There's no denying that bullying is a pretty big and long-standing problem. It's entirely possible it's one that will never be solved -- but that doesn't stop some brave people from standing up and trying.
One such group is a Sydney-based global development studio called TAPRR, and its method has the potential to reach many. The team is making a game called SumoBoy -- on its surface, a fun adventure game about a boy saving a magical world, but dig a little deeper and the game will deliver, the team hopes, a powerful anti-bullying message, with the help of anti-bullying advocates such as spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan, who has written and voiced the game's narration, and anti-bullying organisation Angels Goal.
"The entire team at TAPRR have been victims of bullying (including myself) and something that is only just starting to happen in video games now is that developers are using games as a tool to send a message; think The Last of Us with a female (Ellie) being the main protagonist," producer Rob Salha told CNET. "We wanted to do the same thing (sending a positive message) and produce not only a fun game but a game that made you think after you had put the controller down."
The game, which has been in development for a year, centres around Oji, an orphan boy who is routinely bullied at school, but nevertheless manages to remain kind and compassionate. One day, he discovers that his mother is the Princess of the Elements, Kesa, from the magical land of Seishin -- and that his homeland is in peril. Kesa has been kidnapped and held prisoner by Kurai Kami, and it's up to Oji to rescue Seishin using his Sumo powers and his Blade of Balance.
It's a familiar story for video games -- well, it works -- and the style is a rather lavishly coloured isometric world, but it's not, Salha clarified, your standard hack-n-slash, instead being rooted in the team's own personal experiences of bullying, such as that of the game's lead designer, Henry Walsh.
"It is stories like these that really fuel us to try to give people a voice, as cliché as that sounds," Salha said. "Also, we know how sensitive bullying is right now and it is a BIG challenge to balance this topic in a video game... but it is a challenge we are willing to accept. We know we are going to spark debate and that is a good thing. Even reading some of the comment sections of where our article has been posted, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what bullying actually is."
And that's what SumoBoy wants to change -- although one could argue that a video game that involves using violence to defeat foes might not be the best way to send that message.
The team, however, has thought of that too.
"Is the game's message that fighting back is the solution to bullying? In a short answer, no," Salha explained. "Though, through the game, Oji does fight enemies, not a single one of the 'bullies' in the game is actually defeated by fighting. There seems to be a misconception regarding the trailer and the scene of the bullies turning into demons. In the game, Oji's bullies do not become demons that he then fights. Oji travels to the spirit world in the game and fights evil spirits. Without giving too much away, the monstrous bullies in the trailer are part of an illusion, like a dream sequence."
In fact, Salha, elaborated, not a single one of the game's boss bullies can be taken down by fighting.
"One enemy, for example, in the Water Realm is a giant catfish spirit, the spirit is creating earthquakes that are threatening a village," he said. "This boss cannot be overcome with violence. It is too big and too powerful. Instead, Oji must find another way, and he learns that the "bully" is actually causing trouble because Kurai Kami's minions have taken over its nest. This is a metaphor that represents that sometimes bullies aren't bad people, they are dealing with problems and just lashing out."
And, while Oji is the star of the game's Kickstarter campaign, the game will have a lot more to offer, with Salha hinting at, but not confirming, cooperative multiplayer.
"We really had to hold ourselves back with our trailer," he said. "We have so much more to say and show, but we wanted to introduce Oji first."
You can support the project and reserve a copy of the game for PC, Mac, Linux and mobile for a minimum pledge of AU$12 on Kickstarter. Head over to the SumoBoy Kickstarter campaign to check it out.