Race has been a serious issue in this country for a long time but recently things have come to a boil everywhere. What’s important to realize is that it is an issue everywhere and for everyone at some level. While many popular mediums wouldn’t touch such a topic there are always small groups and individuals willing to take the challenge. Video games typically don’t deal with this sort of concept; mainly because it isn’t something that translates to games very well. The recently funded Kickstarter game Four Horsemen is a visual novel that focuses on race relations and the hardships of immigrants in a foreign place. While different from normal visual novels, a little complicated and a little rough around the edges it gets the job done better than any other video game. The demo does take an odd turn but it is one of many… and it’s alpha so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Not only is the topic important and interesting but it also comes from a diverse team who are using personal experience to make it as realistic as possible. If done well it could be a rare example of positive race relations in video games, something gamers need with so many bury white dudes running around.

 

-How did the game get the name Four Horsemen?

It struck me, reading the very brief passage in Revelation 6 in which the Four Horsemen appear in the New Testament, that all four traditional readings of the Riders–war, death, famine, and pestilence–are sociological phenomena that people have blamed on immigrants for thousands of years, and have used as justification for keeping them out. While Revelation is a prophecy about the end of the world, war, death, famine, and pestilence have been with us since the dawn of humankind–their absence would be far more apocalyptic than their presence!

The immigrant experience is so broad and so varied that there is no way a single video game could cover all of it, or even the general feeling of all of it. So, using these widely recognized symbols from Revelation 6 is my way of focusing the story on just those four motifs: war, death, famine, and pestilence. The game’s four protagonists are not literally the four Riders of Revelation, but each of their personal conflicts is shaped around one of them conceptually, in the context of immigration. So, for example, War’s conflict and character development in the story deal primarily with identity, boundaries, and heritage, whereas Famine is all about wanting what he cannot have.

That these conflicts repeat themselves across cultures, across different people with the similar personalities, is a major theme of this game.

-You mention multiple inspirations but what would you say inspired Four Horsemen the most?

Real life. 🙂 I was born in America, spent my adolescence in Taiwan, and returned to America as an adult, so seeing familiar patterns in both of the times I emigrated shaped a lot of my understanding of the real world in ways that are reflected in Four Horsemen’s fictional universe. Comparing notes with Iasmin, our lead character artist, who was an Arab teenager in New York during 9/11, and friends of mine from Ukraine and Trinidad and Australia and South Africa, really underscored just how universal some parts of the immigrant experience can be.

There’s a whole genre of YouTube videos of foreigners being harassed on public transit around the world (here’s one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYYVATuLwCA), and I was fascinated by how, despite the different historical and sociological contexts, the people who confronted them were all saying pretty much the same thing in all these different languages. It’s always some variant of “how dare you come to our country and steal our jobs and our women, you’re only here because you were a failure in your home country, oh, you think you’re so much better than us, don’t you,” and so on. The racist diatribes in Four Horsemen were unfortunately very easy to write, since they are all so familiar.

-You mention that the game will have several main plots; would you say the demo makes up one of those or is it only part of one? Does each race have multiple plots or is there multiple plots between all the races?

The main route in the demo is indeed one of three total that we have planned, shared between all the races. No race will be able to access all three main routes in one playthrough, reflecting how the experiences of immigrants from and to different countries have a lot of overlap but are never totally the same. Also, the details of each main route, and the options available on each playthrough, will be slightly different between races, so if you play the same main route again with a new race, you won’t be able to make all the same choices. (The demo doesn’t quite do this enough, in part because it contains only one main route. We plan to expand this feature a bit.)

The demo also contains a major branch in its main route–Act II is very different if you choose to ignore Sharon the first time you are asked, instead of ignoring War. The branch where you ignore War hasn’t tested well with players so far, so we will remove it. (Ignoring Sharon is now the canonical branch.) Apologies, this may be why Act III didn’t make much sense to you in your Let’s Play. 🙂

For logistical reasons it is unlikely we will be able to add any main routes that are particular to just one race. There may be race-specific side quests, though.

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-You mention there are many side stories but what exactly entails as a side story? Are there any in the demo?

A side route is an optional quest–it is not necessary to complete the game. Taking one side route will block others, so you will never be able to see all of them in one playthrough. This will hopefully make replays more interesting and less tedious.

There is indeed a side route in the demo, with Famine and his father, that can only be completed if Famine makes assertive choices when interacting with his dad. (In the Let’s Play you began this quest, but did not follow it to the end–which a player should always have the freedom to do.) The finished game will have more.

Most of them will only be available to a handful of races, due to differences in historical context.

-While the demo was fairly long at roughly two hours how long will the total play time be? Does this include the side missions?

I estimate a single playthrough will be around four or five hours, maybe three if the player knows what to do and does not do any side stories. To see everything, though, you’ll have to play the game at least three times (once for each main route). I don’t anticipate that most players will finish a playthrough in one sitting.

-An interesting but odd part of the game is that you can only choose your race one time; what is the idea behind that and how will it be enforced? Will this cause a problem for someone trying to hit all the main plot lines?

Ren’Py has a persistent store system in which it can save some data outside of your save files, which never goes away unless you uninstall the game or delete the data manually. The game will use this to track what races you played before (and keep track of some of your major decisions) so that it can surprise you the next time around.

For example, hypothetically speaking, if you pick the Wanderer Diaspora on your playthrough, the country you live in will be the German-speaking Free State of Aurentin, and your characters would be members of an underprivileged minority (which has all sorts of minor and major effects ingame, like lower wages from the hardware store job). The plot options available to your characters would be intentionally reminiscent of the experiences of the Jewish and Romani people living in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to Kristallnacht in 1938. Be brutal enough in resistance to your Aurentinian oppressors, however, and the next time you play, your kids will be immigrants from the People’s United Democratic Socialist Republic of the Greater Levant, trying to fend for themselves in the newly established Wanderer State–and their antagonists will be your characters from the first time around!

This isn’t implemented in the demo for the simple reason that at least two different main routes would have to be in the game for it have a believable effect.

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-Does the plot of the game depend on the chosen race or is the plot just random regardless of race?

The plot of the game is actually dependent on your choices; we’re just not doing a great job of messaging that in the demo. (Something to improve upon for the finished game.) But the choices available to you are dependent on your race.

-Would you say Four Horsemen is more about perpetual hardships for the lower class or social anxiety caused by national identity?

Yes. 🙂 These two conflicts are deeply intertwined, and in fact the next main route we are working on, which covers an Arab Spring-like protest movement, will explore the intersection between these two things specifically.

-The ability to decorate and furnish your base is an interesting mechanic. However, getting resources to build with seems near impossible without a lot of luck or taking long amounts of time. Is this intended or is there an issue with the system? Do items serve a purpose to change the plot in some way?

This is intentional–it reflects how an economic system that looks fair from the inside can in reality be almost impossible for outsiders to navigate, due to systemic racism.

Currently, the game’s plot advances based not on what you buy, but on what choices you make to try to earn the resources to buy things (like taking the job at the hardware store instead of dumpster diving, or building items yourself instead of trying to earn enough to buy them). As Pestilence warns in the prologue: what you get isn’t important, it’s how you get that matters.

However, that system has proved to be really opaque to players, so we will work on making the system just a little more fair, so that the lowest tier items will be attainable through the ingame economy but you will have to think outside the box to get anything better than that.

The items in the demo serve little narrative purpose, though most of them are associated with a piece of art in which the Riders are enjoying the item in the clubhouse (think Neko Atsume) and some of them give mechanical bonuses, like more maximum sporks in the final battle or an increased production rate.

In the finished game, the presence or absence of different items will determine what plot options are available to you. (To start the main route in the demo, for example, you have to get the busted microwave.)

-You mention that the player can choose to conform or rebel but how does that work? Choices in the demo didn’t seem to effect things that much and the story followed the same plot.

In the demo, this is a key part of the side story with Famine’s father. Being nice to him ends the sidequest early.

There are also Faustian bargains involved in several of the ways you get the crowbar, which have an effect on the ending of the demo’s main route. Regrettably, you can’t see the consequences yet since the demo deliberately ends the main route on a cliffhanger–though it’s a different cliffhanger depending on your choices throughout the playthrough. (I understand we need to improve messaging here–currently it’s not clear enough how events in the game are causally related to the player’s actions.)

We’ve made the conscious decision not to follow Bioware’s model of heroic confrontations, in which your character is dramatically prompted to prove themselves as either lawful or chaotic at regular intervals. In my personal experience, tests of authority tend to be more subtle–Martha asks you to do a few simple, reasonable things and before you know it you’re putting up with the unthinkable to keep your job. Or you just walk away, and suddenly you’re having trouble finding the parts you need to build an ice chest.

In any case, this will be much more explicit once the NPC Eris enters the picture.

-While many would consider the topic of race relations and immigrant identity as too heavy handed or touchy a subject in general, why specifically do you feel a video game is the best medium to start? Did you choose now to make this game on purpose?

The unique thing about video games as a medium is agency–you’re not just passively observing the protagonists of a story, you are the protagonists, and you’re responsible for their decisions (and ultimately their fate). It’s one thing to look on with pity at a kid begging on the street and another to go “I have to do HOW many shifts to buy a blender??”

This is even more visceral when it comes to racist confrontations. Most people can watch a film where immigrants are being insulted and ridiculed and go oh, that’s so sad, and just move on and forget about it. But players flinch when working one of Famine’s shifts, or during the optional combat between local War and immigrant War–it’s a gut feeling, one that players consciously think about and alter their playstyles to avoid. These moments in the game are unpleasant on purpose–everything takes a whole different context when it’s happening to you.

While this brings a level of uncomfortable realism to immigrant players, to my surprise, it’s the non-immigrant players who have told me they are the most emotionally affected. I’ve had several come up to me at live demos, or message me via email or Kickstarter, and they go, you know, I’ve said some of the things NPCs said to my characters in the game, and I never realized just how bad it feels to hear them. That’s the power of the medium and I want to keep on using it this way.

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-Will there be more NPC’s in the full game? Will other teenage NPC’s always look like the main characters?

Yes, and no. The main characters are archetypes–there’s a set of four Riders in every country, and your immigrant protagonists will always meet at least one or two of their local counterparts. But there will be plenty of other characters too.

-Is this a game that can actually be won?

Yep! Even the demo can be won. It’s just really hard.

-The description makes the game sound like it will be a life like simulation but in the demo I found myself fighting a teddy bear inside a computer. Will elements like this be common or how surreal will things get?

There will in fact be a level of magical realism throughout the game. But it will never be totally implausible, or go into outright science fiction.

-Does any of the game come from personal experience?

A lot of it. Each of the main characters is based on many, many real people I have met, distilled into a type. The rest of the creative team and I also often have conversations about our lived experiences as immigrants (and as former adolescents) and how they relate to the characters in the game, so a lot of our real life thoughts, feelings, and memories end up in there.

-If funded what message do you hope to spread?

Few would deny that immigrants are people, but we want everyone to understand what that really entails.

Personally, I hope this game will help remind people not to think of immigrants as a mere social problem or policy platform.

-Any plans for future games?

Not until we’re done with this one. 🙂