Naphtali Faulkner admits to a degree of deception in the early promotional materials for his video game Umurangi Generation.
“It’s a little bit sinister, but … as the game started to progress, I said it’d be really cool to trick people with this,” Faulkner, a Ngāi Te Rangi game designer living in Australia, told Unreserved.
On the surface, it’s an upbeat game set in a cyberpunk version of Tauranga, New Zealand. Players take on the role of an unnamed delivery courier, making money on the side by taking photos with a chunky DSLR camera.
Gamers and press alike drew comparisons to the 2000 cult hit Jet Set Radio, which starred a crew of rebellious youths tagging Tokyo with graffiti.
But the game gradually reveals that it actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting: giant monsters are laying waste to human civilization, and the people have little hope for survival.
“With the first level, because it is very bright and upbeat and everything like that, the idea is to lull people into a sense of security and then gradually — not erode it — but start to get people to realize that it’s actually not [all] chill vibes as some people were led to believe,” explained Faulkner.
WATCH: Trailer for Urumangi Generation, set to music from 2Mello’s Memories of Tokyo-To, a Jet Set Radio tribute album.
Siege walls separate Turanga from the deceptively serene coast. Graffiti slogans mock the United Nations peacekeeping forces that have since moved in.
Smoky, reddish skies dominate many of the levels that take place in the daytime, taking direct inspiration from the recent bushfires that have ravaged Australia. And the word urumangi means “red sky” in Te Reo, the Māori language.
The monster attacks are a blunt allegory for the neoliberal socio-economic forces that Faulkner argues have only accelerated the effects of climate change around the world.
“The big crisis event that’s happening is that like, the equivalent of Godzilla is rocking up every day and destroying the world,” he said. “That’s the force like climate change that’s coming in. And you can’t deny that it exists.”
Umurangi Generation is one of five games featured at this year’s Night of the Indigenous Devs at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
The developers will show off their games, and discuss what it means being an Indigenous creator in the games industry over a video chat event, in lieu of a physical event this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous identity in video games
With Umurangi Generation, Faulkner set out to make a game with authentic Indigenous and particularly Māori representation — something he says has been lacking in the industry, especially with big-budget mainstream games.
“There was an Assassin’s Creed game a few years back, and it was, you know, you played as a Native American protagonist,” he recalled.
“It was good representation, everything like that. But what are you doing in it? Well, you’re essentially doing colonizing stuff.”
Released in 2012, Assassin’s Creed 3 was set during the American Revolution and featured Ratonhnhaké:ton, a.k.a. Connor, a half-English, half-Mohawk main character who mostly allied himself with George Washington and other well-known historical figures.
Instead of taking a “rubber stamp” approach to representation, as Faulkner describes it, Māori imagery and language permeate Umurangi Generation’s presentation.
Several levels are introduced with the Māori names for locations in New Zealand. In one level, players can see a traditional Manaia memorial with tributes to the dead, while drawings of koru spirals and huia feathers can be seen scrawled on the city walls.
Photography and respectful design
It’s not just the set design, either. The way you play the game takes cues from “respectful design,” an ethos introduced to him by Norman W. Sheehan, a Wiradjuri academic.
“It’s mainly that idea that knowledge exists outside your brain…. A designer doesn’t go to a place and come up with the answer. Actually, [the] community does,” said Faulkner.
“[It’s] just one way you can sort of action indigenous knowledge into a design space.”
As a result, Umurangi Generation eschews strict requirements for its photography objectives.
To progress through the game, the player is asked to take photos of several objects or features in a level.
“It might be something like: ‘Take a photo of seven birds.’ And there might be like 16 in the level. So it’s really up to you how you want to angle that,” he said.
Players can adjust their photos with different lenses, exposure or colour adjustments if they wish, but they won’t be graded along strict composition guidelines.
“We’re giving them [players] the agency to say that they’re the ones who are going to be able to play it how they want, and take photos in a way which really suits them,” he said.
Critical praise and ‘Indigenous resiliency’
Umurangi Generation has received wide praise since it launched on gaming consoles and PCs in May.
“Not only is the game a realization of our anxieties about our current, looming future, it’s also a powerful evocation of the corporatist state that threatens to overrun our lives, and a startling statement of resistance against them,” wrote Gamespot’s Khee Hoon Chan.
ImagineNATIVE’s digital and interactive coordinator Melissa Johns said the festival was first drawn to the game’s colourful aesthetic, but then recognized its characters and themes expressed a strong sense of “Indigenous resiliency.”
“You’re traveling through this burned-out husk of a city, but nobody seems especially bothered by it. You know, you’re working through it. You’re getting by,” she said.
“The world has thrown something kind of really horrible at you, but the message isn’t bleak, we found.”
Faulkner hasn’t let the accolades slow his momentum. The game will be available on Nintendo’s Switch console later this year, and an additional episode titled Macro is set to launch around the same time.
His two-pronged approach continues with Macro. Fans reacted with delight when they learned it will add roller skates and graffiti to the game, drawing even more comparisons to Jet Set Radio.
But he says he plans to delve even more explicitly into themes of climate change denial, and the dangers of neo-liberalism and fascist politics in ways that the player will not be able to ignore.
“Players are going to walk through this space, and it’s all there to begin with. It was never not there. It’s just the idea that players become positioned to see what’s going on,” he said.
“And once they do see what’s going on, once they are positioned in that space, they can’t unsee it.”
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kyle Muzyka.