Video games are the most engaging media, because the consumer is not just watching the final product or reading and fantasizing something that an author tries to deliver. He is literally a part of the product, he interacts with the world; changes it. Therefore, games can be meaningful and make a great impact on someone’s life. And some games do it well. For example: “Spec: Ops The Line” realistically highlights the horrors of war and PTSD or “The Beginner’s Guide” that tells us a story of self-deception and self-realization. There are a lot of “serious” games and personally, there have been more games than films or books that left me in tears. Still, we need more games that try to emphasize some harder issues and themes. This is what we are trying to achieve in our game Upheaval. Essentially, it’s a revolution simulator where you must manage your team and obtain popularity among the nation to bring back freedom from the hands of a dictator. All this is spiced with politics and hot debatable topics that challenge your moral compass by letting you decide which methods to use; peaceful or terroristic. We want to tell you how we tried to make a game that’s not offensive but also emotionally powerful. Recently, we often sacrifice one for the sake of the other.
Well, if you want to make a game about something, its message must be worth spreading and you must relate to it. The theme must kindle a fire inside of you, otherwise in times of doubt you will abandon your work. And, undoubtedly, you are going to go through some hard times while developing a game, especially one where you try to disclose complex topics and talk about the philosophy of being. You don’t have to relate 100% to the topic you are trying to highlight, but you must be able to draw parallels with yourself and understand the essence of the theme. For example, in our case we focus on the 2012 Arab Spring events, authoritarian regimes and people inside such systems. I was not there and I could not possibly know how it felt when the police killed people on Tahrir Square. But my relatives have died at the hands of dictators and I know first-hand how it is to live in a country with limited human rights.
First of all, research your main theme and related subjects. It’s impossible to deliver any project without fundamentally understanding it. And when you touch on a lot of topics, you need a lot of theory work on each of them. Do your preparation work, learn basic economics and political concepts, because they go hand in hand and push each other. You must know who stands for certain beliefs and why (why is someone a communist? Research their psychological portrait and what all communists have in common – pun unintended), the history of each movement also plays a major role because history is cyclical (or it might be, but it’s a nice explanation by Arthur Schlesinger). Please don’t be like certain people nowadays who don’t even know what Liberalism is or who Voltaire is.
After preparation work, you need to devote yourself to objectively learning each specific detail of the topic that you want to touch on in your project. Why has the government been established this way, why have people put up with it until now, why do they revolt today, what has changed? Try to interpret the situation from 3rd person point of view first, then imagine how people involved in it have felt, what would you do in their place? Try to understand what guided each decision. No one abandons their daily life and family to start a revolution without a reason. Also, it’s not that likely that the dictator is a crazy psychopath that decided to kill his own people and destroy his country for nought. What would force him to maintain his post by sacrificing his country’s liberty, what would you do in his place? Be as objective as possible. Even if you dislike empathizing with the actions of someone, you have to do it, otherwise you are biased. And being biased is the worst thing you can do while making a product revolving politics. Be open to any opinion. Only by analyzing others you can draw conclusions. Never criticize or deal in absolutes; you are not a Sith, we believe in presumption of innocence after all.
Always ask yourself why you do this in the first place. Do you just want to push your political agenda? Can you really do that? Probably, but do we need even more propaganda, even if it is honorable (in your opinion, but is it the right one? Is there even such a thing?). You must follow your “idea worth spreading” mentality, not advertise your personal views. Of course, your views will affect the final result, but try to be objective and as neutral as possible.
If you want to touch on a topic that is considered taboo, try not to be too edgy. You will just make people turn away in hatred towards you and your ”nonsense”. For example, such a topic would be:” why did Hitler rise to power”. Reflect on the “merit” of the European people and Germany and investigate the motive of those who acted with such hatred towards Jewish people, not just declare that “Hitler was a super villain”. Everybody is the product of the society they live in. The fact that the Nazi were not product of pure evil, but rather a choice of 1930’s society must be delivered gently, step by step; only then is there a chance that you will get your point across. Also, to improve the intelligibility of your ideas, try to use concepts familiar to your target audience. Obviously, you will use different techniques to deliver the horrors of war to 15-21 and to 26-32 age old people (The former group is more vulnerable to shocking content and the latter is more liable to logical arguments).
Start with your game’s genre, pace and platform, get statistics on who plays similar games and try to appeal to them so that they play your product and receive your message. Also remember that you would prefer your product to be profitable, so keep that in mind and do not make a game that has no place in the current market and that nearly no one will want to play. In our case, we wanted to make a game on a political topic, because this part of the market has relatively high demand and rather low offer (there are probably around 5 polished, purely political indie games on the market). As a main concept, we chose revolution and the destiny of people in dictatorships because it’s an under-researched, bad-ass and worth spreading topic. After that, we chose the place of action, a country in the middle east. Why, you may ask; it’s simple. Everyone knows about the dictators of the middle east (this topic is hot in the last 20 years) and the latest activity in 2012 where the people started a revolutionary movement across all Arab countries inspired us. As for game design, we chose the strategy/management genre because it’s popular among people that enjoy political games, and the main platform is PC because, again; strategy game, in most cases, equals PC. Try to do the same for your product: Combine your idea (either mechanic or a certain topic) with adequate market research and work towards it until it can be profitable.
But also, try not to go with the market flow too much. Do not just pick a topic because it is the latest news, choose one that is important. Don’t try to impress the press or any influential groups with this matter. Be yourself, speak from the heart. There’s no need to please everyone, it’s actually impossible to do so and it will make you look subjective. If you want to publicly support anyone, first think about the fact that stigma of their defender will remain with you. Do you really need it? Secondly, always avoid ambiguity, it may seem like a safe choice, but in the end, both sides will hate you. Because again, it’s impossible to please everyone. You should be aware of the fact that you take a lot of risks when talking about sensitive topics. Your sales may drop or even make your future career questionable. Ultimately, “art is hard” and we need to talk about controversial topics, otherwise our problems will only increase. A lot of people say that games are simply entertaining; just a way to escape. But what are you escaping from? Society, personal issues? Why should not we talk about them?
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