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Three considerations for improving diverse game narratives and characters

In the past decade, video games have gotten visibly more diverse than titles with just straight white men as the player character or on the box art. But more diverse-looking games doesn’t always mean that narratives have necessarily gotten richer or less problematic, especially when many major studios still consist of predominantly white teams.

Founded in 2018, Sweet Baby Inc. is a Montreal-based narrative development and consultation studio, with credited projects include God of War: Ragnarok, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2.

While it can work with developers at any stage of a game’s development process, its mission is to collaborate with game developers to tell better and more inclusive stories where representation isn’t just on the surface but integral with the design of a game and narrative. That is also something that company co-founder and CEO Kim Belair believes is best done earlier rather than later in a game’s development.

“If [a developer] comes to us too late and goes, ‘Make this game non-problematic’, there’s almost nothing we can do about it,” she tells “It’s too late to change a character or what they say, so all you can do is remove, and you just end up in a situation where a character’s been made to 100%, and now you’re removing that fullness.”

Belair’s advice to developers doesn’t include easy solutions to magic your way out of problematic narratives that are only outwardly diverse, or just to get a ‘pass’ (although this is something she says some developers have approached the company for). Instead, it comes back to making room for adding genuinely new perspectives, which also means having a more diverse team in the first place.

“It’s about creating space, it’s about saying it is a value that we hold alongside any other technical aptitude.”

Here are three considerations Belair urges developers to take into account when creating diverse game narratives and characters.

Representation isn’t separate from design

While more studios are working with consultants when it comes to creating characters from marginalised backgrounds or having sensitivity checks, Belair says that some of the same issues with problematic depictions can still arise if not considered as a whole.

“People will, for example, say that they have consultants for these characters, and then they’ll have the entire play test team, or have the direction team do a story or narrative review, but they won’t include any talk about representation or sensitivity during that conversation, as though it’s a completely separate entity from narrative,” she explains.

To make representation of marginalised characters more authentic, she makes the case that the experiences of marginalised communities should be considered in the same way as if consulting with a qualified professional.

“I will often see a Black character who says X, Y and Z, and I’ll go, ‘That doesn’t feel realistic based on the world that they live in, based on the things that I know about them’,” says Belair. “But that sense of unrealistic is not seen in the same way as if I go, ‘This character is not acting like a doctor would,’ and then people will change that for accuracy.”

The fear is that by bringing up something problematic, it would impede the design of a character or narrative, such as, for example, having a Black villain, but Belair argues that it would be the opposite and add a new dimension or layer, additive rather than corrective.

“You’re not asking ‘can we have a Black villain?’, but ‘can we have a Black villain who does not represent certain stereotypes that will make our audience misunderstand our intentions around their villainy?'”

The other mistake she sees is where a game is basically seen as more diverse with a palette swap, but with no consideration over how this connects to the story or will resonate with its audience.

She adds, “We are creating a product for real people, and we can’t pretend that if someone changed their colour tomorrow, their life experience wouldn’t be different. You have to speak to your audiences and understand that narrative design happens in the eyes of the player. We aren’t designing in a vacuum.”

Confront uncomfortable issues

For developers with well-meaning but homogenous teams, it can be too easy to focus on a top layer of diversity that’s only celebrating the positives but afraid to address the painful, messy nuances of being from a marginalised community. Belair makes a distinction between surface-level diversity and representation where a marginalised character is also presented realistically, which will in turn resonate with audiences who identify with that background.

For God of War: Ragnarok, Sweet Baby specifically worked on making Angrboda, depicted as a Black character, more relatable to Black audiences despite the game’s Norse mythology setting. As a supporting character, there had been concerns that it would feel like Angrboda’s purpose didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the narrative, but rather than shy away from this, Belair says the solution was to make it “more diegetic”.

“One of the things that we all face in our lives as marginalised people is the sense of, ‘Am I just a facet of someone else’s existence?’,” she continues. “For me, looking at a black character in a game where she feels that same way, it will absolutely be seen and resonated with by people of colour and by Black girls who identify with Angrboda. So many places are afraid to even make a commentary on things, because of some fear that mentioning something is bad. But not mentioning something is more uncomfortable.”

However, Belair has also had meetings with all-white teams who want to address important issues like racism but where the aim is only to inflict suffering on a marginalised character or narrowing it to a series of villains that can be externally overcome.

“It’s only going to be about sadness and hurt, and not the ways that we are resilient or the ways that [issues of systemic racism] are simply realities,” she says. “They will also say, ‘It’s not empowering if we don’t show people overcoming these realities’. But I don’t think that, even as a company owner existing under capitalism, what I’m doing is me by any means overcoming capitalism, but it is me surviving and trying to thrive within it.”

She adds, “I’d rather someone say ‘I am a Black character, racism exists, here’s how I live’, instead of making it about racism a facet of my life and it’s all that I think about, and my whole arc is about making people less racist.”

Deal in specifics, not stereotypes

The more specificity that can be brought to a character, the richer their representation. This sounds obvious but it’s something that games trying to be diverse will struggle with if the team doesn’t already have different perspectives in the room.

“If you are going to create an American character, you can see he’s from Texas specifically, he’s got lots of Texan cultural touchpoints,” says Belair. “Then you have a character from West Africa who represents like 15 different countries, and they have a look that is incongruous because the person designing it doesn’t have that specificity. It ends up feeling like there are costumes being worn and there are people who are just there to represent someone else’s education about a nation.”

A lack of specificity can also result in preventing different flavours of a character’s identity. As an example, Belair discusses a project in a high school setting where the developer wanted one of the characters to be a French exchange student but was baffled by the suggestion that this could be a non-white character.

“They saw that if this character was not white, then it would distract from their Frenchness and the archetype they wanted to create,” she explains. “But why wouldn’t it deepen that archetype and give a deeper set of references? People really struggle with that.”

Specificity can also be the difference between a stereotype and a beloved trope in a community, which would be difficult to distinguish for someone outside that group. Speaking of her Jamaican background, Belair talks about how her brother encountered a man from Barbados in a parking lot and noticed they both had miniature punching gloves decorated in their respective nation’s flags hanging at the front of their cars.

“They were laughing because all the Caribbean guys they know also have these same little trinkets,” she explains. “That is something that people in the community will know, which no one on the outside would think to put in a game, but it would be all I need to see a character is of Jamaican descent instead of any other stuff.”

It’s these little touchpoints that show players where a character’s culture (and that of the people they are representing) lives, and how culture is experienced.

“It’s a bit like worldbuilding where people have to explain how everything works. I use my phone every day and I have no idea how it works, but it’s real to me and I know what it does,” she adds. “So when thinking about representation of characters and of worlds, pay attention to what it does and how you experience it day to day. Don’t work from a bio, work from an arc.”

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