When it comes to representation, games have been used to explore different themes as well as multiple cultures. The task is, of course, not always easy. Despite the desire to tackle elements of culture or portray places from their countries, developers face one common necessity: making their games profitable. Inevitably this means aiming for the international market. But how do indies - limited resources and all - accomplish both? I spoke with Tiago Reich, main writer on Brazilian studio Pocket Trap's 2021 release, Dodgeball Academia.
While developing Dodgeball Academia, Pocket Trap studio made thematic choices that helped the game be more approachable for different players. The game combines genres in a way that has been done before, though genres rarely combined by larger developers: sports with RPG elements. Sport has always worked well as a bridge between people from different places of the world, due to the fact that the core is the same wherever they are played. At the same time, dodgeball is a very common sport in many countries, even having an international federation. In Brazil it is called 'queimada', a name that in Portuguese has connotations not of avoiding getting hit, as in English, but to hit the other players - 'burning' them and taking them out of the game. Choosing dodgeball as its main concept, then, was the first step to making the game engaging for other people around the world.
According to Reich: “the game reached so many people due to its universal themes”. In Dodgeball Academia, players control Otto, a kid who goes to a special school to master the art of dodgeball - and where he earns a special power by touching a 'mystical artefact from time immemorial': a ball. From that, together with other students, Otto starts a team to compete in a dodgeball tournament and to bring the tournament's prize back to his school. You might have seen one or two anime series with plots pretty similar to this, thanks to how big streaming services such as Netflix and Crunchyroll are nowadays. Dodgeball Academia understands the moment it is in and what is culturally popular, so it brings them to its world and narrative. The fact these ideas and themes are simple, as Tiago explained to me, is exactly why people from different places around the world can have fun with the game.
Bringing in Brazil
It is through the activity the game carries as its core concept and the universal themes present in its narrative that Dodgeball Academia appeals to an international audience. But how to address Brazilian culture in the game without making it less tangible for people around the world? Pocket Trap’s answer to that was to make elements of the country present, but only visible to someone from Brazil - or someone who is really familiar with the country’s culture. There are no routes taken by the narrative or long periods of exposition to explain that some reference, symbol, or even a name is Brazilian. From how the school is represented, through how some characters were named, to the localization for Brazilian Portuguese, Dodgeball Academia found more subtle ways to show the Brasilidade to the world.
The structure of a school might be a little bit different depending on where in the world the person is. However, it is through simple gestures that the Academia in the game looks familiar to a Brazilian. Tiago points out the fact that the uniforms in the game are similar to the ones kids in Brazil wear. He describes it as: “an amalgamation of a Brazilian school and a Japanese school.” There is also the Cantina Lady, an NPC that players can interact with - as well as an ever-present figure in Brazilian schools, though you may know her as the lunch or dinner lady.
Another aspect of the game that carries some flavor from Brazil is the characters. It doesn’t take too long once the game starts for players to meet Kyabo, a young boy that eventually will be part of their team. Right after, Otto invites Mina, an energetic girl to be part of his group. While both characters might look pretty regular, for any Portuguese speakers both names bring more to the table. Mina is a more informal term for 'young girl' in Brazilian Portuguese, but since it is a common slang, there is always a 'mina' that you know or heard about. On other hand, Kyabo sounds exactly the same as the Portuguese equivalent of okra, famously seen as an unpleasant vegetable... and you might discover why if you play the game. For me, there's more than one situation where someone would be called 'kyabo' due to their behaviour.
At the language level, Dodgeball Academia was originally written in English. But it adds a lot of flavour by allowing players to change things to Brazilian Portuguese. This is where the game shows how careful its creators were to bring a familiar feeling for Brazilians even during deadly matches of dodgeball. When discussing the localisation, Tiago says: “the feeling of familiarity the PT-BR script evokes in people also comes from my main references being other works that are very dear to the Brazilian audiences in general.” For this work, he used as a reference the dubbed versions of TV shows such as El Chavo del Ocho and Yu Yu Hakusho, which have many catchphrases that are already part of our vocabulary. Tiago also points out the Brazilian comic Monica’s Gang that was part of the childhood of many Brazilians. In other words: as a writer, he was careful to bring a culturally accurate use of language.
Dodgeball Academia is as unapologetically Brazilian as it can be. If the development team had taken a different approach, the final product would have had less success inside - and possibly outside - Brazil. Still, Pocket Trap ended up putting a lot of local cultural elements in a game and successfully selling it to the world. Thinking about why Brazilian culture would not be the central aspect of the game, Tiago answers: “I’ve been making a push to include more Brazilian elements into every game I work on for a few years now, something I sadly did not start doing earlier, and it’s not that easy to make it happen. Brazil suffers from a severe case of ‘mongrel complex’, in which we perceive every other culture as better or cooler than ours, and that has a big weight on decisions made during game development. Sometimes simply suggesting a character be named with a Brazilian/Portuguese name is enough to elicit a whole discussion on why that must not happen."
What Dodgeball Academia shows is that there are ways of portraying the developer’s culture in different and imaginative ways though. Creating a game that is at the same time capable of bringing cultural elements of its native country while reaching players all around the world is not an easy task. Developers must find themes that they can work with while still bringing aspects from their own countries. This idea must also be part of the concept of the game, and not the initiative of a single person inside a team.
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