Maize Longboat and the Contact project: Indigenous-led videogame development

Photo by Vjosana Shkurti

She:kon!

My name is Maize Longboat and I’m a graduate research assistant with the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) and in my second-year of the Master’s in Media Studies program at Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies. Presently, I’m in the middle of working on the “creation” half of my research-creation thesis project that explores Indigenous videogame development. To do this, I’m making my very own game, from start to finish, to respond to the following research question:

“What makes Indigenous videogames and how will the game created as part of this project be informed by my own experience as an Indigenous person?”

I found a number of videogames made by or in consultation with Indigenous people that I will discuss in my research, all of which are unique in their own ways. It proved to be a challenge when my supervisor asked that I offer a hypothesis on what actually makes a videogame Indigenous. Indigenous identities are vastly diverse, so defining what is and what is not Indigenous is something that I alone cannot determine. However, I can offer what I feel are the most important qualities that an Indigenous videogame might carry with it. The following lines from my proposal clearly state where I stand:

“Whether an Indigenous videogame is made by an individual or team of Indigenous developers, or by non-Indigenous developers working in consultation with an Indigenous community, it is determined by Indigenous peoples. The development process, from beginning to end, must be Indigenous-led.”

This is exactly what I set out to do in creating my own game. The only challenge was that I had never actually made a videogame before. Instead of beginning with a game mechanic like running, or jumping, or shooting projectiles, I started with a central scenario that I frequently come across while studying Indigenous histories. I wanted to make a game out of a moment of first contact between an Indigenous and Settler peoples. These moments of encounter and communication are always the spark of larger events; only recalled to frame larger, more important narratives that come after. This game focuses on the lead-up and moment of first contact between Indigenous characters and Settler characters and how they react to one another’s presences.

Thanks to the generosity of the Hexagram Network and Social Science and Humanities Research Council, I have the funds to hire a small team to help fill in for my technical shortcomings. I brought in a Lead Developer, Mehrdad Dedashti (mdehdashti.com), to handle programming and integration tasks, an artist, Ray Caplin (portfolioofraycaplin.tumblr.com), to create visual assets and animations, and a sound designer, Beatrix Moesrch (framingnoise.com), to bring the game-world to life. It was really important for me to get people who not only had strong technical skills, but who also cared about working on an Indigenous-led project. I had to go through a few interviews before I could settle on a team that I could trust to support my research in that very specific way.

As I assembled the team, I was also designing a narrative that would speak to my central game scenario of first contact. The story takes place on Earth far in the future, long after an environmental catastrophe forced a number of humans to abandon the planet in an attempt to settle somewhere better out in space. The humans that were forced to stay on Earth adapted to their new environment and eventually forgot about the ones that had left them behind. Earth is still healing and high-water levels from melted polar ice caps cause erratic weather patterns. Earthborn humans live high atop the overgrown, ruined city-structures built ages ago to escape these unpredictable tides.

View of overgrown structures from high-ground.

After several millennia of attempting to locate a habitable planet, Starborn humans have now unknowingly returned to their ancestral homeland to finally settle.

View of the Starborn spaceship from an overgrown structure.

This moment of first contact between Earthborn and Starborn humans is experienced through the eyes of Terra, an elder Earthborn landkeeper, and Nova, a Starborn youth.

Early concept art for Nova (top) and Terra (bottom) with size and height ratios.
Final player character sprites for Terra (left) and Nova (right).

The game will offer a two-player, cooperative experience where each player plays as either Terra or Nova simultaneously. Both players can interact with each other, non-player characters, and objects in the environment to progress through the narrative. At first, each player starts in their own specific zones before the Starborn spaceship crash lands on Earth. The crash separates Nova from his community, while Terra witnesses the crash and sets out to investigate. The two eventually come across one another, sharing that moment of first contact between Indigenous and Settler peoples, and must then cooperate to help Nova find his people and ensure that Terra can find out what the Starborn people want.

I’ll be working with my team for the next several weeks to finish the game so that we can move into the playtesting phase. (Stay tuned in to AbTeC social media feeds for the exact date and time!) After the playtests I will be taking the reflections provided by players and making final changes right before I dive headfirst into the writing process.

Wish us luck!

Seven Generations Assemble! Skins Future Character Design Workshop with KSS

  • Location: Kahnawake Survival School, Kahnawake QC
  • Date: April – May 2018
  • Duration: 5 sessions of 2 hours
  • Facilitators: Skawennati, Jason Edward Lewis, Nancy Elizabeth Townsend, Dominick Meissner (Behaviour Interactive), Vivian Herzog (Behaviour Interactive), Kahentawaks Tiewishaw, Raymond Caplin, Maize Longboat

Overview: In five lessons over two months, nine students from the Kahnawake Survival School were asked to imagine their future descendants and design a character with paper and pencil to be printed as a 3D model. They were taught the basics of 3D modelling, UV maps and texturing 3D objects, and how to rig and pose their 3D characters. The workshop concluded with a showcase of their printed characters.

 

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The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) and Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) just wrapped up a two-month long Skins Seventh Generation Character Design workshop with nine highschool youth from Kahnawake. This edition of the workshop was particularly special, as participants were not only able to conceptualize their seventh generation descendant using paper and pencil, but they also produced a digital model of their characters that was 3D printed into figurines that they could take home.

The workshops were organized by Owisokon Lahache, a teacher at KSS as well a long-time AbTeC collaborator and IIF partner. The workshop itself took place over three months (March-May 2018) at KSS with lessons held semi-weekly. Many IIF staff and research assistants were involved in organizing and instructing the workshop, including newcomers Kahentawaks Tiewishaw (3D Modelling/Posing) and Raymond Caplin (Texture/UV Maps). Ray and Kahentawaks were instrumental in writing and teaching the technical software to the participants.

Day 1 – Character Design for Videogames

The workshop kicked off in late March with presentations from Lead Creative Director Dominick Meissner and Lead Character Artist Vivian Herzog of the Montreal-based videogame company (and IIF partner) Behaviour Interactive. Dominick spoke about the iteration process that videogame characters regularly go through and showed character prototype designs for an upcoming Assassins Creed mobile game. Vivian showed her artist portfolio that contained gorgeous character portraits and spoke about her role as a character artist working at a videogame company. The workshop participants asked questions about what skills were needed to be a game developer and left the first day with an idea of what it would take for their character to transform from an idea to a printed figurine.

Day 2 – Seventh Generation Character Design

Our second meeting was when the work of imagining began! IIF Partnership Coordinator Skawennati and research assistant Maize Longboat lead a presentation about what the Seventh Generation Character Design workshop aims to achieve: to envision our descendants seven generations into the future and to make space for Indigenous presence in sci-fi. Participants were shown past character designs from the first edition of the workshop at Dechinta Bush University, as well as IIF research assistant Suzanne Kite’s sketches that informed the conceptualization of her multimedia performance art piece Listener. After the presentation participants got to work on their own characters and discussions of the future ensued. By the end of the drawing and sharing session everyone had an idea of who their character was, how they lived, what languages they spoke, and what their worlds looked like.

Day 3 – Intro to 3D Modelling and Blender

On the third day of the workshop participants finally got to work on their characters using Blender, a free open-source 3D modelling software. Kahentawaks spent the week in-between workshops creating a generic character model as a template for everyone to work from. First they learned the basics of how to manipulate vertices, edges, and faces to make unique shapes in Blender. They then practiced their skills by editing the proportions of the template character model and add one-of-a-kind features that they wanted their future characters to have.

Day 4 – Intro to UV Maps, Textures, and Photoshop

Ray took the unique character models that were created during the 3D modelling lesson from the previous lesson and layed their surfaces out flat to create UV maps for each character in the time leading up to day four of the workshop. UV maps are used during the texturing phase of character creation to turn a colourless character into one with detail and personality. The lesson began with an introduction to Photoshop and how its tools can be used to add surface detail to character models by painting and blending colours. Participants were given their character’s unique UV maps and began the work of colouring them in. As the day came to a close, Ray and Kahentawaks demonstrated how to take the UV map file and lay it over the model in Blender. Only one more step to go: posing!

Day 5 – Pose for Printing

Up until this point everyone’s characters were standing in a t-pose with their arms outstretched to the side and legs straight. Kahentawaks and Ray’s final lesson was dedicated to changing this by having the participants manipulate the virtual bones of the 3D character models in Blender. Posing can be particularly tricky to do when the characters’ limbs need to be in realistic positions while also being unique enough to show their personality. They also needed to fit on a circular figurine base to make sure that they would be able to stand without falling over.

And with that the working part of the workshop was over! The participants parted ways with digital versions of their characters and would see them again in their physical, 3D-printed forms very soon.

Showcase!

Two weeks later the characters born and nine perfectly shaped, coloured, and posed character figurines from seven generations in the future arrived in the mail from the 3D printing company! KSS organized a public showcase of the characters to celebrate the hard work of the participants and instructors. After folks mingled and viewed the characters, Owisokon welcomed everyone to the event and explained her motivation for initiating this workshop. Skawennati and IIF Primary Investigator Jason Edward Lewis then introduced themselves and the team involved in making sure the workshop was delivered successfully. The participants then introduced themselves and offered reflections on their creation process from start to finish, noting the value of doing the work of imagining their future Indigenous descendants.

It is important to note that Kahentawaks was a student in the very first Skins Workshop, which ran from September 2008 – to May 2009 at KSS. We are very excited that, ten years later, she has become an instructor for the newest generation of Indigenous artists and designers.

A big niawen:kowa to Owisokon Lahache and Kahnawake Survival School for your work in organizing and hosting this edition of the Skins Seventh Generation Character Design workshop.

Seven Generations assemble!

How We Made A Post-Apocalyptic Trickster Machinima in Regina

  • Location: MacKenzie Art Gallery / Regina Public Library, Regina SK
  • Date: April 1st – 6th, 2018
  • Duration: 5 days
  • Facilitators: Skawennati, Nancy Elizabeth Townsend, Maize Longboat

Overview: In partnership with the MacKenzie Art Gallery, a team of four Regina youth participants created a post-apocalyptic trickster machinima that told the Nehiyaw (Cree) story of how the Loon got its walk. Over 5 days, participants learned how to use a virtual environment to create character costumes, build a set, and shoot scenes. They also edited their footage to bring what they filmed to life, added sound effects, and premiered their project with the public in the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s Shumiatcher Theatre.

 

How the Loon Got Its Walk (Skins Machinima). 2018.

Miles McCallum, Jonnie Deneyou, Nahiyan Islam & Minh Cao

 


Tansi and She:kon, from Treaty 4 territory! As part of our partnership with the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace was in Regina, Saskatchewan, from April 1st-6th to deliver a Skins Machinima workshop for local youth. Our fantastic young participants, all high school students, learned the ins and outs of machinima production. From storytelling and creating a storyboard, to character design and building sets in a virtual world, to shooting and editing their footage, the youth put together a wonderful project from start to finish–and in just one week to boot! Let’s dive into the details from each day…

 

Day 1

On April 2nd, Skawennati and Maize Longboat met youth participants, Miles, Jonnie, Nahiyan, and Minh, at the MacKenzie Art Gallery for the first time. We began with a presentation on what machinima was, watching classics like Red vs. Blue and TimeTraveller. We then got right into the storytelling portion of the workshop. What kind of stories did they want to remediate using machinima? Were there any stories that all of them knew about? Once we finished it was clear that the legend of “How the Loon Got Its Walk” was the clear favorite, as all of the youth knew the story by heart. The day concluded with a lesson on storyboarding and together we sketched the story into scenes to guide our machinima production. We also started assembling a shared master asset list that would list all of the props, sets, characters, and sounds that we would need for the production. That evening, AbTeC Producer Nancy Townsend flew in from Montreal to add her considerable talents to the team.

After a morning of watching and talking about how machinima can be used to tell Indigenous stories, participants began sketching characters and scenes to create a storyboard.

 

Day 2

On April 3rd, we changed locations. Everyone met at the Regional Public Library Central Branch in their well-equipped Digital Media Studio to begin training in Second Life, the virtual world where they’d build sets and shoot footage for their machinima. The participants learned how to navigate in virtual space, utilize the camera controls, and customize their avatars and environments. They especially loved purchasing free items from the online Marketplace and decking out their avatars in glowing accessories!

Near the end of the day everyone chipped in to complete the storyboard. We were then ready to start full-fledged pre-production on the machinima project.

Participants learned how to create and edit their avatar’s appearance in Second Life (left). They also finished their storyboard (right).

 

Day 3

On the morning of April 4th everyone met at the Digital Media Studio at RPL ready to get started on building the sets and creating the characters for our machinima. Each participant was given a specific task for pre-production: Minh was in charge of building the set, Nahiyan shopped for costumes of our trickster protagonist, Wīsahkēcāhk, Jonnie did the same for Mac the Loon, and Miles made the costumes for the two supporting Duck characters: Jerry and Suzy. Everyone was enjoying their work so much, we skipped our morning and afternoon breaks! All of the youth also took turns in the professional audio recording booth in the Digital Media Studio reading lines of dialogue that would be added in post-production. As the day drew to a close all the characters’ costumes were made and the finishing touches were put on the set.

Machinima sets (top) and character designs (bottom).

 

Day 4

Production day! We kicked off April 5th at RPL by training everyone in OBS Studio, a free open-source software used to stream and record videogames. OBS is great for anyone who is just starting their own machinima projects because of its accessibility. The youth quickly got the hang of the software and we dove right into shooting our scenes following our handy-dandy storyboard that we had finished earlier in the week. The participants took turns directing the machinima: For each turn, they would sit at our powerful laptop which was connected to a large monitor that everyone could see. They would then set up the shots using a 3D mouse, directing the operators of actor avatars where to stand or when to move, and yelling out “action!” and “cut!” for each take. Again, everyone was enjoying the work so much we forwent our breaks in the morning and afternoon! Even as we went overtime, everyone wanted to stay late to finish up shooting. We wrapped up our production phase with over 100 takes!

Production! The participants worked as a team to act and shoot the scenes in real-time (top). Still images taken during production (bottom).

 

Day 5

On April 6th we met at the RPL Digital Media Studio bright and early as usual to begin the post-production for our machinima, only today we had a deadline to meet. Our machinima was set to premiere at the MacKenzie Art Gallery at 2:30 PM and there was a lot of work to get done before we showed it to the public. We also had to get everyone trained up on our free, open-source editing software of choice: OpenShot! Getting all of our raw footage edited together, audio added, and titles and credits drafted proved to be a challenge. We had several technical hiccups along the way, but we successfully rendered the final version just in time! Several members of the Gallery staff, friends, and family attended the premiere. The CBC even sent a film crew!

Workshop participants (left) and workshop facilitators (right) wrapped up the week with a screening of their machinima in the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s Shumiatcher Theatre.

 

We wrapped up the week with a debrief between the participants and facilitators. The youth told us they loved the workshop and just wished it could be two weeks long. And they couldn’t wait to show the world the polished machinima online. Watch it above!

Niawenko:wa from the AbTeC team to our youth participants for their presence, dedication, and care for this project. You were awesome! We also want to extend our warmest thanks to all the folks at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, especially: Anthony Kiendl, Janine Windolph, Rania AlHarthi, and Arul Ross. Special thanks to Candy Fox, our local videographer, Nick Andrews, and the entire Regina Public Library Central Branch staff who were so generous with their space and resources.

 

Press:

CBC Indigenous: https://www.facebook.com/CBC.caIndigenous/videos/10155250226911782/

Using Virtual Worlds to Tell Indigenous Stories… On Top of a Mountain!

  • Location: Loon Lake Lodge, Maple Ridge BC
  • Date: February 21st, 2018
  • Duration: 2 sessions of 2 hours
  • Instructors: Skawennati, Maize Longboat, Mia McKie, Waylon Wilson

Overview: Two groups of Indigenous youth aged 18-25 participated in this machinima workshop as part of the annual Good Heart Good Mind Conference organized by Indigenous Youth Wellness. Participants reviewed and discussed Skawennati’s machinima and learned the basics of Second Life as a tool for creating films in virtual environments. Skawennati and Maize Longboat lead the workshop alongside visiting Instructors Mia McKie and Waylon Wilson.


On February 21st, three of us visited unceded Katzie/Kwantlen territory and climbed up a mountain to visit Loon Lake Lodge in Maple Ridge, BC. We were invited by Indigenous Youth Wellness to the second annual Good Heart Good Mind Conference to give one of our Skins workshops on Indigenous Storytelling and Digital Media.

The Skins workshops aim to encourage Indigenous youth to envision themselves in the future, while maintaining connections to their heritage by teaching how to use digital media to tell our stories. Our Skins workshops come in several streams: Video Game, Machinima, and 7th Generation Character Design. This was one of our Machinima workshops that introduced the basics of using virtual worlds to tell Indigenous stories.

A total of over 30 Indigenous youth between the ages of 18-25 participated in the morning and afternoon workshop sessions. Participants were first introduced to the ways in which Indigenous stories could be told using digital tools through a viewing and discussion of Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™. After that, the youth then entered the massive multiplayer online world of Second Life to visit our virtual headquarters, AbTeC Island, and experience an Aboriginally-determined location in cyberspace for themselves. Having to deliver such a tech-heavy workshop in a lodge by a lake nestled on top of a mountain proved to be challenging, but fixes were quickly made to get everyone logged in and moving around the virtual world.

It was a snowy weekend at Loon Lake, Maple Ridge, BC. (Photo: Maize Longboat)

Both Skawennati and Maize Longboat facilitated the workshops in partnership with visiting Tuscarora facilitators Mia Mckie and Waylon Wilson. Mia came all the way from Syracuse, NY to meet up with the IIF team and Waylon was present digitally in Second Life by logging on and interacting with everyone in real-time from his home in New York state.

Workshop facilitators Maize (Left) and Skawennati (Right) introduce AbTeC Island to participants. (Photo: Melody Charlie)

Workshop participants either created their own avatars or borrowed some of AbTeC’s “Abbi” avatars and got used to navigating through virtual space and environments. They also learned how to fly, how to socialize using the in-world private and public chat features, and how to customize their avatars’ appearances. We also taught them how to build by asking them to put together a snowman using basic 3D shapes like spheres and cones. The youth particularly liked conversing with Waylon’s dog-with-wings avatar and ended up building gargantuan sculptures with eye-catching textures!

We forgot to bring photo consent forms and so can’t show the participants’ real-world faces, but here are their virtual-world avatars instead! (Machinimagraphs: Skawennati)

Many of the youth participants vocalized how the experience of using Second Life was incredibly fun and engaging. Several of them also expressed that they intend to visit us on AbTeC Island in the future! All are welcome at any time. (Click here for directions)

Nia:wen to the youth for being wonderful participants and to the conference organizers for hosting us with with such good food and conversation in a beautiful location. We hope to see you again in the future!

Introducing Maize Longboat, Graduate Research Assistant!

She:kon! My name is Maize Longboat and I have joined Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) through the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) as a research assistant supervised by Jason Edward Lewis. I arrived at Concordia this fall to start my MA in Communications with a Research-Creation thesis on the topic of Indigenous new media, specifically looking at how Indigenous communities are engaging with video games.

I was born in Toronto, Ontario and raised on unceded Squamish territory near Vancouver, British Columbia. My Mohawk ancestry on my father’s side hails from Six Nations of the Grand River in southeastern Ontario, while my mother is French-Canadian from Montreal. It feels great to be living close to my Kanien’kehá:ka family again!

I completed my Bachelor of Arts at the University of British Columbia with a double major in First Nations and Indigenous Studies and History. Some of my upper-level research projects examined Indigenous art and artists, drawing connections between Indigenous identity and creative practice, both individual and collaborative. Additionally, I observed and reflected upon how Indigenous communities are utilizing video games for purposes of self-representation and cultural revival.

My primary research interests while at IIF will jump off of my previous work as I begin to explore research-creation theory and practice in relationship with Indigenous peoples. IIF and AbTeC is the perfect place for me to be a contributor to some of the fantastic work that is being done in programs like the award-winning Skins Workshop series, as well as the Indigenous presence in cyberspace found on AbTeC Island in Second Life. Being able to combine my work and studies is an awesome opportunity that not all students get to have!