Dealing with Difficult Content in Games
As I was writing the blog post about the Te'Kesh crest, I realized that I needed to address the nature of difficult content and how other creators should go about tackling sensitive subject matter and/or creating evil characters. I won't go into what other games have done and their successes or failures, that can be found here. Instead, I wanted to talk about dealing with these issues as the creator who is putting the content into the game.
The Obvious is not so Obvious
There are subjects that should be universally reviled like slavery. We would like to think that everyone has a firm grasp as to why slavery is bad - it treats a class of people as sub or less than their oppressors, it is inherently violent, and it removes any form of self-determination to name a few reasons. Nevertheless, slavery still happens today. Unfortunately, humans need constant reminding as to why chapters of our human history are bad because we are really good at repeating them. Tackling a subject that is seemingly obvious is a great way to discuss why these things are bad and why we must remain vigilant on the subject.
The big question is why would you want to put difficult content into your game. If it is to make your game more academic, deep, or fill in your adjective here, that may not be the best motivation to do so. The difficult content must make sense with the narrative that is being told in the game. To have a villain kill a bunch of children because killing children is evil, is not enough reason to do it.
I give the Anakin killing younglings scene as an example because, yes, one can argue Anakin wanted to wipe out the Jedi and what better way than to get them when they're young. However, this scene was so jarring and not in a deep meaningful way - it was over the top. It was an attempt to solidify Anakin as evil by doing something obviously evil, which had a reverse humorous meme-worthy outcome.
Star Wars chose to do the obvious in developing evil. If your goal is to create evil, be subtle. World domination is no longer worthy enough for villains. We are in the age where evil is more complicated than plowing down children with lightsabers. We are in the age of Killmonger and Thanos, villains that had valid grievances, but executed perceived solutions in morally repugnant ways. The motivations for their actions reflect their world views. That is the crux when developing evil - motivation. If the motivation isn't there or believable like in the Star Wars example, players will dismiss the difficult content you are putting in the game and maybe make a meme about it.
In Kingdoms of Immacus, the Astracites are perceived as evil because they conquer land and take over bodies without any thought to the consequences. They don't do this because these things we have deemed as a culture are evil (which is the obvious evil we are trying to avoid) , they do these things because the survival of their race depends on it. The Astracite's parasitic nature requires hosts, and unfortunately, their hosts don't enjoy a commensal parasitic relationship. The Astracites want to survive, and their actions reflect that motivation.
Magic and Slave Labor Industrialization
Culture is never stagnant, it is always evolving. Showing a culture change due to difficult circumstances creates a dialogue for how we in the real world can change. Under the current Te'Kesh regime, the Te'Kesh have taken it upon themselves to enslave the Donkoree humans to work in agriculture, construction, and domestic servitude. The motivation for this? The time freed from these industrialization necessities has allowed them to focus on their extreme obsession with arcane magic. Since the Te'Kesh have lived alone in the harsh deserts of Immacus, it has made them susceptible to isolationist and xenophobic behaviors.
Creating "others" is easy when people, elves, or monsters look completely different from yourself, and there is no exception with the Te'Kesh. Not only do the Donkoree look different than the Te'Kesh, the Te'Kesh make an extended effort to maintain that otherness in their culture. Due to the extreme heat in the desert, the Donkoree must cover their bodies in clothing and paint their skin as to avoid sun damage. Much like the wearing purple ban under Queen Elizabeth I, the Donkoree are not allowed to color their skin any color that resembles a Te'Kesh skin tone. This maintains the status of the Te'Kesh and legislates otherness.
Lifting attitudes and practices from the past is a great way to draw attention to behaviors we may still be doing today. The behavior doesn't have to be unique, sometimes too much deviation from the known can cause ideas to get lost. What creators can do to breathe new life into old problems is the world's response to difficult content.
New World Old Problems
Difficult content no matter the subject wouldn't be difficult if the real world didn't grapple with it in some way. As a creator, you can create new speculative problems like an A.I. overmind, but that's not the focus of the post. The Te'Kesh practice obvious bad things like slavery. What makes the difficult content unique is Brava's presence as the Te'Kesh hero and her push to change the culture. The Te'Kesh are more obsessed with magic, and Brava being a Celestial makes her much more interesting and sacred to them than their practice of slavery. This is true for the common Te'Kesh, but not the regime. Thus, there is a conflict between the Te'Kesh ruling class, Brava, and the common Te'Kesh civilian. So yes there is slavery, but it is how the culture grapples with it that is more interesting for a player to experience than using slavery in and of itself to paint something as villainous.
Fantasy as Proxy as Escapism
Fantasy is escapism, but it doesn't mean it can't be used as a way to tell interesting stories with difficult content. And because it is escapism, you may be able to make a point to someone who may not typically agree with you outside of the fantasy realm on the subject you are interrogating.
Fantasy can also be used as a proxy for real historical events that may be too messy to tackle and are easier to get wrong. Real life is messy, but not sorting out that messiness properly can have a negative effect on adding these historical events to your game.
Respecting the Subjects
Whatever the difficult content is in your game, the best advice I can give is to respect your subjects. When people get it wrong about difficult content, it's because they do something like this. Tackling slavery in a game and turning slaves into Tetris pieces are very different things. The slaves are people, not Tetris pieces, and if gamifying the subject means demeaning the experiences of the people who suffered the injustice, then you are probably heading in the wrong direction. Now there is nothing wrong with stinging satire, but for satire to be good, it must be well executed and aware. This is why a show like South Park can be successful - not because it is offensive, but because it is very aware of the subject matter it satirizes. There is so much more to talk about this subject, but hopefully, this will give some groundwork to start exploring difficult content in your games.