Worldbuilding Out of Bounds (long version)

Adapted from a talk first given at the inaugural NarraScope narrative games conference in Boston in 2019. There’s a condensed version from the talk I gave at AdventureX in London the same year, which you can read here.

Abstract: Have you ever had an idea you wanted to explore but been unsure if the story was yours to tell? Does the dictum to “write what you know” apply when you’re creating fictional, even fantastical worlds? How can you create work that respectfully depicts or reflects diverse cultures and identities when you’re a small team or a solo creator, with a singular background and perspective?

First, a little bit about who I am and where I’m coming at this from.

My name is Jess Haskins, and I’m a game designer, writer, and editor in Brooklyn.

I’ve worked at a few different studios in New York, mostly small indie outfits, and you can see some of the games I’ve worked on here.

In 2016 I started my own design consultancy, Paperback Studio.

A lot of my clients are still indie developers and startups, and I help them with things like story development, narrative mechanics, dialogue writing, script editing — a pretty wide range of things, on a wide variety of projects.

I really love adventure games and I’ve worked on a few, currently including Grundislav Games’ forthcoming Western title, Rosewater.

I’ve recently gotten more involved with IF, interactive tv, and choice-based games as well.

I also teach worldbuilding and game design, and I do a fair bit of community organizing and advocacy through the local IGDA NYC chapter and a group called NYC Indie Games.

A lot of my work deals with interactive storytelling and narrative design, worldbuilding, community, inclusion, and representation. Not coincidentally, those are most of the themes that are going to come up in this piece.

My talks usually start out as a rebuttal to some common idea floating around out there that I think needs to be debunked.

This is a kind of sequel to a talk I gave a couple years ago at the AdventureX conference in London, The Politics of Worldbuilding.

That one was written in response to something you may have heard certain game developers say:

“We weren’t making a political statement.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that, too.

This is a deflection. It’s an internalized acceptance of an unfortunately common complaint game developers face:

“Games should be fun, not political.”

Without going too deep into it, my answer to that is roughly this:

Yes, you made a political statement. Art is political.

You’re making a political statement every time you tell a story or create a fictional world with implicit rules about how you think things work.

If you don’t know what that statement is, then you haven’t given enough thought to what kind of conscious and unconscious messages you’re sending with your work.

And the corollary to that is:

You should think about the messages you’re sending with your work!

Approach your worldbuilding with intention and care. Try to create novel, cohesive worlds with rich representation, without resorting to genre tropes and cultural stereotypes.

I’m not going to rehash the rest of it here, but the slides and video are up on my Medium blog if you’d like to see it for yourself.

So, I’ve previously spent some time discussing a theory of worldbuilding and representation — about the need to get outside of our bubbles and construct thoughtful worlds from the foundation up.

About the need to expand the palette of representation in our media and expand the types of stories we tell so we don’t as a culture keep churning out more and more of the same.

But I haven’t talked too much about the craft, about the decision making process, or concrete strategies for how to do this.

So today I’m going to talk about some of the tools and guidelines that I have found to be helpful.

Finally, I’ll share some ways I’ve approached these problems in a few case studies from my own work writing and editing games.

Mainly, this talk is a rebuttal to another statement I’ve heard a number of times, one that I think is holding a lot of us back:

“That’s not my story to tell.”

This comes up sometimes when there’s a question of representation, and we’re not quite sure how to handle it.

Maybe we’re considering incorporating a character with a particular marginalized background that’s not our own, or depicting a particular historical period or struggle, or addressing some other sensitive topic where we can’t draw on direct personal or cultural experience.

“That’s not my story to tell” is the internalized, defensive response to another criticism that sometimes gets thrown at creators:

“Stay in your lane.”

There’s often a lot of fear in conversations about representation and diversity. Fear of saying the wrong thing, not being woke enough, putting your foot in it and getting piled on.

Why risk including a queer character, or making your protagonist a person of color, or basing your setting on a foreign culture, if it’s just going to invite criticism and remarks like this if you get something wrong?

So a common reaction is to just disengage.

To decide that it’s not worth the risk to wade into these waters.

That the safer option is to just keep telling the kind of stories you’re comfortable telling, with settings and characters you’re already familiar with. More of the same.

I think it’s really sad when that happens.

Before I go further, I should clarify who I’m really addressing here.

I’ll start with who I’m not talking to.

One, I’m not really talking to companies and large teams.

For them, my advice is simple: Just staff your project with people who identify with the group or experience you want to represent. If you’re making Black Panther the video game, hire Black folks in positions of creative control. Done.

If you’re looking around at your team and there’s a notable lack of diversity — of any kind — then fix that with more inclusive hiring practices.

I’m also not really talking to people who are chiefly interested in exploring their own personal identities or cultural background through their work.

That’s a powerful and wonderful thing.

If that’s you, go forth and make great art, and/or lots of money. I wish you much success.

Who I am talking to is primarily indies, solo creators or small, already existing teams — that is, the band’s already together, you’re not hiring or seeking new collaborators.

Maybe you, individually or collectively, belong to one or more marginalized groups — or maybe not.

Maybe you aren’t sure how to include representation of other groups in your work, or whether you even should.

If you’ve ever had some version of that thought, “not my story to tell,” I’m talking to you.

When we shy away from telling stories about certain kinds of people for fear of giving offense, those identities remain invisible — in our own work at the very least, if not in the culture at large.

Perhaps even worse, the burden of representation is left entirely to the people whose story we’ve decided it is. Now they have a duty to tell it, or no one else will.

But I want to hear more of those stories, speaking as just a player and consumer.

As creators, we should accept the challenge of telling them so they’re available for everyone.

And that means accepting the responsibility of doing these stories justice, which takes a little bit of extra work.

If you’re not willing to put in that small effort, then sure, it’s probably better not to try.

You probably will bungle things and offend people.

In that case, please do just stick with what you know, and you can sit out the rest of this piece, I guess.

But if you think there are certain kinds of stories you’re simply not allowed to tell, I’d like to challenge that idea.

Through the lens of my own personal experience and practice, I’m going to talk about how you can leave your lane and take your worldbuilding out of bounds, and why you should.

But not necessarily in that order.

First, a few words about how I approach ideas about diversity and representation when I’m going about my work.

There’s this hashtag gaining currency in the publishing world, particularly YA fiction, #OwnVoices. It’s about supporting and amplifying creators whose work reflects their own experience as people with marginalized identities. And that is certainly something that should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, this idea is sometimes turned into a cudgel to punish writers, asserting that only certain people have the “right” to represent certain marginalized identities in their work.

It can also become a straitjacket to the very people it purports to uplift. Taken to extremes, this suggests that the work of a marginalized creator is most valuable when it’s turned inward, centered on the personal, rooted in lived experience and surfacing some deep truths about their identity for public consumption.

What if you just want to forget about your labels for a while and write flights of fancy about airships or robots or dragons?

So #OwnVoices and “write what you know” have a place — but they should be used to remove limits, not enforce them.

Rather than worry about what we can and can’t write, I’d rather we all be empowered to strike off for new territories.

In the world of game development, there’s this other hashtag, #INeedDiverseGames.

It’s now also a non-profit organization, dedicated to supporting a greater diversity of experience and representation in the media we consume.

I love this. I do need diverse games. We all do.

On the one hand, it’s a call for a more diverse pool of creators — more inclusive teams, lowered barriers, letting more people from the margins have a crack at telling their stories.

But while increasing the diversity of people making games is one surefire way to get more diverse games, there’s another way we can pursue in parallel.

Just make the games themselves more diverse — individually, by depicting a broader range of representation in their gameworlds, and collectively, by making new games different from all the old ones.

Diversity is a property of groups, not people. If you’re a solo creator, you are what you are. You don’t get to make yourself more or less diverse.

But you can make your own corpus of work more diverse, or increase the diversity of work out there in the universe by contributing stuff that hasn’t been done before.

To briefly illustrate the importance of representation as a final goal, as reflected in the end product, I like to point to Star Trek.

(I like to point to Star Trek to illustrate a lot of things, because I’m a nerd.)

So, Gene Roddenberry was going to make a tv series no matter what. He actually made a few, and mostly they were kind of terrible.

But one of them was Star Trek, and he decided that a diverse cast and progressive politics were important to the vision of the future he wanted to portray.

So he put a Black woman, a Japanese man, and, amid Cold War anxieties, a Russian kid on the bridge of his ship, despite him having none of those identities and despite the cultural backlash and executive interference he would face.

And those choices proved to have a massive cultural impact —

To the point where Martin Luther King, Jr. famously implored Nichelle Nichols not to leave the show because of her visibility as an empowered, respected Black woman character when such depictions were practically unheard of.

And also famously, seeing someone who looked like her onscreen was a formative experience for Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to go and create many more powerful representations of her own.

If Gene Roddenberry had decided that the story of Uhura wasn’t his to tell, and peopled his Enterprise with a bunch of white American men, we would have been the poorer for it.

To take another example a little closer to home, Technocrat Games’ point-and-click adventure Technobabylon, published by Wadjet Eye Games, is a great instance of a solo developer committing to building an original, multicultural setting, a cosmopolitan African cyberpunk city, with a diverse cast of characters.

The game was well received and praised for its representation — notably, the inclusion of Dr Max Lao, whose identity as a trans woman is certainly surfaced and made visible in the game, but also refreshingly incidental to the plot.

Technobabylon was written by one person, James Dearden, who is neither a woman nor trans. But he consulted with trans activists in the course of writing the story, and rewrote scenes in response to their input.

Again, if instead he’d decided that it wasn’t his place to put words in the mouth of a trans woman and left the character out, or omitted this part of her identity, we never would have gotten this depiction, and the world of Technobabylon would have been a little less cosmopolitan.

I mention those two examples to make the case that valuable depictions of diversity don’t exclusively come from creators who themselves identify with underrepresented groups.

And unless you are committed exclusively to acts of self-representation, if you want to reflect the varieties of being that actually exist out there in the world, eventually you will need to reach outside of your own experience.

So how do you actually go about doing that?

For this next section, I’m going to reference a framework developed by the Australian non-profit organization Queerly Represent Me that I’ve found to be incredibly useful.

They’ve basically organized their advice for writing diverse games into the form of a decision tree, which I’ve reproduced here so we can walk through it step-by-step together.

Step one, So you’ve decided to make a game! You either:

Do or do not care about diversity.

And if we’ve lost you already on this step, I’m terribly sorry. The rest of us, let’s all proceed along the path of caring.

Next, you either are or are not a member of the marginalized groups you want to depict. If you are writing about your own identities, then as I mentioned before that’s great, but this talk isn’t really for you. Before we move on, let’s just take a look at where that path leads:

Write using your own experiences AND do additional research. Solid advice. When in doubt, always research.

This is a good place to pause for a few more words about research in general, because no matter what you’re writing, whether it’s based in your own experience or not, you’re going to have to do some.

There’s a kind of logical fallacy that has been called generalizing from fictional evidence, and it’s something we’re all guilty of from time to time. It’s one reason why storytelling is so powerful.

When you’re reasoning and trying to make decisions, you weight evidence from something you saw or heard in a work of fiction just as strongly as something you actually experienced firsthand.

It seems like it really happened, and like it should be a reliable guide to the future.

In what evolutionary psychologists call the ancestral environment, this made good sense. If the tribal elder was telling you a story about a foolish hunter who got eaten by a lion, you might want to treat that as fact and be just as wary around lions as if you yourself saw that hunter get eaten.

But nowadays, our voracious consumption of ever more fanciful fiction has given us the illusion of having reliable, first-hand experience of all sorts of outlandish things.

We feel like we would know just what to do in case of a plague of zombies, a robot uprising, or a dalliance with a sexy vampire.

We have expectations about how these sorts of things go, despite none of them ever having happened.

Our reliance on fictional evidence also gives us a sense of familiarity with places we’ve never been, people we’ve never met, cultures we’ve never experienced.

We might feel prepared to, say, write a story about someone with a marginalized identity even if we’ve never met anyone like that in our life.

But chances are we’ve been hearing stories based on stories based on stories, far removed from the original source material, and bearing little relation to reality.

When you’re imagining new worlds and stories based on real places or cultures you’ve seen in the movies or read about in books, take a moment to consider whether you’re relying too much on fictional evidence.

Then you’ll probably want to do some more research to get your facts straight.

Moving on, for those of us who want to write about other marginalized identities…

You either do or do not have the funds to hire paid collaborators or consultants. If you do, then hire them.

Now, let’s investigate what this entails. First, before you trip merrily along the “can’t afford it” path, really reconsider that.

Maybe you’re bootstrapping a project largely on your own, but have you set aside some budget for services like an external composer or PR consultant? Cover illustration? Marketing? Exhibiting expenses or awards submission fees? How about hardware and software?

You’re probably not making and releasing something for literally zero dollars, so if you are making depictions of a marginalized group key in your work, consider allocating even just a few hundred dollars to a diversity consultant.

They’re easier to find and work with now than ever before, and it could make the difference between a sterling example of positive representation and an embarrassingly inaccurate or even offensive portrayal.

In the fiction publishing world, the practice of paid consultants reviewing a work to assess its presentation of marginalized identities and experiences is known as sensitivity reading, or sometimes diversity reading or diversity editing.

Writer’s Digest in particular has argued for adoption of the term diversity editing, so as to emphasize the active role these editorial professionals play in improving a manuscript.

If that term floats your boat, by all means go for it, although sensitivity reading is still more widespread.

Whatever you call it, it’s gotten much more common in recent years.

I’d like to see it become standard practice for all kinds of games.

You can find sensitivity readers specializing in particular categories of sexual or gender identity, race, national, ethnic or cultural background, lifestyle or family situation, as well as topics like disability, mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, or domestic violence. Multiple readers may cover a single project, each viewing the work through different prisms.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that sensitivity reading is not a global stamp of approval from a marginalized group, or a shield against criticism. Nor is it a form of censorship, as some hand-wringing critics have hyperbolically claimed.

As with any editorial relationship, your reader’s personal tastes and opinions will inform their feedback, and they might flag something another reader would approve or let pass without comment. Remember that your consultant is an individual professional, not a spokesperson for their identity.

So how do you go about finding your sensitivity reader or diversity editor?

Well, Queerly Represent Me is one excellent place to start, and it’s focused on the medium of video games. In addition to a library of resources and a database of representation in games, they also offer customized consulting services addressing diversity topics.

You can also go poking around some of the same places you would look to find a reader for a traditional book.

One great resource is the Editors of Color database, where you can browse for editors offering sensitivity reading services and filter using a variety of terms — you can even look for editors who explicitly include “video games” in the types of media they work with.

Ok, back to the flow chart!

If you have the money, or have properly saved or allocated it, you’ve hired some help. But if not, we move on to the next step…

If you can’t pay someone, do you have any friends with the relevant background who would give you some feedback?

In practice this might not look too different from the paid consultant, except maybe with meals, favors, or warm fuzzies exchanged instead of money.

The usual rules about asking friends for favors (especially feedback) apply. They might flake, the level of sustained effort and depth is likely to be less than you might get from someone who’s being paid, they’re likely to have be less experienced, skilled, nuanced, tactful, etc. in providing critical feedback than a professional — and they might also pull their punches or give you a less honest or full evaluation for fear of hurting your feelings.

These are all the same risks you get when using friends and family in lieu of paid playtesters or QA testers, by the way, and if you’ve ever gone that route, you’re probably familiar with its drawbacks.

Also just make sure that your friends are cool with providing this kind of feedback before you dump it on them and ask what they think, and make sure you aren’t starting to over-rely on them as your “token [whatever] friend” when you need to save a few bucks on some diversity consulting.

And now we come to the part of the flowchart that’s unexplored territory.

You’re writing about a marginalized group you don’t belong to, you can’t pay anyone to give you feedback, and you don’t know anyone from this group that you can turn to for a favor.

You’re on your own. What do you do?

Well, here’s my best synthesis of all the good advice I’ve heard so far.

One, do research. Just do it anyway, whether you’re using any of these other resources or not.

Beware the trap of fictional evidence.

Treat the Roman Empire or the Viking longship or the Wild West as a place as mysterious and unexplored as any other place or period in history you could possibly name, and research it as if you literally did not know the first thing about it.

Because if you’re being honest, you probably don’t.

If you’re about to construct a setting based in whole or in part on some foreign culture that you know only through the lens of fictional sources — medieval-inspired high fantasy, say, or an Orientalist Arabian Nights setting, or piracy on the high seas via a Disney theme park ride via Robert Louis Stevenson, then just stop right there, and hit the books. The history books, that is, not the storybooks.

Although remember that the very act of writing history is always an interpretive, narrative one. So instead, when you can, skip those and go straight for the primary sources.

As a bonus, the work you produce based on those primary source details will likely be so far removed from the familiar genre trappings that your work will be hailed as a truly refreshing new twist on the genre, a real breath of fresh air. So there’s something to strive for.

Two, consume works created by the people you’re writing about.

Read some of that #OwnVoices fiction. Read nonfiction. Listen to them telling their own stories and immerse yourself in their rhythms.

There’s not too much else to say about this one, so we’ll just move on.

Three, read criticism about how the group you’re writing about has been represented in other media, and read thoughtful critiques of representation generally.

Here’s one great book: Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, edited by Jennifer Malkowski and TreAndrea M. Russworm.

Who got it right, and what did people get wrong? What are people saying about how they see themselves depicted? What frustrations and pitfalls can you skip altogether?

Four, if you are going it alone without consultation, avoid centering narratives of trauma and struggle for characters with marginalized identities that you don’t share.

Even with all the research in the world and the best of intentions, without a deeper understanding of the issues or someone to help you avoid missteps, you run the risk of creating something inappropriate, offensive, or hurtful.

Instead, focus on positive, empowering depictions of characters with purpose and narrative agency.

Giving underrepresented figures a visible place in your story can be powerful and inspiring all in itself.

You’re not obliged to also bring in all of the historical systems of oppression and erasure attached to that identity if you’re not personally equipped to make sense of them.

Just show some folks being awesome and you’ll do some good.

Relatedly, your fantastic settings and invented worlds do not need to recapitulate real-world historical patterns of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression just to make them “gritty” or “realistic.”

Also, your impressions of how historical sexism, racism, etc. functioned for whatever time and place you’re taking as your model are probably inaccurate.

I refer to my earlier point regarding research from primary sources!

A very common offender is the popular image of a strictly white, European Middle Ages, which is pretty much pure fantasy drawn from popularl and historical depictions that go back a long way.

This trope overlooks the reality of a medieval period marked by a high degree of international travel and trade, where the modern concept of “race” largely didn’t exist and religion, rather than skin color or national origin, was a much more salient marker of personal identity.

For more on this idea, I highly recommend the excellent series of blog posts you can find at the Public Medievalist:

Race, Racism and the Middle Ages;

Gender, Sexism, and the the Middle Ages;

And of particular interest, their forthcoming series on Games.

The Medieval POC Tumblr blog is another great resource for visual inspiration, and argues against the popular misconception of an all-white European Middle Ages.

One more shoutout to one of the best books I was ever assigned as an undergrad studying medieval literature.

Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society is an illuminating compilation of primary sources, collecting personal accounts by members of religious minorities, gender and sexual nonconformists, disease sufferers, and other disenfranchised and marginalized people of the era.

Five, metaphors won’t save you.

Substituting fantasy races for real-world groups so that you can depict the disenfranchisement of forest elves or sentient androids as a thinly-veiled stand-in for the civil rights struggle can really backfire and trivialize real histories of oppression.

If you are working with this kind of narrative material, you should still seek feedback from people who can advise on how to sensitively handle themes of real-world oppression — even if you are only talking about the subjugation of the hobgoblins or the closeted lifestyle of vampires.

Six, work to increase the diversity of your incidental characters so that the mix resembles the frequency and variation you want your world to reflect.

Reconsider your defaults, whether intentional or not, that you tend to use for background characters and bit parts.

For instance, if we have an unconscious white default, we see white characters as the norm that we only occasionally deviate from in special cases — and only then is the character’s skin color mentioned. Whiteness is the unmarked, invisible default, but anything else requires justification and explanation.

There doesn’t need to be a “reason” for a character to have a particular identity, and it need not figure into the plot in any way. They can just be there, and that’s fine.

I sometimes refer to this as “rerolling” my background characters—keeping their personality and role in the story the same, but trying on different combinations of gender or sexual identity, ethnic background, or other traits that seem to be underrepresented in the world of the piece.

I mean “rerolling” metaphorically, but I suppose if you really have trouble flexing your imagination in this way, you could use some kind of actual random number generation.

I’m not sure I recommend that, though. It seems awfully procedural and trivial. Literally rolling the die on diversity. Nah.

Try to be a bit more deliberate than that.

Anyway, after rerolling a character, see how much else about them you can leave as is.

You might be tempted to change a bunch of other aspects to mold them to fit some particular stereotype you might have, but try just sitting with it for a while and see if it works. The results might surprise you.

A diversity consultant can still be helpful to spot if by using this method you’ve inadvertently created an unrealistic or incongruous representation.

One example of this that turned up in my research was about an author of a YA story who had written the character of a Black girl who loved visiting national parks. But a sensitivity reader pointed out that this rang false to her. Historically, Black people in the US weren’t even allowed into national parks, and so it’s very much not a common family pastime in that cultural. This historical detail hadn’t even occurred to the author when she wrote her character. That’s not to say that she couldn’t decide to keep her outdoorsy, park-loving girl in the story, but with the reader’s feedback she had the option of doing it in an intentional way, and not out of ignorance.

So some caution is warranted with this technique. But I’ve found this to be a good way of shaking up ingrained habits and discovering characters that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to me.

Finally, I’ll share a few cases where I’ve used these approaches in my own work.

I’m going to talk about two games in particular, Guns of Icarus Online and Lamplight City.

The first game, Guns of Icarus Online, I worked on at my first job in the game industry, as a designer and writer at Muse Games.

Guns of Icarus Online is a first-person multiplayer online team-based steampunk airship combat game.

And boy have I said that sequence of syllables a lot of times.

We launched it in 2012 with a PvP arena combat mode, and it’s been in continuous development ever since.

I was the team’s sole writer and handled most of the worldbuilding and narrative elements, laying the groundwork for a larger persistent world and systems to support something more like an MMO.

The world of Guns of Icarus was conceived as an alternate-history, post-apocalyptic lansdscape with steampunk aesthetics.

The backstory was that in this world, World War I never ended, and the conflict continued until global civilization collapsed.

A hundred years later, scattered populations of survivors were left battling over scarce resources in the ruins of a world dominated by airships as the primary means of transport and combat.

Our world wasn’t set in any declared geographical location, and we handwaved the unfamiliar landscape as the result of global climate change and unspecified catastrophe.

But to support the idea that there had been massive refugee migrations and shuffling of national boundaries, we wanted to show the cultures of this new world, divided into six major player factions, as a kind of syncretic remix of real-world cultures, languages, and national identities.

So building the world of Guns of Icarus really involved taking in and recombining lots of disparate cultural influences, and I wanted to make sure I was doing it in a sensitive and respectful way.

First, I did a lot of research.

I looked for inspiration to blogs like The Steamer Trunk, now sadly defunct, and Beyond Victoriana, still kicking.

They both specialize in surfacing and celebrating multicultural and postcolonial depictions of steampunk aesthetics, both modern interpretations and period sources like old photographs.

Since the steampunk scene tends to come with a lot of upper-class, white, English, Victorian, colonial imperialist baggage, sources like these are an important palate cleanser to help you imagine differently.

And, quick detour, if this thread of decolonizing steampunk narratives is something you want to hear more about, I heartily recommend Meg Jayanth’s talk 80 Days and Unexpected Stories, which you can find for free on YouTube or the GDC Vault from 2015.

So one of my biggest tasks on the game was building the map, particularly assigning place names, and naming all the factions, characters, non-player ships, and everything else.

I researched examples of toponymy and compiled long lists of place names with different origins. On the map, I grouped them into rough regional clusters — names drawn from Russian, French, Latin, English, Greek, Chinese, and more.

Anyway, I got as far as I could on my own research, but I didn’t want to do the naming equivalent of a tourist who gets the hanzi tattoo that’s supposed to be “peace” or “prosperity” but instead says “chicken noodle soup” or “big mistake.”

So another tactic I used was to take advantage of the cultural backgrounds we had represented on the team.

I asked team members to draw up lists of name suggestions and words that could be combined into names, and I had them review and comment on the final selections that I composed.

One member of the team was able to contribute Quechua names, another German, another Japanese, and so on, so that we had a second source checking over almost everything.

In particular, our team had a lot of developers from Taiwan and China, or with Chinese heritage, so we used what we had. Chinese language and culture played a large role in the worldbuilding.

For instance, they were able suggest culturally appropriate animal symbology. We established that the government of this faction would be a ruling Triumvirate, with each member responsible for a different sector of society and represented by a different animal: the Ox, the Tiger, and the Deer.

I believe the Ox was responsible for internal affairs, the Tiger for war, and the Deer for diplomacy and trade, but it’s been a little while and I could be wrong about that.

While I’ve forgotten it now, it was reassuring at the time to have a somewhat better source than zodiac trivia on a restaurant placemat to back up my choices.

The name we settled on for this faction, the Yesha Empire, also came from a suggestion by one our developers in Taiwan. It means something like “sands in the night” — reflecting a society that had been built out of the dust of ruins and darkness, and was in constant motion and change.

The version I came up with was something more like “dark dust,” like the stuff you pull out of the vacuum cleaner or something. I‘m glad we didn’t go with my best guess.

Expanding beyond the resources we had available on the development team, I also used the “phone a friend” strategy.

An online pal of mine was always blogging fascinating stuff about the history and culture of her native Romania, and she graciously agreed to help out with naming a Romanian cluster of towns.

The fruits of this collaboration now reside in a region of the map to the south called the Vastness.

The second game I’ll talk about is much more recent, and quite a bit more nuanced and complex in terms of representation.

Lamplight City is a point-and-click adventure game released last year by Grundislav Games. It’s largely a solo effort by developer Francisco Gonzalez, who also happens to be my partner.

I’d given feedback and advice on his work before, but this was the first game of his that I worked on in an official capacity, as an editor and narrative consultant.

Lamplight City is also set in an alt-history universe with steampunk trappings, in this case in the Vespuccian city of New Bretagne, a kind of blend of New York City with New Orleans, in the mid-19th century.

It’s billed as a detective mystery where you can get things wrong, and it’s inspired by the works of Poe and Dickens — Poe for mystery and the macabre, and Dickens for class struggle and social unrest.

The game features a pretty broad palette of representation, and deals with some heavy themes of discrimination and marginalization of various groups — women, the poor, people with mental illness, queer people, and people of color.

These are sensitive subjects, and we took a lot of care to do them justice.

As a consultant, one aspect of the story that I could most immediately address was the representation of women and the gender politics of the world.

One of the first things I look for is to see if women constitute at least half of the characters, especially main characters with agency in the story.

In this case, the player character, Detective Miles Fordham, was male, and of the three major non-player characters, only one, Miles’s wife Addy, was a woman.

So I brought out one of my favorite tactics, the “character reroll” I mentioned earlier.

One of the first suggestions I made was to change the character of Edward Upton, the main support character who slips the player cases and provides guidance and advice, into a woman.

The result is what I think is one of the best, if not the best, character in the whole game, police desk officer Constance “Connie” Upton.

And I also insisted that none of the other, already established details about the character should change.

She remained an overweight, deskbound officer with marital troubles, a brave and loyal friend with an impish sense of humor and an easy, teasing rapport with her old buddy Miles, who habitually greeted her as “Upton O’Goode.”

This resulted in an easygoing, steadfast, platonic friendship between a man and a woman who were professional colleagues — and I can’t help but think that the dynamic would have been quite different if Connie were conceived as a woman originally.

And she still had her clandestine meetings with Miles in a coffeeshop, although we had already determined that, as in the real world during the era, these establishments were traditionally off-limits to women.

We wanted to keep this detail in, and added a line showing how Connie had used her official position to strongarm the coffeehouse owner into turning a blind eye.

This helped us establish attitudes of gender discrimination that were in the world, as well as showing Connie as an assertive risk-taker who wasn’t afraid of bending, if not breaking, the rules.

We also further developed Connie’s backstory. Originally, Edward Upton was to have suspected his wife of cheating, with the idea that the player could help uncover the truth in the course of the story.

After the gender swap, we changed this to establish that Miles and Connie had originally become friends when helped her furnish the proof of her abusive husband’s infidelity that she needed to legally secure a divorce.

Again, this helped to convey how the lopsided laws of this society served to oppress women, but also how someone resourceful and determined like Connie might need to navigate them to survive.

So that’s one way I used the character reroll in Lamplight City, which ended up deepening the worldbuilding and giving us a great character in what otherwise could have been a fairly rote role.

I rerolled the gender of one other minor background character in the game, in this case changing the secretary in a law office from a woman into a man.

While that didn’t do any favors for the overall gender balance of the cast, it did reduce the proportion of women in the game who had secretarial or service roles.

If you’re finding that your representatives of marginalized groups are mainly cropping up in these kinds of supporting and subordinate roles, especially ones lacking agency, then it’s not a bad idea to shift things around.

The law clerk was not a real character with any kind of arc, he was just there to give you information and get in your way.

Give your minority characters juicier roles, and maybe stick the white guy behind a desk once in a while.

We also consulted with friends about certain aspects of the story that we wanted to get right.

One issue was the depiction of race and racism in the game, which plays a fairly large role in the story.

Miles, a white man, is in a mixed marriage with his wife Addy, a Black hairdresser who was a former lounge singer, and we see some of the ways they face discrimination.

And in the very first case of the game, you’re tasked with clearing the name of a man who seems to have been falsely accused on account of his race and isn’t receiving fair treatment from the justice system.

But race originally played an even more prominent role in the story, until we received feedback from testers that made us rethink that.

We established in the worldbuilding that the emancipation of slaves had happened fairly recently in the history of this country, and one of the early cases originally revolved around a grande dame, one of the city’s social elites, who was known for offering paid employment to her former slaves.

This was regarded as especially compassionate and merciful by her peers, but was a cover for acts of abuse.

But we got feedback from testers saying that the heavy themes of slavery and racism were distracting and disturbing, and not important enough to the narrative for their inclusion to be justified.

So we listened, and changed the focus of the case.

In the new scenario, references to slavery were removed. Instead of the domestic servants being former slaves, the unusual thing about the grande dame’s household was her decision to keep employing people when others were replacing them with “steam tech” machines.

This brought the story more in line some of the game’s larger themes, like class struggle and anxieties about increasing mechanization — a kind of second, steampunk Industrial Revolution based on airships, steam contraptions, and experiments in a mysterious form of energy called aethericity.

More important, we avoided including a polarizing and unnecessarily disturbing detail that served little purpose other than shock value.

The final bit I’d like to talk about is how we sought out consultation about how to handle specific scenes of racial discrimination in the game.

The player, as Miles, witnesses some instances of racist comments and attitudes directed at his wife Addy.

Originally, the player would be offered a few options to respond to these disparaging remarks — either to defend Addy, or to let them pass unchallenged, with consequences for the relationship.

If you failed to speak up on her behalf, Addy would feel betrayed and later reproach you for your silence.

But when we discussed these scenes with friends who were themselves in mixed couples, they pointed out that it would be more realistic for the white person in the couple to be more righteously indignant on their partner’s behalf and reflexively want to protest, while the person of color would tend to try to defuse or downplay the situation.

They would be much more accustomed to encountering slights like this and letting them them go, just as a matter of daily survival.

So in the final version of the game, while the player gets a few different lines to choose from, Miles will always be indignant, will always say something.

And when he tries to commiserate with Addy by complaining that she shouldn’t have to hear things like that, she’s the one who shrugs it off.

She’s heard worse. If she stopped putting up with the casually racist ladies whose hair she styles, she says, she wouldn’t have any clients at all.

And you have no say at all in how this scene plays out.

When a police officer — whom you’re trying to distract from something he’s guarding, in classic adventure game fashion — directs racist insults toward Addy, Miles just decks him.

No slow-playing that one.

If we’d just gone ahead with those scenes as we’d originally envisioned them based on our intuition, we’d have gotten it wrong.

But because we sought input from people with personal experience of the dynamics we were trying to depict, we wrote something that was much more real.

We covered a lot of ground, so before we close, I’d like to briefly recap some of the takeaways.

1. First, if you’re hiring or building a team, make diversity a priority.

2. Hire diversity consultants. Especially if you’re writing culturally sensitive material, budget for the expense.

3. Whether or not you’re using paid consultants, you can also seek feedback from friends with relevant cultural or personal backgrounds.

4. Take care that you’re not using experiences of trauma and oppression to power your narrative without a real understanding of their impact. If these themes are indispensable to your story, get consultation about them.

5. Instead of casting them in traditionally oppressive roles, give your marginalized characters power and narrative agency. Make them driving subjects, not passive objects in your story.

6. Reject notions of the cis straight white male as the unmarked default. Switch up the traits of your incidental background characters to achieve the diversity you’re going for.

7. Always do your research, whether or not you’re using a familiar genre setting or a fictional world. What you find will probably surprise you.

8. Listen to what people are saying about how they see themselves represented in media, and educate yourself about the latest discourse.

9. Support and make room for marginalized voices telling their own stories. Instead of scrambling for a few seats, let’s make a bigger table so there’s room for everyone.

10. So pull up a chair, and tell your story.

Thanks for reading. Follow me at @jess_haskins on Twitter or visit Paperback Studio for more about worldbuilding, writing, games, culture, and inevitable references to Star Trek.

Narrative designer & editor. Founder, Paperback Studio. |

Narrative designer & editor. Founder, Paperback Studio. |