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The Upside of Using Culture and Personal Stories as Game Pillars

As a lead creative, here are the important things to know about using culture and personal stories as game pillars.

Deborah Chantson, Blogger

March 13, 2024

8 Min Read

At Sticky Brain Studios, we’re one year out from launching our indie game, Rooster, on Steam, PC and Mac. It’s the first time I can proudly say that I’m celebrating my culture for a professional project, and a marketable viable product at that.

Rooster is a beautiful, point-and-click adventure based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Our game starts with Rooster being a terrible party guest, and so bad that he makes Rabbit cry. That’s the last straw, which causes Dragon to conjure a potion so powerful that it sends Rooster hurtling back in time to Ancient China to learn some lessons. Once there, he finds himself proverbially pegged to a human NPC named Little Dove, whose life milestones and family happenings provide a backdrop for Rooster to make amends with the other omniscient Zodiac animals, moving forward through time and closer to returning to the present day.

I recently presented a webinar titled, “Asian Games … Without Martial Arts” and one of the questions that came up was about the risk that comes with marketing what seems like a “niche” game. While the tone of the question was off-putting at the time, there is undoubtedly a “risk” in developing a game with a cultural skew, but those are mitigatable, especially if you view them instead as benefits.

As a lead creative, (but also biased since I identify as Canadian-South African-Chinese-American working on a Chinese culture-based game), here are the important things to know about using culture and personal stories as game pillars.

There is an opportunity to create something unique and way more memorable than a standard FPS or Hallmark movie.

We were thrilled when Venba was released because it hits all the notes of what Rooster encompasses: a cultural experience, a unique and complete story, compelling characters, and cooking (though we’ve really gone all out with our variety of mechanics).

When listing the unique factors about Rooster for marketing materials, funding applications and investor pitch decks, it’s an easy task because there are many factors, including a distinct art style, a fresh story with a modern take, and characters that have never existed. It’s rejuvenating because when we look at comparable titles, Rooster is NOTHING like anything else out there.

Hire qualified professionals who also belong to the game’s cultural skew.

If the game is rooted in a certain culture, it is essential to have people of that culture as core creative leads for authenticity. I find it hugely annoying to have martial arts as game mechanics and Asian aesthetics used by companies without cultural representation on the development team. It’s like using culture as a costume. Just don’t do it.

One may think that there is a limited pool of qualified game development professionals of a certain cultural heritage, but with remote working abilities, the pool is unlimited. Of the 18 team members who have so far been involved with Rooster, 8 are women/non-binary people of East Asian descent, 4 of those being senior team members and creative leads. I am the only one who works remotely outside of the province of Ontario.

To pre-emptively cut out any toxicity railing against Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, there is no “threat” to hiring white males, who are still the industry majority demographic. Because Sticky Brain Studios actively seeks to hire marginalized individuals, the result is that our team is racially diverse, inclusive of all gender types and orientations, and accommodates disabled team members in doing their best work. Some skills and positions pertain to general game making so background doesn’t matter, whereas lead creative roles require specialized knowledge, so this is where one would need to hire professionals of the game’s cultural skew. On a game like Rooster, the cultural shorthand has been super helpful, particularly in denoting sequence and asset lists, because our art team is already familiar with Asian ingredients as part of lived experience.

I always loathe being asked, “why are you the person to tell this story?” It comes up every now and then when I’m pitching an original project. And flippantly, I’ll usually answer, “I got here first …”

But with my writing and narrative design experience across platforms, being of Chinese descent, having a university minor in Chinese history and all kinds of reference books sitting on my bookshelves, having a passionate interest in historical Chinese artifacts, and formerly being a writer for an award-winning project with our Co-Executive Producers - these are all the good reasons for me being on this project.

Embrace the “risk” that the final product will only appeal to a “niche market”.

This really depends on the definition of “niche market”. If the game’s target audience was, say, Chinese people who only live in South Africa, that’s an example of “too niche”. Because Rooster has so many westernized Canadian-Asians on the team, we’re already pre-vetting game elements for being too specific because we’re all different kinds of Asian (e.g. Chinese, Cambodian, Burmese, Korean, etc.). This helps because on a cultural level, the superficial appeal is really to the East Asian global diaspora (also because the Chinese market in China proper is incredibly prohibitive). On a games level, the appeal is to cozy gamers, anyone who would appreciate the gorgeous Chinese brush style aesthetic, and gamers who love short, indie games with a plethora of delightful surprises.

Keep in mind that downloadable digital premium games are not restaurants. They are available for sale online from almost anywhere in the world to be consumed at any hour of the day.

It’s also … well, lazy, to label anything with protagonists of colour as only marketable to a narrow demographic. Look at Beef and Everything Everywhere All At Once picking up the highest mainstream awards. Look at Korean drama taking over Netflix and sold out Blackpink concerts. “Niche” in the US market is but a small fraction of the global population and worldwide market.

Personal stories will need poetic licence, but they help immensely in sequencing narrative vision.

There’s a saying that “the more specific your story, the more universal its appeal”. I find myself repeatedly saying, “There is a lot of my heart and soul in this game.” Not just for what I think is the effort and care in the details, but also for how much of my personality and experiences have made it into the game so far. It’s par for the course, given that I am the Writer and Narrative Designer.

I make no secret that Rooster is about life milestones. One of the most emotional scenes is inspired by the deaths of my Mom and my grandparents. (For accessibility purposes, we do have a content warning option.) Drawing from the experiences of being at a dying beloved family member’s hospital bedside … it’s a bizarre time expanding one’s emotional range in very unsettling ways. But there is a certain sequence to events in that scene that I want players to experience, and certain emotions I want to tap into that will deepen this game experience. That real life-inspired cinematic vision streamlines choices in directing wireframes, lining up event triggers for animations, and cueing music swells.

The artistic execution of personal stories is heavily dependent on how well they can be expressed in the first place. Rooster is not by any means autobiographical for any of our team members (though it is originally our Art Director Connie Choi’s concept) but lived experience does help direct things like our cooking sequences and choices of foods; choices for Lunar New Year decorations (I’ve got a funny story about being given knives); object choices; character relationships, etc.  Again, cultural shorthand really does lend itself to efficiency.

It’s also important to note that inclusive company culture and a high degree of trust are the foundations for developing any game with personal stories and/or cultural skew. There are many studios where a pitch document for something like Rooster wouldn’t even see the light of day. There is definitely a level of vulnerability required in offering up one’s personal stories and it won’t happen in uncomfortable environments. In television, it is an unwritten rule that writers’ rooms are a creative safe space and that’s how stories flow. I know that I’m fortunate to feel that safe space with the Sticky Brain team, and that my level of trust is reciprocated in how these talented people are working so hard to make my narrative vision happen. The feeling is still thrilling even this far into production, and I try not to take it for granted.

Culture provides a built-in framework for a worldbuilding

One thing about culture is that there are preexisting traditions and symbolism, so sometimes there is already a “correct” creative decision or structuring rules in place. For example, the order of our levels mostly follows the Chinese Zodiac animal cycle. In our (Ancient Chinese) dating sim level, there’s a sequence to using a matchmaker and obstacles that exist because of the culture. We have a gift selection level, and the Chinese rules for appropriate gift-giving aren’t arbitrary. This is why hiring people of the intended culture is important, because the bulk of knowing all these nuances and details is inherent within lived experience (and then we Google better explanations as to why since we’ve never questioned them).

Interactivity is the pinnacle of what we do in developing video games. We need diverse games to keep surprising audiences and ourselves. With no shortage of content and every studio and game vying for a spot in the limelight, cultural edge is a great place to start.

Rooster can be wish listed on Steam here for our Q1 2025 release. We’d be thrilled to show that our use of personal experiences and culture were a “risk” worth taking.

I’ll also be at GDC this year! You can find me at the Sticky Brain Studios booth N3102 and/or on LinkedIn. Please use the Additional Note to let me know you’re connecting with me following this blog.

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