Folktale in the world of digital media – Part 1
This paper serves as a recommendation requested by Dr. Bukar Usman as a supplementary document to the communiqué of 13th Annual Conference of The Nigerian Folklore Society held in Kano, April 30-2 May 2018.
In reference to the Communiqué, it would be necessary to acknowledge the Nigerian Folklore Society for its efforts in the promotion of the Nigerian oral literature and folklore. The conclusions of the NFS statement made after the annual conference of 2018 are especially important as they acknowledge the role of modern media, both as a way of transpiring the information and as a tool for popularisation of the folklore in modern times. Thus, the idea of establishing a grant fund to support the introduction of Nigerian oral literature into the world of digital media has to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. It will give the platform not only for the scholars but also for the creators of cartoons and comic books to promote and commemorate the rich heritage of folklore in Nigeria. Moreover, it will give the voice to the younger generation of artists and culture-makers and inspire them to explore the fascinating world of folkloric traditions. However, we sincerely believe that limiting such a grant proposal only to animation/cartoon limits the possibilities of promotion of Nigerian folklore through modern media products. We hereby advocate for the inclusion of the video game industry as the area with huge adaptive features and promotional potential.
The paper will try to explore the potential of the African oral literature as a source for the video game industry and try to define the place of the traditional literature and storytelling in a reality shaped by the new media. Apart from the general assumption about the growing importance of the video game industry in Africa, the paper will aim to concentrate on the value of the source material as a basis for the products from this area. To reach this goal, few initial assumptions have to be made. They will be presented at the conclusion level and explained in the later stages of the paper. However, due to the nature of the paper as a recommendation and a supplementary document, the methodological and theoretical frameworks were omitted and the references to the source material were reduced to a minimum. Nigerian folklore will be the main reference for the evaluation of the research goals, but due to the nature of the field and the fact that video game industry in sub-Saharan Africa can be considered as a new phenomenon or an emerging market, some references to other African countries have to be made, along with the necessary recommendations supported by the experiences from the countries (from Europe, North America or Asia) where video game industry is well established and thriving with growth.
Initial statements confirmed by the preliminary research
The following statements were confirmed by the analysis of the modern media products from the selected field and general market value of the video game industry: World video game industry is a well-established market with huge economic value, cultural and social impact of the video game industry is significant and growing, the representation of the African continent in world media products is limited and usually follows (often derogatory) stereotypes about the continent and its population, the growth of the local industry in sub-Saharan African countries is remarkable, but at the same time is harmed by the lack of funding which results in limited specialist base required for the development of the media products, and video game is a medium, that is able to capture the spirit of storytelling and can be successfully used for the popularisation of folklore and cultural tradition
World video game industry is a well-established market with huge economic value
ACCORDING to Newzoo, one of the world’s leading video game analyst, global video game industry in 2017 alone has reached market value of 116 billion dollars and it has already surpassed movie and music industry put together. Year 2018 brought constant and significant growth of 11% reaching a new high value of 135 billion dollars. At the same time, the revenue itself grew by 18%, compared to 2017, bringing $43.8 billion profit to game developers and distributors (according to Entertainment Software Association). Majority of this revenue obviously came from the developed markets of United States, Asia and Western Europe, but market potential of African countries is indisputable. To visualize it we can look at the example of Nigeria and see the results of the census for 2017. The most populous of the sub-Saharan countries was ranked 17th worldwide among the countries with the highest number of smartphone users (28,381,000), but at the same time occupied a mere 45th place, if we look at the video game industry revenue. At the same time, almost half of the above mentioned global video game market revenue came from the mobile games, and this segment of the industry is also the one that is growing at the fastest rate. The mobile market for smartphones and tablets maintained its role also in 2018. If we put into consideration technological progression and growing access to the global network due to the more accessible and affordable data plans, it is reasonable to assume, that Nigerian participation in the video game industry revenue will be growing as well, as more people will be interested in the media products distributed online through mobile platforms. However, this assumption has to be confirmed by the detailed survey of the Nigerian market covering the entertaining habits of the smartphone users and the preferences of the recipients of the video game products.
Cultural and social impact of the video game industry is significant and growing
GROWING economic importance of the video game industry comes along with the significant growth of its cultural role. Marked by the development of PONG and the sale of the first arcade unit by Atari in 1972, the video game industry started to grow up to the shape we know today and experienced constant technological progress. Over the years it evolved from simple products with limited graphics into a medium capable of telling complex and multidimensional stories with, or without, the use of stunning visuals. To portray the social impact of the video games we can use the example of World of Warcraft ‒ a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), a game that is partially based on social interactions between the players while having its own story-based content settled in the fictional world. According to data released by its developer ‒ Blizzard Entertainment, in October 2010 the game had 12 million subscribers (people paying the monthly subscription in order to reach the content). The value at the time was higher than the population of Chad (11, 038,873 – census from 2009), Benin (10,008, 749 – census from 2013) and almost twice the population of Togo (6,191,155 – census from 2010). The huge popularity of the above-mentioned product didn’t go unnoticed and there were numerous efforts to capitalise on its success with the use of different media. It became a basis for 16 novels (23 in total Warcraft franchise), movie adaptation released in 2016 and a series of comic books. The data presented above clearly shows that we can now talk about the pop-cultural phenomenon rather than a niche product aimed at the limited audience and similar results (with slightly less impressive values) can be produced for other leading brands. It is worth noticing here, that video game has been fully incorporated into the pop-cultural cycle and the adaptations of the novels and movies into video game product are common and new releases have a huge potential success rate. The same thing works both ways. A good example is The Witcher series. Initially started as a series of fantasy novels deeply rooted in Polish tradition and folklore, the brand got a huge recognition thanks to the successful video game adaptations and now is a subject of the upcoming TV series currently being produced by the North American giant Netflix.
The representation of the African continent in world media products is limited and usually follows (often derogatory) stereotypes about the continent and its population.
CURRENTLY, the industry lacks Africa oriented products. In reference to the theory of supply and demand, the majority of the developers are concentrated on addressing the needs and entertainment habits of the customers who come from the countries of the highest revenue, as they are considered as the countries or regions with stronger economic potential and higher projected revenue. As a result, standard video game setting ranges from Asian/European-medieval-fantasy through Westernized urban areas up to science fiction based on the Western literature and film industry. Moreover, the negative image of sub-Saharan Africa in Western media gravely influences the existing products that in turn reflect popular stereotypes. Perhaps the most detailed and complex visualisation of Africa in a computer game is Far Cry 2 (released in 2008). However, it is still highly Westernized view that corresponds with the image of the continent built on the basis of the Western media. So, Africa in the Ubisoft game is a land of corruption and violence that accompanies a civil war in a fictional country. Even the new releases like Conan Exiles (being itself an adaptation of the popular fantasy novels from 1930’s), don’t try to tackle derogatory stereotypes, so the most common “African-like” tribe present in the game is a group of cannibal savages who lack written culture. Africans or people of African origin are of course present in modern-day games, but it is rather a sign of political correctness, or a bow to the huge North American market, than any sign of acknowledgment of the potential of the African one. There are some notable exceptions like the game Pamoja Mtaani (2008) co-founded by the U.S. government and released as a part of the campaign to raise the awareness about the necessity of HIV prevention in Kenya. However, those releases have limited impact.
The growth of the local industry in sub-Saharan African countries is remarkable, but at the same time is harmed by the lack of funding which results in a limited specialist base required for the development of the media products.
FOLLOWING the observations included in the previous section it’ll be reasonable to express the opinion that the African-themed games that are faithful to the African tradition and folklore have to be produced by African developers. Currently, video game industry in sub-Saharan Africa can be considered as an emerging market, so it is hard to see some trends and patterns in video game development, as well as point-out its main future players. Here, regarding the economic and population potential, Nigeria has to be put into consideration. The country is already present on the developers map for the mobile game industry and data suggests that this segment of the market will be growing on the fastest rate. The leading Nigerian company ‒ Maliyo (established in 2012) ‒ has 7 games available in Google Play Store (8 in portfolio) and a platform for online distribution. History of the video game development in sub-Saharan Africa is rather short, but it already has some remarkable landmarks. First company ‒ Ghanaian/Kenyan Leti Arts1 was established in 2009 by Eyram Tawia, industry veteran and author of Sword of Sygos (2005) ‒ one of the first games released in Africa. The company’s founder has recently (2016) published a book with a self-explanatory title: Uncompromising Passion: The Humble Beginnings of an African Video Game Industry. The year 2015 brought the first 3D game (single and multiplayer) produced and released in Africa. Nairobi X was a futuristic shooter created and developed by Andrew Kaggia ‒ self-taught programmer from Kenya and his company ‒ Black Division Games. On 14th April 2016, the first video game developed in Africa was released on Steam ‒ a worldwide distribution and gaming platform which at that time had approximately 67 million active monthly users. Although it is hard to call it a commercial success as the game’s impact on the market was not that significant, Aurion: Legacy of Kori-Odan, created by the Cameroonian studio Kiro’o Games received some positive reviews and its current score on Metacritic, an on-line reviewing web-site, is 69 (user score 7.8). However, despite the potential and noticeable growth, the development of the African game industry is plagued by some problems that harm its progression into the world-wide level.
As expected, the problems are mostly financial in nature as it is hard to build a successful company based on enthusiasm alone. This is clearly visible from the examples of the companies listed above (excluding Maliyo which operates in a different sector of the market). Leti Arts, despite being a pioneer of game development in Africa is still waiting for its big release, as its flagship project, an ambitious merge of African mythology with superhero universe entitled Africa’s Legends: Reawakening is still under development. Thus, it is possible that the company has become the first game development studio in the world which released a book before releasing any significant video game product. Nairobi X, as it was said before, was created and produced by one person and due to the ambitious plans and relatively big scale of the venture its release would not be possible without some private sponsorship. However, at the time of writing only the mobile version is available and the company shows all the signs of extinction with the recent updates of their Facebook profile dated 18th November 2015 and switched-off web-site. The youngest of them, Kiro’o Games is still active and on the 12th of April announced it’s entering into the stock market. However, the creation process of their release was backed by the successful Kickstarter campaign where the initial goal of €40,000 was exceeded by almost €10,000.
The examples presented above, testify to the problems of the young industry. Due to the unclear possibilities of profit and success, game development is not a career choice for the younger generations, so the games produced in Africa are made by small studios which are prone to bankruptcy if the released project does not bring back the invested resources. Lack of steady income obviously becomes a factor for draining of the available work power, as even the enthusiasts and idealists often migrate into specialisations that guarantee the possibilities to cover living expenses.
Those might be the reasons for apparent cancelling of the production of the highly anticipated game Throne of Gods. Although playable demo is already available, the last update on the production of the fighting game with the rich mythological setting was released through the Twitter account of Kugali Media on 19th January 2017. It only says that the final product is going to be released soon. Video game is a medium that is able to capture the spirit of storytelling and can be successfully used for the popularisation of folklore and cultural tradition.
If we put into consideration the changes in society and its entertainment habits, it has to be agreed that the approach towards oral literature has to be updated to fully explore its potential in the world of digital media.
This process is already happening and the upcoming Nigerian movie Dawn of Thunder is one of the examples. There are also efforts to adapt oral literature into the video game market. Nigerian company Genii Games as part of the applications for learning the country’s three main languages (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba) has some products directly based on oral tradition and folklore. Adventures of the Tortoise, Oluronbi, Pride Goes Before a Fall, Sango, and His Wives, The Gluttonous Kid are the adaptations of folktales that combine storytelling with voice acting and aesthetic visuals. They are all available through Google Play Store and thus theoretically available for anyone who has a Gmail account. Aboki Run produced by Maliyo, despite its arcade character, apparently has some folklore elements weaved in the story background, but not visible in the gameplay. On the other hand, Owere 3D made by Ghanaian company Kobby’s Hobby features Anansi as a player’s opponent, so it gives some direct folkloristic entourage to the popular board game.
Those are just a few examples of the video game-related products made in sub-Saharan Africa and distributed through the main platform for Android applications. However, the limited formula of the mobile game forces the developers to squeeze their content and made it available for download with minimal data loss. As the examples above clear show, in the case of the mobile games, the story has to be sacrificed for the gameplay or the gameplay itself has to be sacrificed for the story. The situation is different from the PC/Console releases where there is no clear limit for the size of the product in Gigabytes, so the developers can concentrate on all the aspects of their product. It will not be an exaggeration if we say that Aurion: The Legacy of The Kori-Odan is the most complex and the most popular video game made in sub-Saharan Africa up to date. Even if this statement will be based mostly on the limited competition in the field, the achievement made by the small Cameroonian team is significant. The game has it all ‒ decent visuals, deep and interactive stories accompanied by character progression. What is worth pointing out here is that the story itself, despite being placed in the fictional kingdom of quasi-fantasy setting, is based on local legends and traditions. It is actually storytelling put into motion. To fully understand the importance of this product for the field of the study let’s confront it with some general elements of the oral literature.
Being a multipurpose and multidimensional phenomenon, traditional oral literature is considered as a form of education through entertainment. It consists of two main elements ̶ the text and its presentation with the participation of the audience. To define it further, we can follow the statement of Ruth Finnegan who said that “oral literature is by definition dependent on the performer who formulates it in words on a specific occasion” (Oral Literature in Africa, 1970, p.2). Being highly dependent on performance and thus dynamic in nature, oral literature becomes a perfect basis for modern video games, where the idea of “performance” is also crucial, even if the human factor is, in most cases, eliminated. Furthermore, we can say that the video game as a medium is able to capture the spirit of oral performance even better than a video recording. Within a video game, the participation in the performance is possible and the “interactiveness” is one of the crucial elements of the successful presentation of a story in a traditional setting. Looking from this perspective, the game creator can act as “performer” and if the process of adaptation is made correctly, translation of the folktale into a video game will be more valuable and closer to the source than the transcription of the text. Despite some technical flaws of the execution, Aurion actually reaches this goal, as the players are required to put some effort and invest themselves in the story in order to finish the game. This example can set some standards or show the direction for the adaptation of the oral literature for modern media. However, as it was said above, local competition on this segment of the market is very limited and to see the ways of the adaptation of traditional material for the purposes of the video game industry we will have to look for the examples from the different cultural circle.
For this purpose, three products have been chosen as a case study references. They all represent different genres of the video games and show different approach towards the source material. Those are The Witcher: Wild Hunt (2015), Thea: The Awakening (2015) and Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) released in 2014.
The Witcher is the biggest of all three. With the regard to the production value, sales and international recognition, it is clearly a world-class product that sets quality standards for the Role Playing Games genre. Produced by the Polish studio CD Project Red it is a third game in the series that initially started in 2007. The game (just to remind, based on the series of novels) despite its fictional setting is literally soaked in old Slavic tradition and folklore. These influences are manifested not only in names or graphic design but mainly in the transmission of the traditional stories, that are skillfully incorporated into the storyline. This faithfulness and respect for the cultural background accompanied with high overall quality (current Metacritic rate of 93 and user score 9.4 out of 100 and 10 respectively) of the gameplay elements make this video game not only a successful market product but also a tool for the promotion of the country’s culture and economic progress. It is enough to say, that the previous installment of the series ‒ The Witcher: Assassins of Kings ‒ was presented to Barrack Obama in 2011 by the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Thea is a product of a much smaller scale. If we compare the production costs of the two products Thea and Wither will be like Kano Pillars and Real Madrid ‒ small, relatively simple but still entertaining for the devoted fan base of supporters. Made by MuHa Games, a small studio with just 6 people spread between Poland and UK, the game received generally positive reviews (Metacritic score of 73, user score of 8.6) and according to the developer, the sales were more than satisfactory. The company currently works on the sequel, which is already available in Steam’s early access program. The Witcher was putting the player in the centre of events while bombing him with stunning visuals and the openness of the world. Thea is a strategy/card game that uses static graphics and puts the player in control of the small group of settlers. What is important here is the fact, that this product is surprisingly deep if it comes to faithfulness towards traditional and folkloristic content. Majority of the events, the whole cultural setting with religion and customs pay respects for the old Slavic traditions. These are presented to the player in a form of stories and events chained together to produce an entertaining experience with visible educational elements.
Never Alone is the one among the three which has the deepest roots in the source material. Made by Upper One Games and published by E-Line Media, this platformer game is an actual adaptation of the traditional Inuit story. The game itself was made in cooperation with Alaska Native storytellers to create a unique experience, which combines game play elements withdrawn, animated videos along with an actual documentary about Inuit customs and traditions. Metacritic score (73, user score 6.3 – mostly due to clunky controls) does not reflect the game’s value as a tool for the promotion of the folklore and tradition. Despite low costs, the game has surprisingly high production value as the game play (although quite repetitive) is enriched by good animations and minimalistic, but yet appropriate, graphics that adequately reflect the game’s polar setting. Developers approach towards the source material gained them wide international recognition and the game which combined real storytelling with modern game play received numerous awards including the British Academy Award for Best Debut in 2015.
The analysis of the examples presented above in the context of this study can lead to some important conclusions:
First of all, as the case of The Witcher proves, video game can be used as a tool for promotion of the cultural heritage and in African reality, this promotion value can be capitalised in order to tackle negative stereotypes about Africa being a continent of poverty, corruption. The level of production of The Witcher: Wild Hunt is probably unreachable for any of the African developers at the moment as it requires huge financial investment. However, the referred series of games have launched relatively unknown CD Project Red from the small studio into the World’s super league of video game development in just 10 years and Cindirella stories are possible in the market with such dynamics and growth. Thea proves that the small budget is not an obstacle for the financial success, as long as the game is set in a unique setting and here, African tradition and Slavic mythology can serve the same purpose, while the first is even more uncommon to the worldwide video game audience and can provide more refreshing experience for the players. Never Alone can be analysed on two levels ‒ as a video game product and as an artistic experiment that successfully merges pop-cultural entertainment with the traditional one symbolised by oral literature.
At this level, two examples of Thea and Never Alone can become a direct inspiration for the game developers in Africa due to the relatively small budget, ambitious goals and deep connection with the folkloric base. Looking from this point of view, more examples can be produced quite easily, especially from the genres like adventure, visual novel or more casual like hidden objects or “walking simulator” game, but the ones presented above were chosen because of their direct links with folklore and oral tradition.
Looking from this perspective, we can assume that the video game can be directly used to preserve and promote folklore both in Nigeria and abroad. Moreover, due to the role of the world’s video game market in shaping pop-cultural trends, oral literature or folklore in general, can become the main tool for the promotion of the African continent and the positive image of the African societies. This is a reasonable hypothesis, as we can consider African oral literature (folktales, legends, proverbs, etc.) as a ready and open-source material with huge cultural value and widespread recognition on the local level. Thus, oral literature can be used in two ways ̶ as a tool for popularisation of the video game culture in order to get new market and to develop local industry, which as a result can turn video game into a medium to promote Africa through popular culture. Currently, African companies are aiming at both, but the success of some locally made products can lead to the interest of some global companies. They will surely aim at the first when they realize the full potential of the sub-Saharan market and the potential that lies in the African stories. In the long run, the promotion of the African folklore (Nigerian included) through video games, can lead to important changes in the paradigms of the popular culture. The things needed right now are some support and success for local game developers, as success will most likely become an inspirational factor for the aspiring artists.
Final remarks and recommendations
AS it was shown in the analysis above, the video game is an industry with enormous economic impact and growing cultural potential. Video game is a medium that is able to capture the spirit of storytelling and can be successfully used for the promotion of folklore, both on a domestic and international level. It combines the story with the visual and audio aspects. It’s interactive, and the need for constant participation from the user situates video games closer to the idea of traditional storytelling. Moreover, the player’s active participation in the story can result in a personal attachment to the characters and thus encourage further reading and exploration of the country’s rich folkloristic heritage. Also, if properly made, the video game can become more faithful to the initial performance that the movie, cartoon or comic book and show different angles of the storytelling than the compilation of stories. The inclusion of the African oral heritage into the modern media environment will most likely happen anyway as some signs of this process are already visible, but Nigerian Folklore Society’s participation in the development process through the system of stipendiary support will be a way to ensure the faithfulness of the adaptation of the traditional stories. It will also give the young and aspiring creators the platform to polish their skills in game development while at the same time will promote oral literature and folklore among other generations. Alhaji Abubakar Imam in his milestone work Magana Jari Ce proved that translation of the foreign cultural product is possible, and the video game may be such a tool for translating oral literature for the generation that is interested mostly in visual and technological progress.
Here, we can recommend some initial steps to be made in order to achieve the goals: To create a stipendiary fund for the production of video games based on folklore and oral tradition, to use video games to promote oral literature based on the publication and research records of the NFS, to organize a series of workshops in game development, to organize workshops in crowdfunding through websites like kickstarter.com, indiegoigo.com, etc. to establish contacts with Nigerian or regional fan base of comic books and video games (through Kugali for example), and to conduct the survey, based on the contacts listed above or on the basis of focus group (preferably students) to evaluate video game and pop-cultural preferences.
* Being a Paper Presentation by Mariusz Kraśniewski (PhD) – Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, Polish Academy of Sciences at the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS) 5th Annual Congress and its 14th Conference held at Idris Abdulkarim Auditorium, National Universities Commission, Abuja, on April 29-30, 2019