‘Art reflects reality.’ Capturing Indigenous worlds in video games
Dez Loreen is a man of many talents. As he would say, he has a lot of pokers in the fire: Inuvik town councillor, filmmaker, and owner of production company Neverlow Studios.
A former journalist for APTN and the Inuvik Drum, Loreen is a photographer, writer, comedian, podcaster, and professional wrestling enthusiast who stages his own events – the list goes on.
“I don’t know, I just feel hungry,” Loreen says of his many endeavours. “I’m not sure my appetite’s ever going to be fully, fully gone.”
Soon, the Inuvialuit storyteller will add video game developer to his list.
This week, he’s taking part in a game creation workshop hosted by Western Arctic Moving Pictures (Wamp) in Yellowknife.
Entitled Imagining Indigenous Worlds with Unity, participants learn how to create digital narratives and virtual realities with Indigenous perspectives, stories, and knowledge. The workshop uses the Unity video game engine.
Loreen has a mission.
“The whole reason I signed up for this is I want to create the first Inuvialuit-based cultural experience video game,” he said,
“I don’t mean full immersion of the language because that’s tough, but definitely language being used in it, our culture, our environment.”
Characters, environments, imaginations
Wamp is presenting the workshop in partnership with the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, a group of Canadian universities and community groups working to create digital spaces for Indigenous people and groups.
Davis Heslep, Wamp’s programming and outreach director, says the workshop focuses on interactive storytelling, allowing participants to explore new ideas and worldviews.
“Instead of being like, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna teach people how to shoot people,’ it’s like, ‘Well, how do we create more engaging interactions?’” he says.
One of this week’s facilitators is Maize Longboat, who is Kanien’kehá:ka from Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario. He currently resides in Montreal, where he finished his master’s degree in media studies at Concordia University last year.
“In other forms of media, stories are communicated a lot more passively to the viewers and the listeners,” says Longboat.
“In video games, the players are required to propel the narrative forward and to kind-of exist as part of the world rather than be like an outside observer. I think it’s really special.”
That’s what Loreen is looking to capture in his game, tentatively titled Project Nanook, which means “polar bear.”
He doesn’t want to create a game about competition or solving puzzles. He’s looking to make a 3D environment where he can expand on his Inuvialuit culture and explore the histories and stories of his people in a “cinematic experience.”
For example, he images a feature where players interact with virtual Elders. Walking up and pressing a button to interact might prompt the Elder to recount a short story that you can enter as a chapter of the game.
To help participants envision these worlds, Longboat and two other facilitators – professor and video game developer Dr Pippin Barr and graduate student Waylon Wilson – will teach environmental storytelling and “seventh generation” character design.
Longboat says environmental storytelling is a game development technique that uses sound, lighting, colouring, and specific objects to convey ideas and moods.
Seventh generation character design is an exercise in which workshop participants imagine a descendent of theirs seven generations in the future. The technique is based on the Seventh Generation Principle from southern Haudenosaunee laws and philosophy.
“It really helps bring participants’ minds and imaginations into thinking about what the future will look like,” Longboat says.
“For Indigenous participants, that means certain things.
“So taking that concept and flipping it to not only think about just the character that lives in the world, but to think about the world itself and how it’s designed and presented.”
Not the past, but the future
As part of his master’s thesis examining Indigenous video game development, Longboat developed a game called Terra Nova, released last year, which explores first contact through an Indigenous futuristic lens.
He says Indigenous narratives are often rooted in the past, but he wanted to show an Indigenous future.
“Indigenous peoples have many different stories to tell – not always relegated to a time of the past, but Indigenous stories being created now and … created into the future.”
Longboat looks forward to seeing the stories this week’s participants create. Will their work touch on the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, or recent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe?
“I feel like art reflects reality, you know? It’s gonna be interesting to see how reality informs their imaginary worlds,” he says.
Loreen is excited to test out Project Nanook on his daughter, who will act as his guinea pig. He wants to create something that can educate her about Inuvialuit ways of life, and hopes they can play the game he made together some day.
“I just want my daughter to have a better life than I did. That’s where it’s all going,” he says.
“Everything I do is for her. So, by making this, I want this to be a tool for her.”