Racism and migration aren't topics one would expect to encounter while playing a game. But at this year's IndieCade, you might do just that.
In the alternate-reality game Tracking Ida, players learn about the life of Ida B. Wells, an African-American activist and journalist who reported on lynchings in the 1890s. In Bury Me, My Love, players follow a series of messages to trace the story of a Syrian migrant heading to Europe. At the 10th edition of the annual independent game showcase, a number of the works on display tackle hard subjects, but that wasn't by design.
"What you're seeing is what is happening out in the world that we're finding," says IndieCade CEO Stephanie Barish.
"There wasn't a conscious decision to include any type of work outside of innovative work and our own personal values around innovation," Mattie Brice, IndieCade's associate director, adds.
Tracking Ida uses a variety of techniques to engage people in Wells' work. In 1892, her office and work were destroyed in retaliation for her reporting. In the world of the game, though, the journalist sends a trunk with documents to a friend. In 2017, a young woman who is a descendent of the friend is looking toward Wells' work to help find a way to deal with the police brutality that's happening in her own neighborhood. It's a hands-on game that creator Lishan AZ says incorporates "escape room–like" features along with role-playing elements where players learn to interview people.
"I'm a history nerd myself, especially when it comes to black history," says AZ by phone from Baltimore, where she's the game designer in residence at Maryland Institute College of Art. "A lot of these stories that I'll read will be super interesting and amazing, but they're not very accessible unless you enjoy reading history books."
In particular, AZ wanted to bring Wells' story to life. "I find her specifically to be very inspiring because she took it upon herself to write her own people's history down even though, as a black woman from a working-class family, she wasn't really given that power by society," she says.
AZ developed the game as her thesis project at USC and brought in a historian, Jasmin Young, as part of the team. "Most of the story was taken from history, so we were working with archives," AZ explains. "We were working with newspaper headlines and clippings, primary documents from Ida B. Wells' life as well as biographies."
Brice says that the nature of game play presents a unique opportunity to tell challenging stories. "Play allows you to move things around and shift your understanding of things. You have some sort of interest or agency," she says. "You can't help but feel slightly bonded or have a little bit more empathy for the thing that you are experiencing because they are a result of your actions."
Thanks in part to technological advances, she says, people from a wider variety of backgrounds are entering the game world, and that can impact the stories that are told.
"From about 2012 to now, we've seen a rise in DIY tech and DIY game-making tools, which has made it easier for more people without tech backgrounds to make games. When the tools available to make games became easier to use, people who are not the typical technologists started to make things that are interesting to them," she says. "So, while games are known for referencing other technology and other nerd-culture type of things, we started getting artists and people who are into politics, activists, and particularly marginalized people, queer people, people of color, who started making these DIY games starting in 2012." While the politically and socially aware games of IndieCade are far from mainstream, they might be pointing to shifts on the horizon.
Flourent Maurin is the founder and game designer of French studio the Pixel Hounds, which co-created Bury Me, My Love with the studios Figs and ARTE. Maurin spent 10 years working as a journalist and with the Pixel Hounds makes games that are inspired by real life. Bury Me, My Love was inspired by an article in Le Monde that told the story of a Syrian migrant with screen caps of her WhatsApp conversations. "I read it and it was so odd because it was very familiar because I'm used to using WhatsApp," Maurin says. "It was both very familiar and very frightening and strange and at odds with everything that I'm used to living in my normal life as a French guy."
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Maurin reached out to the journalist, Lucie Soullier, who eventually got him in touch with the story's subject, Dana S. Both became editorial consultants for the game. While Dana's experience inspired the game, the story you'll enter is fiction and based on an amalgamation of stories from different migrants. You'll follow the story of a character named Nour as she sends messages to her husband, who is still in Syria. Maurin says they wanted to focus specifically on the experiences of women migrating from Syria on their own. But, he stresses, there was no political agenda in making the game. "We don't want to convince the player of anything," he says. "We just wanted to tell a story."
Still, this is a story that's not commonly told in games. Maurin says he has often been told that these stories inspired by real-life tragedies and big issues aren't suitable for games. "Obviously, I don't agree with that," he says. Maurin brings up Maus, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust. "At the time, it was a really odd idea," he says of using comics to tell such a serious story. It worked, though. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. In fact, it changed comics, setting the stage for writers and artists to explore both personal and historical themes.
Maybe the game world is about to have its Maus moment. Maurin seems to think so. "Today, it might seem a little bit odd to make a game about real life and reality," he says, "but I think that's the normal way for the medium to develop into something a little more major."
IndieCade takes place Oct. 6-8 at various locations in Little Tokyo.