Shawn Alexander Allen on making a “power fantasy for the oppressed”
NuChallenger’s Treachery in Beatdown City begins with the mysterious kidnapping of President Blake Orama. Your mission? Rescue the chief of state from Ninja Dragon Terrorist while facing a slue of horrible people in close contact fights. At first glance, it sounds like the story of a typical side-scrolling beat-’em-up, but Allen’s ode to retro brawlers is a subversion of what you’d expect from games like Double Dragon or Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, where the heroes try to save a character based on Ronald Regan.
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First, Beatdown City allows you to build your own combos during battle with a turn-based system similar to early Final Fantasy titles. Second, there’s a deeper message in the characters, interactions and even backdrop of the game. The matches you face are with disgruntled police officers, entitled hipsters and outspoken racists in the mean streets of East Fulton, a city mirroring a gentrifying New York City. Also, the game doesn’t just lift its scenery from the city that never sleeps, but intentionally displays its best features, like its innate multiculturalism, helpful bystanders and even healing Halal Carts. The characters also reflect the diversity of NYC, something Allen saw missing from protagonists in similar games. Lisa Santiago is a Puerto Rican boxing street fighter and daughter of a police chief, Brad Steele is a Mexican wrestler who runs a community centre, and Bruce Maxwell is a Jamaican Capoeira fighter who also day trades.
“We wanted to make the best beat-’em-up possible,” Allen tells NME over a video call. However, as he attempted to make the game they ran into multiple issues. “I was actually heartbroken because it wasn’t working. I was trying to build it in GameMaker and that wasn’t working. Then, I had an idea in the shower”. Allen remembers that moment vividly, and how the N64 game Hybrid Heaven changed his approach to creating the game. “It was about aliens taking over the government, but it had all these fights that had a turn base element to it,” he says. You could go around the other person, so if you went for a right jab and the person dodged left they would miss. I wanted to make a game like that, one that had complexity but that wasn’t complex.” He’d also been playing “a lot of Street Fighter 5” and that inspiration mingled with wresting characters from games like FirePro Wrestling World.“The characters in that game change their behaviour based on their health and there’s even a button you have to push to get your breath back,” he says, noting he also wanted to create characters you had to “get to know and pay attention to” in order to play successfully. “We ended up making this weird wrestling, fighting, beat-’em-up RPG where you have to get to know your opponent,” Allen says, and despite any setbacks, NuChallenger made it happen.
Treachery in Beatdown City may have only come about thanks to Allen’s 22 years in the industry, working at big-name developers like Rockstar Games. However, what inspired the game itself is Allen’s own life growing up Black in New York City. “I got profiled on my way home from working on this game,” he tells NME. “I was a block away from my train and had a button-down shirt on and a backpack leaving my office.” The police told him they were looking for a suspect that fit his description but once they realised it wasn’t him they let him go with a warning: “don’t ever call us if you need anything”. “Like I ever would,” Allen says with a laugh. Comedy has been a way for the developer to distill the frustration he’s experienced in the gaming industry and in the world into something manageable and tangible, it’s why so much of the dialogue in Treachery in Beatdown City is comical, though the subject matter veers dark and political. “It’s a game [with a message] but we’re not trying to jam anything down. We’re just trying to make a piece of art that’s fun to play,” Allen says.
“It’s a game [with a message] but we’re not trying to jam anything down. We’re just trying to make a piece of art that’s fun to play”
Allen’s ability to mix levity with what could be seen as painful experiences, is one of the key differentiators between the game and its counterparts. “If I had just paid attention to previous video games, the cops wouldn’t have been bad in [Treachery in Beatdown City],” he says. “Initially Lisa having a dad that’s a cop was an ‘80s throwaway storyline. But then it became her actually asking why cops have so much access to information and why they’re in this surveillance state”. As they ironed out the details, building each character’s storyline and the entire plot, the goal of the game began to shift. “It was like we’re not just making a video game anymore,” he says. “We’re making a dark comedy. It plays out like a power fantasy for the oppressed.” Still, many people who play the game have mixed reviews of the shifted power dynamic.
“I think it confuses people sometimes. I’ve seen comments where they’re like, ‘the language is inappropriate,’ and I don’t actually even get that close to the things we could have actually said in the game,” Allen says. “But, I’ve also seen Black folks look at this and say, ‘Oh, I get to fight a racist. This is great!’.
The game is expected to be released on Xbox sometime in 2023, and Allen hopes that will boost its popularity and hopefully shift the conversation around not only the game, but him. “I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I’ve seen all the bullshit,” he says, before explaining that the “bullshit” has been a driving factor for him to impact change and push for diversity in an industry that is predominantly white and male, he still wants to be celebrated not just for his race but his work. “I’ve been on this road of redemption for myself where I just want to talk about design,” he says, noting the multiple speaking engagements and interviews he’s been invited to since the game dropped in 2020, just months before the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I just never want to get booked for diversity ever again or opinions about that,” he says. “It’s important to me but also I’m way beyond that. Having a voice is important but I also think all Black creators should be allowed to just be creators. At [Game Developers Conference] this year I got to give a meaningful combat talk and it was packed.”
Speaking of meaningful combat, another highlight of Treachery in Beatdown City is how the game’s enemies interact with each other. “You start seeing gentrification play out when Lisa the lone, dark-skinned Puerto Rican woman, now has to fight a light-skinned Latina who’s a cop and aligns with the State,” Allen says. “Then there’s Heather, a socialite who also aligns with the State because she fits the status quo. She’s the yelling person in your neighbourhood who wants to touch your hair but when you yell at her not to, she tells the cops you’re harassing her.” The dynamics also create a “funny loop” in the game. “If you don’t deal with the socialite, the cops get even more powerful because there’s someone on their side to egg them on,” Allen says. “But if you try to get rid of the cop before the other person they’re going to keep benefiting them and giving them more HP so that’s going to be harder.”
Though his debut game continues to garner praise and cult success, Allen has zero interest in being pigeonholed, so the next NuChallenger release may be nothing like the purposefully nostalgic, NES-era-esque pixelated Treachery in Beatdown City. He will however, continue his mission of “making games that challenge oppressive systems” while continuing to push for an industry that isn’t just focused on diversity but equity. “People ask, ‘Why are you doing this, what’s your goal?’,” he says. “My answer is always a games industry with more Black people doing better”.
Treachery in Beatdown City is out now for Mac, Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. Treachery in Beatdown City: ULTRA REMIX is coming soon.