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.
Salim Larochelle knows no one lives forever. Like many of us, he knew it intellectually far before he knew it personally, but when that day came — when he came face to face with death, just a few short years ago — he realized something of vital importance.
"I'm at a point in my life where people are going to start to go away," he said in an interview. "I'm an adult, and people don't live forever. And I'm thinking, how is that going to affect me? Am I going to be stuck in the past, or am I ready for it?"
Larochelle has spent more than a decade in game design. He began as a tester at Gameloft, the Montreal-based sister company of Ubisoft. After four years there, he realized his ambitions outstripped being a cog in a big, commercial machine, so he left to found his own studio, Flying Carpets Games. Working with his longtime collaborator, artist Ayaka Nakamura, he created the action adventure game The Girl and the Robot, and released it for PlayStation 4, WiiU and PC in 2016.
The Girl and the Robot follows firmly in the footsteps of Team Ico (Shadow of the Colossus), infusing a small and quiet story with heart and sensitivity. It taught Larochelle a lot about game development, and inspired a card game spinoff. But for the next Flying Carpets title, he decided to dig deeper.
Larochelle is of Malagasy descent, and when he was young his mother would tell him stories of folklore from Madagascar. He says those stories were largely cheerful, but that they were rife with connections to death, to ancestry, and to the afterworld. He began to research these stories and their attendant folklore, and Hiboka, his next game, began to gel around it.
Hiboka is a single-player, third-person survival horror game that follows Alexandre Leblanc, a wealthy French teenager on a quest to revive his recently deceased mother. That quest leads him to Madagascar in 1942, where the Japanese Empire and Vichy France are fighting the English for control of the island. Alexandre believes that here, at the cursed Sanatry Mansion, he can bridge the divide between the living and the dead and see his mother again.
In the Malagasy tradition, Hiboka is the world of the dead. And although it is a world unto itself, the division between it and our living world is not so firm. Larochelle says there are stories of apparent possession, when spirits from beyond would inhabit the bodies of the living and share knowledge only the deceased could know. There were even accounts of people turned into horrific creatures by prolonged possession. Larochelle hungered for this knowledge, chasing down rare volumes in far-flung Belgian bookstores like the protagonist of a Borges story.
"The more I looked into it, the more I researched it, the more I thought that the lore was so good. And it's something that most people in the world don't know about," he said.
"Our studio strongly believes that art is the key to change the world," reads the about section on the Flying Carpets Games site. "Through art, creators send messages, give new viewpoints and bring the audience to a new understanding of what could otherwise be misunderstood."
Hiboka would be the perfect opportunity to bring Malagasy culture to the West, to give it some long overdue shine and, in so sharing, break down the barriers between us. To see the beauty in something far away, in Larochelle's words.
Although Alexandre arrives with a small retinue of companions, it is the Malagasy girl Ramal Fifaliana who ultimately guides him on his journey, and the player shifts back and forth between the two characters throughout the game. When the two meet, Alexandre is the picture of the petulant imperialist. Blinded by grief over his mother, he treats his companions callously, and wields his many privileges (wealth and whiteness chief among them) as a cudgel. He and Ramala, who is brown skinned, clash at first, but players will be able to make several choices over the course of the game that change how the two see each other. Each can earn the other's respect, friendship — even love.
Thanks to Perfect Sync, a mechanical conceit inspired by Larochelle's frustrations with Resident Evil 1 & 2 (which he loves), everything the player does when controlling one protagonist will persist when they swap to the other. Shattered artifacts, locked doors, dead characters — nothing will reset on character switch. And all will add up to one of a few endings the game supports.
The visuals in Hiboka are an uncanny combination of warm and unsettling. The rooms of Sanatry Mansion glow orange in torchlight and purple in the darker depths of the manse, and the creatures that chase the player around the grounds are a gruesome counterpoint to the more cartoony human characters. Those striking visuals are Nakamura's handiwork. She's based in Japan, and the two first began talking when he found her work on a Japanese art sharing platform in around 2012.
"Sometimes when you see artists on Twitter and they're really good, you're kind of thinking, 'Oh, they'll never work for me,'" Larochelle said. "But sometimes you just have to reach out and ask if they're interested, and you'll be surprised how much people are actually waiting to be part of a project."
When Larochelle made that move himself — speaking the Japanese he'd used to skate by after living there for a year — Nakamura responded well to the characters of The Girl and the Robot, and their collaboration began. They met in person for the first time shortly after, at the Japanese events Bit Summit and Tokyo Game Show, and have been close friends ever since. She handles all the art and design for Hiboka. There are a total of seven people working on the game, but she and Larochelle are the heart of the team.
Despite the game's lighter visuals, the theme of grief courses through every frame, and most powerfully through the character of Alexandre. No surprise given Hiboka's initial inspirations.
"I did lose one person in my family that was very dear to me," Larochelle says — not his mother, but another close relation. "That made me realize that I am entering a new era in my life where I have to start thinking bout my life after losing someone dear."
With respect to the past, Larochelle is looking to the future. It remains to be seen whether his characters will find that same understanding.
Hiboka hits PC and major consoles soon.