Tof Eklund goes deep on the historical context and significance of Dandara, a newly released Metroidvania-style game about the famous-in-Brazil folk hero.
I was certain, from the first screenshot I saw of Dandara, that there were layers to the world and narrative of Brazilian studio Long Hat House’s jump-warping Metroidvania. Reviewers seemed not to care, noting that they didn’t get the story, ignoring the game’s repeated references to the importance of recovering a forgotten past, and focusing entirely on whether they loved or hated the game’s unique movement mechanics. That may be because I was looking at reviews by white, western, English-speaking reviewers.
In Brazil, the context of Dandara is unmissable: the historical Dandara was a descendant of escaped slaves, a master of capoeira, and the last Queen of the Quilombo dos Palmares, wife of the universally-known King Zumi dos Palmares. Palmares was a independent community of escaped slaves that withstood all attacks for almost a century and grew from a starting community of a few dozen to a population somewhere between ten and thirty thousand.
I found one review that made passing mention of the historical Dandara as the leader of a slave revolt but dismissed that history as unrelated to the game. Even that review didn’t bother to comment on the significance of Dandara’s protagonist being a black (preto) woman with voluminous, powerful hair. Positive representations of black women in games are still extremely rare, let alone black, female protagonists with natural hair. Even if there was no meaningful story to the game, that would still be worth noting.
But that’s just the beginning. The history of Dandara and Palmares is also a guide to both the significance of the game’s surreal setting, but also to its strategy. There are large gaps and conflicts in the historical Dandara’s story, and it may be that some of her deeds have been absorbed into the more complete and coherent history of her husband, the King, Zumbi dos Palmares. The Palmares was defended in no small part by the palm trees it was named for: the quilombos were concealed and protected by the jungle and it’s rough terrain that favoured guerilla tactics and made it difficult to bring European cannons to bear.
Much like in the land wars here in New Zealand two centuries later, the Palmarinos (aided by native allies and runaway soldiers) turned their enemies’ war machine against itself. The mostly Angolan Palmarionos further developed their ancestral war-dancing into what is now known as capoeira, a martial art based on constant movement, evasion, and waiting for your opportunity to strike.
That is the primary game mechanic of Dandara. Dandara is capoeira. You move swiftly and decisively, almost instantaneously leaping from wall to wall. Your enemies target where you are, and as soon as they commit, you are no longer there, like the ginga, the fundamental zig-zag step of capoeira that threw off the aim of enemies with (single shot) firearms. It is always best to bring a gun to a gun fight, but a master of capoeira, like Dandara, could leap in and inflict disabling strikes with a machete or straight razor while foes were reloading or off caught off balance.
In the Dandara, your primary attack is short ranged and has to charge before each use – but you can charge it while evading, biding your time. If you try to go toe-to-toe with even rank-and-file Eldarian soldiers, you will die. The common Metroidvania strategy of “just keep shooting, jump to avoid their attacks” is a recipe for failure here. Don’t stay close – or far. Don’t keep the foe in your crosshairs. Move, move, move, go wherever they won’t expect you to be, go wherever you want them to go, wait for an opening, then get as close as you can, strike and evade again.
Dandara is a hard game, the campsites where you can raise your flag (heal and recover energy) few and far between. It’s a much faster-paced game than I usually go for, and I can understand why some reviewers found it frustrating, but once I got used to thinking about fighting in Dandara as capoeira, I got better at it. Likewise, I started thinking about exploring as more like a series of guerrilla raids, and treating my store of healing items like supplies for a journey, better make sure you have enough to get back to camp again (where they will be replenished). This led to far fewer instances of becoming overextended and then having to go try to recover my ghost for the Salt I needed to upgrade my Essence capacity.
Ghost? Salt? Essence? Yeah, Dandara‘s still surreal, and so are some of the people you help and rescue in game, including npcs that sometimes look basically human and sometimes have elongated limbs that appear to have been made out of yellow play-doh, or consist of giant heads attached to the wall opposite the one their glowing hands are stuck to. It feels like a metaphor to me: most of the friendly characters live in the Village of the Artists, which looks like a funhouse mirror version of an urban neighborhood.
Afro-Brazilians still face discrimination, and the odd, varied appearances of the artists makes sense in terms of Brazilian racial identity, which includes pretos like Dandara: dark-skinned people with obvious African heritage; but also pardos with medium skin tone who are generally assumed to have African, Indiginous, and European heritage. Both pretos and pardos face significant discrimination, even though when put together, they constitute an outright majority of the population. After brancos (whites), the pardo population is the single largest demographic in the country. There is an Afro-Brazilian movement, small but growing, that wants to unite pretos, pardos, and brancos who are prepared to own their African heritage. From that perspective, the artists appear to be pardos and brancos who need Dandara, the preto, the negro, to achieve their own liberation.
The Eldarian soldiers patrolling the streets of as the artists hide in their cramped dwellings has a contemporary relevance, as increasing violence by narco gangs has led to the decision to deploy the military in Rio de Janero, where they are encircling and isolating the city’s favelas (slums), and residents living in fear of both gangs and solders. Augustus, an early-game boss in Dandara, syncretizes historical and contemporary concerns. Responsible for the occupation of the village, he appears as a huge, long face with a pronounced cleft chin and a general’s cap, says that he is bringing order, and expresses his sorrow at Dandara’s opposition. Indeed, in the 1670s, the colonial government offered Palmares peace and recognition on condition that escaped slaves (not born in Palmares) would be returned to their “owners.” It is said that Dandara led opposition to this devil’s deal.
One version of the legend of Dandara claims that she was pregnant at the final battle for Palmares, her capoeira danced to the rhythm of the quickening in her belly as she cut a swath through Domingos Jorge Vehlo’s soldiers. I can’t find that version again now, and but it swims in my memory, like a vision. Pregnant or not, Dandara’s story always ends the same way: facing capture, she killed herself rather than be enslaved. Many accounts say that she was surrounded and threw herself off a cliff. Here history comes full circle, as the story of the videogame Dandara begins with her emergence from the Womb of Creation. Perhaps she is the historical Dandara’s daughter, gestated over a descent three centuries long, come to complete her mother’s war for liberation.
You don’t have to know the history of the Quilombo dos Palmares to enjoy Dandara, and I’m sure some players will master the game’s strategy without giving a moment’s thought to its protagonist, but the game is richer, more meaningful, if you treat its origins and context as relevant. Long Hat House clearly didn’t set out to tell the world Dandara’s story: so much of it has been lost they would have been making it up anyway.
What they have done is create a game that is true to Dandara’s spirit and legacy… and, to the unenlightened, a perfectly decent metroidvania. Dandara is best played with a light touch, with awareness, not obsession, and with the flick of a finger on a touchscreen rather than a deathgrip on a controller (this seems to be the common element in whether reviewers love or hate Dandara’s controls: it really is best on Switch or iPad). Don’t mistake that lightness for triviality: its lightness is capoeira, the bearing of a heavy heart as if it were a feather.
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