Hill Agency: Purity & Decay is an Indigenous game.
It's being developed by a majority Indigenous team at Achimostawinan Games, it's about Indigenous people, set in an Indigenous metropolis in a future North America on the verge of freedom from colonial oppression. And while it's being developed for an Indigenous audience, there's good reason to think its appeal will extend beyond far beyond that demographic.
After all, Hill Agency also features a number of qualities that have proven popular with general gaming audiences for years. It's a noir detective story set in a cyberpunk future, one where players step into the shoes of a private investigator looking to solve a murder and unravel a greater conspiracy, with a narrative that adapts and progresses whether the player is more Poirot or Clouseau in their deductive abilities.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Achimostawinan co-founder Meagan Byrne (Âpihtawikosisân - Métis) suggests she doesn't worry too much about Hill Agency being pigeonholed as a commercial product for a relatively small audience.
"That's fine to me," Byrne says. "I grew up with people who were fan translating dating sims from Japan. Those were not made for them. They were not designed for English speakers, but they went and played them anyway, either learning the language, translating it, or having a friend do it.
"That's my attitude to these things. People who want to engage with it will engage with it. It's already in English so most people will engage with it. In terms of the aesthetic pull, it wouldn't look any different to an outsider as something like Blade Runner would look like to an outsider. To somebody who doesn't understand the language, they would just be like, 'Oh, it's an aesthetic, and it's pretty and I like it. It's cool and it's alien.' But to those who do understand the language, there are cute little jokes and stuff to make them feel like they're in a community that's for them.'"
"I don't feel like I need to make it for a non-Indigenous audience because I know they'll come anyways"
In some ways, having the non-Indigenous audience miss those sort of nods can be a positive. Byrne said it might make the game feel less familiar to that audience, but added that the future is in some ways supposed to be a strange place.
"That's one of the things I always liked about William Gibson's pieces," Byrne says. "He dropped you right into their language and he didn't try to explain. You either figured it out or you didn't... So I don't feel like I need to make it for a non-Indigenous audience because I know they'll come anyways. And I know they'll get something out of it anyways that they enjoy, just like what I get out of Taiwanese films is different than someone who's from Taiwan. But I still enjoy them and continue to engage.
"I think it's a fallacy to say that if it's not catered to a group that they're not going to be interested in it. That's not true. People like weird stuff all the time and then they tell their friends it's cool, and then it builds."
That doesn't mean Byrne isn't taking into account the fact that non-Indigenous people will be playing the game. In fact, it was one of the original concerns Achimostawinan had after the project first came together as part of a 2017 game jam hosted by Toronto-based non-profit Dames Making Games.
"We had a very long meeting about the characters because people are going to want to cosplay them at some point, so we have to be very careful"
"When we first started, we had a very long meeting about the characters because people are going to want to cosplay them at some point, so we have to be very careful," Byrne says.
Byrne has designed all the tattoos in the game, but has been careful not to create any based on symbols that might have meaning to actual Indigenous groups.
"It's frustrating because we want to be true to ourselves, but we also understand this is something that will be consumed by a general audience," she says.
Cultural appropriation has been a concern for Achimostawinan for some time, and not just when it comes to non-Indigenous people cosplaying as game characters. Byrne and Achimostawinan's other co-founder Tara Miller (Maliseet) had previously been working on Sealskin, a 2D platformer that was originally intended to be a mix of various cultures' stories about beings that can change their skin from human to seal and back.
But Byrne says as development on Sealskin progressed, it became clear that it "just turned way too appropriative of Inuit culture, and it wasn't the direction I wanted to go with it."
Byrne and Miller ultimately decided it was better to drop the project than to retool it as much as would have been necessary to avoid that appropriation.
"If you don't have anybody on your team who's from that culture you're depicting, then what are you even doing?" Byrne asks. "You're not acting any differently than somebody who's not even Indigenous picking up those things because you don't understand what they mean. You don't understand why they're important or how they're supposed to be used."
Given some of the industry's previous depictions of Indigenous cultures, it's no wonder Byrne would want to avoid making similar missteps with her own work. And for developers who similarly would like to present Indigenous people or cultures in their work but want to do so respectfully, Byrne pointed to On-Screen Protocols & Pathways, a free guide produced by imagineNATIVE, an Indigenous-run charity for which Byrne serves as the lead digital and interactive coordinator.
The guide covers a number of foundational concepts, some of which will be common best practices when dealing with any marginalized community ("Nothing About Us Without Us"), and some which might be more specific to Indigenous groups.
"Do you just want to put some feathers on your characters as an aesthetic? If it's just an aesthetic, then just change the aesthetic"
One common problem Byrne has seen with the way developers and other media creators approach Indigenous cultures is that they often do so looking for little more than a rubber stamp.
"Usually what ends up happening is these companies go to them and say, 'We have X, Y, Z, can you sign off on them?' Go to them instead and say, 'We're thinking about doing a project that might involve your community. Would you sit down with us?'" Byrne says.
Byrne says doing the job the right way is difficult and time-consuming, and not everyone is going to be willing to go through that.
"But at the same time, do you need to do it?" she asks. "Do you just want to put some feathers on your characters as an aesthetic? If it's just an aesthetic, then just change the aesthetic."
In many cases, that seems to be what companies have done. Byrne says they might take out feathers in outfits and turn them into leaves, or otherwise remove Indigenous content from the games. She believes such moves often make for poorer storytelling, and over time have undermined any hope that mainstream publishers might commit themselves to better depictions of Indigenous people.
"That's why for me, I'm more interested in Indigenous people making stuff," Byrne said. "I'm not expecting anything from companies any more. We're just going to have to do it ourselves."
Achimostawinan is an example of that, but it hasn't always gone smoothly, in part because of Byrne's desire to have a majority-Indigenous development team. Generally speaking, Byrne says there are two types of Indigenous developers in the industry: veterans who have been around for decades and are too busy or ready to retire, and newcomers with talent but no experience. She's focused on the latter, which has meant some talent has been lost to high-paying gigs and a lot more mistakes in general.
"We're doing a lot of learning as we go rather than finding people who already have those skills who can do things a little quicker," Byrne says. "But I feel doing things this way means the next game we come out with will be even stronger, and we can have that cohesiveness culturally as a team, which is really important to me."
Hill Agency is set for release in the fall of 2021 on PC, Mac, and Switch.
"We're like the tortoise,' Byrne says. "Slow and steady, we'll get it done. It'll be good, and then we'll do the next one."