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Born Unequal: The Story of Incredipede

How a world traveling game design duo plans to change the world with a video game.

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Colin Northway and his wife Sarah dump their heavy backpacks on the floor of a modest-looking house in the Philippines. This will be their home for the next few months. There's a kitchen and a bathroom, windows to let in the dense tropical air, a few more mosquitoes than they're used to clinging to the ceiling, a choppy internet connection and space for them to set up their laptops and make video games. The house also comes with what the Northways describe as one of the weirdest and most intolerable situations they've encountered: a housekeeper.

The couple is by no means rich. They're independent game developers who spent years working in web development jobs to save money so they could travel. And now they're traveling. They don't stay in hotels. They don't rent cars. They've never been waited on by anyone. They're thrifty and self-sufficient, choosing to stay in countries for months at a time to keep living costs low. If they can only afford instant ramen, they'll only eat instant ramen.

The housekeeper situation makes them uncomfortable. She does everything for them: she cooks, she cleans, she folds their laundry, she does their grocery shopping.

“It's profoundly weird that your life as one human being can support another human being who does nothing but the things you don't want to do,” Colin Northway says. “We're all born equal. How does it happen that one person ends up in the situation where, if you take me, why do I get to travel around the world making games, and this person has to cook and clean all day?”

The Northways are stumped. Two computer science degrees between them and they can't figure out what to do. If they fire the housekeeper, they might feel less confronted by the disparity of wealth and power in the world, but she'll also be worse off and out of a job. If they keep her, she'll be able to continue supporting herself and her family, and the Northways, to their own discomfort, will have someone doing their laundry.

It bothers them. They understand the problem goes beyond being waited on by someone less privileged than they are. It's about wealth disparities. It's about quality of life. It's about the systems society has embraced that reinforce inequality.

They're not sure what to do, so they do the one thing they do know how to do: they make a game about it.

12 countries

Three years ago, Colin and Sarah Northway set out to travel the world to experience what they couldn’t find in their home of Canada. Heading to warm places in the winter and cities in the summer seemed like a good idea, and after the initial investment of paying for plane tickets, the cost of living in the countries they went to was a fraction of what it cost to live in North America. They’d done the math: the amount they’d spent on flights in a year was less than what their friends in the San Francisco Bay Area paid to travel on the local train service to get to and from work.

Their plan was to travel and make their own games. It didn’t really matter where their travels took them, and there was no grand plan for making any particular kind of games. Before leaving Canada, Colin had released a Flash-based physics game called Fantastic Contraption. In the game, players build machines to move an object through a goal. Northway was a mechanics-oriented developer. He figured he’d make more games like that while in Thailand or the Philippines or Central America. That seemed about as good a plan as any. He’d originally been content playing around with game mechanics and making them feel satisfying. But with every country he visited, it felt like the world was demanding a little more from him.

“Incredipede is definitely a response to our time in Honduras,” Northway says. “So in Honduras, we were living in the jungle at the end of this terrible dirt road. We had to take kayaks to go to the little store to get groceries, or buy fish off the fishermen who came by.”

Colin and Sarah stayed in a small house slung over the water. Fish swam underneath the dock, hummingbirds flew outside their windows, ants invaded their kitchen, and when they went snorkeling in the reefs, they could find baby boa constrictors climbing up mangroves.

“There was life absolutely everywhere,” Colin Northway says. “So I felt like I had to make Incredipede, which is all about life.”

Incredipede’s own life began as a mechanics-oriented puzzle game. Colin coded a character that consisted of three sticks in the shape of a Z. Two red lines between them in the corners acted as muscles. Using the keyboard, he could make them jump up and down. On its own, Northway says it could have been a delightful platformer about getting from A to B. Honduras demanded that it be something more.

“Quozzle [Incredipede’s main character] stands for all life,” he says of the round, green creature with an eye at her center. “She’s a way to explore the different forms that life takes. In the way she can change shape, she can swim like an otter, she can fly like a bird when there are updrafts and wind, she can swing through the trees like a monkey, she can run like a dog or walk like a human.

Incredipede is a way of exploring all of the richness and vibrancy of the life in Honduras.”

The Northways’ time in Honduras and later in Central America would help determine the look and feel of the game. Clicking on Quozzle, players can drag limbs out of her round body. They can make her walk, they can make her roll and, rather than be a mechanical object, she is an organic creature born from the rich, natural environments the Northways visited. The game could have stopped there: a vibrant little puzzle game that reflected the beauty of nature. But as the Northways continued with their travels, it would be the less beautiful things they encountered that continued to shape Incredipede.

Quozzle’s story

Quozzle starts the game living in a subsistence farming village with other Incredipedes. Coming from a hunter-gatherer tribe, she collects fruit like cherries, watermelons and apples. Early in the game, invaders arrive at her village and truck her parents away. Terrified, she runs off into the woods to seek safety. The story from here is the result of the Northways’ experience in Southeast Asia. It’s their attempt to highlight the severity of the disparity of wealth in the world.

Quozzle knows that to get to safety, she has to travel from one side of the island to another to gain access to another world. At the end of each world is a gatekeeper. Every gatekeeper she encounters demands something of her. The first gatekeeper demands all the fruit she has collected and at least 12 cherries. The player — in their role as Quozzle — undergoes a tremendous amount of work to gather all the fruit. Quozzle shape-shifts to run and climb and crawl and fly, just to collect every piece of fruit she can to gain access to a better world. In exchange, the gatekeeper gives her one religious headdress, which lets her enter the second world.

“So Quozzle undergoes all of this work and effort to collect all these things, and then she has to trade it to this guy who has power over her, based not on what he’s accomplished in life or what she’s accomplished in life, but where they’re born,” Colin Northway says. “She was born into a tribe where cherries were very valuable, and he was born into a society where cherries were almost worthless.

“She trades a lot of cherries for a headdress, and after making the trade, she is allowed to move onto the next role of society.”

In the second world, she discovers that the headdresses like the one she worked hard to obtain are everywhere. The fruit she worked so hard to gather is worthless in this world. The gatekeeper guarding the gate to the third world demands 12 headdresses. She does the same thing she did with the cherries: she chases the artifacts of this age, gets the headdresses and trades them to the gatekeeper for one coin.

Each world she enters gets harder and harder, each demanding more and more of her. As she moves up from one world to another, her quality of life is meant to improve. Eventually she arrives at an impersonal vending machine that demands everything she has collected for entrance into what has grown to be a massive city.

“The idea is: To gain entrance to a city and to be successful in a place like San Francisco, you need maybe 12 coins; each coin is worth 12 headdresses, each headdress is worth 12 cherries,” he says. “And so that city that Quozzle now enters, the disparity between that city and the village she left is supposed to be clear. When she finally gets to the city, there are heaps of cherries and apples being sold in the market by people who are trying to scrape by. So the idea is you really live through that wealth disparity.”

Seeing the people

Colin Northway is clearly frustrated about what he’s seen on his travels, and it’s a frustration shared by some of the world’s biggest NGOs. In an Oxfam briefing published earlier this year, the charity organization details the severity of wealth inequality around the world and how it “hurts us all.” Among its findings were that in the U.S. alone, the share of income going to the country’s top 1 percent has doubled in the last 20 years. In. the U.K., wealth inequality is “returning to levels not seen since the time of Charles Dickens.” At a global level, this wealth inequality is amplified, with Chinese inequality levels seeing 60 percent of the nation’s income going to the top 10 percent. This is pushing more and more people into extreme poverty on a level that most developed countries have never seen. Oxfam reports that extreme wealth and inequality undermine societies. They lead to far less social mobility. If you are born poor in a very unequal society, you are much more likely to end your life in poverty. This, Northway says, is what he tried to capture in Quozzle.

Wealth disparity exists in the Western world, but Colin Northway believes most people are so far removed from the severity of the disparities in developing countries that it’s an abstract concept for them. We take for granted the functional middle class of modern, Western societies, so much so that we romanticize the wealth disparities of the past.

“When traveling in Scotland, we visited a village that was a reproduction of a village in Scotland in the 1700s,” Northway says. “You look at it and it’s like hopelessly romantic thatched huts made of heather with rock foundations. They would have had one cow that they brought into the house in the winter to keep the cow warm and to keep the house warm, and it’s a romantic idea until you think about what life was like.

“They had to sleep sitting up because the peat they burned to keep warm smoked the house up so much that liquid would pool in their lungs and they would die if they stretched out.”

He says what we look at today as romantic villages would have been very difficult places to live. Infant mortality rates were high, there was little access to medicine and the disparity of wealth between the aristocracy and the everyday people was enormous.

“It’s weird that we romanticize the lords and ladies of the past when if we actually went back in time and realistically thought about who we would be, we’re the 99 percent. We are sleeping sitting up so we don’t die in our sleep.”

This is the wealth disparity Northway wants to communicate through Incredipede. The difference between the second and fourth worlds in the game is meant to be stark and disturbing, just as it is in the real world.

Sarah Northway says Incredipede is all from their travels. It’s from everything they’ve seen: the environments of Honduras, the housekeeper in the Philippines, the thatched huts of Scotland and the poor people living in shantytowns and by railway tracks in Thailand.

“I definitely feel pretty uncomfortable seeing that kind of stuff, but I feel like to pretend that it’s not there is kind of wrong, too,” she says. “A lot of people will go on holiday to the same kind of places that we go to, but they’ll end up in a hotel or a resort. It’s like an enclave. They’re not really seeing the truth of the whole country.

“They’re seeing the nature, but not the people.”

The world awaits

Incredipede was made over the course of three years as the Northways traveled through 12 countries. Every place they visited gave them something and, in return, every country they visited asked a little more of them and their games.

“Games are fundamentally a series of mechanics, but those mechanics can say something about the real world,” Colin Northway says. “They can say something about the real world in a way that books and movies can’t. In a game, you’re putting yourself into it in a way you’re not putting yourself into movies and books.

“So in Incredipede, the idea is you’re inside this world of inequality; you’re not following a character around that’s inside it, you are actually inside it. The labor you do is being valued by the system in a way that the labor real people do is valued by the systems in the real world.”

Colin Northway isn’t sure if every player of Incredipede will get the message. He’s a mechanics man, and the game has mostly been getting attention for its art, sound and game design. It was even nominated for an Independent Games Festival award for Excellence in Visual Arts. But no one has noticed the theme that played such a crucial role in defining the game.

“I guess I wish I was less subtle with the story now because I don’t think anyone got it,” he says. “I’ve certainly never read any comment talking about that theme.”

The message was always clear to Northway because he experienced it himself. In hindsight, he says he should have pushed it harder and made it more obvious. “Maybe in the mobile version I’ll work harder at being less subtle with the story,” he says.

The Northways are currently back in Montreal, but they don’t plan on staying long. They’re planning a trip to New York, after which they’ll head south. Maybe they’ll go to Panama. There are plans to visit Brazil. They’d really like to live in Argentina, too. Wherever it is they go, they’re ready to meet demands.