/ Laura Hudson / 8 am Fri, Oct 16 2015
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  • Aurion imagines a new history for Africa, free of its imperial past

    Aurion imagines a new history for Africa, free of its imperial past

    Investors may have balked, the internet at large has proved more open-minded about opening the wallet.

    When Kiro'o Games first set out to raise money for its debut video game, the Cameroon-based company ran into an unusual problem: investors thought was a scam. "It was really hard to get funding," explains founder Olivier Madiba, partly because of negative stereotypes about African scammers. But if the idea of a Central African game studio seemed implausible, it's also because Kiro'o Games is doing something that simply hasn't been done before. They're the first game developer in the entire country, according to Madiba, and while they might be breaking ground, he says it's still "weird for Cameroonians to make video games."

    Maybe not for much longer. While some investors may have balked, the internet at large has proved more open-minded about opening their wallets. Kiro'o Games just successfully funded a $45,000 Kickstarter for Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, a fantasy-themed action roleplaying game. Unlike most fantasy titles, where European lore and history serves as the backdrop, Madiba's game looks much closer to home for inspiration, drawing on African mythology and culture instead.

    The hero of Aurion is Enzo Kori-Odan, the prince of a fictional country called Zama. After his wedding day and coronation is interrupted by a coup, he must fight with his bride Erine to save their country and regain their throne. There are no dragons or elves here, and the hero's power originates not inside himself or a magical object, but rather in the collective energy of his ancestors, a force known as the Aurion.

    Like Africa itself, the world of Aurion is diverse and populated by numerous distinct cultures and ethnic groups. But the game isn't just inspired by African history—it actually imagines an entirely new history for the continent, one free of the imperialist aggressions that affected so many of its countries. Aurion's story takes place in a universe where Africa has "had 2,000 to 10,000 years to evolve without colonization," said Madiba. "We don’t just put African clothes on old and classic games. We really tried to put our own signature on it."

    Madiba grew up playing video games, and like a lot of kids in the late 1990s, he fell in love with the Japanese roleplaying game Final Fantasy VII. "I finished it six times," he tells me via email. After high school, he decided to study computer science at the University of Yaounde and soon, he wanted to make games of his own. Unfortunately, his classes didn't have much to offer about game development specifically and he didn't know anyone who could help him.

    So in 2003, he decided to declare his intentions to the world, and see what the world said back. He wrote an announcement that read, "I am searching for guys who want to make games," and plastered it throughout the streets of Yaounde. Like the skeptical investors he would encounter later, many people found it hard to believe. "Everyone thought it was a joke," says Madiba. The one exception was a young man named Wouafo Hughes, who saw the announcement and called him on the phone; an instant friendship was born. A year later Madiba met another aspiring game creator named Dominique Yakan, and the trio have now been working on Aurion—first as an amateur project and now as a professional one—for over a decade.

    It hasn't always been easy. Since Madiba founded Kiro'o Games in 2013 and assembled a team to develop the current version of Aurion, the company has had to deal with persistent power outages, which cut the electricity numerous times during their successful Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaigns. ("We lost almost two months of work, maybe more," says Madiba.) But one of the biggest challenges facing the company is that there is simply no history or community of game development in Cameroon, and so they have to build one—socially and technologically—as they go.

    "Making video games in Cameroon at this level is still completely new," says Madiba. "Here, there is no school to learn how to make them. You can learn designing or coding, but not oriented towards video games. So our team is completely made up of self-educated designers and coders, guided by their passion for video games. They were hard to find, but they all came because of interest of the project and the challenge it represents."


    Despite the lack of formal training available for making video games, Madiba says most young people in Cameroon are very interested in playing them. "For those who don't have consoles, they play at arcades, or in public game rooms with consoles," says Olivier. He also notes that they're starting to see more and more casual game players, including people who transcend the stereotype of the young male gamer. "It is really weird to have your mother ask you to put [The Treasures of] Montezuma on her phone," he says.

    Madiba hopes that Kiro'o Games will help pave the way for a broader community of video game developers both in Cameroon and throughout the continent. "Many studios have been emerging these last few years," said Madiba. "We hope that this community grows and evolves together... That’s one of our greater and [more] exciting challenges: building a real entertainment empire [for] videogames and more in Africa."

    The Kickstarter campaign for Aurion ends on October 20, and the game is slated for release in April 2016.


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    Notable Replies

    1. This relates to the article but is a somewhat tangential point.

      "Unlike most fantasy titles, where European lore and history serves as the backdrop"

      One of my big issues with fantasy settings in so many things is they really don't do that. They take inspiration from Lord of the Rings and latterly Dungeons and Dragons as well (which is basically a LotR/generic fantasy rip off). I also sort of blame the brothers grimm and disney. There will be a temperate climate, some castles, knights or whatever but that's not really deeply drawing on traditions.

      Those things have their roots in European history and so on but it's very vaguely and really pretty much all history and traditional mythology has been expunged from them. So with most fantasy you get a distant copy of a creation whitewashed of most of the cultural baggage around it.

      Japanese writer/developers will often embrace Japanese mythology in a way we never do with european mythology and include all the insane stuff and have created some absolutely incredible books/games/films very specifically based on very specific japanese myths.

      We have so many brilliant myths in Europe but people doing medieval fantasy stuff never consider it let alone get creative enough to use it.

      I'm hopeful that it looks like we are getting over LotRs and fantasy is becoming ever more creative again after the dark dark days of so much tedious unoriginal crap.

      Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu draw upon British mythology, folk mythology in a way that is astonishingly good and was so refreshing because Suzanna Clarke dared look back past the 1950s into the actual mythology that people now ignore. Similarly the amazing writer Alan Garner (read The Owl Service) draws very specifically on folk tales (he has been writing since the 60s but one of his latest books is specifically a collection of English folk tales).

      It's part of the reason GRR Martin is so much better than most other fantasy writers doing similar knights and medieval war type stuff. He copied and played with history rather than standard fantasy quest/hero narratives.

    2. This is a pretty brilliant idea of counterfactual history. I also vaguely recall somebody wrote a story in which native Americans discovered Europe, which is not as farfetched as it sounds.

    3. That sounds like an interesting story.... I too love counterfactuals, as they are a useful exercise at cutting through ideology.

    4. It seems unfair to blame Lord of the Rings specifically, since it actually did draw deeply from European myth. It's not Tolkien's fault that he inspired a bunch of shallow pastiches.

    5. So... ah, this is about a project, out of Africa, to build a video game, in a country with no pre-existing video games industry, and the majority of comments seem to be about Europe.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

    19 more replies