Diversity and representation in games are generally tackled by a serious subsection of game designers and developers. Few triple-A developers and publishers have dared to delve into these seemingly nebulous waters. Some have made attempts at representation, only to fall flat or merely pay lip service to the idea.
I didn’t expect to find sensitivity or much in the way of diversity at Volition’s studio in Champaign, Illinois. It’s not to say that there weren’t relics of Volition’s past littered throughout the studio, in the form of sexualized posters. But there was a deep sense of reverence that I didn’t expect from the creative minds that brought us the over-the-top (and sometimes offensive) humor in Saints Row. And while that silliness isn’t lost in Agents of Mayhem, Volition’s first new IP in twelve years, there’s a level of maturity to the character design that couldn’t have found a home in Saints Row, even though they inhabit the same narrative universe.
The game shines is in how its twelve diverse—and strangely iconic—heroes (and the odd miscreant) came together in design, animation and writing.
Before I sat down to play the game during my studio tour, there was one thing that I was afraid that I would find, both in the game and with the team: tokenism. But as I wove through the various agents and digested their range of personalities, I was surprised by the earnestness and sincerity.
I spoke to a range of Agents of Mayhem team members—POC and women included—about what they loved about the game and its characters. There wasn’t a single answer, but there was a shared sentiment. The team seemed to love that they could explore a variety of cultures through play and silliness, while maintaining the reverence required to create iconic characters.
Each of the creative teams worked closely with one another to shape the unique “languages” of the characters. They synced up Spotify playlists. They riffed off of notes in meetings and found harmony in “goofing around,” according to Larry Gates, composer on Agents of Mayhem. But once they locked in the core of the character, that’s when the real fun started for the teams.
As the designers defined the look of the characters, the writers were shaping their individual tonalities. The sound engineers were hard at work developing unique sounds for each agent. And while the visual artists created patterns and effects to reflect the characters’ identities, the animators nailed down the little touches, like how the characters held themselves while idle, fell through the air, triple-jumped or teleported into the Mayhem vehicles.
Mike Jungbluth, lead animator on Agents of Mayhem, explained how they handled the character animations. “Even as something as small as how they stand was important to the process,” Jungbluth said as he walked me through Kingpin, Rama, Oni and Scheherazade. “Kingpin has swagger. But see, Oni? He holds himself like Braddock, with that air of respectability and discipline.” He admits that they struggled a bit with Scheherazade, because they didn’t want her to be a “stereotypical ninja.” He fought hard against her holding her arms out when she was running, especially.
“I really wanted her to break free of the trope,” Jungbluth said, steering the middle eastern assassin around the relatively empty Seoul streets. “But, I was wrong in the end. One of the animators showed me how she’d look with her arms out when running and it was just… her. It was Scheherazade. I couldn’t say no because it fit her character so perfectly.”
The agents of Mayhem have a variety of different backgrounds, ranging from irreverent and silly to complex, or even grave. Rama’s background as a doctor from plague-ridden Mumbai leaves her on the serious end of the Mayhem spectrum.
I was immediately struck by how Rama held herself in the game and found myself drawing a comparison with Symmetra from Overwatch. Symmetra’s Indian background has sometimes felt exploitative within Overwatch’s implied narrative—with her Goddess skin, the sometimes bizarre mudra and even the way she danced in a particular victory pose. These all seemed out of step with Symmetra’s background as an architect and a complex, serious character.
Rama is handled with a sensitive precision that Symmetra has lacked, especially in-game. After Rama climbs a wall (with her physical strength, instead of using teleportation technology like every other agent), she moves her hands into mudra to symbolize strength and balance. Her movements are fluid and graceful, but dripping with a confidence and power that I’ve never seen an Indian woman embody in a videogame.
The agents of Mayhem are a refreshing reminder of what’s possible when developers and publishers step out of their comfort zones and challenge the status quo for diversity and representation in games.
The ethos of the development process for Agents of Mayhem was, according to Jason L. Blair, to “create archetypes, not stereotypes” for each of the characters. It wasn’t enough to identify that the game needed to have an international cast of diverse characters to satisfy the narrative. The team at Volition knew that they needed to step up and do the work.
This work, which persisted over the course of Agent of Mayhem’s development cycle, was heavy on research and light on assumptions. Volition’s culture of “feedback is a gift”, according to senior FX artist, Bryanna Lindsey, meant that whenever there was a discrepancy in how a character was represented in the game, it was safe to speak up and start a conversation.
For example, when a woman in the QA department noticed something off about Braddock—an ex-Marine and an agent of Mayhem—she brought it to the right people and mentioned the issue. She told the team that the way that Braddock held her gun, which is rather large, wouldn’t be how a Marine would actually handle the weapon, even at ease. So, the animators and artists made the necessary changes in order to find the truth in the character.
While Agents of Mayhem is anything but serious, especially with its G.I. Joe influences and Saturday morning cartoon villains, staying true to the characters and their respective roots was important to everyone working on the characters. It wasn’t just up to the designers or the writers or the animators to take responsibility for how the characters in the game came together—it was up to all of them to show up and find the truth.
The cohesiveness in each of the characters, including the NPCs in the Ark, was the result of round after round of scrutiny and being open to changing the character, as well as examining their biases.
“We knew that we weren’t going to get everything right,” Blair, lead writer on Agents of Mayhem , told me during our interview. “But we had to try. We didn’t want to be like everyone else and talk around diversity. We knew we needed to go all in, just like we always do. Will we make mistakes? Sure. But I’d rather we make mistakes than not try at all.”
Relic, one of the NPCs in the Ark, is a practicing Sikh, according to Blair. There’s a room toward the back of his requisitions pod that’s meant for relaxation, so it’s full to the brim with pillows, as well as an incense holder. “At one time, that was a hookah,” Blair said, taking me through the room. “But one of our team members noted that it would be inaccurate for someone of the Sikh faith to smoke a hookah, so we changed it to an incense holder. It was the little details that meant a lot to the development of these characters.”
Anoop Shakar, the game’s director, reaffirmed that Volition’s commitment to diversity and representation was more than just checking a mark off the to-do list. As we walked to grab a beer in downtown Champaign, we talked briefly about the risks of really going for it with cultural representation in Agents of Mayhem. He agreed that there would be missteps along the way but that more than anything, what he wanted was to start discussions. If Agents of Mayhem got people talking about what life looks like outside of their cultural bubbles, that’s what was important to him.
As a queer woman, it’s not often that I get to see myself—or at least a facet of myself—in a character. But the worst kept secret in Mayhem, the lesbian relationship between Friday and Braddock, is one of those rare moments that representation really meant something to me. I love Friday’s adorable earnestness about her feelings for Braddock, while still being that buttoned-down agent that everyone expects. I could see myself in that tension between who she is and who she wants to be.
Blair said it best, as we were wrapping up our interview: “We knew that each of the characters that we created could end up being the definitive—and therefore the representative—[avatar] for a culture of people. So, we had to be as careful as we could be.” And you could look at any of the Mayhem agents to find those facets shining through the characters, defying tropes (for the most part) and doing their best to define new archetypal flavors.
We have a long way to go with representation and diversity in games, let alone the games industry. The most popular franchises still overwhelmingly feature male, white, straight and cis-gendered protagonists. And while we snap up the protagonists that challenge that tired status quo, the drought of POC, queer and female characters that break stereotypes remains a constant frustration.
What Agents of Mayhem has achieved with its international roster of agents is a step in the right direction—this fearless dive into truly multifaceted, multicultural characters is a commendable effort. But it highlights the abysmal track record that videogames have with stepping outside of its collective comfort zone. And if we continue to listen to the vocally vehement pockets of gaming culture that rail against “politically correct” characters, publishers will continue to shy away from exploring diversity and representation in meaningful ways. Even if Agents of Mayhem leans hard on comedy to make its case, the case is nonetheless made.
Amanda Farough is a seven year veteran of the gaming industry, most recently seen on Mic.com and Mashable. She delights in covering gaming trends, with an eye for culture and fashion. You can find her on Twitter as @AmandaFarough.