Games

Naphtali Faulkner’s first-person photography game Umurangi Generation is a fun dystopian romp that develops into an insightful exploration of the insidiousness of fascism.

By Jini Maxwell.

Umurangi Generation

A shot from Umurangi Generation.
Credit: Umurangi Generation

It is rare to play a game with politics that are genuinely radical. It’s even rarer to see those politics presented as an object lesson rather than a sermon. Māori game developer Naphtali Faulkner’s Umurangi Generation – “umurangi” is te reo for “red sky” – achieves both.

Released in May 2020, the game speaks directly to the forces behind the violence of the year: not just the fires but the government’s failure to act on climate change; not just the Black Lives Matter movement but the escalating pandemic of state-sanctioned violence against Black people that precipitated it. Within its unapologetically anticolonial, antifascist sentiment is a celebration of Indigenous resilience, animated by Māori culture through graffiti, fashion, protest, community and art.

Set in the near future, the game depicts a dystopian Tauranga where alien bluebottles have begun attacking in waves. In response, the United Nations has deployed forces to barricade the city from the rest of the world. On its face, this could be the plot of any mainstream video game but the narrative isn’t delivered through dialogue or exposition and the player’s role isn’t to curtail or aid either side. Instead you are a photographer who completes photographic “bounties’’ for cash in the company of your friends, collecting new equipment as you go.

The game takes the point-and-shoot mechanics of a first-person shooter and applies them to a camera as you travel through the city. This observational position is far from passive: at every turn, Faulkner’s groundbreaking game elevates the gaze, in a game that begins as a city romp and develops into a commentary on the insidious nature of fascism.

It’s worth saying that Umurangi Generation is incredibly fun. Structured around missions and collectibles in the style of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the world is tantalisingly cool. Each set of bounties presents a genuine creative challenge; combined with light platforming mechanics that have the player clambering across the urban environment to get the perfect shot in a way that feels daring and transgressive, it has the instant feeling of a classic.

Your bounties are only judged by the inclusion of their subjects, but there are modest bonuses given for composition. As the game progresses and the player unlocks more camera lenses and editing options, the game’s luminous, stylish look also invites experimentation and play.

Each level combines relatively straightforward bounties (photos of spray cans or stray cats are relatively regular throughout the game) with more elliptical clues: in an early area, a bounty listed only as “sharkie” reveals itself as a mortar with a crude cartoon face drawn on it; in another, the player fulfils the bounty “Boomer” by finding the words BOOM and ERASER in a piece of graffiti.

As well as structuring each level, the bounties direct the player’s eye without exerting strict control, inviting the player to look closely at Faulkner’s remarkably characterful environments. As the player looks more closely at their surroundings, the political response to the crisis becomes more and more damning.

When I began playing, it took me about 10 minutes to deliver my bounties and finish each level. But as I became more invested in the world, I found myself snapping photos of things that felt important, regardless of bounty: a movie poster that reads DAWN OF THE SECOND WAVE splashed on a wall around the corner from a memorial; a muscle car with bluebottles painted on the sides.

Everywhere there are signs of a culture that would rather absorb and mythologise trauma than respond meaningfully to its cause.

This is the real horror at the heart of the game: it portrays a population that is expected to respond to a preventable apocalypse with thoughts and prayers, and then get used to it. As the scenes become more violent, more shocking, they also become more banal. On a train ferrying bloodied police and civilians out of a combat zone, one bounty asks you to document five American flags. The train is so overwhelmed with United States memorabilia that it is almost laughably easy to do so.

The real impetus behind the player’s exploration outside the bounties is that, in a game where the gaze is central, it is almost impossible not to consider what deserves witness. Instead of handing down its politics from on high, what Umurangi Generation offers its players is a gift: an opportunity to practise looking closely and carefully at their surroundings and the powers at play within them.

From the start, Umurangi Generation’s neon urban environments are set against an overwhelming police presence, with early maps delineated by sky-high police blockades. Soon, a player discovers they are financially penalised for photographing the bluebottles; the insidious overreach of control becomes more overt as the game continues and the police’s interest is increasingly shown to be in maintaining the appearance of dominance, rather than the safety of the people.

It is only in one level, in the hollow quiet of the walled city redevelopment project, that their presence briefly lifts. The player weaves between memorials to the fallen that are formal and informal – a Manaia statue commemorating the victims of the first wave is sharply contrasted by tracts of graffiti recognising later perhaps less politically expedient deaths that have otherwise gone undocumented.

It’s no mistake that this space of communal grieving seems to have been largely abandoned by cops whose overwhelming displays of force are supposedly intended to protect the people who live here.

The neon-bright world of Umurangi Generation reveals that the colony can only react to its self-made disasters with more colonialism, its ability to protect or heal stilted by its own violent structures. Even more remarkably, this extended meditation gains its insights by allowing the player more agency, not less. In part, the message sings because the player understands it on their own terms, as they see firsthand the insidious and overt ways that the system disregards life in favour of power.

The game is an education in bearing witness whose value persists outside the world of the game. Umurangi Generation is a game particularly for Indigenous people for whom surviving the apocalypse is a matter of daily life. Shot through the game’s apocalyptic setting is vibrant Māori street art and frequent phrases in te reo, imbued with defiance, anger and joy.

Umurangi Generation uses the intimacy of the first-person perspective to connect you not just with your camera but with the people around you. In every level you are accompanied by your friends who pose and dance to music from boomboxes or just bear witness with you. Here Indigenous cultures are not a historical note but a fundamental and living part of the world.

Umurangi Generation’s celebration of collectivity and resilience is fundamental to its unflinching critique of the machinations of power. Standing in stark contrast to the individualist hero’s journey that structures many dystopian narratives, the game is a portrait of a community that continues to survive the apocalypse. And you have the honour of taking that portrait.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Shooting the apocalypse".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.