“My little Ophelia, listen to the legend of El Molo,” a deep female voice says in Kiswahili while I watch a tall woman walking through the desert. Exhausted and parched, the character stops, stands up straight, and opens her eyes. The voice continues: “She received a message from the sky, she looked around her. There was a black stone, she took it in her open hand, she spat on it. She threw it in the air, the stone fell back to earth, water began to flow, Lake Turkana was born.”
Twenty-seven years after listening to her mother tell the origin story of the Elmolo people, a grown-up Ophelia stands in the streets of a Paris that lies in ruins, unrecognizable. We are in 2063, and Europe has turned to hell. This is the starting point of Usoni, the first postapocalyptic video game produced in Africa. Its first part was released for PC and Android in February 2021 by the Kenyan studio Jiwe, which means “stone” in Kiswahili, East Africa’s main language.
Located in the arid plains of northern Kenya, Lake Turkana has the shape of an elongated fish and might be the cradle of humankind. It is also the location where the Usoni project started two decades ago. In 2001, French director Marc Rigaudis shot a TV documentary about the El Molo people, Kenya’s smallest ethnic group, whose language is at risk of disappearing.
I first met Rigaudis in Nairobi in 2013 when I interviewed him for a Swiss newspaper. One year earlier, this versatile creator, born in 1950 and sporting a ponytail and stubble, relocated from Japan to Kenya. There he took up a teaching position at USIU Africa.
In the meantime, he had written a script inspired by his experience at Lake Turkana: “I registered the concept of a film in 2011 in LA which was about reversing the world. I shared my script with the students and proposed them to work on a series. They found the title Usoni, which is ‘future’ in Kiswahili.”
Students acted in the pilot episode, which was screened in Nairobi at the end of 2013. The trailer was released online and quickly attracted thousands of views. CNN, The Guardian, Voice of America, and many others picked up on the story, usually highlighting the core part of the plot: migration from Europe to Africa.
The main characters are Ophelia, a modest and brave pregnant woman, and her partner Ulysses, an AI genius who grew up as a child on the autism spectrum. The couple faces numerous challenges on their southward journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Since the great climatic catastrophe of 2035, life in Europe is plagued by pollution, chaos, and disease. The only place on earth where the sun still shines is Africa. But the new oasis has been transformed by the world’s wealthiest individuals into their heavily guarded private preserve.
“We first talk about what is happening now,” Rigaudis says with emphasis during a recent Zoom call, mentioning the refugee crisis, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following the 2013 screening, Rigaudis was contacted by production companies and hoped that Usoni could become more than a student project. He recalls with bitterness: “When I said I wanted this production to be made in Africa, they usually lost interest.”
He appears on my screen wearing a face mask and harboring the same casual look as eight years ago. He sits in a generic office space next to entrepreneur and gamer Max Musau.
“We worked together at USIU Africa. After I left the university in late 2018, I founded a company called Decoded,” Musau says. “The goal was to bring tech communities together and lower the barrier to learning technology and code. We also started organizing esports competitions, and we were thinking about creating video games. In June 2020, I remembered the Usoni story when I randomly met Mark at the supermarket. The minute I saw him I thought, ‘If I want to make a game, this would be the first place to start!’”
In recent years, Kenya has become a fast-growing tech hub, and in 2010, WIRED called it the Silicon Savannah. According to Douglas Ogeto, CEO of the Nairobi-based pan-African game publisher Ludique Works, there are up to 20 professional video game studios in the country. “We are still a bit behind South Africa,” he says, “but the gaming industry is quickly developing as Kenya benefits from affordable mobile data, new teaching institutions that focus on game development skills, and a growing market of young people with access to smartphones.”
Making a video game is a first for both Rigaudis and Musau. To kick off the Usoni project, they founded Jiwe in June 2020 and recruited a dozen young professionals. Among them were Telvin Njoroge, 25, and Arnold Mwaura, 22, the two self-taught developers who worked on the game from last summer until February.
Usoni Part I is a 2.5D puzzle platformer. Players lead Ophelia and Ulysses as they flee Paris toward the boat that will transport them to the gate of Africa, the island of Lampedusa. They have to cross industrial ruins, refugee camps, and hostile areas controlled by the almighty border police. In between, their smuggler, Felix, asks Ulysses to find a drug in an abandoned lab to cure his wife.
“We worked together at first,” Mwaura says. “Once we knew what he could do and what I could do, we divided things. Telvin worked on the AI side of the game, and I worked on the level side.”
After the alpha release last December, they spent a lot of time fixing bugs for the final launch. “We had a long list,” Njoroge recalls, while laughing and looking for the file on his computer. “One of the main issues we had was with our AI; it was not keeping up with the players. At some point, the character was supposed to climb a particular ledge, and it went further up and up without stopping.”
At this point, most of the bugs have been fixed and the gameplay experience is smooth, except for the last sequence, where Ulysses and Ophelia are sometimes stuck for several seconds in strange positions when falling into trenches, where they inevitably get shot by the border police.
Following a couple of unsuccessful tries, I jumped over all the trenches and finally embarked on the boat. In the last cut scene, it moves away from the shore and disappears in the mist. Then a “to be continued” message on a black background appeared on my screen. After just half an hour of playing, it came as a frustrating note, as I was just starting to feel immersed in the Usoni universe.
That said, this short first part is intended to be an appetizer to a richer, longer sequel that will dig deeper into the visual and narrative potential of the story.
The team at Jiwe is working on Usoni: Part II, which they expect to release in July or August 2021, ahead of a Part III scheduled for 2022. Both will be developed in full 3D. “In Part II, we will flesh out the characters, players will get to learn the backstories of Ophelia and other people around her such as Ulysses,” Kennady Kyalo says. At 31, this 3D artist is leading the work to create the Usoni universe.
The game’s postapocalyptic visual world and cut scenes are compelling, but it’s clear where they came from. “We were inspired by Blade Runner 2049 and video games such as Far Cry New Dawn and The Last of Us Part II,” Kyalo says. “We wanted to convey a sense of mystery, that’s why we used a lot of fog to hide the environment. We also wanted to play around with a winter atmosphere, as the sun has stopped coming out. It’s dark, cold, and you can’t really say what time it is.”
While quite unique in its genre among African productions, Usoni can relate to other recently developed video games with its Afrocentric vision and conscious decision to focus on African narratives and heroes, which are often sidelined in Western games. “Africa remains marginalized in the global video game industry," Musau says. “Yet there are tons of African stories to explore. We want to fill this gap.”
Simultaneously with the Usoni trilogy, Jiwe is kick-starting another production whose main character will also be an African woman. This second game will be inspired by the life and struggle of environmental activist Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.