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Mad Maggie, and the voice actor behind her, Nicola Kawana. (Photos: Respawn Entertainment, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Mad Maggie, and the voice actor behind her, Nicola Kawana. (Photos: Respawn Entertainment, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureFebruary 10, 2022

Kia ora, aunty: Mad Maggie makes history in Apex Legends

Mad Maggie, and the voice actor behind her, Nicola Kawana. (Photos: Respawn Entertainment, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Mad Maggie, and the voice actor behind her, Nicola Kawana. (Photos: Respawn Entertainment, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

On Tuesday, season 12 of Apex Legends dropped, and with it new character Mad Maggie. Sam Brooks talked to the creatives behind the game about bringing the Māori freedom fighter to life with sensitivity and authenticity.

It’s a dark and stormy night, on some other planet, several hundred years from now. A captive woman stumbles forward as heavily armoured men walk her to her surely unfair trial. They push her against the wall, but she lashes back. She spits: “Kia ora, bro.” 

She headbutts one of her captors. “Name’s Maggie. What’s yours?”

That’s how Respawn announced the new character in the 12th season of its hugely popular battle royale shooter Apex Legends, would be Mad Maggie (full name: Margaret Kōhere). She is, depending on your viewpoint, a staunch freedom fighter or a vicious war criminal. In gameplay terms, she encourages aggressive play and is a high-speed competitor. 

Most importantly, though, when the season dropped this week, she made video game history: the first Māori wahine to be represented in a game with such a huge player base. It’s estimated that around 128 million people have played Apex Legends, a spinoff of the critically acclaimed Titanfall series. For comparison, that’s more players than World of Warcraft at its peak.

Mad Maggie isn’t Apex Legends’ first Polynesian character, though. Introduced at the game’s launch in 2019, Gibraltar – named as a play on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – was Polynesian, but only vaguely so: his actual nationality was never specified. Mad Maggie, in contrast, is a fully realised Māori woman, with a backstory and authentic grounding in her own culture. This time it’s clear the game’s creators wanted to get it right, right from the start.

So why Mad Maggie, and why now?

“The answer’s a very selfish one: I’m a Kiwi.” says Bafta-nominated Sam Gill, Mad Maggie’s primary writer. It became apparent to him early on that here was an opportunity to create a character from his own country – and not a Pākehā like him (“we’ve covered that, really!”) but a character who could help present Māori culture to the world at large. 

It was clear from the outset that he’d need support in bringing tikanga Māori to the screen. “The first mistake we could’ve made would to be like, ‘I’m from New Zealand, I know our slang, I can do it,’” says Gill. “It’s true that being from New Zealand gives me a good base to start from, there’s a certain familiarity through osmosis – but that’s not enough, and in the past that hasn’t been enough.”

His reference to past attempts to create indigenous Aotearoa characters is well taken. Māori have long struggled to be portrayed  accurately or even simply non-problematically in gaming – it was only three years ago that EA’s Bleeding Edge messed it up, badly – but the ship now seems to be slowly steering in the right direction. Consultation with actual Māori is no longer a nice-to-have, but a crucial part of the process of bringing a Māori character to life.

To ensure that Maggie’s identity as a Māori woman was depicted accurately and respectfully, Respawn engaged Vincent Egan, the CEO and co-founder of Maui Studios, an Ōtautahi creative studio which often does consultancy work on tikanga Māori in a digital context. Egan’s first move was to get the lowdown on Apex Legends from rangatahi who actually played it, asking them what they’d like to see included in the game. 

From there, he started a kōrero with the wider community, consulting with mātanga as well. “With anything to do with Māoridom, we want to see what our community has to say about certain things, whether that’s the te reo Maori or the different levels of te reo involved,” he says. 

Mad Maggie in action. (Photo: Respawn Entertainment)

Egan talked with the Apex Legends artists about Maggie’s character design – such as the tohu she wears – to ensure they were comfortable with their meanings; that Maggie’s skins (all characters in Apex Legends characters have multiple looks) were safe designs; and that her words were safe as well. 

Developing Mad Maggie meant a lot of conversations about balancing her lore, who she is and what she represents with the larger Titanfall universe. Throughout the process, both teams made plenty of adjustments. “It involved a lot of back and forth to make sure that [the gameplay] fit with the Mad Maggie character,” says Egan. “But she wasn’t so far removed that people back in New Zealand couldn’t identify with her.”

That was a particular sticking point for her voice actor, Nicola Kawana, an experienced stage and screen actor who played Huia Samuels on Shortland Street. “I was really aware of keeping her tūturu, while being in this universe that didn’t exist,” she says. “That was a perpetual mindfuck for me. There was an amazing team to guide me through that – I don’t know if I could have navigated that different reality myself, trying to keep true to a culture in an alternative universe.”

One important conversation among the team was about the haka that happens during Mad Maggie’s introduction trailer. Originally a traditional haka was included, but “after I sat down with different members of our team and people who I consult with, it was decided that particular haka wasn’t appropriate,” says Egan.

The solution came from within his own mum and aunty. “They had a bit of a kōrero between themselves and thought about what words they could use to portray that particular part.” A custom haka was written specially for Respawn and Mad Maggie.

“It was so they had something safe they could use, that wasn’t borrowing from any iwi, and to ensure they were safe utilising something of that nature.”

While he was cognisant of how Māori have suffered from the “warrior race” stereotype, Egan is confident that the representation of Maggie – her aggression, her wanton destruction – make sense in the context of the game. She’s in a war zone, and Apex Legends is a battle royale shooter. “Once you weigh up all the different variables of making a character like this work, I think the process that Respawn have undertaken has been really good.”

The lore key art for Mad Maggie. (Image: Respawn Entertainment)

Writing for a character in a game like Apex Legends happens at a scale unlike any other artform. Each character has close to 1600 lines, a lot of it contextual, being said only when certain skills are used or when certain battle triggers occur. In the case of Maggie, every one of those lines was gone over by Egan, who suggested some phrases himself and advised on tweaks to others. Kawana also pitched in: as Maggie’s voice actor, she was the last line of defence, double checking the reo and riffing with Gill to ensure the character was voiced sensitively. There’s even a Scribe reference in there!

Playing a wahine Māori with respect was hugely important to her, says Kawana. “In te ao Māori, we are accountable for our iwi, we aren’t standing alone, we’ve got everyone behind us, so we’ll be told if we cross a line or if something’s not right.” 

Powerful, merciless and tough, Maggie stands out in a gaming world where female characters are still often defined by overt sexuality and doe-eyed youth. Remarkably, Maggie is officially 55 years old – middle-aged by any definition. Kawana says she took inspiration from her own family when creating this staunch older character.

“All of my aunties are terrifying, way more terrifying than the tāne in our family. They were always the most ferocious, and wouldn’t take any shit from anyone. That was a comfortable and familiar zone to be in with Maggie,” she says.

As for which part of New Zealand Maggie hails from (kind of – in Apex Legends, she actually comes from the planet of Salvo), an early acting choice by Kawana nailed down that down, albeit unintentionally. Kawana had initially assumed Maggie was from the Ngāpuhi (in Northland) or Ngāti Porou (in the East Coast) iwi, but during the recording session she made a small adjustment. 

“In te reo Māori, we have the ‘wh’ [sound, as in] whakarongo or whakapapa,” she says. “That sounds a bit irksome to an international ear, so I used my own dialect in Taranaki where we drop the ‘h’ and we soften it when we’ve got those words, which was really handy. So now she’s going to have to be Ngā Ruahine or Ngāti Ruanui.”

New Zealander Gill, for his part, is excited to deepen the character beyond her initial cameo appearance in Apex Legends season eight. “The Syndicate do see her as a criminal, and those things are true. But to those outside in free, independent space, she’s really seen as a hero. It’s been a pleasure to recontextualise Maggie in that way and fans have really responded to that.”

“To have ‘kia ora’ and ‘kia kaha’ heard around the world, contextually, so people understand what these phrases mean, is a career highlight for me.”

But it’s Kawana who has the most appropriate – and most succinct – last word on what Mad Maggie means to her, and to Aotearoa:

“Nice to see mana wāhine represented. Never too much.”

Apex Legends is free to play on Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android and PC.

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