Indie studios are not your darlings when they’re toxic

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The past weekend has been a reminder that even the most celebrated indie studios and auteur darlings can still create toxic work environments rife with emotional abuse and unprofessional behavior.

Friday saw the release of a People Make Games expose that shines a light on toxic work environments and emotional abuse by leadership figures at three renowned indie studios–Mountains (Florence), Fullbright (Gone Home, Tacoma), and Funomena (Wattam). Almost simultaneously, a VentureBeat article dropped, detailing similar allegations at Moon Studios (Ori and the Will of the Wisps) centered around senior figures at the indie studio.

Indie darlings
Wattam was directed by Keita Takahashi, the creator of Katamari Damacy and was released by Funomena in 2019.

The jarring thing is that these stories of abusive workplace behavior aren’t about the usual suspects. These aren’t soulless corporate studios and brash techbros crunching their teams to dust, but “indie darlings” lauded for diversity and groundbreaking, emotional storytelling. There’s often an assumption that smaller, more intimate teams and the indie ethos make for a more diverse, healthy and supportive work culture. The recent allegations are an important reminder that this isn’t always the case.

The People Make Games video is a compelling watch, in which producer Chris Bratt details accounts of gaslighting, emotional abuse, a lack of personal and professional boundaries, and deeply unprofessional behavior from senior figures at each studio. Mountains’ Ken Wong, Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor, and Funomena’s Robin Hunicke built their reputations around emotional narrative and groundbreaking games. They received accolades for advocating a more diverse games culture. But these reputations were apparently at odds with their behavior inside their respective studios.

There are a ton of angles to explore in PMG’s expose but what struck me the most is how it highlights the dangers posed when a cult of personality is built around an auteur. It creates a reputational armor that makes it difficult to hold said auteur accountable for emotionally abusive and toxic behavior and glossed over for the sake of preserving the feel-good notion of an indie darling.

Indie darlings
Tacoma was Fullbright’s second game after their 2013 hit Gone Home. It received generally positive reviews but sold fewer copies.

These allegations are just the latest in an increasing number of stories that take the notion of a strong, dynamic creative figurehead pulling a team along in their wake and holds it up to critical light. Bad behavior among filmmakers, artists and game directors gets excused so often, at the expense of the unsung creative teams around them, that in general we’ve become more willing to hear these kinds of stories. But when that same abusive behavior and toxic power dynamics comes from indie darlings who are celebrated for championing a more positive work environment and a healthier games culture, we get blindsided.

Bratt relates how many former employees were drawn to studios like Funomena because of the diversity advocacy of studio leads like Robin Hunicke, or the important stories told through games like Fullbright’s “Gone Home”. Many of these employees then found it difficult to speak out about workplace toxicity and abusive behavior because of fears of not being believed because of these creators’ positive reputation, or concerns about tarnishing what they believe are important games (“Gone Home” being cited as an important touchstone for LGBTQ culture), or damaging the reputation of those whose advocacy these employees believe is important, such as Robin Hunicke’s push for more women in game dev and a more diverse industry.

“It’s made it very hard to bring these issues to light because I think [Robin Hunicke]’s a net positive good in the industry,” said one ex-Funomena employee. “She’s a strong advocate. I think her message is really positive and inspiring. But does it do more good than bad for her to continue to have that voice? Or is it better to do right by the people that have been hurt working with her?”

Bratt puts it succinctly: “…just because someone has worked on a title that is singularly gentle, it seems there’s a danger in assuming this means we can also expect them to be as gentle with their employees in their workplace.”

Indie darlings
Florence was released in 2018. It received praise for its highly engaging visual storytelling.

The feel-good indie darlings can be just as toxic and damaging as any auteur figure on a pedestal, and it’s a dangerous blind spot to have. A fixation on important creative leads obscures the work of entire teams, can lead to lasting harm, and drive aspiring artists and developers out of the industry they love. That’s true even when the problem individual is a celebrated advocate pushing for groundbreaking narratives and untold stories.

If we want a better games industry and a better games culture, we have to be ready to hold creators we love accountable.

Source: People Make Games