Hi all, I’m creating an interactive fiction at the moment and-- full disclosure-- I’m not certain yet if I am using COG or another system to create the final work-- but that’s not what this post is about.
The time period my story takes place in is late 1920’s. Though eventually supernatural elements do occur in the story, the world is firmly rooted in a fairly realistic and authentic (I hope) version of that time period-- leaning more toward a 1940’s film noir pulp detective style mixed with some action/adventure horror. Think The Maltese Falcon meets the 1990’s remake of The Mummy for tone.
In no version of the game will I use ugly racial or homophobic/ transphobic slurs- even when dealing with nasty characters with tiny brains up to no good.
In no version of the game will any sex be graphically depicted or described- There are moments of passion and then- like old cinema- the aftermath. This isn’t an erotic story, nor is the romance more than a single element- and if you are familiar with noir, you know that romance is messy and full of betrayals etc.
I had originally started writing the game experience from the point of view of an already established character, as if you were The Third Person watching/reading and influencing the protagonists decisions and reading their own very personal inner monologue about their own thoughts, feelings, and memories etc.
I made this decision because, while I know it makes the character less of a role the player fills and experiences, it also allows for easier layering of depth and history; like watching a movie and getting to decide what the established main character does, yet knowing that character is not supposed to be YOU.
Being a white binary male, and also knowing the complexities of discrimination in the time 1920’s I started the work with a binary white male protagonist --an anti-hero really, since this is pulp detective noir.
Of course, we live in more (mostly) enlightened times and I realize that in a Game Book or work of Interactive Fiction there are often a lot of expectations of personalizing the main character to suit the individuals tastes.
I don’t want the player to feel like they were forced to play a role created by someone who doesn’t care about who they are or who they want to pretend to be in a game. This of course complicates things.
I don’t want to have the game take place in a fantasy version of the world that is idealized so that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist there. The story has a lot of good vs evil and such prejudices are as evil as it gets and I feel they should be addressed. It also feels like white washing history if I avoid addressing discrimination-- even though I realize many players of game books are looking to escape awful things like prejudices.
I don’t want to pretend that stupid people with prejudices weren’t everywhere in the 1920’s and that they weren’t in power. I also don’t want to make a story where every character is white and binary to avoid the issue-- you know, classic Hollywood.
I also realized of course that in sensitive matters of allowing the player to choose their race, their outward gender appearance, and their sexual calling (Binary, Non-Binary, Asexual) it might present a minefield of offensive or unintentionally hurtful experiences:
Player Characters that outwardly appear female will face discrimination. Does it make great drama? Sure. Is it fun? It can certainly be frustrating and hurtful.
Player Characters that are non-white will be barred from entering many places and even met with hostility. The potential for drama and exploring ugly truths about history is there, but how awful an experience is this to try and “choose your way” through?
Player Characters that make romantic choices that go outside of the accepted binary roles of the time period could face terrible consequences if the wrong people notice-- again, great drama-- but is the stress and hurtfulness of that experience too much for a game?
The thing is, this game is NOT about racism, sexism, or homophobia-- those elements only come into play if I try to include race and sexuality in character customization and treat the game world as somewhat historically accurate.
What do I mean by historically accurate?
Well, there will be good people in the world who will accept the player character no matter who they are of course, and there will also be some people JUST like the player character too-- though they will be dealing with the burden of what 1920’s society is putting them through.
Many men will treat female characters as lesser people- which can be frustrating but also offer chances for female characters to use that sexist outlook against the idiots who underestimated them.
There will also be people who are just scared and stupid who will treat the player badly or avoid them if they are of a minority our known to be non-binary.
And then, naturally there will be purely despicable terrible people who would mean to do the player harm because of their sexuality or race.
There would be potential romance available, but non-binary characters would have to be extra careful about who they develop feelings for or get close to because being vulnerable to the wrong person can be catastrophic.
If the player approaches a character of another race romantically that could lead to explosive results as well if not handled with utmost discretion.
It’s the 1920’s. It’s way too common for people to be killed for being different. Lots of ugliness and minefields.
So, that’s what I mean by historically accurate.
Now, I can go the easy way with all of this heavy stuff and ditch it by:
Never describing anyone in racial or ethnic terms-- This may becomes an issue if I let the player character be a person of color but leave in any plot points that have race involved (for example I do have one subplot where an innocent black man is accused of crimes and the player must decide what to risk to do the right thing and help them).
I could totally leave out gender descriptions and gender related ideas for the player character and apply them only to non player characters-- which I feel misses a lot of dramatic possibility.
I could just make every romantic partner possibility in the world bisexual and depending on if the player wins them over or has feelings for them the romance just happens regardless of what “society” of the day felt. It makes the work easier for me-- but I admit it also makes the NPC’s start to feel less like they belong to the game world of that time period. That may just be my own mental baggage though.
So the easy way certainly can work-- But it chips away greatly at the reality of the historical representation of the time.
Also, as ugly as the times were for those who were not white or male, there is power in the drama of someone who has been treated with hostility by society when they rise up anyway and struggle to do the right thing in the face of greater dangers-- and I feel like that potential gets lost if I go “the easy way”.
I could circumvent a lot of the backward and vile societal norms of the 1920’s by setting the game in modern times of course, but honestly losing the setting/time period takes a lot of the prohibition era fun out of it for me. The lack of certain technologies and scientific knowledge, as well as the state of global politics really makes the game I have outlined run much smoother and make more sense in the 1920’s. In a modern setting there are over a hundred things I would have to change or throw out just to make some of the events I have in mind work or seem remotely plausible.
So, I am asking for opinions-
Do I create a version of the 1920’s with all it’s ugly aspects intact, AND let the player customize their race and their sexuality overtly at the start-- and have the world react to those choices in ways that seem real for the time?
Is asking a player to choose a character’s racial background and/or their sexuality in and of itself something too insensitive or obnoxious? Even if utmost care is taken to use these aspects intelligently and in as best taste as the subject/time period allows?
Do I create a version of the 1920’s where (with the possible exception of one story-line where a black man is accused unfairly of a crime) I never mention or make use of the players gender or race and that no NPC treats anyone different than anyone else regarding race or gender? In this world any potential romantic partners are available to the player regardless of race or gender as long as the player wins then over. Keeping in mind once more, this game is not a romance game or erotic.
I would really appreciate thoughts and feedback on this dilemma. I admit the worry over which CHOICE to make has derailed my work for the moment.