'You can deliver empathy': Why Dandara's devs drew inspiration from Brazilian culture
“We took inspiration from what was closest to us as Brazilians," says Dandara dev João Brant.
"A culture that’s very different from what the average player is used to. Not only would this make the game appear novel, but it also enhanced the mystery and thus the main mechanic of the game: exploration.”
Long Hat House's Dandara, released last month, is a platforming Metroidvania of unique movements and a touch of Brazilian history. Inspired by (and starring an interpretation of) the Brazilian historical folk hero Dandara, players battle across an interconnected world in order to free an oppressed people.
In addition to its intriguing premise, Dandara has a unique movement system: instead of running and jumping through its lush 2D levels, players may only leap from surface to surface in a direct line. Any surface will do, of course, and the movement is very fast, ensuring players can quickly careen from floor to wall to ceiling and back again once they get the hang of it.
Building a narrative on top of that which draws from a real historical battle against slavery presented a unique challenge for Brant and Long Hat House cofounder Lucas Mattos. Inspired by the story of Dandara dos Palmares and excited about the opportunity to stir players' curiosity about Brazilian history, they were also deeply worried about cheapening the importance of Dandara's legacy with their game.
Through a careful approach in conveying the figures as representations, they delivered an experience that captures the developers’ Brazilian heritage while also enhancing their play through characters who would truly mean something to its players.
Drawing from history
"Exploration gameplay needs novelty to make players curious, and seeing an abstract fraction of another culture leads to finding unexpected things."
Long Hat House’s development work was like that of many other indie studios – a group of passionate developers looking for a means to break into the game market. In their minds, they needed something that would work well on a market they could easily launch their game on, focusing on what worked on mobile in order to get their names (and games) out there.
“Before there was any story, there was the gameplay.” says Brant. “We wanted, as a studio, to reach the console market one day, but instead of investing our time into marketing Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns, we focused on proving and testing our production capacity at an ‘easier’ self-publishing market: the mobile one (in terms of having your game be live and available for purchase). Our initial goal with the game was to create satisfying battle mechanics on touch screen, and to try creating something more akin to a console experience on mobile.”
“With this mindset, we made an experience where you could move, dodge, and blast enemies only using swipe gestures. Everything else came from those initial mechanics, even the exploration mechanics and making the rooms interconnected. It felt natural to the gameplay and flow,” he continues.
However, action and exploration without a narrative to back it up can become dull and lifeless – a player mashing buttons toward a goal of a high score. While compelling in its own way, Brant wanted to touch the player in a more emotional way to draw them into their work. For that, the game needed a story, and one came to them from a place close to their own hearts.
“That’s about the time when we needed an environment and plot to better suit the controls. Initially, we thought about clichés like dudes with machine guns, robots, and such," Brant says. "While we think those are still pretty fun, they are mostly inspirations from other games and we’d hardly be adding anything new...we wanted to cut this ‘middleman’ and find inspiration from its source, like in something closer to us, personally. Exploration gameplay needs novelty to make players curious, and seeing an abstract fraction of another culture leads to finding unexpected things that make sense with each other.”
What's interesting here is that these devs built a more immersive and interesting world by tapping elements of Brant’s own Brazilian cultural heritage. The pair felt this would not only provide players with interesting figures and moments to mirror their play, but also teach them about a culture they may not know about, creating a natural curiosity to know more about this foreign history, or for Brazilians to see more of their own heritage in games.
“I think that by taking influences from around us, and considering we are based in Brazil, the result for those who aren’t Brazilian is a bit strange and evokes a sense of mystery, which is great! But also, for Brazilians, it is a different feeling entirely," continues Brant.
"We don’t have as many games that carry our own culture, and the way it is shown, and in this abstract way, you can feel a sense of strange familiarity in the Salt (the game’s world). You don’t explore only because you expect the unexpected - you also explore to search for the next thing you’re going to identify with as a Brazilian. Albeit unintended, this game has a different relationship with Brazilians, which is a very positive one, in my opinion."
A Brazilian heroine
To be clear, Dandara’s take on history is not a literal one -- instead, it draws from historical figures and moments as it tells its own story. “While the game is inspired by history, it's definitely not a historical adaptation," Brant adds. "Characters, elements, and objects from history are here to signify certain emotions and ideas.”
As the developer thought about the game, the way it might play, and the narratives they wished to convey, it became clear which historical figure would be a good fit for the project.
“Dandara, the game character, was based on Dandara dos Palmares, a leader of Quilombo dos Palmares," Brant says. "Quilombos were big settlements built mainly by runaway or free-born slaves in order to protect and resist against slavery forces. Quilombo dos Palmares was the largest quilombo - estimates say it once grew to a population of a 11,000 people.”
“It is believed that Dandara knew how to fight, was a battle strategist, and, when eventually recaptured, took her own life so as not to go back to a life of enslavement," he continues. "While Dandara is a very important figure, it’s common for a Brazilian to have only heard of Zumbi dos Palmares, her partner and the leader of Quilombo dos Palmares. As you can imagine, even though Dandara is relatively unknown, she encapsulates the spirit of liberation, and this is what has been brought into the game.”
Her skills at capoeira, as well as her fight against slavery in her country, ensured she was a great fit for the devs' intended narrative of players freeing people from oppression. This gave them a powerful heroine for their game and also allowed them to impart some knowledge on their own cultural history through her character. She's not the only one, either.
“Dandara is not the only historical figure in the game. The first NPC you come across...Tarsila, is an homage to Tarsila do Amaral, an important Brazilian painter who was one of the main artists behind the modernist movement here in Brazil," Brant says.
“Her magnum opus, Abaporu, is the painting that kickstarted the Brazilian Anthropophagic Movement, and our character Tarsila is portrayed as a caricature of the Abaporu. The piece is studied by most Brazilians in school, and it is instantly recognizable to people all over the country. When thinking about fine arts in Brazil, Tarsila do Amaral certainly crosses one’s mind,”
So the question remains: how do you incorporate a cherished folk hero like Dandara into your indie Metroidvania? According to Brant, a straightforward retelling of her story felt like it was beyond the scope of the small team making Dandara.
“At first, when we decided to make the story something within our country’s history, we thought of making a story about Brazilian slavery. That’s what made us look into Quilombo dos Palmares in the first place," he says. "It didn’t work out as originally planned though because we felt we were too small of a team to tackle it; a sensitive subject like this would require a lot of careful research and has to be done just right. Also, we felt that the already established game mechanics couldn’t portray too much realism, and because of that we thought referencing this part of history might be seen as tasteless. When the story changed to something more personal to us, the main character survived the transition with Dandara’s story and name still bringing strong meaning to the game."
A dark period of slavery could, arguably, make for a powerful backdrop to an action game, but it could just as easily trivialize the plight of the people who suffered and died during these periods to be beating up slave owners and collecting power-ups that help the player solve all of slavery in a matter of hours with some sick combos. It didn’t feel right to boil such a complex period and series of horrible events down to this kind of action; instead, the developers focused on using the story of Dandara as inspiration to tell their own story -- one that explores some themes of oppression and freedom through their interpretations of these figures and the times.
“The movement mechanic was one of the reasons that made us stay away from making a pure historical adaptation, and instead used history and what Dandara stood for as inspiration," adds Brant. "The way Dandara moves is also a metaphor that complements the lore of the Salt. The game is named after Dandara, and we tried to handle this with the utmost care. We didn’t want people to expect an adaptation and then get disappointed.”
This exploration of history, rather than retelling it as a game, helped the developers create an experience that would inspire those that knew and were affected by the events it interprets, as well as creating discussion and curiosity in those who knew nothing of this time in history.
"Taking inspiration from what is around us, what we’ve lived, and what we’ve learned during our lives is a much more natural way to convey ideas and emotions instead of trying to find general representations that are common and accepted worldwide."
“Surprisingly, taking inspiration from what is around us, what we’ve lived, and what we’ve learned during our lives is a much more natural way to convey ideas and emotions instead of trying to find general representations that are common and accepted worldwide," Brant says. "And I believe it’s just plain advantageous for the game to be a bit different with its elements. As we had taken a unique approach to the gameplay, both the design and narrative worked in parallel to make the game feel fresh. We are happy with the result and happier to see people enjoy the experience.”
“Those that know the inspirational origins and cultural-historical context have access to a much richer narrative," he adds. "The meanings behind those facts help a lot to make sense of the game world. It works both ways as well, those in search of a richer narrative can also research the game’s inspirations and learn about another culture and history.”
This work, Brant hopes, will have players wrestling with Dandara’s themes while also enjoying its action, coming up with their own interpretations on events throughout the game.
“I don’t want to spoil much of the ‘real’ meanings of the plot and the Salt because discovery and interpretation are part of the experience," he says. "Now that we’ve launched the game, we like to think about our own explanations as being just another valid interpretation. As this is an exploration game, our main intention with the narrative was always to invite people to see with their own eyes and try to digest and understand all of it.” says Brant.
This desire stems from the power the developers found in games – one where they can convey history, or interpretations of history, that challenge the player to think and feel their way through these moments that are drawn from our darkest moments.
“Games differ from other media because of the interactive side of it, and that is how it can bring narrative elements that are unique to them," says Mattos. "In talking about history, not only can you show the player a historical situation and the decisions someone made when living through it, but you can stimulate, through gameplay, feelings that relate to how it would be for a person to be in that position. You can deliver empathy.”
While Dandara, the person, would convey the action of their game well, and she would also tie the true history into the world’s lore, creating a connection with history and thought, it would force the player to truly feel her plight and courage in these moments. To sense the suffering this real person must have felt, even if it is conveyed, at times, through the simple challenges of a video game.
“The mechanics also brought their own narrative to the game," says Brant. "Difficulty helped establish an emergent narrative where Dandara must fight against all odds through this immense challenge, just to then persevere with exploration and strategy.”
“Deeper connections can be made between the player and game characters and elements with interactivity. And if those are adaptations or inspirations, that deep connection has then been made between a person and a historical figure," Mattos adds.
“For example, you can deliver the doubt of a decision that, if not put into the hands of the player, they could never understand due to the complexity involved in taking it. You can make the audience go through all the historical thoughts in context. These might lead the player to a better understanding on how things came to be - the reasons that drove people in acting different from the expected.”
Interpretations like Dandara, which not only draw the player deeper into a piece of cultural history through curiosity, can also help them engage with the matter in an interactive way. These are not just people in some dusty tome, but figures the player has become, for a time. They have lived through events, even if only in a cursory way, and have spent some time thinking their thoughts. They may not have exactly mirrored them, but they may draw a closeness to these figures through these shared interpretations.
“These connections also don't need to be logical - you can create correlations between feelings," continues Mattos. "For example, the difficulty level in Dandara adds to how oppressive the enemy is in the plot. There is narrative meaning in the player persisting or giving up, and those add to how a player perceives the context. You can draw a parallel with the hardships the historical Dandara felt, trying to free her people from a relentless enemy.”
By connecting it with the legacy of Dandara dos Palmares, the Dandara team seems to have given the game's action a context beyond just swiping at enemies for a high score. Players have a clear incentive to fight, and the game may kindle an interest in learning more about the cultural history that birthed it..
Ultimately, Dandara’s connection to history helps deepen the player’s connection to the game and its narratives, but also asks that they connect further with their own world and its terrible histories.