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Why depicting gruesome historical moments in games can be a tough call

March 31, 2017 | By Bryant Francis

History, no matter whether it’s written by the winners or by the losers, is full of brutal, ugly moments that nevertheless shape who we are as a society today—and how we make games inspired by those moments. Cities, religions, and historical groups make great fodder for game design, but how do developers cope when trying to adapt their more grisly elements?

If you’ve been pondering this question about your own work, you may want to check out The Great Whale Road, a game we streamed today with Sunburned Games developers Joachim Sammer and Mary Kenney. It’s one part King of Dragon Pass, another part Banner Saga, and in between the more conventional historical RPG moments, it tries to grapple with the ugly realities of medieval slavery that formed the commercial backbone of its setting.

Some of those realities are tackled through quests and moments where players can decide to free slaves, here called “thralls,” but there’s one mechanic we wanted to discuss with Sammer and Kenney. As the player progresses, they’re able to purchase thralls from marketplaces in order to sell them down the river. It’s not a mechanic any developer would touch lightly, but as Kenney, who did much of the historical research for the game argues, they couldn’t tackle the subject without it. 

“[Slavery] was such a big part of commerce, but also crime and punishment,” she says. “It was very much affected by this system. It’s a tricky mechanic, but it would have felt disingenuous if your’e trying to present what a culture was like.” 

“The things that were good and the things that were really really really really not good, this is part of the infrastructure they were building.”

Sammer tells us that the game’s audience skews older, and says he hopes they can process the presence of slavery in the game from a more mature standpoint. “I would be more worried if it was a game for young schoolchildren,” he says. 

Kenney also says that the quest and event systems gave them a way to explore the realities of this early medieval slavery, mostly the horror of its conditions. “We have the mechanics in the market to create an authentic setting, [but] it’s never in a quest ‘also it would be great to enslave people.’ I think we hammer home how horrifying this practice was over and over and over again.”

For more insight from Sammer and Kenney on the development of The Great Whale Road, including how they reinvented their combat system during Early Access, be sure to watch the full video above. And while you’re at it, you can follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel for more developer interviews, gameplay commentary and editor roundtables. 

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