Gaming Frequencies: Mulaka | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Gaming Frequencies: Mulaka

Feb 27, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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Video games have a world building problem. When you browse through the pages of your console's online store, you see the same settings again and again. It sometimes feels like every game released is set either in a generic, outer space locale, a familiar fantasy land of elves and orcs, or in some interchangeable, war-torn nation. It’s easy and attractive for developers to go in these directions because gamers recognize those settings, and there are expectations within them that can be played with. On the downside, though, their commonness means that even magical worlds and alien planets have started to feel very mundane. 

One of my most memorable gaming experiences of this console generation was Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), a little platformer that was based on a folktale from a group of native Alaskans. Not only did this setting feel totally fresh to an outsider like me, but the game took every opportunity to teach me about a culture I knew little about. It was an experience – both entertaining and educational – that I’ve longed for ever since, but worried I might never have again.  

That is, until Mulaka came along.

Mulaka, on sale now on Steam, the Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, is a new game from Mexican indie developer Lienzo. It’s set in the mountains and deserts of Northern Mexico and inspired by the mythology of the Tarahumara, one of the region’s indigenous cultures. In the game, you play as a Sukurúame – a shaman of legend – capable of mixing powerful, mystical potions from local fauna and transforming into different animals. Fast and strong, you’re the only person brave enough to battle the monsters that have overrun the area and restore order to the land.

Mulaka is a colorful 3D adventure game with fast-paced and fluid combat, frustration-free platforming, and clever puzzles to solve. Most notably, though, the developers have dug into a local culture for inspiration, and have given us a setting that will feel new the majority of gamers around the world. They also don’t waste the opportunity to inform players about the Tarahumara, inserting facts about the people’s culture and legends into places throughought the game. (Additionally, part of Mulaka's earnings are donated to groups dedicated to preserving Sierra Tarahumara culture.)

We spoke with two members of the game’s design team about their research process as well as Mulaka’s authentic sound design, which uses Tarahumara instruments to create the game’s soundtrack. 

Austin Trunick, [Under the Radar]: Mulaka has a great educational element to it. Aside from just being a video game, it's a eye-opening look at a culture -- the Tarahumara, or Raramuri, from Northern Mexico -- that I doubt many people playing the game will be very familiar with. How did the idea come to build a game based on concepts from Tarahumara folklore?

Edgar Serrano, Game Director & Co-Founder of Lienzo: For Chihuahua locals like us, it’s quite common to see and interact with Tarahumara on a daily basis; and I personally have camped all around the state so I also know all the actual places we are representing in Mulaka. But most important, we feel that the Tarahumara culture is one worth looking at, not only because of their athletic prowess, herbal knowledge and social structure; but because they are still here, present in 2018, active since they were first discovered as the last cavemen, by Lumholtz. This is the edge they have over many other great and epic cultures or tribes, they are still here; and many people don’t know about them.

Guillermo Vizcaíno, Writer & Programmer: It was also important for us to try and preserve, to the best of our abilities, as much as we could of these fantastic myths and legends. Because most of the Tarahumara folklore is passed on from generation to generation mostly orally, there is very little of their ways of thinking saved in a preserve-able from. It was truly saddening to see that most of the newer generations of Tarahumara are oblivious to the amazing cultural heritage that their people carry behind them. With the intention of creating a product more suited to new generations, we believe that videogames give us the perfect platform to showcase these universe in a compelling way.

Please tell me about your research into this culture. Who acted as your guides into the Tarahumara's world?

Serrano: At first, we worked with NGOs like Captar, Fundación Rodrigo Llaguno and Cedaín. They already had worked closely with the Tarahumaras and their leaders, and served as a bridge between us and them, they helped us approach them. Next we talked with anthropologists, culture experts and even more Tarahumara elders; we refined our content and plucked out any legend or myth that may have had external influence. Enrique Servín is who helped us most here, and there’s very little in the game that we didn’t first consult with him.

You took the authenticity an extra step in regards to Mulaka's soundtrack, using instrumentation that was true to the region to create the game's score, and recording the voice effects in local dialects. How did you go about assembling these materials?

Serrano: We worked with Diego Borja, a local musician, to develop the Mulaka soundtrack. He, in turn, collaborated with Martin Makawi, a known Tarahumara poet/musician to record some of the tracks in the game, using authentic Tarahumara instruments and styles.

Vizcaíno: In regards to the local dialects, it was part of this preservation motif that drove us to put some actual Tarahumara narration in the game. At the end of the line, the game tells a very intimate story born from very authentic Tarahumara lore, and as so, who better to tell it than an actual members of the Tarahumara people? Martin Makawi has been involved with the project from early stages and it truly allowed us to hit the right notes having him be part of these important instances of gameplay.

In that same regard, music and dance are said to play important roles in the lives of many real-world Tarahumara. What are some of the ways the game reflects this?

Serrano: Mulaka uses herbal formulae to craft useful potions or bombs, and every time you craft one, Mulaka does a very small representation of a ritual dance.

Vizcaíno: As Edgar mentions, potion crafting is a fantastic in-game representation of the importance of these ritual dancing, but on top of that, we made sure to have some of the game’s NPCs dive a little deeper into the importance of music in the Tarahumara folklore, along with some mythological explanations for their views on the topic, you can find a group of musicians in the very heart of the Paquimé square that talk solely about it.

What do you hope that gamers who have finished Mulaka will walk away form the experience knowing or thinking about the culture it represents?

Serrano: We hope that Mulaka helps plant the seed that the Tarahumara are cool, that they can be another of their favorite heroes or go-to action characters; and beyond that, any interest towards the culture or Sierra is also great.

Vizcaíno: First and foremost we want people walking away from the game thinking “Dang, that was a fun ride”, because it is still a priority to deliver a good experience as a game. That said, it is also our honest wish that the game helps us put this universe on the map, helps people understand more about an ancient culture and appreciate it as much as we do.



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February 27th 2018

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