Revisiting the Dark City
The perfect city. The perfect crime.
All artwork by Sara Eskandari
Around the fall of 2020, I had my first production meeting for Dark City. I began it how I typically began all my production meetings -- with collaborators whom I love and a whole host of visual research. On the call were the unlucky few that I finagled into working with me -- Jordan Friend, my longtime producer/musical collaborator of many projects; Aria Velz, a sharp and observant dramaturg, excellent writer in her own right, and a bold director of stage plays; and finally, Sara Eskandari, a video game and comic artist who was working in AR/VR at the University of Michigan.
I don't remember what happened first, but there were several points of inspiration that really sparked Dark City. In no particular order they were:
The 1MDB scandal -- a white collar crime in which billions of public dollars were siphoned through a sovereign wealth fund and hidden in shadowy shell companies across the world. This money was stolen by the political elite of Malaysia, namely by the businessman Jho Loh and the prime minister Najib Razak, but their entire circle benefitted from the theft. I was so blown away that these people got away with the plunder, but more so by the revelation that much of the assets are STILL unrecovered. Jho Loh had gone into hiding deep in southern China (some people speculate Shenzhen or Macau, but it's hard to know), and with it, the Malaysian people's money.
The George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests. 2020 saw a lot of rage, but the rage I felt about the injustice rendered to these two individuals by the cops and the state, well nothing could really temper it. As an artist, I was longing to make work that would tell stories about holding power to account, but I was struggling to find exactly what story that would be. The summer of protests really activated a new flame in me to write Dark City.
Dark Money by Jane Mayer. Anything Jane writes I'll read, but it was this thorough description on how the Koch brothers (among others) used their dollars to wage misinformation, plant seeds of fascism in universities and think tanks, and buy politicians that shook me out of my fantasy that our normalcy was truly normal. One day I'll adapt this novel into something; but for now, it contextualized the 1MDB scandal in a way I could articulate and it made me hungry to lash out.
Solarpunk aesthetics. This was introduced to me by Dante Flores, a dramaturg/writer whom I worked with at Arena Stage. Solarpunk imagines a world where climate change is seriously addressed and the future is green, and deeply respectful of nature. This style made me cognizant of greenwashing practices, and how governments and corporations are desperate to come across as progressive and innovative in the climate-justice movement, despite nefarious intentions.
Black and Asian solidarity. Though a lot of these happenings were prior to the full fledged #StopAsianHate movement, I was a part of several cohorts where the complicity that Asian Americans played in anti-Black racism was addressed and acted upon in positive ways. I wanted to contribute to the discourse about Black and Asian solidarity, and being a part of these circles actually made me fall deeper in love with my mixed-race identity and more sure of who I was as an artist and a citizen in the USA.
From the beginning, Sara Eskandari was an immeasurably fantastic partner. Their thoughtfulness, anti-racist approach to world building and character design, coupled with incredible artistic prowess really made this whole thing a dream-come-true.
Of significance, and the basis of all of our design approach, was distinguishing between two major ethnic groups in the game - the Edda and Vassari. Sara and I wanted all characters to be one race, but with minor phenotypical differences to create distinct ethnicities. We took a note from nature for this -- using tree rings and leaf veins for inspiration. The Edda would be, overall, darker skinned with thicker "tree-ring" lines across their bodies. The Vassari, by contrast, had lighter-skin tones and much finer "leaf-veins".
Sara and I liked this approach because it allowed for us to see the great multiculturality of race across this populace, but also to preserve a mosaic effect of individuality.
We also made sure to take important cues from the environment -- there was no hard and fast rule about how Edda or Vassari had to look, especially where things like the sun were involved. Vassari who lived closer to the sun on the Canopy District were tanner or dark-skinned (just like Albert here below) as indigenous Edda people who did not live in the Aeolus tree at all!
Sara and I made sure to center the protagonist / POV experiences on BIPOC people -- mostly Black and Southeast Asians. However, we did have mixed-race and mixed-Nationality identities explored as well. Overall, the characters in Dark City had deeply complex backgrounds that had a myriad of intersections with nationality (such as being from Aeolus, or not), ethnicity (Edda, Vassari, mixed), and sexuality (both protagonists identified as queer in a very queer-friendly world).
Juda and Paaya, for example, are Edda, but not native to Aeolus. They're immigrants and immigrants of relative privilege - having been able to ascend the ranks in society through a lucrative career at the AIO.
Liki, a journalist, is Edda, but she is also Indigenous to Aeolus and from outside of Aeolus' megacity proper. In fact, the destruction of her land is really what puts the events of the game in motion.
Gideon, a major player at the AIO, is a mixed-Edda-Vassari man. However, he comes across as "Vassari-passing," even going so far as to suppress his Edda language ability and cultural competencies. This minor detail becomes crucial later on in figuring out a clue related to a death.
The pure-blood Vassari individuals are also all highly liberal, progressive people. They all embrace racial diversity, at least, they say they do!
Other design inspirations came from outside of solarpunk aesthetics: we looked at cities like Bangkok and Taipei for fashion and urban-sprawl inspiration. The canopy trees of Singapore's botanical gardens served as the major silhouette for the Mother Trees in the game. Suzanne Simmard's writings on mother trees became the basis for the religious and scientific understandings of the game too. Finally, to create the Edda language (which was modeled to look like plants and flowers blossoming from the ground) we took notes of motifs in Telugu, Thai, and Khmer. These languages had first been written on banana leaves, which Sara and I loved, because that would fit the established framework of Dark City's origins.
In the above, you can see "BEGIN" written in both English and Edda script. Edda script is read from right-to-left. We had planned to create a Vassari script that would have looked, essentially the same, but the need to create a minigame that involved translation in episode four necessitated keeping English coded as Vassari. I don't love that choice, as it exoticizes Edda, but this was pretty mandatory to accomplish what we wanted to achieve in that game.
the score and v/o
Jordan is nothing short of a musical-genius, and his looping melodies brilliantly married punk rock, techno, and film-noir mystery instrumentals. What I especially loved was how the score sounded a bit like it was synthesized in the 1980s, particularly when these crime-dramas were ablaze. Stand-out tracks included Paaya's Theme, first aptly titled "Ominous Tones," and the "Investigation" theme song which played over our investigation segments.
Jordan's work as a director came in especially handy when it came to voice-over work. As I was directing, writing, and coding the game, one more responsibility to direct the voice actors would have just ended me. Jordan's mastery of beats, sense of pacing, and brilliant ability to elicit unique performances out of actors really helped billboard the work of Yesenia Iglesias, Niusha Nawab, Raven Lorraine, and Andrew Quilpa. Oh, did I mention, our entire VO cast were people of color?
We created the video game because we wanted to
Demonstrate how the delivery system between artists and audiences needed to be repaired
Showcase how theatre is at the core of every art form, and narrative video games, while are distinct and wholly unique forms, rely heavily on the tenants of theatre for their success
Make great art and tell compelling stories.
I would say we accomplished all of these goals, but the biggest accomplishment was truly in the endeavor itself. To that end, another source of inspiration needs to be credited: the Queer DIY games movement -- namely the leaders: Anna Anthropy, Zoe Quinn, Mattie Brice, and merritt kopas. Dark City stands on their great shoulders. These trailblazers really helped create the body of literature that allowed people like me to pick up a computer and become a game-maker. They created fantastic games and writings in their own right, and I highly, highly recommend you check it out. In particular:
Zoe Quinn and sortingh.at // Videogames for Humans
Anna Anthropy's The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters
Mattie Brice's Mainichi
merritt kopas' LIM // "Queer Mechanics: Moving Beyond Representation"
In summary, a group of artists got together over Zoom one day and kept meeting and kept bringing shit together. Some of the shit was bad, but they all held each other accountable to goals and deadlines, and made sure to laugh a lot on the way.
The result: an epic, solarpunk murder mystery with beautiful art, awesome music, great voice acting, and a deeply important story.
We were so lucky to have shared this project together, over a pandemic no less, and I will be counting my blessings that I got to do this one for many years to come.