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Folktale in the world of digital media – part 2

By Mariusz Kraśniewski
15 March 2020   |   4:10 am
This process is already happening and upcoming Nigerian movie Dawn of Thunder is one of the examples. There are also efforts to adapt oral literature into the video game market.


This process is already happening and 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 which combine storytelling with voice acting and aesthetic visuals. They are all available through Google Play Store and thus theoretically available for anyone who has 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 game play.  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 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 the minimal data loss. As the examples above clearly show, in case of the mobile games, the story has to be sacrificed for the game play or the game play itself has to be sacrificed for the story. The situation is different with 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 story accompanied with 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 a 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 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 the 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 the 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 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 the 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 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 game play 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 the 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, 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 plat former game is an actual adaptation of traditional Inuit story. The game itself was made in cooperation with Alaska Native storytellers to create a unique experience, which combines game play elements with drawn, animated videos along with 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:

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 a 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 full potential of sub-Saharan market, and the potential that lies in the African stories. In the long ru n, 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 the success will most likely become an inspirational factor for the aspiring artists.