallery art which does not necessarily have to do those things.

      These are not necessarily mutually exclusive – for example Maus was a popular comic book translated to many languages (even to Hungarian! …I thought that’d never happen) and selling well to my knowledge, while still being deathly serious, literally so. And kind of the opposite of fun. Sure, different medium, but still. There are also many serious games which have enjoyed some commercial success, though sigh, I’m usually the person here in the BH comments section who says the serious games of the present are really disappointing and overhyped.

      Not saying this upcoming game needs to be serious, just that this dichotomy doesn’t exist IMO. A video game doesn’t necessarily have to be fun to sell, though it usually helps ;]

      (a fun game about the Holocaust would strike me as wrong, and the same holds true for colonialism, BUT. I liked Train de Vie, which was a comedy movie about the Holocaust. OK, very sad, but definitely with a lot of comedic and prima facie “fun” content. So I don’t want to commit myself to such a categorical statement.)

      A crime novel about a murder does not necessarily approve of the murder, a game about the history of European colonization need not approve of it. A game in which a player shoots other people need not approve of shooting people.

      Definitely. (I dislike the Uncharted series because it doesn’t make this distinction.)

      (OK, I have more to say, maybe a bit later?)

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