Play Anthropocene interview on Lancer Tactics

I recently had the privilege of answering some interview questions from Play Anthropocene regarding the Lancer Tactics Kickstarter campaign. They did an excellent job editing and cleaning up my answers, but I wanted to also post the unabridged version here for posterity.

(CW: discussion of indigenous land theft)

First of all, congratulations on the Kickstarter. How does it feel to know that such a wide audience has an appetite for seeing this game come to life?

Thanks! It's such a different vibe than what I'm used to. I’m able to just say "Hey! Lancer videogame!" and hear people respond "oh HELL yes". We're really just tapping into the audience that Massif Press has grown — Lancer's universe has done a great job priming people to consider serious social/historical dynamics from a bombastic, fundamentally optimistic angle. I'm super thankful that they chose to enable this kind of project with their open third-party license

The Kickstarter describes Lancer Tactics as a game set in a world of fighting against climate injustice. What does real climate justice look like in this universe, and what are the parallels for our planet?

The climate crisis on Verdevilla, like the one on our planet, is fundamentally intertwined with a social crisis. In the game, a terraforming industrial complex walls off vast swaths of veldt, evicts the people living there, and undergoes a "slash-and-burn" process that transforms it into productive farmland. This comes at the cost of all the toxic sands of the veld being concentrated outside the wall into uninhabitable slaglands. Guess who does the dangerous slash-and-burn labor and then is forced to live on the slagland side of the wall.

A climate crisis is a crisis because of the human cost, which will not be felt by the oil executives and billionaires who straight-up invented global warming denial in the 1960s for the express purpose of making more money. The people who will suffer because of this are the people on the other side of the wall.

Verdevilla's climate crisis isn't global (yet). We've kept the focus about the consequences local to create a sharp visual contrast; a wall with grassy hills on one side and industrial slaglands on the other. Oil barons thrive on muddling the issue; they make it seem complicated and economic. We're leaning into the clearly contrasting imagery to tell people: no, it IS that simple. The ultra-rich have chosen to burn the world from inside their walled gardens; they have chosen to choke the air and kill us.

As far as what justice looks like (in addition to stomping on some space-houses of space-oil barons), the answer isn't to return to some idyllic untouched landscape; the terrain of Verdevilla has been just as radically transformed by its indigenous population. They have slowly transformed the pre-human heavy-metal deserts into dry — but livable! — velds by slowly cultivating hot-sprite microorganisms in devices called rock sappers that burn chromite sand for power and water.

(This parallels how the vast herds of bison or the park-like forests of the eastern seaboard were results of careful wildlife management by various groups of indigenous people over thousands of years — in no way untouched wilderness. Humans unavoidably mark the land they live on; there are just ways to do it more or less sustainably and fairly.)

The stories of justice we're planning to tell will be stories of resistance to and survival within this system. It's tempting to show the evil empire toppled and the wrongs righted, but the effect this has on an audience is one of pacification. Think instead of the discomfort of an unhappy ending and how it stays with you long after you leave the theater. We seek to magnetize, to activate, to show that despite the persistence of injustice victories can be fought for and won (sometimes just survival and helping others get out alive is what winning looks like).

We believe that these local victories can add up to change the global status quo, but that's a story best told over the bones of empire.

The game also looks to touch on the importance of indigenous peoples, communities, and their rights as integral to the environmental struggle, while examining the links between colonialism and the climate crisis. What do you hope people will take away from the game's exploration of these topics?

First, disclaimer: I'm a white settler, I'm not an expert, I've just read some books that made me really sad and angry. If you have a similar background to me, you have been lied to about how cruel the takeover of the North American continent was + how intentional the genocide of its indigenous people was and continues to be.

We want to give other settlers as clear a picture as possible that this process of colonialism is a work of unambiguous villains (looking at you, Andrew Jackson). Star Wars gave us the sci-fi iconography of how a democracy can elect an evil toad as an emperor; we aim to speak in that language to demonstrate the violence of borders.

As we were building the setting, I came to realize that it had strong parallels to the area I grew up in. The Willamette valley and Columbia river in Oregon was prosperous and had thriving communities (even after surviving waves of plague). Then settlers showed up, forced people out of their homes, drew some lines on a map, enforced those borders with violence, and transformed the landscape to fit their own purposes. Being specific in your sources helps to avoid the writing hazard of lumping different people together.

Ultimately, by providing a sci-fi setting for other settlers to see this injustice, we hope the game serves to contribute towards the "full support" part of closing thoughts of Dunbar-Ortiz in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States:

"That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. ... For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and the full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations."

(One more disclaimer: a settler pasting "indigenous sovereignty!" as a selling point all over fund-raising materials is… not a great look. In order to materially contribute, Mark and I are planning to donate a third of the post-Kickstarter profits we get from the game to NAYA.)

Few games have meaningfully grappled with the complex politics and weighty subject matter around the climate crisis in the way that Lancer Tactics aims to. Why do you think that is?  

First answer: people are making games about the climate crisis / other serious subject matter! It's an active and healthy section of the community! There's multiple conferences about them! Hell, Final Fantasy 7 radicalized a generation of climate warriors!

Also, games engage with political subject matter all the time without meaning to. Every time a game presents a bandit in a random encounter, every time you get a stat bonus from building a mine in Civilization, you're being fed a subliminal message about what is normal. Sheeple, open your eyes! It's all around you!

Second answer: making a game is really, really hard. There are an incredible amount of constraints acting on their development. Every finished game, no matter its scale, is a miracle.

As a disclaimer (and as an illustration of that point), please remember that the resources and scope of Lancer Tactics are going to be extremely limited. This Kickstarter is scoped to port a hellishly edge-case-rich combat system and make, like, two short story modules. We're not expecting to be able to do these topics the justice they fully deserve; all we can do is try to express our foundational beliefs in the game in the limited design space we have to do so.

Third answer: games are bad at being things other than games. This interview with Soren Johnson (Old World, Civilization series) discusses the limitations and devil's bargain of historical 4X games. Johnson describes coming into Civ with stars in his eyes and a vision that they were going to be able to marry history and video games; that history classes would be able to play Civ alongside their textbooks.

He illustrates this long disillusionment with that as a possibility with this story at 49:20:

"For example, in Civ III early on we tried something out where — I had just read Guns, Germs, and Steel — so I'm like OK, great, we're going to generate two continents. Horses will be on one continent and they're not going to be on the other one. Which, is like, great! You've just taught me a very important dynamic of world history and how the continent with horses is going to wipe out the continent without horses. Good job on that! I don't want to play this game, so it's kind of irrelevant. It's more of an art piece than a video game. … I don't know a good way to solve it without solving the ultimate problem of what I'm trying to do which is making a game that people want to play."

You have to be very selective in where you paint your target. You have to find an intersection between what makes a good mechanic and the message you want to tell. If the subject matter and mechanics are in conflict, the mechanics will win — and that simple fact dooms like 90% of the ideas for serious games that I've heard from non-devs.

Besides its explicitly-heroic postcolonial setting, Lancer as a TTRPG has a few things going for it that mechanically equip it to be played in a queer direction:

  1. a sitrep's goal not being total annihilation of an enemy; your ultimate priority in combat will almost always be an objective like scouting, escaping, or surviving.

  2. extreme levels of mechanical freedom. There's both a very high floor (almost any build is viable) and a high ceiling (you can come up with some WACKY combos). Compare to D&D where a half-orc wizard is strictly worse than a high-elf wizard.

  3. extreme levels of stylistic freedom. You are encouraged to flavor both your mech and pilot freely. This one's hard to port into a video game! Modding support would help a lot. (you don't think artistic expression is a mechanic? Spore would like to have a word with you)

Finally, how important do you think games can be in shaping perspectives and shifting attitudes around the climate crisis and environmental justice? 

My favorite quote from Natalie Wynn is "You need to look at fascism as a pageant, and you have to bring your own pageant if you are going to work in the media world."

The media world, of which games are a huge part, is a huge player in shifting attitudes about issues like the climate crisis. If you want to find victory on that battlefield, you have to show up with a pageant that holds together and can fire on all cylinders.

I believe that if you undertake the craft of game-making by identifying the correct target, weaving mechanics + theme that work in concert, and are able to execute and deliver, you can end up with a game/pageant that withstands the storm and serves as a reference point for people to navigate by as they chart a course in the sea of stories that is our cultural and political world.


Wicklog 33: Officially hitting 1.0


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