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Permanent decisions and infinite variety. Create a nomadic tribe and guide them across a randomly generated tundra to meet its God.
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Guys, Girls, and Massive Paper Spirit Monsters: Dev Update June 2013

Posted by Roxlou Games (Creator)

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.

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


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    1. Jonah Falcon on

      Looking forward to this.

    2. Missing avatar

      Jai on

      I'm glad that you are putting a lot of thought into this aspect of design. Keep up the good work!

    3. Rosveen on

      "This is my favorite Kickstarter update of all time."
      Agreed.Thanks for thinking this problem through, Roxlou! I really like your approach.

    4. Missing avatar

      John Sass on

      Very happy to see you take these issues seriously. Good work!

    5. S.D. on

      Wow, fantastic job, folks. I completely support your concept here, from the basic reasoning and design trade-offs, up to your proposed implementation. It's really amazing how subtle adjustments in culturally-enforced boundaries can really open up interesting story points, making the game a deeper and more memorable experience. Excited!

    6. Missing avatar

      Michael Contini-Morava on

      This is my favorite Kickstarter update of all time. For the record, I think you should go full random. Other tribes you meet might have weights in one direction or another towards particular gender roles, but randomize those as well. Don't let a single post on any forum anywhere make you reconsider doing any of this -- especially if they start to shift nervously and mumble about realism.

    7. Ryan Burke on

      Well I must say, you guys are taking a very mature approach to this. Integration of women into games has a danger for some to throw everything into the opposite direction. But you aren't shoving in our faces "LOOK! WOMEN! LOOK HOW EQUAL WE ARE BEING." This tends to happen these days in some companies, so your mature, truly equal approach is appreciated. Also, you need to wonder, what would your tribe think, stumbling upon a tribe with a female leader. In some tribalistic cultures that would be unheard of.
      Tread carefully friends, I love your concept so much, I don't want to see it twisted and torn apart like others I have witnessed. Don't let your game become someone else's tool. That has the capacity to being a downfall.

    8. Courtney Cullen on

      Great update guys. I feel like I'm in very safe hands.

    9. KogX on

      I like how the events will stay relativly the same but changes the people involved to help diversify the events. Keep up the good work!

    10. Patrick Marchand on

      I like how you are approaching gender representation, but also hope that you don't stick gender randomisation everywhere, make the gender problem a real part of the game so that we can drive our tribe to become whatever we want.

      And also yeah for the weird spirit guides, shape changing is a great part of archaic beliefs.

    11. Roxlou Games Creator on

      Yeah, it's not that the two issues necessarily lead to each other in a vacuum, but that they both point to an issue with under-representation in this particular case. It's more a general issue that many games have a narrow world view. "Women in games" is the conversation that opened the door, but the dialog is much broader.

    12. Missing avatar

      Patrick on

      Well, I like the diverse amount cultural possibilities, but I'm not sure how women's rights and transgenderism are correlated. At all. I guess it's because this is whats in the progressive gaming news.

    13. Roxlou Games Creator on

      @Cuddly Tiger
      For sure, if we decide to have one tribe judge make judgement based on sex/gender we'd want the different tribes to have different values.


    14. Roxlou Games Creator on

      @Saul Escobar
      We're going to do a separate update in a little bit regarding more up-to-date time estimates, but the short version is that things are progressing with everything pushed out a bit. Considering that the original estimates were made really early on we're still tracking pretty well.

    15. Missing avatar

      Saul Escobar on

      Any update on how things are coming along for beta?

    16. Cuddly Tiger

      On the question of how other tribes should treat gender differences, would it be possible to have a set of possibilities and pick one randomly for each tribe? Thus some tribes might treat genders equally, while others might value them very differently. (You could also allow the player to choose a single option that would then apply to every tribe in a playthrough, if they want more predictability.)