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Why video games like Horizon: Forbidden West still face challenges with Indigenous representation

Indigenous gamers and developers have expressed disappointment over what they call stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous characters and imagery in video games — a medium where representation is rare, both behind and in front of the screen.

‘Every element of every culture in our world is fictional,’ says art director for Sony-exclusive game

These scene depicts the characters Kotallo, left, and Aloy in the Sony PlayStation game Horizon: Forbidden West. Kotallo is a member of the Tenakth tribe, which some gamers and developers say bears the marks of cultural appropriation. (Guerrilla Games/Sony)

This story contains mid-story spoilers for Horizon: Forbidden West.

JohnTom Knight recently got a Sony PlayStation 5 console, and was excited to check out the latest blockbuster video game: Horizon: Forbidden West.

That changed when he saw a review for the game that featured the Tenakth, a new group of characters with broadly Indigenous-inspired costumes.

"Immediately, I was very weirded out by a lot of the use of this, like, esthetic of Native imagery, Native culture," said Knight, who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation currently based in Burbank, Calif.

Knight and other Indigenous gamers, as well as Indigenous game developers, have expressed disappointment over what they call stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous characters and imagery in Forbidden West, and more broadly in video games — a medium where Indigenous representation is rare, and more rarely done well.

Horizon: Forbidden West is set roughly 1,000 years in the future, after an army of sophisticated war machines gained sentience and consumed all biological life in the 2060s. In the hundreds of years since, a new cycle of flora and fauna has grown. Humans have reached a pre-industrial state and are split into a series of factions — including the Tenakth.

The Tenakth dress in leathers and furs, sometimes with feathered flourishes like ornate headdresses. Their skin is covered in warpaint and tattoos, and their armour is fashioned out of metal plates from the animal-like machines that populate the world.

After he saw this, Knight had some questions for Guerrilla Games, the Amsterdam-based studio behind this title and its predecessor, Horizon: Zero Dawn.

"Hey @Guerrilla and @PlayStation, just curious… When making Horizon [Forbidden] West, were any Native/Indigenous people involved in creating the story or art for this game?" he tweeted.

The game-makers respond

This isn't the first time Guerrilla Games has come under the microscope.

In 2017, Indigenous games critic Dia Lacina called out Zero Dawn's use of words like "braves," "savages" and "primal" to describe some factions within the game, as well as games critics and press for not commenting on it in their reviews.

Guerrilla Games' narrative designer John Gonzales told Vice's Waypoint that the studio drew inspiration from a wide net of cultural influences in an attempt to be "sensitive to the cultural concerns of our audience."

CBC Radio asked Guerrilla about these renewed concerns in light of Forbidden West, which was released in February. (Gonzales left the studio in 2020.)

In Horizon: Forbidden West, the player can choose to have main character Aloy wear Tenakth-inspired outfits. Each outfit grants different strengths or weaknesses in the game. (Guerrilla Games/Sony)

"Every element of every culture in our world is fictional and the result of a lengthy ideation process, one that always starts with the land and what it provides the people who live there," said Jan-Bart van Beek, Guerilla's studio head and art director, in a statement.

"We also allowed ourselves to be inspired by humanity's global pre-industrial heritage, looking at how people around the world have been influenced by the environments and materials around them. The world and story we've created seek to honour, respect and celebrate the richness and depth of that shared legacy," the statement said.

Angela Bassett plays Regalla, a Tenakth rebel leader. (Guerrilla Games/Sony)

Van Beek also described how in the back-story, the Tenakth were influenced by incomplete records of an American air force squad that lived and fought in the 2050s.

The Tenakth worship the pilots as ancient sacred warriors. They refer to their fighters as soldiers and marshals, and carry pendants similar to military dog tags.

Joey Clift, a TV writer based in Los Angeles, says an Indigenous writer or consultant would say it's "weird" to have characters with an Indigenous esthetic worshipping American soldiers, some of whom may have European ancestry.

Joey Clift is a TV writer based in Los Angeles and an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe. (Robyn Von Swank)

"[You could] use the game's story as an opportunity to explore why that's weird. And if that seemingly went right over the developer's heads, [that] is ... part of the problem," said Clift, who is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, and currently based in Hollywood.

Van Beek's statement did not address whether any Indigenous developers worked on the game, or whether Indigenous cultural consultants were included in the process.

Forbidden West has so far enjoyed a glowing response from critics and gamers. It currently boasts an 88 per cent rating on the reviews aggregator site Metacritic.

Horizon: Forbidden West is the long-awaited sequel to 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a sprawling, open-world video game set in a post-apocalyptic future and it is getting a lot of buzz for its breathtaking visuals and complex gameplay. Day 6 gaming columnist Jonathan Ore spent dozens of hours with Horizon: Forbidden West and he tells us if you should play it too.

Game production makes representation difficult: developers

Tara Ogaick, a game designer and artist based in Montreal, says the way big-budget video games are made often leads to disappointing design choices like the Tenakth, whose esthetic represents what they described as "the fantasy of the Native" common in popular media.

"Cultural representation isn't established in the game development pipeline," said Ogaick, who is of Iranian and Algonquin descent.

As a result, a game might be near completion before a studio reaches out for feedback like cultural consultation. Ogaick said that if a consultant reported that the studio got an aspect of representation wrong, it's very hard to fix it without revising months or years' worth of work.

"That's a huge problem, because then you're having to justify these decisions retroactively and getting the stamp of approval," said Maize Longboat, a video game designer based in Hamilton, Ont.

Terra Nova is an independent video game made by Maize Longboat, who describes it as a story of Indigenous futurism. It won the award for best emerging digital or interactive work at the 2019 ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival. (Maize Longboat)

Longboat, who is Kanien'kehá:ka from Six Nations of the Grand River, made a smaller-scale game called Terra Nova, which tasked "Indigenous and Settler peoples" with co-operating to survive in the far future.

The game, which won an award at the 2019 ImagineNATIVE festival, takes a more optimistic tone and is rooted in Indigenous futurism. Longboat says it's a contrast to Forbidden West's "future primitivism," which uses Indigenous tropes and "classic colonial narratives" in a future setting.

Little Indigenous visibility in games: critic

Clift points to the 2006 first-person shooter game Prey as the "gold standard" of Indigenous representation in video games, one that doesn't rely on stereotypes.

"The game focuses on a Cherokee guy named Tommy Tawodi, and he's just a Native dude who exists in 1995. He does not wear a loincloth. He wears a leather jacket. He's portrayed as somebody who exists in our current world and not some weird fantasy world," he said.

Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, critic and co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office, said that the international nature of the video games industry means that few developers are familiar with Indigenous culture beyond racist portrayals in some Hollywood movies.

JohnTom Knight is a TV writer and enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. (Submitted by JohnTom Knight)

He added that it's rare to see Indigenous people on either side of the industry — either making the games or consuming them.

"We have seen a shift in the former, where there's more effort to include us in production, but I'm not sure the latter is given any consideration — that we might be a community you want in your audience," said Wente.

The decision on whether or not to play a game like Horizon: Forbidden West carries a personal weight for Knight.

"It's just frustrating because I shouldn't have to go out and be making decisions on what game I'm going to play based on the portrayal of Native people specifically," he said.

"I want to be playing games that anyone else can play. But if it's f--ked up and racist, then I'm just not going to play it."

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