Immersion in authentic worlds can win over skeptics
Last weekend, I had a belated Valentine’s date with my girlfriend. We decided to see Song of the Sea, an absurdly adorable Oscar-nominated hand-drawn animated film from Ireland full of swimming seals, lush green Hibernian countrysides, and Celtic tales of yore.
After the movie, I realized something. Anyone could’ve made a film based on Irish myth. But only an Irish person could’ve made that particular movie.
What do I mean by that? Director Tomm Moore, a native of Kilkenny, Ireland, didn’t need to overcompensate with the likes of leprechauns, red hair, or ruddy-faced gents who “love to fight” in order to impart some stereotypical notion of “Irishness.” Nor did he fear the possibility of offending and wind up with an undercooked tale that didn’t feel Irish in the slightest. He was able to portray a sense of authenticity throughout the film simply by virtue of the fact that he’s a native of Ireland. I’ve noticed a similar trend with Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated masterpieces—even those that don’t take place in Japan—deliver both subtle and obvious Japanese sensibilities.
We see this phenomenon all the time in movies, yet we rarely encounter it in the largely homogenized world of games. But there’s no reason it has to stay that way.
Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer that released late last year on Xbox One, PS4, and PC, should be the model for this type of authentic gamemaking and storytelling. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a Native Alaskan nonprofit, knew that a story of the Iñupiat people would make for a compelling game, but they didn’t have the resources to create it themselves. They approached publisher and developer E-Line Media and made sure they were completely immersed with what it means to be Iñupiat and live deep within the Alaskan wilderness, where survival is simply a way of life.
Art director Dima Veryovka, who spent 10 years at Zipper Interactive working on the SOCOM franchise, took two trips to isolated northern Alaska, near the Arctic Circle, as part of research for the game. At PAX Prime last year, I had the chance to talk to him about that experience. “I was on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, but I never saw the ocean,” he told me. “It was all ice, and it was dark all the time.”
After taking those trips to Alaska and meeting with the Iñupiat, did Veryovka think that the game would’ve turned out the same without that cultural immersion?
“Honestly, no,” he confided. “Even the colors there are different. They have this weird pink horizon, these orange nights. For us, it’s a vacation, but for them, it’s home, and there’s that sense of danger. You don’t want to go out too far into the dark. That extends to the feeling of the game—how they approach things, what spirituality means for them.”
I could write thousands of more words regarding conversations I’ve had with developers on this subject—it’s truly one of my passions. I’d love to see this same expertise used to highlight as many myths, legends, and real-life history as possible.
As someone fascinated by the ancient splendor of Persepolis, I’d love to see a “real” prince of Persia star in a game that really approaches that empire from a historical perspective instead of the piecemeal, anachronistic mythology that Ubisoft’s series often presents (not that this is a knock on Jordan Mechner’s legacy in any way, and I appreciate what the franchise has done—but it’s not exactly a textbook of Middle Eastern history).
I’d also love to see a game that highlights a fascinating-yet-underused mythology, like that of pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. And it astounds me that one real-life heroine who would make a perfect protagonist—Boudica, the Celtic warrior queen from Britannia who rose up against the might of the Roman Legions—has, to my knowledge, never starred in a video game of her own. (But you know if she’d have been Japanese, we’d already have seen 50 Iceni Warriors games where she commands vast armies of demons.)
Whether it’s collaborating with scholars, archaeologists, or tribes themselves, we have the collective tools and expertise to get games like that made.
But here, I think, is where we get to the problem surrounding this conversation: how diversity has come to be talked about in gaming. Instead of discussing the subject like human beings, everything takes a bizarrely antagonistic tone and is framed using the clinical language of academia—which wins over nobody but the converted no matter the subject (and, trust me, as someone who spent plenty of time in college penning papers in race and gender studies classes, it only serves to impress professors, not win over skeptics). Twitter adds even less nuance and subtlety to the affair and helps absolutely no one. When I speak to developers at places like PAX, we’re able to have a conversation. Twtter, on the other hand, is one giant accusation.
I can, however, think back to one moment in one of those college courses that was extremely illuminating—and, no surprise, it had nothing to do with the droning curriculum and everything to do with experiencing a problem firsthand. At the start of the semester, the professor divided the class into several groups and assigned each one to track one ethnic group across prime-time TV, record how often they were portrayed, and determine whether that portrayal was positive, negative, or neutral. One group in the class was assigned Native Americans, a task that lasted all of one day, after my professor realized there was absolutely nothing for them to track. “I forgot Northern Exposure isn’t on anymore,” she sheepishly admitted.
Think about that. An entire culture, completely vanished from prime-time TV—all because one show about a Jewish doctor in rural Alaska got canceled. It’s not like Native Americans are flooding TV screens in 2015, either. In fact, it looks like history has just repeated itself. Parks and Recreation ended earlier this week, and with it, the series’ minor Native American character, Ken Hotate (played by Jonathan Joss, of Apache and Comanche heritage), also leaves TV. Outside of that, I can’t find a single Native American character or actor, of any tribal affiliation, on any network show in the United States.
In games, though, Native Alaskans and Native Americans don’t have to disappear after Never Alone. And outside of the big-budget blockbusters, games don’t require some short-sighted executive to sign off on production. They’re not Hollywood, which deems it necessary to cast Christian Bale in a story that takes place in ancient Egypt (I’m not sure what accent Mr. Bale’s rockin’ these days, but it sure as hell ain’t Coptic). Games don’t have those limitations, and we should take advantage of them—and we must encourage developers to embrace the freedom they really do have. It’s a lesser medium when we don’t take advantage of all the stories potentially at our disposal.
You know the best way to win over skeptics who think expanding our gaming horizons isn’t needed or doesn’t serve a purpose? To show them that value. Hand them a controller and let them play Never Alone. Expanding the variety and perspectives of games should, frankly, be the least controversial thing in gaming, and I can’t help but feel like the weirdly standoffish way we tend to approach this discussion has played some role in making it come off like some unpalatable chore instead of what it truly is: journeying to fantastic worlds that experts can help us shape to become even better, more authentic experiences.
Let’s get one thing straight, though: This doesn’t mean I want Japanese games featuring alien-battlin’ Abe Lincoln to go away. There’ll always be a place in my heart for wildly inauthentic storytelling, too.