If you were to rifle through the annals of videogame history you’d never guess that Africa is the second largest continent on the planet. There’s a distinct lack of African stories, characters, and art represented in the medium. Which is a shame when you consider how rich Africa is with history, language, people, traditions, myths, architecture, and so on.
The reason for Africa’s absence is obvious: there aren’t many Africans making videogames infused with their culture and stories that reach a global audience. What we’re familiar with, instead, is reappropriation by blockbuster titles that only use the ambiguous setting of “Africa” (rather than a specific country) as an exotic backdrop for their violent narratives: Resident Evil 5‘s plague-riddled Africa, the African drug barons of Far Cry 2, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance‘s cyborg blaze across a politically unsettled Africa.
Videogames are hardly the only guilty party in spreading this negative portrayal of Africa in its fictions. Hollywood movies also play a big part in this. It’s a portrait of the continent that seems to be born from international news, which is probably the only place most of us hear anything about Africa. When something horrendous is happening there, such as apartheid, cannibalistic war kings, Ebola, or the frights of female circumcision, we’re told about it. Otherwise? Nah.
But this is beginning to change, if only slowly. In recent years, computers have become more accessible across the continent, smartphones especially. I learned this when I went to South Africa in 2013, attending a talk by Jepchumba, the founder of African Digital Art. She spoke of a certain African “hacker culture,” which is keen to customize and reshape devices to better fit the user’s needs, and how this has transferred to digital art and videogames. She also spoke of how digital media is being used to help people learn to count to 10 in tribal languages. And how clothing, transport, and even mundane aspects of peoples’ daily lives are being turned into inspiration for computer art.
The message that Jepchumba had was clear: Africa is embracing technology, and in turn, its people are gaining a voice that has the potential to be spread across the planet. It’s her goal to not only unite a pan-African digital art, but to also bring it to the rest of the world so African culture and creativity can be seen and appreciated internationally.
African videogames, while a part of this new wave of digital artists, are still trying to find their feet. But it’s important at this stage that they exist at all. While there, I met Nigerian studio Maliyo Games, who remakes traditional videogames to reflect their own surroundings and experiences. Okada Ride, for instance, is based on the essential form of transport in Nigeria’s bustling cities—a small motorbike that people dangerously pack onto.
There was also a solo game designer from Kenya who had made a racing game for mobile based on the country’s matatu culture. They’re small minibuses that taxi people around. And as competition for customers is fierce among them, the owners will make their matatu as attractive as they can with elaborate, personalized artwork painted to the vehicle’s shell. The game gave you a chance to customize your own matatu before you raced to your customers.
As Africans continue to explore what’s possible with videogames we’re starting to see larger productions than the ones I saw. Among the first is Aurion, Legacy of the Kori-Odan, which retains that interest in local culture, but also manages to balance that with a more universal appeal. This means that, unlike those smaller games, it could find fans outside of African countries.
Aurion is an African fantasy action-RPG being made by Kiro’o Games, a small team from Yaoundé, Cameroon. Its native origins are important as the computer-RPG has been dominated by Euro-centric and Asian fantasy since it first arrived. This has meant that the myths, settings, and popular narratives of those cultures monopolized the genre. But here comes African fantasy made by African people. And how refreshing it is to see. Even upon first sight, with its gorgeous blend of colors, Aurion has a distinct feel when compared to other RPGs, and that’s due to its African roots.
For its original African fantasy, the team has invented the Kiro’o Tales, the name being derived from “Kiroho Maono,” which in Swahili means “Spiritual Vision.” The Kiro’o Tales take from three distinct sources: African mythology, “true” African stories, and African traditions. This is why Auriona, the planet this fiction takes place upon, is made up of six continents each with their own ethnic group, all of whom are connected by a “horrible history.”
Importantly, as with Africa’s history of colonization and slavery exportation, this trauma suffered in the past is something for the inhabitants of Auriona to overcome together. And so, the game focuses not on encouraging further cultural clashes but on uniting the people. Or, as the team put it, acting as “an ointment for [the peoples’] harmony.” It’s a fantasy that looks forward to a more positive future, rather than dwelling on the past.
“[W]e have observed that African art has done much in the construction of the continent’s history and its initial cultural wealth,” writes Kiro’o Games. “This explains why those who came before us concentrated a lot on the creation of works (books, films, etc) which recounted the history of Africa, as well as its forgotten traditions and myths. However, very few works dwell on the fantastic or progressive possibilities of this culture.”
This is why, in Aurion, you must create a better future for the planet’s people. As Enzo Kori-Odan, the new king of Zama, and his wife Erine Evou, you travel across each of the six continents to find support for your cause. That cause is taking Enzo’s throne back after his brother-in-law performed a coup d’etat on the day of his coronation. In this, there is time given to explore and speak to peaceful villagers as they go about their day; telling stories, raising farm animals, selling fresh catches of fish, fetching water. It’s in these exploratory moments and the ancillary activities tied to them that you get to experience parts of African daily life within the RPG formula.
Also, by travelling to the varied cultures of the planet, Enzo and Erine “discover the geopolitical and existential dilemmas attached to their functions of King and Queen.” But, more than that, it allows them to unite their “Legacy”—the African past isn’t completely forgotten. This Legacy is tied to a fantastical energy that some people in Aurion‘s fantasy are able to channel, many of them using it to produce artwork, and other forms of handiwork. Enzo and Erine use this energy in combat, as they are Aurionics, and it’s their “art of battle” that this “Legacy” refers to.
Importantly, when channeling the energy they hear the voices of their ancestors. Kiro’o Games explains that this is due to Aurionics being the result of generations of emotions and thoughts bundled up into one person. Enzo and Erine’s abilities, much like their royal positions, are the product of their lineage. And so, they’re using what is essentially African culture, realized as a form of magical energy, to unify the six continents of Auriona.
Aurion, then, is quite a dense mix of the mundane and the fantastical, all of it based on African lifestyle and mythology, whether directly or through allegory. But its vivid presentation and familiar action-RPG formula means that it’s all made accessible. There’s potential here for it to have global appeal. And, even if it doesn’t succeed on that kind of scale (which it likely won’t), it’ll still make for a big step towards that.
You can find out more about Aurion, Legacy of the Kori-Odan on its website.