Warning: There are spoilers for Umurangi Generation in this piece.
"This is the greatest game ever made or the greatest 2020 game made in 2020 that wasn't actually about 2020 that ended up being about 2020 in hindsight," remarked YouTube creator Blind while exploring 2020's photography adventure game, Umurangi Generation.
There is no question video games are political, but not every game shouts it from the rooftops. By the end of Umurangi Generation—a game about taking photos and a game about experiencing the end of the world—there is no question about the game's message. Any semblance of subtlety has been dropped in favor of ensuring the player comes away knowing its stance on its stances against fascism, the ability of the state to oppress those without power, and what the world will be like if the neoliberal order remains status quo.
"I've got alerts set up for Umurangi on Twitter," said 28-year-old Umurangi Generation designer Tali Faulkner, who goes by the pseudonym Veselekov online, during a recent interview with VICE Games. "You had this little right wing fascist who got to the final level and said, 'What the fuck? This game is political?' [laughs] [...] It's not that these people didn't want politics in their games. It was that they wanted explicitly far right politics."
It's not hard, however, to imagine how someone might reach the end of Umurangi Generation and be taken by surprise. Umurangi Generation has no cutscenes and no dialogue, with all the storytelling being communicated by the surrounding environment. You're tasked with exploring different locations—rooftops, arcades, military outposts—and snapping photos of various objects, like a flock of birds or someone wearing a mask. It's easy to get caught up in the objectives and lose sight of what's happening in front of you.
"I've seen players who pick up on it pretty early—something's not right," said Faulkner. "And I've seen players who go all the way through up to level five [the end of the game] and they go, 'What the fuck?' But after that point, they are glued to every wall."
That quiet storytelling dies at the end of Umurangi Generation's downloadable expansion, Macro, where players are documenting an active protest at the United Nations. In Umurangi Generation, the world has been left in shambles after fighting off multiple waves of kaiju with building-sized mechs. The United Nations claims everything is fine, that people should trust the people in charge are doing their best. But reality tells a far different story. Cities are falling and people are being driven underground. Some folks are even leaving the planet.
The privileged can hide in their fancy bunkers. The rest are left to rot.
"Neoliberalism completely fucked the world up," said Faulkner. "What are you going to do about it?"
The protest looks normal enough, with graffiti, people holding signs, volunteers handing out water, and a small army of cops standing intimidatingly silent in unison. There are hints of violence, like the pool of blood in the corner or a protestor recovering from being hit with pepper spray or something similar. The game beckons players towards a monument outside the United Nations, which prompts the area to go into lockdown. Walls appear, the sky goes dark, and moments later, a towering mech—a symbol of "peace" and defense against the kaiji—appears. You quickly hear gunfire, and are forced to flee. It's terrifying, a moment when the game breaks from its otherwise passive nature, shaking for the player's attention.
“It's not that these people didn't want politics in their games. It was that they wanted explicitly far right politics.”
"I think it's realistic," said Faulkner. "I've heard people call it nihilistic, which I don't agree with. I think it's realistic to what we're currently in at the moment. It's a bit of a warning in terms of, 'Hey, this is probably what will happen if nothing else changes.' I don't think it's the last time we've seen a big fascist movement—I don't even think the Trump fascist movement's ended yet. There's nothing stopping it from coming back, to be honest."
This feeling is present throughout Umurangi Generation, but the add-on, Macro, is more specific, angrier and more pointed about its analysis of society's problems. Umurangi Generation has often been described as the 2020 game that felt most emotionally in line with the COVID-19 nightmare we've all been living under for nearly a year now, but the game was developed over the course of 10 months, largely before the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference with Macro was that its development happened both during COVID-19 and the emergence of the widespread Black Lives Matter protests, both in the US and around the world, over the killing of George Floyd.
The original plan was to develop some levels that were more positive, possibly set during a pride rally—a way to thank the LGBTQ community for the way they'd embraced the game.
But Umurangi Generation was released on May 19 and Floyd died on May 25, and Faulkner, who participated in Black Lives Matter protests that went as far as his home in Australia, shifted gears on where to take the game's story. He honed in on the quiet creep of fascism, trying to channel the energy of Black Lives Matter without, hopefully, exploiting it.
"The idea of that was to explore four ideas of what fascism is like," said Faulkner.
The first area, set in an arcade called Gamers Palace, is "about tolerance to fascism, or the softening of it," as the player explores a space with catchy slogans to help market power. One of Faulkner's favorite concepts that give him a good laugh while he created it was "the idea with the Doom Guy.
"You see the fake Doom poster and the Doom guy's got the white nationalist haircut and he's doing this? [mimics white nationalist "okay" hand gesture]," said Faulkner, "and the tagline underneath is 'finally a game without politics.'"
The second level, set in a United Nations hanger where they're building a mech, is about "naked fascism," up to and including an officer hanging out with a child soldier. The third area, in a peaceful underground area where there are no cops and relative peace, is about finding a space for antifascists to carve out their own space. And the final area, set during the protest that goes awry, is about "antifascism," a direct response to 2020's own unrest.
That Faulkner managed to harness the anxieties of 2020 in game form, one that's outwardly progressive and upset at the status quo, would likely come as a great surprise to a younger version of Faulker. He admitted to being on an ignorant end of the political spectrum years back, around the rise of GamerGate, when the notion of games and politics, which had always existed but never been quite so centerstage, came to the forefront in a variety of toxic forms, though most visibly in the way women were publicly and privately harassed.
"I was on forums and I probably was supporting the idea that you guys are the worst thing ever," said Faulkner. "And if it wasn't for one of my trans friends, I probably would have kept going down that thing because they were able to pull me out and say, 'Hey, this is not what you think it is.' I was someone who did a journalism degree, and [during GamerGate] you have all these supposed journalists or ex-journalists saying this is a huge ethical problem and my trans friend was able to say 'oh, no, these are people who hate women.'"
As Faulkner was having a personal moment, he graduated from college and started working at a different university with a strong focus on indigenous cultural studies. He was suddenly surrounded by people who thought differently from the people he'd spent time with online.
Umurangi Generation translates to "Red Sky Generation," aka the last generation. Faulkner lives in Australia and is Māori. While the Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, the geographical closeness meant it was also common for people to emigrate to Australia, a region that was under British rule and did not formally break constitutional ties until 1986.
“I've heard people call it nihilistic, which I don't agree with. I think it's realistic to what we're currently in at the moment. It's a bit of a warning in terms of, 'Hey, this is probably what will happen if nothing else changes.'“
"I got taught a lot of really strong indigenous knowledge stuff from a lot of really prominent academics [while working there]," said Faulkner, "and that really shed the scales of my eyes and stop seeing a Western world view on a lot of things."
How that ultimately translated to Umurangi Generation was trying to avoid the pitfall many other games run into when trying to be more explicit about their politics. While developers, especially developers on big budget games, might try to avoid talking politics while being interviewed, hoping to sidestep alienating potential customers, games on every scale have been more forward about their political leanings. Where they often fumble, however, is placing blame, assigning clear bad actors, or acknowledging the messiness of ideology.
"Whenever fascism is talked about in games, it's often 'Let's directly reference the Nazis, not all the things the Nazis informed,'" said Faulkner. "Whenever the fascist is confronted at the end, it's always, 'Well, he actually wasn't that bad, he was possessed by a demon' or 'He was a little bit insane" or "it was drugs that made him do this," It's not the toxic ideology."
Umurangi Generation, however, was specifically about examining what "the creature of neo liberalism looks like and acts like in the time of crisis." The Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020 destroyed his mother's house, and when they flipped on the news after finding a new place to live, found little coverage of an event that'd been so personally devastating. That changed when the fires started encroaching on the richer cities in Australia, like Sydney, because suddenly the fires were directly impacting the people who held sway in Australia.
Even then, Faulkner noted, the discussion around what happened was how terrible the bushfires were, not why the bushfires were terrible and what could be done to change the future, such as addressing climate change. Acknowledge the problem, suggest thoughts and prayers, but don't offer a solution. The same situation began playing out with COVID-19.
"With neoliberalism, it's about making you comfortable in the face of something that's a really big problem," said Faulkner. "With the idea of the game, there's this thing—the giant Kaiju— that if you look really closely, isn't the first [attack] that's happened. This society that you're in has tried to massage and comfort the idea of this being something that you could probably just have to get used to."
The original slate of levels for Umurangi Generation does not end with humanity saving the day. It really was, as it turned out, the end, and the game ruminates on the idea that the political order, as it currently stands, will fail you in a crisis. What do you do with that time? What does it mean to spend time with friends and family as the apocalypse draws near? What does it mean to make art that might not be seen by anyone after you've created it?
The game doesn't have answers, necessarily, but it does have a suggestion: act.
"I don't want to sugarcoat the reality that we're all going through," said Faulkner. "I don't want to dumb down the severity of the problem. But if there are people activated from [playing Umurangi Generation] who think about this stuff a little bit more, or think about the stuff a little bit more when they're playing games even, I think that's a good thing.”
The notion of acting isn't just a suggestion for players, either. Part of the reason Umurangi Generation resonated with so many people was because you could clearly identify what it was trying to say. Perhaps that alienated some people, but for Faulkner, that was the point.
The end of Umurangi Generation is explicitly anti-cop, anti-capitalist, and anti-facisct.
"I wrestled with this when I was doing it," said Faulkner. "I was like, 'Shit, I've said ACAB, I've said all this stuff. Is this going to upset certain people?' Well, too bad. That's what it's going to be."