Can stories be apolitical? We asked some video game writers and narrative designers

By Kirk McKeand, Friday, 31 May 2019 13:42 GMT

One of the most powerful movies about humanity’s environmental impact on our planet is a Disney-Pixar creation about an emotive, trash-compacting robot with a pet cockroach.

Wall-E manages to get its point across without feeling like it’s chastising its audience, even though it kind of is. Despite the fact the huge corporation behind it is likely responsible for more plastic in landfills than you or I ever will be, it manages to make its point and be poignant and entertaining while doing it. This is an animated movie that’s aimed at kids, and it’s much braver than most triple-A video games.

Of course, not every story needs to have a message, but there’s a growing trend of game creators making it very clear that their games have nothing to say about the subject matters they’re visibly encroaching on. I get it, it’s a business and they want to appeal to the widest market. But in avoiding the themes they’re dealing with, are these creators stunting their own medium? I asked some games writers to lend me their thoughts.

“It largely depends on how you define politics,” video game writer Rhianna Pratchett explains. “There are explicit and overt political ideologies and associated causes held by governmental powers – all of which are very much in the news at the moment. I think of this as Politics with a big P. Then there is perhaps more subtle forms of politics which are about the exploration of different social power dynamics – class, gender, race, religion, etc – in our society. More often than not art engages in small p politics, even if doesn’t overly express big P Politics. I guess a story could be apolitical, but it wouldn’t be very interesting as a story and wouldn’t have anything to say about the world or our place in it.”

Our place in the world is what defines us, after all. Our personalities are shaped by our experiences, and those experiences feed into our stories. The people we meet become parts of characters we create, and no amount of research on a topic can really undo this inherent bias within us all. Treachery in Beatdown City developer and writer Shawn Alexander Allen agrees.

“Whenever we start telling stories, they are by default from our perspective,” Allen says. “This means that the stories we tell are influenced by our biases, which includes our unconscious bias, something that takes a lot of work to understand, unpack, and write around. While many of us start telling stories as children with the ideas plucked from our innocent imaginations, those stories are still limited to who we are, what we know, and what is around us. It’s easier to make stories that accidentally uncover our own understanding of the world and expose our personal politics than it is to not.”

Not everyone agrees with this sentiment, however. Freelance games writer and narrative designer Chris Avellone believes stories can be apolitical, and that his are. “They may become political as societal norms change, but I believe it’s possible to do apolitical games,” he says. “I also don’t condemn [editor’s note: a previous version of this article said “condone” because of a typo from Avellone] developers who want to do political games or make a statement – I think a game is served better by asking a question, provide a range of perspectives on the question, but then leaving the answer to the player. I try to frame any politics in the parameters of the world, the lore, and the franchise.

“The reason I take this approach is because I view games as entertainment. If you’re purposely pushing an agenda or point of view in your game – especially a real-world one that’s clearly divorced from the game world – and you’re dictating that perspective as correct vs. asking a question or examining the perspective more broadly, then it’s left the gaming realm and the ‘game’ has become a pulpit.”

One of the points Avellone makes is in how writers often need to put distance between their characters and themselves. For example, if he’s working on a Star Wars villain – someone with reprehensible, unforgivable personal politics – that doesn’t mean that he himself believes those same things.

“When I do apolitical design, I don’t view the narrative as having nothing to say: instead, the stories may have something to say in the context of the game world – the game’s commentary may be simply on the game world, gods, factions, or some other aspect of the lore or franchise itself and ideally, the player is part of the story and not simply there to passively listen to what the game is saying, but what they can bring to the story and the world through interacting with it,” Avellone explains. “I think a game, especially a role-playing game, can have a considerable amount to say by examining what the player brings to the equation and players asking themselves what kind of character and what kind of player they are when confronted with a situation that’s not clearly black and white.”

Avellone believes that it’s his job as an entertainer to entertain, first and foremost, regardless of who is playing the game. In other words, making someone feel uncomfortable about a choice in a game is fine, but you shouldn’t break that fourth wall and gut punch them for their real world beliefs, in his view. For a publisher, this is also clearly the best solution, since they won’t limit their audience to certain political demographics. But as Rhianna Pratchett said, there are themes worth exploring out of binary Left and Right politics. Allen agrees that this is an area that needs more exploration in video games.

“The other conversations deal with the meanings behind games, artistic intent, the content games ‘can’ tackle, and how do games tackle that content, and when a triple-A game tackles complex themes poorly – such as racism, domestic abuse, religious cults, cultural theft, etc. – like a great deal of them do, the devs get defensive and start turtling, or keep going on and on with PR gaffs about how people don’t ‘get it’ or how ‘it’s like art, man, get over it’ or whatever,” Allen explains. “To avoid getting to that level of non apology, devs just seem to decline any knowledge of the politics they are dealing with, which only makes them seem more ignorant than anything. But for corporations, ignorance is bliss.

“I’d love to see triple-A games get the director equivalent of Ryan Coogler to Black Panther. While I feel like that movie had some missteps – Killmonger is a real one dimensional black liberation terrorist stereotype, why is a CIA operative a ‘good guy’? – Ryan at least says, ‘Yeah I stand behind these decisions and I’ll keep working to be better,’ and you can see his nuance on a smaller level. Honestly I think we need to see a huge shift in how studios are run, with directors who float from small projects to big projects, and who are no longer tethered to one studio for decades. This would allow triple-A game devs to own their smaller dumb mistakes, or their smaller genius ideas, and would allow them to get an idea out of their head in a smaller form, with a smaller budget, and perhaps inform their future development on these blockbusters.”

“Although there are many things stacked against writing in this industry, good art – and that’s what we’re trying to make, after all – has something to say about the world and our place in it,” Pratchett adds. “It dissects and explores. Makes us think, makes us question. If we’re not seeking to do that, then what’s the point?”

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