The only way I learn things in life is the hard way. It's appropriate enough, then, that my first post be about something I screwed up. I'm going to discuss an interactive dialogue I produced and the controversy it promoted, so if you'd like to come at it clean, why not take five minutes and have a play first. As an (assumed) gamer, I'm really interested to hear your unbiased thoughts.
Some time ago I produced a dialogue tree using hyperlinks in MS Word. It featured Ethie, a young, very dim girl whose mental condition, it transpired, was down to the local apothecary routinely issuing her rohypnol-like 'medicine'. It alluded to, but didn't make explicit, topics like date rape and sex trafficking. Before the player discovers the more sinister truth behind the scenario it also featured some jokes. It can conclude with the player failing to discover anything untoward; discovering the the apothecary's lecherous ways but failing to make the connection with the 'medicine'; or unravelling the truth, dealing with the apothecary, and observing the decimal point in Ethie's IQ move one spot to the right.
Every couple of weeks I go out with a bunch of non-games writers on Brick Lane in East London. We do writery things like read stuff, swap notes, and try to pour drinks without the barmaid noticing. After six weeks' drying out, my laptop had finally recovered from the glass of water I poured over it and I figured I'd celebrate by mixing things up with a bit of Ethie. I didn't particularly expect anyone to 'get it', but I was genuinely taken aback by the violently negative reaction it received.
"People say I get in the way a lot. I don't know why. I try to stand in nice, quiet spots, but somehow I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can we still be friends?"
Where I'd tried to write Ethie as endearingly daft, my friends saw Carry On style humour. Where I'd written genuine gratitude, they saw sexual inequality. Where I'd tried to segue from humour into darker drama, they'd seen perverse gratification.
"I just feel… clearer, better about myself. And it's thanks to you."
I don't for a second believe that this isn't to some degree down to the (mixed gender, age 30 - 50) group's prejudices. One friend's response before he'd even read the dialogue was, "Is this a writing or a video game circle?" despite his comfort with every other medium from poetry to screenplay. Someone else suggested the objective of helping Ethie couldn't be a true motivation for the player because she wasn't a real person, which is really so ignorant as to be insulting, not to mention a direct attack on fiction as a whole.
I also fully realise that I could have handled the writing a lot better. The light-hearted jokes were a risk given the context. A more believable, dramatic tone would have worked a lot better. Having Ethie's personality manifest a lot stronger in the 'good' ending would have gone some way towards better representing the gender as a whole.
Finally, I suspect there are plenty of implicit assumptions we make as gamers that render dialogues like this much more sanitary territory. We know our objective is to help Ethie; we know the game won't let us indulge in date rape; we're accustomed to unpredictable changes in tone as we wander around a game world at will.
The Real Issue
What scares me, though, is that I suspect the real problem here is how conditioned I've become to accept characters, gameplays and scenarios that would be abhorrent to a non-gamer. I know I'm not the only PS3 owner to have used Heavy Rain (as grown up, story centric a game as we tend to get) as a way to entice non-gamers into the medium. Looking back on it though - with Madison's early near-rape scene and later gratuitous, interactive stripping - it's easy to argue that parts of it were a truly vile experience indeed.
My entire career is centred on a drive to lift interactive narrative into a more mature, balanced and valuable place. I'm no sexist. I don't get turned on by vulnerable, drugged up girls - unless they're my girlfriend, it's self-induced, and I'm too blitzed to fight her off. If I've simply had a good idea in Ethie that I've implemented badly, that's a cock up I can live with (or ideally correct).
What scares me is the possibility that I've been so boxed in by the established video game convention of damsels in distress and player empowerment that not only do I fail to recognise a vile piece of writing when I see it, but that I'm the one producing it.