A closer look at Shadow Complex reveals a narrative rife with controversy, tropes, and propaganda.
In my previous post, I wrote about how any game project can learn from the careful planning, deliberate execution, and focused vision of ChAIR Entertainment's seminal metroidvania shooter, Shadow Complex.
Most praiseworthy of all is how Shadow Complex Keeps It Simple regarding its feature set and intended gameplay experience. In a world where it feels like nearly every major game release is trying to do too much, Shadow Complex is a simple breath of fresh air.
But games are more than the sum of their features and mechanics, they are pieces of media and artifacts of our culture. And culture, with all of the social and political implications therein, is hardly ever simple.
And Shadow Complex is no exception. From the controversy and attempted boycott against the game at the time of release (stemming from the game's connection to homophobic author Orson Scott Card), to the harmful tropes against women and people of color in the game's story, and even to the borderline propaganda that is the politically-charged Empire mythos, in which the game is only one small part, a closer look at Shadow Complex reveals it to be anything but simple.
In case you don't already know, the enemies the player fights in Shadow Complex are members of a radical left-wing faction of the miliary called the "Progressive Restoration." No, that's not the name of Bernie Sanders's Super-Pac, that's really what the enemies are called.
The mythos of Shadow Complex, embodied in the Empire novels, is one of civil war, conspiracy, and revolution that frames America's political left as a force of evil and insanity. After learning this, it was hard for me to look at Shadow Complex the same way again.
If there's one thing that's become achingly clear after a year of Donald Trump as president, its that politics is inescapable in any corner of our society. As our culture evolves and diversifies, storylines that may have once seemed harmless (at least, from the perspective of white males like myself) can no longer be read in the same way.
As game creators and storytellers, we have an obligation to interrogate old narratives, adjust them when necessary, and - as Kylo Ren might say - kill them when we have to.
Propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. (dictionary.com)
I don't mean to say that games should never be political. Creators should make what they want! But I do think that problems start to crop up when political messages in a piece of media are obscured or denied by their creators. Just as writers, designers, and artists have every right to make the games and stories that excite them, players have a right to know when they are being manipulated. Freedom of expression goes both ways, after all.
In this post, I'll ask a lot of questions: Is Shadow Complex propaganda? Was it intended to carry a political message? How much should a politically-charged universe change the meaning of the game that takes place within it? Is it fair to hold "old" games to the today's standards of inclusiveness and representation? I'm not sure of the answers (well, the answer to that last one is YES!). But in our current era, we need to be asking ourselves the questions.
What I do know for sure is that for a mid-core metroidvania shooter, Shadow Complex sure ain't simple.
What's All This About a Boycott?
“No matter how sexually attracted a man might be toward other men, or a woman toward other women, and no matter how close the bonds of affection and friendship might be within same-sex couples, there is no act of court or Congress that can make these relationships the same as the coupling between a man and a woman.”
-- Orson Scott Card (Deseret News)
Sometimes, in media or in life, it can be difficult to separate a person's work from their politics. What do you do when the an artist you like turns out to have views you don't agree with, or just turns out to be a huge asshole? This is the "art vs. artist" debate, and it has probably been going on for as long as there have been art, artists, and... assholes.
Like any writer, Orson Scott Card has a lot of views on a lot of things, some more nuanced than others (he even considers himself a Democrat, apparently), but his views on same-sex marriage are definitely not subtle. The man was a dedicated political organizer against the legalization of gay marriage (9 years ago that was a controversial topic). He sat on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage (an organization opposing same-sex marriage) for four years, he wrote numerous essays, letters, and editorials (like the article quoted above) on the subject, and even incorporated his views into his work (in the novella Hamlet's Father, Card tries to draw a link between homosexuality and pedophilia!!!).
Orson Scott Card's bigoted views posed a problem for players who may have normally jumped at the chance to play Shadow Complex. This is because the game's developers had maintained a relationship with Card for years. In fact, Card and ChAIR's Creative Director Donald Mustard (you may remember Donald Mustard as the guy I praised and gushed over endlessly in my previous post) had created the world in which Shadow Complex takes place together. While Card was not directly involved in the development of Shadow Complex, purchasing and supporting the game still ran the risk of putting money into his pocket.
For many players, this was too much. Soon enough, talk of a boycott started to take over NeoGAF forums and spill over into numerous gaming blogs, articles, and think pieces.
In an article for Kotaku, journalist Stephen Totillo discussed the subject with Kim Wong, a player who had chosen to boycott the game. Kim had this to say:
"I decided I could not in good conscience support a product of a person whose views I find abhorrent and knowingly give him money. In my everyday life I probably give enough money unknowingly to bigots or at least to people whose personal and political views I find distasteful."
-- Kim Wong (Kotaku, 2009)
The situation was further complicated by the fact that Card wasn't directly involved in the development of Shadow Complex - the plot was outlined by Donald Mustard and the game script was written by comic book writer Peter David. Exactly how much of the game's revenue would find its way to Card was not clear.
Amidst the acrimony, an opinion piece by Gamasutra's Christian Nutt stood out as especially personal and insightful. In the piece, Christian shared his own thoughts as a gay man who had already decided not to support Card, but who had been a lifelong fan of games like Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid - the same genre as Shadow Complex. He drew a distinction between artists who hold views, and artists who are outspoken political activists. He compared to situation to similar "art vs. artist" debates surrounding the composer of the Dragon Quest series and the CEO of Whole Foods. The piece is worth a read, especially in the way that it declares the phrase, "It's just a game." to be an unacceptable answer to controversies surrounding games, politics, and the culture at large.
To make matters even more... complex, Christian Nutt had literally just returned from an interview with Donald Mustard. The interview took place before any controversy erupted, and focused only on the design and development of Shadow Complex (it was a primary source for my previous post, as well). It must have been a strange experience for Christian to return to work and find out about the everything that was going on, but the interview had given him the chance to take Donald Mustard's temperature for himself. During the interview, Christian mentioned a long-distance relationship with his boyfriend, and Donald's response had been to wish him well and to compare Christian's situation favorably with his own past experiences with his wife, Laura.
"As I shook Mustard's hand, wished him well, and thought about how much I wanted to get home and play Shadow Complex, no political thoughts were in my mind. That human connection -- that warmth -- means more to me than any political position."
-- Christian Nutt (Gamasutra, 2009)
Personally, I had no idea any of this was going on at the time. I knew about similar controversy surrounding the Ender's Game movie, but that's about it. I didn't have a console capable of playing Shadow Complex when it released, and the game just passed me by until the remaster came out this year.
As for Card, I've read two of his books, Ender's Game and Xenocide. I remember enjoying them a lot, especially Ender's Game. However, I wasn't an avid fan when his views started to become known, and I wasn't even aware of all this at the time of my purchase of Shadow Complex. I think Card is a somewhat fascinating figure, a gifted writer, and a bigot. While I would have liked to have read more of his work, letting all of that go doesn't feel like a huge loss to me. I can't say for sure what I would have done if I had known about all of this before purchasing Shadow Complex, but I will admit I'm somewhat relieved that I've been spared the choice. I don't plan to buy or support anything that is connected to Orson Scott Card in the future.
As for the Shadow Complex boycott, it didn't take. The game was a roaring success with massive sales and a slew of awards. It's on many players' lists of all-time-great metroidvania games, and talk of a sequel continues to bubble up now and then even today.
The attempted boycott of Shadow Complex reminds us that the support of propaganda, tacit of explicit, does not need to be limited to the content of a game or piece of media itself. To many, supporting Shadow Complex was tantamount to supporting an outspoken homophobic bigot - and all the propaganda he regularly espoused. This would have been true regardless of the game's content and quality.
Shadow Complex's actual storyline does not contain references to same-sex marriage or any other explicit political issue. However, the universe in which the game's narrative takes place is quite political indeed. Created by Donald Mustard and Orson Scott Card, the mythos surrounding Shadow Complex is so ideologically-charged that it could be fairly described as right-wing propaganda.
How that happened, exactly, is kind of a long story.
Empire: The Mythology of Shadow Complex
"I had this idea for a contemporary fiction universe where there'd be this near future civil war in the United States."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
Shadow Complex takes place in what's known as the Empire universe. Like most all game universes, this is a world built from brainstorming and collaboration among many creative people. In this case, it was Donald Mustard, his brother Geremy, the dev team at ChAIR Entertainment, and Orson Scott Card who created the world in which Shadow Complex takes place.
Empire is a contemporary fiction universe, meaning that it takes place on earth in the present day. It's sort of like a parallel universe or alternate history of our own current events. The world of Empire looks much like our own, except for a few key differences:
Mechs, battle armor, and high-tech weaponry are a thing.
The United States has been torn apart by civil war, conspiracy, assassinations, and partisan insanity.
The primary driver of this insanity is America's liberal left.
It's a little unclear how political the Empire universe was originally meant to be. It seems that Donald Mustard and his brother Geremy were the first to dream up this world, but their intention may simply have been to create an edgy setting for an action-heavy game.
It was when they shared their ideas with Card that the author decided to go off and write not one, but two, novels that took place in the Empire universe. It's in Card's novels that the world takes on its extreme political bent. They're something to behold - more on that later.
But to give Donald Mustard and the team at ChAIR a pass on the political nature of the Empire universe would be too easy. They own the rights to this world, after all. If they wanted to, they could change it.
And it's not as if they had no idea what sort of views Orson Scott Card holds, either. The Mustard brothers have maintained a relationship with Card for years - even before the founding of ChAIR Entertainment.
It all started with a game called Advent Rising.
An Ambitious New Franchise - for Xbox 360
Is it just me, or does that kind of look like Jesus?
In 2005, Donald and Geremy Mustard were employees at GlyphX Games, where they were working on an ambitious 3rd-person action/shooter for Xbox 360 called Advent Rising. Having conceived of the game's story line years before, the two sought out professional writers to help bring their vision to life. On the top of their list was science fiction author Orson Scott Card.
"Ender's Game is one of my favorite books. I grew up reading Card. When we were writing Advent, we kept saying, "Oh, we need to write our characters more like Card writes characters because he's so good at just concisely creating really awesome empathetic characters."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
The Mustard brothers reached out to Card, and he responded positively. Card went on to join author Cameron Dayton as a script writer for the game.
Advent Rising tells the story of Gideon Wyeth, a human who encounters fantastic alien races and develops mystical powers. In the game's mythos, humans have untapped potential to become almost god-like in their abilities. The ambitious storyline was planned to span across three games, but disappointing sales cut the trilogy short. Advent Rising would be the only shipped game in the franchise.
With biblical references in its protagonist's name and its story line that emphasizes a "savior figure," Advent Rising at least appears to feature a number of Christian themes to go along with its science fiction setting. Being both a science fiction author and a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, it's no surprise Orson Scott Card had an interest in the project.
It seems that even at this early stage the narratives conveyed by Card and the Mustard brothers were about more than just the good guys vs. bad guys conceit of action games. These stories have something to say.
I don't mean to knock Christian games, or any game that carries a religious message. As stated before, creators should make what they want. I only mean to say that the underlying Christian themes of Advent Rising are part of a larger pattern.
I never played Advent Rising myself, but apparently the soundtrack was good and players enjoyed the story. It's still available on Steam for anyone who wants to check it out.
From the Ashes: ChAIR Entertainment
Aliens melted the ice caps... mk
When Advent Rising failed to take off, the Mustard brothers changed course. Together with several members of the Advent dev team, they formed ChAIR Entertainment. Founded in 2005, the new company would focus on high-quality downloadable games. This proved a wise decision, as the era of indie games and digital distribution was just beginning. In 2007, ChAIR released it's first game, underwater shooter Undertow, to notable success.
Undertow, by the way, takes place entirely under water in a world where an alien race melted the polar ice caps. Not sure what to make of that. Anyway, moving on...
The success of Undertow gave ChAIR Entertainment a strong headwind. During development of the game, the studio maintained a strong relationship with Orson Scott Card.
In January 2008, ChAIR Entertainment announced that it had acquired the interactive rights to Card's famous novel Ender's Game. However, it's unknown how far they got into development. A few months later, it was announced that ChAIR Entertainment had been acquired by Epic Games. The acquisition signaled a pivot for the developer from established licenses to original IPs. ChAIR confirmed that the Ender's Game game had been shelved indefinitely in 2010.
The next game from ChAIR would not feature Ender, Alai, Bean, or any other character from Card's most famous book, but it would still draw from a novel written by Orson Scott Card.
80s Toys and Tile-Based Shooters: How Shadow Complex was Born
These two go surprisingly well together.
The impetus for the Empire universe actually began before ChAIR had released their first game. During brainstorming within the team at ChAIR, the group shared thoughts on their love for 80s cartoons, especially G.I. Joe, and for old-school 2D action adventure games like Metroid and Castlevania.
"The conversation began as a 80s talk where we discussed how much we loved games and toys from that era. And almost in the same breath, we said, "Metroid is so amazing," and then someone else said, "GI Joe was so amazing." We were like, what if... [Makes an epiphany explosion noise.]"
-- Donald Mustard (Gamespot, 2016)
As ideas started to crystallize, the team wondered aloud about the appeal of G.I. Joe.
"We started to look back and say, "Why did we like G.I. Joe so much?" I think the conclusion we came to is we loved the dichotomy between G.I. Joe and Cobra -- the idea that there was this high-tech bad guy versus this regular military good guy."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
"And then we thought: "What if the whole game was literally about a low-tech protagonist stealing the bad guys' stuff and using it against them?"
-- Donald Mustard (Gamespot, 2016)
There it was, a Metroidvania-style of game where the player would essentially be G.I. Joe. fighting a high-tech army of baddies - for America!
Maybe they should have stopped there? It does seem that the main goal of any action game narrative - to create compelling villains for the protagonist to fight against - had been met.
In any case, Donald Mustard wanted to take the world's development to a new level, and much like he had with Advent Rising, he shopped his ideas to friend Orson Scott Card.
"So, I started thinking about that. "How can we make that realistic in today's world?" Because we didn't want to quite go down the road of just whatever, the "look like Cobra" route, or something. And so that's where we started to come up with the idea, and that's actually where we started working with Orson Scott Card.
And his idea was, what if there's this element within the United States that doesn't think America is imperial enough, and they want to be more like Rome? So they come up with a scheme and a plot to cause America to collapse into one of these civil wars where they can basically subvert the government, separate the populace by fueling the extremes of the population, and then really taking over the government and basically turning America into this new imperial force on the Earth, which then sets up to be our high-tech bad guy that our good guys can fight against."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
Needless to say, Card loved the pitch. Much to Donald Mustard's surprise, Card put a novel into the works almost immediately.
"Initially, I just thought I was going to use him as a sounding board, and we would approach other people. But he loved the idea and on the spot, he called up Tom Doherty at Tor. He was like, "Here's what I want my next book to be." Tom was like, "This is the book we've been wanting you to write for 20 years. Go write it." So, I really kind of helped that."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
Thus the Empire property was born. ChAIR owned the franchise and would develop games within the universe. Card would fill in the back story with his novels.
This is also the point where the political messaging of Empire really starts to take off.
Empire: A Novel by Orson Scott Card
Nothing controversial to see here...
Orson Scott Card would write and publish the first novel in the franchise, Empire, while Donald Mustard and ChAIR were still developing Undertow. The book was a commercial success, but drew some criticism for what seemed like a right-wing worldview.
Here are some bullet points:
The President and Vice President are assassinated by mysterious terrorists.
A radical left-wing army called the "Progressive Restoration" takes over New York and declares itself the new government.
Blue states side with the Progressive Restoration and incite civil war.
Both protagonists are from red states and spout right-wing talking points.
The leader of the Progressive Restoration movement is billionaire philanthropist Aldo Verus, a character who closely resembles George Soros.
The Progressive Restoration uses the high tech mechs, armor, and weapons developed with Verus's largesse.
The good guys use good ol' military equipment: tanks, helicopters, guns, etc.
Bill O'Reilly makes two appearances in the book.
The two protagonists go on Fox News to make statements to the country.
The coup was instigated by Averell Torrent, the real villain. His scheme is to turn America into a Roman-style empire.
Stay tuned, there's a sequel!
So yeah, there's a lot going on in the book, and it was received warmly by some. The Libertarian Futurist Society sure seemed to like it. They nominated Empire for a Prometheus Award in 2007.
According to the Wikipedia page, Joel Silver and Warner Bros even acquired the rights to a feature film. Not sure what happened to that.
Some critics, however, were not impressed:
"Right-wing rhetoric trumps the logic of story and character in this near-future political thriller about a red-state vs. blue-state American civil war, an implausibly plotted departure from Card's bestselling science fiction (Ender's Game, etc.). "
-- Publisher's Weekly
"What annoys me is not that Card has his [biases], but that he smugly pretends to be above it all. Yes, it's true our nation is ideologically divided, and the ones making the most noise are the extremists. But for Card to pretend that he hasn't got a horse in the race is far more dishonest and worthy of critical rebuke than any of the gross distortions he makes of liberal views."
-- SF Reviews.net
This last quote is especially important. At the end of the novel, Card wrote an afterword where he decried extremism on "both sides," and called for moderation.
The essay contains some thoughtful quotes:
"Suppression of other people's beliefs by force only comes about when you are deeply afraid that your own beliefs are wrong and you are desperate to keep anyone from challenging them."
"We must moderate ourselves instead of insisting on moderating the other guy while keeping our own fanaticism alive."
-- Orson Scott Card, "On Extremism."
It had some less-than-thoughtful quotes, too:
"Did Mel Gibson, when in his cups, says something that reflects his upbringing in an anti-Semitic household?"
"On the left, we have a ban on free speech and peaceable public assembly in front of abortion clinics and the attempt to use the power of the state to force the acceptance of homosexual relationships as equal to marriages."
-- Orson Scott Card, "On Extremism."
To its credit, Card's essay brings light to America's divided nature. Circa 2006, those divisions seem quite tame compared to what we see today. But the "both-sides" argument is both unfair and inaccurate when it comes to American politics. This is not a country that suppresses right-wing beliefs by force. In the end, the essay is little more than a political rant where Card complains that he's not being invited to campuses and conventions anymore. Card's viewpoints were made clear in the novel itself. No afterword would be enough to overshadow that.
In hindsight, the partisan nature of the Empire universe almost makes sense. At the time, the right-leaning side of America was feeling vulnerable in the declining years of George W. Bush's presidency, and the left-leaning side was feeling energized by their victories in the 2006 mid-term elections. I can almost understand how, at the time, a left-wing insurgency might seem like an edgy, counter-intuitive choice for a game or novel's villain, but today it just feels bizarre and a little scary.
Why is this scary? Because flipping the narrative like that is exactly what propaganda is all about. Trump supporters fear totalitarianism even as they support a guy who clearly wants to be as totalitarian as possible. White supremacists feel oppressed, and then go on to oppress as many people of color as they possibly can. Alt-righters describe a matriarchal world full of misandry and hatred of men, and then go on to attack any woman who dares challenge their privilege. All of the above shout to high heaven about free speech, and then try to suppress the speech of anyone who disagrees with them.
Confusion and contradiction are tools of propaganda. When manipulating a populace into accepting the unspeakable as "normal," it is crucial to blame "both sides" for the same sins. This is called "projection," it is exactly what Card was doing in the Empire novel. He created a left-wing boogeyman that makes the rampant extremism on the right feel less radical. If both sides do it, it's not so bad.
This is the paradoxical nature of propaganda. To justify the hatred and inhumanity of one side, you have to dehumanize and demonize the other. If they are doing the bad thing, then its totally okay for you to do it too. Within this narrative, it's just about getting even.
In the context of American politics of the time, the growing radicalization of the right was not met with a similar radicalization of the left. The right had to manufacture its left-wing radicals with conspiracy theories and fairy tales. But this is not a country where both sides are heavily armed. Anti-abortion activists do not face the prospect of violence or murder the way abortion doctors do. There are comically few left-wing militias, and Obama did not, in fact, institute martial law or shred the constitution.
This is not a country where all politicians "on both sides" lie and cheat the system whenever they have the power.
If one were trying to instill the idea that the left had gone too far and needed to be reigned in, then the "Progressive Revolution" of Shadow Complex and the Empire novels seems an ideal villain when sold to an audience of angry adolescent white males. The gradual empowerment of Jason Fleming, the lone white male fighting a faceless left-wing enemy, takes on a new flavor. His progression as a violent being is wholely justified by the mythos of the narrative. As bad as he's being, the enemy is worse. This is what propaganda, especially fascist propaganda, specializes in.
I'm getting off track, back to Shadow Complex...
None of the partisanship or projection of Orson Scott Card's Empire novel seemed to shake the confidence of Donald Mustard and ChAIR Entertainment. Shadow Complex was planned as a tie-in between the Empire novel and its sequel, Hidden Empire, as if everything was going according to plan.
"Once Undertow was finished, the book had come out, it was really successful, we had optioned the movie rights to Warner Bros., and things were going. And then we actually started real development on Shadow Complex. Now it's out, and the sequel to the book, Hidden Empire, comes out in December."
-- Donald Mustard (Gamasutra, 2009)
Development on Shadow Complex began in early 2008 and - as covered in my previous post - things went very well. The project remains a master class in effective game design, management, and development practices that yielded a high-quality result.
As a game, Shadow Complex was awesome, but its connection to Orson Scott Card and the charged nature of the Empire mythos have left a stain on the entire endeavor. This may be the reason why we haven't yet seen a sequel.
Oh, and Mel Gibson is back. I guess being "in his cups" wasn't enough to chase him out of Hollywood.
After Empire: Infinity Blade and Beyond
What's this dragon's stance on the deficit?
After Shadow Complex, ChAIR Entertainment pivoted once again, this time to the emerging mobile games market. ChAIR's acquisition by Epic provided an opportunity for both companies. Epic would get a chance to show off the new iOS features of Unreal Engine 3, and ChAIR would gain the opportunity to develop gameplay for a new market with guaranteed publicity.
The result, of course, was the Infinity Blade series, which quickly went on to become one of the most profitable and successful mobile game franchises of the time. There's not much to say that's relevant to this post about the Infinity Blade series storyline. The narrative features heroes, villains, god-kings, a ton of male characters, and a theme of cyclical destruction and renewal.
Thankfully, Mustard and his team didn't reach out to Orson Scott Card for story advice this time. Instead, they went to Brandon Sanderson to pen the scripts and develop the narrative.
At least they learned their lesson this time, right? Well...
Lo and behold, Brandon Sanderson did not react well to J.K. Rowling's decision to declare Albus Dumbledore to be gay in 2007, and wrote this blog post decrying the move. Five years later, Sanderson wrote a follow-up note to the blog post where he acknowledged his privilege as a white male, and apologized to anyone he may have offended. However, his views were largely unchanged:
"I believe that a prophet of God has said that widespread legislation to approve gay marriage will bring pain and suffering to all involved. I trust those whom I have accepted as my spiritual leaders. I feel that what they have said is God’s will."
-- Brandon Sanderson (BrandonSanderson.com)
Like Card, Sanderson is a practicing Mormon and member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. However, he differs from Card in that he has at least made an effort to increase LBGTQ representation in his novels, and has expressed regret at offending readers. This thread outlines both the best and worst of what he's said and done on the subject.
Infinity Blade was a massive success that went on to become a three-game series, a rare occurrence in the mobile industry.
The choice to work with Card, and then Sanderson, seems like more than a coincidence. In fact, it may be a good time to point out that ChAIR and the Mustard brothers are based in Utah - the center of the Mormon world. It's highly possible a majority of the studio at ChAIR shares a similar worldview, and feels a certain way about politics and same-sex marriage.
But as a studio, ChAIR and the Mustard brothers seem most interested in coming off as "centrist" or something "in the middle" when it comes to their games and their studio's public reputation. Needless to say, the controversies around Shadow Complex made that difficult, and may explain the reasoning around a game the studio made between Infinity Blades II and III - right around the time of the 2012 presidential election.