Indie game designers were refashioning the Regency long before Bridgerton

“Is Catherine Morland… East Asian?”

After saying this, Emily Kugler, my collaborator in all things Jane Austen and games, reread the dialogue text in Spiral Atlas’ Northanger Abbey. We were walking through the character customization of our protagonist, who could be Kit or Catherine Morland, male, female, or nonbinary. Our now-nonbinary protagonist “Kit” sported a jaunty top hat bedecked with flowers and a flowing, dress-like topcoat, somewhere between the femme dress or masculine suit also on offer. We were now being directed to decide whether we saw ourselves as “thin and awkward” or “lithe and delicate”; our skin “sallow and without colour” or “ethereal and golden,” hair “dark and lank” or “like a river of ebony.” The answers to these questions didn’t change the avatar, merely our perception of them. And it was at this point that Emily, who is East Asian/Japanese and uses she/they pronouns, wondered if game designer Spiral Atlas had chosen to alter the language in Austen’s novel.

Turns out, not exactly; the first option in each of the pairs is a direct quote from Austen’s first description of Catherine Morland as a child: “thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features.” What the game did was draw our attention to the ways in which, as Emily noted, “if you don’t presume whiteness,” the source text could be read to allow for a new vision of our young protagonist — one that allowed Emily to see herself in the Regency.

This was a moment of surprise and delight during our exploration of dozens of games set in the 18th an 19th centuries. What started as an early-pandemic pastime had become a full-on academic research project for both of us, with scholarly talks, articles, and classes. As we grabbed screenshots for our curious audiences, we were surprised to realize that only a small percentage of the games we played had visuals. For budgetary reasons, many games are text-based, with minimal art assets. Other games, like Austen Translation, are cartoonishly stylized, mimicking the satirical tone of the game.

When games attempt to more directly engage with Austen, things get less bright — and far more white. For a long time, Austen-inspired games, like film and TV adaptations of Austen and the Regency, generally tried to be “faithful” — which is to say, straight and white. That the actual Regency was often neither has only started to trickle into mainstream consciousness, though scholars have known it for decades. Even so, many games will either point to “authenticity” or budget constraints as justification for games with alabaster heroines and exclusively straight romance plots. The biggest-budget Austen game to date, the now-defunct MMORPG Ever, Jane (2016-2020), never allowed for customization of hair or skin tone, nonbinary avatars, or queer romance. Lead developer Judy Tyrer expressed a desire to make the game more diverse and with options for “discreet” gender and sexuality expansiveness, but the game shut down in December 2020 due to an ongoing lack of funding. Other games, like mobile game Regency Love (Tea for Three Studios) have deferred either broadening their romantic plot lines or the diversity of their characters until “later” — a moment that, for many games, never comes.

And so it’s been micro-budget indie games like Spiral Atlas’ that have led the way, anticipating by years the attempts at wider representation post-Bridgerton. While Northanger Abbey, its first Austen adaptation, does not have much character customization beyond gender and sexuality for Kit/Catherine and the Tilney siblings, all of the main characters are also represented (though sometimes subtly) as nonwhite. And Northanger Abbey has been joined by 18th and 19th-century-themed games like queer breakup simulator Inverness Nights, alt-universe interactive drama Herald, and romantic visual novel The Lady’s Choice that reenvisioned history and included multiracial casts and clothing designs that drew inspiration from beyond Britain or western Europe.

Four 2D animated characters dressed in formal attire all face forward in a screenshot from The Lady’s Choice, a visual novel. Text from the game’s narrator reads: “The man steps closer towards us, his stiff posture and countenance enough to make me uneasy myself.”
The Lady’s Coice
Image: Seraphinite

All of these games appeared before the visually diverse Austen RPG Good Society, or the recent TV adaptations of modern Regency romance series Bridgerton and Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Instead of reacting, these indie games are years ahead of mainstream pop culture.

In turn, still more Regency games with increased customization have begun to appear. Sye-Salong (“Sewing Salon”) is a Bridgerton-inspired browser game in English and Swedish that allows players to design their own 1820s-style empire-waisted gown, with period-appropriate patterns and trimmings, and place it on a customizable doll with Regency hairstyles and a range of skin tones (though, it should be noted, not a wide diversity of facial features).

In response to audience desire for still more customization — and more agency — Spiral Atlas’ latest Austen game, Pride or Prejudice, gives players additional options for their “lead” and “co-lead” characters including coloring, height, hairstyle, body type, clothing, accessories, and whether they are a wheelchair user.

Where Emily was able to see herself in Kit Morland, now many players can craft the leads of Pride or Prejudice to more closely see themselves in the Regency — a move that hopefully inspires many more such designs in the future.