Messages are in everything and I think we always create with a message. Maybe sometimes you’re just drawing for the sake of drawing, or writing for the sake of writing. Maybe your end goal is just to produce an enjoyable piece of art, but you’re often going to find there’s a message in there whether you like it or not; there’s always something to take away.
In a previous post, Learning Themes from the Wonders of Disney, I discussed Disney, and how they manage to weave a message into an enjoyable narrative. They can do it subtly, to such an extent you may not really realise it’s there, but is that always the best way?
Today I’m launching another blog, Play Positive, in which I’m going to discuss video games. If you don’t know, I used to be a Games Journalist and I kind of miss it, so I’ve set up a platform specifically to talk about Video Games (and to keep it separate from my more general content here on the Clouds). To celebrate my first article, 5 THINGS, I wanted to discuss messages and how they’re delivered throughout our artwork. Strangely enough, I’m going to be drawing on my review of Power Rangers… Yeh, I’m reviewing films now too!
(The messages I’m going to be dealing with are ones of Equality and Diversity, but I strongly feel you can apply these ‘messages’ to be ones of anything, from the trivial to the extreme)
From those unversed with video games, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game about tribes in the Post-Apocalypse. It’s a game about fighting Robot Dinosaurs with a bow and arrow, it’s a game about exploring the wilderness and getting lost in a world where humanity is a child once again… It’s also a game with a subtle message of equality and diversity. Whether this message is intentional or not, the game is lead by a strong female character, and supported by people of many different races, genders, and personalities. Nothing here is forced. As a Cis White Middle Class Male (throw as many adjectives you can think of to make me as ‘average’ as a government consensus would like me – and they’ll stick) there’s no end of role models or characters that are designed to ‘speak to me’. As such a player, this message of diversity and equality is so subtle it could be lost on me. For others out there, though, I can imagine it is particularly good to see such examples of strong female characters, of Black or Asian characters… This message, whilst not central to the game in anyway, whilst not heavily insisted upon at any point, is important.
Then I compare it to Power Rangers. Strangely it’s the same theme, to an extent. The reboot of Power Rangers that hit cinemas this March features an eclectic main cast of different races, genders, sexualities and personality types. However, here it’s done far less subtly; characters have moments where they explain their autism, or explain their sexuality and, it can come across as trying too hard… but it’s still important.
On the surface, as a piece of art, I prefer the subtler weaving of Horizon: Zero Dawn. I prefer that the message is there, under the surface, resonating at the subconscious level or for those that want to pick up on it. I find by making it less of a taboo, just treating the subject as something completely normal that needs no reference at all, is the best way to do things. What better way to show that something is completely and utterly normal and acceptable than by not drawing attention to it at all? In that vein, then, Power Rangers, can come across as jarring and expositional when characters reveal they’re autistic, or they’re not heterosexual.
An important factor, though, is audience. Power Rangers is aimed at Kids and Teenagers, I’m not exactly it’s ideal audience. What can come across as a poorly blended message to me, is perhaps (and I’m hypothesising here) more important to younger audience. Having role models that identify within different groups promotes that equality and that inclusion; it allows the youngsters out there to feel unashamed of who they are and strive for the inclusion they deserve. I know I’d gladly let my children watch it, because it provides representation and the message is correct no matter how its handled.
At the end of the day, regardless of which you prefer, the fact is these messages are there and that’s the most important thing. I’d sooner have a heavy handed message of equality, than one that doesn’t promote it at all (or worse – promotes the opposite). I’d sooner see lead characters who are Black, Asian, Gay, Bisexual, Female, Trans, Autistic, or any combination of the above, and see it handled heavy handily and unsubtly than continue to see the usual suspect of ‘Muscular, Handsome, Generic Safe-Bet White Man’. Hopefully one day the two will be the same, hopefully we’ll be so equal this isn’t even a talking point, but sadly in a world that still has racism, sexism, and homophobia these things are more than necessary.
This also acts as a thinking exercise. What message is in your work? You may not think your work carries a message at all, but perhaps it does to someone else. If you’re writing a story in which everyone is blonde, you’re accidentally excluding all the brunettes. If you’re painting a picture of a community where everyone is a white male, then you’re accidentally excluding anyone who isn’t. These messages in our work are important, even when they’re accidental. Readers, players, and viewers out there need role models, inclusion, and representation. We can all strive to show equality in our work, whether we weave those messages tactically or not.