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.
Here's a life hack for any aspiring game developers, courtesy of WakingOni Games founder Derrick Fields: Don't buy whiteboards. Instead, save some cash by heading to Home Depot and buying the material they use to make the dry erase portion of the boards, then just stick those on the wall.
That's what Fields and his WakingOni comrade Tim Robinson did when they came up with the idea for Onsen Master, their forthcoming game about running a natural Japanese hot spring, or onsen, frequented by spirits called yokai. In fact, Fields still has a photo of the white board after the first day of brainstorming for the game. (Another tip: Take photos of your dry erase brainstorms; it's faster than writing everything down.)
Fields had just finished what he describes as his quarterly viewing of "Spirited Away," the Oscar-winning anime film directed by Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, when he became lightly obsessed with how the film might work as a game. In particular, he was drawn to a segment in which the film's protagonist, Chihiro, works in a massive bathhouse catering to spirits. She is tasked with keeping the bathhouse clean, shuttling customers to and from their baths, and selecting the right herbal mixtures to satisfy their particular needs.
"I couldn't stop talking about it," he said in a recent interview. So he and Robinson, who was also his roommate at the time, began ideating. Fields' background was in 3D art, so he started tooling around in Unity and put together a small group of characters. Robinson then introduced him to a local programmer, Leo Riveron, and the three became a team. Fields would handle art, he and Robinson would lead design, and Riveron would put it all together in Unity.
The very first brainstorming session for Onsen Master took place Jan. 15, 2015 — an exact date supplied by Fields' photo of the white board. In around 2016, Fields founded WakingOni. But it wasn't until some time in 2017 that development kicked into high gear. Fields began shopping a prototype around gaming events in Chicago, and the team ran a successful Kickstarter campaign around it. After building some buzz, the team took Onsen Master to Bit Bash Chicago, where they found a publisher in Whitethorn Games. Five years later, Onsen Master's release is finally in sight.
Ethereal Anime, Lasting Connection
In Onsen Master, players take on the role of Mu, an apprentice at the onsen who is suddenly thrust into running it singlehandedly when his master disappears. Mu must keep the onsen stable as yokai invade and cause mischief, while simultaneously solving the disappearance of his master. There's also an arcade mode, and 2-player local co-op for players to compete for high scores.
The game is clearly and deeply indebted to Japanese culture. Fields' first brushes with that culture came in the form of the Cartoon Network programming block Toonami. As it did for thousands of other creators of his generation, the program helped Fields fall in love with the brief glimpses of anime he found surfing through channels on TV as a kid. Shows like "Dragon Ball Z," "Sailor Moon" and "Tenchi Muyo" opened his eyes and drew him in; they had him running home from school to ensure he didn't miss an episode. Soon enough he was drawing DBZ and Sailor Moon fan art, and not long after that making his own manga out of construction paper. He says those early works are still hiding somewhere in his mom's home.
Fields loved those shows, but it was when he ran into the sci-fi anime classic "Ghost in the Shell," that his appreciation for the form gained new depth.
"Catching things like 'Ghost in the Shell' for the first time is a really ethereal experience when you are a preteen," he said. "You're just flipping through stations and there's this amazing story and animation and all-around cinema being conveyed to you in the same aesthetic as the shows that you watch during the day or during the weekend."
Fields' abiding love for Japanese culture was born out of those experiences. As soon as he could drive he started to make his way to whatever anime convention was within reach. Chicago was a frequent destination in those journeys. Eventually, it became his home.
Sharing the Love
Whitethorn entering the picture as publisher made it easier for WakingOni to pay the contractors working on Onsen Master. That includes character and level designer Sarah Gavagan and composer Dorrell Ettienne, who joined early on, plus more recent additions including narrative designer Cara Hillstock, UI and UX expert Zac Freeman, community manager Asa Greenriver and animation resource studio Keyframe Crew, led by Xavier Johnson. Despite those additional resources, the core staff at WakingOni continue to work full-time jobs on top of their time on the game.
Nowadays, Fields works as an Assistant Professor of Instruction at Northwestern University, where he teaches beginner, intermediate and advanced level courses on 3D modeling and game design. He says the diversity of thought among his students frequently inspires him.
"In any of the projects, be it game design or 3D, there are no two ideas that have ever come out sounding similar," he said, marveling at their ingenuity.
Teaching those classes is one of several ways Fields works to pass his passions along to future generations. When he moved to Chicago, he started attending events at the Japanese Culture Center. That led to volunteering at its sister organization, the Japanese Arts Foundation, and he became a member of the Foundation's board a few years ago. He now teaches a class on drawing anime and manga that brings together students of all ages, from the pre-teen to the fully adult.
Getting groups of such disparate life experiences to open up and feel comfortable can be a challenge, but Fields has a go-to icebreaker. All he has to do is ask a class what anime they've been watching lately.
"That moment again created an experience where you saw otherwise shy individuals, whether an adult or a kid, break this barrier with each other. Now they're talking to each other on the same level, and really encouraging and building that confidence among one another," he said.
When he was dating his now wife, Fields introduced her son to "Naruto," which "immediately made me a cool parent." Sharing this passion brought the two of them closer together, and helped make his stepson more comfortable with his own appreciation for anime.
"You're getting an opportunity to mutually celebrate something with somebody, and have these conversations that, just by you doing so, really validates their confidence," he said, and you could hear the smile in his voice.
Another way to validate someone's confidence? On-screen representation. When Fields was growing up, anime suffered from a dearth of Black characters. Fans latched onto characters they read as being coded Black, such as Piccolo in "Dragon Ball Z," and connected with the ways Black art influenced some of these shows. Fields cites the musicality of "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo" in particular — one full of jazz, the other hip-hop — and emphasizes that that influence provided a way into these shows for him and friends who looked like him.
"I think having that sort of representation allows you to find connection with others who look like you, but also enjoy that content as well," he said.
"I think it inspires a generation to then want to create their own content that continues to celebrate that intersection."
Nowadays there are far more anime series with Black characters — Fields rattled off "Yasuke," "Cannon Busters," "Afro Samurai," "Mitchiko to Hatchin," and "Carole and Tuesday" with ease — and that representation will make it easier than ever for Black kids growing up to fall in love with anime and Japanese culture. Not only will that bring them together, but it will inspire them the same way it's inspired Fields — to create something that brings these disparate cultures together, and in the synthesis to find something new and human. He hopes that Onsen Master, which features a Black boy as its protagonist, can be a leading example of that synthesis.
"I want there to be an opportunity for other individuals who grew up in this space or consume media like myself — anime and manga — to be able to see themselves represented," he said.
"I hope that by something like Onsen Master existing, it will inspire somebody else to continue making works that explore other means of representation and cultural intersection."
Intersection Without Appropriation
Of course, cultural intersection often comes perilously close to cultural appropriation, wherein a dominant culture subsumes part of an historically subjugated culture. This becomes especially pernicious when profit enters the picture, as the appropriator often has the means to monetize what they take in ways the originator simply can't access. How does one demonstrate appropriate respect for another culture while integrating it into one's own work?
No one has perfected the formula, but Fields' approach demonstrates a careful attention to the question. For one, he sees Onsen Master as a continuation of the intersection between Black and Japanese culture that's been going on since "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." Those shows took Black culture and put them in an anime context; Onsen Master takes a Black character and puts it in a Japanese context.
Just as crucially, Fields takes pains to emphasize the equal exchange of cultures at play.
"If I'm ever going to continue creating works that do derive or take inspiration from Japanese culture, then I have to find ways that it can still communicate this exchange," he said. "I have to find ways that it can still create representation for myself and people that look like me. Otherwise I would be actively cherry picking themes and aesthetics that just appeal to me, and I think that disconnect is where things begin to tread into appropriation pretty quickly."
Fields envisions Onsen Master as a celebration of these two once disparate cultures coming together. It's an idea he returns to often in our conversation.
"That's really how I feel about [art]," he says. "Yes, we pick up this to be entertained, but also to marvel at the ideas and the creativity that went into it from that person, whether it's an anime or it's a game, or 3D art. By extension, it ends up either connecting or inspiring us, or, in some ways, creating some sort of fulfillment because it provided representation where it otherwise might not have existed."
Players looking to join the celebration don't have long to wait. Onsen Master has a free, playable demo on Steam, and the full game comes out later this year on PC, with console releases to be announced "very soon."