The Games Saying G’day To A New Australianness

Wayward Strand’s key art. Image: Ghost Pattern

“Hey mate.” Simple text floats across the screen, surprising in its familiar, casual Australianness. Even more surprising was the overtly anime-style character delivering it, in the middle of a stylish, visual novel cutscene.

In a world dominated by Untitled Goose Game and Hollow Knight, it’s no longer surprising to see an interesting, polished game like Necrobarista being developed by an Australian team — but having characters that speak like most of the people in my life is still a rarity.

Necrobarista is set in a Melbourne café, with part of its PAX demo involving a short exploration down a dark, rainy laneway to find it. Just like in the real Melbourne CBD, the alley is more mysterious than dangerous, more likely to lead to a niche local hangout than a urine-soaked collection of bins.

It’s a scene that’s so Melbourne it’s instantly recognizable — and, for a large part of Australia’s population, it’s far more relatable than the kangaroo-infested deserts normally exported to overseas markets.

Necrobarista’s cafe looks like it could easily be a trendy joint in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. Image: Route 59 Games

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger — a platformer from the early 2000s that latched onto the success of similar titles like Crash Bandicoot — might be one of the earliest Australian-made games to actually be set in Australia. While developers Krome Studios wanted to do justice to Australia’s unique landscape, culture and wildlife, pressure from an American publisher meant the game had to conform to the internationally marketable version of Australia, ockerisms and all.

Luckily, Australian-made games don’t face as much pressure to perform ‘Aussie’ in the key of Outback Steakhouse anymore. “We don’t intend on watering down our cultural identity for foreign markets,” said Damon Reece, lead writer on Necrobarista.

“I strongly believe that a game can have a very strong sense of cultural identity while still being accessible to people around the world, and Necrobarista is a great example of that.”

While much about Necrobarista is influenced by anime and Japanese-style visual novels (with Bakemonogatari and Eve no Jikan specifically mentioned as inspirations), Reece said the writing was definitely not — in fact, they approached the script more like theatre.

“Unlike traditional visual novels, we’re able to visually convey a wide range of things without relying on bespoke illustrations or custom character art,” they said. “So I leveraged that to my advantage, and wrote a script with very little prose or exposition.”

The familiar visual novel format of the game may even help Necrobarista’s unique brew of Australian culture reach more of an international audience. “We’ve gotten a few comments from Japanese players who seem to be super interested in the game because of its [Australian] setting,” said Reece.

“It seems like we’ve struck a really good balance of having a genuine Aussie flavour flowing through the script, without it getting to the point where it’s incomprehensible — because, let’s face it, we can be a little bit like that sometimes.”

A scene in Necrobarista. Image: Route 59 Games

As an Australian, the part of Necrobarista that excites me most is the idea of including Aussie folk hero Ned Kelly as a main character. The long-dead bushranger was initially included in an earlier game prototype developed by the Route 59 team, Reece said, but the team liked him enough as a character to keep him for Necrobarista. “I think a big part of why we kept him around is that he’s so visually distinctive. I do wish people would stop mistaking him for Commander Video, though.”

In a media landscape where anything American is seen as the norm, it’s not all that surprising or unusual to browse the Australian-made games at PAX and see Americanisms everywhere. In fact, it’s sometimes more surprising to hear an Australian accent in a game than to believe Aussie developers all source their talent from across the Pacific.

Some of Australia’s best-known games lean into American themes and settings hard — L.A. Noire has it right there in the name. This year’s break out Aussie hit Untitled Goose Game is set in a quaint and quintessentially British village, causing many to overlook its Aussie origins until the acknowledgement of Wurundjeri country and sovereignty that was tucked into the credits.

Many other Aussie-made games use traditionally Eurocentric fantasy settings instead — though fantasy settings don’t have to be Eurocentric, and as Indigenous developer Phoebe Watson points out, they can even be a fantastic place to incorporate Indigenous cultures.

This philosophy is on display in Chaos Tavern, the game Watson is currently working on. The ways this game incorporates its Australian heritage are less obvious than in Necrobarista, and at first glance you might assume its fantasy setting is just as faux-Euro as the rest of them.

Yet if you look closely at the poster, you’ll notice that the cute little bird delivering your in-game mail is a native Australian lyrebird. While the lyrebird is the only one encountered in the PAX demo, lead developer Ben Boyd tells me that all the birds encountered in the game will be native Australian species.

Chaos Tavern and its lyrebird postie. Image: DragonBear Studios

Chaos Tavern is incorporating more than just birds from the land it’s being developed on, however. Phoebe Watson was brought onto the project early this year, after hearing that the DragonBear Studios was looking for a game designer from an Indigenous background to help work elements of Indigenous culture into the game’s lore.

“At the beginning I did a lot of consultations and gauging with elders and community what kind of content we’d be able to integrate into the game,” Watson said. “Also what kind of things we should avoid placing into the game.”

She started these talks within her own community, the Yarrer Gunditj clan of the Maar Nation, though she’s hoping to consult with other groups too. “If you’re wanting to include Indigenous culture, you can’t speak to one group of people and apply it to the whole of Australia. It requires a lot more sensitivity.”

“An example that came from consultations and are slowly becoming a larger part of the game are tree ent like characters,” Watson says of the elements that have started to come to fruition in the game. “They express the values of Indigenous people that taking care of the planet is key. We should only take what we need.”

She stresses that the creatures themselves aren’t lifted wholesale from Indigenous mythology, however. “They more so embody the cultural ideals,” Watson said. “I wanted to steer away from taking specific entities from Indigenous culture and create new ones that reflect those. The fantasy genre really allows me to do that.”

The tavern from Chaos Tavern. Image: DragonBear Studios

As well as the ideals of Indigenous landcare that permeate how the player manages their tavern’s land, Chaos Tavern also features an Indigenous main character. “I worked with an Indigenous digital artist to create one of the main characters in the game and her backstory as well,” Watson said.

The part she is most excited about, however, is still to come. “We are working to start implementing language into the game as well,” Watson said. “It’s what I’m really excited for.”

The team behind Necrobarista expressed interest in adding more of Australia’s ancient culture into their games too. “If we’re successful enough to be able to fund a sequel, I would really love to work with creative consultants to find a respectful way to integrate Indigenous Australian cultural motifs, characters, and ideas into the story,” lead writer Damon Reece said.

“It’s a bit tricky, considering Indigenous beliefs and views around portrayals of the deceased, but I don’t think it’s impossible, and potential difficulties shouldn’t be something that stops us from trying.”

These titles weren’t the only games on display that dug into uniquely Australian experiences. The Black Widow’s true crime story is close to home for its creator — literally. The game is built around the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in NSW, which occurred around the same suburb where creator Richard Fox lives.

Another of the games set in Australia, Broken Roads, plays on the country’s propensity for post-apocalyptic drama — something I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of given the success of Mad Max and our government’s insistence on turning the country into an uninhabitable hellscape.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wayward Strand is a game that’s all about talking to elderly people, the inhabitants of an airship hospital floating over a seaside Australian town. The quiet game reminded me of summers spent visiting my grandparents, after they retired to a quiet beachside town on NSW’s north coast.

A chat with the team working on Wayward Strand unearthed many similar stories, personal experiences that had been woven into the game’s core. “Growing up in Port Melbourne I regularly spent long summers down the coast, and I also got to grow up playing in the sand, often as a fairly lonely, introspective art kid,” said artist Marigold Bartlett.

The Airship interior from Wayward Strand. Image: Ghost Pattern

“I’d grown up in Albury-Wodonga — twin “cities” on the New South Wales-Victoria border, halfway between Melbourne and Sydney,” said Jason Bakker, a writer, producer and designer on Wayward Strand. “While it wasn’t small-town life, it was definitely different to growing up in a major urban centre. I felt like my life — my story — was a bit disconnected from everything going on in the world. My world was our house, the corner shop, the church, and the tennis courts.”

Both Bartlett and Bakker talk about a feeling of isolation that permeates rural Australia, something so unique to our huge, sparsely populated country. “This is a place where smaller, stranger stories occur,” Bakker said, describing the elusive feeling that small-town Australian fiction often evokes.

The team on Wayward Strand have also looked to the land’s traditional owners in the course of doing this vision of Australia justice. “I’m aware that my perspectives are from just one type of Australian,” Bartlett added. “So it was important for us to work with the Bunurong Land Council to get some really invaluable insights to other perspectives on Australia at that time.”

Australia’s game industry has shared some unique and wonderful titles with the world in recent years, from Hollow Knight to Untitled Goose Game. But this year on the floor at PAX Australia, it felt like Australianness has become a much more desirable stylistic choice for our developers.

Whether it’s Melbourne’s unique coffee culture, the intricacies of rural life down under or the wisdom of the oldest continuous culture on the planet, Australian games are sharing so much more about our unique country.

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