This year, as part of the imagineNATIVE festival, two indie videogames are being presented as part of the event’s New Media exhibit. Both were created in three weeks by indigenous youth, take their cues from the shared language of gaming and offer an encouraging level of diversity in a medium that, recently, has fallen under quite a bit of scrutiny for catering to a white male demographic. Also, it helps to show that the festival (which runs through the end of the weekend) showcase more than just First Nations filmmaking talent.
Warrior Women 1: The Beginning and Ienién:te and the Peacemaker’s Wampum both put players in the role of indigenous women and immerse players in a cultures that have gone wholly unrepresented in mainstream videogames. The first, created by one-woman development team Jusen’jij Paku’si Game Studio, is a retro inspired side scrolling arcade entry set in a world of indigenous symbols. The latter is a highly narrative stealth game created by the Skins 4.0 Collective – a group of young Mohawk artists – and deals with contemporary aboriginal issues. Both can be checked out during the film festival at the imagineNATIVE New Media lounge on the second floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox through the duration.
Peacemaker’s Wampum has a political edge to it, delivering fun stealth gameplay and clever design while using the language of games to talk about an embarrassing Canadian subject: the theft of cultural objects belonging to indigenous communities. The main character returns home from University, having just received her masters degree in archaeology and ready to repatriate Haudenosaunee artifacts. Immediately she finds herself beckoned by the spirits to help recover a legendary item: the titular Peacemaker’s Wampum.
Divided into four stages, Ienién:te must navigate levels from a top-down perspective, avoiding nefarious security guards while appeasing, displaced spirits, solving a mosaic puzzle and finally defeating her evil thesis adviser (the man who stole the wampum) in supernatural combat.
There is a humour in Peacemaker’s Wampum that’s always winking at the player. Aspects of the level design keep things meta, with NPCs and in-game instructions constantly reminding you to save the world, while the voice acted cutscenes more explicitly point out the ridiculousness of certain anthropological practices (namely the act of putting items that belong to existing living communities in museums).
The level of subversion in Peacemaker’s Wampum is high enough that the game could rightfully bear the title of revisionist media. It takes a well worn videogame formula – evil doer exploits a legendary item for ultimate power – and through its presentation makes a salient point that can’t be ignored. To play through Peacemaker’s Wampum is to experience Skins 4.0 collective’s viewpoint on the conflict between modern North American practices and often unheard indigenous traditions.
You can’t avoid it, you can’t ignore it, Peacemaker’s Wampum demands your understanding if you want to win.
For the same reasons that players of Peacemaker’s Wampum will come away having experienced a strong cultural viewpoint, Lily Ginnish-Lavalley – the one woman development team at Jusen’jij Paku’si Game Studio – says that games offer ways of promoting indigenous culture unique to the medium.
“You have to interact with them,” she says. “In a game you get to actually be there.”
Requisite interactivity is a key differentiating factor between games and film, music or TV. Like books, videogames will not progress without the audience’s active participation. If you fall asleep reading, then you drop the book. If you go for a walk while playing a game, you’ll probably come back to a game over screen.
Cliff Bleszinski, of Gears of War fame, calls the interactive demand a lean forward experience, you can’t sit back and just let a game happen.
When players are presented with Warrior Women 1: The Beginning, they enter into an active conversation with Lily Ginnish-Lavalley. Having literally done everything in creating the game, research, art, coding and more, a player gets to know a lot about the woman behind Warrior Women.
“I grew up playing Sonic, Mario, Final Fantasy,” she says. “I’m not really into new games as much.”
These retro influences are apparent in Lily’s game. A side-scrolling arcade adventure that puts you in the role of Jusen (Lily’s spiritual name, which means Tornado) as she runs to collect elemental pots. The pots collected earn you points, while dying lowers your score. It’s a time tested, simple gameplay idea expressed through the lens of someone who hasn’t been represented in games. It’s uncharted territory.
“I’d go to the store, like EB Games, and all I could find were games about Caucasian people. I want to make games that feature my experience.”
The Jusen’jij Paku’si Game Studio’s mission statement is to make real games, good games, that carry with them an indigenous twist. Not games that serve as a vehicle for a message, but the type of games she wants to play.
As such, the next entry in the Warrior Women series stands to be epic.
“I want it to be like Final Fantasy,” says Lily. “Just as complex and with that deep story. A full length RPG.”
In Peacemaker’s Wampum, after you retrieve a medicine bundle, you are able to smudge. Gameplay-wise, smudging with the bundle allows player one to escape security guards and interact with the spirit world. In the game’s narrative, smudging gives Ienién:te the clarity needed to understand her dreams and discover her goal. The medicine bundle is an item that, through interaction, connects culture to an agent of the present.
Games can be like that medicine bundle. Warrior Women 1 and Ienién:te and the Peacemaker’s Wampum are examples of how interactive art provides culturally enlightening experiences. The inclusion of videogames in imagineNATIVE is a big step for representation in the medium and it stands to encourage young game players to follow the example of the Skins 4.0 Collective and Jusen’jij Paku’si Game Studio.
“You can do it,” Lily said when I asked her what advice she has for other young indigenous gamers. “I did it.”