We Are The Caretakers: looking ahead to an Afrofuturist XCOM

"Growing up, every depiction I saw of African people was bestial, savage, and often mocking,” says We Are The Caretakers narrative lead, Xalavier Nelson Jr. “If you want to look at some of the popular comedies, whenever African imagery was used, it was debasing, and as a result, it gained a really negative connotation for me.”

Then Nelson watched Black Panther. Initially, thanks to those early depictions, something in him recoiled at the Marvel movie’s unabashed celebration of Africa. But two hours later, he saw heroism and beauty in his own African American heritage where previously he had seen only shame.

It’s an outcome he and the developers of We Are The Caretakers want for the players of their Afrofuturist squad management RPG. It’s a highly unusual project – funded by venture capitalists with backgrounds in biotech and pharmaceuticals, with the goal of promoting environmental consciousness. Fundamentally, the game is about anti-poaching, an XCOM-alike in which you’re less worried about protecting civilians than hulking, endangered rhinoceroses.

“You’re ultimately uniting as many cultures as possible towards this goal of protecting the wildlife and the world against a mutual threat,” Nelson says. “It’s very much coming from a place of seeing wildlife in a light that is typically reserved for fellow human beings.”

As concept artist, Anthony Jones previously worked on StarCraft II, Overwatch, and the Warcraft movie.

The rhinoceroses, or Raun, are coursing with a mysterious energy that might hold the key to saving the planet. It’s up to you to assemble squads to patrol the lands they graze on, pulling together individuals from different cultures and negotiating the demands of international and community leaders.

The Caretakers themselves wear their individuality and cultures as armour – bodysuits and headdresses that break from the sci-fi norm with their clear African inspiration. They exemplify the same vein of sci-fi that Black Panther comes from, one in which the future doesn’t only belong to the West.

“As a team, we mutually found something very strong to cling onto in this setting of Afrofuturism,” Nelson says. “It doesn’t take for granted many of the things that sci-fi does, the realities of colonial impact. In sci-fi stories, we don’t normally see a culture, how it emerged, and the gestalt that produced it – we get the United Federation.”

Heart Shaped Games has brought humanity to the poachers too, so that you understand them even as you condemn them.

We Are The Caretakers will show how these individuals and cultures make up the whole, concerning itself with a “great deal of macro and micro-level consideration.” You’ll be responsible for the high-level real-time strategy of a global map, all the way down to turn-based combat – although Nelson refers to that as “conflict resolution”, since there’ll be less violent means of resolving situations. As in XCOM, each layer of the game is lent weight by its impact on the rest.

Push a Caretaker too far in one day and they can get exhausted or sick, leaving them an ineffective drain on your coffers. Take one mission to top up those funds, and you might miss your window of opportunity for another that would have fed a particular community, or offered resources for technology upgrades. Any one of those options could make the difference when it comes to tracking trespassers; every action you take alters the world’s perception of the Caretakers, and their consequent ability to protect the endangered species they rely on.

“You can be in a situation where, yes, you can deploy both of those units,” Nelson says, “but you’re spreading yourself thin in terms of currency, manpower, and various other factors that affect you later on in the game. It’s a lot of mental juggling.”
Your empathy for the Raun is central to We Are The Caretakers, and that’s reinforced by the presentation of the animals in the game – imposingly large and majestic, yet emaciated in appearance, seemingly scarred either by poachers or the powerful energy flowing through their veins.

The team visited Nepal on a research trip that saw them speak to local conservationists.

The game’s distinctive art direction comes from former Blizzard concept artist Anthony Jones – and it’s notable that one of his old stomping grounds, Overwatch, is responsible for easily the most prominent instance of Afrofuturism in video games, the city of Numbani, a utopia bordering the savannah where humans and robots live in harmony.

You only have to look at the depictions of Africa in game history, as a backdrop for shooting zombies or mercenaries, to see how necessary and exciting this new wave is.
“Working on this game, getting engaged with this genre, and creating this story did help me to become a fuller person, and find beauty in cultures and civilisations that I had been taught to find shameful,” Nelson says. “I had to reckon with my background in a way I’ve never had the opportunity to in my life. I’m excited to see how what we’ve crafted might help enable others to find beauty in those things as well.”

We Are The Caretakers wears its XCOM influence proudly on the cerulean global strategy screen.

Conservation goes cute

One of the advertising bullet points on We Are The Caretaker’s Steam page is an adorable baby Raun companion, which will nuzzle against your bed even after it grows to twice your height. As USPs go, it’s undeniable.

“The baby Raun isn’t just a meme, it’s a tangible connection point for what could otherwise be faceless creatures that are numbers on a stat sheet at the end of a mission,” Nelson says. “We thought about ways that connection could emerge throughout the campaign in a way that went beyond telling people, ‘Hey, animals are important’. This idea was the solution we arrived upon.”

Genre: Turn-based strategy
Format: PC
Developer: Heart Shaped Games
Publisher: Heart Shaped Games
Release: 2019

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