The Complexity Of Making An RPG That’s Authentically Australian

The Complexity Of Making An RPG That’s Authentically Australian
Image: Drop Bear Bytes

When was the last time you actually saw an Australian city replicated in a video game? Not something in the background, but a 2D or 3D space that you could walk around and interact with, one that actually mirrored the spirit of down under?

Forza Horizon 3 was probably the closest depiction of an actual modern day Australia with Surfers Paradise, provided you could forgive the creative license that placed the Victorian Twelve Apostles just north of Byron Bay. There’s Terror Australis, a tabletop RPG set in the 1920s which incorporated a good amount of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and legends — but in a Call of Cthulhu setting. There was Civilization 6, which added John Curtin and outback stations — but not Indigenous Australians.

So what we mostly get in video games is deserts, thick bogan accents, car chases, machine guns. It’s still a recipe for a good video game. But it’s not really Australian. It doesn’t represent the melting pot of cultures that make Australia so unique to other countries. It doesn’t replicate the native stories told by our First Nations people, the oldest civilisation on Earth. Our laconic sense of humour occasionally appears — sometimes to great effect like in Golf Story — but it’s usually through an individual character, a piece of DLC or part of the supporting cast.

Some games have tried to highlight elements of Australia in their own way, but the industry, mostly, treats Australia as something that has to be watered down. It’s too much for an international market; people wouldn’t “get it”.

That’s part of the problem that Broken Roads, the post-apocalyptic, philosophical RPG set in Australia that’s following in the steps of the original Fallout games,  is trying to solve.

Take one example, the first official reveal for Broken Roads, or at least the first reveal from the game’s new publisher Team17. It’s narrated by Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung elder Uncle Jack Charles, the grandfather of Indigenous theatre, co-founder of the country’s first Aboriginal theatre company and one of the most acclaimed Indigenous actors in our history.

Just that alone is an enormous accomplishment: Jack Charles is a living national treasure. The fact that he’s spending any time at all with a video game, an Australian video game nonetheless, is a bit of a coup.

But that begs the question. If developer Drop Bear Bytes is going to honour modern Australian sensibilities, and what modern Australian culture is like, and Jack Charles has lent his voice to proceedings, then First Nations people, their stories and their culture, have to be represented properly, too.

“We couldn’t do a story about Australia without First Nations Australians,” Craig Ritchie, the co-founder of Drop Bear Bytes, told me over a video interview. It’s an admirable approach, especially when compared to the approaches of other developers when it comes to including Australia in their games. “Coming from South Africa you do have a lens on racist history, race relations and those kinds of things. And I mean, it was almost like a no brainer — how could we not do this, you know what I’m saying?”

The project has also brought on writers that are well suited for walking this narrative tightrope. There’s narrative consultant Brooke Collard, a Ballardong Nyungar native from Western Australia, who has helped give Broken Roads not just a more authentic First Nations touch, but also insight into elements that make sense for Western Australia itself. “Broken Roads is based largely on Ballardong country, and I have family and personal connection to that boodjar as I have spent a lot of time around there,” Collard said over email.

“It can look pretty desolate from the outside, but there are the most gorgeous salt lakes (some that even look like the IT balloon) that support a huge amount of flora and fauna,” she added. “My nephews are already excited about the game, and I can’t help but think about what it might mean for young First Nations people to see themselves represented in a video game. This could be life changing and have a strong emotional impact to see someone like yourself and your family.”

There’s also Cienan Muir, the organiser of Australia’s IndigiCon and founder of IndigiNerd, who was brought on as a narrative consultant. Both have been working closely with Broken Roads‘ narrative lead Leanne Taylor-Giles, and the project also received a lot of support from Anthony Hume from the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Ritchie confirmed that the cultural centre was consulted “before a single line of code” was written, and that they’ve continued to help throughout development.

broken roads
Image: Drop Bear Bytes

Broken Roads will also have its own take on Deadly Questions, a Victorian state-backed project where people can anonymously ask questions of Aboriginal and Indigenous Australians to learn more its culture.

“One of the things we want the character of Uncle George to do is, on top of everything that’s in the game, the character he plays, you can also just ask the Deadly Questions as a player and have Uncle Jack respond, like, ‘Yeah man we carry this legacy for a long time or we have a different concept of ownership of the land.’”

It’s one of those elements that, if you’re Australian, you’ll probably recognise how unique that is for a video game. But on the same hand, it’s also something that doesn’t have as much power when marketed outside of Australia. The majority of Broken Roads‘ potential playerbase will be outside of Australia, and Ritchie is clear in our chat: Broken Roads isn’t trying to champion the struggle of First Nations folk, or serve as an interactive treatise on racial politics in Australia.

The goal is to tell stories in the context of an RPG that’s authentically Australian, while still operating in the framework of what players want and expect from a Fallout-style RPG.

“The other thing I’m trying not to do — Broken Roads is not a game that champions the struggle of First Nations Australians and look at us doing this great thing, and what a white saviour I am — like, absolutely not. It’s authentic, respectful Indigenous representation, not done by me,” Ritchie said.

But it’s also a careful balance of picking what social elements and issues make sense in the context of Broken Roads‘ post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a game first and foremost, but one rooted in the modern Australian diaspora without venturing into the excessive ockerisms that video games often lean upon.

“The mission of Drop Bear Bytes and the mission of this game is to make something really fun — imagine if you could make a game that touched people as much as Planescape Torment or Fallout or Baldur’s Gate or, recently, Disco Elysium. And you just tell people about something, but you don’t have to tell them what to believe about it. You don’t have to push your agenda: you can just say, hey, like this is a terrible thing. And maybe when you’re done with the entertainment — because entertainment has a place, people need to rest and people need to enjoy themselves — maybe you go online and look at a documentary about the colonial history of Australia or read this book or seek out Deadly Questions. People can do that: you don’t have to hammer them with what is important, right now, all the time.”

“The world needs a lot of change, the world needs a lot of good,” Ritchie added. “But it doesn’t have to be every time someone’s trying to enjoy themselves and forget their concerns.

“It’s OK for people to enjoy themselves and take a breather from life.”

broken roads
Image: Drop Bear Bytes

Another issue Broken Roads has to face: the Mass Effect problem.

Ever since Mass Effect and Bioware’s RPG structure became an industry highlight, RPGs with moral choices have run into problems trying to balance moral quandaries with the inherent need to reward the player. Mass Effect‘s problem — one that really stemmed from Knights of the Old Republic, if you go back far enough — was that players were fundamentally encouraged to exclusively pick either Paragon or Renegade choices all the time because of its impact on a player’s stats, and the final ending.

Other RPGs and narrative episodic adventures have run into the same hurdle. Instead of deliberating on the choice in front of them, players end up making decisions based on the spectre of how it impacts the ending, spoiling the moment-to-moment immersion.

You end up playing the outcome, instead of playing the character.

That’s partially why Broken Roads‘ moral compass is designed in two parts. The orange arc of your moral compass, as seen in the image above, represents the breadth of your character’s worldview. It’s a cone that shifts around a 360 degree circle, with different choices shifting the circle by different amounts. (In the image above, a choice to kill rival scavengers rotates the cone by 15 degrees towards the Nihlist philosophy.)

The second part of the compass is the four segments, which represents what lower-level choices you can make. Ritchie calls it a player’s “moral memory” — although it’s since been renamed to conviction between the time we spoke and publication — and it expands every time you make a particular decision from that particular philosophy.

“Everyone can imagine doing something better or doing something nasty, but they just might not act on it,” Ritchie explains. “This was a way of encouraging consistency of character, but not locking people out from being able to make other choices.”

broken roads
Image: Drop Bear Bytes

The other byproduct of this is it encourages players to really think about the range of decisions they want to make, rather than making decisions that fit within a particular philosophy. Broken Roads will only let you make decisions that are either within your conviction or your worldview.

So if you continue to make decisions exclusively from, say, the Machiavellian tree, the breadth of your character’s decision making will narrow. Any benefits you gain from moral traits will also only activate if they’re part of your character’s worldview. So while you’re able to unlock much higher level traits by sticking to one particular philosophy, you’ll lock yourself out from the benefits of having a broader range of traits from other parts of the moral compass.

“I mean, Mass Effect, Dungeons & Dragons, Knights of the Old Republic — all of those games were things that we were kind of reacting to,” Ritchie said. “I can make like this most wonderful Jedi Master decision … right at the end of the game. It’s just there’s better ways for RPGs to do that, you know? Or I’m lawful good. And I can’t do a thing even though I can think of doing that thing. And if I do that thing, I become like a fallen Paladin, or Evil mages can’t travel with Good Paladins. They’re strange constraints that we can do so much better than.”

You think more about the system than the actual decision, I suggested to Ritchie, who agreed.

“You’re totally right, and that’s actually feeding into the usability testing,” he added. Ritchie then went on to say that Broken Roads will “almost certainly” remove the prompt letting players know which quadrant a decision is in, purely so it promotes better role-playing.

“At the moment, I’ll say, Machiavellianism shoot him in the leg. Now we’re just going to say: shoot him in the leg. And because people might try to game [the system] too much, or go, ‘I’m trying to roleplay as a Machiavellian, that’s obviously what the devs want me to choose.’”

“So we’ve got to find that balance between how much do we reveal about the choice you’re going to make, and are we running a risk of upsetting the player.”

So how do you make the less popular choices, the more traditionally “evil” responses, actually meaningful? RPGs already have issues with this, where players always favour the nicest or “best” possible outcomes. It’s partially a reward problem, but also a failure in structure and just a lack of maturity in how RPGs have handled morality. Multiple choices don’t matter if those choices aren’t actually equal.

By dealing with any potential gaming of the system, Broken Roads hopes to counter some of that. But a large chunk of the work is also done in the characterisation, the quest design and the philosophies behind those choices. Humanism, for instance, was originally termed Existentialist, but the developers renamed it because it better fit the actual thought process behind those particular choices.

But giving people moral arcs and interesting limitations is all for naught if, for instance, the Utilitarian decisions are more interesting than Nihilist 9 times out of 10. “Historically, games that let you have a good or evil path … it’s like the good path is almost always more rewarding,” Ritchie said. “Not always, but generally, the good path it seems like the devs almost wanted you to do that, and you get nice rewards. Or you block yourself out of content or whatever. And again, that’s like the good and bad split.”

“Whereas we’re going to be like: let’s react to actions without defining them as right or wrong, good or bad, and really try not to define nihilism or Machiavellian as bad. We’re trying to show [those choices] as justifiable. So what we’re doing is just bloody well ensuring that every path is rewarding. We have analytics and various systems that allow us to make sure we have a balanced number of options throughout the game — you know there aren’t going to be 50 Machiavellian options and 10 humanist options, it’s going to be very, very even because we can look at the numbers.”

It’s also a challenge for the writing team, many of whom have some academic training or post-graduate backgrounds in philosophy. “There’s a bunch of us who have studied philosophy and post-grad philosophy to be able to lean in a bit more on that and say, you know, that choice could arguably be Machiavellian and utilitarian,” Ritchie said.

“You can kill someone for a lot of reasons, and that’s one of the most extreme acts you can do. And some of [the decisions] are completely just; some are completely unjust. And that’s why the action is not what matters so much as the intent. We’re just making sure that it’s balanced, so people are not favouring one over another.”

broken roads
Image: Drop Bear Bytes

At the moment, Broken Roads is hoping for a release sometime in 2022. The next year is already shaping up to be massive for Australian games, with titles like Hollow Knight: Silksong, the sequel to Golf Story, quirky affairs like The Dungeon Experience, and lots of indies with a ton of potential, like Way to the Woods, Spies & Soldiers, Dead Static Drive, Lucen and more.

A huge difference with Drop Bear Bytes’ project, however, is that we might actually have a video game that features the modern Australian diaspora, characters Australians know and love, rather than throwbacks to the past. There’s still a bit of playing to type in the post-apocalyptic design, of course, and Broken Roads will have those classic Fallout, Wasteland RPG elements. And, with any luck, the Drop Bear Bytes co-founder hopes their game will have as big an impact as those franchises did.

“I played the Ultima games as a kid,” Ritchie said. “I learned about virtues. I learned about these things in the game, from the manuals. And I bought a philosophy book as a teenager and ended up studying it for seven years of my life, pursuing it, and it’s totally shaped the game I’m making now. And my whole business and 15 people have jobs that they do because I was interested in the philosophy in a video game [from 1992].

“I think there’s a path for Brooke, Cienan and Uncle George and anyone else who comes on board to tell amazing stories that are completely accessible and enjoyable for someone in Russia, someone in Brazil or someone in Spain, while being completely respectful of the culture and what we’re trying to represent.”

Sometime in 2022, we’ll find out just how well Broken Roads strikes that balance.

Broken Roads is due out in 2022 for PC and consoles. You can check out more via the official Steam page.