Kickstarters, Gaming, and Diversity: Have We Really Come a Long Way?

Heading into the E3 season, I believe there’s one thing, one motto that the gaming community has made abundantly clear this year: nostalgia sells. This isn’t anything new, of course: retro chic is a style that never goes out of fashion, and in the world of video games, nothing seems to get people’s boners raging more than good pixel art and overworld maps reminiscent of Super Mario World. Despite the truth in this statement, large name developers are continuing to push the graphical limits of these current gen systems, doing bigger and more modern things with these shiny new graphical capabilities. As they should, honestly. Retro-styled games and more modern looking games don’t have to stand directly opposed to each other, but with current developments, it does feel like that’s the precedent being set, as none of these recently popular retro games seem to have been created with the blessings of the larger distributors. In fact, in some cases these retro games have circumvented the need for these distributors entirely. How is this possible? Well… Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is full of terrible start-ups, but when placed against mainstream devs, the gaming platform as a whole benefits from this—if a Kickstarter idea is terrible, it probably won’t be funded; if a proposal for an AAA title sounds completely underwhelming, the game is still more than likely going to be released. And while big name game devs are more than capable of putting out beautiful, fun games, Kickstarter is proving to be the place to go when an indie team has an idea, and gaining a reputation for creating beautiful things, such as Shovel Knight.

Foe once, everything isn't terrible.

For once, everything isn’t terrible.

This year—and partly last year too—has seen the emergence of a somewhat new trend: Kickstarter isn’t just a place for indie developers anymore, it’s also a place for larger names that you may have grown up with. With some dumbass business decisions (looking at you, Konami)  and falling-outs, many developers have taken to Kickstarter to put out the games they weren’t able to put out underneath their old employers, those big name companies. In most cases, this means heading back into what they were known best for, perhaps inadvertently hitting that nostalgia button. This is all well and good, but looking at two Kickstarters that fall under this trend, I’m noticing something worrying: these developers aren’t necessarily taking full advantage of the opportunity given to them. What I’m saying is that if your project isn’t constrained by what some higher up is telling you, then nothing is stopping you from making your games more diverse. Except yourself.

These designs aren't innovative at all...

These designs aren’t innovative at all…

The most egregious example of this I’m aware of is Mighty No. 9, a game presented to Kickstarter two years ago by Keiji Inafune of Mega Man fame. After Capcom decided that Mega Man wasn’t a IP worth pursuing any longer, Inafune and comcept USA took to Kickstarter with this new IP, the clear spiritual successor to the super fighting robot everyone knows and loves. It was funded with nearly four million dollars because people were more than ready to get their Mega Man fix. However, despite an incredibly cool environment to play around in and awesome looking enemies, the main characters of the series appear to be underwhelming. Even in the design stage, there appeared to be little desire to experiment outside of the boundaries of what the original series gave them. And indeed, now in the final stages of development, it appears that the main cast—Beck, Call, Dr. White, and Dr. Sanda—are all easily interpreted as white characters. While the designs aren’t bad (although, personally, I’m not a fan of any of Call’s designs), the question remains that if what people were after is the story and the gameplay, why are there no people of color? Also, if the enemies have such a diverse range of designs, why are Beck and Call confined to incredibly human designs—especially Call, who seems to have no robot parts visible at all!

Bloodstained MiriamMuch more recently, Koji Igarashi started a Kickstarter for Bloodstained, another spiritual successor, but this time to the well-known Castlevania series. The game looks gorgeous and like everything a Castlevania fan would want; a statement proven by the fact that even with twenty-two days left, the game has reached almost two million more dollars than the initial funding goal of five hundred thousand dollars. Indeed, I was even surprised to learn that the protagonist of this game was a woman! However, taking a look at the cast, again players are faced with no (known) people of color, even though the previous Castlevania games mostly took place in Europe (Bloodstained also seems to have a European setting with European characters). I’d be willing to guess there are no characters with permanent disabilities either, since the main goal seems to be to cure the protagonist and her friend from turning into glass—the implied “disability”.

These games in and of themselves aren’t bad. No, I fully expect these games to be fantastic and welcomed additions to many gamers’ libraries. However unintentionally it may be, though, they are perpetuating standards that developers should be trying to break out of, even in the retro game/nostalgic game genre. Sure, these games are using staples that the gaming community is familiar with and fond of, but developers shouldn’t be further endorsing that whiteness, able bodied-ness, or straightness (if that’s an aspect of any of these games) is something we should look back on and think, “ah yes, the good old days.” Furthermore, with the fine lens on more indie games this era (though admittedly these shouldn’t really be considered indie), mainstream companies are also getting a look at what their audience finds compelling. Wouldn’t it be something if we started showing these devs that we, the gaming audience, are here for stories about protagonists and secondary characters that don’t fit the white-cishet-able bodied-stereotypically beautiful model that has become so tired over the decades? There’s always fighting the good fight in terms of voicing dissent directly to the source, but also, supporting games that don’t butt into this mold should be a viable tactic as well. People should be able to make the games they want, but they also need to examine why certain things are the way they want. Without this sense of introspection, it will be hard for games as a whole to move forward to being inclusive. And this, especially, falls on the well-known names of gaming who have found themselves displaced from the big name companies.

So, to kick start (you see what I did there) some thought here, I’m linking a few Kickstarters that follow this trend of breaking from the “comfortable”, retro ideas we’re used to, while also appealing to nostalgia. If you have any funding projects of this type that I haven’t mentioned—and I hope there are a lot—please leave them in the comments!

  • Elsinore: Combining both Shakespeare and adventure game mechanics, you play as Ophelia, a noblewoman of color who is forced to relive the same four days until she can unlock the secrets of Elsinore Castle. This is WAY retro—I’m still counting Shakespeare as retro, so sue me—but the control style seems something reminiscent of old detective games, and I am so here for that.
  • Aberford: A game that doesn’t actually have a Kickstarter page yet, but all the promotional information I’ve seen makes the game look hella promising. Besides, who doesn’t want to kill zombies as a 50’s housewife?
  • Yooka-Laylee: This is a game that literally hits all my nostalgia buttons, as someone who watched her brother play through all the Banjo-Kazooie games… yes, even that one. Even if if doesn’t really tackle social justice issues in a more conventional way, in which other game series are you going to see a completely platonic male and female friendship where the female character is the less anthropomorphized of the two? God bless for animal characters that look like animals.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

1 thought on “Kickstarters, Gaming, and Diversity: Have We Really Come a Long Way?

  1. Ah man, as a differently abled person myself, I’d love to see a disable lead in a game – and an actual differently abled person, none of this cursed whatever blah blah stuff. But like, imagine the game mechanics you could do with a blind protagonist? A wheelchair-bound one? It would be so cool! I feel like that’s the only way we’re going to get any diversity with these games: if the mechanics awould beso drasticlly different that it would draw people to the game. Sad, but true lately.

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