Holding Game Developers Accountable for Half-Hearted Representation: Thoughts on Ertal Games’s Apology & Reflexion

As a content creator I’m often approached by developers and publishers who want me to cover their game or product on my various social media platforms. They’ll send me a game with the understanding that I’ll play it and cover it as Blerdy Otome. Most of the time, these are publishers or developers that are familiar with me and my content, so they are approaching me because they feel that I am a good fit to promote their game or product.

Occasionally, I’ll get a publisher that has clearly not done their homework who will send me a game that is very much outside of my wheelhouse. Just last month I had a publisher reach out to me about promoting their porn game, and while I do play a lot of 18+ visual novels, something like PornStar Harem is just not something I’d cover on this site (or anywhere else for that matter). I’ll try just about anything once, but even I have my limits, because at the end of the day, Blerdy Otome is a space for uplifting creators and media that spotlight diversity and for me to talk about my interests.

As a Black woman and gamer I tend to especially take notice of media and teams that feature characters of color and their stories. I genuinely get excited when I come across media with characters that look like me and people that I know, and while the gaming industry has made strides towards being more diverse, there’s still more work to be done. Though, when compared with more mainstream publishers, indie game developers have always been ahead of the curve, offering characters and stories that are much more representative. Since starting Blerdy Otome, I have had the chance to discover so many great publishers and developers that are passionate about creating media that uplifts traditionally underrepresented groups.

Ertal Games’s Apology & Reflexion post on itch. io

So it’s frustrating when I come across a developer that does not seem to be invested in creating meaningful representation with their work. And this is where I found myself back in December when Ertal Games sent me a review copy of their most recent boys love visual novel Night and Day.

I’d played several of their previous titles and despite a few questionable story elements, I actually enjoyed playing their games. I had been closely following the development of Night and Day and I was excited to give it a play. Set in 1950’s Paris, the game follows Paul, an aspiring painter who leaves his home in the Parisian countryside in hopes of making a name for himself as an artist in Paris. Throughout the story he navigates his new life in the big city while also getting to know other creatives pursuing their own dreams.

But, what initially caught my attention about the game was the inclusion of both Haitian and Romani love interests. Two groups that are not commonly featured in romance media. But, when I sat down to play the game I noticed some story elements early on that just didn’t jive with me involving Gilles and Ferdinand.

An early date scene includes a conversation between Paul and Ferdinand, where the two discuss their pasts and how they ended up in Paris. Ferdinand, a Haitian immigrant remarks that he came to Paris with his sister in hopes of helping her break into the music industry, despite desiring a less glamorous life for himself. This prompts Paul to remark “How the hell did you end up in Paris, then? Did the ship from Haiti get lost?”

I fully acknowledge that the line is not meant to be malicious in-context, but given the history of the slave trade, especially in the Caribbean the line came off very tone deaf on my read. Enough so that I actually paused while playing the game, but as a Black American, I get that my read might not be the same as someone from Haiti. So, I called a friend of mine from Howard who is a Haitian man, explained the scene, sent screenshots and he got the same read as me. Just a pro tip, having someone not of the African diaspora joke about a ship getting lost to someone from the African diaspora is kind of not the move you want to make in your game. The inclusion of the “ship” was unnecessary and I’m sure that a good sensitivity reader, might have recommended a rewrite, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

Of course I did what anyone would do and I tweeted about it, and the internet did what it does with “controversy” and the tweet blew up overnight. I woke up to a ton of comments and quote retweets which ranged the gambit from “🤔” to “It seems Emily is not the only racist in Paris” (that one was kind of funny). Many wanted to vilify the dev for the faux pas, but, I was still of the mind that this was just a matter of the writers needing to consider hiring sensitivity readers and not something that would completely put me off playing the game.

Slave master Rashid reassuring his new slave Adnan that he’s totally not a bad dude…

Ertal Games is clearly not a stranger to controversy with their games; some found issue with underaged sex depicted in their title A Hand in the Darkness and many players were not a fan of the unequal power dynamic between the protagonist of Chasing the Stars and his professor which led to a sexual relationship. Then there was My Burning Heart which features sexual/romantic(?) relationships between a master and his harem slaves. While I was not a fan of the fetishization of the master/slave relationship, I did like the overall story and characters (for the most part).

After playing a bit more of Night and Day, Paul meets Gilles a Romani street performer as he is swindling one of his patrons out of money. During his very first on-screen appearance, he loudly accuses a bystander of not paying for a performance, publicly shaming the man into giving him money for the “slight”. Only to reveal shortly after that it was all an act to scam the unsuspecting man out of extra cash.

Given the pervasiveness of Romani people being depicted in media as thieves and criminals and the history of discrimination and prejudice against Roma people, introducing a character like Gilles by leaning into a harmful negative stereotype, just feels like a misstep. Not to mention the continued use of an ethnic slur, historical accuracy notwithstanding left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. But, since I’m not as familiar with the Romani people, I did have to do a bit of research on my end and the unjust treatment of Romani people is something that is an issue to this day. Again I tweeted about it, which got the attention of the dev.

Ertal Games reached out to me via DM to explain about the issues I had pointed out and the whole conversation was pretty chill. They explained the reasons behind their narrative choices and urged me to keep an open mind as I continued playing the game. Ertal even let me know they would be issuing an official apology post to address the concerns publicly.

I figured everything was settled and was ready to move on… and then I read the “apology”.

The “apology” from the developer of Night & Day

Let me be clear, this is not an apology. This could have and should have been an opportunity for an open dialogue with the community, but instead the entirety of “Apology & Reflexion” doubles down on bigotry and completely dismisses legitimate criticism of Ertal Games’s works. Rather than using this as a chance to get genuine feedback, Ertal dismisses detractors as “uninformed, shallow people”. They even refer to a desire for more meaningful representation as “readers who only want shallow “good rep” characters for the sake of it…”. Most damning of all, Ertal condemns critique of their works and their depiction of characters like Gilles and Ferdinand as a “censorship” of artistic creativity. When they began receiving negative comments on the post, they actively deleted comments and finally removed the ability to leave comments altogether.

Excerpt from ‘Apology & Reflexion’ warning about criticism becoming censorship

The dev even attempts to explain that their close proximity to Romani people (at no point do they claim to be Romani) makes them more knowledgeable about them. Which implies that this tangential relationship gives Ertal license to speak on their behalf when it come to their depiction in Night & Day. Which, reeks of privilege and brings to light an issue that is inherent in discussions of harmful ally behavior. Allies are meant to use their privilege to uplift and elevate the voices of marginalized people and groups, to help create a space for their needs, wants, and desires, not to speak for or over them.

Ertal explains their relationship with Romani people as a defense of Gilles’s depiction in Night and Day.

So, it seemed odd that this bit was included in the “apology”, it’s the equivalent of someone dismissing claims of racisms because they “have Black friends.” The essay goes on to give a brief history of prejudice Romani people experienced in WWII and how that relates to Gilles as a character, which doesn’t really add much to their argument and detracts from the “apology”.

Ertal then claims that their characters “aren’t representation”, but exist solely within the context of the story they are trying to tell. Now, I find issue with this statement because contrary to what Ertal says, by their very existence in the game, both Gilles and Ferdinand are in fact representation. Ferdinand is a fictional representation of a Haitian immigrant and their experiences in Paris in 1950. Gilles is a fictional representation of a Romani man and their experiences in Paris in 1950. Even the game’s setting is a representation of Paris, France in 1950 and the issues that existed during that time. By their existence in this fictional world they are representation.

Excerpt from ‘Apology & Reflexion’ about “good representation” in media

If Gilles and Ferdinand are not meant to be representation then why include their ethnicity? Why is Ferdinand Haitian? Why is Gilles Romani? Why not just make them White French men? Why is it important to include these ethnic heavy narratives in Night & Day if you’re claiming they aren’t meant to represent the stories of these very real groups of people? It’s surface level character representation like this that creates the most harm. This is the self same “representation for the sake of it” that Ertal cautions against in their “apology”. Because it appears based on the author’s own words in their ‘Apology & Reflexion’ the ethnicity of both Gilles and Ferdinand is inconsequential to the narratives they are trying to tell.

But, the most difficult part of the “apology” to swallow is that Ertal seems less concerned with how their characters are perceived and more concerned with blaming critics for stifling their creative freedom. They regress into their own victimhood in the face of legitimate criticism instead of using the feedback as a chance to grow as a creator. In a time when fans are being more critical of authors and creators, as seen by the backlash against JK Rowling and Harry Potter in the face of the author’s bigoted stance towards transgender individuals, it’s difficult to excuse messages like this from creators.

Ertal Games’s Apology & Reflexion post on itch. io

Because this game was created for public consumption that opens up Night & Day‘s story and characters to critique from others. This game does not exist within a bubble, it was created to be enjoyed by others, and as such these characters and how they are depicted in the game are open to the thoughts and feelings of others, including individuals who identify with these characters. Ertal’s inability to understand that completely undercuts any goodwill they hoped to foster with this missive. Rather it alienates would be fans looking for a meaningful, representative story.

This ‘Apology & Reflexion’ is everything but an apology and after reading it I’m not sure I can in good conscience continue to support this developer. Rather than using this as a way to address the concerns and actually reflect on the issues brought up, they double down on harmful behavior and that is something I cannot stand by here on Blerdy Otome. So, I won’t be finishing that game. They need to do better.

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18 thoughts on “Holding Game Developers Accountable for Half-Hearted Representation: Thoughts on Ertal Games’s Apology & Reflexion

      1. You’d think they had cool down enough after writing that non Sense apology. But nah, they kicked it up notch by muting the itch comment section. A bunch of babies.

      1. Alot of people don’t have people in there circle who gonna call them out on they bs. Seems like that’s the case here

  1. Thank you for your write up about this situation. It was very thoughtful.

    That apology is definitely a sulky non-apology, and it really makes me wish people understood that they’re not being censored. They got to create their art, and other people get to express their response to the art. That’s literally the system working as intended 🤷‍♀️

  2. I remember seeing the initial posts and getting upset by their response. I’m not Black , Haitian, or Romani but I’m half Asian and Latine and I’ve definitely experienced similar slip ups and doubling down from creators from outside of my cultures when they were called out. I understand how frustrating and hurtful it is to witness that behavior and the defensiveness from creators. I just can’t understand people who double down on mistakes like this, especially when folks actually take the time to explain why this was an issue in the first place. I know they removed the line from the game, but their apology just negates everything. I’m not surprised by the other controversies, knowing the BL/Yaoi subculture, which was riddled with its own problematic tropes. I definitely stopped following their account a couple of months ago on Itch.io and I won’t be purchasing their games.

  3. I dunno, man. This could be a big reason why a lot of devs/writers steer clear of different races because things like this happen. There’s too much at stake, and the accusations get tossed around without the consideration of all the perspectives involved. Honestly, they effed up real bad writing that post and calling it an apology, and also DMing you in hopes of rectifying the disappointment for who knows what reason, but mostly to do with their ego, I’m sure (clearly some major signs of immaturity there).
    But I digress, when a writer writes, they are thinking of a world they have created, with influences of things they have researched, but in no way “representative” of something unless explicitly mentioned as such. I don’t understand why readers/players take their own idea of what the writer’s intentions were and swear by it like they know what’s what. There aren’t any rules to writing that dictates, “there’s a Black character here, let’s make sure they are written very specifically and realistically Black, or else. Let’s especially not make them look bad.” A lot of people tend to forget that people make games for entertainment and to get their ideas out there, not to infuse political correctness or historical accuracy. Like, it’s fiction, ya’ll. I remember reading an Anime News Network article that accused Isayama for “getting the Holocaust wrong” in Attack on Titan… except when did Isayama ever say “this is exactly what the story is about. These are not simply references I’ve used as inspiration”?
    Does that make sense? I understand sensitivities, but is that on the writer? I never believed so unless they’ve done something irredeemable like painting Hitler in a positive light or very blatantly writing malicious content with no real reason as to why. And that’s not me saying “stop being sensitive”, it’s more, “if this isn’t your thing, find something that is.” Yes, voice your thoughts, but don’t make it seem like you’re a paragon of racial/social justice when there might not have been a slight in the first place.
    Just my own opinion on the matter, I really don’t mean any offense. I’m just a fellow human, after all.

    1. It’s funny how you admit they messed up writing that post but you didn’t stop to think that maybe you shouldn’t write this long rambling comment.

      1. I don’t really find it funny to be capable of seeing things without an extreme view. Just cuz I stand with creative freedom doesn’t mean I’m gonna agree with everything they’ve done. And thank you, at least, for reading my long rambling comment, at least my effort didn’t go to waste.

    2. Well, I HAD a long thoughtful response to this and then I accidentally deleted it… So there’s a lot of nuance I’m not getting into here lol
      The gist though: Yes, you do have a responsibility as a writer to be sensitive to how you portray people of marginalized groups you yourself are not part of. Intent means SOMETHING but it’s not everything! It’s one thing to not set out with the goal of “good rep” in mind, that’s fine. It’s another to dismiss criticism when you wrote something racist. Fact of the matter is when you portray someone of whatever group in a story, they are, in fact, representative OF that group and how you think of them.
      Like no, you’re not going to get everything right, and you’re not obligated to listen to every single person who gives you feedback… But if your intent is truly not to write something bigoted, then you should WANT to get a consultant to help you with your blind spots! You should want WANT to listen when someone says you’ve done something racist. Sometimes the feedback you get is going to sting, but like, okay? You live and you learn and sometimes learning is a bit painful. It should not be that big of a deal! I’ve gotten scathing feedback on how I was handling writing a character that was a race not my own, it hurt a bit! But y’know, it didn’t kill me.
      Honestly, accepting this kind of feedback and taking it to heart can make someone a better writer in the long run. When characters are grounded and feel real, regardless of the realism of the setting, a story is stronger for it.

  4. This is one of the worst, two-faced apologies I’ve ever read completely missing the point of the rightful criticism. Absolutely won’t support them at all. Your points were extremely pertinent, Naja and I’m sorry they don’t get it. Just more casual racism under the guise of “creative freedom.”

  5. As a french person, i can garantee that this incensitive and borderline racism has nothing to do with historical accuracy!

    From what I can see there’s already some historical inacurracies in the game so the fact that they use it to defend their racist choices and borderline setting is just a poor excuse !

    That line toward Ferdinand is a big no-no, and you would never say it to a POC in real life, so why put it in the game ? There are a million other “jokes” you could make, why choose this one ???

    And when you see how Romani people are still treated with distruss and watchful eyes today, making a Romani character to picture him as a thief and a liar… yikes 😬 This is not even being tone deaf, this is straight up prejudice and stereotyping.

    Based on the “apology” where they clearly say these characters are not representation, then why make them POC if not to represent them ?

    Seeing as this is a 18+ game this could very clearly be a case of fetishizing…

    Anyway, this is a big disappointment.

  6. …Everything you wrote was right, commendable and well-reasoned until when it turned out that you are one of those people who deem feminism and basic defence of homosexuality to be somehow bigoted. I can’t begint o imagine how these harmless and uplifting positions could be compared to this developing team’s blatant racism, but I reckon the blame’s on me for often ending up following interesting bloggers who sooner or later declare themselves to be aligned with neomisogyny. Sigh.

  7. That apology definitely could have stayed in the drafts. It’s really frustrating when people don’t use criticism as an opportunity to grow.

  8. Ugh. One of the worst “apologies” I’ve ever seen. I backed this project on Kickstarter back when it was first announced, and one of the big reasons I did was because I was so interested in Ferdinand’s story. Beyond annoyed that this is what my money went towards.

  9. so for personal context, I’m a white, aro/omni cis man. I write comics and cover indie games (with a love of queer representation), and I was sent a code for My Burning Heart by the devs at release (didn’t play it tho). I was looking forward to this game in a kinda disconnected, “this looks like it’d be cool for those it’s being made for.”

    tbh, BL makes me very uncomfortable on average. oftentimes, it’s just very fetishistic and infantilizing of queer men. this is why I am very hesitant to go into visual novels featuring gay men as the set protagonists and often RP as a woman to avoid this entirely (though I am aware that queer women are often represented quite badly in yuri and whatnot too). it’s gotten to the point that I can name the relationships of fictional queer men that I immediately think are great on one hand, and it’s always been when I wasn’t expecting a gay romance going in (e.g. Dead End: Paranormal Park/DeadEndia, Nimona). I struggle to think of too many games with remarkable representation of set gay men beyond Hades (Zag & Than, Achilles & Patroclus), Wylde Flowers, and the Arcade Spirits games. while sapphic relationships are often deserving of major scrutiny, I can rattle off so many more icons that do stand out, and I think a lot of this comes down to how much easier it is to commercialize queer womanhood for men. so I’m sure that a lot of queer ladies come at this from the inverse (hence the adoration of Heartstopper by what anecdotally appears to largely be women and girls).

    this is all to say, I am not surprised, but I am disappointed by this turn of events. I am aware that some Romani people have sought to reclaim the G-word, but that battle is up to them, and not those of us who are not of that culture, as is always the case of such slurs.

    I mentioned that I write my own creative works to say that I am sympathetic to the difficulties of trying to find sensitivity readers and the like. I have a book with a lead who is a trans guy, and it took MONTHS to find a writer for his series because you don’t want to pigeonhole people of the given identity into only working on stories with that background (we were also considering bringing on a sensitivity reader, but it’s essentially the same problem). eventually it turned out that someone who had the lived experience to write this book confidently and was super interested in doing so had actually emailed us months prior, but I’d missed this. they were and are a great fit for that project, which is still in the works!

    but this did give me perspective on how we want to do things at our studio. ideally, people of the identity who are of that background and who want to do that story, and making sure that they know they don’t have to if they don’t want to. next best is someone who is a knowledgeable sensitivity reader. (these are both financially compensated positions.) and, if all else fails, trying to do our due diligence (including research, asking around)—if we fuck up in any event, apologizing and attempting to remedy as best we can.

    I won’t name our studio since I am not commenting here for self promotion, just saying that there are options if you are trying to represent marginalized groups you aren’t of, besides messing up and then doubling down.

    that is, if you care for crafting good representation.

    if not, it honestly IS best to stay in your own lane, imo. it’s better than essentially tricking folks into thinking you’re going to do right by them and then not—as seems to be the case here.

    I will also refrain from covering Ertal further, unless there is a truly earnest apology.

    PS for a dingus above: JK Rowling does not speak for lesbians. she is infamously straight. all of the queer women I know who are not trans love trans women. those who have honest genital preferences but are not transphobic don’t get flak. it’s those who pretend to speak for lesbians, rather than deferring to them, as well as those peddling dangerous transphobia, who are rebuked.

    PPS: Rowling is not a feminist. siding with anti-abortion groups, as she has, is about as counter-feminist as it gets.

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