The Witcher 3 received sweeping acclaim. It won every award possible. It was the ‘definition of next-gen’.
I found it painful to play.
It was overwhelmingly straight. Geralt, the main character, would sex anything that moved without exuding any of the rascal-debonair sexuality that usually comes with those hyper-masculine characters.
He was just a walking piece of white toast to me. And yet every maiden, sorcerer, prostitute and washerwoman spread her legs for him on sight. By the way, he was literally covered in shit for half of the game. No, really, he took exactly three baths in 200+ hours of gameplay.
The Witcher 3 was definitely a straight male fantasy. It’s the game I think about when people talk about poorly constructed diverse characters.
Every queer character is either murdered or the butt of a joke. Half of the female population are just prostitutes – not women with families who do sex work, not undercover spies luring a rich client only to garrote him for information – they’re “just whores”.
So on that note, I want to talk about something that has been needling at us for a long time- crafting ‘good’ diverse characters for video games.
There are countless incredible articles like this one by Evan Narcisse. That will go into how games do it badly. Everything from horribly designed black hair, to queer characters that are just fodder for bad jokes – we’ve seen it, we’ve played it, we’re angry as hell.
But I think we have a different perspective to offer.
You see Couple Six is an entirely non-white studio. Three out of five members are black women. Some of us are queer. Yet, we still find ourselves falling into representation traps, especially if we’re not careful.
Let’s start with a wide brush stroke:
Diverse writers do not always create good diverse characters.
It is not enough to be gay, to write a compelling gay character.
Your skin doesn’t give you the privilege to talk for your race, neither does your gender identity make you an authority on trans experiences of every kind in every place. We all know the countless examples of people overreaching. The white feminists who tell the woman clad in a burqa that she has to surrender it to live her best life. Or the gay man living in San Francisco who tells the one living in Jamaica that they should ‘embrace their truth’ and ‘come out and live openly’.
There’s more at stake when you’re trying to craft representative characters – a lot more.
These are super complex problems that don’t have easy solutions. We’re not going to offer any either, we’re just going to tell you the things we’ve learned from working on Le Loupgarou up to this point.
When we started working on this game, we wanted to tell this really commanding story about Bertha. She was going to be epic. She was going to be powerful. She was going to be empoweri-
-she was largely ignored for the first eight months that we worked on Le Loupgarou.
In the first prototype, she was nothing more than a prop. She stole something from the Loup’s mansion and you had to follow her scent trail, avoiding enemies and navigating a thinly populated village.
She could have been replaced with a white man, a dog, or a sexy lamp. It wouldn’t have made any gameplay difference. She had no agency, no power, no reason to be Bertha.
Yet here we were, surrounding ourselves with literature about black Caribbean women, steeped up to our eyeballs in that experience because more than half of our team was actually living it day in day out.
And still, we were getting it so wrong.
How did this happen?
Focusing on mechanics. Struggling to push demos for conventions. Saying ‘we’ll get to that when the movement is better’. Trying not to alienate too many people too quickly.
Take your pick, there are countless things that go into the game-making process, but we’ve had to learn that for our team we have to constantly, pause, process, improve.
We returned to our narrative and tried to unpack all of the things that made Bertha awesome.
So we fleshed out her backstory and fought long with uncoupling her from the series of historical events and data that propped her up.
History has a way of saying things like ‘Black Caribbean women mostly did this thing in this way at this time’. But we know intrinsically that human beings are so much more than their historical moment. We are so much more than a tapestry of expected outcomes.
We wanted to her to be at the forefront of the 1930s riots that took place in Barbados. We wanted her to use her employer’s clothing to dupe the colonial elite into letting her speak at rallies. We wanted her to not just have a voice, but for that voice to have power and authority and consequence.
We still have a long way to go in building Bertha, but we’re trying to be as aware as possible at every step.
There’s a Caribbean writer, Jean Rhys, who used to say that she was only interested in ‘Getting it right, getting it as it really was.’
I think a lot of devs, whose goals are similar to ours, think the same way.
But getting it right, getting it truly right, means crafting complex and whole beings. It means not allowing for props. It means being committed to good writing.
It means that you sometimes have to pause, regroup, get some feedback, ask some hard questions, and go again.
Here’s to Bertha,