This is the first in a series of semi-regular (i.e. semi-fortnightlyish) blog posts chronicling the development of The Red Market. Sometimes these posts will take the form of detailing recent/upcoming patches and new content for the game. At other times I’ll dive into some aspect of the game in greater detail. This week I’ll be talking about the major inspiration behind The Red Market.
What is The Red Market?
The Red Market is a game about scouring the margins of the world – unexplored forests, claustrophobic sewer systems, a deeply unpleasant river – for strange beasts. As such, it’s about the weird and miraculous – beautiful beasts; magical beasts; dangerous beasts.
But it’s also a game about exploitation. The player character isn’t a sightseer or a conservationist – they’re here to capture these monsters (alive, ideally) and make use of them. You can sell them to an extremely questionable zoo, where they’ll be caged and put on display. Or if that seems too inhumane you can sell them to a chef who specialises in rare and endangered species. Wait no. Instead, why not sell them to a wealthy collector of curiosities, a travelling circus, an overly enthusiastic anatomist, a crime boss who’s always looking for new ways to make people disappear, or a dozen other eminent customers?
So, why is the game like this? Why am I like this? Why do I always have to ruin things by making them weird and unsettling? There is (for once) a good reason:
The Reason Everything is Nasty:
One of the main inspirations for The Red Market is medieval bestiaries – those strange books put together in the Middle Ages that sought to chronicle all the weird and wonderful animals across the world. Animals like the lion – that fierce four-legged beast who hunts his prey upon the African savannah. Or the Satyrus – that species of ape that always gives birth to twins and always hates one of them and loves the other and that is definitely real. Or the Pelican – that long-beaked bird that rips its stomach open and feeds its chicks on its own blood in a mimicry of Jesus suffering for humanity’s sins.
In other words, medieval bestiaries are hardcore. They mix real animals with mythological ones, and then make up a bunch of fake stuff for the real ones. They slip in a bunch of explicit Christian allegory about leopards and pelicans. They tell you what parts of the Amphisbaena to cut off and wear to cure your arthritis (its skin). And they feature pictures of elephants drawn by a man who’s only ever heard his mate describe what elephants look like.
So I knew I wanted to make a game about exploring a huge, magical world and encountering strange creatures. But then I started thinking – what would it be like if these kinds of things were actually real? How would a modern soceity (or in the case of The Red Market – a mid 1800’s-inspired industrial-revolution-and-steamboats-and-drinking-sherry-in-one’s-parlour society) react to these magnificent creatures?
Well, how do we react to sharks? They’re pretty magnificent. Well, we’re terrified of them, and we hunt them so we can go to the beach without worrying about the statistically insignificant possibility of having them eat us. And some of us catch them, cut their fins off to make soup, and then throw them back into the ocean. How did we react to the bison? How did we react to the whale?
Basically, when we discover a new species we find out if they taste good, then we find out if we can make things out of them, then we find out if they’re fun to hunt, then if all else fails we find out if we can use their testicles to make us strong and good at sex.
In a world with genuinely magical creatures – as in the fantasy world I’ve been making up in my head while pretending to listen during meetings for the last few years – this kind of behaviour would just go into overdrive. Imagine if you could wear a crocodile’s skin to cure arthritis and it actually worked because magic. There would be no crocodiles left on the face of the earth.
I knew this would be an interesting premise for a game – a combination of sometimes majestic, sometimes terrifying beasts, and the mundane, grinding gears of a capitalist society that Literally Cannot Stop Growing, and will grind up and commodify anything it possibly can (please don’t leave angry comments telling me that communism would also hunt and sell imaginary animals).
I also knew I wanted to make something that allowed me to explore different ideas. Not just ideas like ‘wouldn’t it be horrid if a bunch of rats joined together into a grotesque parody of human form?’ or ‘aren’t fish weird?’, but ideas about society, and the way we as humans treat the world around us. Ideas that can be distilled into the concept behind a single monster, or spread out like sad marmalade over multiple slices of story. Ideas about overconsumption (did someone say semi-sentient fatbergs?), and the commodification of the trauma of others (get ready for angry ghosts). Ideas about the unhealthy, compulsive drive for novelty and distraction.
And about mundanity.
A Mundane Game About Mundane Things:
There’s a great quote that’s always swimming around the internet: ‘If humans could fly we would consider it exercise and never do it.’
Another way of looking at it is: ‘everything can become mundane’. The first time I flew in a plane it was awe-inspiring. Now I have to bring no less than four electronic devices when I fly long-distance or I will actually go mad. The first time someone ever saw an octopus they probably couldn’t stop panicking for days. Now we eat them like it’s nothing. The first time people saw a film of a train coming towards the camera it was revolutionary. Now there’s a man who literally eats metal, and could probably eat an entire train.
Obviously, ‘anything can become mundane’ isn’t great as elevator pitches go, but I think there’s something really valuable there. The intersection between the sublime and the mundane is weirdly fertile ground for storytelling. The incredible magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is, in part, incredible and hilarious and heartbreaking because of the muted, unsurprising reactions to outrageous things. I want to see if I can capture some of that value, and some of that humour.
In a world where magical beasts are real – and by now long since accepted as ordinary – how would the public react to a towering many-limbed beast on display at the zoological gardens? Awe? Nominal interest? Polite clapping and a stifled yawn?
So those are the main idea behind The Red Market – an exploration of weird folk stories and medieval Christ allegory pelicans and terrors from the deep. All these clashing with the mundane, grinding gears of a capitalist society that Literally Cannot Stop Growing. Hopefully sometimes it will make you laugh. Hopefully at other times it will make you shiver in utter revulsion (but in a good way). And hopefully at other times it’ll have something to say about the real world, though honestly a lot of time it’s just going to be collections of weird fantasy monsters that I made up because I think they’re cool (because deep down I’m still fourteen years old).