Enola told its story of hope in the darkness with a graceful hand, but one that was still willing to mire itself in the more horrible aspects of its tale. Managing to be both subtle and brutal at points, it has been polarizing for some of the people who played it. The reactions of its players are not lost on Sergio Aristides Rosa, head of The Domaginarium, the developer who created the game, as he has been carefully listening to the feedback on his powerful game. IGM sought him out to ask about how he constructed the difficult themes and story of Enola, as well as how it feels to make a game that delves deep into the realm of sexual violence.
Please note that this interview avoids spoilers as much as possible, but many questions delve into important plot points. If you have not played the game, you may wish to before you start. With that in mind: *SPOILERS AHEAD*
Indie Game Magazine: How have you been finding the player response to Enola? Is it what you expected?
Sergio Aristides Rosa: It’s been interesting, because reactions are based on different aspects of the game. While some like the story and are able to let the gameplay aside, others don’t really get into the story because it should be more “gamey.” I do think we need more discussions about the story, because we haven’t seen many serious discussions about the plot itself, and that’s a shame.
IGM: Some players are accusing you of being shocking for its own sake. How does that make you feel? How do you respond to that?
Sergio: To tell the truth they made me get the impression things would have been a lot easier for the game (and myself) if I had just gone the “frag everything that moves” because everyone knows a headshot with a shotgun is totally acceptable in games, but when you decide to go a certain route (like female characters, sexual abuse, or any “dangerous” theme the motives are dissected carefully).
Answers to that will depend on the context. Sometimes I simply set the record straight referencing story elements, but certain comments are just ignored because they don’t bring any useful discussion.
IGM: What good/bad player reactions have you heard that really stuck with you?
Sergio: The good reactions are mostly related to the story, and how some think the story is good even if it’s extremely twisted, or how the characters feel “real.” That’s cool because I think the game is not only “story-driven” but also “character driven” because different characters drive different parts of the story. The bad reactions that have been the more useful are the ones related to gameplay, because they can be helpful for future games (specially since I personally like story-driven games and want to experiment with other gameplay ideas).
IGM: What drove you to create Enola? Why a game about a loved one having endured sexual violence?
Sergio: This is a tricky question and one of the few questions that surely get a disappointing answer because there isn’t a big special reason behind it. When I was working on the story, over 2 years ago, it just happened. I had this idea that Angelica was a “broken machine” because she has had really REALLY bad luck in life (those who’ve played the game know that sexual abuse is one of the 3 main events that have broken her mind). So one thing led to another and that’s how it all happened. Maybe not the answer some expected (and definitely not the answer expected by those who want to label Enola as some sort of propaganda!). I think the fact that people in my country are surrounded by violence influences that as well, so the cultural aspect also helped to shape the game.
IGM: Was it hard to write this story? How so?
Sergio: At some points, yes. It was the whole thing of “does this need to go into the story?” combined with the “will people think this is too much?” and “I really hope this doesn’t backfire.” Things got even worse when I was getting to the darker parts (specially Angelica narrating her whole experience) of the story and sometimes I found myself needing long breaks to look for cat pictures on the internet because I had all these horrible images in my head. Ironically, the guy was somewhat easy to write because, even if he says a lot of nasty things, half of what he says are lies he uses to get a reaction from Enola. What helped was to balance the bright and dark sides of the story, and sometimes I’d find myself focusing on the nice and cute aspects of the story just to relax, and then go back to the darker elements.
IGM: Was it difficult to bring this story across in the gameplay without being heavy-handed with cutscenes?
Sergio: I think that’s one of the biggest flaws in the game. I was trying to make the gameplay feel somewhat related to the story using the fact that Angelica works with machines, so the “point-and-click” hybrid was the easiest solution, but maybe not the best. This is where the “bad comments” I get from people come into play, because I can think of ways gameplay could have been better, without turning it into a long cinematic with some gameplay here and there.
IGM: Do you feel it’s difficult to tell mature stories in the medium of games?
Sergio: I don’t think it’s difficult if you see things from a storytelling perspective. It’s tricky to think of a gameplay mechanic that may fit the story, but you should be able to tell mature stories in games.
I think the problem is that the entire industry discourages making such stories. It seems you can’t just make a game with a sensitive subject unless you explain the entire reasoning behind your plot, and that reasoning better be convincing or else they will think you just want to do it “for shock value” (and then it’s about how everyone thinks it’s a bad idea because there’s no chance you can do it correctly). You don’t need to explain why you are making a game about people “gibbing” each other, but if the game is about a more serious subject (like sexual abuse) you need to explain your goals and reasoning and whatnot.
The problem is the game development community (and the media) overcomplicate everything, even things that shouldn’t be so complicated, like writing female characters. If you have a female character, you better make her strong, non sexualized, independent, resourceful, risk-taker, confident, unwilling to dress sexy or take anyone’s bullshit, and so on, because everything about her will be questioned, from her personality, to the body shape and outfit based on the unwritten book of “female characters dos and don’ts.” The same applies to games with sensitive subjects, and I think it really sucks because that kind of “logic” contradicts the whole “let’s explore games as art and what else games can be” notion, because that “logic” just keeps the whole gaming medium inside a comfort zone.
However, on the gamer’s side things are very different, because gamers usually don’t play the “devil’s advocate” role trying to question reasoning or motives. They will play a game and they will either tell you the story was great or that it sucked, but most of the time they will not question why the game included sexual abuse, why the character was a girl, why she was gay or why she she dresses the way she dresses. I believe gamers are ready for whatever stories you give them, but for some reason developers and critics seem to be reluctant to do it for different reasons.
At the end of the day, you can either decide to tell the story and take the risk to fail, or spend your life wondering if it could be done (or see someone else do it).