In 2013, a small company based in Auckland, New Zealand released a video game that became an international hit. It was ostensibly the smaller scale version of Lord of the Rings, except it didn’t immediately make household names out of Grinding Gear Games. The game was Path of Exile, and it did a lot of things right. Most importantly, however, it offered an alternative to a larger scale game within the same genre. This seems to be a trend in the humble video game industry in my country: offering a grass-roots alternative to some larger versions of similar games, and often refining the concept to a fine point. This particular brand of game development is not simply limited to Path of Exile: another Kiwi developer team, Dinosaur Polo Club, developed Mini Metro amidst restrictions in artistic resources, and refined a simple concept of railway management into one of the best mobile games of 2016. Hell, even when import licensing laws prevented Pong getting into the country, we just made our own because we couldn’t be bothered waiting.
The point to this small history lesson about my country’s meagre video game offerings is a matter of representation. Representation is something that is becoming more and more sought after in the video game landscape, and it stems from the very limited audience that video games aimed to capture when they were reborn in the wake of the video game crash of 1983. As video games expanded in popularity, more demographics fell into the purview of video game’s marketing systems, and in turn, games were made with them in mind. In 2018, external social turmoil has pushed this representation to the most encompassing it has ever been, including people from all races, genders, beliefs or sexual orientation. This is ultimately a positive thing: more stories to pool from in this shared collective of human experience means more enriching video games.
What strikes me is the lack of games that offering the representation of a nation – all the little quirks of a country that people outside might not get to see. This brings me to the latest offering from our tiny country: a small indie title called Reverie.
how the bloody hell are ya m8
The introductory sequence takes you through a legend inspired by Maori mythology – the indigenous people of New Zealand. A group of fishermen, down on their luck, go out to bring in the dinner. One of them, Heke, manages to hook a gargantuan fish that forms Toromi Island: the setting of the adventure. In envy and rage, his three brothers toss him over the side of their vessel and leave him for dead. As he sinks into the depths, he curses the brothers to never be satisfied – to always compare themselves to the other and find themselves wanting. This feud, which should sound familiar to New Zealand locals, sets up a story that is common in many mythologies around the world, and it is the gateway that leads the players into something truly unique.
When I say unique, I do not necessarily mean the gameplay. Reverie takes the best components of Earthbound and Legend Of Zelda: The Minish Cap – two excellent games in their own right – and synthesizes it into a familiar system that thrives on exploration, puzzle solving and discovery of new items that aid in your quest to rescue the island from these mythic forces. With that said, Reverie does not do anything new in that department. What it does do is add its own flavour to items that you already know the mechanics of, and add a logical reason for a child to have them. The bow becomes the Dart Gun, the Boomerang becomes a Yo-Yo, and your sword becomes a cricket bat. The best item in the game by far is a take on the Cane Of Somaria – a portable block that can hold down buttons for you. Even that, of all things, has a contextual reason for existing.
no cricket bats in the marae, child
Reverie’s greatest strength is using established tropes and situations – the universality of the heroic adventure – and puts in a context that you can understand, while also allowing you to explore a world that is completely unique. From the outside looking in, Toromi Island seems like a strange grassy version of Hawaii, which isn’t far from the truth. As you explore the game, the layers of mythology gradually open up. More than that, the NPC dialogue, landscapes and music paint a portrait of a land that is literally at the end of the world. Very little bothers the people of Toromi Island, and they are content basking in the natural beauty they clearly have strong ties to. The diversity of landscapes shows all of these different attitudes, and as a cherry on top, the collectables are feathers of birds native to New Zealand, with educational descriptions for each one.
It is good that it does this, because along with this portrait of a nation is a literal boatload of internal references to New Zealand culture. Seriously, there are so many you could make an article purely based on those, and no one outside of New Zealand would read it because they are just fucking bizarre from the outside looking in. Big Bin pies, the litigiously unlabelled L&P bottle, the tuatara cave, the cloning pits, the rugby pitch, the Buzzy bee poster. I made the loudest “OHHHH” sound I had ever made in my life when, after beating one of the mini-games, a trophy popped up called “Renegade Fighter” – the name of a song done by New Zealand band Zed in 2000 that was formative to my childhood. This is merely scratching the surface, and to an outsider, they add flavour to an already colourful world. To a New Zealander playing the game, I feel ownership. This is a game that comes from us.
((in the most respectful way possible))
Ownership of something is a rare thing to claim to have in this tumultuous landscape we are currently navigating. There seems to be a protectiveness to a shared experience, a feeling that one cannot understand what had happened if you weren’t part of the people that experienced it. I can understand this thinking in other mediums, but video games is where it falls down. Video games are an interactive experience, allowing people to participate in the story as an active player. This allows people with different experiences to share them in a way no other medium can. The Cat and the Coup took people through an interactive history of the first Prime Minister of Iran, and Freedom Bridge took a stark, harrowing look at the lengths North Koreans would go to flee south. These games would not exist without this sharing of our collective knowledge, and letting people be there, in one form or another. Reverie is the humble, happier version of this. It embroils its players in what it is to be part of New Zealand culture – quirky and slightly mad, but endlessly resourceful and down-to-earth, even when forces act against us, coupled with an indescribable wanderlust.
Reverie is a game that knows its roots and where it has come from, and is happy to share that with the world. In the realm of video games, vying for attention in louder and more bombastic ways, Reverie is content to have an adventure rooted in the simple things. It is rare to see a game that is as unapologetic about its methods of creation, and every second of the game is dripping in this particular brand of charisma. It could be easy to dismiss Reverie as New Zealand’s edition of Zelda, but to do this would be to undersell the magnitude of its larger accomplishment. If Thor: Ragnarok is anything to go by, the Kiwi mentality is a beautiful, bizarre and universally cherished thing. Reverie, by facilitating this, is New Zealand’s gift to gaming: making it players, even if it is only for a moment, honorary New Zealanders.
Image credits go to Rainbite, Destructoid and Demand Studio. Special thanks for the developers at Rainbite for showing off this game at Armageddon Expo Wellington and bringing it to my attention. You can follow those guys on their Twitter, @rainbite. Thanks for reading.