Why This Very Queer Strategy Game Downplayed Its Queerness While Crowdfunding
The creators of 'All Walls Must Fall' pitched their project very differently to different audiences.
Image courtesy of Inbetween Games
There are lots of pitches that end up in my inbox on any given day, and most get skimmed before heading to the trash. But recently, an email caught my eye, one that promoted a "strikingly gay" Kickstarter for a gorgeous "tech-noir" tactics game called All Walls Must Fall. The developers pointed me towards a series of tweets from people playing an early version of the game, which, to players' surprise, was set in a series of East Berlin bars for gay men. The Kickstarter page, though, doesn't make any mention of this. If you search the page for the words "queer," "gay," or "LGBTQ," nothing comes up. That struck me as...odd?
Turns out, it was a conscious choice by the developers at Inbetween Games.
"Essentially the game comes out to the player—if they notice, and not everybody does," said All Walls Must Fall programmer Isaac Ashdown, who lives in Berlin with his husband. "The fact is that the game isn't really 'about' being queer, but it's set in Berlin nightclubs, and those can be pretty queer spaces."
All Walls Must Fall isn't shying away from its queerness—the setting and characters make that abundantly clear—but in making its crowdfunding pitch, Inbetween Games chose a different path, one that focused on the game's widest and broadest hook: a stylistic tactics game with an interesting music mechanic. The game has queer elements, sure, but like people, it's not the single thing that defines it.
"This ties into my own experience," said Ashdown, "and one that I believe is shared somewhat widely—the feeling that you never really finish coming out. There's a certain heteronormativity to interactions with new people, who often just make assumptions without even realizing they're doing so, especially if they don't have many queer people in their lives. In the same way, when playing a game for the first time, you might make an assumption about the setting or sexuality of the characters, without consciously doing so."
Once they'd settled on their pitch, the developers reached out to specific groups that might find themselves interested in the game. It's how Waypoint ended up with pitches that played up the game's representation of Berlin's queer scene.
It's interesting to compare the two pitches. Here's what's on Kickstarter:
All Walls Must Fall is an isometric tactics game where actions happen to the pulsing beat of the music. You control time traveling secret agents as they jump and loop through a single night in the city of Berlin. Using a pausable real-time system, carefully plan your decisions and use powerful time manipulation abilities to your advantage, as you carry out your mission in the shadows or in plain sight. Levels are procedurally recombined using a bespoke system developed by inbetweengames, giving All Walls Must Fall a highly replayable campaign structure, while still offering individually crafted components and set-pieces.
And here's what the developers sent us:
All Walls Must Fall is set in the underground nightclub scene of a future Berlin, in 2089. Similar to today's Berlin though, this scene currently features a lot of dudes dancing to Techno in just their underpants. I moved to Berlin with my husband nearly 10 years ago, and found the queer scene here really diverse and interesting. After going indie, I wanted to make a game that's queer, sex and gender positive, and shows that side of the city that I'm most familiar with. I thought I'd get in touch as your channel might be a good fit for looking at the game.
The difference had me wondering if the developers were worried that promoting their game as explicitly queer-friendly might rankle the special snowflakes who'd label such a move as the game having an "agenda." Ashdown pushed back on this.
"We've tried to have the game speak for itself when it comes to any potential agenda," he said. "We think games should have agendas, they tell their story in their own medium, and that's the best way for people to experience any message or themes that the game has. So when we pitch the game and talk about it, we aim to be as broad as we can be in our message, and talk about the setting and gameplay for the most part. We think with the game's title, however, that we're kind of hiding the agenda in plain sight. "
There was another motivation, too. Every Kickstarter project has a slow period, after the splashy launch and before the tense finish. Most projects seek funds for a month, but the vast majority of money comes in at the start and end. In the middle, developers twiddle their thumbs and stress the coming days and weeks.
"We were scrambling to keep our momentum going for the campaign," said Ashdown, "and we decided to try out a few other angles than traditional press releases and social media."
Start broad, get specific. The question that was buzzing in the developers' minds was "Who might be interested in this?" This went beyond the game's queer representation, too. Ashdown also reached out to EDM and techno press because of the game's procedural music mixer technology, which is at the center of the gameplay. And because Berlin is an unconventional setting for a game, they contacted local press, who would be intrigued by one set in their city.
But when Ashdown saw the queer elements resonating, he doubled down. He published threads on subreddits for gay players, and reached out to queer critics.
"Part of this was of course to try and get additional coverage," he said, "but also to try out the reaction to a more queer-focused message, and also to get the perspective of less traditional gamer voices."
All Walls Must Fall was ultimately funded for more than double its funding total of €15,000 (about $16,456 in US dollars). Crowdfunding efforts are finicky things. Sometimes a project catches fire for one reason or another, other times a perfectly interesting project goes ignored. Your best bet is to try everything, cross your fingers, and hope to make it across the finish line. In this case, it worked.