Protecting Mexico’s Heritage Through Gaming

A game developer in Mexico goes to the source to save and share disappearing cultures, one quest at a time.

There is a wide world out there, though it sometimes feels smaller than ever, thanks to the internet. But entire cultures still relatively unknown by the general public are in danger of vanishing as their populations decrease. One way to prevent that is through video games.

“There are way too many cultures out there whose lore exceeds the entertainment value of invented universes,” says Edgar Serrano. “We could really exploit (in the best meaning possible) all the cultures and indigenous tribes that are dwindling in the dark, instead of just remaking Call Of Duty and Mario one thousand times.”

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Serrano works for a small game developer in Mexico called Lienzo. He is the director and lead designer of Mulaka, an adventure game steeped in the culture of the Rarámuri, also known as the Tarahumara, a Mexican tribe that lives in the Chihuahua region.

The game began as an adventure title in the vein of Nintendo’s storied Legend of Zelda series, which follows a young boy as he grows into a great hero and invariably saves a princess.

The decision to feature the Rarámuri culture did not originally come from lofty goals.

“It all really started as an inside joke. We used to say that we were going to make a ‘Zelda but with mexican culture.’ Slowly the idea started to gain acceptance, and it began being not so silly anymore,” Serrano said.

The game studio started speaking to tribe members and elders, soon realizing that using these myths gave the game purpose.

“This type of project could potentially start the ‘iconization process’ that other cultures went through,” he said, referring to the point at which a language becomes so well known by the general public that aspects of it become icons for the entire culture. Think Irish brogue, Southern drawl, and the New York accent.

“By the time we started doing the research, we were all interested. It’s just dripping with stories and lore,” said Serrano, thinking perhaps the language and culture of this Mexican tribe could get the exposure to make them iconic.

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In the game, the player controls the titular character Mulaka on his journey from warrior to shaman. This involves steeping players in the myths and language of the Rarámuri and facing challenges from beasts of the tribe’s mythology.

The studio spoke with both tribal elders and experts to gather details about quests, creatures and weapons, and to make everything more accurate.

“We got together a group of representatives and anthropologists, and with them we make sure we don’t put any misleading or untruthful things in the game,” said Serrano.

The creation myth and gods of the culture provide an interesting setting: humanity is not the center of the world. Instead, survival is at the mercy of the gods of the Sun, Moon and Twilight, who periodically end the world and start it anew.

Mulaka seeks the help of demi-gods such as Bear, Deer and River Snake. If he proves himself to these spiritual creatures, humanity may be deemed worthy and the gods will not decide to end the world again.

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A big part of the Rarámuri culture is the focus on long-distance running. The tribe’s history reveals that running was also a focus of their hunting and warring strategies, so it too became an integral part of the game.

Serrano believes that Mulaka will need to succeed as more than a cultural artifact.

“The game itself will offer at base value what any game offers: an awesome entertaining time and a cool story,” said Serrano.

“It’s clear to us that most players wouldn’t care less about the culture in which the game is based on. But we think it’ll at least spark their interest, and that’s all we really want.”

 

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