How Recent Outrages Made Me Question My Writing

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This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

Hello everyone, keeping with the tradition of Elysian Shadows being as open and as public about game development as possible, I am going to write about something, well, rather unpleasant that I found out about myself recently.

I will preface this, however, with how writing in Elysian Shadows is handled. The whole story idea is handled by Falco and Tyler. Dan and I can suggest what to add/change, but ultimately everything’s up for discussion amongst us all, and so far there hasn’t been a thing that we couldn’t agree on after having a civil debate. Also, the rest of the team are well-known not-givers of fucks (Falco and Tyler with their Alabama redneckness, and Dan with his British sass), so we don’t really have to worry about Elysian Shadows self-censoring itself as a whole. I am going to talk about me from my point of view. Also, I want to stress the point that I am Polish. English language and culture is—and always will be—somewhat foreign to me, so if any of you want to take offense, please ask for clarification first—chances are things got lost in translation. And now, without further ado:

I, as Art Lead, am significantly contributing to the “background lore” of the universe, writing about cultures, past history, and so on. After all, I am designing how these people dress, how their cities look and what their environment looks like. It makes it easier for me to have some sort of lore backstory for what I draw, so I naturally write something, submit it to rest of the team for discussion, and then we move on.

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The above is an example of design shaped by culture and the people’s toxic environment. Their culture shuns showing bare skin and especially eyes; nowadays it’s largely ceremonial and of minimal use, but in the past, long ago, it saved lives.

However, I was part of the gamedev scene one way or another for the past few years (mostly as a spectator, more recently as a participant) and that left a considerable mark on me. I saw gamedevs that were fighting against “games cause violence” now supporting “games cause sexism”. I saw gamedevs being threatened and labeled as sexists if they did not comply with the angry mob. Most recently I saw gamedevs apologising for a drawing of a barmaid.

And then I realized, just yesterday, I was already censoring myself too. “Will it upset someone?” “Will it cause outrage?” “Will I be called sexist for writing a sexist character in the game?” Questions like these were lingering and now the shadow of doubt cast on everything I wrote in the past two years. How can I wholly portray the entire world if I restrain myself from certain topics? In Elysian Shadows‘ history, we have people destroying entire swathes of land, starving and poisoning entire countries, committing genocide, murdering entire civilizations, slaughtering men, women, and children without exception, committing crimes against humanity, experimenting on live subjects … And yet I didn’t write a culture that was homophobic for fear of offending someone. As I write this, I wonder bitterly: out of all these topics, what’s more relevant in this day and age? How many countries have sexual discrimination problems and in how many does being homosexual warrant jail time or even the death penality? (Bonus points for checking out how Poland stands on the issue.)

I can see some people seeing it as a good thing—that my drive to not offend anyone was noble and just and I did right, not wanting to trigger people. But I disagree with that. Examples of bad behaviour are just as important—perhaps even more important—than good ones. Most of my views have been shaped by seeing the bad that people did, and what I shouldn’t perpetuate, alongside seeing the right. I remember my parents’ tales of communism and censorship of that era, I listened to tales of people’s homes being raided by militia because they had dared to be “too political”. I saw my childhood friends being pushed to fulfill their parents’ dreams and what it did to them. I saw what poverty, true poverty, does to people. I saw people bullied at school and I was bullied myself, being an immigrant. I saw what happens when people don’t love each other anymore and decide to lie instead. But all these experiences made me grow, made me a better person. I saw what exactly happens when you do something bad and why you shouldn’t do that, why we should strive to be better people.

Games are uniquely qualified to put us in someone’s else shoes, in a safe environment. They can take aspects of our society and exaggerate them, in order to show what really is bad or good about it. They can take a white, rich, heterosexual man, and make him play the role of a poor elf who is discriminated against in a fictional world. They can explain the death of a dear friend to someone who is too young yet to have lost anyone. They can force pacifists to choose between brainwashing entire sentient species or xenocide—a crime of a magnitude that the human brain struggles to comprehend. They can show everything that we subconsciously hate about ourselves in a new context, forcing us to confront and examine it, or reveal the hardships of living in a totalitarian state, or what war does to common folk.

We can experience fictional worlds as our own, examine them, and draw conclusions. Through the lens of gaming we can learn something about others and about ourselves. But if any other gamedevs think like I do (and a lot probably do, as I’m hardly a unique snowflake), we could very well lose a lot of that. This recent re-emergence of puritanism, of outrage culture, dissuades gamedevs from certain topics, consciously or otherwise. How can we examine the worst of humanity if we’re at risk of being labeled as such for doing so?

Fortunately, I have recognized my own biases and can re-examine my work in time. Fortunately, our team as a whole embraces difficult topics, and encourages discussing them. Fortunately, Elysian Shadows simply doesn’t give a fuck. But if recent months are indicative of a larger trend, amongst gamedevs we seem to be in the minority.

[Editor’s Note: the above editorial was re-published with the author’s permission.]

Patryk Kowalik

About

Patryk Kowalik is art lead for Elysian Shadows project. Responsible for everything from the design and concept art, down to very last pixel art tile and frame of animation. Previously freelancing in game development as an artist since 2012.