Issue 005 Winter 2023 Essays

Dreaming of a Postcolonial Video Game

Imagine a world with no leveling-up system, no power to be mastered.

By Kambole Campbell

From Sable (2021), courtesy of Shedworks.


Consider the genre of open-world video games.


Let’s zoom in on ones based around exploration and player freedom. As someone who grew up playing Halo, a military, sci-fi, first-person shooter known for its mixture of running, gunning, and driving through wide-open alien environments, the power-driven appeal is plain to see; it’s the fantasy of playing an uncontestable super-soldier fighting the good fight. Over time, though, it’s become hard to ignore how much the designs of games like Halo and its contemporaries—first-person shooter games, open-world games, and beyond—are rooted in colonial ideals. It’s easy to create distance when playing something like Halo because of its outlandish setting, and less so in games that pursue gritty realism, placing you in a digital facsimile of the real world, gamifying drone strikes in queasily fascist fantasy. While genre fiction allows a step of removal from such discomfort, there are often few ways to interact with a game world other than through violence, at least in the mainstream of video games anyway.

Such games are concerned with conquering supposedly barren land, its denizens, more often than not, merely obstacles in your path to doing so. But this isn’t a condemnation of the player, as it’s not simply the player’s actions that makes things this way. Contemporary game writing is equally attached to real systems of globalist exploitation, starting with their perspectives.1 In games that don’t allow for character creation and customization, the player will typically play a white Anglo American (and even when customization is possible, players like myself will struggle—hair options for Black characters are notoriously terrible, for starters2).

The colonialist impulse in video games isn’t limited by genre; it includes a wide range of games, from the real-time strategy3 game series Civilization to the more overtly named Age of Empires, which gamifies conquering and resource grabbing. Even Animal Crossing: New Horizons,4 a seemingly innocuous social simulation game, joins the likes of Monster Hunter: World, where “the world is a bounty.”5 Open-world action games like these make the power fantasy more direct.


From Sable (2021), courtesy of Shedworks.
From Sable (2021), courtesy of Shedworks.

So, while it’s not an ironclad rule that open-world games have to be thoroughly colonialist in nature, it remains commonplace, thanks to the industry’s overall homogeneity. In a recent interview with NME, writer Meghna Jayanth, who has contributed to anti-colonialist games like Sable and 80 Days, notes that the same stories become told in the same style—in service of colonialist, capitalist, and even fascist ideals—because of a closed loop of influence, the creation of a shared “canon” of what makes a good game: “The gaming industry in particular is defined by Anglo-American forces. . . . There are gatekeepers for creative work and who gets funding, how that’s dispensed, and who is considered a safe pair of hands. These people become increasingly more powerful as [the industry] is increasingly being consolidated too.”6

Some games attempt a more critical view of colonialism but don’t eschew it altogether. For example, Brendan Keogh flags Far Cry 2 as a solid meta-deconstruction of colonialist open-world mechanics as it complicates the usual satisfactions of its gameplay tropes—guns jam, you have to constantly pause to take malaria pills and dig bullets out of wounds; everything is slowed and punishing.7 Its follow-up, Far Cry 3, attempts something similar, by exaggerating the typical power fantasy to a vulgar extreme in an attempt to be self-aware: the American tourist, epitomizing bro culture, ends up in the middle of a civil war on an island in Asia and takes on the role of white savior, with very mixed results.8

This prompts the question: are there postcolonial games out there, in content and form at least? What might a postcolonial game look like? And how might exploration games handle exploration?


From Sable (2021), courtesy of Shedworks.

On first thought, these games might look something like Sable. The failure of colonialism is the departure point for this game, set on the desert planet Midden, long after a prior civilization’s failure to terraform it. That collapse leads to a new nomadic culture; the masks all the characters wear to protect them from toxic air are also of great spiritual significance. Developed by Daniel Fineberg and Gregorios Kythreotis of Shedworks, Sable is a meditative game full of soft colors and lines, its hand-crafted, Mœbius-inspired art complimented by a gentle score composed by Michelle Zauner of the band Japanese Breakfast. What’s most striking about Sable is how it frames open-world exploration first and foremost as a coming-of-age pilgrimage. It encourages its eponymous teenage protagonist (through whom players explore the game), to learn about the wider world. Sable’s journey ends with choosing her vocation via one of the masks she has picked up along her travels while befriending various nonplayer characters (NPCs), planetary fauna and humans alike. Down to the smallest details, it’s more a game about finding community than settlement. For example, the abandoned colony ships are named for London’s council housing projects (also called social housing). Perhaps these ships are digital protests, a recognition of the modern-day abandonment of the British government’s utopian ideals that led them to build subsidized housing like London’s Trellick Tower or the Barbican Estate in the 1960s to 1970s. These attempts have now been left behind, with its social housing units sold to wealthier owners and those modern-day land barons, private landlords—all thanks to Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” scheme in the early 1980s.9

While nonviolent open-world games already exist in mainstream and indie spaces and have for a long time, Sable is striking in the way it pulls from traditional combat-system games while presenting a pacifist alternative. It borrows some gameplay mechanics from numerous higher-budget peers, most overtly The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, complete with its “climb anything” approach. Although, unlike The Legend’s Link, who is a cipher for the player, Sable herself has a perspective, with thoughts formed independently of the player. The game takes popular modes of exploration—climbing towers to observe the map, hunting for collectibles, and completing riddles in hidden tombs—and eschews combat. In Sable, the story progresses solely through exploration, discussion, and puzzle solving. There is no leveling-up system, no power to be mastered. There’s no need: people live in harmony in spaces, living nomadically rather than putting down permanent roots or pushing out any inhabitants. In Sable’s journey in the game, she learns different ways she can contribute to the world. Even with the game’s futuristic, technological spin on nomad culture, she and her peers hold a spiritual relationship with their gliding bikes. The harmoniousness of the narrative only begins to fray with the appearance of the imposing, walled-off city Eccria, an exception to the rest of the populace’s nomadic philosophy, which more closely mirrors human society as it was, complete with its own prison. Glimpsing such an oppressive system, separated from the rest of human civilization, lends a somewhat fatalistic air to the world that the writers have built in Sable. Eccria in particular shows a surviving sliver of the capitalist and colonialist systems that permanently devastated the planet Midden. Despite some awkwardness in its gameplay, Sable inches closer to that potential of an open-world postcolonialist game.


From JETT: The Far Shore (2021), courtesy of Superbrothers A/V and Pine Scented.

Jett: the Far Shore is another exploration game determined to depict a world beyond colonialism. In it, characters seek a better, harmonious existence, even more so than in Sable. The second game by Superbrothers, Jett follows a character named Mei, who is part of a group of scouts that leave behind a dying planet.10 They travel for 1,000 years, summoned by what they call the “Hymnwave,” witnessed in dreams and waking visions, before landing on a strange ocean planet to try to establish a new home. Along the way, Mei is troubled by vivid dreams—of the home left behind and of ominous dangers on this new planet. Jett likewise offers nonviolent player participation, but its pacifism is specifically tied to its attempt to present an alternative to what could easily have been another settler colonialist framework. “This is their territory, not ours,” your copilot frequently reminds you, as the game promotes ecological understanding, seeking symbiosis. In Jett, you placate fauna rather than fight it, and any minor act of interference is followed by a prayer: “May we not cause lasting harm”—a saying tinged with guilt when one considers the ruined planet left behind. Jett is both imperfect and self-conscious, but that reflection is required to make something different, to make a unique exploration game that focuses on leaving the smallest possible footprint.

Separated by chapters, the large game world is primarily explored through the eponymous Jett hovercraft, which glides carefully over the world. More interesting is when it becomes clear that no matter how lightly the scouts tread, the world pushes back. The game’s second chapter focuses on circumventing aggressive fauna that leads the scouts’ formerly peaceful dreams into tumult and hostility. At the same time, the scouts must confront the colonization of their own bodies by the same mysterious force that beckoned them to the planet. This friction, built into Jett’s gameplay, makes a certain kind of thematic sense: the increasingly brutal fight for survival against local fauna and forces illustrates the violence inherent to settlement.

No matter how a player proceeds over the course of the game, the mission remains mostly incomplete, and at the game’s end, the scouts are cryogenically frozen, in the hopes that as they slumber, their commander will solve an equation to enable peaceful cohabitation. Jett illustrates that settlement without disruption or conflict is likely a pipedream, for even when seemingly invited to a new world, the world kicks back at the explorers, with every creature on the planet refusing to be pacified or moved without a fight. It is also difficult and frustrating to try to navigate around these obstacles; the most exhilarating moments of play come from soaring over its landscapes unimpeded, while actual interaction with the world feels awkward. Perhaps such awkwardness is meant to be synergetic with the underlying message of the game—that easy cohabitation is wishful thinking. Jett explores the limitations of the postcolonial video game, asking: can a game about settlement shed itself of these contradictions?


From JETT: The Far Shore (2021), courtesy of Superbrothers A/V and Pine Scented.

Yet where Sable is set in the aftermath of colonial failure and Jett is a settlement game with a postcolonial mindset, Umurangi Generation, a photography sim made by Naphtali Faulkner, a Māori developer, instead chronicles the death rattles of an imperialist empire from the perspective of the colonized. With its climate disaster analogy, Umurangi Generation—“Umurangi” derived from the Te Reo Maōri word for red sky—is as much about how colonialism and imperialism propagate as it is about the ways these systems doom the world to a painful and protracted death. With no preamble, prologue, or epigraph to contextualize the game’s setting of Tauranga in Aotearoa, players are dropped into Māori land, occupied by the United Nations since an alien invasion, in the role of a photographer and courier for the Tauranga Express. And unsurprisingly, it’s going terribly. Meanwhile, the player is asked to pursue photographic objectives, documenting the world while the truth of the kaiju invasion slowly encroaches upon each stage, beginning as an ominous background detail and then becoming overwhelming. Umurangi Generation later doubles down on its directness in the shocking expansion Macro, developed and released in late 2020 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and influenced by the large-scale, consistent protests against systemic racism and police violence in the United States and internationally.11

The “red sky” of the title itself refers to the Australian government’s mishandling of the 2019–2020 bushfires, born of capitalist and neoliberal complacency, an attitude that Faulkner sees extend to the handling of COVID-19, as even everyday advertisements lent themselves to minimizing disaster to sell things. Through the game’s portrayal of the utter failures of the state, Faulkner incorporates visual nods to monster movies such as Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and makes direct reference to the director’s famous anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996), here turning giant robots and monsters into symbols of police states, climate disaster, and government inaction. Its antifascist ideals are worn on colorful sleeves, and its retro, cyberpunk art direction feels like a reclamation of the sci-fi subgenre from its orientalist roots, repositioning these genre elements from an Indigenous perspective.


From Umurangi Generation (2020), courtesy of ORIGAME DIGITAL.

In her piece about Umurangi Generation’s idiosyncrasies, Sam Bodrojan notes its smart and simple mechanical subversion of first-person shooter design: instead of the left trigger aiming down sights, it’s a viewfinder, and the right trigger fires a shutter instead of a bullet.12 As she explains, “Faulkner evokes our uncomfortable relationship to the fascism that sits at the core of many games, a Pavlovian dopamine rush meant to mimic the very actions that imperialist militaries use to oppress, control, and murder in the name of jingoistic glory, and subversively offers an alternative path of interaction.” Here, the camera controls more or less correspond to how other games control guns, effectively using a player’s muscle memory. In this way, the game is “asking players to pause and to really observe the world around them,” as Bodrojan writes. When you point and shoot in Umurangi Generation, it’s in the name of preservation and observing the truth of the world, things that governments would rather minimize to the point of violent suppression. Players are otherwise powerless, making Faulkner’s work the antithesis of many exploration games. Since all you can do is look and photograph, the game focuses on the accumulation of incidental details in the vibrant Jet Set Radio–inspired environment—as in an early level of the main game in which you read about a girl who died protecting her neighborhood from a police invasion, as detailed through her memorial and various bits of graffiti. Additionally, the player learns what’s happening in the world and how the populace and media react to it through tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic adverts—such as the tourism ads for New Sydney, which is “like the old one, but not underwater!,” or posters for various blockbuster movies about military veterans who are “pissed, retired, and American.” Within the world of the game itself, Faulkner observes how entertainment fits into the complimentary machines of capitalism and colonialism, contributing to feelings of complacency and support of the state.


From Umurangi Generation (2020), courtesy of ORIGAME DIGITAL.

And though you technically have to search for Umurangi’s story, Faulkner is hardly quiet about the game’s antifascist and anticolonial message. The Macro expansion in particular pushes the base game’s moody and elegiac atmosphere to a feverish, more frustrated pitch as it pits you, the roller-skating photographer, against big police robots. Even the soundtrack from ThorHighHeels becomes more aggressive, with floaty, tongue-in-cheek titles replaced by ones such as “Round Up the Fascist Bullies,” which is, in itself, something that already sets the game apart. As Patrick Klepek notes in an interview with Faulkner, mainstream game developers often do their best to sidestep any overtly political messaging.13 What distinguishes Umurangi is its playfulness with long-codified game mechanics, and the transformation of them into a genuinely forceful political statement, suggesting a route into how exploration games might outgrow colonial frameworks.

As a whole, video games may never stray from their conquest format that normalizes fascism and colonialism. Game developers will likely continue to capitalize on the base pleasure of these games, for, as Rowan Kaiser writes when describing Far Cry 3, “This white male power fantasy simulation is ridiculously fun.”14 But there’s also fun to be had in its inversion, in games like Umurangi Generation and Sable, strong counterpoints that have emerged at the fringes of the mainstream, “postcolonial” in their gameplay, design, and experimentation with the medium. At their best, these video games can involve imagining what virtual worlds could look like, changing how the player interacts with them. A truly postcolonial video game might not exist yet, but there are promising jumping-off points as game developers such as Faulkner start making bold strides toward decolonizing gameplay.


Footnotes:

1. Molly Zara-Esther Bloch, “Awake on Foreign Shores,” Bullet Points Monthly, February 26, 2022, https://bulletpointsmonthly.com/2022/02/26/awake-on-foreign-shores-halo-infinite.

2. Trone Dowd, “Black Hair in Video Games Is Terrible. These 3D Artists Are Changing That,” Vice, https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dgdwz/black-hair-in-video-games.

3. Strategy games that allow players to make decisions simultaneously rather than in incremental “turns.”

4. Kazuma Hashimoto, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Japanese Colonialism,” Medium, March 16, 2020, https://medium.com/@kazuma.hashimoto/animal-crossing-new-horizons-and-japanese-colonialism-6008d2e30574.

5. Austin Walker, “Battling the Beasts of ‘Monster Hunter: World’ Feels Dynamic and Desperate,” Vice, January 26, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en/article/8xvpw5/monster-hunter-world-review.

6. Malindy Hetfeld, “Meghna Jayanth is switching the narrative,” NME, October 19, 2022,
https://www.nme.com/features/gaming-features/meghna-jayanth-is-switching-the-narrative-3331160.

7. Brendan Keogh, “Performing Colonialism,” Reverse Shot, March 24, 2016, http://reverseshot.org/series/entry/2189/performing_colonialism.

8. Rowan Kaiser, “Far Cry 3 Review: a Game of Colonization,” Gameranx, May 23, 2014,
https://gameranx.com/features/id/11272/article/far-cry-3-review-a-game-of-colonization.

9. Lynsey Hansley, “From Thatcher to Johnson: how right to buy has fueled a 40-year housing crisis,” The Guardian, June 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jun/29/how-right-to-buy-ruined-british-housing.

10. Best known as makers of the iPhone game Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.

11. Patrick Klepek, “How ‘Umurangi Generation’ Captured 2020’s Despair and Neoliberal Decay,” Vice, January 29, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkdvgv/how-umurangi-generation-captured-2020s-despair-and-neoliberal-decay.

12. Sam Bodrojan, “Umurangi Generation,” Reverse Shot, September 1, 2021, http://reverseshot.org/series/entry/2820/Umurangi.

13. Klepek, “Umurangi.”

14. Kaiser, “Far.”