Indie developers are taking games into new, potentially controversial territory. James Batchelor looks at how these studios handle sensitive and difficult issues in their games and whether we can expect more titles to broaden gaming’s remit
Depresssion, mental illness, blindness, cancer and the migrant crisis. These are not the topics you might think of when first considering what your next game might be centred around.
Yet from smaller indie projects such as Passengers to larger-scale productions like Ninja Theory’s Hellblade, the new wave of what many refer to as ‘serious games’ have the potential to elevate our medium beyond the realm of slaughtering soldiers, aliens and zombies.
“I don’t think books and films should have a free pass to tackle difficult issues while games don’t,” says Ninja Theory’s chief creative director Tameem Antoniades (pictured left).
“If you’re serious about games as a medium, there is no defensible argument that it shouldn’t be tackling serious topics. That doesn’t mean that all games need to tackle serious issues, of course, but games need to have the diversity to tackle any subject.”
Hellblade follows a Celtic warrior suffering from mental illness, but Antoniades insists the game is not a simulator of the condition. Instead, the title is built as a compelling story designed to improve understanding.
Similarly, Italian indie LKA.it’s The Town of Light hopes to raise awareness of not only the various forms of mental illness, but also the realities of past asylum systems that cared for those who suffer.
“Mental illness is too often treated without respect,” the studio’s Luca Dalcò (pictured right) says. “Our aim is to make players more aware of this. We tried to avoid representing mental illness like something distant or too oneiric, but like something that we own, that is near us.”
Passengers is a Ludum Dare game that explores the ongoing migrant crisis. Players take on the role of a smuggler, judging which passengers he will take into Europe.
“We made this to make players look into the subject of migrants differently,” says creator François Alliot adds. “We didn’t in any way want to make a documentary, or pretend to have solutions.
“Migrants are seen as a very homogeneous group of people, a crowd only defined by their journey. They’re not shown as a collection of human beings, they’re a faceless crowd.”
Alliot (pictured left) believes the lowering of the barriers to games development has opened more opportunities than ever to create games centred on serious issues.
“There’s basically more of everything in today’s industry,” he says. “More games, genres, players and more diversity among players. It’s a crazy explosion but it’s really natural that games tend to ‘spill’ in society and relate to sport, news, education, sexuality and so on.”
Dalcò adds: “Games have reached a maturity that will lead us to see more projects like this, especially in the indie space.
“Extensive research is the first step when tackling anything that can be sensitive. With our game, we do not aim to judge or express any opinion on what happened in asylums during those times – we have created a story that tells you, the player, what’s happened.”
GETTING IT RIGHT
Ninja Theory has also researched its chosen subject matter, working with a renowned psychiatrist and various patient groups to ensure the effects depicted in Hellblade (pictured above) are comparable to those suffered in real life.
Meanwhile, Sherida Halatoe (pictured below) – creator of summer release Beyond Eyes – not only looked at what blind people go through, but also at other previous initiatives to raise awareness of this condition.
“Although the game wasn’t designed as a blindness simulator, I felt that as a designer it’s my responsibility to do the subject justice,” she says. “I’ve spoken with several legally blind people about their experiences. Most of them used to have some form of sight before.
“I also visited an exhibition that simulates real life situations, together with a blind guide and a white cane you experience walking on the street or buying drinks in a bar in the dark.”
Antoniades points out that no matter how much research you do, there will often be “no universal definition of how certain conditions affect people”, but there are “common traits” developers should aim for. He also urges devs not to hold back.
“I don’t feel that a subject like mental illness, as universal as it is, necessarily has to be treated with kid gloves and hidden away from view,” he says. “That has a negative effect on sufferers.
“According to the people I’ve talked to, a lot of the suffering comes from the stigma, rather than from the direct experience itself. It comes from the social isolation that results from it. It’s not a hopeless situation: patients get treated, recover and learn to live with it. If people understand that, the fear goes away.”
It’s vital that the effects of any conditions or the aspects of real-world issues are presented as realistically as possible, rather than glorified for the sake of entertaining the player.
“Some events in The Town of Light are disturbing,” says Dalcò. “We kept them because those are part of what happened, but we didn’t want to use them to promote the game or create sensationalism.”
Halatoe adds that another crucial factor is to remember that you are dealing with issues that affect real people.
“Getting the facts straight is only a small part of tackling a sensitive subject,” she says. “Making sure players care about the characters is much more important. Give your characters a personality, goals, fears.
“If you create a game about a disability or mental condition, make your characters more than just their condition. Give them a purpose.”
Alliot agrees, citing a recent example that failed to do this: “Take the ‘Tetris slave’ game [a mini-game in Playing History 2: Slave Trade]. I suppose the logic was to use the Tetris mechanic to explain how terrible the journey on a slaver’s ship was, how each slave had no space at all to move.
“The problem is that the gameplay is the worst possible way to convey this idea. Tetris rewards optimisation, the ability to stack everything neatly. In Tetris, a good match is where each piece finds its place, as if it ‘belongs’ there. It defines the slave not as a human being, but just a shape – and that’s exactly the opposite of what you try to teach about slavery.”
You have a better chance with independent development because you’re allowed to break rules at the expense of your audience, at the expense of it being a mass market proposition.
It’s up to developers. It always has been.
Alliot says art style is also an important choice: “Passengers’ graphics are basic, texts are short and evocative – we let players make up their own mind. Talk about an eight-pixel farmer soothing a crying child and players will draw their own picture of this man.”
Antoniades reports that he has received messages from people concerned about Hellblade’s decision to explore mental illness. He has explained what the team is doing and, where possible, involved those people.
“We’re not out to hurt people,” he said. “I don’t think this is a subject that has been treated right in films and games.
“A lot of the stigma around mental illness comes from portrayals of things like schizophrenia, which has been extremely negative in some games. Some titles imply that you need to be afraid of people with schizophrenia because they’re violent. That’s not helpful, because people who suffer from psychosis are often the victims of violence.
“With the research we’re doing and the people we talk to, I believe Hellblade won’t be as damaging as those things.”
Of course, the commercial realities of the industry and uncertain demand for serious games means triple-A publishers are unlikely to branch into this area – but that’s not something that should stop indies from taking the lead.
“It’s very difficult to tackle serious issues in mainstream blockbusters,” says Antoniades. “It’s commendable when studios attempt it, but it’s very difficult. You have a better chance with independent development because you’re allowed to break rules at the expense of your audience, at the expense of it being a mass market proposition.
"It’s up to developers. It always has been.”