A lone woman flees into the woods, clinging tightly to a crying baby. She needs to put the child down in order to clear a path, but when she does a shadowy creature slowly make its way toward the baby — if she's too slow she'll lose the child to the shadows. That woman is Isaura, a fictional African slave in Brazil during the 1700s, and the protagonist of Thralled, an in-development game for iPad. "Slavery, as a legacy and an institution, is a topic that needs discussing," says lead designer Miguel Oliveira. "And we want to bring it up to discussion."
Thralled is just the latest in a recent wave of titles that aim to use gaming's interactive nature to teach players about sensitive subjects, whether it's rioting or the Holocaust. Initially, Thralled plays like a simplified platform game — you'll need to jump over gaps and move obstacles out of the way to progress. It's all fairly basic, except for the child in your arms. In order to perform most actions you'll need to first put the baby down. The second you do, the shadowy creature — which looks a whole lot like Isaura — will make its way over to snatch it up. This adds an incredible sense of tension to the game, as you only have a few brief moments of safety, a feeling Isaura would certainly have experienced after escaping the world of slavery. Later chapters involve more dreamlike puzzles, which chronicle Isaura's seeming descent into madness.
For Oliveira, who was born in Portugal, the game is a chance to teach players about a point in history he feels is underrepresented. "Barely did I learn about slavery in school," he says, "and barely do I see it represented in popular depictions of Portuguese history." The game started out as a project at the University of Southern California, but has since spawned something larger; the team is now looking to turn Thralled into a full-fledged commercial release. Like many developers, Oliveira believes that the interactive nature of games will help Thralled have even greater emotional resonance.
"A sense of empathy that can only be achieved with direct involvement."
"We have the potential to involve people in the subject and create a sense of empathy that can only be achieved with direct involvement," he says. "With Thralled, we want to try to encourage empathy for victimized people and thus heighten sensibility for others' suffering ... interactive media has the potential to change people, and yet this potential is mostly left unexplored. We want to make an effort in the way of exploring it." So far during testing, which has included a few students, these efforts have proved largely successful. "People have had strong emotional reactions, which makes me think that Thralled has the potential of teaching and getting people interested about this and related topics."
The version of Thralled that I played was a bit rough — some of the mechanics felt slightly clunky, and visual aspects like the menus were still just placeholders. It was also just three chapters long, whereas the final product will include four or five different chapters to play through. Adding those chapters, along with polishing the art and level design, is expected to take the team until sometime next year, at which point Thralled will finally be ready for release. "We think it's a story worth telling and experiencing," says Oliveira, "and we are willing to keep working our hardest on it until it's ready to be told and experienced."