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How A Small Video Game Narrative Studio Wound Up At The Heart Of A Massive, Anti-Woke Conspiracy Theory

Sweet Baby Inc doesn't even remotely do what many think it does, but on the modern internet, that doesn't matter

Sweet Baby

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s a shadowy cabal that’s somehow equal parts diabolically omnipotent and comically incompetent. An entire segment of society dangles from their fingertips, held up by puppet strings so thin as to be almost invisible. It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as conspiracy theories ranging from the Illuminati to Pizzagate and QAnon. Now conspiratorially-minded gamers have added a new one to the heap: Sweet Baby Inc.

Sweet Baby is a 16-person narrative development and consultation studio that aims to “tell better, more empathetic stories while diversifying and enriching the video games industry” and “make games more engaging, more fun, more meaningful, and more inclusive, for everyone.” Since its founding in 2018, it’s worked with a wide range of high-profile clients including Sony, Xbox, Remedy, and Rocksteady on games like God of War: Ragnarok, Spider-Man 2, Alan Wake II, and Suicide Squad, as well as indies like Goodbye Volcano High

Nobody outside the industry cared until late last year, when users on sites like 4chan, KiwiFarms (yep, they’re still around), and Gamergate subreddit r/KotakuInAction (yep, they’re also still around) – incensed by developments like the presence of Saga Anderson, a Black woman, in Alan Wake II – took notice of Sweet Baby’s involvement with multiple big games. This suggested to them that companies were letting a diversity-focused firm take the wheel on writing, resulting in games that played it too “safe” and felt homogenous, which is rich when your fundamental argument is that there aren’t enough white characters in games anymore. 

From there, the conspiracy theory metastasized. Sweet Baby, users not just on the aforementioned sites but also Twitter and YouTube began to suggest, was ruining games with its woke agenda, which is why Suicide Squad (but conspicuously none of the other triple-A hits I just mentioned) flopped. People claimed Sweet Baby was weaponizing a culture of fear and intimidation, bullying otherwise apolitical studios into accepting its terms. This line of thinking led to the formation of numerous anti-Sweet Baby initiatives, including a Discord (which Kotaku’s Alyssa Mercante gamely braved) and a Steam Curator page called “Sweet Baby Detected” that lists every game in which Sweet Baby has been involved and advises players to steer clear. In the past handful of days, that page has jumped from around 40,000 followers to over 200,000 after calls from Sweet Baby staff and game developers to report the account, as well as videos from big content creators like YouTuber SomeOrdinaryGamers and OTK founder Asmongold that credulously platformed the conspiracy’s ideas and ringleaders. Predictably, all of this has resulted in ample harassment of Sweet Baby employees.

Steam

But why have Sweet Baby’s supposed intimidation tactics brought the industry to its knees? That’s where the conspiracy theory – by necessity – had to go big. Some have come to believe that Sweet Baby’s services were being forced on developers by corporate overlords obsessed with DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives, which in turn were born of a desire to secure ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) investment from gargantuan firms like Blackrock and Vanguard. Yeah, that Blackrock, which does actually invest in companies like Microsoft, EA, and Take Two. And so, by that logic, you can also attribute a significant portion of recent video game industry layoffs to Sweet Baby, since those layoffs stemmed from trouble in the investment sector – and you’d better believe that conspiracy theorists did. So now people are running around suggesting that Blackrock indirectly or directly controls a tiny narrative studio, which in turn controls the video game industry. 

It’s a conspiracy theory that checks all the boxes: It conveniently explains pretty much everything happening right now, ties it back to organizations of which people are understandably suspicious, links it to a much larger ongoing panic (DEI), validates preconceived notions like “go woke, go broke,” sprinkles in a few kernels of truth regarding powerful interests, and – most importantly – provides a clear and identifiable enemy. It’s also almost entirely bullshit. 

While the Sweet Baby conspiracy theory has picked up steam among larger content creators in recent weeks – leading to trending topics on Twitter and millions of views on YouTube – many of those who’ve propagated it over the past few months demonstrably have no idea how game development works. For example, depending on who you talk to, one of the main things Sweet Baby did on Spider-Man 2 was dot its digital reimagining of New York City with Pride flags. That is not what any consulting firm does, especially not one that specializes in writing.

"We worked on Spider-Man 2 for about three years, and our focus was on story – the overall story, characters from Pete to Kraven to Harry to Miles,” Sweet Baby CEO Kim Belair told Aftermath. “I think that's reflective of the shape of this whole thing: the assumption will always be that our focus is going to be on DEI, but the reality often is that we do more narrative work."

On Spider-Man 2, members of Sweet Baby were “embedded” in the game’s development team for those three years and helped write and rewrite numerous character arcs alongside the game’s team. 

"We did a lot of rounds on the treatments,” said Belair, referring to the game script’s synopses. “We came in, we looked at certain levels, certain ways to better accomplish the goals of the project. In the end, especially in the last sequences of the game, there's a lot of stuff that we changed and figured out. None of it was related to diversity or anything like that. It was literally about 'What is the best Spider-Man story we can tell?'"

But that's not really an interesting answer, right? Then [conspiracy theorists] have to figure out how game dev works, to understand that the pipeline to put a Pride flag in a game is actually quite different from the pipeline to adjust a character's sexuality.

Suicide Squad, the failure of which conspiracy theorists bafflingly chalk up foremost to Sweet Baby’s involvement and not, you know, everything else about it, was a different story. This is because a consulting firm like Sweet Baby takes on different tasks to meet the needs of specific projects, which are dictated by those heading up said projects. Grant Roberts, who served as lead writer at Rocksteady from 2019-2021 before doing a stint at another studio and then joining Sweet Baby in 2023, told Aftermath that Sweet Baby didn’t even come aboard Suicide Squad until the story was already locked in. By that point, Rocksteady mostly just needed Sweet Baby to help punch up background elements of the game’s script and make the world feel more alive. 

"On Suicide Squad, we wrote a lot of dumb barks for the world – a bunch of gags,” concurred Belair. “But that's not really an interesting answer, right? Then [conspiracy theorists] have to figure out how game dev works, to understand that the pipeline to put a Pride flag in a game is actually quite different from the pipeline to adjust a character's sexuality, and so on. There's so many different aspects of it. It's easier to just imagine: 'The company I want to keep shadowy and mysterious did the bad thing.'”

"It's funny watching the shapes that people will twist themselves into,” said Roberts, “to be like 'Well, Sweet Baby is only a DEI place; they only do sensitivity reads' if it applies to this game that has a Black character, but over here [they believe] Sweet Baby obviously wrote the entire story for Suicide Squad. You're wrong about everything."

Sometimes, Sweet Baby, as an extension of its narrative work, is asked to aid in matters of diversity and representation. Alan Wake II is one such example. The firm did not – contrary to what has become popular belief, because we live in hell – turn Saga Anderson Black. Like most of the game’s award-winning narrative, that idea came from a bunch of Finnish guys (game director Kyle Rowley backed this up on Twitter). Understandably, developers working on Alan Wake were concerned that they might have a blind spot or two and decided to enlist Sweet Baby’s services. 

Video game, TV, and film companies seek out sensitivity readings and cultural consultants for reasons like this all the time. It is neither unusual nor surprising. Still, those who’ve taken the conspiracy’s bait refuse to accept this because a cornerstone of their underlying ideology is that nobody actually cares about diversity – that it’s being Trojan-horsed into games by a conniving cadre of opportunistic interlopers. 

"The idea has been pushed several times that we are the reason [Saga] is Black, because they can't fathom that Remedy might want that for themselves, right?” said Belair. “That they might have made that decision, written this character, given her an amazing story, and then come to us to go 'Hey, we want to make sure this rings true. Are there aspects of the story that are not serving this character or feel incongruous with her background?'"

God of War: Ragnarok is another example of Sweet Baby’s more representation-focused work: Angrboda, who is Black, exists in a world that does not share the racial history of America or other real-world nations. Members of Sweet Baby, alongside the game’s narrative team, had to figure out how to weave in threads that would resonate with players who looked like Angrboda while also respecting the game’s setting. 

"In the game she is not necessarily a Black character, because Black does not mean the same thing in a fictional universe that it means in the real world,” said Belair. “There are a lot of things culturally that you might see that are part of a fraught history, where you don't want to accidentally reference real-world things in a way that feels too casual. But you also don't want to erase a perspective just because you are writing a fantasy world. So it's about finding that little space for it."

YouTube

Sweet Baby and God of War’s narrative team found that space in concerns that the studio had around Angrboda’s place in the story of Atreus, Kratos’ son. 

"[Angrboda] kind of struggles in the story with [this idea of] 'Am I part of someone else's story?'” said Belair. “Initially the team had concerns about whether that was something they should be exploring, because it does feel like sidelining. Our thought was actually to lean into that, lean into that concern and make it a part of her character, because it is better for her to acknowledge it and have some agency than to pretend [that's not the case] and have it accidentally look as though the studio is just sidelining her.”

Despite the now commonly-held belief that Sweet Baby sands the edges off games it comes into contact with, Belair said that, as with God of War, Sweet Baby often encourages studios to do the opposite.

"We'll say, 'You’ve kind of gone too safe on this.’ When teams don't have representation on the team, they add some diversity [to a game], but they're a little bit nervous about making that character too edgy because they're so worried about being offensive,” said Belair. “Often we'll come in and go 'Don't worry about it. Let's find ways to tell that story.' ... We're not here to make games more boring or censored. Bringing in more perspectives allows you to push the envelope."

But if this whole thing was purely about what Sweet Baby does or does not do on a per-game basis, the conspiracy wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as big. It’s blown up because of its invocation of the wider DEI panic, which suggests that diversity is being shoehorned into schools, companies, and the government as a result of nefarious financial incentives and at the cost of meritocracy. The broader goal, anti-DEI crusaders say, is to indoctrinate a generation and control the masses (because when isn’t it?). This thinking is why it doesn’t take long for panics like this – including the Sweet Baby conspiracy – to attract people who throw around terms like “(((them)))” and trade in not-so-thinly veiled antisemitism.  

Republican lawmakers in over 30 states have attempted to curtail companies’ ability to implement DEI programs with things like the hilariously-named, Ron DeSantis-backed “Stop Woke Act,” which a federal appeals court recently blocked. DEI was also at the heart of former Harvard president Claudine Gay’s recent resignation from her post following a bad-faith congressional hearing about campus antisemitism (that she nonetheless could have handled better) and flimsy accusations of plagiarism. The anti-Gay movement’s most powerful ringleader, hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, proclaimed that DEI was the real root cause of Harvard’s problems immediately after Gay’s ousting. (Then his wife got hit with actually-credible plagiarism accusations, and he didn’t like that very much.)

The reality of DEI is both simpler and more complex than the right-wing panic makes it out to be. At DEI’s core is the idea that in a society with deeply ingrained structural biases, simply avoiding active discrimination against marginalized people is not enough. DEI programs tend to focus on organizational matters like training, policies, and culture, which per ABC, could mean “implementing accessibility measures for people with disabilities, addressing discriminatory hiring practices and pay inequity, holding anti-bias trainings, and more.” Companies also, of course, do this in service of capital: Research shows that diverse workforces are more profitable, and a multi-billion-dollar industry has sprung up around consulting and initiatives. DEI is an intuitive-enough guiding principle, but research suggests that the implementation needs a lot of work. Some types of anti-bias training, for example, can actually reinforce people’s biases, and it’s generally difficult to change people’s views and values with short-term interventions. DEI is often different – and less effective – than putting marginalized people in actual positions of power or funding businesses run by marginalized people.

But where the panic around DEI is concerned, little of that matters. At this point, “DEI” is largely a scare word, just like “woke,” “critical race theory,” and countless other terms that have descended into the murky waters of meaninglessness. These words are so loosely applied that, despite conspiracy adherents’ claims, Sweet Baby isn’t even a DEI firm. 

“We're a narrative consultancy,” said Belair. “We're not in charge of placements, we're not in charge of building teams. We don't get reached out to like 'How should we hire people?'"

Again, though, the truth is immaterial here. In the face of contradictory evidence, the conspiracy contorts into a wild new shape to maintain the structural integrity of its core. That’s where multi-trillion-dollar investment companies like Blackrock and Vanguard enter the picture. The basic – and, to be clear, hilariously incorrect – thinking is that these and other investment firms have rules around discrete ESG (again, environmental, social, and governance) funds that focus on diversity, so companies bring on Sweet Baby to add diversity to their games in order to court life-changing investment sums. Because of this connection, Sweet Baby is able to wield outsized influence and – per one clip from a 2019 GDC talk Belair gave that’s been taken massively out of context – “terrify” high-profile game studios into submission. 

I would be surprised if there were any criteria such as 'In a video game, what's the relative screen time or character avatar concentration around ethnicities?' They're not going down to the individual product level with these companies.

Once again, that is just not how anything works. It’s true that Blackrock and Vanguard rank among the top shareholders in companies like Microsoft, EA, and Take-Two. But ESG – or any kind of premeditated investment – is absolutely not the reason why.

"One of the primary stores of wealth in this country is moms and pops putting their retirement and their savings into [exchange-traded funds], typically the S&P 500 or the NASDAQ,” video game investor, producer, and author Matthew Ball told Aftermath. “When folks talk about Vanguard or Blackrock being the largest shareholder, they happen to be one of if not the largest shareholders in nearly every company ... in every airline, every hotel company, every oil and gas company, every gaming company. Because when a regular household wants to put $1,000 into the S&P 500, they buy that from Vanguard, and then Vanguard buys a percentage of the top 500 companies in America. That tends to include all of the major game publishers." 

Ball went on to explain that the whole point of firms like Blackrock and Vanguard is to avoid taking a principled stance or position. They buy a percentage of top companies, which is based on a calculation from S&P – not some kind of larger, ideologically-motivated plan. "They don't take board seats, they don't meet with management, they don't express perspectives," Ball said.

Blackrock, Vanguard, and their ilk do offer ESG packages – or they have, in the case of Blackrock, which recently scrapped the approach. These are intended to make ESG operations desirable to companies. So basically, you, a normal person or a big-spending investor, invest your money, and Blackrock or Vanguard spreads it out across various company stocks designated as ESG. But there are two glaringly large issues with the theory that a narrative consulting firm like Sweet Baby could factor into any of this: First off, while the conspiracy-addled mob is correct that Vanguard and Blackrock create rules and restrictions around which companies qualify for ESG investment, these tend to focus on equal employment opportunities – where diversity is even concerned at all. Other ESG concerns are broader: a company’s natural resources and land usage, conservation efforts, transparency around board rights, executive pay that’s not completely out of control, and other things of the like. 

"I would be surprised if there were any criteria such as 'In a video game, what's the relative screen time or character avatar concentration around ethnicities?'” said Ball. “They're not going down to the individual product level with these companies."

The other issue, Ball explained, is that the ESG-related funds of companies like Blackrock and Vanguard are an itsy bitsy slice of their overall pie. There’s around $8.2 billion in Vanguard’s ESG fund, for example, whereas it has over a trillion dollars in general market holdings. 

"For all intents and purposes, it's an immaterial ESG weight relative to the rest of it,” said Ball. “And in those others, they have no criteria whatsoever. It's just ‘Are you in the top 500?’"

There are legitimate concerns around ESGs, just as there are with DEI. It’s not difficult for oil companies to qualify for ESG investment, despite “environmental” being the first letter of the acronym. Meanwhile, if we’re talking investment in general, research shows that it’s failing marginalized game developers to a pretty remarkable degree.

But again, that’s not really the point of any of this. Very few people who believe the Sweet Baby conspiracy – perhaps zero – will read the above facts and come away with their minds changed, because conspiracies are designed to metamorphose endlessly. This one in particular already has on several occasions, and it will likely continue to do so until its primary propagators get bored. But we’re talking about many of the same names that stewarded Gamergate forward back in the day – specifically the ones who failed to use it as a stepping stone to bigger stages and have been hunting feverishly for something like this ever since – and they seem to be having a great time playing the hits (gamers vs media, gamers fighting back, etc).

On top of that, platforms like YouTube and Twitter incentivize leaning into the drama of the week, giving it larger-than-life moral stakes when creators are mostly just digging their heels in. So now some of the creators to whom this conspiracy has filtered up are on their second round of videos, reacting to interviews Sweet Baby has done this week while maintaining similar stances despite contradictory information. It's banal to say at this point, but on YouTube, a compelling narrative matters far more than accuracy. As long as the views keep coming in, this process will continue. All of that is to say, we're probably going to be here a while.

Reddit

Sweet Baby’s team recognizes that, and they’ve made their peace with it.

"If folks want to believe in a conspiracy theory, that's kind of what they're going to do,” said Belair. “They're always going to find a reason to think that we're not telling the truth or that we are shadowy or mysterious, or that we're so powerful that we're able to just torpedo ourselves onto a project and make everything change. But I think what I'm glad for is that it gives us a little space to say, well, here's what we actually do. Because I think what we do is kind of cool." 

Sweet Baby COO David Bedard is especially proud of what the company has accomplished in an industry where layoffs and reshufflings break up teams even at times when it doesn’t seem like the entire industry is in freefall. The company has built a small, independent team that can stick together between projects and maintain a creative rhythm.

"I think [what we do] is especially important to talk about in a world where most teams that ship a game get broken up or laid off or shuffled around internally,” Bedard told Aftermath. “Our goal is to keep a team together – to keep a writers’ room, a team of people who are really good at writing and narrative development. We can do a thing and then move on to another game and go 'Remember that thing? We can do something like that again' or 'We can use some of those learnings to avoid doing that thing again.'"

Belair says that the Sweet Baby team has endured “a lot” of attempted doxxings (which thankfully have not escalated to any serious degree) as well as all manner of other mob tactics, but so far, their business hasn’t suffered. They believe this is because, unlike when Gamergate first popularized many of the tactics now depressingly employed by every online movement, the video game industry has become pretty used to this kind of thing. It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not good for anybody’s mental health, but it doesn’t cause people and companies to run for the hills, either. On the contrary, many have stuck around to help.

“We have people that we know and trust – that have been through this kind of thing and helped us be more safe in terms of treatment and prevention,” said Roberts.

"Our clients have been enormously supportive, often because they have been targeted by the same groups in the past,” said Belair. “I caught up with some of the Insomniac folks, and they were talking about 'Oh yeah, people attack our studio all the time for wokeness. People will come at us and tell us we've done this or that wrong.’ It's misinformation that's very obvious to anyone who does work in games. It’s visible online all the time, but it's nice to remember that it's very separate from the real day-to-day work that we do."

"We're all in this sometimes-terrible industry together,” said Bedard.

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