GIVEN the lack of Filipino representation in the international gaming industry, a group of Filipino-Americans is seeking to change that with the development of a Filipino fantasy video game.
Set during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, “The Girl Who Sees” is a 2D point-and-click adventure role-playing game (RPG) that follows Quina Laban (the Tagalog word for fight), a young Filipina girl living in a fishing village. She encounters mythological creatures, like a duwende (dwarf) or kapre (tree giant), and embarks on quests, such as translating a mysterious ancient scroll.
With the scroll, Quina hopes to uncover “this secret [to] explain why she suddenly gains the power to see Tagalog words everywhere she turns,” according to the game’s creator and project lead, Pattie Umali.
Umali shared that “The Girl Who Sees” looks to make strides as the first game of its kind catering to the Filipino diaspora — including the first internationally-released, kid-friendly adventure game about ancient Philippine mythology and the first game in the United States to focus on Filipino culture.
[Editor’s note: There have been a plethora of Filipino-produced video games, including Anito: Defend a Land Enraged (2003), which is considered the first-ever video game produced and designed by an entire team of Filipino game developers, spurring the game development industry in the Philippines. It was released in Europe and North America, and went on to win the excellence in audio award at the Independent Games Festival in 2004. One of the more recently released games is Mayari, a mobile game influenced by Filipino myths and beliefs, which won at the International Mobile Gaming Awards - Southeast Asia this past October.]
Reconnecting with Filipino culture
The idea of the game first came about sometime in 2016 when Umali was pursuing a master’s degree in international and intercultural communication at American University in Washington, DC and had taken some courses at the Game Lab.
Later that year, she participated in the Global Game Jam, where she met Cherisse Datu and Nathan Hahn, who are both now part of the design and development team of “The Girl Who Sees.”
“I was looking for a quick summer project to do and it turned into a much bigger thing with a life of its own,” Umali told the Asian Journal.
Others behind the game are Jerald Dorado (game and promotional art), Joshua Marquez (music), Tristan Espinoza (animation and story), Andrew Pendergrast (music), and Brittany Williams (video).
In conceptualizing the game, Umali thought about a period of time in the Philippines — World War II — that could spark interest in younger generations of Filipinos and even non-Filipinos to learn about the country’s history. Her previous research found that there had not been any game whose title or main focus was on Filipino culture or the Philippines.
“There is a social good edge to it, which is to learn more about Filipino culture that no one has ever really delved deep into in terms of media, unless you’re talking about war zones and someone shooting up things in the Philippines,” Datu said.
Datu, whose media background includes working at Al Jazeera and ESPN, remarked that she was attracted to Umali’s project because of the opportunity to bring more visibility to Filipino culture and compel second and third generations of Filipinos to learn their parents’ native tongue.
“I think to be a Filipino-American in America, it’s kind of like a revolutionary act to love yourself or to say like, ‘Oh, my language is important,’” Datu said.
The main character Quina and the setting of the game were heavily influenced by Umali’s maternal grandmother Ofelia, who grew up in Pigcawayan, a municipality in the Cotabato province of the Philippines, during the war. (The fictional town in the game is named Pigcaway.)
Twelve years old when the war began, Ofelia and her family hid in the forest after their home was burned down. With the help of a local tribe, the family was able to build a house using supplies and materials they found.
“That really impacted me as such a different life experience that I’m never going to have to encounter, God willing,” Umali said. “It was something I really wanted to highlight about how so many people in the Philippines who were of the older generation had experienced such trauma and such cruelty…They are only a couple of generations away and we should be aware of those differences and experiences.”
With choosing a young girl as the heroine — inspired by games from the early 2000s that featured “a kid running around on an adventure” — Umali and Datu hope Filipinas will be motivated to play the game.
“I really hope that it shows them that they don’t need any boys’ help to explore. I hope that they build plenty of confidence. And frankly, one thing that Cherisse and I have sort of talked about is that there is definitely not going to be any romantic interest in this game because you know we want to show that a girl can do all this on her own without anyone’s help,” Umali said.
Datu added that throughout the game, Quina has to navigate and communicate in a “male-influenced world.”
The team anticipates that young boys will be receptive as well to playing as a female character because of the types of adventures and challenges Quina encounters along the way.
“For me, I would love to get boys to experience playing a female who isn’t completely sexualized like Lara Croft or you know any other game in which there’s a female character,” Umali said.
Added Datu, “And recognize that you know, girls can be as bad ass and kick ass too. And she’s doing a lot of kick-ass things that boys enjoy doing as well. There’s nothing really gendered too much about her, just like she’s wearing a dress.”
Tool for social change
Though the target audience is 10 to 30 years old, the team says it can transcend generations and age groups — kids can play it with their parents and other older relatives and start conversations their own stories— and cater to those who don’t have much experience playing video games.
“I hope that people who don’t traditionally play games will give this a chance and check out our demo. Something that I’m really focused on is making this game accessible to people of all types of ages and all levels… because as I said, I do think that this is something that could really bond people of different age groups together,” Umali said. “They don’t have to be scared of it just because it’s a video game. It is fun to play and it will teach you some things.”
To coincide with Filipino-American History Month in October, the team launched the game’s demo and a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with a $30,000 goal. As of this writing, nearly $8,000 had been raised with a month left.
Before the campaign ends, the team is reaching out to the Filipino-American community, either through online or live events, to preorder and donate to the campaign.
“I can say it’s that interesting so far in sort of engaging the Filipino community online and we have been seeing the awesome sharing and exposure…but one request and plea that our team has is that interest should be accompanied by action. We have had a lot of interest, but people aren’t necessarily going and donating to our campaign. They don’t have to go and give $100. I mean even just expressing their support in the form of $5 or $10, this could be a world of help to us,” Umali said.
On the potential criticism, Datu shared that there is some vulnerability in making a game drawing from a specific culture and time period.
“…You worry about what people are going to say — even if it’s a worry about whether you’re Filipino enough, you talk about it, and then you’re going to worry about like, ‘Oh, what are we missing?’” Datu said. “We have all these reference points in Filipino culture. When we get to the end of the Indiegogo [campaign] in November…we’re going to see where we’re at with our reputation in the Filipino community. Is it our funding level enough that we can give them a good game?”
This funding will go toward developing, promoting and publishing the game with four chapters by December 2018 available for Windows and Mac computers. Those who donate will receive a copy of the full game, which has features like learning Tagalog through translating an ancient scroll with Quina and completing quests for Manong Kapre, such as interacting with Japanese soldiers and hidden guerrilla fighters.
“There are a lot of brilliant Filipino artists and Filipino musicians. And so, for me, after we reach our funding goal, I’d be totally open to getting back to the community and talking through what it takes to sort of make the game. Hopefully, this won’t be the only Filipino game; this will be the beginning of more games about Filipino culture,” Datu said.