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Writing diversity for Herald “Who am I to tell their story?”

As lead writer of Herald, I was often insecure while writing about people of color who lived in the age of colonialism. This is my personal journey to, as a white man, give an honest and realistic answer to the question: Who am I to tell their story?

I am Roy van der Schilden, co-founder and lead writer of Wispfire. I would like to give some insights into the development of the story for Herald: An Interactive Period Drama, which recently did a Kickstarter campaign. All views expressed herein are mine and not necessarily those of the company.

In this article I will specifically highlight my insecurities while writing about people of color who lived in the age of colonialism. My personal journey to, as a white man, give an honest and realistic answer to the question:

Who am I to tell their story?

The Beginnings
When we founded Wispfire in 2013 we knew one thing for certain; we were going to make story-driven video games with moral choices that would challenge the player to think about their position in society. At the same time we wanted to use our knowledge of theatre and dramaturgy, to make games that resonated with a broad audience, and feel distinctly different in tone than most other story-driven games on the market today. No zombies, no werewolves, no fairies or wizards, but settings that could actually take place according to the laws of nature in our world. This didn’t mean our games couldn’t contain fantastical elements, as long as those elements had a grounded reason within our physical reality. (like, for example, a psychosis or an advanced technology)

When we started out, there were three ideas for a setting for Herald. Two of which I am not going to elaborate on, but the third one stemmed from the fascination of Bart, our creative director, with the changing times of the 19th century. As he explained, the people of the 19th century western world, just as most people today, witnessed great technological advancements in everyday life. While most viewed this as an exciting era of change, there were almost as many people who feared the industrialization of society would lead to its ultimate downfall.

During the 19th century, warfare gradually changed with the introduction of ‘total war’ ; the complete mobilization of society for national warfare, culminating in the horrors of the first World War in the early 20th century. So the people of the 19th century were perhaps correct to be skeptical of the mechanization of their world. As the technology advanced, human feats became greater, for better and for worse.

To inspire ourselves, all of our core-team members created something unique for this setting, to narrow down the subject matter to something more concrete. As the writer, I created a piece of dialogue that was inspired by Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, a famous Dutch work from the 1860’s about the terrible mismanagement of the colonial Dutch East Indies. Max Havelaar’s story was crucial to our inspiration for the game, as the theme of colonialism became an important part of Herald’s story.

So eventually we had “change during the 19th century” as a theme and “19th century colonialism” as a subject. One of our early sketches was a game concept where you boarded a ship and visited several colonies. A story started to develop around a great tea clipper taking an inspector of the realm from colony to colony, to observe the current affairs of the failing colonial governments. As much as I liked the idea, it eventually proved to be a bit cold. The inspector was a somewhat bland character and a true personal dilemma was hard to find, and even harder to tie into your actions in the game.

Going back to the drawing board, we struggled to find what the core experience of our game would be. It needed to be personal, yet universal. It needed a strong message, but with room for interpretation and reflection. We had so many contradicting values that, for a time, I didn’t really know where to go with the story, and I was deeply worried that I couldn't do the topic any justice.

Expanding Horizons
hen this happened, I knew that I needed more inspiration to be able to continue. After talking with family and friends about the topic of colonialism, I figured that as a Dutchman, I might have always had a somewhat limited view on the subject to begin with. The Netherlands has a long history of empire building and colonization, so perhaps the narrative told here is a bit one-sided.

As much as I love reading historical novels, the popular material I’ve read is all written from a western perspective. For example, one of our major inspirations, Max Havelaar by Multatuli, is a story about the views of a Dutchman in the Dutch East Indies. Even when I started searching, it was hard to find anything that was not written from the colonizer’s perspective. Then I stumbled upon a (quite famous) novel called “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

The story of “Things Fall Apart” is written from the perspective of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and local wrestling champion in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia. As I read the story, I felt like it taught me more about being colonized than anything I had ever read in a history book. Although “Things Fall Apart” is not based on a true story, you can feel that its narrative is rooted in real history. The way in which the culture of the Igbo people and the colonization of their land is described by Chinua, inspired me to continue writing in an entirely different way.

The story of Okonkwo, just as the story of Max Havelaar, is very personal. Even though the world around the characters heavily influences them, it is their personal motivations that move the story forward. What Herald was missing until now was a focus on personal motivation, it was in dire need of a timeless personal narrative that transcended its place in time.

At the time, Bart and I were also watching the new season of Downton Abbey. What Downton Abbey does very well is that it tells a 21st century story in an early-20th century setting. While the sets and clothes are all meticulously made to look era-appropriate, the characters and their motivations are a lot less ruthless than their real-life counterparts. But for the story and its message, this is hardly a problem.

The series became an inspiration to us, because just like Downton Abbey, Herald itself is not an entirely accurate historical account of 19th century history, and it doesn’t really have to be. To better support the underlying ideas and message of Herald, we decided to set it in an alternate history. A timeline that branched off halfway through the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell rose to power as Lord Protector of Britain.

The world of Herald is tailored to convey a message about our current situation, while using the look and feel of a period drama. I’ve still incorporated many historical events into the story of Herald, but as inspiration rather than as fact. Herald is, after all, a story about people, not a history lesson.

Finding Devan
After this personal revelation I was up for the next big challenge; to find our main character, Devan Rensburg, and his personal drama. While doing research for Herald I spoke to many people about the themes and subject of the story. A friend of mine was doing a project together with documentary maker Sunny Bergman about white privilege in the Netherlands. While this wasn’t exactly the theme of Herald, it did have some clear connections with my own research.

So I was invited to attend a “Salon”; an open discussion night about the subject where we could talk freely and learn about each others ideas and opinions. Sunny did a couple of these as research for her documentary “Our Colonial Hangover”, which mainly focuses on the much debated traditional Dutch figure of Black Pete.

The night itself was enjoyable enough, but the feeling I got from most of the discussion bothered me. Most of the guests were in disbelief about the level of ignorance of the Dutch people regarding white privilege. Some told stories that opened my eyes about a few strange issues our society still has, like Black Pete and the lack of diversity in the media. Others had more personal stories that, for me, didn’t seem to be a problem with society in general but more with the people involved. But what mainly bothered me was the pent up anger I felt with some of the attendants. What had actually happened to them to feel so disappointed and angry with the way some things are? Surely, the modern version of Black Pete as a jester can’t be that bad, can it?

It was clear to me that the frustration and anger over racism and white privilege goes a lot further than outdated traditions. As Sunny’s documentary showed, it is almost impossible for any human to be completely unprejudiced, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the people who stand out most for being different pull on the short end of the stick. Traditions like Black Pete confirm black people’s position as a minority of Dutch society with a troubled past. By re-branding a nasty part of their history as some kind of joke, we aggravated those people that valued the truth behind the character and its origins.

What makes it even worse for me is that the annual Keti Koti festival, the celebration of the abolishment of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles, is not at all known by many people outside of the black community. None of my family members ever heard of it, not a single one, though almost everyone celebrates Saint Nicholas every year.

When I left Amsterdam the morning after the salon, I thought about the discussions of the night before and my own place in Dutch society. I know that it was difficult for me to adjust to the idea of being gay and having a future with a man. I wanted what my parents had for a long time and felt like I couldn't live up to the standards of “normal people”, whatever those are. While I won’t say that this is the case for all minorities, I do believe that a lack of identification with a mainstream identity can lead to frustration with the environment you live in.

As a writer and storyteller, I believe that being content with your personal narrative, the story of your own identity, is very important to your self worth. And if we keep celebrating the lives of famous Dutchmen of the Golden Age, why can’t we celebrate the lives of all those freed slaves on July 1st?

In my discussions with Bart during the next couple of days, I discovered a pattern that would ultimately lead to Devan Rensburg’s story. It seemed that national identity and personal identity are very much linked to one another. I wanted to do something with this, so Devan became a man stuck between two worlds, born in an eastern colony but raised in a dominant western empire: the Protectorate. Yearning to find his roots and uncover his lost past, he would sail back to his country of birth in search of his origins.

I liked the idea. It had a strong personal motivation for the main character to go on a quest, and the theme of 19th century colonialism was a perfect fit for his story. I knew I wasn’t finished interviewing yet, I had barely scratched the surface of this topic, so I went out looking for people who were in the same position as Devan Rensburg: caught in between worlds.

Who am I to tell their story?
The first person I spoke to was a dear friend of mine. I knew that he had fled Iraq during the war, because he feared that there was no way for him to live in a war-torn country, especially as a gay man. Under the secular reign of Saddam Hussein gay men and women were relatively safe, but after the American invasion in 2003, there was a surge in islamist sentiment. Being gay might still be technically legal in Iraq, stories of excessive violence against homosexuals are ubiquitous.

Talking about his experiences over tea and a muffin inspired me more than any book had done thus far. It is one thing to read about history, but hearing what the effects of history are on someone's personal life, that is a totally different experience. I felt it was hard to relate sometimes, I had not ever been in such dire circumstances, so how could I truly convey such depth of emotion in a story that I wrote, without having actually been there?

As much as I was inspired by my friend's story, I was afraid I couldn't do justice to the emotional weight of it. I had, by now, visited many clipper ships, read tons of books on the 19th century and spoken to lots of people about the subjects of colonialism and identity, but even after all my research, I was still left with my own perspective on things, and I wondered: Is that enough?

When I was trying to find my own way to tell Devan's story, I met a game designer from South Africa who gave me the answer to that question. I was very interested to talk to him, a white man from South Africa would surely have a unique perspective on the history of his own country. Most people know of the terrible apartheid system that was ultimately torn down by Nelson Mandela and his ANC. I was expecting him to tell about how his country has advanced so much in equality in the last decades.

He actually told me different, he told me that he was born a white man in a country where he had to work harder than black people to achieve the same benefits as they have. To him, post-apartheid South Africa is not a state in which everyone is treated as equal, it is a country that is trying to make up for its past. He said that, according to public opinion, black people in South Africa have some catching up to do. He believed this to be true, but he didn't agree with the solution, since the government had decided it was best to restore balance through positive discrimination.

This is not equality, he said, young people who had no part in apartheid are now victim of this new system. He continued about unequal education opportunities and the government spending millions of dollars on black poverty, while white poverty seems to be ignored entirely.
I genuinely believed that he felt there was still much wrong with his country, that its views on equality were not his own, and that he hoped it could be better for all people some day.

The Answer
I needed this perspective. It was precisely what made Herald so important to me.
My interview with him reaffirmed that having many different perspectives on a story is incredibly valuable, and that Devan's mixed background is exactly what his story needs. It is Devan's character that makes the topic of diversity so relevant today, because our own multicultural societies still deal with the fear of exclusion and the necessity to adapt to a culture and its ideals to truly fit in. The people I interviewed had first hand experience dealing with this. They all had to adapt their morals, ideals and ideas to the popular narrative, to be able to take part in the society they live in.

I was no longer afraid that I could not do justice to Devan Rensburg's story, as I now knew that my perspective does matter after all, it is vital. I believe that as a writer, you can be genuine about unfamiliar subject matter, as long as you are open to new ideas. These multiple perspectives is what Herald is really all about. Not giving one view on the subject, but offering many through the diverse cast aboard the 19th century merchant clipper Herald.

I feel that I can write this story because it is about characters that I have created with lots of care for their real-life inspirations. People that were heavily inspired by all my interviews and the books that I've read, but also inevitably embody my own views on the subject.

Speaking of my own views; I believe that every part of a person’s identity shapes them to what they eventually become. Cultural background, race, sexuality and gender are such profound aspects of one’s development, slamming black skin on a character for the sake of diversity just won’t do it for me. My hopes are that people who play Herald will see this, and come to an understanding that, it is not just our identity that diversifies us as humans, but also the things that we can do because of it.

Thus, Herald is not a story about all people of mixed heritage, not even about any of the ones that I've spoken to. Herald is the tale of Devan Rensburg, a personal story about the choices that he makes, and the ones he doesn't have.


      -  Roy van der Schilden  -                                                Kickstarter / Demo / Website


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