Foreword for my Patreon followers: Hello! As someone who has visited GDC in the past years, but who is not always able to attend in person, I was excited at the opportunity to answer the open call for games talks for the simultaneously running event, #notGDC. This topic is something I'm passionate about but which has no real place at actual games events (so it's perfect for #notGDC). It might be interesting for my patrons to read, but if you're just here for the updates on my currently developing game, Pairanormal, feel free to skip this one. To everyone else, welcome! Let's begin.
Let's Start Treating Mexico Like it Matters More than its Dead People.
Gifs provided by Giphy
Look, I'm not authoritative voice on cultural ownership. I'm not afraid to admit I don't know where to draw the line when it comes to western appropriation. As a mixed person, I've spent a lifetime treading the grey waters of my heritage, trying to find some place where I and I alone can plant my feet. One thing I'm certain of is that Mexico is a part of me, and it's something that I want to share with the world. And I know that when I see Mexico has been chalked up to two days of the year where we have a barbecue at the local cemetery, its bad. And it hurts.
So, yes, I honestly can't tell you why you should or shouldn't use the Mexican religious holiday Dia De Los Muertos, as so many already have, for your video game (other than the obvious reason that at this point, it's beyond a tired trope). But I would like to at least suggest the use of 10 other Mexican things. Things that I haven't found anywhere else but Mexico, but would desperately like to find someday in a game.
10. Our Business to Customer Economy:
Unlike in the United States, if your sink breaks, hiring a plumber is usually unnecessary. You or someone you know is gonna roll up their sleeves and get under that thing and fix it. But first you're gonna have to go to a store where they sell plumbing supplies and tools. So in Mexico, there is such a store. Not just for plumbing, but for every conceivable profession and trade. Paper stores, leather-work stores, dairy stores, bread stores, paint stores. There's even hair bow stores. Yes, a whole class of store that sells just bows for your hair. What must it be like to own such a store? Or to be the person who services the whole town with their single, specialized trade? I hope someday games can help us find out.
9. Our Telenovelas
The telenovela, or soap opera, is not unique to Mexico. Nor can I say with much confidence that we make the "best" ones. But what makes ours notable is their unrealistically moral approach. In other countries, the antagonist might be a little more nuanced, but in Mexico they reek of pure evil. From their red stilleto shoes all the way up to their black twirly mustache. And in contrast, the protagonist is so doe-eyed and innocent you can't help but roll your eyes; it's damn near satirical, but 100% earnest. And it's deliciously entertaining! no matter how much we know the two love interests will end up together, we smile and groan with every half-baked wrench that gets thrown in the gears. So where's the video game story about romance, class, and right & wrong that straddles Poe's Law with the grace of a rugged TV ranchero?
8. Our School life
Our schoolgirls and boys are clad in the colorful and fun uniforms that Japan is probably better known for, but with the added bonus of scraped knees and dusty socks that come from the freedom of youth in Mexico; I remember climbing trees in the park, going to festivals that spanned an entire street and snacking on roasted corn with friends while getting my skirt all muddied on the sidewalk. And instead of typewriters, giant PCs, and briefcases hauled around by sailor moon and friends in the 80s, We've now got flip phones, sparkly gel binders and an odd assortment of lost pens tucked away in our book bags. And the dating scene? Oh man. We've got love notes and literal love locks, a whole fence lined with Masterlocks and painted names of young promises. Public park benches where couples sneak kisses, actual secret paths where they hold hands and cut across rivers. There's so much for games to explore in Mexican youth. And so much to unpack from the unrealistic but still very watchable hit show "Rebelde" about said youth.
7. Our Regional Artistry
Mexico makes a concentrated effort to preserve its culture and history; what came before, during, and after Western Occupation. As such, the artistry and crafts of each region varies wildly and spectacularly. The psychedelic jewelry made from tiny beads of the nomadic Huichol; the Otomis dolls and embroidery of Amealco; the Wood, Clay, and Glass Sculpture of Tlalpujahuan mountaineers; the beautiful goat's yarn tapestries of Coroneo; the delicious ice cream of Tepozotlan. I could go on and on. Each creation is distinct, but still undeniably Mexican. Designers can learn so much about world building from the different regions of Mexico.
6. Our Socialism
Mexico's public policy is far from perfect, but the impact that its programs and works create in the everyday lives of Mexicans is beautiful and visible, to the point where US cities are borrowing pages from Mexico's playbook. I can't name a better example than the "Plaza", a structure that is present in the downtown area of most Mexican towns. Here is a free, public space that is accessible to everyone, and a place that lots of people go to just interact with the community and be outside. The plaza often hosts performances, festivals and other activities for citizens. As such, townspeople are noticeably more connected, outgoing, and educated in local topics. Even in games that take place in a city or small community, there's rarely so much attention paid to the interpersonal relationship between community members via their public spaces. Be honest--outside of holidays, did you ever bother visiting the town square in Harvest Moon?
5. Our Families
Having a large, connected family is not at all unique. Mexico is definitely not the only country that places an emphasis on it, or hosts typically larger families. So how wild is it that in most video games, the concept of close extended family is so rare? When in a video game have you ever met an NPC in another town who was your Mother's cousin's son, who was happy to invite you into his home because you were in the neighborhood? Or when have you to hide a secret romance from your sister because if she found out, then everyone on your dad's side of the family would find out and get waaay too involved? Or rallied all your cousins together to take down the bully that beat up your little brother last Saturday? These stories don't have to be Mexican, but they are sorely missed in games. I'm probably not the only gamer bored of conveniently orphaned heroes.
4. Our Food
I'll be honest, I don't have a way to apply the concept of our food in games off the top of my head. I just want to brag about it. Mexico has such a variety of styles and types of food, it's impossible to name them all. It's so much more than tacos and Tamales. It's piled-up Chilaquiles, it's deliciously filled Pan de Nata, it's sandwiched Cajeta between rice-paper crackers, it's stuffed Tortas and Pambazos and grilled Esquites. And every chili-covered lollipop, popcorn, potato chip or push pop makes your fingers and tongue bright red. It's a thing, and a brilliant game designer somewhere can probably do something with it.
3. Our Dangerous But Incredibly Fun Toys and Games
Despit the often uneven streets and almost certain risk of injury, skateboarding is a popular hobby in my family's hometown. But given the kinds of toys we've all grown up playing with, skating dangerous streets is just a logical next step. If you miss catching the cup in Bolero, it smacks your hand and it hurts. If you miss your rhythm playing with Clackers, you smack your arm and it hurts. Even Jacob's Ladders smart like hell if you get your finger caught in them. Mini explosives, pop-cap guns, marbles, tops... Mexican toys are all about enduring a whole lot of pain so you can eventually look cool for two seconds. But there's something for game makers to find in them. Artistry of making toys and games aside, I'd love to play the Mexican video game version of Beyblade: Trompos! (Did I mention we had actual bootleg Mexican Beyblade back in the day? Those things had real metal, and if they touched you while they were spinning, you were gonna lose an arm.)
Fireworks originated in China. But when they arrived in Mexico, we took 'em and made ours are a whole 'nother level of extra. When celebrating major holidays, there's nothing quite as spectacular as standing on the rooftop at night and watching the entire horizon erupt into beautiful chaos. Going back into the dangerous aspects of our entertainment, it's not unusual to see kids playing with fireworks. As such, we're comfortable putting them everywhere, even places they maybe probably shouldn't be. How rad would it be to walk the streets of a video game and watch wheels of fire spinning over my head, propelled only by the force of firework sparks? or grabbing a bundle of sticks flicker and change color as each second passes, the closest thing the real world has to a magic wand? If the exquisite Big Bang Mini ever plans on making a sequel, I demand to see a Mexico-inspired level.
Do you want to know the saddest thing about the West's attachment to Dia De Los Muertos?
The saddest thing is that in the library of religious holidays, Dia De Los is basically nothing compared to how Mexico does Christmas. It's as ridiculous to me as if you went India to see the Taj Mahal but never got there because you became obsessed with a greeting card you found in the airport gift shop.
Christmas in Mexico is a week long. A week. Long.
While we in the west focus on the Jesus birth aspect of Christmas mythology, Mexico's holiday is more centered around just before, when Jesus's parents Mary and Joseph wander around town looking for a couch to crash on. Our celebration of this story is called "Posada" or "A place to stay". There's music, parades, feasts, and a celebration wherein neighbors go from house to house offering each other food. Think Halloween, but with full course entrees instead of candy. Except there's ALSO candy because Christmas is when we traditionally smash up Pinatas. And also, again, seven nights long instead of one, people.
Instead of having your character wander around some boring "land of the dead" --which I might add isn't even a real concept in Dia De Los Muertos, have them run through the streets of Mexico in full on Christmas party mode, when the community is never more alive. Instead of breaking out the sugar skulls and papel picado, consider trying some Chilaquiles or Baleros. Instead of building another half-assed, two-tiered alter scatted with stale zempazuchitl petals, consider exploring the beautiful new-brutalist architecture, the breathtaking chapels and churches of real towns, and getting to know their respective saints and icons.
All I'm saying is, if you MUST make a game about Mexico, try making a game about Mexico. We are so much more than our dead people, people.