In recent years, a unique relationship has developed between the world’s most ancient cultures and the newest forms of storytelling.
Games like Upper One Games‘ Never Alone, for example, popularized the trend by working alongside the native Alaskan Iñupiaq people to preserve and bring global attention to their culture’s stories.
Mulaka, an indie game from Mexico-based studio Lienzo, is the latest to join this digital preservation effort. A 3D action-adventure puzzle game, it centers around the Tarahumara indigenous culture that live alongside them in Chihuahua, Mexico.
“The initial inspiration for the game began from us just learning more about the Tarahumara culture — reading their amazing legends and myths. And we really fell in love with them,” said writer and programmer Guillermo Vizcaíno when we recently met up at PAX West to play a demo of the game at the Indie Megabooth.
“As gamers, we found it impossible to not start imagining all these grand scenarios and set pieces.”
In the game, you play as a Sukurúame (or a Tarahumara shaman) who must call upon the power of the demigods. In my playthrough, I embodied cumecócari, the culture’s imperial woodpecker demigod, “who allows you take the physical form of a bird whenever you need. Because your task is to convince the higher gods — like the moon and the sun — not to destroy the earth,” said Vizcaíno. “No pressure, though.”
A huge part of Lienzo’s goal is to not only preserve the culture, but also other key aspects of their worldview currently running the risk of eradication. The imperial woodpecker, for example, is now extinct. Mulaka is also working to preserve the Tarahumara language through some of the dialogue.
While the Tarahumara are well-known among Chihuahua residents, many other parts of Mexico know next to nothing about the indigenous population. On an international scale, they’re practically invisible.
“We want the game to bring a spotlight to the Tarahumara, by giving their legends the Hollywood treatment — so to speak — that they deserve.”
Because unlike, say, the ancient legends of the Greeks and Norse gods, or even ancient Japanese legends of the Samurai and Ninja, this amazing aspect of Mexican history is often left forgotten. “No one has tried to bring that ‘coolness’ factor to the Tarahumara legends. So we thought, why not us?”
At the heart of the project is an overarching desire to transform the way the Tarahumara are seen, both nationally and abroad. “We wanted to help change people’s perspective by giving them a chance to experience these grandiose tales that define the Tarahumara. And, of course, bring their amazing views of the world to everyone around the glove.”
To the designers, games felt like the absolute best way to achieve this goal.
Because, as Vizcaíno says, “it’s the only medium where you not only get to learn about a story, but also be part of it. Right now as you’re playing, you are a Tarahumara indigenous character. You’re experiencing the physicality of the region for yourself. That’s the best way to create empathy in players. It’s the best way to tell a story that just sticks with you.”
Mulaka has been in development for about three years now, and is aiming for a 2018 release date. Keep an eye out for it on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and Steam.