Using photography to document the end of the world in Umurangi Generation

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Nominated for Excellence in Narrative, the Nuovo Award, and the Seumas McNally Grand prize, Umurangi Generation is a game of photography at the end of the world – a few stolen photographs of humanity before an extremely preventable oblivion takes us all.

Gamasutra spoke with Naphtali Faulkner, creator of Umurangi Generation, to talk about what inspired them to make a game that draws out the player’s creativity, the vital message behind the game’s grim events, and how photography could make the player really look at the meaning contained in the game’s world.

My name is Naphtali Faulkner, I am a Ngai Te Rangi designer currently living in Australia. I am the director ORIGAME DIGITAL and creator of Umurangi Generation. I coded, modeled, made sure the correct beats hit, and designed the photography gameplay. I could not have made the game without the help of Thor High Heels, the game’s composer. 

As for my background in games, I worked mainly in creating Apps, a very lifeless space one which has become increasingly homogenised over the years and one which things such as Human Centred Design takes centrestage.

I came up with the concept of Umurangi Generation’s gameplay while teaching my younger cousin how to take photos using my DSLR. Seeing his passion for photography bloom in the space of an afternoon was great. I noticed I was teaching him sort of similar to a video game tutorial.

The thematic content of the game is based on looking at how neoliberal spaces are excellent at making people comfortable in the event of crisis. We see that this is not an exclusive trait to the left or right, but something that is the backbone of the space. In the game, we see that the people of the space have seen a shift in marketing, movies, cool car design, and governmental messaging based on how the state of the world is and how a totally avoidable disaster hit the world.

I used Unity to create the game. This was my first time working in 3D, so I wanted to focus on something that was simple to work around and just try to do that well. That ended up being the 3D camera.

At the end of 2019, the bushfires in Australia were something which affected most people living in Australia. My mother’s home in the middle of nowhere was burnt to the ground by the fires, and I went out to see what had happened. During that time, I got a chance to see how the sausage is made, so to speak – how a disaster response happens and how it is responded to in the current political climate, and the idea being that Fire-Fighters, Scientists, and Indigenous Rangers have been saying forever that climate change is happening and having significant effects on the land.

Fire fighters have been saying that the time to do a safe burn offs is getting shorter each year, scientists have been able to deliver concrete evidence year after year as Australia’s yearly temperature highs get referred to as ‘unprecedented,’ and Indigenous people who know the Country have often been listened to but not heard when asked about what to do. The game is about being in one of these neoliberal hellscapes, where what is going on is obvious to anyone walking through it, but you see things like political discourse and marketing try to talk around the problem and make the populace feel comfortable when the boot of the state rests firmly on their necks.

The DLC looked even closer at this as we saw the same script for these issues play out, rather than Climate Change being a ‘Chinese Hoax to make manufacturing uncompetitive,’ we saw the same thing happen again with COVID-19 being referred to as a ‘Chinese Hoax’ as well. There is a very simple reason for this if you ask any political scientist or academic theorist. 

The game world is one which is Cyberpunk – the original meaning of the genre, one which holds a mirror up to the society it is built in and accelerates the problems without fixing them. In the 80’s, and where we see a lot of cyberpunk games reference from, the world was one flirting with the excess of the 80’s and the arrival of neoliberalism into the modern political scene, one where money could buy anything including political influence. This cyberpunk is very referential to the 80’s where things like crime and drugs were the 2 biggest issues the discourse at the time would reference.

Umurangi Generation is about taking the formula of what makes Cyberpunk and applying it to now, looking at things like totally preventable tragedies being games played by partisan politics, how neoliberalism aides the rise of neofascism, how the issue is talked about but not solved, how the police break their own rules, and much much more. The idea with the game was to go all in, to make something that once it started to ‘get political’ at ankle height, it was time to take the dive and jump right in. This approach lead to us talking about a lot of stuff that is basically invisible to the majority of YouTube hecklers and gamers which are only conditioned to see politics as ‘thing I don’t like’.

Photography, as it turns out, is a perfect way to get players to look and observe the environment. It is very hard to deny the existence of something if you are an actor participant in the story. We wanted players to be able to walk through a space and understand what this space meant to the people inside it.

We wanted to gradually ease the players into photography so that absolute newbies would be able to learn the process of photography one bit at a time. This meant introducing a selection lens for what you do before the shot and the corrections for what you can do after the shot. We then hid more content under the bonus objectives which would allow players who were invested in photography to go further than the basic skill set and move into more advanced control with things like ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. It is great to see that many of the players who have finished the game have decided to take up photography as a hobby after playing and exercising their creative energy outside of the game.

I think there are a few reasons why. A pessimistic one would be that we often see that creativity gets bolted down if it could possibly make the game look bad, or in a marketing sense make the game seem unappealing. With the rise of photo modes in games, we often see that restrictions are places on what players can take photos of, which tends to make them mostly become a homogenous image (usually a highly detailed character model in front of a blurred background environment).

With this game game, players have to frame what they see for the objectives. Over time, they will begin to frame outside the objectives and experience the story from a new perspective. Taking their own photos ties them to the world; they have taken an artefact of the world, which is something they will look at and remember how they felt in that space.

In the space we exist in at the moment, there is an immense value in making art during a time of crisis. This is good for your mental health, but also it allows you to unpack what is going on. I believe something many don’t realise is that almost all ‘classic rock and roll’ from the 60’s and 70’s was political in nature, as it reflected the state of that generation in a time of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights era (Songs such as “Ohio”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Run Through the Jungle”, Hendrix’s entire discography). With a game like this, players will see what is going on quite clearly. It is up to them how they want to focus it.

There are moments in the background of what is going on in the game which I believe are some of the bigger moments where the players feel the point of the game. Not to discourage reviewers who don’t like the game, but I saw one which made the point that the game’s politics were bad because you were just a bunch of sad kids who sit around don’t do anything. That is kind of the point. When you play the game, you are not a space marine or conqueror hero – you are like what many of us are at the moment: young people who are forced to watch the world die as those in power waste time discussing if the issues even exist.

When players experience the game, they get to points where it is obvious the end is near. They can see things which can’t be resisted or stopped. The time to act on the problem has passed. As an observer, you get to see what is going on from your own perspective and frame those last moments. Because of the environmental storytelling nature of the game, it is possible for players to miss the clues of what is coming. This is intentional, as it is part of what Neoliberalism is good at is distracting people from what is going on so that when those chickens come home to roost, there is this shock we see.

For example, the midway point of the base game is something you can pick up on in the first minute of the game if you have been conditioned to see it, but by the next 2 levels, if you are paying close attention, it should be clear that something is not quite right in the world. Looking at the observations of players, we can see that some know what is coming whereas others are left in bewilderment.  

This game is essentially a message that ‘there will be an Umurangi Generation if we continue down this path.’ That is to say, there will be a last generation who inherits all of the mistakes of the previous ones if nothing is changed.

In the DLC we see a message about the nature of protest; if you pick up on what is going on in the game, there is a genuine anger the ‘top side’ population of the game has towards the UN. This is because of something very easily explainable: the UN has been killing people in ‘collateral damage incidents’ – incidents which they are not willing to be held accountable to.

Last year, when we saw the response to Police Murders and the strings which held that system on course, we saw many responses. The response I believe best explains everything is the one which came from those communities: ‘stop killing our families’. Most responses from communities have been extremely reasonable, such as accountability and insurance. However, what we often saw in this space was the state breaking its own rules. We saw things like Lafayette Square bashing reporters live on TV, the Black reporter from CNN arrested live on TV while his crew continued to film, and the violent response from police, which, mere months later, was shown to be one sided when Maga Boomers stormed a government building.

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