[Disclosure: In accordance with our Right to Reply, this is a guest post offering an alternative counterpoint to a recently published article on One Angry Gamer about the game Dandara.]
DISCLAIMER: I’m Brazilian. HUEHUE GIBE MONI I REPORT U curse aside, yeah, I have a biased view of games and developers stuck on the same purgatory as I. I’ll try to keep a neutral and fact based approach to the matter, though You’re invited to check all sources used to ground my claims and correct any factual error i made in the article.
Sometimes it IS just the wind
On February 4, Billy released the article “Dandara, A Game About A Black Female Fighting Oppression Heads To Nintendo Switch”, informing gamers about the release and focusing, as the title hints, about the fact the game has a black protagonist fighting an oppressive regime.
What sounded specially odd in the article is the assumption that the protagonist’s appearance and game setting is “attempting to bolster the Left’s push to have more black female leads who don’t need a man and can save the world from oppression” and that the positive reaction to the trailer is from Brazilians cheering a local developer. It also uses the game 99 Vidas (not Vitds) as an example of this behavior.
The the examples to base such arguments are a screenshot of some Youtube comments and its own 99 Vidas review, as well as the aggregated score for 99Vidas.
The examples and opinions sounds definitive enough to an outside viewer just agree and put another title to deny the wallet vote because pandering just just for its own sake, without any coherence or synergy with the game, is a cheap tactic that shouldn’t receive incentive, and this is where the article brings the wrong idea, and it misses the point by a nautical mile.
While i completely understand where your arguments come from and can cite quite a few examples of poorly implemented, badly written* or plain forced diversity myself, Dandara is a rare case where it is neither intended nor directed to be an agenda-pandering game. Not for an aggressive pandering of a loudmouth group, not for pity points on internet, not even to be woke as fuck. From inspiration to design to implementation and final product, Dandara (the character) isn’t part of a message, campaign or ideology, it’s part of the game world and its inspirations…
…and nothing else.
Homeopathic Revolution, Concentrated References
Researching about the game development, I actually found the original ideas and inspiration could actually be interpreted as a game heavily political/historical message, but as the developers cemented their priorities, it was diluted more and more until any “incendiary” theme actually translated in no more than references to Brazilian culture and history.
This interview (in Portuguese) is probably the best source about the game philosophy and the developer’s motivations (I don’t know how good google translate is when dealing with Portuguese, but give it a try).
The devs speak about the game development and how the idea of bringing themes from their surroundings and background were gradually being added to the game, until they focused on the figure of Dandara, one of the leaders of a refugee camp for escaped slaves, and launched the idea of slavery as a strong theme for the game. HOWEVER, as development progressed, the focus shifted more and more to gameplay and it’s unique mechanics. In the dev’s own words:
“The idea is that the game should be gameplay focused. It’s about exploration and fights, without much text. Speaking with NPCs isn’t the main factor, the exploration and mechanics are. Dandara is born at the beginning of the game: as soon as you press the Start button, your story starts to unravel.”
They reinforce this view later on the interview:
“We’re trying to avoid too much talking, because this influences the player’s interpretation and and the game is focused on discovery. Of course, the player can ignore everything and just enjoy the gameplay, but he’s also free to look for other meanings in the story. Since the game is more imagetic, you can take many conclusions from it”
The setting, with its eccentric graphics and unusual movement system could also be accused of carrying some kind of political message, with the big general face as a villain. And that, also comes from a different direction: even when the interviewer tried to compare the game’s setting with the oppressive world presented in George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm”, the dev dismisses the reference and gives a different view of the scenario:
“It’s more of a late comparison than a previous inspiration: it wasn’t used on the beginning of the development. And if we compare with 1984’s ‘Big Brother’, the influence is not in the masking and covering of aspects to make something your way. The oppression is not exactly by censorship, but it goes in a wider sense of transforming the world itself in a physical action”**
The focus on gameplay and its importance is repeated in at least two other interviews, and while they used the old “We’re white men, so we can’t make a game about slavery because we’re not close enough to the subject” in one of them, they soon divert the attention back to the gameplay.
It’s pretty clear that they envision this game as one to be valued by how it plays much more than anything else, let alone which perceived message it might carry
If even after the multiple allegations dismissing any “woke” message isn’t enough evidence that the character’s skin color is more of a reference than a nod to any current movement or controversy, let’s see her inspiration and what remained of it in game.
The game and protagonist’s name itself is a part historical, part folcloric reference: “Dandara” was the companion of the XVII century historical figure “Zumbi dos Palmares”***, leader of the Palmares Quilombo (a refugee/village known for receiving escaped slaves and fighting against forces trying to recapture them). Known as both farmer, huntress, strategist and a proficient capoeira fighter, it is said that she fought alongside men and women on incursions and defenses led by the Quilombo. The documentation about her is so scarce, however, that is hard to separate history from story. Still, both her and Zumbi are figures presented as the archetypal “Freedom Fighter”, revered not only by groups related to black culture and fight against racism, but groups confronting any type of social repression or injustice.
In the game, though, all that remained from this background is the name, skin color and the fact she fights for freedom (and a very abstract “freedom” at that: there isn’t much dialogue in game making straight references to slavery or the like). It’s easier to associate Onimusha’s Nobunaga with the japanese warlord than both Dandaras. And he fights with Jean Reno!
Also, most of the dev team is born and lives in Belo Horizonte. According to statistics presented on the prefecture site, over 37% of the population declared itself of brown skin and almost a tenth declared itself of black ethnicity, so having a black character could be as much a reference to the character than to the population on their hometown.
By the way, on a national level, these statistics are 43,42% and 7,52%, respectively: there are more non whites than whites in Brazil, even if for a tiny margin. Compare it with USA, where the over 72% of the population identifies as white and less than 13% as African Americans, and the scenario shifts: It isn’t “empowering a minority” or “pandering” when the distribution is pretty even on both possible populational scenarios used.
Tripping on a nation without direction
To me, more than anything, the game’s visuals packs a good amount of character and, in its own abstract way, an appetizer of Brazilian history, and that’s something that, if done well, can add an extra charm to a game and inspire people to look for more of a foreign culture. Like Dynasty Warriors for Chinese culture, Onimusha for the Japan’s Sengoku period, etc.
In fact, this small “regional twist” is becoming the one of the selling points for games developed in countries without an established and influenced game development industry. Sometimes is their only way of standing out when you have only one paragraph of text to sell your game and hundreds of competitors arriving every week. So, Home Sweet Home and Detention for Thailand, DreadOut for Indonesia, White Day and The Coma for Korea, all tried to avoid drowning in the thousands of horror games or high school protagonist tropes using their local culture. It is as good as its implementation, really, and will never save a bad game from itself, but the more varied content and different ways to spin and refresh old formulas, the better.
Dandara was more subtle, than writing “the Brazilian metroidvania”, but has a healthy amount of nods and homages: The NPC Tarsila, for example, is based on the work of Tarsila do Amaral, an important artist for the modernist art movement in the first half of the 20th century. On some scenarios, you can see a board with the word “garantido” in it, a small nod to the Parintins festival, where the parties representing the bulls important to the myth are named “Garantido” and “Caprichoso”.
Augustus, the freaky general head, COULD be a nod to the years of military dictatorship and “general-presidents”, but it was never openly stated or enforced. As a small, the head was made with the artist rotoscoping his own face!
And these are just some of the more obvious examples, there’s a lot more to uncover. All this was done in a subtle way, and you can appreciate the entire game without ever knowing its origins. It isn’t essential to know, but adds a small bonus to those who care about it (the “did you know gaming” guys could have a field day with this. In my opinion, this is a good use of the aforementioned “cultural spice”.
The developer’s paradox
People from different sides of a big cultural strife are doing the exact same mistake of skipping the nuance and equation to get a fast result, no matter how wrong it may be.
To give a small kudos to Billy, the “99 vidas” game IS pretty mediocre, to say the least, but the whole idea behind its inception is so niche, that surprises me that it was sold without a big disclaimer about it just below the title. 99 Vidas is a famous podcast about games and pop culture in Brazil, possible one of the most popular here. The characters are the members of the podcast and much of the enemies and assets are some form of reference to jokes and facts only known to the followers of the program. It’s a very specific niche and, for its audience, these references were the selling point more than the gameplay itself.
[BIG DISCLAIMER RIGHT NOW: I listen to the podcast that three of the devs I linked here record every week and follow some of them on twitter, I also follow the main dev at joymasher and exchanged some tweets and chat messages with some of them. Not a personal friend or anything, but I have previous knowledge of the guys]
Now the Brazilian video game developer scene has a big division: On one hand, we have a lot of talented developers on the area working for big companies, like EA, Bioware (it’s not their fault the company sucks, by the way) — one of them, for example, jokes his idol from his adolescence is Rocco Siffredi. Bethesda and even CG movie titans like DreamWorks. These professionals, together with some freelancers and outsourcing companies, are completely ignored by local game journos and most of the time try to avoid drama and drawing attention outside of their “comfort zone”.
On the other hand, we have some indies starting to get some fame for good, if not triple A level games, Like Joymasher, with their retro inspired that actually look like 8/16 bit titles, Oniken, Odallus and soon Blazing Chrome, or Aquiris, that after some outsourced works, made a good homage to the classic Top Gear (with the soundtrack penned by the old game’s composer, also) in Horizon Chase. These games get decent coverage here, but are more famous outside Brazil for delivering competently what specific niches wants to see, be it a retro game where the dev actually studies color palettes and effects from older consoles to make an authentic experience, the adrenaline and soundtrack from old classic racing games and, if you add Dandara to the list, fast platformers with exploration.
That’s slowly shaping the scene here, earning their fame by the game’s mechanics and aesthetics over anything else. No politics, no drama filled plots, just gaming. Maybe that’s a regional strength, maybe they aren’t big enough to let the fame go over their heads and start screwing everything with their clique. Only time will tell.
Looking beyond the battlefield.
I hope i gave enough evidence to justify why I think the article led to unfair assumptions. What worried me the most, though, is how fast and easy it was to reach the conclusion and how no one tried to have an open and fact-based argument about it.
To be honest, this article in special came to my attention when it was being discussed in a gaming community chat group. It also went to hell really fast, with things like “it’s been a while since i felt so much disgust from a text”, “he’s criticizing a game he didn’t played only because the protagonist is black and accepted by the public”, “I’ll mark this site to never see this again”, etc. No one tried to understand what the site is or how it reached the conclusion. This isn’t a case of “problematic” content or reactions, but lack of communication and, above anything, assumptions.
Billy and many readers here are veterans of that event in 2014 that just by having the word in the article will probably activate a dozen bots and a million pre-programmed minds routine of ignoring anything related and giving tons of names to people related to it. For those, I ask you to remember how bad it was when people were instantly blocked, mocked, judged and blacklisted for a hashtag, a person they followed on twitter, even a single tweet or sharing an image would be enough. You don’t need to go very far: a few poorly phrased tweets and a game developer could get fired, with no one trying to double check, ask to see this person’s side of the story, confirming that the person is really that wicked and damaging to the game or whatever they make part of. As bonus points, on any of the aforementioned cases, you’re instantly branded a Nazi.
I consider it quite ironic that a game where “salt” is an important concept for its plot and setting made people so salty (myself included). Everyone was suddenly plagued by a drought of information and decided to roll with it! Billy didn’t reach out to the devs or look for some other source before shooting from the hip, and the people that pointed me to the article didn’t reach out to Billy to try to clarify the matters!
I don’t want the self defence instincts on either side of this mess to be so on edge that it just needs one or two words, a skin color, a tangential theme or whatever to start the labeling and spread a preconceived notion as a fact. It should never happen like this, we should never let the temptation of the “boolean solution” win when we deal with people and complex matters. Not everyone is a pro or anti, not everyone wants to take part in this kind of discussion. Sometimes there are people in the middle, neither fighting for “freedom” nor “equality” they are just in the same place. Sometimes they really, really just want to play games, or make them.
* : It’s possible that, even if you’re outside the loop, you’ve heard about the “diversity and comics” channel, and possibly something bad. Even so, I ask you not to just dismiss the videos linked: ignore the haters.
**: Not just a case of poor translation, the whole quote made very little sense in Portuguese too.
***: I know there are controversies on the figure of Zumbi and the nature of the Palmares’ Quilombo. Still not the point and not a widely taught information either. In schools you only sees the figure of the “freedom fighter”. Also, If you look hard enough, even the American founding fathers will have controversies on their lives and tales told about them. Focus on the cultural symbol over the historical discussion, ok?