Thursday, 30 July 2009

The White Man

I try to read a bunch of interesting game blogs, because they can provide some interesting food for thought. One blog I read regularly is GamePolitics, which today ran a piece about some research about depictions of race and gender in games which came to the conclusion that the vast majority of games depict white male characters. Setting aside the games in which the player avatar is an anthropomorphosised animal, the disembodied hand of a whimsical deity, or a vehicle of some kind, this is something which generally rings true, and it's hardly new information that games have a tendency towards racial and gender bias. Game designers, myself included, generally follow stereotypes of their own - typically the nerdy kids who were bullied in school, and who never quite grew up into Proper Grown-Ups who have a Real Job. Games can be pretty infantile, sometimes to the point of being downright offensive, and I think it's because more often than not (and I'm aware I'm generalising here) they're made by white males who never quite grew out of their awkward teenager period, and consequently only know how to make games for awkward white teenage boys.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the protagonist in Lemon Scented Games' current work-in-progress. In my mind, the protagonist is a white male - perhaps because I am one myself, and my "default setting" when called-upon to imagine a human character is to imagine something a bit like myself. But the game is in such early stages, the protagonist could be altered to be anyone. Perhaps I could be a bit more open-minded, and make my character black, or latino, or asian, or a woman or someone with a disability? Perhaps it could be a white guy, but be gay, or a lesbian?

I considered this idea, but right now I'm not sure I can run with it. A lot of the character's attributes and personality is up for grabs right now, but there are a few things I need in order to tell the story I want to tell:

1 - They work in a paint factory
2 - They have a family
3 - They are a recognisable archetype: not someone who the player would aspire to become, particularly, but the kind of person that the player can easily identify aspects of in themselves, or in someone they know.

It's surprising how limiting those things can be from a storytelling perspective, in choosing a character. As an indie developer, the games have to be very much focussed around one or two core ideas because there just isn't the time to add more (not to mention that adding stuff which is extraneous to the central core idea or mechanic just strikes me as plain bad design). If I made the protagonist a black, or hispanic, or asian factory worker, I'd be worried about how that would look in the context of people who earn a living working in factories, and I don't want to tell a story about how racial discrimination affects the kind of jobs people can get. I've worked in factories, so it's something I know about. If I made a game about someone of a different ethnicity working in a factory, I'd be worried that I'd be perceived as making some kind of statement I didn't intend to make.

If I make the protagonist gay, I'd feel like I had to explain how they came to have a family, and that seems extraneous to the story I want to tell as well. I guess the protagonist could be a woman, but frankly I've tried writing female characters before, and I'm appalling at it - and, although I'd hope that some people who would play this game are women who are breadwinners for their family, who would identify with a female protagonist (assuming I could get some help to make the writing convincing), I can't help but wonder whether the male players would wonder why their avatar is an ordinary woman rather than the leather-clad gun-toting vixens they're used to.

So, although this game won't be among those that is progressive in terms of depictions of the protagonist, I think a white male is the "default setting" blank canvas I need to tell this story. I feel like anything else would be tokenism, or would require extra storytelling which would detract from what I really want to say. While I was writing this post, I was thinking about Jason Rohrer's excellent game Passage, and wondering whether he ever considered making the couple in it multiracial, or gay. I suspect not - although if he did consider it, I can only presume he decided against it because it was extraneous to his story of the interplay between life, death, companionship and happiness. Perhaps it's the case that in some games, the choice of a white male protagonist is just lazy or pandering to an audience, but perhaps in other cases it's an attempt (flawed though it may be) to have a "default setting" to tell a story which doesn't need to concern itself with overtones about race or gender or sexuality.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Story So Far

It feels sort of weird starting a new blog now, given how long we've been working already. But I imagine people are probably new to Lemon Scented Games and what we're doing, so I'll start from the beginning.

My name is Jack Sinclair, and I make games. I've been making games for about 20 years now - some of them were even for Proper Reputable Companies You Would Have Heard Of(tm), and sold quite well, but a lot of them were made in my room and sold independently. I was doing this before The Internet became famous, when games got advertised in paper magazines, and when people would post me cheques in exchange for me sending them hand-copied floppy discs by snail-mail. I feel old. Anyway, a lot of that stuff stopped for many years whilst I went out and got a degree and a series of "real jobs", but at some point in 2007, some friends and I thought that it would be good to get back into it. We spent a looooooong time arguing about designs, and trying out ideas, but at the start of this year we settled on the game we want to make, and Lemon Scented Games was born. This blog is about the making of that game.

It doesn't have a name yet; or rather, it has a working title, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to share it yet, because working titles have a tendency to sometimes be a bit misleading. Anyway, it's about a guy who works in a paint factory. "Why, that's an incredibly dull profession for a videogame protagonist", I hear you remark. Well:

a) Mario is a plumber. A plumber. And people still like his games.

b) This paint factory has been designed according to the Willy Wonka school of factory design. Imagine that you're Gordon Freeman, but that Black Mesa isn't a research facility for theoretical physics, but a research facility for outstanding interior design, and maybe you're getting close. Or maybe not.

Anyway, Lemon Scented Games has been really quiet on the Internet for a while, mostly because I've been struggling with paint physics, which is an astonishingly difficult thing to get right. Here's what we had working back in March:

That video was kind of a fake. Well, not quite a fake, but an optimistic rendition of what we had. Paint physics means modelling fluids. There are two approaches to doing fluids, and the one we've chosen is to do it as a particle system, using the impressively-named "smoothed particle hydrodynamics". This can be quite a strain even on a modern PC, and what that video shows is 3,000 particles of fluid at about 20 frames per second, which we sped up a bit to 30FPS in the video as an idea of what we thought the engine might be capable of. After another 4 months of really hard work, we've got that up to 10,000 particles running at 30FPS on a processor, or considerably more than that if we do all of the physics on a graphics card. The fluid physics is also a lot more stable now - you'll notice at points in the video (particularly at the end) the tendency for the paint to 'Asplode everywhere under certain circumstances. We've got that worked out now.

Long story short, we reckon we can have a lot of paint splashing about all over your screen, and we're confident that we can make a kick-ass game out of it. Expect new updates soon showing a bit of what the latest version is capable of, and keep checking in for my random thoughts about game design and programming. I hope that as well as talking about the game, this place can become somewhere to visit for anyone with an interest in indie games, or game development in general.

Hello, World!

Testing, testing... One, two... One, two...