Colonial Reform

Two similar games came out at about the same time in 2015. Both involve a Conan Doyle or Verne-style exploration contest between members of a clubbish Royal Society-like organisation; you assemble a small team of adventurers and go on a series of expeditions to exotic lands in search of fame, knowledge and treasures, managing resources, leveling up characters and making strategic decisions about your route. Both locate themselves relative to real-world geography to some extent; both feel as though they’re set vaguely around the Victorian era, though they tend to extend that period to end around WWII.

They came in the wake of the success of 80 Days, though I’m not sure if this was a direct influence or just a matter of convergent zeitgeist. And both, in different ways, made some steps towards addressing the colonialism of the genre… though neither, ultimately, to as satisfactory an extent as 80 Days did.

Despite similar premises, these are games with somewhat different intended audiences. The Curious Expedition is rendered in the indie-game uniform of pixel art; its map is laid out in nerd-friendly hexes with variable terrain movement costs. At a casual first glance, it could have sprung out of the early ’90s.

A partially-discovered hex map, from Curious Expedition.

Renowned Explorers: International Society is pitched as more casual or kid-friendly; it feels like a game you’d play on a tablet. Its crisp, clean graphic style and dynamic, cheerful player characters suggest a children’s cartoon, and its node-based map presents a more immediately-accessible interface to an audience not accustomed to hex maps.

Node-based map of a tropical island, from Renowned Explorers.

This given, their attitudes to portraying violence are much as you’d expect. Curious Expedition has character death, blood, and lingering wounds that can kill you, as well as rarer horrors like cannibalism; this is a game from a gaming culture numbed by overexposure to squick, atrocity and skulls piled next to toilets. Renowned Explorers goes for the sanitised approach of Children’s Media: it avoids blood, your characters can’t be permanently removed from the party, and even if you’re defeated it’ll be framed as being chased away in disgrace, rather than being killed. And these basic approaches to disturbing content largely determine how they address the colonialist bones of their chosen genre.

Representation

Representation among player-characters is hands-down the most heavily-discussed topic in Problematics Of Game Design. It has the advantage of being readily visible and quantifiable, the kind of argument you can make forcefully with a single image; at this point no game designer can really plead innocence of the subject. The classic Exploration Adventure is all about the exceptionality of bold white men, with women and people of colour relegated to auxiliary or passive roles; and both games make some efforts to fix that.

Straightforward comparison doesn’t make a lot of sense, though, because there’s a fundamental difference of approach between how the two games approach party members. Each Curious Expedition party has an expedition leader, based on a real historical figure, plus randomly-generated followers who can be hired or dismissed, die or choose to leave the party. In Renowned Explorers everyone’s drawn from the same pool of original characters; party size is fixed at three, and the ‘leader’ is a much less important role. Explorers wants you to think of your team as a group of inseparable friends, while Expedition presents an employer-employee relationship, subject to renegotiation.

Curious Expedition initially drew its historical figures exclusively from Western cultures, a solid majority of them anglophone. (Later updates added the Chinese physician and martial artist Huang Feihong.) The core is C19th explorers; ranging outside this allows for nerd crowd-pleasers like Nikola Tesla and H.P. Lovecraft, and more recognisable characters who aren’t white men: Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart.

Character portraits from Curious Expedition.

(Not a complete set.)

This often feels odd. Garvey and Tubman are relatively hard to unlock; they appear as rivals more than as playable characters. More significantly, it is difficult to imagine a world in which Harriet Tubman could a) still be Harriet Tubman and b) be an Explorer in the sense the game means it. She ends up feeling like a character in Riverworld, almost entirely divorced from the meaning of her former life. It’s even more difficult to imagine the black-separatist, pan-Africanist Garvey looting African temples and donating the spoils to London museums. I mean, it’s not as though you don’t have Matthew Henson.

Curious Expedition features characters who are explicitly racist. ‘Racist’ is a trait that your followers can have, rendering them less loyal if you treat the natives well or have non-white party members. As a leader, H.P. Lovecraft will go off on campfire tirades about the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race and the importance of preventing race-mixing. It’s good that racism is acknowledged as a force in this world (and good that Lovecraft is shown as a ranting shitbag), but it does run the risk of suggesting that racism was an unusual personal quirk in the C19th, or that the only thing that counts as ‘racism’ is the extreme, conscious, forcefully articulated racial loathing of a Lovecraft, rather than, say, the genially paternalistic attitude of Isabella Bird, or the entire system of colonial exploration.

Character portraits from Renowned Explorers.Renowned Explorers’ use of original characters affords more leeway here, and – while the International Society is headquartered in Europe – it does draw some of them from non-European cultures. This is a partial effort, with the ratios feeling kind of like a Civ game: of the twenty explorers available, ten are European and another 3-5 are New World whites, depending on how you count Hispanic characters. Of the remainder, there’s only one Asian – a Turkish woman. Still, some of the remainder – the Samoan woman, the Ghanaian man – are from precisely those cultures that would normally be the subjects of colonial exploration.

Unlike Curious Expedition, it includes expeditions to Europe; the mandatory first quest is an island somewhere Northern European, and later options include expeditions in North Sea nations and to a Transylvania-ish Eastern Europe. It’s possible to have an all-PoC team and have them spend most of their career exploring Europe.

Three PoC player-characters from Renowned Explorers; the game text describes an expedition to Britain to find a Saxon burial site

we’re totes going to respect the cultural integrity of their precious material heritage lol

Neither game really goes out of its way to explain the worlds that make this kind of juxtaposition possible. This is a bigger deal in Renowned Explorers, because in principle you can go anywhere in the world, and be from anywhere in the world, and everywhere you go is inhabited – but what you’re doing is still exploration, somehow.

 Auxiliaries

One of the guiding principles of 80 Days was to de-centre the great white explorers by giving stronger roles to the people they encounter. In the standard narrative, the locals don’t have a lot going on that doesn’t directly concern the explorers’ story: they exist for the sake of the explorers. 80 Days made a concerted effort to deliver the impression that NPCs had their own lives, stories, and motives beyond the role they played in the PCs’ story. Fogg and Passepartout are not the game’s most interesting characters.

Both Expedition and Explorers are limited in what they can do here, because they’re not games that put a lot of weight on narrative or unique content. The main role that NPCs play is to be interchangeable, mechanical actors, existing within a procedurally-generated setting. This inevitably leads the player to think of them in more functional terms.

Nonetheless, Curious Expedition does a little in this direction. For instance, there’s an NPC resident in London who wants you to find his wife, who’s still back in his hometown, and bring her back with you. There hangs a story, right? The flexible party means that its members can abandon it: if you hire native characters they typically stay in their homeland at the expedition’s end. If you anger characters enough, they can leave the party when things get tough. There are discussions you have in native villages where you can’t entirely figure out what the other person’s motives are, random events which don’t concern you. A number of small things build a sense that there’s more to the NPCs than you get to see. Villagers, notably, aren’t cheerfully willing to help out the PCs for nothing: you can rest in their villages, for instance, but this will slowly decrease your Standing.

Curious Expedition: a native village at night, with figures standing around a fire

There’s some variation in the peoples you encounter: some of the villages have different specialisations, for instance. The cultures aren’t named, though; you get the impression that there’s only one culture per location. Some characters can conduct anthropological studies on the locals, or paint their portraits, but the content thereof doesn’t matter. In general they’re presented as being less interesting than the land they inhabit and the treasures therein.

Renowned Explorers is less about the land and more about the challenges. Its presentation is a bit more character-forward than Expedition, but you still don’t get the sense that local NPCs have existences outside the PCs’ story. NPCs exist to form part of a challenge, generally doling out a reward. Certain boss NPCs get a little more attention – the Mali map, for instance, is all about finding and placating a particular grouchy old witchdoctor – but their motivations still don’t really make a lot of sense outside the modes of success available to the PCs. The general tone of Explorers is more jokey and light, which allows this to be glossed over a little, but it’s still weird the moment you consider it as a coherent narrative rather than a sequence of mildly-narrativised challenges.

Explorers NPCs are often resentful of the explorers – thus setting up conflicts – and in doing so they often express dislike of outsiders coming and meddling with their affairs. This reads very differently in different contexts, though: when you’re in Europe and locals complain about you taking their jobs, it’s a different matter from when you’re in Africa and the locals complain about you plundering their treasure, which is the thing you are actually doing. But both of these are presented as kind of the same thing – a misunderstanding which can be cleared up by being friendly, if you have a mind to.

 

Violence

Action is a pretty central element of the exploration-adventure genre. It’s a journey into unknown perils, and those perils must be overcome with personal heroism. (Around the World in 80 Days is at heart a paean to railway timetables, to the rational, predictable, robust efficiency of civilisation: but it wouldn’t be exciting unless forces of chaos and barbarism threatened to violently disrupt that.) The hero can escape lasting consequences from this; morally savages are represented as subhumans with few or no moral claims, and practically speaking the hero can travel on to leave all his messes far behind. This kind of story meshes easily with computer games, which have a longstanding expectation of profitable violence with little or no consequence.

80 Days has some action sequences, but doesn’t have any special mechanical affordances for them: Fogg and Passepartout aren’t specialist fighters, even if they sometimes get into fights. The closest thing to regularised combat in 80 Days is the conversation minigame.  Expedition and Explorers both have distinct mechanics for combat sequences, but at the same time they want to offer you a real choice about the extent to which you rely on violence. They want to reform combat systems to mean something different.

Curious Expedition has a relatively simple combat system, with each character granting you dice rolls which are used for attack combos. You can decide the extent on which you want to rely on fighting: for instance, you can build a hunting-oriented party that aims to bring back lots of animal trophies (hunting big game is the most common form of combat) or you can invest in stealth and manoeuvrability, to sneak past dangerous animals and avoid antagonising natives. Expedition is a game of scarcity, hardship, and costly choices, and combat reflects that: fights often leave the party with wounds that can kill if left untreated. Combat is important, but it doesn’t form the central gameplay of Expedition, and is often best-avoided.

raptors

Curious Expedition combat screen, showing combat dice; the party is fighting velociraptors in a snowy forest

Renowned Explorers has a more developed and unusual combat system. (It’s odd that the lighter-themed game is so mechanically focused on combat, while the more brutal Expedition is more about the tactics of overland travel.) Combat moves fall under Friendly, Devious or Violent; using predominantly one kind of attack shifts the mood, making it generally stronger to be Devious against Violent, Friendly against Devious, and Violent against Friendly. When to switch from one mood to another is a key tactical decision: you might want the bonus that a particular encounter gives you for a Devious victory, but switching to Friendly for a little bit might make it a whole lot easier to actually win. I was put a little in mind of the escalating conflicts of Dogs in the Vineyard, where if talking doesn’t work you can always throw a punch, and if you’re losing the fist-fight you pull a knife. Unlike Dogs, you can de-escalate, although it takes quite a lot of effort to pull your mood back from Violent to Friendly.

Renowned Explorers combat: in-game text 'Mali Villager is Impressed by you and doesn't wish to stop you!"

Or, in mechanical terms, you defeated him.

This is an interesting approach, and produces some unusual challenges. It can get a bit fiddly – like Abbey Games’ previous release Reus, it requires you to keep track of rather a lot of actual and potential numerical effects, which interact in unique ways, making it quite a bit crunchier and less intuitive than its surface might suggest. And it creates some tonal weirdness. It’s possible to start an encounter by shooting a guy, and then resolve it to Friendly; you saw them take a blow and fall over and fade out of existence, but the story assumes nobody really got hurt. This isn’t a realism concern, exactly: in real-life accounts of exploration conflicts often shift uncertainly back and forth between violence, generosity, threats, honours and peace-offerings as two unfamiliar cultures try to establish a pattern for dealing with one another.

But it often makes for awkward relations between the action and the text. Explorers is meant to be light-hearted and goofy, but even so you get the sense that the writers often struggled to come up with conflicts that could be resolved through force, manipulation/bullying or niceness. There’s also a struggle to make narrative sense of what happens when both sides are competing by being Friendly; being defeated by a Friendly enemy isn’t any better for you, mechanically, than a Violent one. It’s difficult to make coherent sense of what’s really going on. It’s a weird system and not one that’s fully figured out, and it’s made stranger by the context it’s placed in. (It’s also weird that it works just the same if you’re fighting animals.)

It tends to minimise real underlying conflict, too, and make it seem as though everybody can get what they want if only everyone is willing to play nice. And that’s absolutely not true, especially not in the context of colonialism.

Plunder

These are fictions which take their cues from works like Indiana Jones and King Solomon’s Mines: you’re on a mission of often-violent plunder, trailing a wake of destruction. You’re hunting for treasures, stealing from tombs and temples for your own wealth or prestige, reflecting a colonial reality of large-scale plunder. This is really the core thing that these games have to contend with, the fundamental problem of the genre. It’s not a maggot in the apple: it’s the poisonous tree the apple grew from.

Curious Expedition‘s most obvious limit on your bad behaviour is Standing, your reputation among the locals. Standing is way easier to lose than gain; in particular, a lot of the actions that grant really valuable items (looting temples, hunting big game) damage your Standing. As your Standing declines, natives may refuse to let you rest in their villages, demand compensation from you, or launch attacks. They’re not the toughest opponents in the game, but they can pose a serious problem for parties that are already flagging, or that aren’t combat-oriented.

Curious Expedition, the interior of a shrine: the leader stands by a raised altar, while a follower asks 'Do you know what you are doing?'

Expedition solidifies the collapsing-temple trope into a consistent mechanic: many of the most precious treasures are in shrines, and robbing them (in addition to pissing off the locals) typically sets off a cataclysm that renders large areas of the map difficult or impossible to traverse (floods, fires, tears in the fabric of the universe). This leads to a consciousness of your role as a smash-and-grab artist, a tendency to sidelong glances at the exits before doing anything really terrible. Curious Expedition is totally OK with framing the protagonist as an opportunistic, short-sighted, burning, looting thief.

Renowned Explorers, on the other hand, doesn’t want your heroes to be obligate jerks, even if you’re playing a Violent / Devious team. If you steal, it’s generally from bandits or pirates. The collapsing-temple trope shows up, but it’s not a regular feature, and it doesn’t have any fallout once you’ve escaped the rubble. The game is aware of issues around artefact theft, and brings them up in the text. But very often people will outright give you their treasures if you make the right choices. In one storylet, a Rogue character wants to steal a treasure from a local; a more scrupulous team-mate argues with them about it, and the local overhears and essentially goes ‘if you care about it that much you can just have the thing.’

Renowned Explorers: a player-character masked wrestler faces a bearded druid. Text: 'The druid apologizes: I thought you were going to steal everything I have, but it turns out you're pretty nice! You can have this treasure I was guarding!'

This has never happened.

And this is actually a little more disturbing, in some ways. You don’t have to steal it or take it by force, says the game, so everything’s cool, yeah?

Except, well, no. One of the most crushing eyewitness accounts of colonialism I’ve seen is John Muir on the Wrangell Tlingit:

These animal plays were followed by serious speeches, interpreted by an Indian woman: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, this is the way we used to dance. We liked it long ago when we were blind, we always danced this way, but now we are not blind. The Good Lord has taken pity upon us and sent his son, Jesus Christ, to tell us what to do. We have danced to-day only to show you how blind we were to like to dance in this foolish way. We will not dance any more.”

Another speech was interpreted as follows: “‘Dear Brothers and Sisters, ‘ the chief says, ‘this is else way we used to dance and play. We do not wish to do so any more. We will give away all the dance dresses you have seen us wearing, though we value them very highly. He says he feels much honored to have so many white brothers and sisters at our dinner and plays.”

That’s plunder. It’s plunder that’s more valuable because to a casual glance it looks like freely-given gifts. The Tlingit have been kicked around, their way of life has been taken from them, and now they’re being offered charity with conditions. They have figured out the demands and desires of their conquerors, and that one of the things desired was: comforting expressions of willing gratitude. This is a voice of desperation. This is the voice I have in my mind when I encounter stories of friendly natives cheerfully giving away incredible treasures.

I can make sense of the willing-gift resolution as a message delivered to very small children about the value of playing nice. But the reality of the world is that there are going to be certain things which you can never have except through force. (New World plantation owners, for instance, were in very great want of a labour force which, despite harsh conditions, would be docile, reliable, plentiful and cheap. This could not be had by voluntary means.)

*

There are different ways to reform an ugly genre. Sometimes the issues are just on the surface, an accident of history, and can be removed with a little surface polish. But often they go deeper. And sometimes they go core-deep, to the point where in order to entirely fix them you need to get to that core and rearrange things – and maybe accept that you can’t have everything you want from it.

Expedition and Explorers have done the surface work. In fact, they’ve gone beyond the surface work. They’ve done good deal of thinking about how to rework orthodox mechanics in less problematic ways that are still compelling. But they’re still, at heart, games where you travel to far-off lands, meet exotic peoples, and take their treasure. I don’t see any way to keep all of that and make it OK.

This is more of an internal problem for Explorers, because it’s very invested in the possibility of the player-characters being good guys. Expedition can say ‘OK, the meta-narrative here is that you’re despoiling indigenous peoples for wealth and status, and you’re probably going to end up doing this even if you don’t set out with that in mind.’ There are issues with that – its unpleasant aspects tend to come across as adolescent shock-grit rather than a serious treatment, the despoiled peoples are conveniently easy for the player to forget about – but it avoids the fundamental dissonance of Explorers.

80 Days isn’t a perfect revision of the colonialism of the Verne original; perfection isn’t really possible in this context. But it succeeds as much as it does because that effort informed the design from the outset; the work was done not just in the surface presentation and content particulars of the game, but in the basic conception of its design. For subjects this fraught, you can’t change the nature of the message without changing the nature of the work.

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4 Responses to Colonial Reform

  1. Pingback: The Lost Dutchman’s Gold (1979) | Renga in Blue

  2. Scott Anderson says:

    Great critque, it articulates how I feel about this genre/theme in games really well. I suggested Garvey and Tubman in a feedback thread on tigforums years ago (https://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=30016.msg902025#msg902025). I agree with your criticism that the characters are out of place, even though in my thread I felt Garvey fit the theme. My thinking was that most back to Africa movements from the disapora are colonian in nature, even if its a very different form of colonialism than that practiced by white Europeans. A lot of that thinking doesn’t come from Garvey though, but instead it comes from the history of Liberia, where black settlers from the diaspora came to Africa and had to interact with local tribal politics. I picked Garvey because he’s a well known historical figure which fit the roster of people you might have heard about in history class.

    This was a driveby post made when the game was early in development and before I played it, so as interesting as game about back to Africa could be I didn’t have any expectations that the game would be anything more than a roguelike with a colonial skin. My suggestion was mostly focused on representation, and its kind of cool for me to have made a small contribution to that, even if the final result was a little off.

  3. I haven’t played either game, but I enjoyed your breakdown and comparison. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Game Studies Roundup #4 XXL: Karten, Klänge, Kamerafahrten – Language at Play

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