There’s been some delays on posting blog stuff since I wanted to clear writing activities with the new employer. Now that I have, here’s some backlog. :-)
I first visited New Orleans when I was a kid. I don’t much remember the details of that trip, but I came away with a mild-to-moderate distaste for the place. But I figured it had been well over a decade since then, so I decided to give it another chance on my recent trip across the country.
Man am I glad I did. Stayed in a little spot in the French Quarter, wandered the lonely streets, and had the best food and drink of my entire trip.
My lord, the food. So good it deserves its own paragraph. And those folks know how to make a Bloody Mary.
But I digress.
As I wandered the streets, I started thinking about how it might fare as a gamespace. At several levels, New Orleans would make a fantastic setting for an open world RPG. Very few tall buildings (fewer interiors to develop), a party district, narrow alleyways with character, wide boulevards, music floating in from far away, docks, travelers from all over, foreign languages, multiple religions, etc. It would be even better if you jumped back 150 years or so to, say, the period just before the Civil War. Then you’d have a wide countryside to explore, could play up voodoo magic, have guns that were fun to play with but not semi-automatic, various backwater settlements.
As I walked back to my hotel from dinner, I thought about it more. There’s such potential to make a compelling game! Why have there been so few games set in New Orleans? As a matter of fact, why hasn’t the Old South been used in an open world setting?
And then I remembered — oh right. Slavery. Something no reasonable game developer wants to touch with a 39-and-a-half foot pole. Rightly so. It’s an incredibly dicey topic that would be near-impossible to present in a sensitive manner while giving the player freedom.
You could, of course, let the player free slaves, join the Underground Railroad, maybe even start as a slave themselves. But if you care about player choice, you’d also want to give them the ability to suppress the slaves, capture escapees, etc.
Oh, man. The headlines would be horrible. How would the forum moderators even begin to know what was appropriate? You think games get negative attention for violence…
And one of the arguments that would inevitably brought up from the enthusiast press is that slavery has been dealt with in games before, and this should be no different. You have a choice to enslave people or free the slaves in Fallout 3; Civilization makes it into a mechanic with tradeoffs as you build your cities.
But of course, this is different. There is a substantial, fundamental difference interacting with completely fictionalized slavery and interacting with a recreation of very real historical oppression.
It’s kind of unfortunate that this is sort of an untouchable area for games, because I think there’s tremendous power to educate people about the time period and those attitudes, beyond what you can learn from reading or watching movies with similar settings and themes.
I chose to free the slaves in Fallout 3 (I seem to always play goodie-two-shoes as much as games will support it), but I’d be interested to hear from people who took a more evil track. Do you think you would feel any differently about your actions if you had been tracking down runaway African-American slaves in 1850’s Louisiana than you did in the 2277 Capital Wasteland? Would it make you question your actions more? Would you be able to turn off the bad behavior detector in your conscience the same way I do every time I kill hundreds of people over a lunchtime session of Team Fortress 2?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. I don’t think there are. Maybe someone reading this will have some answers, or at least more articulate questions.