Wonder City, the companion game to the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, launched this week with the aim of changing how players visualize power and gender. Just as the documentary examines American pop culture’s attitudes toward powerful women, this online game specifically reaches out to tweens to address the very same failure of imagination and opportunity.
The pilot episode of Wonder City, which will take most players around 30 to 40 minutes to complete, is online here. It begins with player’s origin story, detailing how they end up with superpowers and how they decide to use them.
Before Wonder City‘s release, we emailed with game designer Naomi Clark about her work on the game with the documentary creators Kelcey Edwards and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, who were recipients of the Games for Change Fellowship offered by the Tribeca Film Institute.
What changed the most in Wonder City from the initial concepts and prototypes to the finished product?
When we first started working on the concept for Wonder City, we knew that we wanted to make a game that would complement Wonder Women!, the documentary. The original idea was also a story-driven game of characters and choices, but it was a more traditional superhero tale starring an adult superheroine trying to balance work, family, and social life alongside the responsibility of her powers—a little bit like some of the strong real-life heroines of the film.
When we workshopped the game at the Bay Area Video Coalition Producer’s Institute, a more focused idea of audience and purpose emerged: we wanted to make a game that anyone could play but that would be tuned to speak meaningfully to tween girls, an especially underserved audience in gaming and superhero narratives.
With that in mind, and with the help of writer Phoebe Elefante, we crafted what’s become a really distinctive and different kind of superhero world, one where the protagonists are students, and the superpowers are more about the way you see the world, and how you find and recognize your own power to make change, than being a “chosen one” who happens to be bitten by a radioactive insect or struck by a magic lightning bolt.
How did you translate the themes and message of the documentary into a game? What was the most difficult part about doing this?
From my point of view as the game designer, the most difficult thing was jumping from nonfiction stories of real people’s lives to a fictional universe, and from the kind of media the audience watches to one where we’re asking the player to make a lot of choices. Because games often strive to convey an experience—or facilitate a conversation—that’s about the player and from her point of view, it’s tricky to use them to describe things that have already happened.
On the other hand, they’re fantastic for opening up imagination, possibility, and encouraging self-reflection through the act of making choices. There’s a big leap to make between those things, and that conceptual leap is probably the hardest part—but fortunately for our ideas, Wonder Women! the documentary is very much about the power of fictional universes (comic books!) to impact our own feeling of agency in life, in what we do. Once we identified that theme, and found a great question to ask via the game (“What kind of hero will you become?”) things really started to click into place.
You mentioned earlier that the Wonder City team made a conscious choice to avoid typical “girl game” clichés, such as cooking, shopping, makeup, and dating. How does the game avoid these?
We just didn’t put any of that in. Girls can and do get themselves into all kinds of amazing, exciting situations that don’t involve cooking, shopping, makeup, or dating. Telling stories about other kinds of scenarios is even easier once superpowers get added into the mix, especially since uncontrolled bursts of quantum energy tend to interfere with precise makeup application or preparing hors d’oeuvres. Hmm, that might be interesting to explore in a future episode, though.
In light of this year’s GDC and recent discussion, what are your thoughts
on #1Reason and women in the games industry? How do you think the industry can be more inclusive?
Awareness campaigns like #1Reason, and official discussions and panels like those that were happening at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference are more important than ever.
As a woman who’s been working in the game industry for over a decade, I can say without hesitation that the last year has been a watershed time where calls for change have burst into public discourse in a way that’s hopefully too loud to ignore. There’s been a lot of backlash, too, and I’m sure that there are plenty of powerful figures in the industry who have their fingers comfortably plugged in their ears, assuming all the heated outcry over representation, inclusion and treatment of women is just going to blow over.
I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t, and continuing to talk about this and encouraging others to do as well. The game industry has got to get more inclusive and less sexist if we’re going to reach our true potential as a creative form, one with limitless expressive possibilities and real social influence for good.
As for how the industry can be more inclusive, I think the mass-market retail section of the industry has got to listen to people inside its walls, like David Gaider, who are pointing out that they can be doing a lot more not to outright alienate women as an audience. The rest of the industry already is making more diverse types of games, and we’ve got to keep that going and encourage more women to get involved in making games, as students, professionals, artists and hobbyists.
Lastly, I think we have to get a whole generation of girls to start making games from a younger age, instead of just dropping out of gaming entirely when they get to be teenagers! I’m excited to see what the Riot grrl of games looks like in the near future.
You can play Wonder City online here.