Lit by a Blazing Sun
Sam Bodrojan on Umurangi Generation
At this year’s E3 Expo, the developers of Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 2042 insisted that their game was not political. Never mind that in this upcoming entry in the military multiplayer Battlefield franchise, where players would embody “No-Pats,” climate crisis refugees who fight to control resources, the level designs are erected from the next-gen spectacle of rising sea levels and forest fires. In an interview with IGN, DICE developer Daniel Berlin claimed this charged setting was solely for “gameplay reasons.” Yet to suggest that such a nihilistic vision of the near future has no context beyond immediate sensory gratification is astonishingly grim.
Video games that appropriate and reduce complicated present political realities have been exponentially increasing in frequency throughout the past decade, from 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which featured a level where the player participates in a terrorist attack at an airport, to Amazon’s upcoming MMO New World, a semiotic travesty where you play as a fantasy colonist. Recently, though, as the horrors of climate change become immediately visible in the world around us, those narrative and thematic inclinations encroach on the very layout and world design of games themselves. Breath of the Wild’s entire combat loop is a Rube Goldberg machine of weather effects scattered across a landscape of broken buildings left by a murdered society, and the villain’s purplish oil-like substance coats every dungeon. Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020) iterates upon the original game’s famous opening act of ecoterrorism, where the hero helps blow up a reactor sapping the planet of its resources; in one of the central cutscenes, a character cries out, “You gonna stand there and pretend you can’t hear the planet crying out in pain?” Climate change is everywhere; you can’t miss it.
Enter Umurangi Generation, a first-person photography sim from solo developer Naphtali Faulkner, a Māori man (an indigenous people of New Zealand). The title comes from the Māori word for “red sky,” a reference to the Australian bushfires of 2019 and the government’s inept response. The game follows a group of friends across the city of Tauranga during a lengthy, arduous war against massive, invading aliens. The player must snap photos in a series of levels and complete a checklist of “photo bounties,” while exploring and capturing elements of the material reality presented. There are optional achievements and bonus objectives, but no strict time limit, no fail state. The player can stay in a level for as long as they wish, taking as many photos as they can, using rolls of film found scattered about the world. The next level is unlocked after every photo bounty is completed and a parcel, ostensibly containing your photos, is delivered to a drop-off location. The game and its expansion, Macro, run a brisk 12 levels, taking about five hours to complete. Compared to even modern indie games, it has a startlingly idiosyncratic pace, methodical and low-intensity, completely uninterested in the propulsive mania that fuels most critical darlings of the medium. Umurangi shares few of the priorities of fashionable game design, instead asking players to pause and to really observe the world around them.
Deciding how to look at the world becomes the totality of Umurangi, its arc and its puzzle. Faulkner gave a round of interviews to commemorate the Switch port for the game during E3. Talking to The Gamer, Faulkner correctly asserted that, “Games have a very comfortable relationship with fascism.” In Umurangi, you peer through your camera using the same right click–left click apparatus that’s become the video game staple of firing a rifle. There is an intense focus on learning the positional possibilities of a layout, like the vantage points of a map in the tactical shooter Valorant. Taking a picture has the same effect as firing a bullet would in another game; it feels powerful and tight. This mechanical subversion doesn’t suggest some wholesome condemnation of violence, nor does it directly rebut the hysterical cries of the politicians who raged against Doom in the ’90s. Umurangi does understand, however, that the fantasies a game offers its characters are inherently tied to the politics of its content. From the most basic interaction of the game, Faulkner evokes our uncomfortable relationship to the fascism that sits at the core of many games, a Pavlovian dopamine rush meant to mimic the very actions that imperialist militaries use to oppress, control, and murder in the name of jingoistic glory, and subversively offers an alternative path of interaction.
At the end of each level, the player unlocks more lenses and photographic features—contrast, exposure, aperture settings and shutter speed, tint, chromatic aberrations— allowing you to replay previous levels with new gadgets. After every photo is taken, the game grants a luxurious indefinite pause, allowing the player to tweak various elements of the photos before saving the image and resuming the level. The persistent bonus objectives, which grant further customization options for the camera, propel you to interrogate discrepancies between reality and the images you are asked to create. One task requires that you recreate a postcard, emphasizing the dramatic ironies of visual propaganda, where a tourist’s narrow vision of gorgeous locales are in reality cluttered with failing infrastructure and people displaced by their own government. To beat a countdown timer for speedy photo delivery, the player must often traverse a level multiple times, forcing a familiarity with the space. After a while, it feels like moving through a daily commute. None of this is strictly necessary for completing the game, only for those passionate about photography or who want to spend more time in the world. There is no need, really, to edit photographs or gather every bonus objective, beyond the impulse for aesthetic expression, the urge to inhabit Tauranga fully. The game can be a full experience playing through each level once, taking pictures in a utilitarian manner with zero artistic purpose. All of these bonus objectives are there for those who merely want to see better.
The locus around which all this play circulates is the camera, a finely tuned, expressive, rich feat of programming. The lie of the digital age was that both images and the tools for creating them would become more accessible than they had been in the age of Polaroids and disposable plastics. Nowadays, everybody has constant access to a camera, but the surveillance state and the fetishization of high-end digital equipment narrowed once again the amount of circulation an image can get, not to mention its impact even once it has been witnessed on a national scale. The algorithmic and institutional privileging of visuals that do not challenge neoliberal ideas of institutional decency has long banished that naive hope of radical visual literacy. In our digital world, body cameras cannot be trusted, deepfakes have their home in the domain of 4chan, and TikTok encourages mass-scale homogenization of trends, images, music, and even camera filters. Umurangi offers a simple fantasy: access to a simulacra of a great DSLR, the beginner kind that usually runs between $500 and $700, available in a game that only costs 25 bucks. The captured images form the player’s “truth,” so to speak—their favorite bits of graffiti, the way sunlight hits a friend’s hair, memorial candles glittering amidst forgotten alleyways. Scrolling #UmurangiGeneration on Twitter reveals a collage of hundreds of players’ loving articulations of a place. Photos from the game can have highly varied aesthetics in a way that social media and the strict software limitations on smartphone cameras so often disallow. To interact fully with this game is to see not just Faulkner’s design but also the sensibilities of every player who has ever booted it up.
And why not dive eyeballs-first into such a richly rendered reality? There is no passive play in Umurangi. Even excluding the opportunities for creative expression, you cannot progress past a single level without actively noting the world around you. Some more expensive productions like Cyberpunk 2077 and Horizon Zero Dawn have included similar photo modes, with worlds in much higher fidelity than Umurangi’s sparse polygons, but Faulkner’s design sensibility begs to be witnessed with care. Potential subjects are expressively positioned, the contents of every asset texture are striking, and the world itself is full of dynamic angles. The situations to be photographed are equally dramatic. We see community members providing care and food and shelter for each other, hiding from police, and hanging at memorial sites, bleary-eyed in train cars. The places and people of Umurangi are more concretely realized than those in many modern games, making the act of simulated photography something that rewards deep and honest attention.
For all the life and detail in his game’s design, Faulkner intentionally and deliberately avoids the imperialist satisfaction of intruding on the intimacies of homes and cultures foreign to the player. There is no extensive lore bible, no way to fully grasp a character or a culture or a creature floating far off in the dark ocean. The player is exclusively exploring public spaces. Barring the tutorial level’s rooftop skatepark, cops become an omnipresent force occupying the perimeter of the game’s levels, while signs scattered throughout echo anti-cop sentiments. The walls are plastered with eulogies and advertisements and jingoistic calls to enroll in the army. It becomes increasingly clear that the police are acting in direct opposition to the well-being of the civilians. The game’s central conflict is not just a war but also an excuse for the government to pursue a fascist occupation of civilian spaces under the guise of protection.
Umurangi comments directly on a lineage of environmental storytelling-heavy FPS games, drawing from the wall-writing in the nasty crevices between Portal’s pristine test chambers and the flooded hallways of Bioshock’s Randian Atlantis. Unlike those games, where great lengths are taken to make the rooms uninhabited, here many of the spaces are crowded by marginalized characters, working and hanging out with their friends and performing mutual aid in the middle of an alien invasion. For the majority of the game, these civilians are stuck in a perpetual and terrifying present. The world has already collapsed, and unlike the mass destruction so often suggested by apocalypse fiction, it is a distended, grueling death. People will only disappear long after they have been sentenced to die, and the player will be there with them, out in the open. At the end of the base game, the player wanders out onto a beach with several Māori spirits and a huia, a long-extinct bird. A dedication reads: “To the last generation who has to watch the world die.” You will see us, the game seems to say. The player cannot meaningfully change what is happening alone, but can serve as an honest witness.
This contradiction between the narrative of the state and lived experience is further complicated by Faulkner’s chaotic ekphrasis. The game’s references merge political histories and cultural ones with dense referential fervor. There is the colonization by the U.N. of Māori land, a level named the Walled City, after a military fort-cum-urban settlement in Hong Kong that was demolished in 1993; an epidemic similar to COVID-19 looms in the background of many scenes; and the game’s finale is a civilian protest against police, drawing comparisons to the Black Lives Matter rallies that occurred during the development of the Macro expansion. The world is steeped in the warm punk glow of Jet Set Radio’s spray paint and rollerblades, and the elementary physics of the premier children’s platforming chatroom Roblox. The mechs of Gundam, a massively popular Japanese franchise of anime, toys, and build-it-yourself model kits that’s been running strong for four decades, are an obvious influence as well; the similar-looking machines employed by the world’s police a direct commentary on Gundam’s often uncomfortable association with fascist aesthetics. The invading aliens come from the same sea as the archetypical kaiju, Godzilla, who began as a metaphor for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Absorbing Umurangi and its political message is as much about absorbing the propaganda and ingrained narratives required by imperialist culture and seeing art for what it is. To piece together the story is to call upon and call into question the player’s knowledge of cultural ephemera and historiography.
It is the last level, chronicling a civilian protest against the police, that finally screams out Umurangi Generation’s mission statement in all its despairing and provocative glory. The wall writing reaches its apotheosis: YOU CAN’T KILL AN IDEA WITH GIANT ROBOTS. SORRY FOR NOT WANTING TO DIE. In a game where character models scarcely move, here approaches a monolithic police mech ascending into the sky, blocking out all light, before looking down upon the player with red eyes. The violence used by the state in the name of colonialism will always inevitably be used against all of us who live under it. Even for a player who shares the developer’s leftist politics going into the game, the finale provides the rare moment that shatters previous notions of what games can do. We—as players and humans—have an obligation not to look away, and the vision bestowed upon us by Umurangi Generation is first blinding, then radiant, a gift to see across the horizon towards a brighter future for the political potential of video games.