Stills from Umurangi Generation.
Stills from Umurangi Generation.

ĀteaMay 29, 2020

What a video game about a futuristic Tauranga can tell us about our present

Stills from Umurangi Generation.
Stills from Umurangi Generation.

A new first-person photography game set in a dystopian Tauranga under lockdown is the best work of Māori science fiction this decade, writes Dan Taipua.

Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography game set din the shitty future. Designed and developed by Naphtali Faulkner (aka Veselekov) the game has you move about a futuristic Tauranga and surrounding whenua, taking photos while you deliver courier packages in a neon-lit cyberpunk city unravelling through a global crisis. Few would pick seaside Tauranga as a setting for their techno-dystopia, but Faulkner is a son of Ngāi Te Rangi, and the game shifts locations all along the rohe of his iwi. It’s both a personal and collective cultural setting for the one-man development team, and Faulkner uses it to tell a story about place, perspective, and survival in a world that could yet come to pass.

All told, Umurangi Generation is the best work of Māori science-fiction to emerge from our fresh decade. While the game is a meaningful technical achievement in its design and mechanics, the particular timing of its release during a global pandemic gives the game vital layers of importance that are as urgent as they are invigorating.

Shoot first, ask questions later

In the video trailer, we see the game-world of Umurangi Generation in all its kinesis and saturation, and it’s no surprise that a game focussed on the medium of photography should prioritise visual style. This is the world you’re tasked with documenting through your only tool in the game: a camera with changeable lenses and image controls. There are weapons in the game, but you have none and those held by others can’t harm you. The whole of gameplay involves you exploring the environment and attempting to capture its essence, its people, and to glimpse the events that unfold therein. You can rush through the game in an hour, you can explore its world for over four hours, or you can replay it each day for a week and elaborate on your experience every time. Multiple ways of seeing means that the same world is never experienced the same way twice.

Uniquely, the game has no dialogue or exposition. You have friends (including a penguin) but their role is to exist in the world, rather than explain it to you. All of the storytelling is conveyed by the environment and your exploration of it, so the point of view put forward by the narrative is literally your own. The game begins at the top of a large building overlooking Mauao, the mountain of Maunganui sacred to Ngāi Te Rangi. Set against this ancient backdrop, your friends have built a kind of urban sanctuary complete with skateboard ramps, graffitied walls, stocks of painting supplies, large boomboxes, and even a pool for your penguin companion – everything a young person could need. Advancing to the next location is a tonal leap: armed UN guards, barricades, long-life rations, and all the signifiers of a mobilised disaster intervention surround you as though you’ve jumped from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater directly into a scene from Children of Men, or the intro sequence from Half-Life II. Something large and terrible is taking place, but you’ll only understand what by closely examining the world around you.

Picture a place

As a solo designer, Naphtali Faulkner draws on a range of both real and imagined worlds to build his game environment, one he describes as “a retro-future”. The past often serves as a useful lens for the future. For instance, Blade Runner is almost 40 years old and is set in 2019, a time we’ve now superseded, but the immediacy and mystery of its sci-fi city still hits as heavy as it did in the 80s. For its own part, Umurangi Generation draws heavily on the look and spirit of works from the turn of the 20th century including the video game Jet Set Radio Future and the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, as though the imagery from many futures are rushing to meet at the head of present day, a final pit stop for the post-modern.

For all the stylised touches of its sci-fi environments, the game’s most pressing architectural influence comes from a unique real-world environment now lost to history: Kowloon Walled City. Situated on the firth of Hong Kong, the Walled City occupied a rare political position between oppositional powers of colonialism, empire, and the anti-imperialism. When the British took control of Honk Kong’s territories, the Walled City was withheld by imperial China then seized by imperial Japan in WWII.  The Republic of China attempted to reclaim it but eventually, it became a city outside the administration of any of those powers – a city the size of 2.6 rugby fields housing 50,000 people. Life in that city was dense and difficult, but the lives led inside represented an amazing act of resistance and survival against global power.

In the past decade, people have come to use the term “aesthetic” as a qualitative signifier – if something looks cool, if it resembles a cyberpunk film, it “aesthetic”. What might be lost, and what we might reclaim, from that word is the idea of aesthetic principle and aesthetic history. The Kowloon-inflected city of Umurangi Generation expresses its own relationship to colonial power and history: an electric wharenui holds out from the ground, a neon beacon for a pou. Two-storey manaia memorialise the war-fallen. These are potent symbols for a land that skirts the site of the battle of Gate Pā. The symbols and signals used in works of art aren’t just beautifying or exotic – they have real-life histories, meanings, and human connections, and whether consciously or unconsciously, the game connects a real-world struggle to its story of survival.

Existence is resistance

How does a video game about taking cool photos with your mates possibly relate to the lived reality of political struggle? Simply by existing.

Every single artistic vision of a Māori future or a future for Māori is an act of resistance against extinction. While we live and breathe, there’s a persistent and potent narrative that Māori are already extinct, that te reo is a “dead language”, that there are no “full-blooded Māoris left anyway”, that our contributions are moot, and our experiences without value. When a real-world global crisis reached Aotearoa, the Covid Epidemic Response Committee saw fit not only to exclude the input of Māori but by implication and practice infer that we had nothing to offer to the protection of the country’s future. We who had been literally, mathematically decimated by epidemics in the past; we who invented and practised rāhui over a thousand years. In real life, in everyday life, there are forces around us always that conspire to destroy history itself, making every gesture towards a future, towards continuity of existence, a meaningful one.

“Umurangi” is a poetic expression for red skies, and that’s exactly what Naphtali Faulkner saw last year as wildfires raged across New South Wales where he lives, destroying 18 million hectares of a bedrock continent, killing an estimated billion animals, and driving some species to the precipice of extinction. If we look closely at the world around us we can see the factors and influences that fanned those flames: a disregard for the facts of climate change, a ruling government that refused to properly resource firefighters, and a system of literal scorched earth policies. All those invisible factors that led to disaster become visible if we look close enough.

At the time of writing, there’s a kind of jittered-calm across New Zealand, a feeling that we may have collectively dodged a bullet with Covid-19 and kept disaster from our shores. And this is fair. Losses were made and it’s time to grieve and try to reconstitute our lives and worlds for tomorrow. But if we don’t look at our environment closely enough, don’t try to connect our present with our troubled history, and don’t scry the meaning from the signs around us, we may not see the next bullet that comes.

A free-to-download demo for Umurangi Generation is available for Steam/PC.

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