How The Team Behind 'The Surge' Developed Their Disabled Protagonist
In a game about beating up robots, the game opens by grounding the main character in a situation that's pretty unique to video games.
Image courtesy of Deck13
Most of the discussion around The Surge has understandably focused on the game's Dark Souls-like approach to combat, this time set in a futuristic world where people mesh flesh and robotics to enhance themselves. But I've continued to think about the game's opening moments, when you discover the main character, Warren, moves around in a wheelchair. That changes when he puts on the suit, of course, but for a few moments, you navigate the game from Warren's perspective. It's not something you see in many games.
"We didn't want to overly debate whether people with disabilities are 'special' people," Deck 13 creative director and CEO Jan Klose. "We approached the concept by declaring Warren as a person who simply can't walk. "Even the cause of his disability is not so relevant for the story (although it certainly would be for Warren himself!). To us, it was more important to show how the exo rig can change a life."
The Surge never tells you what happened to Warren. Was he born this way? An accident? You don't know, and as the developer points out, it doesn't matter. What's more important is how the creation of these suits has changed humanity.
"There's actually nobody in the game directly referring to Warren's disability," said Klose, "in part because we assume that in the world of The Surge, disabled people would be a more common sight, and granting automated exo rigs would make their physical condition less important when they arrive for their job."
Warren's disability is a part of his life, but it's not everything—you know, just like real-life. This tension often arises when discussing topics of sexual, gender, and racial representation in games. It's totally fine if an element of someone's identity is part of a character's journey in the story—look at Gone Home, for example—but it doesn't always need to be. That's not all they are.
And while it's easy to imagine Warren's situation being revealed through a line of dialogue or custcene, it's more powerful because the player controls him.
"We think it's always better to experience a story instead of the story just being told," he said.
Warning: What follows are spoilers for the The Surge's ending.
At the end, Warren's hit by a blast of energy that destroys his suit. In the last scene, he's crawling towards his wheelchair, before the game cuts to black.
"How does it feel to go back to your life without it, a life that offers fewer possibilities?," said Klose. "This is not limited to being in a wheelchair or not. Just think about our everyday life. When technology would be taken away from us, what would we do? And would it be a good thing or a bad thing? If we got some people thinking, maybe we've achieved something."