Guys, Girls, and Massive Paper Spirit Monsters: Dev Update June 2013

As game developers, we find that our Twitter feeds read like a news ticker for “what’s happening in women’s rights”. The game industry, not unlike an adolescent teenager riddled with acne, is going through a lot of changes and is gradually seeing girls in a new special way. Only instead of finding that the mousy tomboy Sandra from next door now makes his palms sweat and his knees tremble, the industry is discovering that women as creators and consumers might actually be a part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment market. Of course this comes with growing pains and embarrassing, involuntary emissions, as evidenced by the most recent brouhaha over transgender comments made by Gabe of Penny Arcade. What this also shows though, is that these early explorations of women and games are really a gateway to the larger issue: gender and games.

Gender in our game, Unwritten Passage, has followed a similar path. We also started by focusing on the role of women in the game, with things really coming to a head this month as we began to scale up our designs for our shadow puppets.

Shadow puppets represent player units on the battlefield and in narrative “story events”.

Technically we were finding representing men and women to be a challenge, because our “mix and match” approach to randomizing the puppet pieces still mostly limited us to putting male pieces on male characters and female pieces on female characters. It soon became apparent that by dividing the sexes we weren’t going to be able to fit the right number of pieces into memory. But we also just couldn’t have a story-telling world where women weren’t represented.

As is so often the case with controversy, the Penny Arcade dust-up became a blessing, both to the community at large (because of the conversations it started), and to us and our shadow puppets. In Unwritten Passage the shadow puppets represent what the people in the clan use to talk about themselves in legendary fashion, meaning that not only are they allowed to diverge from the “real” people in the tribe, but they must diverge. This has been evident from our earliest concept work: make tiny nuclear families on the battlefield, but make epic, weird spirit creatures in the story realm.

This is when the PA controversy brought a moment of clarity. We were wrong to focus on women and men in this case: often times men could prefer to tell stories of their identity with female avatars, and similarly women with male ones (as many MMO player rosters can attest to). This is classic story telling, and historically gender in story telling is hardly fixed. For example, representations of the Hindu God Shiva in ancient times routinely had both male and female elements.

Careful, guided randomization is a big part of Unwritten Passage, but in gender we’ve been inspired to let go a little and give randomization freer reign. We now mix our male and female puppet pieces freely, redesigning them to represent epic, spirit guides that may have both male and female elements but still represent a cohesive whole.

We’re also taking gender randomization a step further by randomizing the sex of each character in our narrative “story events”. For example, in the video for our successful Kickstarter we had a sample story event where the player’s tribe encounters a man with his son, starving for food. The player is given several options, including the chance to give the food, but only in exchange for the son as a slave (which the man agrees to). With the latest change whether you encounter a man and his daughter, a woman and her son, a woman and her daughter (etc), is completely random. So far the result has been fascinating as each scenario is changed radically based on the player’s own beliefs. Do they feel differently about a woman trading a male son for food than a man trading his daughter for example?

It’s an interesting exploration, but one we’re not completely finished feeling out. As Joe mentioned in his RPS article on game violence, giving extra freedoms to the player doesn’t free us of our obligation to provide context to the outcomes. Since each decision has actual gameplay consequences we have more to decide. Do we make the world as gender blind as the algorithm that creates the story events, meaning that other tribes will weigh the life of a man and woman the same? Do we try to anticipate and mirror the preconceptions that many of our future players will have? Do we project our own sense of what we believe to be right and wrong?

Regardless of where we eventually end up, we’re excited about this new direction. It feels like both our fictional and real worlds are opening up and getting a whole lot weirder (as an Austin based company we mean this in the best possible way). The future is a fertile ground for story telling, conversation, and making games.

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Roxlou Games


7 Responses to “Guys, Girls, and Massive Paper Spirit Monsters: Dev Update June 2013”

  • SD Says:

    Reading this article makes me feel really really good about supporting you folks on Kickstarter. I feel like this conversation about gender representation, coursing through the indie scene, has opened up so many opportunities and helped unlock so many design avenues. Once we’re starting to see such simple choices, like the puppet randomization angle above, it’s just reinforcing my personal view that inclusiveness as a generic policy is one that gradually helps us make better games by breaking down some of these arbitrary cultural rubrics we adhere to. Unwritten is just going to be a bit cooler and a bit more interesting now, and we have your open minds to thank for that!

    Keep up the great work guys, we’re behind you, in backer-land :-)

    P.S. *DAMN* I hope that portability is something that will work out… it’s pretty much going to kill me if I’m not able to to play Unwritten Passage in Linux someday :-D

    • Joe Houston Says:

      Glad you like the direction. We’re excited about it for the same reasons you are!

      As for portability, we’re making the game cross platform from the beginning (even though PC is our only platform for now). As long as our first month of sales aren’t so miserable as to drive us barefoot out of indie games forever, those Linux and Mac ports will be right behind the PC version!

  • Somebody Says:

    I have a question unrelated to this update. I just read the latest Kickstarter update and it mentions you might do lots of different things to create a verity of story fragments.

    How do you prevent that from encouraging tribes to have a seemingly arbitrary charterer, where the decisions they make don’t seem to fit together into a cohesive personality.

    • Joe Houston Says:

      There are two types of tribes, AI tribes encountered by the player and the tribe controlled by the player. For the AI tribes we create cohesion in the same way a group of people is consistent to a load of variables in the real world: we teach them to make moral judgments. So rather than evaluating each event thinking “how would each tribe react to this?”, we instead create rules for each tribe to judge any kind of event, no matter what is in it. Because of this approach we can randomize as much as we want (well within reason) and still get results that make sense in the context of our world.

      For the player tribe, the player is the one that actually makes the decisions, so we allow things to be inconsistent within the context of the world if that’s what the player wants. This is a lesson I took from my time working on Dishonored. Make sure that the world reacts consistently and with proper context, and then give the player the freedom to make decisions. Without the freedom to act like a crazy person your decision to sometimes play within the rules won’t have any significance.

      Thanks for the question.

      • Somebody Says:

        And thank you for the reply :)

        I agree with you when you say that without the option to act like a crazy person the decision to act like a sane person is meaningless.

        But if I may ask a follow up question: When you say that “the world reacts consistently and with proper context” does that mean that the world will notice inconsistency and react appropriately?

        For example: During a story bout the chief might have heard you’re a tribe that takes slaves and thus be less impressed with a story about freeing slaves than if you were consistently against slavery.

        Or perhaps if you choose to take a slave you’ll get a different story fragment depending on whether you’ve previously been a slave taking tribe or if you’ve previously considered slavery to be immoral. “A day in the life of a slave taking tribe” vs “how the harsh tundra made us abandon our principles”

        • Joe Houston Says:

          There’s always a balance to strike between realism and enabling player experience, and the two goals don’t always overlap. For example, while it’s more realistic for other tribes to note and respond to your inconsistency, the added realism also limits the player’s freedom to experiment or correct past “mistakes” if they don’t like their outcomes. You can see that in a lot of games with the illusion of moral choice. There tends to be no fulfilling reward for playing the middle ground, and players end up making a moral choice once at the beginning that they feel obligated to follow through with until the end.

          In Unwritten Passage this will probably sort itself out because a tribe’s events are sorted and based on “notoriety”, and the tribe can only use the most notorious events in diplomacy. So if you are best known for 9 acts of violence, but you have one act of pacifism, you’re unlikely to win new friends. However, if you manage to make a really notorious change of heart you can still change your fate.