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When chasing the 'mainstream' compromises your artistic vision

When chasing the 'mainstream' compromises your artistic vision Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

July 9, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield

July 9, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: GD Mag, Design, Production, GD Mag Exclusive

In this editorial from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra senior contributing editor and independent game developer Brandon Sheffield muses on a recent assignment which forced him to choose between sticking to his beliefs and compromising for the sake of a project.

My day job at present is starving indie developer at Necrosoft Games -- but in order to pay the bills, I often do side projects. (This column is one of those.) So it's in that capacity that I was doing freelance narrative design for a company in Asia.

It was going quite well, for a time. I solved some inherent problem with the story's structure, and solved some incredibly difficult questions, tying the whole thing together quite nicely. It took a lot of pacing in my friend's empty pool, and a lot of talking to myself, but it got there.

I then began work on the actual writing, because as any good narrative designer knows, the writing can't really begin until the structure of the game design is in place. In addition to general dialogue and the like, I also made a few side stories, which could be unlocked given certain conditions. Most players would never see them, but they'd be a nice bonus for people who wanted to get more out of the game.

These stories were written in a fairy-tale style, and were meant to evoke a mood of magic and whimsy. And it's one of these whimsical stories that brought the whole project crashing down.

You see, in one of these fairy tales, I discussed a character who began life as a boy, but whose mother always wanted a girl. He never felt right as a boy, and so dressed as a young lady with the things his mother had bought. But the other children made fun of him. Then, one day, through some magical occurrence, he was able to make a wish. He wished to "be normal," so the children wouldn't make fun of him -- and in that wish being granted, he was turned into a girl. Then she was happy, and the children accepted her, because she was finally who she was supposed to be.

Now, in my mind, this wasn't a radical statement, and I didn't really think twice about it. But one person on the team, the art director specifically, took issue with it. As a Christian, he said, he couldn't abide something so immoral as changing gender.

Well, that basically tore the whole thing apart.

The Standoff

If they'd criticized my writing, or said it wasn't interesting -- that I could have accepted. But immoral? That I could not abide. After all, changing to one's proper gender (again, not that I was trying to make a point here!) is not a moral choice, it's one of necessity and is more about feeling comfortable with oneself than it is about any doctrine.

The art director, though, said he couldn't work on this game if this immoral thing were allowed. So the game's director, a friend of mine, appealed to me to make a change, while the creative director of the company, also a friend, appealed to the art director.

The game director just wanted the game finished. He didn't care either way about this particular issue. The creative director was nearly as offended as I was by the art director's statement, bringing "morality" into a story issue.

So here I was, with a hard choice to make. Ultimately, I was hired to take control of this part of the game's production, and the art director had chosen to poke his nose into my part of the process, likely because his staff had to do the art for this little story. But he was the art director for the whole company, and as a contractor, I have no leg to stand on there.

If I were flush with cash, I would've immediately just said "nope!" and moved on to the next project. But as I mentioned in the first line of this article, there's that "starving" element of the whole indie game developer thing. I could definitely use the money. So I actually had to think about this.

I asked my friends what they would do. Some said I should quit the project. Some said they admired the fact that I was even thinking about this as a choice, but that that side of the argument, the side that doesn't accept people for who they are, is slowly losing the battle in the grand scheme of things. So, I should suck it up and change this small bit of my story, and choose a bigger battle to fight next time.

But ultimately, my pride wouldn't let me back down. If I changed my story, then the art director would "win." He would get to feel justified in his moral stance, because I had backed down. I thought to myself: I can always get more money, but once I let my moral ground slide, that slide is forever. I'm now a person who has made that concession. If I've made that one, maybe I would make another.

Perhaps the art director felt the same way, and I almost respected him for that, as much as I disagreed with his stance. And so it came to be that I had to withdraw the entirety of my work from the game. It was all or nothing. I couldn't work on a game where skewed religious doctrines would dictate the game's direction.

The company viewed it as his fault for delaying production (by more than a month), but I certainly felt guilty myself. Should I have just sucked it up and let it go for the sake of the team? What price is personal honor and respectability?

The High Price of Dignity

For me, ultimately, it wasn't a choice. I had put too much of myself into the game to let it be changed for a reason that seemed so silly to me, and wasn't based on performance or skill. On top of that, I had named the main character of the game after a close friend who passed away last year, and wrote the character as though it were her, meaning they'd have to change the name, as well.

A friend of mine said to me, "You've got to stop putting so much of yourself into your contract work!" And he's right. But when a project feels right, it seems like a good thing to do, to get personally invested, and make the game your own. It feels strange to step back, but perhaps it's for the best.

So I pose this question to you: Perhaps this battle wouldn't be one you'd fight. But what would you do when faced with a dilemma of this nature, using terms that prompt you to action? We've all heard stories about publishers wanting to change a character from black to white, or female to male, in order to "access the mainstream." How would you fight, in these situations? How have you fought?

I'd love to hear from you, though this is my final column for the magazine. Let's keep on trying to make our virtual worlds better places for everyone to play, and don't let the bastards get you down.

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