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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'We Are The Caretakers' Puts Afrofuturism Front and Center

Afrofuturism, if you’re unfamiliar, is a movement in literature, music, art, video games, movies, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of global Black history and culture, or better yet, making them central themes. We’ve seen some games that take the concept to heart, like Usoni, but few go beyond including Black or African characters to actually include their stories or experiences.

We Are The Caretakers is an unapologetically Afrofuturist sci-fi squad-management RPG about protecting endangered animals—and your planet—from extinction. In the game, you recruit, train, manage and build squads of arcane protectors called the Caretakers. Set in the land of Shadra, a fictional nation in Africa, the story revolves around defending Raun, rhino-like creatures, from human and alien poachers. The game tries to go past the usual Western lens of wildlife conservation to see what people who live in areas where poaching is a common way of life go through. Some people need a way to survive, so they’re involved not because they want to be but out of economic need. We also see people who are in it for sport. And in between is the wildlife, on the brink of extinction.

Upon entering a fight, the game transforms into turn-based-style combat. The goal is familiar to RPG fans: Wear the poachers down by Will, indicated by a blue bar, or Stamina, indicated by a red bar. Then you use a finishing move to send them packing. The most surprising thing about fighting enemies in this game is that it’s extremely hard to diminish their Will.

The inspiration for We Are the Caretakers came from previous titles in the turn-based RPG genre, like Ogre Battle, XCOM, and Northgard. The game is well-polished, but it’s an even better representation of the Afrofuturism genre.

Scott Brodie, founder of Heart Shaped Games and lead developer on the game, told WIRED, “I look at Afrofuturism as a way to center stories around Black people and the broader diaspora and not being so Western-centric. I was first introduced to it through Black Panther. As well, throughout this project, I’ve really become a fan of Nnedi Okorafor,” the two-time Hugo award-winning Nigerian American writer. “It’s been great learning about other works in the genre while working on the game. I do think we ultimately saw that there is a non-Western story here that we could tell, and Afrofuturism really fit what we wanted to try to do.”

Afrofuturism doesn’t only promote representation for the Black diaspora; it can also create a sense of understanding between Black creators and viewers of all backgrounds—or at least a want or need to understand those lived experiences. Black people are often told those experiences are untrue. Afrofuturism often works to amplify elements and themes of Black culture: people, history, persecution, liberation, joy, community, and more. 

For example, people who can’t wrap their head around systemic racism can easily understand that the mutants in the Marvel Universe are treated poorly and should have protective rights. Afrofuturism will replace mutants with Black people directly—not as a stand-in race or group of people—and forces viewers and readers to engage with us as real people in complicated worlds. Art can make people think, change their minds, and understand human beings better. Afrofuturism in science fiction and speculative fiction can showcase what a world would look like based on different histories, or worlds where racism is but a dark splotch on human history. The more common approach is to swap in a mythological species for the struggles of real humans, or present racism in terms of genocide or warfare, which only encourages viewers or readers to have empathy when lives are at risk: something that doesn’t truly include or value those lives. We Are The Caretakers doesn’t take this approach.

This game shows Black people advocating for animals, working together to build healthy environments, stabilizing a community, and working to fend off the alien bad guys. This group of heroes is not considered heroes for the sake of survival. They are the lawmakers, law enforcers, and peacekeepers. It is a great change of pace that the bad guys and the good guys are both Black and come in all shades. There’s no colorism, where the light-skinned Black characters are pitted against the dark-skinned Black characters.

Xalavier Nelson, narrative designer on We Are The Caretakers, admitted to not always being comfortable with the idea of Afrofuturism.

“Afro was a way to grapple with a lot of internalized hatred I didn’t realize I had until I was forced to confront it,” he says. “Here we are making this Afrofuturist game, and I’m finding myself, despite the incredible art of the game, uncomfortable for some reason.“ And it wasn’t until I was on a plane watching Black Panther that I realized, oh, the reason I’m deeply uncomfortable with the representations that I’m seeing is because every other time that I’ve seen explicitly joyous Africans in culture and cultural influences … it’s been as a joke. It’s been a punch line in a comedy at some point. It’s been some sort of thing to make me feel less than.”

Nelson says that seeing Black Panther, and working on his own game, forced him to confront his own social conditioning and reclaim his own ability to care about, frankly, himself. He was missing, as he says, “the ability to invest in characters that look like me or that bore elements of my heritage. The result was We Are. To love this world I had to learn to love myself.”

Games like these not only expose people outside of the diaspora to our rich culture but invite more Black people to be proud of their heritage.

Anthony Jones, a veteran of Activision Blizzard, oversaw the game’s breathtaking graphics. The variety of skin tones, the outfits, and the body shapes and sizes of the game’s characters is something we haven’t seen in many other games. Instead, games often get darker skin tones wrong, if they offer more than one “dark” shade at all. In We Are The Caretakers, the looks and the outfits are African-inspired—so are the names. This game pulls from many African countries. Character have traditional names rooted in Twi, spoken in Ghana and by several million people, as well as Swahili, spoken in countries such as Kenya and Uganda.

“Xalavier made an important call to make sure that we got the naming right and it was authentic to the setting,” Brodie says. “We made a point to reach out to advisers who could help us build fictional names that still felt rooted in the regions we were representing.” The team was intentional about crafting these characters.

The soundtrack of We Are the Caretakers, composed by Jon Parra, deserves praise as well. There have been many hours after I was done playing the game that I just let the title screen music play. Hip hop is primarily infused into sports games or Grand Theft Auto, but here every track I’ve heard in the game has been a bop. It’s refreshing to hear hip hop elements throughout the game and used to fuel aggressive fights or intensify sadder moments. The soundtrack is available on Steam and on streaming services like Spotify—which became available in most African countries this year.

Games are political, like all forms of media, including entertainment. Not only does We Are The Caretakers bring awareness to poaching and environmental conservation, but having Black characters in a game that isn’t focused on slavery, the harm of Black bodies, or other Black trauma is a huge change in pace. Having outlets like We Are The Caretakers can be really soothing for Black gamers and people sensitive to the Black plight. This game isn’t rooted in xenophobia or colonization, or in Black characters saving white characters. The game is it’s own story, and it tells that story fearlessly.

We Are The Caretakers is available on Steam Early Access for $20. 10 percent of the revenue is going to the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Rhino Recovery Fund, which focuses on improving the health of rhino populations while also benefiting local people. Version 1.0 launches on the Xbox and PC late in 2021 featuring new chapters, game modes, and characters.

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