Tauranga Express

Interview: Naphtali Faulkner on developing indie smash 'Umurangi Generation'

From alien squids and giant mechs to bushfires and Black Lives Matter.


One of the most powerful games of last year, Umurangi Generation, came to the Switch this year with a suite of new features, including the Macro DLC, which contains perhaps the game’s most intense, masterful level.

You play as a photographer during the backend of an alien squid-fueled apocalypse as the U.N. government’s response — which includes the deployment of giant mechs — grows more and more intense. You document the future of various subcultures, encouraged to snap and edit with a variety of accurately designed, clickety-clackety cameras and lenses, as a speculative cyberpunk version of Australia implodes into nothingness. Progress through the game’s relatively few — though expanded almost double with the DLC — levels is judged by a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-like scoring system, where you’re tasked with capturing specific items and scenarios, or even graffitied words on a wall.

The game doesn’t hit you over the head with its world-building and overarching, entropic narrative. In fact, it’s quite subtle, and you’ll likely miss entire story beats on your first run. But it is a fiery missive on complacent, performative politics and gamer culture, a metaphor for the apartheid of Aboriginal people by the Australian government, and an explicit commentary on the government’s response to the 2019-2020 bushfires, which cost the country at least 34 lives and $103 billion AUD.

We spoke to the game’s developer, Naphtali Faulkner, about escalating police tactics, his next co-op horror game, the role of media in activism, and mapping last summer’s uprisings to Australia’s own political atmosphere.

Jonathan: The final level of the game’s Macro DLC is a showstopper. You hang out as media and then get assaulted by cops. Can you talk about your intent with this level?

Naphtali: We had our own Black Lives Matter protests for Aboriginal people who had died in custody. Aboriginal people disproportionately get put in jail, because cops are trying to arrest Aboriginal people more than anyone else. Once people are in prisons, they get killed by the prison guards, because they're unaccountable as well.

One of the things I wanted to capture with that [level] was sort of that idea that some protest had gone down a little earlier [before the level begins] and you can see those sprays and tags and stuff. It's about seeing that violent response that comes from the state, the moment you start to push back. I think the thing that happened in the protests last season sticks out to me is when they had 20 Humvees just all in a line, just driving towards these protesters.

One of the things that me and Thor [HighHeels, the composer for the game,] really liked thinking about was not dumbing it down and not doing the sort of pacifist thing. I’m not saying that you have to always protest from a more active space, I think protesting by occupying an area, that works as well. Liberalism has sort of made itself comfortable with even the idea of protests — we like the idea of people occupying or marching and stuff like that goes ignored and there's no response to it. The photo that was so symbolic in that space was the burning down of that police precinct.

Part of the DLC is, when you get the spray paint, the rules of it are that you can only spray paint property [of] the U.N. because it's the idea that it's a tool but don't just go around spray painting whatever, like, use it to push back right — it's a tool of resistance.

I'm probably not alone in remembering that imagery of Lafayette Square, and how the police just charged on the protesters. And you had that image of Donald Trump, where he walks through, and you just see the graffiti everywhere — that's all messages of where people told him to get fucked. That was part of the idea with that DLC level was that the messages would be so unique, that everywhere you went, you saw a different voice. I have some messages in there that are my voice, the creator of the game, but there are also messages in there that I think come from looking at the idea of protests from different angles. The message that I really took from a lot of [the protests] was that the communities in this space are asking a very simple thing, which is: Stop killing our families.

“The communities in this space are asking a very simple thing, which is: Stop killing our families.”

J: You’re an indigenous Māori developer, and I heard you in another interview talking about the difficulties of trying to sell a game with explicitly indigenous details — for instance, the title of your game, which means “Red Sky,” received pushback from publishers. Can you talk about the details of the game that are specifically tied to Australia and to your culture?

N: It's Black Lives Matter, but it's a localized context. One protest I went to that was organized, when they organized — he was talking about George Floyd. But also, the fact that he's Aboriginal, and he said “he's a brother like us” in terms of [being a victim of] the same system. It was more contextualized around this idea of, “let's look at what's happening to Aboriginal people in Australia.”

One of the things about Australia, it’s standard that this often intense racialism goes unnoticed. And I think we’re bringing light to how the police responded here in Australia, even though there wasn't any violent protesting here. There were just people marching on the streets, within their rights and things like that, I remember seeing on the news, they interviewed these cops, and the cops said, “Oh, we were expecting it to be more violent, and we were, like, ready to get out the bazookas,” essentially.

That final level was about the essence of what protesting is... because there are these layers to the whole thing. This isn't new for Māori people — the idea is that it’s taking place beneath Gate Pā. Gate Pā is a historic site of resistance for my family. It's this resistance against another fascist government in the form of the British Empire.

They're referring to the Treaty of Waitangi, an 1840 "agreement" with the United Kingdom that allowed British sovereignty and annexation of New Zealand with protection of Maori rights and land. The treaty was never officially ratified nor completely honored by the white settlers.NEIL RABINOWITZ/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

J: In the game, the U.N., which is the de facto governing body in the future, uses mechs, which were originally intended to fight the alien invasion, to fight protesters. Can you talk about how that idea came about?

N: Rather than saying climate change, it's boiling that problem down and reconstructing it as the Kaiju. Rather than saying “police brutality,” we’re boiling that down and making a fictional mech pilot group.

There’s this whole idea that the thing that they say is there to protect you they're using to oppress you. When you play the base game one, you see that they're not winning at all. And they lose, right? “Shut up, don't criticize us, or else you don't get our protection,” you know, like, “Don't bite the hand that feeds you.” But in your one interaction with the mech, they’re using it on you.

It's a shitty future that people go, “Well, why does it feel very similar now?” Because it's where we're all headed. It's also about the resilience of young people who have to sit by and watch it happen.

This rule-breaking is not new, right? Like the tactics are new. So the technology used, police now becoming more militant and things like that, that's new, in terms of — it's a progression of when people find a way to counter tactics, [the police] up the ante.

People got to see that rule-breaking in real time where they would see the kind of thing where you have that sort of performative police action where the police would go to the protesters and they would kneel with them, and they would raise their fists and then you'd see a follow-up tweet that two hours after that those same police went in there and bashed and arrested people.

One of the works, which was very inspiring to this game was Shin Godzilla, there was the very deliberate choice to have the government ignoring Godzilla’s existence and debate what they’re going to do. By the time they've finished having their argument, the problems move to the land and it's no longer the thing that they thought anymore, and they’ve wasted too much time.

J: Can you talk about this next co-op horror game that you’re making?

N: The world of the next game is "America got bought by a startup-like company." The characters are going to be very specific types of modern ideologies. The captain of the ship is this sorta blue MAGA capitalist, the sort of liberal who when you ask about anything, they just sort of agree with everything Republicans will... He’s the one in charge. And the second-in-command is a performative ally, who will use terms but not commit to the actual idea... They’ll say something to the effect of: “I used to be a socialist, but then I woke up.”

It’s important characters like that, who are written from a position where you’re not tearing someone down, but just showing that they exist. There’s another character who’s an incel, white nationalist, science officer — it's about moving beyond where games make these very dated “Wow, look at nerds!” commentary, and instead, looking at how certain nerds are basically trying to justify eugenics with their intelligence. He has destructive views on women.

The next character is an actual communist, in the sense that they grew up in a communist country, and they’re on transfer to a western ship, and it’s to show the differences in the ideologies.

One of the writers in the group is trans, so we also talked about having a positively represented trans character where we can talk about issues that don’t get brought up in games often. They’re in medical debt because they had a body transplant in this future — you can transfer your consciousness — but it’s a double-edged sword because they got that body transplant in the military. Once they got out, the state didn’t want to support them at all. With Umurangi, you’re talking about these things in a more abstract way, where if someone doesn’t understand the context, it may just fly over their heads. So it’s doing that stuff much more honestly.

There’s an Australian nationalist who is an immigrant to the U.S., who says Australia was being invaded by China — that's one of the big things of discourse here in Australia at the moment is that we have racists saying that we're getting invaded by China, because they're buying up all the land, blah, blah, blah. His name is going to be Milo Foster. His whole identity is based on corporations and brands in Australia. Most of these white Australians don’t have anything to cling to other than BBQs and thongs. The last ideology is sort of this idea that it's going to be Māori character, who's sort of like, he's a mercenary now, where his body's mainly been souped-up to become like a super-soldier... The idea is, with that character, to explore the fact that he was forced into joining into this war that he didn't give a shit about because it was a war between America and China for Pluto.

Most of these white Australians don’t have anything to cling to other than BBQs and thongs.”

J: You’ve talked a lot about performative allies and right-wing liberals. Can you go into that a bit more?

N: I think that those people are pretty bad, because they're telling the next generation how to dog whistle and say things where they won't ever be confronted. It’s that upper capitalist, venture capitalist who wants to be nice and give their employees yoga retreats on the weekends, but still willing to do all that fucked up stuff, covered in a layer of “nice” capitalism.

And with this Northern Territory intervention stuff that's going on today in Australia, it's this whole idea that, “Oh, Aboriginal parents, you know, drug addicts and rapists, so we need to take the kids. They can't look after the kids.” It's the same discourse based on completely fabricated studies, right? Like, if you ever go read the studies, they're completely fraudulent. That performative allyship always shows its face.

You had those people who sort of would talk about the protests in a very, you know, All Lives Matter, or both sides way. Dumb, very sitting on the fence censorious bullshit, you know, and then when people called them out, their immediate response was not to self reflect, it was to be like, “This is the reason no one supports you.”

One of my favorite bits of graffiti [in Umurangi Generation] says, “Please be quiet, the rich white people are trying to sleep,” you know, because you see that thing where especially certain types of celebrities who are doing it as a PR move.

“Their immediate response was not to self-reflect, it was to be like, ‘This is the reason no one supports you.’

J: Your game is also very critical of gamer culture, including a dance club level where U.N. executives are partying. Can you talk about that commentary a bit?

N: The idea with that level was to look at what is gaming [culture] like when it comes to tolerating fascism. And I think if you look through the cracks at that level, you'll see that it has a way of accommodating it by being, like, “just let it pass.” There's a poster and it's got a marine on it with a white nationalist haircut.

And you’ve got these “rational” talking heads that are sitting there and just dribbling a bunch of nonsense about the stuff that you've experienced personally in the base game, trying to say, “Now that doesn't exist,” or “It's not as bad,” or “What are you complaining about?”

Joe Biden, who people were sort of bragging about being the most progressive president ever basically said, “We feel for the community, but we still support the cops getting extra funding and stuff like that.” It's so transparently obvious what his intention is. Who benefits?

“Who benefits?”YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

J: In the game, you’re not allowed to photograph the alien squids, and in the last level you can’t photograph the protesters’ faces? Would you say you’re playing as an activist? What do you think the role of the media is in this game?

N: I would say there's a very big difference between people who go to protests with the intention of siding with the protesters and just trying to not cause harm. And then there are people like Andy Ngo. People like that are there to harm. With his stuff, very specifically, he edits out context.

And I think there's a difference there. Like in terms of, if you're at a protest, and you're deciding to not take photos of people's faces, and you are going to focus on taking photos of the police. And if it just so happens that you capture a photo of the police bashing the skull in of someone? Well, that's not on you. That's the police optics — they are responsible for the way they handle this stuff, right?

I think, part of the tutorial element of the game is getting people to play and learn how to take photos, that should be this other element to it with the DLC, which is about that final level saying, and “This is what you should do, if you're a protester,” because the other thing that changes in that level, quite dramatically, is that you’re no longer getting paid money.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.