The trials and tribulations of making a game about rape

I read all the time about designers/developers/people trying to figure out ways to make the gaming medium move forward. Keep in mind that, as some guy from a poor third world country, “moving the medium forward” is not one of my interests.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard many times how stories “write themselves.” To me, there are two different kinds of stories: stories that are so easy to write that figuring out when to stop is the actual challenge, and stories that are impossible to write no matter how hard I try. What’s interesting about that is that the story I was thinking about is not always the story I end up writing.

Enola first came to be as a mini-game for a ludum dare game jam. The game was only 5 minutes long, but it had a few very specific story elements. After watching people play it on Youtube, and reading some comments about it, I realized pretty much nobody understood what it was about, since it was called abstract, atmospheric, weird, and so on.

I think that minigame was somewhat inspired by a movie called “An American Crime.” Not particularly amazing, but good. There’s also the fact the movie was inspired by true events (but unlike other “inspired by true events” movies, this one is).

And since nobody asked what it was about, I never explained it. The premise for that mini-game was pretty simple: It’s a story about two girls who’ve been captured by an omnipresent evil being. One escapes but the other one is left behind, so she decides to go back, and you wonder if the evil being is real or a product of someone else’s imagination. That’s a pretty simple premise, and is the premise I wanted to use to expand that minigame into a “full” experience.

But that didn’t quite work.

The original premise didn’t work out as I expected. Maybe I am not talented enough to expand that simple premise into something larger, or maybe the concept itself just sucked big time. I tried different things, and those who played the game during development know the story would change from version to version (I was releasing the game “in chunks.” Not the best idea, but it somewhat worked anyway…). Basically after more than 6 months, the story was going nowhere because it just didn’t work, even if the characters were already fully developed.

Then one day I knew something had happened to one of the two girls in the game. I explored that further and further, until I realized “something terrible had happened to her.” That’s where both character biographies actually made sense (I have the biography for the 2 girls).

Anyway, I don’t really know when the “the non-player main character was raped” idea came up. I do know it took me a while to really decide if that was the path to go, not because I was worried about the event itself but because “rape” has become such a bad word in the gaming industry (whether or not I agree to that idea is a completely different subject).

The idea itself didn’t contradict any of the basic ideas I had set for the game: no paranormal elements; no zombies; human-relatable horror based on real world experiences; a flesh-and-blood antagonist with no influence of magic, demonic possession, ghosts, whatever. It is not hard to come up with something based on that, considering the kind of world we live in.

So, even if the story was taking shape, and the premise worked pretty well, that doesn’t change the fact that the R word turns on extra neurons on the brain when it comes to analyzing things. There are some themes in games that are just taken granted and accepted without much questioning, but this one is not one of them (because, you know, going on a killing spree and shooting people left and right is totally ok nowadays). There’s also the fact that you always run into people arguing that this or that was just added for shock value. However, after thinking a lot if that was what the story was supposed to be, I just knew it was the way to go, and that it was done for a (story-related) reason.

Enola will be out in a week (unless something terrible happens). I am not going to lie and say “so far reaction has been pretty good!!!” Reactions from most those who’ve played it are generally good, but some have complained about the plot (some with good reasons, some without). We’ll see how it goes when it reaches a wider audience. I am mostly hoping two things:

First, I hope those who play it actually take the time to play it before saying anything about it. I remember someone sent me a 5-paragraph email complaining about the plot and how it was used for “shock value,” after playing only for 10 minutes and looking at some screenshots I had. I am sorry but that’s like people hating how Hotline Miami “glorified violence” after watching a 10 minute gameplay (keeping in mind that those 10 minutes of gameplay are the equivalent of maybe a fourth of a mission, since Hotline Miami is extremely hard).

Second, I obviously expect people will like the game, even if some parts of it (well, more like half of it) is very disturbing (considering some things cannot be sugar-coated no matter how hard you try). The game is not graphic and doesn’t have explicit sexual content (because I didn’t think it was needed), but it is somewhat violent.

And third (yes, I do the counting trick all the time), I’m hoping it will sell because there are many ideas that could be used to expand the story into a sequel, prequel, and things like that.

At this point I am thinking my life would have been a lot easier if I’d just made a sidescroller platformer (not that I have anything against those, by the way).

I still cannot explain why the game is about rape, because I don’t really know. As I said, some writers say “stories write themselves” and maybe that’s the case here. It’s not the best answer, but the only one I can give. I’m just trying (and failing) to answer the question people ask me after playing this game.

EDIT: this morning I was mentally reviewing this post and I realized that I wrote a lot about how the plot this and that, but I didn’t actually explain how the rape plays a role in the plot of the game, making it sound like “oh yeah, and she was raped, well, let’s move on.” Blame it on the lack of sleep and long crunch nights (since I am still hunting down bugs and errors). So I am adding these two paragraphs…

In the original minigame the girl had escaped but she decided to go back because she wanted to save the other girl, setting her free from “the evil being,” but she ends up trapped again. The idea is that she wanted to “save” her from something, going back to the root of the evil.

In this new, “full” version the playable character does pretty much the same. At first my idea was to follow the same “An american crime” concept where you save the other person from some sort of serial killer, or evil man. I was also very inspired by Silent Hill and how it deals with the inner feelings of the protagonists, shaping the world, and for a time it worked but the more I worked on the story the less many things made sense. So, again, it all was leading to what I’ve already said, and at the end the girl wasn’t saving the other girl from some sort of serial killer evil man, but from herself and her past, and the whole idea is to see if she can actually do it or not.

And that’s pretty much the concept now. It is very different to what I was trying to do. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but to me it just makes sense, just like in other cases it makes sense to just grab a gun and kill a gazillion dudes, like in the latest Tomb Raider (by the way, I did like that Tomb Raider, even if I question the need to include a gazillion dudes to kill).


Remember you can keep up with the news on Facebook or Twitter, and also remember to buy the game on Steam next week!!!


~ by nemirc on September 10, 2014.

5 Responses to “The trials and tribulations of making a game about rape”

  1. Hi Sergio,
    That was pretty interesting to read. I was particularly interested because R event has a very specific role in my story. (Game is still in development so no comment about that, yet.)

    I agree with the point that ‘stories write themselves’, but that is also not completely true. If you were too afraid of negative responses you’d omit it, if you were sick in the mind (not in a bad way) you’d include it from the start.

    I personally think explicit scenes and/or events should be only used in strong storylines. Gaming medium is quite fed up and it is past time to move on delicate areas. A Song for Viggo is going for a family who killed their son ‘accidentally’.
    However, these should be handled very, very carefully. I mean, pedophilia in Alice: Madness Returns and Rule of Rose was very, very disturbing; but in The Last of Us it was meh. Necrophilia in Outlast was just laughable for a moment, then forgotten. L.A. Noire had too many things that it was impossible to be surprised by a specific one.

    I am very curious about how you handled the event and post traumatic continuum. When I first proposed the idea, every single person in my team strongly objected. Most accurate argument was that it is impossible to handle the storytelling and presentation. Nevertheless I went with it, and along the way I proposed other follow-up events with similar manners. I am still not sure if I handled them delicately, and to be honest I am a little afraid.

    Hoping to hear more from you 🙂

    • Hello, sorry for taking so long to answer. I’m pretty busy with the game launch (it launches this Thursday).

      Anyway, for the game I mostly focused on what happens after the event. Since the girl also has a girlfriend in the present time, we somewhat see how any past event shapes the relationship between them and so on.

      The ironic part is that I first wanted to make a horror game “that scared the shit out of people” but the more everything was about one of them being raped the more I focused on the character themselves even if that makes the game “less scary.” It was some sort of “ok, where can you go from there?” because it’s not like things could get any worse than that without it feeling like I was just trying to shock the audience (and even if I try to put as much focus on the story and characters as possible, I’m still told I used that plot element for shock value).

  2. Great post. I don’t really think there NEEDS to be a ‘why’ when developing certain ideas. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t. Just as long as we treat certain subjects with respect and care, I think we should have more games that tackle these sensitive issues.

    Keep up the great work.

    • That’s right. I think in some cases, to some people the “why” is not about any specific reasoning behind a story, but about needing to explain why you decide to use any specific subject, specially if it can be controversial.

      Nobody asks why you have this ultra-violent anti-hero, but add sexual content (or any kind of “questionable” content) to the game and then everyone wants to know why you added it…

      • That’s a great point, nobody questions the intentions of certain conventions because it’s seemingly ‘normal’. Yet when ever something that goes against convention is attacked or asked to justify itself, it is disregarded by many as being ‘hipster’ or what ever else people say.

        I think this is a valiant effort against all of that, and at the same time I doubt that is even your reason – doing it for the sake of challenging the medium.

        Stick to your guns I say, not knowing ‘why’ is enough as knowing. Besides, people will make up their own ‘why’ anyway, for good or worse.

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