The debate around politics in games has evolved a lot over recent years. We've explored questions about whether games can or should be political, and we've seen some shining examples of games which offer nuanced explorations of difficult topics. But we've also seen plenty of game companies, especially AAA developers, wrestle awkwardly with important questions, often shying away from some difficult truths.
Such difficulty is understandable; games are made by diverse groups of people, with different ideas and experiences, so asking a single company spokesperson clumsy questions like "Is this game political?" will only provide equally clumsy answers.
Creating problems further still is a poor definition of what it means to "be political." All too often, we see this confused with being partisan, or peddling propaganda, when really what we are trying to collectively explore as an industry are ideas.
Enter Critique Gaming, a Romanian indie studio that wants to examine and explore different real-world problems through the medium of games. Its debut title, Interrogation, is fundamentally a political game and looks at radicalisation, terrorism, law enforcement, and torture. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, the developers make it very clear they are not pushing an agenda, but rather painting a picture.
"We want to approach [political issues] in insightful and complex ways, package them in a fun game, and allow our players through our games to explore these topics themselves," says co-founder Andrei Olaru. According to designer David Moscovici, the game asks complex political questions and opens them up for discussion, "to generate curiosity and understanding, rather than push for a specific conclusion."
Torture is a central theme with the game, and Critique Gaming want to offer players "elements of reality to consider." While the developer shows the obvious negative consequences of overture, such as its limited efficacy, the pain and suffering inflicted, and how it can further radicalise people, they also want to show how external pressures create an environment where torture is utilised.
"We think we can do good with a game because we think the world is good enough to be improved by something like a game in marginal ways"
"[There are] all of the pressures and constraints coming from their superiors, from public image, from the responsibility put on their shoulders," says Moscovici. "So we try to make a realistic depiction of what these situations are like, without forcing a specific conclusion."
Olaru argues that it's not about putting forward an opinion, but rather showing the consequences. Taking drugs as an example, he says it's not a "Yo, kids, don't do drugs" situation that boils down the issue into a rudimentary viewpoint, but rather illustrating how drug policy works, and what sort of far reaching consequences it may have.
Both Olaru and Moscovici previously worked as debate trainers for the British Council, while co-founder Marius Pectu held a similar position at the Romanian Association for Thinking and Oratory. As such, Critique Gaming says its members have been forced to see all sides of "virtually everything," but that this is the best way to understand any given issue.
As for Interrogation, Olaru says it explores political and ideological radicalisation, how people get radicalised, and how these organisations grow, along with all the logistical and political pressure upon law enforcement when dealing with them. Specifically, Interrogation breaks down the ways in which organisations tap into people's fears, prejudices, and frustrations to radicalise people from all corners of society.
"This is what we do," says Olaru. "We try to showcase consequences, we try to explore reality in meaningful ways."
Olaru and Moscovici describe themselves as"very cautious optimists" who "see the silver lining in most bad things." That attitude informs their approach to game design, which sees them trying to "put a small building block towards a better world."
"We think we can do good with a game because we think the world is good enough to be improved by something like a game in marginal ways," adds Moscovici. "So we're hopeful and optimistic that, despite some major speed bumps, the world is improving."
According to Olaru, it's because there are lots of people placing their little blocks down, that "things may turn out for good eventually."