If you've been playing Extrasolar, then you've already met Jane Van Susteren -- the lead exobiologist at the Exoplanetary Research Institute who assigns you missions and educates you about the science of alien biology. What you may not realize is that Jane Van Susteren is a real person -- a professional botanist from California.
Jane's involvement in Extrasolar happened gradually and her transition from biology consultant to in-game character wasn't the intent from the start. But I think it's worth talking about how a deliberate attempt to include diverse voices allowed this to happen.
When we approached Jane, she considered herself to be neither a gamer nor a member of the game development community. In fact, when a reporter asked about her prior experience with games, she answered in the familiar dry wit that comes through her in-game character. "I didn't have any. Obviously the best way to get into video games is to spend ten years studying something totally unrelated."
So how did Jane get involved?
Our whole team is intent on having a strong scientific foundation for Extrasolar. We knew that our core team didn't have sufficient biology experience, so we reached out to Jane -- a close friend of our lead artist. We showed her renderings of some of our alien species and asked, "What would you want to know about these plants?" She explained, "First of all, you can't call them plants! They're unrelated to the plant kingdom on Earth, so we need to give them a new name -- let's call them photobionts. Next, I want to know how they reproduce, whether they're cellular, where they get their energy, and whether they follow the general principles of what we would consider to be life."
Not only do these sorts of real scientific details make it easier to suspend disbelief, but they also helps us educate our audience and build positive role models for budding young scientists.
The scientists that you interact with in Extrasolar don't wear white lab coats. They're not social rejects with Coke-bottle glasses. They're real people. And once Jane started to give us written analysis, the idea of turning her directly into a character seemed obvious. After all, what better way to create positive role models in science than to cast real scientists? We asked Jane if she'd prefer that we use her real name or make up a new one and she chose to star as herself.
A huge benefit to having Jane write all the content for her own character is that her distinct voice and humor come through, as you can see in an example blog post on the foundations of exobiology. We don't dumb down the content. We believe that if you treat an audience as intellectuals, they'll rise to meet your expectations. Good luck making it through this particular blog post without a couple side-trips to Wikipedia.
Here at Lazy 8 Studios, we try to make a conscious effort to include nontraditional voices in our designs. In an industry that's heavily dominated by heterosexual white men, I'm happy to look at our team of 39 contributors and report that at least 14 of them don't fall into that category. We could do better, but it's a start.
Perhaps more surprising is that 28 of our 39 contributors have no prior experience in the game industry -- and the result shows. Extrasolar is unlike anything that's been done before and its uniqueness has already been recognized with award nominations at IndieCade, SXSW, and The IGF.
If there's one lesson I want readers to take away from this, it's to reach out beyond the game development community to involve more voices in content creation. With development tools getting more accessible by the day, there are no good excuses for keeping our community so insular. We talk a lot about creating new genres and telling stories that haven't been told yet. The best way to do this is to reach out and give a forum to voices that wouldn't otherwise be heard.
It’s worth noting that Jane isn’t the only character in Extrasolar where we’ve chosen to make a nontraditional casting decision -- but to reveal any more would be a spoiler, so you’ll just have to sign up yourself at extrasolar.com.