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Grand Theft Peculiar Institution

September 25th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Crispy Gamer, Design

Evan Narcisse has posted the skeleton of a design document over at Crispy Gamer. Though not fully fleshed out – he’s a writer, not a designer – it’s a provocative proposal for an open world action/RPG type game.

As we talked, the high concept came into focus: You play as a slave escaping from a plantation in the United States during the 1800s. Our hero or heroine makes a fateful decision to flee from servitude in Virginia when he/she finds out his/her family is being sold to another slave owner. With that story springboard, let’s assume the basic elements of a open-world title — a mission-rich sandbox environment with multiple paths running through it — is in place.

I think the deeper South would be more interesting than Virginia, but what do I know?

Narcisse sets up the article by talking about race relations and African American perspectives, but this is more than just a variation on seeing East European criminal immigrants in GTA4. It’s a call for greater variety in our sandbox adventure games. The thug life well is in no danger of running dry, but what’s left for Rockstar? White collar crime and high class call girls?

You could argue that a game like Runaway would only target a specific audience, particularly African Americans. To which I say, so what? Not every game has to be for everyone in America. After all, there’s a thriving African American movie production system ranging from auteurs like Spike Lee (who often draws outside his main audience) to hacks like Tyler Perry (Madea’s Family Reunion).

As a history nut, I’d play it and I’d certainly be more likely to buy it than I would Saints Row 2.

Would it be fun? Who knows. The subject itself may not be enjoyable to the masses, but you can have a fun concept and make a terrible game. I see no necessary connection between seriousness of topic and drudgery.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul Montesanti

    I’d play that in a heartbeat, especially if the ambling pace and unpredictability of firearm combat of the time was incorporated in an interesting way.

  • Michael A.

    If the game itself is good, I see no reason why it would not be a success. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the 21st century, why not?

  • edosan

    “You could argue that a game like Runaway would only target a specific audience…”

    Well, all games do, don’t they?

    I’d take a look at it, but I’m a history buff and I like and interesting story.

  • Troy

    Well, all games do, don’t they?

    Yep. But for some reason the mass of gamers I’ve encountered online get annoyed if the target is an ascriptive group and not an audience divided by genre preferences or age.

  • Thomas Kiley

    Sounds interesting. I think the problem with games like these is one can feel awkward, as you feel you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself because people in the time suffered so much.

    Still, I am always up for a new open world game.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    And if something is politically charged or toxic, it’ll be difficult to get past that to the fun for a whole lot of folks. Nevermind the suffering back then, what if someone sees the game on your shelf and gets their rant on?

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    My interest in a game like this might depend on whether characters are well-rounded or grotesque caricatures. I do agree that GTA-style games with non-GTA subject matter would be a welcome change.

  • Darius K.

    Interesting idea. I think Virginia would work, since you could hop over to West Virginia and get mixed up in the whole John Brown thing. And there’s also the proximity to Maryland, which was a slave state but part of the Union. There are some good possibilities there.

  • JonathanStrange

    It’s possible that an interesting game could be made of the runaway African-American slave experience. More likely any such game would be judged as exploiting that history for entertainment and profit. I think it’s far too hot-button a topic and having a cool stealth system or incendiary game character classes like the suggested “High Yellow field slave” is unlikely to make one whit of difference to most African-Americans and other Americans. Probably they’d see it as the height of racial insensitivity – and I wouldn’t blame them. Any more than a “Border Crossing” game with Mexicans evading Immigration or an “Escape from Auschwitz” game would thrill most Mexican-Americans or Jewish-Americans, especially when boths sides would probably be playable. I could hardly see telling my girlfriend “See? Look at the cool graphics as Julio hides behind the cactus or runs through the barrio while the police copter’s searchlight follows! Isn’t it awesome, Maria?” and have her not roll her eyes. Still, the possibilities are limitless for sequels: we could game the Armenian Genocide, the “Great Terror” in Stalin’s Russia, or make “Run from the Rapist” mods to help understand the rape survivor’s experience. I bet a really cool stealth mode from “Runaway Slave” would be very useful there.

  • Krupo

    Of course this assumes that the PR from the EPIC ange-storm this would no doubt raise would help rather than hurt sales… (just like how various people took aim at Colonization, no doubt because they’re idiots). Actually, thinking back to Mr. “I write for Variety but I’m an idiot” I think I’m just going to go ahead and get Colonization off Steam right now, out of spite for his idiocy.

  • Noah

    I’d be very keen on a game like that, and that’s speaking as a white Canadian, quite outside the target demographic.
    Now, I would be leery if the game took a more sensationalistic approach, with an emphasis on adrenaline, action and extravaganza as per GTA. If it took an in-depth historical approach, laden with an historically-accurate narrative and world, complete with appropriate game mechanics (eg unpredictable gun play) I think it could be a truly unique game.

    I’m a fan of both historic strategy games and open-world sandbox stuff (GTA included), so a game like the one proposed by Narcisse gets me on both fronts.