Elsinore is an adventure game set in the world of Shakespeare's Hamlet - which places it, historically, in 16th century Denmark. Since we began work on the project a year or so ago, I've shown the playtest build to family, friends, and strangers alike. After they're done playing, intermingled with their feedback on gameplay, they often point to Ophelia and ask: Why is she black?
My answer is always the same: Why shouldn't she be?
A diverse cast was never a real subject of debate on our team. However, having come from a background in commercial game development & publishing, I've seen firsthand how difficult it seems to be to get a dev team to consider inclusiveness when it isn't a de facto priority. Whenever it gets pointed out that a so-called "historically-based" cast is overwhelmingly white and male, the response from senior creatives is usually some version of "Well, that kind of diversity just isn't historically accurate for the time period we're dealing with!"
Here are some of the ways in which we tackled and dismantled that myth -- because it is a myth -- on our current title.
Research Is Everything, And It's Really Not Hard
Ophelia is the protagonist in Elsinore, but she is not the protagonist in Hamlet. For those unfamiliar with the play, Ophelia is Hamlet's former girlfriend; in the play she has a scant few speaking lines in the opening acts, goes insane, and then kills herself. She gets a pretty bad lot in life. We don't learn very much about her outside of the descriptors other characters give her: pure, innocent, honest, delicate.
There is no mention in the play of Ophelia's lineage or race. Most productions and artists seem to immediately assume that Ophelia's mother must have been a lily-white Danishwoman -- the most obvious explanation, definitely, but not the only one available. The fact of the matter is that there is no concrete information about Ophelia's lineage whatsoever. So we decided to do some research to find out what kinds of options were open to us.
Much of this included digging into historical sources on Google Scholar to learn more about the cultural trends of 16th century Denmark. Unsurprisingly, the 16th century was a time of increasing trade volume for all of Europe. Port cities became centers for cultural mingling and for dispersed people to begin new lives. In a development more relevant to Elsinore, the Spanish Reconquista ensured that a heavily Muslim and African Spain came under the control of a powerful European dynasty: the Hapsburg family. Now united under the Holy Roman Emperor, it became possible for southern denizens of Europe to move north, and vice versa.
We decided that Ophelia's mother, now deceased, could easily have been descended from a line of Spanish-African women; she would have come to Denmark as a servant, part of another (Hapsburg) character's retinue. She then married into her husband Polonius's family line, giving Ophelia a higher social status.
It would've been much easier to make Ophelia a white girl like any other version of her character and call it a day. But we didn't, and this research process ended up giving her a complex and storied history. Here's the kicker: in the end, it didn't even take that long. The days of going to the library and checking out a stack of history books are over. We found everything we needed within about half a week.
Over the time we've spent researching the historical backdrop of Elsinore, it's become clear that creating a diverse cast has brought a new element of life to our project. Each character in Elsinore now has a deep and individualized history; they come in all shapes and sizes -- a multitude of races and ethnicities, economic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual identities, and personalities. It was startling how quickly a little research made all this workable.
The next question, then, was: if the perception that a straight, white male cast is "historically accurate" can be dismantled with a little research, where does that common perception come from?
Hollywood History Isn't Actually History
Most people, designers and writers included, get their mental image of historical periods from film. This is normal and expected. Unfortunately, Hollywood has a strong tendency to "white-wash" history. The point of a historical film frequently isn't to be true to its source -- it's to sell tickets. Remaining "true to history" often gets booted in favor of casting already-popular caucasian stars who are sure to bump up box office profits on name recognition alone. After all, a producer once joked to me, who would go see a movie about Noah's Ark if it starred a bunch of no-name Arab actors? The recent controversy over Ridley Scott's Exodus also reflects this issue; the more diverse the cast, the more difficult it is for a film to obtain funding, so we tend to see historical movies trend towards white, straight male-centric narratives.
The great thing about game development as a field, though, is that we aren't Hollywood. We don't cast real people in games (barring a few exceptions -- I'm lookin' at you, Beyond) and "star power" is a nonexistent concern. Our protagonists, our characters, can be anyone.
In fact, most historical video games feature some kind of fantasy element, which should theoretically mean creating a diverse cast is a zillion times easier; after all, if there are elves and monsters, orcs and demons, naturally there will be people of color or genderqueer characters, right?
Far more frequently, so-called "historically-influenced" games like Dishonored, Bioshock or The Witcher release with a fully white, straight, mostly-male cast, with town squares dominated by white NPCs. But if you look at the real world counterpart for each of these games, the accuracy of their worlds quickly disintegrates. Most historical games, for example, are centered around cities: short of an Iron Age pre-sea-travel game, every city of a substantial size should have some natural mingling of culture, ethnicity, race, and value systems. Far too often these historically-influenced games try to "handle" racial diversity by erasing it completely.
It's time to stop being selectively accurate.
A Recent Example
Let's take a pretty obvious recent example: The Order: 1886. The game's characters are intended to be modern recreations of Arthurian Knights of the Round Table; the game's portal on Playstation.com describes it as taking place in a "painstakingly recreated Victorian-Era London." Here's the cast they came up with:
While it's not illogical that a cast pulled from Victorian London would be all-white, it's also a disappointing choice, given two factors: one, London was one of the largest port cities of that era, with a multitude of citizens from all over the globe -- and two: even the original Arthurian source material featured a more diverse cast. Sir Morien is described as being dark-skinned: "He was all black, even as I tell ye: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven." Sir Palamedes and his two brothers, Safir and Segwarides, are three Knights of the Round historically described as being Saracens (Arabs).
How an AAA game released in 2015 set in a major city is somehow less diverse than its 13th-century source material and its real-world historical reference period combined beats me. But the fact is that cases like The Order aren't an exception. They're the norm.
(*Note: A group of folks have kindly reached out to mention that there is an Indian character in The Order - but over halfway through the game, and she is not featured in any of Sony's promotional materials. I think it's important to acknowledge that the dev team did make an effort here, even if the publisher's marketing materials have erased all mentions of this effort.)
In choosing a historical period for your game, you choose a blank canvas full of potential. Rather than immediately applying the version of history which Hollywood has handed down to us and calling it "accurate," creators should strive to be reflective of actual history. That involves rethinking some of the assumptions we make about the people who lived and died long before us.
Many of the diverse voices from history have been intentionally and maliciously erased by our precursors over time, but in the age of information -- where Google Scholar is a couple keystrokes away -- there's little excuse left to hide behind.