By Mercedes Acosta and Meagan Byrne
With the world on lockdown and the gathering of large groups prohibited, many festivals have moved online to keep passions alive. The imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival likewise carved out their own online space.
Last year’s festival highlight of the iNDigital Space was the Night of the Indigenous Devs, and this year it was a virtual success (literally)! Saffron Aurora of Mighty Yell (a Toronto based Indie Video Game Studio) provided the fantastic artwork for this event, and while the normal joys of sitting on a panel at a physical convention were gone, the appealing layouts and brightly coloured artwork made up for it in a presentation that was both engaging and inspiring to watch.
Night of the Indigenous Devs is a place where Indigenous game developers from all walks of life can showcase their work, chat, skillshare and promote their games. This year it featured presentations from five Indigenous game developers while their works were shown on screen. Indigenous creatives tuned in to watch as both solo and team-created efforts showed off their hard work and amazing ideas. It was truly inspiring to hear these creative Natives talk about their work.
The evening was filled with incredible speakers, including special guest and founder of the first Indigenous Game Devs community Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe/Métis), maker of the Thunderbird Strike side-scroller and When Rivers Were Trails, a point’n’click adventure depicting the impact of land allotment in the 1890s.
Owner and lead game designer of Achimostawinan Games Meagan Byrne (Âpihtawikosisân [Métis of Ontario]) set the tone for the evening when she shared these poignant words: “Too often are we told we have to present our Indigeneity in video games in a particular way.” She stressed the value of a space where Indigenous game developers can come together and simply be, and be supported in the way they want to be seen.
Several innovative projects were shared throughout the night. Here is a glimpse at the brilliance that was recently showcased at Night of the Indigenous Devs.
Created by Shandiin Yazzie Woodward (Din. [Navajo]) of Subliminal Games, Button City is a wholesome, inclusive, low-poly game focused on friendship and community building. Button City is a testament to what happens when Indigenous game devs are allowed to develop their own way, free of expectations.
Created by the Samson Cree sister duo Keara and Caeleigh Lighting, Mîkiwâm is a visual novel about people in a fantasy world reclaiming gifts and connecting with ancestors in the face of colonization, where outcomes are affected by the use of herbal teas. One look at the calm and approachable artwork and muted palettes convinces players that the duo achieved their goal of a calm and relaxing game.
Presented by LeeAnne Ireland (Anishinaabe) of the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth, a member of the USAY team and a group of Blackfoot youth from Calgary that produced Finding Victor. This is a virtual reality (VR) escape room, with VR development by MAMMOTH XR. USAY wanted to provide engaging ways to bring awareness to both youth and larger audiences on how to reach out for help and access resources. The VR game has players searching for their friend Victor, who just lost his best friend to suicide. Despite legacies of intergenerational traumas and exploring many causes of Native youth homelessness, there is a happy ending!
Developed by Native Hawaiin Christian “Chris” Miller of Silver Spook Games, Neofeud is described as a dystopic cyberpunk game about a cyborg caseworker, a sentient machine person, and a socialist princess taking on a cabal of neofeudal trillionaires who live in floating golden palaces above slums. Chris’s upbringing influenced the creation of Neofeud on a deeply personal level. His creative work speaks even more evocatively of his experience growing up alienated and Indigenous than his eloquent words ever could.
Created by Naphtali Faulkner (Ngāi Te Rangi Maori), Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography game that heavily explores knowledge as an Indigenous focus, and deconstructs the Western gaze of oppressed Indigenous Peoples and oppression tourism in general. It was key to him to portray Indigenous Peoples as modern and contemporary; as Naphtali says of the Maori, “We’re not a static culture.
The Night of the Indigenous Devs was an exciting and colourful event, and with that, a new generation of Indigenous game developers have been motivated to go and do their own things, in their own ways, in their own spaces.
A recording of the event is available on YouTube for anyone looking to be inspired.
Mercedes Acosta (she/her or he/him) is a Taíno illustrator, writer and tabletop game developer. She’s published horror tabletop games like Los Arboles and WHAT HAPPENED, and works in children’s media currently with magical realism and urban fantasy.
Meagan Byrne is an Âpihtawikosisân (Métis) digital media artist and game designer born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario. She has been creating digital interactive works since 2014. Her designs are deeply rooted in Indigenous futurisms, Cree language/nêhinawêwin revitalization and Indigenous feminist theory.