Funcom's open-world survival game Conan Exiles celebrated its first Early Access anniversary yesterday, and looks forward to its full release later this year. The game's headline-grabbing dong slider went on to become PCGamer.com's most read news story of 2017—you're a dirty lot, you are—however its core themes drew inspiration from more serious, real world events.
In conversation with the game's director Joel Bylos, I learned that Exiles was partly inspired by the European migrant crisis.
"When we started with Conan Exiles, the migrant crisis was dominating all of the news headlines. Part of my job as creative director of the project is world building. Conan has a lot of world building, but here I had to make up a history for this place, the exiled lands," Bylos tells me. "I thought to myself: What about these people that are entrenched here, and then these waves of refugees started coming in. Both sides of the story are really interesting here—that's what I wanted to play upon—I wanted to be able to tell the story of these characters through the lore of the game.
"You know, the Giant Kings, these people who were here first, and how at first they opened their arms. Over time, as more and more people came in and started to take away their resources and use up their space, they became bitter and they turned against them. You saw it happen in Europe to a certain extent as well."
Bylos continues, suggesting he never sets out to say one stance is correct over another and that his own writing serves to detail perspectives from both sides. The player character in Exiles is "not necessarily part of a wave of refugees", says Bylos, but they are someone who has been abandoned in the desert with nothing.
The reality of something like the European migrant crisis, then, helps frame how the game should feel for its players.
The argument over whether or not politics has a place in videogames is still prevalent, and while I myself am of the view crossover is inevitable, I ask Bylos how important it is that games aren't afraid to reflect reality against this discourse.
"I think it's important, I think that's where all writers draw their experience from, the world where they live," explains Bylos. "What I think perhaps players object to, and this is just a feeling, I don't know for sure, but I think that when you're a writer, you have a responsibility to serve the characters that you create. It feels that, sometimes, when a character is spouting off about something political in a game, it's not because it's their opinion—it's because it's the opinion of the person writing that character. I think people are sometimes a little too overt about that.
"Sometimes when I play games I'm like: Huh, the writer really wanted to say that thing, not necessarily the character in the world and the situation that they're in. If I'm writing a story about refugees coming into a land, I need to tell the story through lore and characters and whatever—but I also try to put myself in the boots of the people who were there first and consider how they would feel.
"The conflict [between both sides] then rises naturally from there, from two opposing viewpoints. Neither person or side is necessarily wrong, and I think that nuance is what makes interesting characters. I guess that I kind of understand that players sometimes feel that it's just a bit too overt at times, and that's maybe why they react to it. But I also think it's inescapable that people will write about characters that interest them—and politics and things like that are a part of the world we live in."
Look out for our full interview with Joel Bylos on Conan Exiles in the coming days.