Saturday, September 20, 2014

Designing for Inclusion (Creatures)

Note: This post deals with my game Creatures Such as We. As such, it will contain spoilers. 

I've written several games before, but most of them deliberately avoided dealing with people, because people can be complicated and I wasn't confident on how well I could write them. I decided to step out of my comfort zone with Creatures, and do a game that was entirely based around one of the more complicated interpersonal relationships: romance. Focusing on that human interaction ended up not only being really fun, but it offered me a great opportunity to make a game with a better focus on inclusion. I wanted to make sure that I had gameplay that was respectful to real-world diversity and showed a simple, better way to have inclusion in games, and dealt with discrimination seriously.
In some of the rotating breakfast conversations, characters would bring up issues of race and gender, because it's something that's important to people, and it should be talked about. I made it clear that progress was still somewhat of a struggle even in the future, because I didn't want to present a magically post-racial, post-gender civilization. That's unrealistic and erases the real struggles going on in the world right now.

And, despite the good intentions of the designers themselves, I made sure to highlight the fact that their game wasn't as inclusive as it could have been. You only get to choose between two genders and three races, without even an option to pick your age (you're young, of course). It completely steamrolls over the actual diversity that does exist in the world. I specifically kept the in-game game options sparse to contrasted with the main game's character creation. It was designed to evoke a sense of, "Why is this so restrictive?"

Because I definitely cared about presenting inclusive options. For the main game, you get to choose from several chunks of ages, from 3 preset genders with a write-in option, and from different regional backgrounds (again, with write-in options). It was quick, and easy, and much more representative of the real diversity of humanity. I don't necessarily think I've figured out the perfect system, but I think it's a big start in the right direction, and it's a trend that I really hope and expect to see from more games in the future. I'd love to hear thoughts about ways that the presentation could be improved. (Note: it's possible I'll update the game during the judging period, in which case parts of this paragraph may become partially obsolete.)

I also felt it was pretty important to be inclusive of different orientations, which I accommodated by allowing the player a set of mixed genders of potential romance partners, both in the main game and in the in-game game. I didn't presume or ask a preference, I simply let players state their own preferences by selecting a person (or selecting nobody at all). Of course, while I think the perpetually-available-pan-sexual NPC works well as a game mechanic, it's not necessarily the best way to portray healthy relationships. And I probably could have included more gender choices than just between male and females, but I think that's something I can tackle next time.

I definitely made a point of allowing for a perfectly valid and fulfilling friendship route, to be mindful of asexual or non-romantic/professional preferences. I considered allowing for a completely friendless route that could be picked by players who really just did not feel like getting close to any of the NPCs, but I had too much difficulty deciding what direction that should go in: should it avoid the disaster totally, or should it engage in the disaster, but more distantly? I even built in a "nobody_affection" stat that I tracked, but I never ended up implementing it. Ultimately, I couldn't get a solid feel for any single narrative direction that felt right, so I dropped that idea. I still feel like the friend route is perfectly valid as a professional route, though.

I also thought about multi-person relationships, and my brain nearly exploded at the programming complexity that would have required (especially in ChoiceScript). I think if I ever decided to include multiple people as romanceable, it would have to be a set couple or a game with fewer romantic pursuits overall. So while I had a few quick throwaways to liking multiple people, it was never really considered as a valid option. Romancing more than one person also wouldn't have really made for a good parallel with romancing Elegy.

I will say that while I enjoyed offering choices and discussing about inclusion issues within the breakfast conversations, I think the game was a bit lacking in directly dealing with any of the day-to-day issues that minorities face. I'd like to deal more with the implications of different identities in future games. I know I'm definitely excited to finally get to examine and include more kinds of people in my games.

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