The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. Check out our previous entries here.
Allan Cudicio's life changed at the end of a Dungeons and Dragons session. Not all at once — although D&D can be dramatic, it's rarely that dramatic — but the seeds for a new life altogether were planted when a longtime player of his suggested he check out the game Ultima Online.
Cudicio had been playing Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games for more than 20 years at this point. As it does for so many players, D&D formed a foundation in his life. But online role-playing had always left him cold. Players online rarely committed to the kind of make-believe found in live, in-person role-play. They didn't really play roles so much as pilot avatars with different powers — rogue, paladin, and so on. Fundamentally, they made decisions as themselves rather than with the inherited motivations of their characters. But in Ultima Online, this friend told Cudicio, everything was different.
He was hesitant at first. Ultima Online, originally released in 1997, was a visual far cry from sleeker, more modern RPGs. But when he joined his first role-playing server, something clicked.
"I actually discovered this wonderful world of online role-playing where people role-play as they would around the tabletop — pen and paper role-playing — but online, with strangers," he said in an interview. The passion required from these players, their commitment to a collective fantasy — he knew immediately it was special, and in his mind it became clear that some big developer would put money behind this idea and build a true online RPG.
At the time, Cudicio worked in enterprise business software, and the prospect of making that game himself never even occurred to him. Then, after two years in the field, he decided to leave and chase the game development dream. He worked first at "Candy Crush" creator King, then for a German mobile games company called Wooga. In that time, role-playing only grew in popularity. D&D made a major comeback, inspiring and in turn propelled by massively successful podcasts in which the hosts simply play the game for hours at a time. Other, smaller, stranger tabletop RPGs grew along with it. Fan-run role-playing servers in games like Grand Theft Auto Online exploded, with hugely popular Twitch streamers descending upon them both to grief and to join in on the fun.
Even as a developer, still Cudicio didn't see much of an opportunity to build the kind of RPG he had idly dreamt about for the past decade. Then came another crucial moment: the release of Marvel's "Black Panther" in 2019. It was the first Marvel superhero story to star a majority Black cast, and certainly the first to focus on African culture in any significant way. He went to see it in a theater in Berlin and found himself in an audience full of Black theatergoers. The sense of community and inspiration was overpowering.
"I sometimes struggle to explain how that experience was to white people, or non-Black people, because there was so much energy," he said. "People were feeling like something historical was happening. Everything was just so Black, and very African too. And I felt so empowered."
Carrying that inspiration in his heart, he made the biggest leap of faith of his career: He quit his job, founded Twin Drums, his own game development studio, and began work on the ambitious multiplayer role-playing title that had been growing inside him ever since that first Ultima Online experience: The Wagadu Chronicles.
Restoring Colors to the Palette
If one half of The Wagadu Chronicles' niche is its approach to role-playing, the other would be its genre. Rather than take the standard route for a Western RPG, Cudicio and team opted to set their world in the rich and largely untapped milieu of Afrofantasy. That means trading oak for baobab, castles for spirit markets, and platemail for fetish charms.
To fantasy fans weaned on "The Lord of the Rings" and its many descendants, this world may seem unfamiliar. Cudicio sees that as a twofold victory. Not only will Wagadu feel totally fresh, it will also begin to fill the gaps in true African representation, both in fantasy and in gaming.
Cudicio was born to a Ghanaian mother who, along with his grandmother, raised him in Italy. Depictions of West African-Italians in media were few and far between, in part because of the long tail of imperialism. European rulers waged a centuries-long war against the traditional cultures of Africa, suppressing or destroying them whenever possible. Cudicio says much of that work is now being done by Africans themselves, who have internalized that oppression and express it by choosing not to teach their children traditional languages, or by viewing traditional religions as Satanic. The result is a catastrophic loss of culture.
"It's like if some people from somewhere came to Europe and burned to the ground Paris, and London, and Rome, and Madrid, then changed the language and changed the clothing," Cudicio says. "It's just so disastrous, it's so tragic, that I think it's even hard to fathom."
He compares these lost cultures to colors that have been removed from the palette of history. With The Wagadu Chronicles, he's on "a mission to make this world more colorful and beautiful."
Despite its distance from Ghana, Cudicio's family opted to keep alive its ties to tradition. From his grandmother, he learned Ga, a traditional Ghanaian language. From his mother, he heard stories of family history so detailed that he knows the broad strokes going back all the way to the 1700s.
This sense of history and tradition is fundamental to The Wagadu Chronicles. Rather than use the typical paradigm of race to delineate among the peoples of Wagadu — your elves, dwarves, halflings, and so on — Cudicio created the concept of lineages.
The seven lineages of Wagadu are ancestral lines that manifest in physical characteristics and spiritual powers. These characteristics can be inherited from parents, but they can also spontaneously manifest. Characters aren't bound to look a certain or act a certain way because of their genetic heritage, and in fact people can change lineages during their life, though it's usually the result of a changing personality rather than a conscious decision.
There are also 40 distinct cultures in Wagadu, but being of one lineage or another has no bearing on which culture a character ultimately identifies with or joins. Everyone in Wagadu is connected at the deepest level, allowing for a fluidity of identity not often afforded in Eurofantasy.
Traditional fantasy races have their roots in bogus race science, and Cudicio says colonizers used that science in attempts to more effectively exploit those they subjugated. That was one tradition he was happy to break.
Another corrective on the docket? True, meaningful queer representation. As a queer man himself, Cudicio wanted to integrate queerness into Wagadu in a way that made it feel like a pillar of the world — like more than a box checked during a character creator. In his research for Wagadu — and he did a lot of research — he found that the notion of gay rights as a Western import to Africa fell apart under scrutiny.
"I found so much, from rituals that require cross dressing, to third gender roles which are just part of the culture, to priesthood of traditional religions where the whole swapping and mixing of gender is a big part of it," he said. "Women getting married to each other for whichever reasons, and men, and gender being decided later on in life in certain cultures, and ancestors having their own genders or having a mix of genders. It's overwhelming."
By incorporating these elements into Wagadu, Cudicio was able to build a modern understanding of gender and sexuality out of pre-colonial African idas of queerness. And that work is already starting to pay off.
Even though the MMORPG The Wagadu Chronicles has yet to be released, Twin Drums has put out a 200-page lore compendium that players can use to run D&D campaigns using its setting. That release, alongside the game's presence on social media, has inspired an outpouring of support and inspiration. Cudicio says he's had several Black creators thank him for inspiring their own projects. That includes Black Latinx folks, African Americans, African Europeans, and, particularly meaningful to him, queer Ugandans, Kenyans and Nigerians who responded specifically to the queer elements of the game.
Just as "Black Panther" pushed Cudicio to chase his dream, The Wagadu Chronicles is inspiring another wave of dreamers, building a new line of history and tradition rooted firmly in Black and African experience.
Sharing the Culture
As much as The Wagadu Chronicles aims to please and inspire Black players, Cudicio also wants it to be an experience any player can enjoy. Although there are some elements of Black culture, or of African culture, that aren't meant to be shared, Cudicio says if it's in the game, it's there to be explored and understood by players of every shade.
"I want this to become more mainstream," he said. "As people don't think twice before picking a samurai in a character [creator], I want them to feel the same about The Wagadu Chronicles' characters.
"The Wagadu Chronicles is sharing our culture to the wider world and bringing you in."
Some more sensitive players may worry about performing cultural appropriation — an ever-elusive term — by taking on the role of a Black character. Cudicio is here to assure you, that won't be the case in this game.
"I think sometimes cultural appropriation is weaponized, and is used in the wrong way," he said. He's seen Black creators make something expressly to share it, but white consumers have backed away for fear of appropriating.
"If the creator is saying, 'This is not something I created privately or for the Black community, this is something I want to sell, or produce, whatever, for the wider world and for everybody, no matter your background,' then if you as a white consumer say, 'You know what, I'm not going to buy this, I'm going to boycott this,' you're actually damaging the creator. There's a very fine line."
Protecting the Community
The ride thus far hasn't been easy, and there are more challenges ahead. Inspiring other queer artists also means alienating or offending more socially conservative circles. Cudicio said the first Black artist he worked with on Wagadu quit after 10 months and asked not to be credited for any of the art he'd made for the game. The reason? He'd realized Cudicio was queer.
The experience soured Cudicio on the art itself, but without it he would lose almost a year of work. "It was a near death experience for the project," he said.
Luckily, another player at another D&D session helped him turn things around. When Iga Oliwiak noticed wasn't his usual self during their campaign, she asked what was wrong. That conversation led to her helping out with some of the art, and Oliwiak is now art director on Wagadu.
More bumps lie ahead. As all those big name Twitch streamers have shown, true role-playing attracts bad actors looking to make fun of or otherwise disrupt the RP. The players in those role-playing situations somehow manage to soldier on, which Cudicio takes as a testament to their commitment to the role-play. But Wagadu faces an even greater risk of disruption given its staunch commitment to Blackness and queerness — two identities the most unsavory elements in gaming target most frequently. True, committed role-play is an incredibly vulnerable act, and that kind of hatred could threaten the game's life.
Cudicio says they're not worried about this possibility. They're ready for it.
"When you're living your life as a Black man, you accept that there's always going to be a higher percentage of hostility from people just because you're Black. And that applies for the products that I make as a Black man, as well. It's sad, possibly, but I think that there's enough tools and software and everything to provide an experience that is going to be still safe, and cozy, and so on," he said.
In addition to the standard moderating tools of muting players and reporting them, The Wagadu Chronicles will mute new players for a while, giving them time to see how other players act and speak. There will be an onboarding system to teach them how to role-play. Public testing periods tentatively scheduled for 2022 will further refine these systems. But above all else, Cudicio says Twin Drums will be "ruthless in protecting the community."
In other words: talk shit, get kicked.
Changing Times and the Chain of Inspiration
For all the work Cudicio and team are putting into nailing the representation in their game, they know The Wagadu Chronicles won't be perfect. Times change, as do morals and standards. They know that someday soon, their game could look as dated as anything else on the market. For Cudicio, that would be a future worth seeing.
"It could be that maybe in 20 years time, some super cool Black creators from the US, or Afro-Brazilians, or Africans, they get together, make a video game, and look back at the Wagadu Chronicles and say, 'Ah, you can tell this was very early," he said. "And I think that's awesome."
Because, ultimately, The Wagadu Chronicles, for all its focus on the past, is about the future. Cudicio told me about a white manager he had once who was a huge fantasy fan, who had dreamt about those worlds and characters for his whole life. When they finally found a chance to visit Europe, the very first castle they saw blew their mind. Here, at long last, was the origin point for all these stories they had treasured so deeply, all the worlds they had so longed to join. The weapons and armor inside only deepened the effect.
This is what Cudicio wants to give his players: the chance to fall in love with a fantastical new world, and then to visit its real world inspirations with a new respect for history. To revive Africa's past and brighten the world's future. And to be another link in a never-ending chain of inspiration.