Flying Wild Hog
Shadow Warrior doesn’t need racism or slurs to survive, according to game’s writer
The rebooted Shadow Warrior is a classically-styled action game. The game takes place on mostly linear levels, and it's your job to shoot, slice, and stab your way from point A to point B, listening to the often humorous dialog and asides from the main character, Lo Wang.
The action is more intricate than most games of this ilk, including an in-depth leveling system and a special attack mechanism made up of button taps and charges, but fans of 90's-era PC games will still feel at home with the large selection of weapons and brutal violence. Also, there's a story, and it's not terrible.
“We wanted the tone to remain light and fun, and the characters to be fun and funny, but inside of that framework… we wanted a serious story underpinning the entire thing,” the game's writer, Scott Alexander, told the Report. They also weren't interested in repeating the racism or off-color humor of the original. It's a balancing act, and this is how it was achieved.
Making love out of nothing at all
The original Shadow Warrior didn’t have much of a story, it was just a linear path to killing your boss, who is a bad guy. “It’s the basic 90’s fig leaf of a story,” Alexander explained.
The newly rebooted game hinges on a magic sword, and a demon who operates in our world to help you collect it. It's more Golden Child than Dirty Harry, and that's a setting and tone that helps the game stand out, and to keep the interest of players. The word “heartfelt” was even used during our conversation.
What's interesting is that I keep hearing from gamers who say that the lack of story, and the racist and often uncomfortable humor of the original, is what made them enjoy the game. That it was, in fact, the heart of the game. It's an odd argument, as if people mostly remember Breakfast at Tiffany's due to the horrific Asian landlord.
“Right? You wouldn’t say that about any other medium,” Alexander agreed. So how do you get those people back?
“You get them to come back on board by making an amazing game that they can’t not play, you show them that’s not why they played the original game, it turns out. It was that the Duke engine, for the time, was a really good engine,” he said. “And it played really well, and it had this really juvenile, very questionable stereotype-based humor that I guess people got a kick out of?”
“I feel like people at the time, it was a different time. You could put a game out like that and not just immediately be crucified,” Alexander continued. “When it is a different time there are different mores and basic morals. I think a lot of this is very revisionist, these are people who have gone back to a game they have played, and a lot of that stereotyping stuff probably went right by them.”
It's important to note how much the world has changed since the release of the first Shadow Warrior back in 1997. Much can happen in 16 years. The broad Asian sterotypes of the original game are hard to tolerate now, as are uses of the word “queer” and “faggot.” Some of the original lines were funny, and have been retained in the new script, but the tone of the game has changed. We're laughing at situations, not people. The game wants you to have fun, not be exclusionary.
“People heard the humor, and when they go back to it and see it, it’s a little embarrassing. It’s almost a way of justifying your immature former self by leaning into it,” Alexander said. “But I think the way we get them back is to make a great game they can’t not play. I don’t have any interest in trying to preserve an audience of people who dig racism. You have to do the right and honorable thing regardless of what a few yahoos might think.”
The importance of voice acting
Alexander was in the room when the voice actors recorded their lines, and it was important to the team that the actors worked alongside each other, sharing them same physical space. There were lines that looked great on the page, but didn't sound as good coming out of the mouths of real people; keeping everyone together allowed them to iterate quickly and come up with something more natural.
Many of the voice actors had a history in improv, so they were able to ad-lib, joke with each other, and play with the script. This leads to a more natural sound for the voice acting and conversations that sound like conversations, not audio recorded at different times and chopped up to match the flow of a scene.
“We were very clear about that, we had all the actors, anyone who is ever talking to each other was recorded with each other… it was all done live with one another,” Alexander said. “We thought that was really important to do, it’s very easy for that stuff to start sounding cut up.”
Care went into the story, the voice acting, and perhaps more important into the different mechanics that make up the game's combat, although that's better explored in another story.
The game didn't have a huge budget, but the money went where it needed to be, and by working smart the team was able to squeeze everything they could out of every dollar. It's clear that those involved with the game love Shadow Warrior, and are happy to bring it into the modern day.
“You do it because you have the chance to rehabilitate something,” Alexander said. “This franchise, this IP, has something really interesting and useful about it, we can bring that out and show that it doesn’t have to be told that way, with that insensitivity.”