New releases like Dandara and UnderHero are establishing Latin America as a hotspot for indie game development.
Known as a Brazilian legend, Dandara was a capoeira martial arts warrior queen with a chip on her shoulder. Her family had been kidnapped, tortured and forced to work in Brazilian plantations at the hands of Portuguese slavers.
These crimes compelled her to rise up against injustice. In one epic story, she led a female army of slave descendants against their former captors.
“We were inspired by the story, and wanted to do something that nobody had seen before,” said João Brant, a game developer at Long Hat House, a two-man Brazilian indie studio he created with developer Lucas Mattos.
The duo expanded the story and ran with it, giving the Afro-Brazilian myth the action hero treatment. Due out this year on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Dandara is a gravity-defying ode to freedom.
The creation of games like Dandara is a new advancement for Latin America where, until recently, game development was a rarity. Latin America held only 4 percent of the global gaming market in 2016.
The region has not always been hospitable toward gaming.
In one ill-fated instance, Venezuelan authorities rounded up illegal video games and crushed them with a steamroller. In light of incidents like this, it’s not surprising that the Latin American indie scene was late to the gaming party.
But Dandara is part of a larger movement. Inspired by folklore rarely heard outside of Brazil, the game features a distinctly Latin American story, and it isn’t alone. All over Latin America, indie developers are infusing video games with local flavor.
Latin America Got Game
“When we first started, there was no perception that Latin America had a game scene,” said Eliana Russi, co-founder and executive director of Brazil’s Independent Games (BIG) Festival, a gaming event held yearly in São Paulo.
That perception quickly changed. Now in its fifth year, BIG Festival has helped steer a vibrant community of native talent. While the festival showcases indie games from around the world, special emphasis is given to games of Latin origin.
“We’re trying to position ourselves as a Latin American hub,” said Russi.
So far, the strategy is working. The 2017 event was the biggest ever, receiving 768 game submissions from 54 countries. More than half of the submissions were homegrown, with games from Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil and Chile.
With a large selection of Latin American games on display throughout the venue, the festival has more of a grassroots vibe than other indie festivals like the Independent Games Festival (IGF) in San Francisco.
For example, many of the games at the event contain distinctive cultural elements. UnderHero from Paper Castle Games contains a very Venezuelan twist: the country’s notoriously dark sense of humor about its current economic and social crisis.
“We find humor in the worst things, even tragedies,” said Alvaro Dominguez, one of the game developers bringing UnderHero to Steam. “I’m not exactly proud of that cultural bit, but I say it’s better to laugh than cry.”
In patented Venezuelan fashion, the UnderHero hero is killed by the first puny enemy he comes across. Then the minion takes over the show, usurping the role of playable character. It’s a joke about the trope where the good guy always wins, and it leads to some moments of truly devious comedy.
Bringing Culture into Gaming
Likewise, local culture makes Dandara a more compelling experience. The game’s developers live in Belo Horizonte, a mountainous city that’s known as the birthplace for Brazilian thrash metal, with globally-recognized bands like Sepultura calling it home.
“We try to incorporate everything we can from our daily lives in Brazil,” said Brant.
Brant believes that by including elements from a less traveled Brazilian city, the game’s fictional world becomes mysterious, uniquely structured and lifelike.
At one time, Brant had planned on leaving Brazil to get a job in the mainstream games industry. It seemed like his only viable option, since there are no big game companies in the country.
However, once the Latin American scene began gaining some momentum, he decided to stay.
“I feel like a pioneer,” he said. “When you start here, all the people start together.”