Opinion: Escape from Tarkov’s problem isn’t inclusivity, it’s communication

As 2019 came to a close, something curious happened in the weeks leading up to the new year. Escape from Tarkov, a nearly three-year-old hardcore online shooter from Russian developer Battlestate Games, became the most-watched game on the Twitch streaming platform. All of a sudden, Escape from Tarkov, a niche survival/shooter title from a small and scrappy Russian team, had more combined Twitch viewers than juggernauts like Fortnite or League of Legends.

Unfortunately, with that newfound attention also came additional scrutiny. Ever since Tarkov’s 2016 launch, Battlestate has weathered a number of controversies, the most recent of which came as a result of Tarkov’s sudden surge in popularity. However, this latest controversy also ties directly into an incident from shortly after Tarkov’s initial debut, and it once again highlights an issue that Battlestate doesn’t seem interested in addressing:

The only thing more important than what you say is how you say it.

A Colorful Past

Escape from Tarkov is a niche title through and through, which is exactly why it’s been able to cultivate such a devoted following. The game’s ‘hardcore’ presentation (which includes elements such as realistic gun ballistics, a limb-specific injury system, in-depth gun customization, and hunger/thirst survival components) caters to a very specific crowd, and that crowd is clearly happy with what Tarkov offers. Thanks to a recent partnership with Twitch which enabled Twitch Drops for participating Escape from Tarkov streamers, that crowd suddenly got much, much bigger, leading to the aforementioned surge in viewership numbers.

But critics were quick to point out that over the past three years Battlestate’s vision of what Escape from Tarkov should be has been a little…problematic. Battlestate is very protective of Tarkov, to the point where, for the time being, you can only purchase the game directly through the studio’s website (a Steam version is in the works but has no solid release date). This guarded mentality also means Battlestate doesn’t engage with the press very often, but in 2016 it agreed to an interview with Wccf Tech.

During the interview, a member of Tarkov’s design team named Pavel Dyatlov was asked about the possible inclusion of playable female soldiers, to which he gave the following response:

“We came to the conclusion that women are not allowed to be in the war.”

When pressed on the subject, Dyatlov doubled down on his previous answer, even after the interviewer reminded him of how women in many different countries are currently serving in active combat roles:

“I can agree with you,” said Dyatlov, “and we discussed it for a very long time, but we came to the conclusion that women can’t handle that amount of stress. There’s only place for hardened men in this place.”

At the time of the interview, Dyatlov’s comments didn’t get much blowback. However, those same comments were soon brought to light in the wake of Tarkov’s newfound 2019/2020 popularity, and to its credit Battlestate attempted to address the issue via Twitter on January 6:

“Regarding the 3 years old article with points about women in EFT. The answers were done by one, not a key BSG employee which probably were misinterpreted and as a result didn’t reflect the official position of the company, that we always respected women in wars and military women.”

Of course, any hopes that Battlestate’s stance towards playable female soldiers had softened over the three-year interim were quickly dashed mere minutes later. A follow-up tweet from the studio confirmed that playable female soldiers are still off the table due to “game lore” and “the huge amount of work needed with animations, gear fitting, etc.”

Unreliable Narrator

Dyatlov’s 2016 comments were obviously concerning, but in some ways Battlestate’s 2020 Twitter responses just made the situation worse, not better. For example, Battlestate’s claim that Dyatlov’s words were somehow “misinterpreted” seems a bit silly given how clipped and curt all of his responses in the Wccf Tech interview were.

The idea that Dyatlov was also “not a key BSG employee” also rings a bit false since he was apparently doing fully playable demonstrations of Tarkov at Gamescom 2016 (where the Wccf Tech interview was conducted) and (we assume) had the authority to conduct interviews. For the sake of argument, however, we’ll go on faith that Battlestate is telling the truth in this instance (an addendum to the studio’s initial tweet claims that Dyatlov “was reprimanded and properly instructed” after the interview).

Dyatlov’s specific wording (such as using “we” instead of “I”) seems to infer that any discussions about playable female soldiers (as well as the ultimate decision against including them) were a team-wide undertaking, and yet Battlestate infers with its tweet that Dyatlov spoke out of turn and was merely expressing his own opinion. Also, Battlestate’s second tweet, in which it reiterates that Tarkov won’t be getting playable female soldiers, only hurts its case even more since history has proven that both of the excuses it offers are flimsy at best.

Just two years before Tarkov’s launch, Ubisoft tried to justify the lack of playable female Assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity by saying it would essentially require double the amount of work in regards to in-game visual assets, animations, and voices, an excuse that was quickly picked apart by other game development professionals, including former Ubisoft employees. Now, Battlestate is obviously not as big or as flush with resources as Ubisoft, but considering how female NPC models are already in Tarkov, it doesn’t seem as if adding in playable female avatars would be as big an undertaking as the studio makes it seem. Then again, I’ll admit I know very little about game development so I can’t speak with much authority on that front.

Battlestate’s other excuse, however, that female soldiers would somehow compromise Escape from Tarkov’s lore, is far harder to justify. After all, Battlestate created the lore, it’s the one holding the proverbial pen. If the studio suddenly decided that playable female soldiers are ok, there wouldn’t be any large lore-focused communities crying foul, the lore is whatever Battlestate and Battlestate alone decides that it is. If Battlestate wants to stick to its guns, that’s fine, but the studio really needs to stop pretending its hands are somehow irreversibly tied because of “game lore.”

A Clear Message

Battlestate’s uneven handling of the whole playable female soldiers issue makes it painfully obvious that the studio needs to step back and come up with a clear and direct stance on the issue. When the studio says stuff like “we respect military women” but then in the same breath also says how playable female soldiers are off the table because of “game lore,” that just makes the first statement come off as pandering rather than genuine.

Complete silence on the issue also isn’t a wise option at this point either. We all remember the veritable rage-storm that was unleashed when, after years of excluding playable women from its games (with nary an explanation to be given) DICE chose to add just such a feature to Battlefield V. The sexist belief that women don’t belong in war had somehow became a sort of unspoken reality for the Battlefield series, and when that reality was challenged the less-savory members of the Battlefield community came down with such violent fury that it nearly broke the internet (or at least Reddit).

The point of all this discussion is that Battlestate is free to take whatever stance it likes, it just needs to be clear about it. If the folks behind Tarkov honestly feel women don’t belong in war, that may be a problematic opinion but it’s one they’re entitled to. It’s understandable that Battlestate would want to conduct some sort of damage control (it does want to sell copies of its game after all), but so far said damage control has felt less like genuine discussion and more like unfocused hand-wringing.

Battlestate can’t make everyone happy, and it really needs to stop trying to. Saying something as simple as “we just don’t feel women belong in our game” would undoubtedly ruffle some feathers, but at least it’s a clear and direct stance. To be clear, everyone, be they man or woman, deserves to be properly represented, but if Battlestate doesn’t feel the same way there’s no point in pretending otherwise.