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The Umurangi Generation is Asking You To Care

Jet Set Radio meets Pokemon Snap to tell a story about youth rebellion in a time of Bushfires, COVID-19, and government apathy.

Source: Umurangi Generation

At the turn of the century, SEGA released an unconventional new classic: the exuberant Jet Set Radio, a videogame about roller skating, graffiti, running from the police, and, above all else, being young, stylish, and pissed off.

Riffing off of the raw, riotous energy of the Japanese youth in the 1990’s, Jet Set Radio painted a brightly colored picture of youth rebellion. Japan in the 90s (“The Lost Decade”) was plagued by a sharp economic downfall that stymied job growth and led to a wave of young criminal activity — the number of minors arrested for serious felonies rose by 59% in just the first six months of 1997. People who had been living their lives in bubbles of world-renowned safety suddenly feared knife attacks from masked teens riding bicycles.

Here in 2020, disillusionment and fear might as well be acceptable currencies at any currency exchange. Despite periods of rocketing global economic growth, young generations across the globe continue to face similarly desolate outlooks. As such, the youth disillusionment at the heart of Jet Set Radio still rings true for many — and so does the appeal of its pointed, neon aesthetic. This stylish melancholy oozes from a variety of visually similar games like the Persona series and The World Ends With You, games awarded with cult-like status. But a new kid is in town, freshly and unmistakably 2020; here to re-imagine both the mechanics and the meaning behind this beloved genre of had-enough teens: Umurangi Generation.

Source: Umurangi Generation

At its heart, Umurangi Generation is a photography game.

Mechanically, it’s like handing Ash Ketchum from Pokemon Snap a DSLR. You have a variety of lenses at your disposal, from standard to wide-angle to fisheye. The game even includes a versatile photomode, allowing you to change the exposure, color balance, tint, saturation, and contrast of your photos.

For Umurangi’s developer, Tali Faulkner (known popularly online as Veselekov), photography as a game mechanic wasn’t just a creative choice — it was born from a drive to educate.

“I have a little cousin, and last time I got to see him I sat with him and explained how to take photos with the DSLR. While showing him how to handle the camera correctly —how the cap goes on until you are ready to shoot, [securing] the neck strap, how to change lenses — I started to realize that I was essentially explaining it to him like a video game tutorial.”

“After that, my little cousin got into photography that summer and started taking photos for his school newsletter based on some of the things I had taught him. It made me think about how there were not really any games which captured this learning experience,” Faulkner recounted.

While showing him how to handle the camera correctly — the cap goes on until you are ready to shoot, [securing] the neck strap, how to change lenses — I started to realize that I was essentially explaining it to him like a video game tutorial.

After the core mechanic was established, all that was lacking was a central game loop. This is where Faulkner introduced objectives, fun goals like capturing a photo with seven birds — pigeons and penguins alike — or two boomboxes, or a certain variety of graffiti, or a mountain peeking out over the sunset.

“I think the magic with objectives is that I gave people enough variation where they can find their own angle to take each photo in and still get the points. They’ll move around for five minutes trying to get an angle they like. And then on top of that they’ll take more time than I thought anyone would just editing that photo. It’s really encouraging to see that.”

For Faulkner, successfully replicating a DSLR mechanic in Unity was not enough; he started thinking about the game’s future beyond an educational tool, and towards something with a distinct look and feel. He began to contemplate aesthetics, influences, the game’s central messaging — and settled on a fluorescent, in-your-face style that is impossible to look away from.

Source: Umurangi Generation

When considering the game’s aesthetics, two clear influences emerged: the near future designs of Ryuta Ueda, Chief Graphic Designer on Jet Set Radio, and Yoji Shinkawa, mecha designer for the Metal Gear franchise.

“I only very recently played Jet Set Radio, actually, for a video essay I was doing. For me, playing it for the first time on a modern console, you could see that they did a lot of efficient things with the low-poly aesthetic. They were able to cut a lot of corners,” Faulkner said. For an indie developer, the idea of producing something minimalist yet striking was immediately attractive. It also helped that the ideas conveyed by the style went beyond the superficial — aiding in the storytelling, too.

“One of things I looked at specifically from [Jet Set] was the advertising billboards. One thing you’ll notice with that is it’s very much about that early 2000’s ‘corporations control everything’ message. That’s still a message that’s around today, but that message was specifically for that time. For me, I think my message is very much that ‘neoliberalism makes you comfortable’. Jet Set felt like a very good example of having a message and [integrating] it into the gameplay.”

In Umurangi, the littered environment serves a similar function to Jet Set’s graffiti’d billboards. Government cargo occupies the scenery, United Nations jets fly over your head and shake the ground beneath you. You feel very much that you are in an occupied space, simultaneously supervised and left behind. With red skies looming above — a reference to the game’s titular translation from Te Reo Maori to Red Sky Generation — the player gets the sense that the real narrative of this photography game lies not in text-boxes, but in the subtext embedded in your surroundings.

“I chose Umurangi Generation, you know, Red Sky Generation, because the idea was to talk about how our generation is coming of age at the moment having to deal with older generations destroying the earth in-front of us. And we can’t really do anything about it. We can go and protest, sure, but in terms of being the people who actually push the buttons, we’re limited in that space.”

“The idea in choosing that title was that someday there is going to be a last generation. A generation who is in the position we’re in at the moment. They’re going to have to just sit by and watch. There’s going to be a point where we can’t fix it. A generation that won’t have that same hope that I have at the moment.”

This theme of climate catastrophe and government inaction hang above the game both thematically and environmentally. You grow attached to your friends, the subjects of your photography, but that attachment is married with an omnipresent anxiety that you and them are both part of the Umurangi Generation — the Red Sky Generation, the Last Generation.

Source: Umurangi Generation

The game’s irreverent visual style was something that immediately jumped out to Umurangi’s composer.

ThorHighHeels, a YouTube essayist and musician, was approached by Faulkner early in the game’s production. Originally, Faulkner only wanted to borrow some tracks off Thor’s already released albums, but after a quick look at the demo, Thor already knew it was a project he wanted to be involved with as a genuine composer, too.

“[Umurangi] just got my artist ring going. I saw it and I was like, I know how that should sound. I get people reaching out to me sometimes about their games and I’m not really sure what vibe I want to go for, but with this it instantly clicked. I just got a sense of the game’s general attitude.”

Their collaboration has ultimately become a mix of old and new, with Faulkner choosing some tracks off of Thor’s older work, and Thor contributing to the game with new tracks for certain title sequences. For Thor and Faulkner, the partnership has been mutually beneficial. Where Thor has contributed funky, retro PlayStation-esque tunes to accompany Faulkner’s cyberpunk world, Faulkner has in turn helped Thor begin to program his own game.

In terms of musical inspiration, Thor’s tastes certainly have range, from jazz to EDM to “wherever,” he emphasized, laughing. Just as Umurangi’s ambiance is irreverent and striking in its visuals, the music had to have similar notes of light-hearted urgency, recalling the electronic thrums of the 90's and early 2000's. “I know he took some songs of Positive Yellow for instance. That album was specifically a result of me hunting down sample packs and instruments that late 90’s composers used. For example, The Prodigy, or The Chemical Brothers.”

“He also used some songs off of my most recent album, which was very directly inspired by Suda51 games. They have this ethereal jazzy sound, kind of like music that is in this weird shadow realm between instrumental hip hop and house music. A lot of PS1 games have that vibe, especially in their menus. PS1 and PS2 menu music is definitely a vibe I channel a lot, weirdly enough.”

Source: Umurangi Generation

While the hyperactive visual and musical landscape of Umurangi suggests an ambiance of quickly encroaching danger, Umurangi’s colorful world is not about gloom and doom — it’s about the interesting, creative young people who occupy this self-described “shitty future.”

For Faulkner, Umurangi went from educational tool to a genuine expression of his identity, family, and history. As a member of the Ngāi Te Rangi Iwi, or the Ngāi Te Rangi Maori people, he was inspired by the successful work of other indigenous indies to imbue Umurangi with symbols of his personal history.

“I’m putting a lot of my culture, a lot of my family story in this game. In the sense that this game takes place where I’m from. And for me, I was worried that people would look at these [cultural symbols] and be like, is that just a squiggle? Will there be people to get it?”

“Stuff that I’ve seen so far from [indigenous devs] showcasing their games in their early development stages — it’s beautiful to see. The idea is that people are sharing parts of a very specific subgroup’s story, and putting that in a game — you know, it’s just really cool.”

The meeting point between Umurangi’s cyberpunk overtones and its indigenous inspirations falls under the emerging genre of Indigenous Futurism. As described by Alexandra Wikler in Exploring Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Indigenous Futurism “allows for Indigenous peoples to reclaim […] events through a technological space and offer a contrasting narrative to the colonial perspective of the past, present and future.” Faulkner believes that Umurangi fits this genre well.

“One of the elders over here in Australia said to me, ‘we’re often listened to, but not heard.’ When I think about a lot of these societal issues, like these bushfires, one of the reasons it was so bad is because the government didn’t want to do burn-offs. A lot of indigenous communities had been saying — ‘hey, our families have been here forever, and we know what the right time is to do a burn off. So listen to us.’ And people would see that as just [nonsense], you know, ‘these fellows don’t know what they’re talking about.’ And that’s the energy I’m trying to capture in Umurangi: the idea that the game’s main crisis event probably could have been avoided if people could have cared in the short-term.”

“I’m designing the game around people who actually do need to hear that message, not necessarily people who already know. I’m not trying to overload people with my philosophies. I want to ease people into these ideas, into my culture.”

Source: Umurangi Generation

“I’d say it’s definitely going to ease people into Maori culture. I don’t think there’s many games out there that have a positive representation of Maori people. It’s either tribal tattoos on someone’s face that doesn’t look like Ta moko (the Maori face tattoo) at all, but it’s just got this ‘warrior’ thing to it.”

Faulkner wanted Maori symbolism to represent the world he lives in: one that is a blend of tradition and modern culture, “you know, one of my characters has Huia feathers in her hair, and she also has a Union Jack on her jacket. I didn’t want to play in stereotypes. I’ve been working on these resistance fighters that look like Maori resistance fighters from 200 years ago, but they’ve been updated. They’re wearing track jackets.”

Just like its stylish genre predecessors like Jet Set Radio, Umurangi is a game that redefines the idea of cyberpunk to fit the generation, time, and place it is trying to capture. Faulkner believes that cyberpunk has “nothing to do with how many guns the protagonist can plug into their head.” Instead, he views the label of cyberpunk as a mirror of culture, a critical reflection of it.

“If you look back at the original idea of cyberpunk it was a reflection of the 1980’s corporate culture, racial injustice and steroid fueled machismo of that era. Unfortunately I think that people see the idea of cyberpunk being exclusively about these things rather than the mirror that showed these things.”

Above all, Faulkner pushed the idea that cyberpunk games should not lift up the techno-fascism they showcase —they should be in the business of deconstructing it, exposing it, or else run the risk of becoming part of it.

“ If a cyberpunk game is to be released today, I reckon that it has to have some comment on the rise of fascism in our current moment. And being indigenous, we still have a lot of contemporary issues, too. And are they going to be solved in the future? Who knows?”

And at the end of the day, that is the critical idea the game aims to capture — not to necessarily solve the ‘who knows,’ but to create a space that allows each player to explore these questions: what will happen to our world? Who will be impacted by it? Who is in control of it?

But Faulkner knows not everyone is there to be a philosopher. As the Steam tagline proudly advertises: Umurangi Generation is a first person photography game set in a shitty future. DSLR in hand, Umurangi invites you to snap a picture of the apocalypse — even if you’re not sure how to stop it.

You can wishlist the game on Steam now, and get it on April 28.

Written by Celia Lewis for Vista Magazine.

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