Hidden Variable, the developers behind the indie fighting game Skullgirls, recently made a controversial announcement regarding a series of alterations to game content, sparking widespread backlash from the gaming community. These changes, aimed at toning down contentious game elements, were detailed by game director Charley Price, leading to numerous negative reviews on Steam.
Details of the Changes
The changes to Skullgirls focus primarily on three distinct areas:
- Elimination of allusions to real-world hate groups, particularly within the Black Egret army’s dress and iconography
- Reduction of situations in which characters, especially younger ones, are fetishized or sexualized
- Removal of content deemed in poor taste regarding racial sensitivity
According to Price, the imagery relating to the oppressive militant regime – embodied in the Renoir family and the Black Egrets – was deemed too uncomfortable, particularly given the continued existence of such hate groups today. References deemed problematic, such as Nazi-like red armbands and symbols, have been eradicated.
The issue of sexualized characters was addressed as well, with Price stating, “While Skullgirls is no stranger to characters that confidently express their sexuality, there are instances in the game where characters are fetishized and/or have sexualization imposed upon them.” He elaborated on this, including a few depictions of unwanted predatory behavior, particularly towards younger characters.
Impact on the Game’s Artwork and Narration
These sweeping changes have affected not only the game’s aesthetic but also its narrative arcs. Some scenes, such as the one where the cast is captured by Double, a shapeshifting nun, were altered to reduce unnecessary explicitness. The character Big Band also saw modifications, with all references to police violence being removed. The developers have also modified several in-game animations and story mode art, with a noticeable reduction in the sexual content of the scenes.
The aforementioned changes have been reflected in the Skullgirls “Content Updates and Revisions” patch, which was deployed on June 26, affecting PC, console, and mobile versions of the game. These revisions have also led to removing four pieces of fan art and modifying 15 official illustrations.
Despite the game director’s explanations, the gaming community has not received these decisions well. The game has been hit with over 600 negative Steam reviews within just 24 hours of the patch’s release. Many members of the Skullgirls community have raised concerns over what they see as censorship.
One disgruntled Steam user, Josefu, wrote, “Censoring a 12-year-old game… yeah, I’m not a fan. A massive shame. Part of Skullgirl’s identity, for the most part, was how confident, risque, and charming it was.”
Some players also pointed out that Skullgirls was initially crowdfunded, and they feel that the game they supported financially has been retrospectively altered without their consent.
The Developers’ Stance
Despite the wave of criticism, the developers stand by their decisions. Price reassures that the changes were made “following careful consideration and lengthy discussion amongst all members of the current development team.” He further stated, “We are confident that this will provide a more sound foundation for Skullgirls that we can all be proud of as we continue to grow and expand the universe in the years to come.”
The Path Forward
The revisions indicate Hidden Variable’s long-term commitment to the Skullgirls brand, reflecting a broader vision for the future of the game that aligns with current societal values. It could be seen as a strategic business decision, as a game teetering on the edge of the softcore may not fare as well in the mainstream as it does in indie spaces. It is clear that Hidden Variable is hoping to extend the Skullgirls franchise’s reach beyond its original scope.
However, it is also essential to remember that Skullgirls has always taken pride in its audacious and risque nature, which has appealed to its long-standing fan base. Hence, the push to “clean up” the game might leave early supporters feeling a sense of betrayal.
A Storied Development History
Skullgirls’ development history is storied and complex. Its original studio, Lab Zero, collapsed following inappropriate workplace behavior accusations against lead designer Mike Zaimont, who had publicly joked about George Floyd’s murder. This controversy resulted in the entire staff being laid off. Hidden Variable, the studio behind the mobile port, and Future Club, founded by ex-Lab Zero developers, now maintain the current version of Skullgirls. Zaimont is no longer involved with Skullgirls and has been working as a programmer on another game for the past two years.
What’s Next for Skullgirls?
The future of Skullgirls hangs in the balance as the developers navigate this complex landscape of maintaining the essence of the game while adapting to evolving societal values. The recent changes made to the game have left the community divided, with the developers’ vision clashing with long-time fans’ expectations.
The gaming industry will be watching closely as Skullgirls continues to evolve and redefine its identity in the coming years, setting an example—either positive or negative—for future developments in the realm of indie gaming.