“We wanted to reach people who haven’t seen themselves represented, but also put out to the world that these people exist.”
Diversity and inclusion as topics related to the media industry have gained a lot of traction over the past decade. In particular, the video games industry has seen several controversies when it comes to issues of equality in gender, race, ranges of ability, and sexual orientation. While connected by the communities they impact, the topics of diversity and inclusion cover different angles of the same underlying problem.
“Diversity has always been a big part of what we do,” says Lucas J.W. Johnson, “I’m gay, and that was a big part of the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.” He’s the founder and studio director of Silverstring Media; a narrative game design consultancy. If we can define the issue of diversity as the need to make room for underrepresented voices to tell their own stories, Lucas’s company is one of the players making changes in the gaming industry—and in VR in particular.
Claris Cyarron, Silverstring’s co-founder and creative director is on the same page as Lucas. “Ultimately, a lot of the language has shifted over the years, and while I feel like society hasn’t addressed the underlying issues, we’re at least aware that this effort is something worthwhile.” Claris is a queer and transgender storyteller who uses her training as an architect to inform how she creates narratives through the spaces we explore in games.
At Silverstring they focus their clients’ projects through an honest queer lens—but by working with a diverse range of folks they also expand the reach of other marginalized creatives. According to Lucas, it’s a defining quality of their business; “We’re storytellers at our core, so part of what we do when we bring in additional consultants to help inform particular questions is adapt our clients’ narratives to be more inclusive of these diverse perspectives.”
Having a range of voices and giving opportunities to those that have been historically excluded is only half the battle; and part of the change that Silverstring are trying to push forward is that diverse audiences need to feel that they’ve been included in culture. But simply reflecting marginalized groups doesn’t go quite far enough; the inclusion has to be meaningful.
“Far beyond just seeing someone like me, I want to see the world reflected from a perspective that’s at all like mine.” Claris demonstrates how important it is to not only see LGBTQ+ characters represented in characters—which could be considered baseline tokenism—but to have her reality explored holistically. “This is the real problem with the goal of just putting people in front of the camera; it’s hollow and it doesn’t enshrine truth in stories.”
Silverstring has partnered with Stitch Media on Flow Weaver, a VR escape room for the Oculus platform. Unlike consulting on clients’ properties, this is an original property—meaning both Lucas and Claris have a particularly vested interest in how their story unfolds in virtual reality.
Claris recalls how their very first conversations on what Flow Weaver could be included the core principles behind Silverstring; “We wanted to reach people who haven’t seen themselves represented, but also put out to the world that these people exist.”
“The Flow Weaver character is canonically non-binary,” Lucas mentions of the game’s protagonist. “They’re only referred to by other characters a few times, but when they are it’s with they/them pronouns.” However, the titular character isn’t ever seen, they are the role that the player inhabits. They exist only as a pair of gloves—and a voice. “We had to ask ourselves the question “what does a non-binary person sound like?”
When a player takes on the perspective of the main character, it can make things difficult for the game’s designers to convey who that character is; we can’t see the character’s interactions with the world or their reactions to it. We lose the ability to read facial cues and acting to establish emotion, making it difficult to empathize or connect with them. One convention that can help to mitigate this is the use of an internal monologue, a voice-over of the character’s inner thoughts that players are privy to.
But as Lucas mentioned, that brings up entirely new questions of representation. “What we came down to was that the voice of a non-binary character should be the voice of a non-binary person.” Silverstring and Stitch Media found a fantastic non-binary voice actor in Ciarán Strange, known for his previous work as the character Lorelei in Borderlands 3. Ciarán brings an authentic portrayal to the Flow Weaver which is, quite literally, giving a voice to an underrepresented community of gamers eager to see themselves—their lives and struggles—reflected back through the games they love to play.