Last month at E3, we were able to get our hands on an early demo of “3 Minutes To Midnight.” This is an upcoming 2D point-and-click adventure game from Scarecrow Studio. Set in the late 1940s, players take on the role of Betty Anderson, a young woman who is the only one with any memory of a plot to wipe out humanity. She must talk to people, collect items, and solve puzzles to save her fellow humans. It’s a great premise and it’s made even better by all the puzzles having real-world solutions. But there was one major problem.
The game demo centered around Betty’s interactions with a character named Pam. As my co-reporter cycled through the various dialogue options and Pam’s character was revealed, I began to get more and more uncomfortable. What had been a series of notes with stars and exclamation points became underlines and bolds, each word in my notebook getting bigger and blacker. Eventually I stopped taking notes altogether. Pam and Betty’s dialogue was focused almost entirely on her various mental health disorders. To make it worst, a lot of it was inaccurate and stigmatizing.
To avoid spoilers for the full game, we won’t go into detail about which mental health disorders were on display. But it is important to know that all three are real and serious disorders that are extremely unlikely to occur together, and largely misunderstood. Both Pam and Betty’s words contained misinformation and harmful language about these disorders, including a common yet offensive joke about one of them.
I wasn’t sure if it was worth saying anything onsite. I didn’t know if the studio would listen, or if they’d even care. After all, I’d be pointing out a mistake in their work. That’s the bane of creators everywhere. However, I have one of the disorders shown and I knew I couldn’t stay silent about why the joke was so offensive to people like me.
The woman running the demo, who is the Marketing & PR head for the studio, turned out to be very open to what I was saying. She listened to my concerns and asked questions to get more information. We talked a lot about my own disorder and the stigma surrounding it. By the time our appointment ended, I felt I had really been heard, which is so rare in the Accessibility world. I didn’t know if our conversation would result in any changes to the game, however, and that question lingered in my mind. I intentionally avoided mentioning the game in any FanFest E3 coverage.
I received a follow-up email from the studio last week. It included a press release with more information about the game and the awards it had won at E3. There was no mention of our conversation or of any changes. I debated if it was worth asking again, or if the omission was meant as an answer.
That’s the thing about living in the Accessibility world- the fight can be so constant that sometimes it’s hard to find the drive to start a new one. This is even more difficult when dealing with an anxiety disorder. But I remembered the sting of seeing my daily life reduced to just a joke. I remembered how quickly it had turned my excitement to disappointment and anger. I didn’t want to let that happen to someone else, especially someone who would have paid hard-earned money for the game. So, I wrote the email. Seven paragraphs of information on mental health disorders, their causes, what they look like, and why it’s important to portray them correctly later, I hit send. And then I waited for a reply.
This morning, the reply came. And it was exactly what I’d hoped for. Not only had I been heard, but others had spoken up too. The studio had listened to all of us. They had reviewed all dialogue and characterizations for Pam and Betty. They had removed the offensive joke, releasing Pam from one disorder. The developers also removed any mention of a second disorder, including several offensive statements by Betty.
Pam’s character now has just one mental health disorder and it’s shown correctly. It’s an uncommon form of the disorder, but it is well within the realm of possibilities. Betty’s reactions no longer introduce any stigma and judgment of mental health disorders. Players can accomplish the same goal as before, but now without anyone having to see mental health disorders shown in a negative light. It’s a beautiful solution to the problem and I’m so incredibly happy to see it.
Some may say that it would have been better to remove all three disorders entirely. If they’re not shown, then there can’t be any wrong information. But omission can be just as harmful. If they’re not seen, then there also can’t be any understanding. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. 1 in 2 people will know someone close to them who has a mental health disorder. Hiding mental health disorders makes them seem strange and scary and makes it that much harder for those of us with a disorder to be seen and understood. By choosing to show a mental health disorder properly and without judgment, Scarecrow Studio has created a model for players to follow in real life. This is a much larger benefit than if they’d dropped it altogether.
I chose to write about this because this is Accessibility in action. It’s not always about getting it right the first time. It’s about being open to hearing when it’s gone wrong and being willing to change. This is Scarecrow Studio’s first game and E3 was their first public demonstration. They heard what people were telling them and they acted upon it immediately. They took their game dialogue, which they had already spent countless hours writing and rewriting, and they changed it to make the game better for everyone. There aren’t many creators so willing to take an objective look at their babies, and Scarecrow should serve as an example to them all.
The game is still in development with an expected full release in Spring 2019, but a more expanded demo is coming in August. Stay tuned for more coverage. We are extremely excited to see where this game goes and what Scarecrow Studio has up their sleeves next.