There's not much room to tap-dance around it. It's a game about slavery. Slaves in space, to be sure, not slaves in the antebellum South, but it couldn't be more clear. It's right there in the title: Slave Driver.
"We work full-time jobs, and when we tell our co-workers about the game, there's certainly an awkward chuckle about the name of the game and what it entails," admits Davey Kanabus, 21, who is developing the real-time strategy game for PC with his 23-year-old brother, Daniel.
Kanabus isn't being argumentative or naïve about the title. Slavery itself has taken many forms throughout history, and his game describes a fictitious system set in extraterrestrial mines in the future. Davey Kanabus and his brother are hoping people will see the actual gameplay qualities, which is a tribute to old-school real-time strategy games from the genre's salad days in the late 1990s.
All of the staples of RTSes are there — building and fortifying emplacements, resource extraction and management, different character units that require training (or, well, whipping) and combat requiring thoughtful strategy. They've plotted out a nonlinear campaign, with a story, and have head-to-head-multiplayer planned. There's even zombies. The pixelated visual style, in addition to be a more cost-effective way to illustrate the game, deliberately obscures the race of any character in the game (they wear black spacesuits).
Still, the name alone is going to make some people think the game either is about, or trivializes, slavery as it was practiced 150 years ago in the United States. The Kanabuses understand that.
"Thoughts of how our name and our concept would affect our funding and reception and it did affect our decision," to go ahead and name the project Slave Driver, Kanabus admits. "We did think of changing the name. At the same time we did believe that the slight controversy might help us get that edge (in publicity). But it wasn't something we planned that way from the beginning."
Slave Driver, Kanabus insists, began as an homage to Z (pronounced "Zed") an RTS from the genre's salad days of the late 1990s. The brothers are dedicated RTS fans and self-taught programmers, and whipped up a smaller-scale prototype of Slave Driver set on the Moon, with skirmishes taking place on a single, small map. After building it out they figured they had something that, with professional illustration and other polish, could become a really enjoyable game for other RTS diehards. They're only seeking $15,000 in their Kickstarter campaign. They've raised only $701, but the project has 33 days to go.
A slave-labor workforce was part of the game from the first stages of design, Davey Kanabus says.
"In Command & Conquer: Yuri's Revenge," a 2001 RTS the brothers both enjoyed, "if you play as [Yuri's] faction the worker units are slaves," Kanabus said. "So it really didn't seem weird to us, it only occurred to us later, based on people's reactions that this was something offensive. We didn't set it in space to tiptoe around the controversy, but at the same time it was a happy coincidence."
Kanabus is correct in pointing out that other games, including some big names in the RTS genre, have featured slavery as a labor system. Slavery in Yuri's Revenge was attributed to the mind-control capabilities of the Soviets, but Civilization IV addressed its role in the United States in a more direct way. Still, the goal of those games is not necessarily to create, sustain or profit from slavery, even if it's a tool players may use (or end).
Slave Driver's nonlinear campaign, Kanabus says, will make it clear to the player that he's behaving like a cruel bastard. He says there's an element of dark humor to it, but there will be campaign situations that create moral dilemmas. And there will be a chance for the player to redeem himself.
"The idea, for later on in the campaign, is there will be a turning point where, if you choose, you can decide to free the slaves," Kanabus said. 'They then would be workers, not slaves; that's the idea we've had but we haven't gone too far into that."
The Kanabuses estimate their game is about 30 percent done. "It is 100 percent original," he said. "It's not a mod of any other game, this is 100 percent done ourselves."
That said, even if the game's slavery is entirely fictitious, and especially if it's dealt with in a nuanced way, I asked if Slave Driver — even by name alone — could come off as an enablement of less sensitive behavior on the subject despite the Kanabuses' intentions. Davey Kanabus thinks that's not going to happen.
"I think, personally, the odds of someone hateful or bigoted taking this game as an enabler, or seeing us advocates [of slavery] or somehow standing behind that are as slim as someone watching a documentary about the Holocaust and taking the side of the Nazis," Kanabus said. "We do want the player to feel like the character they're playing is a bastard, but we never want the player to side with that character and say, 'This is acceptable in real life.'"
I asked, point blank, if the Kanabuses — who live in the Ozarks of southern Missouri — have any black friends. "Yes, we do," Davey said. "Funny thing about it, one of my brother's friends did the voice-over of one of the slave drivers, he says, 'You will answer to me,'" Kanabus said. The friend is mixed race and didn't think anything offensive about the game or the role.
Their parents don't disapprove of what they're doing, Kanabus said, but they haven't rubber-stamped it either.
"Our parents' reaction to it, honestly, they haven't seen that much of it but their reaction was the same as our friends," he said. "They did comment on slavery being in the title and worry about other people taking it [as an endorsement], but it doesn't offend them."