The Evolution of Echo Bazaar

I recently started playing a browser-based game called Echo Bazaar[1. This is Anna‘s fault.]. It’s a way for me to blow off a little steam, and I’m really kind of enjoying myself. The game is presented as an unfolding narrative in a steampunk version of Victorian London. You choose a character and you work your way through series of challenges and adventures.

When I first started playing the game, some things about it really rubbed me the wrong way. As I said to Anna within minutes, ‘there’s a plotline revolving around ‘Connected: The Orient’?!’ And I noticed that the game had a habit of presenting more or less identical, but gendered, challenges. For example, you have an option of seducing an artist or an artist’s model in order to increase your Persuasiveness trait. The artist is male. The model is female. There are several other gendered challenges like this, and I find them distinctly unpleasant and really icky.

But, this was a game which, during character creation, provided more options than ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Which suggests some degree of awareness on the part of the creators. Can I tell you how refreshing and awesome and wonderful it was to encounter that? I am so used to being faced with this loaded gender choice (if you’re curious, I alternate between ‘male’ and ‘female’ when it comes to things that force me to pick one of these two genders), and Echo Bazaar’s take on the matter was, well, it was like someone had actually sat up and listened to me. I can’t even tell you how much that matters to me.

So, I sort of gritted my teeth about the racism and the sexism.

And then I started to notice something interesting. As my levels increased, the game got more egalitarian. The Cheesemonger, a mysterious figure I am tracking down to get some intelligence, is a woman. The gendered challenges aren’t present anymore.

It’s not that Echo Bazaar thinks that people need to earn equality. I think that the change is a direct reflection of two things.

The first is that the game is being released progressively. As soon as they have more content, they add it. The content at the lower levels is the oldest. It’s from the start of the game, when there wasn’t much feedback available from the public. The more advanced content is newer, and reflects the critiques the game has received–critiques that the creators have actually responded to, showing that they are paying attention and they do care about how people interact with the game.

They also, as Anna pointed out to me, added some women to the creative team. Now, I don’t want to claim that they are the magic ingredient, ‘just add women and the oppression goes away!,’ but I suspect that the female members of the creative team put the kibosh on the gendering and are shaping some of the more advanced content, and it really shows.

What Echo Bazaar shows me is that creators are capable of receiving criticism, thinking about it, and responding to it. They can evolve and make their work better. I would love to see them go back and rewrite some of the older content, although I understand that this would take time away from writing new content (which, of course, I selfishly want, because I have hit a number of content boundaries). But, the willingness to change, to shift directions, to adjust the nature of their content, shows me that they care about their users and that they want us to have a good time.

They also have a very classy and responsive support staff. Small startups are often like this, and I hope that Fail Better Games manages to retain this as they get bigger, which should happen, because their products are fun and awesome and I would like to see them grow as a company. I have received lovely personal responses to emails, they interact directly with players on Twitter, they are honest and straight with players and fans, they aren’t afraid to admit when they fuck up. I like that in a company.

I would really like them to address the racial issues in the game. They took criticisms of sexism seriously and incorporated them into the development of new content. Will they do the same for race?

Games occupy an interesting social space. Some people write them off altogether. Others make the mistake of assuming that they are uniformly loaded with oppressive themes, only played by men, only created by men. In fact, there are a lot of women and people of other genders who are gamers, and game creators.

And we’re starting to get more vocal. As a result, the landscape of the gaming world is shifting. What was once acceptable is now questioned. Games are adapting to satisfy a more outspoken demographic and I’m liking where that adaptation is going. Evolve or die, as the saying goes, and some areas of the gaming industry have really taken to that.

It’s not a boy’s world anymore. Not when you have people like Felicia Day making things like ‘The Guild’ and openly talking about the games they do and don’t like, and why. Not when you have blogs like Border House explicitly talking about gaming from the perspective of queer, disabled, nonwhite, and transgender folks. Some really progressive things are emerging from gaming even as horrifically misogynist and disgusting games continue to be produced. That shows me that some things do change even as other things stay the same, and it gives me hope for the future.

Echo Bazaar is just one game, one group of creators, but it shows that people are paying attention. People are thinking about how their creative work impacts the lives of real people. And people are finally realising that successful marketing includes someone other than white nondisabled heterosexual men.