Talking Climate Change And Maōri Culture With Umurangi Generation

Cameras see everything

Last month Playism published Umurangi Generation, a game where players get to photograph lo-fi landscapes in the midst of a kaiju apocalypse. Made in Australia by a solo Maōri developer, one could get away with calling it “Jet Set Radio with a DSLR camera”. As the story progresses, themes of government incompetence and environmental decay in the game’s low-poly world become increasingly apparent.

I got to interview developer Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner and music composer Adolph “Thorhighheels” Nomura, covering the politics, current events, and culture that inspired Umurangi.

Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner

Firstly, could you go over who you are and your role in Umurangi Generation?

Veselekov: My name is Naphtali Faulkner. I am from the Ngāi Te Rangi iwi (tribe) living in Australia.

I did everything except the music. I made the game in about 8-10 months. I started full-time work at the start of this year. I come from a school of design which moves away from western/human-centred design. It is called respectful design.

That’s not something I’m familiar with. What’s Respectful Design all about really? How much influence did that have over the game?

Respectful Design is by Dr Norm Sheehan. He is an Aboriginal Designer from Australia. I can’t really explain respectful design in a sentence because it is sort of an entire philosophy of design that goes along with it. Where I think it departs most from traditional design is that it says agency is with a community, not the designer who comes in. For this game, the players (the community) decide how they want to take photos and what is a good photo, not the game (the design).

I noticed that message at the heart of the game. Could you tell me where the whole concept for Umurangi Generation started?

The idea for the game came from teaching my younger cousin how to use a DSLR camera. I noticed that I was explaining stuff to him like a video game.

The concept of the game’s story and themes came from my experience with the bush fires that happened in Australia and the government’s shit house job at not only reacting to them but ignoring the issue of climate change for years.

The government in Australia has been ignoring the impacts of climate change for decades at this point.

It is one of the things where they were warned for years in advanced about the bush fire seasons in Australia getting worse every year.

This stuff that happened in Oz [Australia] was simply the point where the bowl overflowed.

What effect did working on it amidst COVID-19 have?

Well for me going through COVID was more or less just a solidifying of the feelings. It was for me a “here we go again” moment. We started to see the soulless ads roll in of either government or commercial places using the COVID stuff as a smokescreen to either push a product or policy (“We are all separate, but we need to stay together right now, get 25GB a month extra when you blah blah blah”). We also started to see the normalization and messaging of the idea of COVID as something we should get comfortable with. These are defining traits of neoliberalism. 

For me, this game is about taking that underlying concept to its extreme, accelerating it with the future/cyberpunky setting to where the crisis in the game is something that was avoidable.

Is this your first game? How’d you get into game dev?

Yeah, this is my first ‘real’ game if that makes sense. For five years, I worked in doing community work, making apps with local aboriginal people. At night I would dabble in smaller 2D projects, but this game is the first real thing I made. 

For me, this project was about building up confidence in myself and experimenting with non-conventional design stuff in a game space. I think players are seeing that stuff as really enjoyable.

About Maōri culture and its place in the game: I noticed visual and linguistic references throughout. Obviously, there’s the title (the Steam page notes that Umurangi means “Red Sky” in Te Reo, the Maōri language), but what about other things like the feathers and the words that appear at the beginning of each level?

The words at the beginning are place names.

Are any of the game’s other visual elements related to Maōri culture? What was going on there with the ending?

There are a lot of layers to the ending. I wanted to make it be in a way where players can interpret it how they want. In Maōri iwi, we have certain animals which are chosen to represent us once humans are no longer here on earth. For me, it is the mud crab.

Whoa. Does that have any relation to the other animals that appear in the game, such as the birds and cats? I noticed a couple rather large birds in the game.

The Huia which appears in the game was originally going to play a little bigger role. The Huia is an extinct bird in NZ that was poached. The feathers of the Huia are treasured by families and are often passed down. There are characters in the game who wear feathers in their hair. The Huia appears at the end as a spirit form.

Stylistically are there any games that had a big influence on Umurangi? The first thing it made me think of was Jet Set Radio.

Yes JSR definitely but also the designs of Yoji Shinkawa (Metal Gear Solid, Death Stranding) and to some extent the Barbie Doll design nature of the Arma series.

Barbie Doll design? I play quite a bit of Arma and haven’t heard that term.

In Arma, there are like tons of items which you can place down and rotate, and it all feels like a little Barbie playset where the little operator man has his gun and his rations and his radio and his little emergency IR light and so on and so on. A lot of it does nothing in the minute-to-minute gameplay. But it all adds up in making the game suspend your disbelief. When designing the art direction of each levels, I was thinking about what mundane items should be in there as well.

Adolph “Thorhighheels” Nomura

Could you start by telling me a bit about who you are and how you came to score Umurangi Generation?

Well I’m Thor, Thorhighheels on YouTube and I make music under Adolf Nomura, and I guess I’m mostly known, if at all, due to the former. 

Tali (Ves) knew of me because of that too, and I take it he also found my music as a result. He shot me an email about a year ago, asking if he could use some of my music for a game he was doing, which wasn’t Umurangi, but it looked cool either way, and I was also secretly dying to compose music for some games, so I replied all like “Yes but please also let me do some original shit!” 

Fast forward a few months, and he links up again with another game, this time even cooler, as it was Umurangi now, once again asking if he could use some tracks. From that point on, we started to keep in touch more over twitter DMs, and later Discord, and as his project grew, I also got to do some original tracks and even the sound effects.

Was there any particular way in which this game’s themes influenced the tracks you made for it?

Well, the majority of the music in it was stuff I had already made prior, so those tracks fitting is mostly down to him just knowing what’d fit good. As for the original stuff, I definitely took the game’s visuals, the general tone & laid back gameplay vibe, and what I knew about its themes and twists into consideration.

Stuff like the graffiti, the colour pallets, the very urban look of it all. The original tracks played off that a bit more. Though honestly my general style of production just melds pretty well with the game in general. I can imagine he probably also made large parts of it with my music in mind just as much, considering we were talking prior to & during development.

I see since working on Umurangi you’ve started work on your own game. How did that come about?

I had been sitting on ideas of years, but talking to Ves inspired me to finally bite the bullet and do it. He’s also been helping me with programming a lot, and just general troubleshooting here & there. It’s been a lotta fun so far! And I’m super grateful he’s putting up with my bullshit.