In 2013 Nörttitytöt was involved in organizing GameOverHate, a week-long event related to the No Hate Speech Movement with the purpose of finding ways to combat hate speech in online game environments. I had the honor and pleasure to be one of the 30-ish people who attended the event, and Aino Harvola (my lovely editor collegue, who was also one of the organizers) wrote an excellent walkthrough of our experiences.
Among the bunch of awesome people were two Dutch game developers deeply invested in the issue. Roy van der Schilden and Bart Heijltjes are two of the founders in a studio called Wispfire, and last year I went to GamesDiversityJam in Amsterdam with them. In October, 2014, they announced their first commercial title Herald, an interactive period drama about colonialism, set in an alternate 19th century setting. It addresses topics such as inequality and oppression, so naturally I – among many others – was highly curious how they have approached these issues in their game.
I had a chance to talk with these two dear friends of mine as well as Nick Witsel, the person in charge of their marketing. Roy is the lead writer and business director of Wispfire and Bart the creative director and lead 3D artist.
Roy: Herald is our answer to “more diversity in games”. It is an attempt to make a video game that not only is “diverse” but actually explores what diversity means to people and our society.
My personal inspirations for the writing of Herald is my research and the interviews I did with people from various backgrounds trying to create a life in an environment that sees them as outsiders in some form or way. I also read several novels on this topic, like ‘Max Havelaar’ by Multatuli, ‘Things fall apart’ by Chinua Achebe and ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G. Farrell. These three books were my main inspirations for the colonial setting.
Bart: For me, we picked the setting of the 19th century as the defining period from which sprung the Modern Age. The industrial revolution meant that people were coming to the cities in droves; transport over long distances was becoming available for many people for the first time in history. As the nation state solidified and public education became common, so did the ordering of society that is still very influential today; human rights, first wave feminism, communism was first formulated as was state-capitalism.
When you talk about multicultural societies, the 19th century was so influential in so many ways. It saw the creation of ’empire’ in our modern sense as well as the seed of nationalism and its downfall.
Niina: Did you consider any other settings for this theme than colonialism?
Roy: We actually started with the 19th century as a setting, and colonialism just seemed to fit perfectly in our story. It was something that shaped the world as we know it today.
Though in the very early stages we also had an idea for a near future politics game and a psychological thriller but those were very early ideas and we ended up at 19th century colonialism almost immediately after that.
Niina: I guess that was indeed a pretty optimal setting to explore the issues of multicultural society and racism. I know that as a studio, you want to make games that are more than entertainment and discuss real-life issues in our society. Out of all the possible problems in today’s world, why did you settle on colonialism and the inequality, prejudice and oppression it causes?
Bart: Because it’s still so relevant today and we’re under the impression that outside of academic circles it’s not much talked about. In western countries people are only vaguely aware of this history, when it’s defining for the privileges they enjoy today as well as the way their countries are viewed by the populations of other nations.
Roy: Colonialism profoundly changed the world and now in the post-colonial era we seem to forget that it had such an impact. We can talk about diversity and race and gender and whatnot for hours looking at it from our 21st century point of view. But you will never fully understand the topic if you don’t explore the history that gave rise to this issue.
(Bart also mentions his affection for steamboats, though sadly he wasn’t allowed to put one in the game – to which Roy quickly protests it’s only due to production constraints.)
Niina: If (and hopefully when) Herald is a success, do you plan on exploring the same theme further by games in the same world or move on to tackle a different issue in a different setting?
Bart: We’re not certain yet; but we do have plenty of ideas for themes and areas of the world we could explore in the same universe.
Roy: We’ll always be thinking about new game ideas and story-worlds in which they take place. But if Herald turns out to be a success, its setting has many interesting topics that can be explored in new games.
Bart: I think it would be interesting to see what else the Protectorate gets up to; and how it responds to the events that unfold in Herald.
Niina: What kind of themes would you like to incorporate into your next game?
Bart: That’s something we want to do for certain; but I’m not sure the Herald universe would be the best universe for it.
Roy: No, that would be a different universe, and a different game altogether.
Bart: Within Herald’s world, I’d like to further develop the forming of the nation state and the national identity… or possibly robber capitalism, maybe linked to the Scramble for Africa.
Roy: Herald takes place in a very specific time, it is an age of change. The Herald is one of the last great sailing ships and steamships are the latest trend.
It is also interesting to see the world of Herald change and its characters adapt to the new technologies.
Nick: And how all of this relates to our own world and time.
Niina: I read that you interviewed marginalized people to get a better understanding of what it feels like to “live between worlds” as a multicultural person. Was there any surprises along the way? Did you have to rewrite a lot of dialogue or story to correct any “white male prejudices”? Bioware did the same thing while writing the transgender side character in Dragon Age Inquisition and I hear it brought up some surprising challenges for them.
Roy: Well, I’ve learned that it’s a minefield of human emotion. Very few things are rational so to say, most of it is a matter of perspective.
This sounds cold, but to one white South African game developer South Africa feels like it’s discriminating against white people to make up for apartheid somehow. But looking at this from the perspective of a black person this would sound ridiculous and they would state the contrary. Weird thing is, usually both are right. They stand on two sides of an issue in which both have valid arguments… This makes it very difficult to say anything about it without have at least someone who will be up in arms because they feel otherwise.
But what I’ve learned from that minefield, is that you should just walk it. The backlash you get is food for discussion and ultimately that is what we are making Herald for. To make people want to talk about it.
Bart: Although we haven’t really gotten any backlash yet to be honest.
Nick: Yeah, thus far people have been pretty interested and open for discussion.
Niina: The feedback on Herald really seems to be mostly positive. You seriously haven’t encountered any haters throwing negative commentary on your game?
Roy: I think people are happy that we at least do something with it. Whether it is good or not doesn’t really matter now, that will matter when they play it and hate/love it. Right now most reactions are “THANK GOD someone is making this game happen”.
Nick: Also, our game revolves around choices, so it’s not like we’re pushing a specific perspective down people’s throats.
Bart: Well, I’ve also seen some responses from people who see that we are doing the research and trying to tell a complicated story rather than force one conclusion or another.
Niina: You may be right about that. In any case, that is very surprising and an extremely pleasant thing to hear!
Niina: What has been the biggest challenge(s) so far during the development of the game?
Bart: Overcoming our technical deficiencies as we don’t have highly technical backgrounds and are trying to make a reasonably complex game.
Roy: The first hurdle was scaling the project to something that we can manage. We’re not that big so we had to throw some big ideas out of the window. Also to make the ones that we kept even better and more polished.
(At this point Bart bitterly brings up the steamboats again.)
Nick: From a more marketing perspective it’s also been quite a challenge to generate enough reach. Seeing how we’re a small developer, freshly graduated, from a small country. Going to events generally becomes a lot more expensive when there’s an ocean inbetween. But having an original game with an original and topical theme definitely helps.
Bart: I wonder if it sometimes hurts us that we’re trying to tell a complicated story. Perhaps we’d be more ‘shareable’ if we threw out a lot of nuance. But I’m not sure that’s what we want.
Nick: Not sure that’d help. It’s the nuance which makes us stand out I think.
Roy: It would ignite another useless internet flame war. While for once, we want to talk like grown-ups with Herald. By playing a videogame, yeah, playing games like grown-ups do.
Niina: Final question: I’m under the impression GameOverHate was the final push towards the decision to focus on games with a deeper meaning. Can you share any lessons learned from the conference that you guys apply in game design?
Roy: Hmm, well I learned that, even if you have a common goal, there are many ways to get there. In our story design I like to use that. Some solutions are more head-on, others are more diplomatic and some are just down right insane but somehow magically work.
Bart: I personally became a lot more aware of how the dominant the narrative of the majority social group can be and how important it is to listen to other voices.
Roy: Even at GameOverHate we were talking a lot about women’s issues and gay rights because there were many women and gays there. But the video of the muslim man talking about his experience with online hate in video games was something none of us ever thought about. As a minority, you can sometimes even be blind to the plight of other minorities.
Bart: Yeah, keep your eyes and ears open.
Roy: Being a minority doesn’t make you an expert on all these issues. Just because you are part of a minority doesn’t mean you know it all.
Bart: Also it helped to see that there are people who are, perhaps, interested in games that try to tackle these kinds of themes.
Roy: And it confirmed my intent to make games about these issues, rather than talks or articles about how games need to be more diverse. I want to make games, because that’s what we’re good at.
Herald is now on Kickstarter so go out there, try the demo and become a backer if the game tickles your fancy. I know I personally am in desperate need of that artbook and I commend Wispfire’s attempt at making the world a tiny bit of a better place.
Images: Heraldgame.com press kit