'Moon Hunters' draws unapologetically from ancient Middle Eastern mythology to create a diverse and interesting cast of characters.
When I first played Kitfox Games's Moon Hunters, it reminded me of the 16-bit games I'd grown up with, RPGs where you had to run for your life from wildlife, or duck into caves to find treasure, or save up to buy the best weapon in the game.
But while I loved RPGs from a young age, characters who looked like me didn't exist. If I was lucky, I might get a NPC that was a sort of ambiguous, video-game brown—not explicitly black but (probably) not white. Unlike those games of my youth, though, Moon Hunters has both playable characters and NPC's that are unmistakably people of color. Best of all, there's no exoticization or fetishization of these characters, and no unnecessary explanation for why they're there. They just are.
That prompted me to ask developer Tanya X. Short a few questions about the game's diversity, guiding mythology and the reaction it received from the gaming community.
VICE: So you can choose from four different character classes at the start of Moon Hunters. My first time playing through the game, I chose the Witch, and was happy to find that she was a woman of color. I did have a moment when I thought, Why is the witch a WOC, why are we always the exotic or the mystic? But her character is well done, clothed pragmatically, has an interesting backstory that fits with the mythology you build up as you play. Did you have any concerns with how her character could be received since she's a witch and uses blood magic?
Tanya X. Short: We were briefly concerned about fundamentalists being upset about a few things [like blood magic] in the game, but we figured we could probably handle a little criticism on that front. After all, we at least tried to be inspired by aspects of of ancient Assyrian and Sumerian traditions—we weren't literally glorifying demon-worship and necromancy, unlike, say, Diablo. There are a few themes you could say were not just pre-Biblical but maybe even anti-biblical, but they're fairly subtle and (I like to think) reasoned.
I did worry about the Witch (since she's a woman of color) being perceived as some kind of throwback stereotype of a vodun priestess or something, but we didn't really have to change much about her, honestly—she was always a spear-wielding, defined character in her own right, not a reference or callback. It probably helps that she's not the only person of color around.
There really are plenty of people of color in Moon Hunters, and it's not a big deal, they just exist. Was this by design or just how things fell into place as you developed the game?
Well, once we knew that it was inspired by ancient mythology, and a missing moon, we looked around at a few different cultures to be primarily inspired by. We had a Pinterest board, actually, where we compared inspirations from a few mythologies that would be a good fit for the game and have a lot of great reference material for us to draw from.
Our top three contenders were Theravada Buddhism, Norse myths, and ancient Mesopotamia... and of the three, I was most intrigued by the pluralism in ancient Assyria, and how a deity could be called by different names (Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Aphrodite) and mean different things to different people, yet still clearly share the same myths. Plus, in the video-game world, ancient Mesopotamia seemed under-examined and the most classically heroic. I mean, what is more iconic than the Epic of Gilgamesh?
What prompted you and the Kit Fox Studios team to purposefully have more diversity in the game?
Once you set something in ancient Mesopotamia, it would be bizarre to have white people take center stage. I actually feel kinda self-conscious that there's so many white people in the game, to be honest. I really wanted to capture the flavor and personality of 3000 BC around Uruk, and part of it is the food and the clothing and the architecture, but part of it is undeniably the people.
I know that the mythology in Moon Hunters was pulled from many sources, but was there anything in particular that influenced the world design of the game?
If there's one thing I feel nervous about, it's the number of sources I pulled from. Ancient Assyria doesn't actually have much recorded beyond Gilgamesh and some creation myths—so I started casting my net around Sumeria, but their stories very quickly get trampled by Greek and Roman retellings, which I mostly avoided. I do confess that I tended to pick the variant of a myth (or make my own variant) that reflects modern egalitarian values, rather than reinforcing sexist stereotypes. We deserve stories that make us question and think, even if it makes them slightly less familiar. For example, in one of the rare Greek-inspired encounters, I decided to gender-swap the Apple of Discord myth, which added a refreshing element of masculinity to an old story about vanity.
In retrospect, I really wish we had hired a Sumerian expert (ideally who was of Mesopotamian descent themselves) to consult and maybe help us find more myths. I bought a dozen books and read thousands of internet articles, but that's not the same as expertise.
Did you get any pushback during your Kickstarter or during initial release on PC for the diversity in the game?
Nope! No pushback or problems so far. Maybe the game wasn't popular enough? I have a pet theory that the Kickstarter was actually slightly more popular in the Middle East than it would have been, but it's almost impossible to prove.
It seems that having a diverse team contributes to having better representation in your work. Do you agree?
Absolutely! Out of the 6 Kitfox members, we're mostly white and east Asian, but we were born in 5 different countries and speak a combined total of 5 different mother tongues. We all have different tastes, play different games, and have a variety of experience with the game industry. It's important that we all agree on a certain set of core values of respect, learning, and quality-seeking, but everything else is up for debate. I hope our diversity can continue to grow as Kitfox does, since for me, representation is only part of the issue facing our culture. Amplifying new voices from new kinds of creators is crucial to the growth of games as an art form, which is why I helped found and continue to co-direct Pixelles.
What do you hope games like Moon Hunter and others that do diversity right can teach others about the need for better representation?
Take a risk! Follow your heart! And if your heart doesn't include black and brown people, maybe take a look a little deeper?
Seriously, though, personally, I feel Moon Hunters has given me more confidence in exploring the stories that I genuinely love and am intrigued by. When I started working on the concept of Moon Hunters almost 3 years ago, I wasn't sure anyone else cared about truly ancient mythology (especially since it wasn't Greco-Roman, or Norse for that matter). I felt like a nerd, disappearing into a subject maybe nobody else really cared about.
But I've found that this modern world is about sharing your love with others and finding it reflected back at you. Our hearts each build a niche. I'm glad I took the risk and was true to myself, even if I made mistakes along the way, because everyone who connects with the game connects with me and the rest of the team. Next time, I'm going to be even braver and push even further for a world I believe in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Tanya DePass on Twitter.