April 20, 2023

Envisioning Indigenous Futures

Meagan Byrne wants to create a world where Indigenous gamers can envision a post-Colonial future.


ICT/Underscore News

The year is 2262. The world is on the verge of freedom from the forces of colonial oppression. As the colonizers leave the planet, earth has been left to the people who could not afford to leave.

The world that is left behind shows the return of the natural world, intertwined with human made elements and technology. Plants have begun to push up between the cracks on the street and vines creep along the side of some of the buildings. Though most of the world is colored in shades of black and gray, neon signs decorate the city with words written in Cree.

This is the landscape of “Hill Agency: Purity/Decay,” released to the public on March 31 by Achimostawinan Games, an Indigenous-owned game studio.

In the game, players take on the role of Meygeen Hill, a Néhinaw (Cree) private investigator working in one of the last major cities left in North America. Starting with a not so simple case of a misplaced ElectroDog 2.0, Meygeen’s true mission begins with the arrival of Mary Patentia from the Risen City, where the “elite citizens” live. Patentia presents Meygeen with a case about murdered sisters after receiving no help from the police. And that’s just the beginning of this Indigenous cyber noir detective game.

“What we get in the game is a first look at what we think a land back situation in a city could look like,” said Meagan Byrne, owner and lead game designer of Achimostawinan Games. “I see it as coming in and properly passing out resources.”

Game designer Meagan Byrne. (Photo courtesy of Achimostawinan Games)

An Indigenous game studio

Byrne, Âpihtawikosisân (Métis of Ontario), is a storyteller who has experimented with many different mediums. She originally found her niche working in theater on lighting, sound and set design.

In the recession of 2008, Byrne was laid off and in search of her next career move. She remembers seeing an employment forecast released by the federal government of Canada, predicting that in the coming years, software development and game development would be two of the biggest areas of employment needs. Intrigued, Byrne enrolled in a video game development program at Sheridan College in Ontario.

“I just took to it like a duck to water,” Byrne said. “I just swam.”

After being the only Indigenous person in the program for most of her time at Sheridan College, in 2016 Byrne launched her solo student project: Achimostawinan Games. A year later, she obtained funding and built a team of five. That allowed her to start developing Hill Agency: Purity/Decay.

In Cree, Achimostawinan means “tell us a story” — which captures Byrne’s mission to create Indigenous games for an Indigenous audience with stories that speak to the game players.

“I want to tell original stories that are grounded in our present and that think about our future,” Byrne said.

For Sadekarones Esquivel, the art lead and concept designer for Hill Agency: Purity/Decay, the chance to create Indigenous futures is part of what drew him to working on this game.

“As Native people we don’t get games that are done by ourselves and tell our own stories in our own ways,” Esquivel said. “Hill Agency is really the chance to tell our own story, without interference.”

Like Byrne, Esquivel, Kanien’kehá:ka (from Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte) and Mexican-Indigenous, draws on his own experience as an Indigenous person to influence the art within the game.

Esquivel is primarily a self-taught artist. He attended art school in Seattle for a short time, but had to drop out because it was too expensive. When he applied to be a concept artist at his first video game studio, Zombie Studios, Esquivel came into the interview equipped with six sketchbooks full of his work. Without an official portfolio or certificate from an art program, Esquivel knew he needed to leave an impression. While the producer who he interviewed with was out of the room, Esquivel sketched the office space — he received a call offering him the position on his way home.

Working as the art lead and concept designer at Achimostawinan Games, Esquivel has seen first hand how expensive it can be to break into the gaming industry. He hopes to inspire Native artists to take a chance on themselves, like he trusted his own art skills without an official degree.

“My biggest hope is that people will look at this and realize that they can do it too,” Esquivel said.

Beyond working at Achimostawinan Games, Esquivel and his brother own Rising Sons Media, offering illustration, concept art, music production and audio engineering services.

Sadekarones Esquivel, the art lead and concept designer for Hill Agency: Purity/Decay. (Photo courtesy of Achimostawinan Games)

Inside the game

As the computer loads Meygeen Hill’s character onto the screen and into the world of Hill Agency: Purity/Decay, the player is transported to a post-apocalyptic, thriving Indigenous metropolis.

The majority of the world is illustrated in black and gray shading. What stands out are hints of neon, seeming to illuminate many important pieces of Indigenous culture and identity. Neon signs written in Cree are scattered throughout the neighborhoods, while the English spelling of street names are mostly left gray. Most of the Indigenous characters in the game wear earrings or other forms of jewelry — the jewelry stands out in neon shades of all colors.

Not only are the signs throughout the game written in Cree Syllabics, but the characters themselves use Cree greetings throughout. At one point Meygeen Hill greets Wab, the owner of the local bar, by saying “Tans~ai Wab. Howsewkoden?”

Though most of the colonizers have left planet Earth in search of new territories, some still live in Risen City, home to the world’s remaining wealthy elite. The city left behind to Meygeen Hill and her community is an example of what a world could look like where housing and food is provided for all and traditional knowledge is incorporated into all aspects of society.

While creating this future world, Byrne said she thought about what it would take to recover from the impacts of colonization.

“How do we just make it not what it is while still recognizing we’re going to have trauma from what happened,” Byrne asked. “We are going to have trauma from living in this space in the first place.”

“Hill Agency gives us a chance to take ideas and conditions of our current world and extrapolate them into a future,” Esquivel said. “With Indigenous futurisms, one of the things is about imagining the possibilities of where your people can go. It’s not about living in the past…I want to imagine a future for people because if you can’t imagine it, you don’t have one.”

In a sense, Hill Agency: Purity/Decay paints a picture of an urban Native identity, according to Byrne, who drew on many of her own experiences as inspiration. When presenting about the game at conferences, Byrne received lots of feedback from people about being able to see themselves or their relatives in the game. That is one of her main goals — to create a game where Indigenous people can feel seen. In particular, she wants to create a world for Indigenous gamers.

“Who’s this game for? It’s for Indigenous women,” Byrne said. “Indigenous ladies, you are seen and represented and wanted in this space.”

It’s the first game Achimostawinan has released. But Byrne is hopeful that Hill Agency: Purity/Decay will be the first of many.

Lead image: An image of from the game Hill Agency: Purity/Decay (Photo courtesy of Achimostawinan Games)

About the author

Nika Bartoo-Smith

Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to provide platforms for the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Most recently, she worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Prior to working at The Columbian, Nika spent the summer of 2022, after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, working as a Snowden Intern at The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon. A descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, Nika was born and raised in Portland. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, curling up with a good book or taking a hike in one of the many green spaces around Portland.

Twitter: @BartooNika

Email: nbartoosmith@underscore.news

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