Love. Betrayal. Isolation. Common narrative themes that The Arkh Project will weave into a decidedly uncommon narrative about queer people of color. Let’s face it: Popular media don’t often know how to depict people other than, well, white people. It’s why so many games and films feature white men as the heroes. Stepping outside that comfort zone is a risk, and we’re not going to pretend it isn’t. That said, we can’t defend the use of stereotypes, either. Arkh is a completely independent project that’s billed as “a game that focuses queer people and people of color as main characters,” in order to represent the underrepresented. We talked to Arkh's Jes Richards to learn a little more about the game and the issues it deals with.
NoobFeed: Why don't you start by telling us a little about The Arkh Project?
Jes Richards: Okay a little bit about Arkh: We're a small team of people dedicated to producing an action RPG with queer characters of color at the forefront. The game's environments and character backgrounds/origins are inspired by cultures of People of Color that are often overlooked or have low visibility in the global spectrum, like Indigenous Latin American cultures. Like I said, the point of the project is to bring visibility to queer People of Color who are otherwise basically ignored or horribly stereotyped in games.
NF: The industry hasn't yet seemed to figure out how to handle racial and sexual issues. Are there any games you think have performed well in that regard?
JR: The Mass Effect series, while not perfect, has brought a bit more equality of presence to gaming, specifically in terms of sexual orientation. Gender identity, though, I can't say any game has really created visibility for anything other than the accepted binary of male/female. And maybe Left 4 Dead/L4D2 in terms of race? Racial equality is basically nonexistent in gaming. There's a difference between allowing the player to give themselves a darker skin color and actually writing a non-white character with a complex and non-stereotypical story and personality. We could say Jacob from ME2 has a bit of that (all I remember about him is that he's a nice dude with a horrible father), but most of the complex stuff is given to the alien companions in the ME series.
There are no games that I would say perform well in regards to all three areas of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
NF: Even something like Arkh must encounter difficulties with equal representation. How do you find a prudent solution?
JR: Each of our levels is inspired by a culture that has little to no visibility, almost all of which are cultures of People of Color (I think there might be one Western European one). We also created characters who are of color with varying gender identities and sexual orientations. We're not going to get every single person of every single race/identity/orientation, but we're aiming for a wide spectrum so at the very least our players can say, "Hey, that character looks like me/has my identity/orientation," if not identify wholly with one or more of the characters.
Right down to the weapons, every world in Arkh has its own culturally inspired look.
NF: So, you're aiming for a very personal experience?
JR: Well, kind of. The player isn't going to be playing themselves, they'll be playing Ain, who has their own distinct personality, much like their companions, Romero and Neelu, but in a sense, this is a personal experience on the level that these kinds of characters don't exist anywhere else and people who have never seen themselves in a game before can see pieces of themselves in our game.
NF: Which leads into the next question: Who is the protagonist, and what is their goal?
JR: Ain (pronounced: Ah-een; pronouns: they, them, their) is our protagonist, and their goal is to recover their memory, find their lover Haruka, and discover what's been going wrong with the universe (specifically how it involves the Arkh, the god-beings of this game). Ain is Arkh themselves and is accompanied by other Arkh, Romero and Neelu (who are sort of like an aunt and uncle to Ain), while Haruka, the lost lover, is a Fourth Level human, elevated by Ain's mother and father as a gift/toy/bodyguard.
The story revolves around Ain (right) searching for their lost lover, Haruka (left).
NF: And what sort of conflict will the Arkh encounter? What themes will their story explore?
JR: Ain's conflict at first appears entirely internal, their loss of memory and psychological trauma resulting from such, but as the game goes on, the player will realize there is more at stake than just Ain and (their) lover being reunited.
Themes we'll explore in Ain's story include growing up, transitioning to adulthood, going out onto one's own, family, betrayal, as well as PoC issues, trans issues and queer issues.
NF: Issues like isolation and prejudice.
NF: Let's go back a few steps: Where and how did The Arkh Project begin?
JR: Its origins are as simple as a bunch of people sitting around talking about how cool it would be if there was a game that had actual, real queer people of color in it who weren't just stereotypes. It's kind of every game maker's dream to be able to go back to a "what if" conversation and say "we can make that," and that's just what we're doing with the Arkh Project.
NF: And how has it evolved since those early stages? What nuances or complications have arisen?
JR: That's not something I can answer since I joined the team after most of the current concepts were solidified and the issue of money worked out the best we can. I know we were originally going to use the Unity engine, but our volunteer programmers suggested we use the Unreal Development Kit instead. There have been small changes since we started, but nothing that has changed the project immensely.
NF: You mentioned that it will be an action role-playing game. Has the team been examining any particular subgenre, like Neverwinter Nights or Diablo-style RPGs?
JR: A lot of the team are familiar with JRPG-style games, but we're not interested in making another turn-based, random battle system with tons of stats to take care of. We want to bring that crispness that comes with JRPGs into action RPGs, so we've been looking at Bioware's very successful model as well as elements from Okami and Kingdom Hearts. We've definitely taken from our experience as gamers to mold concepts and really make this game a labor of love instead of just labor.
NF: Are there any specific elements the team is focused on including or exploring?
JR: In terms of specific elements, we're really focused on the presentation system (noncombat) and the Miracles system (combat). The presentation system is related to our sidequests in that depending on how Ain is dressed, NPCs will respond to them in certain ways, sometimes barring them from obtaining sidequests. Every piece of armor will have presentation axes associated with it. A good run-down of the system is available on our wiki at this url: http://thearkhproject.wikispaces.com/Presentation
While this isn't a completely original aspect, it will create a unique game experience for each player, depending on how they dress Ain and what kind of persona they want to portray.
The Miracles system is basically how we define our attributes. At the beginning of the game, Ain will start with ten selected abilities (one for every 100 GE--a form of experience called God Energy). Every level, Ain will lose GE and thus lose one of their Miracles (of the player's choosing). This creates a fun strategy system that will eventually result in Ain only having a few Miracles to choose from. Not having a Miracle won't hinder the game or hurt the story or anything, so it's up to the player what kind of play style they want to have and what Miracles they want to lose. If the player really wants to regain a Miracle, they can do so by using LXP (another form of experience called Life Experience) to create more GE.
We're trying to create a very customized game experience within the context of a linear story. We want there to be replay value in that, and we want the story to be something that people will want to experience multiple times with different gameplay styles.
NF: Can you give a couple examples of Miracles and how they could potentially affect a given world?
JR: Nothing is solidified with regards to the Miracles yet, but a few examples might be that Ain starts with the Miracle "Omniscience," which, when used, allows Ain to see all the chests/hidden items around them in a particular radius. Eventually, the player will have to choose to get rid of Omniscience or keep it as their GE drops, making it much harder to find hidden items. Miracles can be used in conjunction with another, as well. So say Ain has Omniscience and sees a chest that is actually underwater off the beach they're standing on. Unless Ain also has the Miracle that allows them to breathe underwater, they won't be able to retrieve that chest. Because levels are replayable, if the player really wants that chest and doesn't have the Miracle to breathe underwater, they can gain GE back through the method I described and regain that Miracle, then go back and get that chest.
NF: So, players are encouraged to explore as much as possible. Will sidequests or subplots further incentivize exploration?
JR: Yes, definitely. Since we're still working out environments, I can't say too much on how vast exploration will be (since it really depends on how much work we're able to achieve with the small team we have and how much time each volunteer can contribute), but we definitely want players to engage in sidequests to learn more about the Arkh universe and really enjoy the world we've built and the stories we've woven together.
Some professional artists have created 3D models at reduced prices for the team.
NF: Let's talk a little about the team. How many people are there, and what sort of resources are they working with?
JR: Well, we just added a bunch of writers and a 3D modeler, so I'd say that puts us at around twenty people. Volunteers come and go, so our numbers are a little fluid, but I'd say twenty is our main base group. Our resources are basically whatever we already have and whatever is free to get online. We use Google Docs and OpenOffice for our documentation and brainstorming and keeping track of team members, and really, whatever programs our volunteers already came with. A lot of our volunteers are or were recently students, so our resources have come to down anything free and useful. We work with what we have.
NF: Do the distance and staff changes add to the challenge of development?
JR: Yes. We have to align schedules with time zones (not to mention classes and homework), plus full-time jobs and families that can overwhelm production. We allow our volunteers plenty of room to take breaks and return if they want to, since we know life can be pretty wonky, and everyone puts in time when they can. It's slow going, but we know that with our volunteers that we have a team who loves this project. People are donating their time and skills to the Arkh Project; it truly is a labor of love.
NF: Is it too early to say when a demo of The Arkh Project will be available?
JR: Yeah, it is. Sorry. :( We're working on the test level, however, but there's no real date for that, either.
NF: And is there anything you'd like to say in closing?
JR: Our team is varied, made up of people from all over. We are working from our own experiences, from our own sensibilities, and that's part of what makes Arkh special. The story in the game is not meant to display a perfect world where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and the like do not exist...that wouldn't display our lives very well, would it? Our goal is to make a game where people who are years and years away from getting true representation anywhere can look at a character here and go "Wow. That is just like me." Everyone deserves visibility. We're only sorry we can't make 100 characters and display every type of person in the world.
We don't want this game to be released and for people to go "Oh, that was good" and nothing more is done. We want this to be the first of many, the start of something that just hasn't found proper footing yet.
NF: Looking forward to seeing more of the project. Thank you very much for your time.