Steam is one of the most well known games marketplaces out there, but it’s also notoriously difficult (and expensive) to host your own independently made games, particularly tiny games that might not turn a profit. As an alternative, other hosting services—like itchio—allow independent developers to make experimental games about their own lived experiences accessible to a wider audience, and potentially make some money.
The more people take advantage of the opportunity itchio and similar sites present, the more we see trends in the types of games marginalised people are more likely to create. At Queerly Represent Me, we primarily have data on representation of sexuality and gender at this stage, but this gives us an interesting taste—and opens doors for future research. What we’ve discovered so far is that games featuring non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities are most commonly visual novels, interactive narratives, and roleplaying games. In fact, more than 62% of games featured on the Queerly Represent Me database fall into one of these three genres.
With numbers like those, it makes sense that social media goes through phases where it notices there are an awful lot of visual novels featuring queer characters. ‘Why is that?’ Twitter asks. Really, it’s a simple answer: they’re easy to make. It’s incredibly simple to tell your story—whatever your story is—as a visual novel, interactive narrative, or roleplaying game.
Let’s think about why. For starters, these three genres are incredibly text-heavy. It makes a lot of sense that people desperate to finally see their own experiences represented in media choose genres that allow them to share those experiences through stories and dialogue. I’m a writer—I understand the work that goes into writing and narrative design—but writing is also incredibly accessible. It’s more difficult for somebody to pick up a pencil and make art that represents their life, or compose music that does the same, than it is for them to write sentences. The writing doesn’t need to be good for it to convey a message, share a story, or create a sense of empathy. Text-heavy games can be like interactive journaling.
Traditionally, it’s not art or composition that makes game-making inaccessible—it’s programming. That’s quickly changing, with engines like Ren’Py, Twine, and RPG Maker—and, more recently, Bitsy—making it easier than ever for people to create games with limited programming knowledge. And what do you notice about these engines? Ren’Py is for making visual novels, Twine makes it easy to design interactive narratives, and RPG Maker (shockingly) makes RPGs. As people create tools that make it easier for people to tell their stories in the form of games, games in those genres become more common, particularly for marginalised people who are less likely to be privileged enough to study computer science.
However, games that are easy to make are no less valuable than games that take years, big teams, and a deep understanding of programming. Complexity does not necessarily equal success, and value takes many different forms. So before you dismiss accessible engines or simple games, play some; you might learn about experiences that differ from your own.