The Wagadu Chronicles: the African fantasy MMO bringing roleplaying back to RPGs

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Twin Drums is an apt name for a studio whose debut game aims to be revolutionary on two fronts. Having officially launched its Kickstarter campaign, The Wagadu Chronicles is an upcoming massively multiplayer online game that shakes up mainstream expectations of the genre.

Firstly, the world of Wagadu removes the lens of medieval European influences in fantasy by being based entirely on African mythology. While it’s not technically the first African fantasy video game — that honor belongs to Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, an action roleplaying game from Cameroon-based developer Kiro’o Games — it’s certainly the most deep and ambitious.

Its bolder proposition, however, is its emphasis on bringing roleplaying back to RPGs, a genre that’s more often preoccupied with combat, numbers going up, and a never-ending grind for loot.

Those two ambitions go hand in hand for studio founder Allan Cudicio. Based in Berlin but raised in Italy with Ghanaian heritage from his mother’s family, he has always wanted to make a game that explores his African roots. He also confesses to a lifelong love of the Dungeons and Dragons table-top roleplaying games, where acting out your character and role is often part of the fun. This explains how The Wagadu Chronicles’ premise has been created specifically to facilitate roleplaying.

The setting involves a Cycle where people belonging to a civilization known as the Upper Worlds suddenly experience a “fall,” disappearing and literally crashing into the mysterious purgatorial realm of Wagadu, a wild, verdant, and dangerous place where they have lost their memories and must band together with others to survive.

“When you join the servers, it’s kind of like falling into Wagadu, so it’s easier to roleplay the disorientation,” Cudicio explains. “I wanted to avoid these embedded contradictions you might get when, say, roleplaying an elf that’s 300 years old in a fantasy world that you don’t know anything about but your character, in theory, should know everything about. So you’re already very lost and confused, and as you’re learning about the lore in the game, then your character regains their memories.”

In a way, for Black people of the African diaspora, entering Wagadu — a fantasy setting based on a precolonial Africa — may even prove cathartic, akin to regaining memories of their lost ancestry, especially for generations of African Americans who had their own culture violently erased by the legacy of slavery.

“If you go through the history in North America, they did a better job at erasing much of the African identity and culture, prohibiting languages, and banishing religions,” says Cudicio. He was especially moved by the messages he received from African Americans when the project was first teased with its inspiring concept art via Twitter earlier this year.

“White Americans can look at fantasy coming from Europe and immediately go, ‘I see this armored knight on a horse and that’s me as my ancestors.’ It’s a fantastical projection of their ancestors. So that’s what Afro-fantasy as a piece of media can do for an African American. It’s a very special historical moment.”

After Black Panther’s $1 billion dollar box office success brought Afro-futurism to the mainstream, it seems about time for Afro-fantasy to follow suit. It’s an especially long time coming for Cudicio, who spent his childhood deeply entwined in fantasy and roleplaying without the presence of other Black faces. “I think growing up, I just accepted that I was never going to be represented,” he says. “Like, everybody’s white — elves are white, dwarves are white, humans are mostly white — that was a fact I just accepted.”

The Wagadu Chronicles pulls inspirations from all over the African continent, including the often underrepresented sub-Saharan countries. The different classes of people in Wagadu — described as belonging to ancestral lineages, not to be confused with races, although some do have physical differences — are inspired by African ethnic groups and cultures, such as the Yoruba in Nigeria and the Maasai in Kenya. They nonetheless have traits and characteristics borrowed from existing fantasy, like the Emere who live in the rainforests, practice old magic, and even have pointy ears like elves.

Creating an African fantasy world is no simple feat — a sentiment that may be true for creating any new fantasy world. Cudicio was able to draw inspiration from learning about theology and traditions from his family members, while the studio’s artist Iga Oliwiak also spent a week in a Maasai village in Kenya for research. But they also had a unique barrier that most fantasy writers don’t have: the legacy of hardcore colonialism.

“Colonialism means that a lot of things are not being spoken about or celebrated,” Cudicio explains. “In African countries, speak about traditional African religion and lots of Africans would tell you this is Satanism.” He even recalls that for Beyoncé’s Black is King visual album, made in Africa and taking in many of its traditional cultures, he was horrified to see reactions from Africans on YouTube along the lines of, “Why is Beyoncé embracing Satanism?”

From a practical standpoint, the fact that almost no one else has been making African fantasy in games also means the team had to put in much more time and work in concept and research. Even buying placeholder assets for the early build was virtually impossible. In comparison, a developer making a Western fantasy would have plentiful resources, assets, and inspirations to reference.

So even in The Wagadu Chronicles’ early build, where the cel-shaded aesthetic feels reflective of the concept art, you get a sense of a rich and diverse world you haven’t set foot in before. Wagadu contains biomes based on African savannas, deserts, swamps, as well as the rainforest. Cudicio shows me around each of the biomes, pointing out how the research blends in with the level design, such as a swampy clearing called a bai that exists in the Congolese rainforest or the way the savanna village’s architecture has cows protected in the middle just like the Maasai do in their villages.

Despite its fantasy trappings, Cudicio clarifies that The Wagadu Chronicles plays more like sci-fi MMO Eve Online than World of Warcraft. This is because the former is structured as a “theme park” MMO, a term that might sound pejorative but describes the more popular and accessible MMOs where stories and encounters are like fairground attractions shaped by the developers.

On the other end of the spectrum are skill-based sandbox MMOs, where the freedom allows for more emergent gameplay and storytelling created by the players themselves. A famous example is Eve Online’s biggest war in history that involved over 7,500 player characters and the destruction of space ships worth more than $200,000 in real-world money.

The extra ingredient Cudicio wants to add to his MMO, however, is bringing back roleplaying to the fore. That is, fully immersing yourself into the character you’re playing, a personal fascination that began a decade ago when he became involved with an Ultima Online server where thousands of players completely dedicated themselves to roleplaying in character.

“It blew my mind having this community of not just four or five people around a D&D table but hundreds of people at the same time actively speaking in character,” he explains, as this community built all their lore together, from religious ceremonies to love stories to epic battles. Pockets of roleplaying communities do exist, including GTA Online, but these are usually hacks within games never designed for roleplaying. The Wagadu Chronicles is instead being built and optimized specifically for that purpose.

A player might become devoted to spirits and just want to seek more followers to observe religious rites. On the other hand, a really charismatic player could influence hundreds of players and villages to band together, become their emperor, and actually have people bowing and addressing them with the relevant title. Or you could just stay in the village and be the best tailor you can be.

“This sounds so very esoteric, but if you create a roleplaying environment, these things flourish and happen,” he says. “Then you will see all sorts of interesting stories that you’ve never seen in a typical MMO because people are coming up with their own adventures.” Although this requires putting trust in the community to shape Wagadu, the lore and design does steer toward an aspirational and utopian tone, not one of ruthless conflict or binary good-versus-evil morality. That also means eschewing tired tropes of racial biases that have existed in fantasy since Tolkien.

“I loved Tolkien, but he was a man of his time,” Cudicio says. “Even if he did not identify as a racist, it’s also known that he described in a letter his inspiration for Orcs was ‘the least lovely Mongol-types.’ That was terminology he felt he could freely use.”

That’s not to say Cudicio needs to reject everything, but he says it’s important to build upon and subvert the racist elements. “If someone who’s mixed race is always an outcast and the pure race are the most powerful magical creatures, what messages are you sending about inclusion and diversity?” he asks. “What is the social, economic, political construct that you are subconsciously building?”

The Wagadu Chronicles is not simply just about Black representation. Its diversity is reflected in Twin Drums the studio, where the majority of its core team of nine are Black, female, and queer. You can see this early on in the game’s character creation tool. Even at this early stage where the only playable lineage are the horned Swala people (inspired by the Maasai), there’s nonetheless a nonbinary option. Despite the extra work a “third” gender means for the artists, Cudicio says he was committed to this inclusion, as it again unearths a side of ancient African culture that had been buried by colonialism.

“In African societies, queerness was kind of accepted in various ways,” he explains, having also detailed this history in a Twitter thread. “I’m not saying that Africa did not have patriarchy, but you also have many strong matriarchal elements. Women getting married to each other was a tool in many different cultures and had just as much value as marriage between man and woman.”

He also cites the way statues of ancestors are often depicted with the traits of both genders, such as breasts, a pregnant stomach, as well as a penis and beard. “Ancestors were seen as perfect and otherworldly and therefore have traits from both genders, which is so different from the Western image of God as a bearded white man,” he says. “The Wagadu Chronicles takes the conversation from those precolonial identities, connecting to these diverse and colorful traditions while also being aspirational to modern LGBT rights.”

Essentially, The Wagadu Chronicles is aiming to be a safe roleplaying space for everyone. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, but while Cudicio is inspired by Eve Online on a macroeconomic level, he doesn’t plan to emulate its aggressively bloodthirsty environment.

That’s evident from my hands-on of the build. I do occasionally run into hostile wildlife, including zebras, which I’m told are more dangerous than they appear, but I don’t yet have the means to defend myself. Instead, the focus is on some simpler tasks like gathering crops and materials to feed livestock or craft items for the village totem. This becomes core to the loop, as you make offerings to spirits and totems who grant blessings and perks to your village, which in turn makes it easier to get better or rarer resources. “The totem is like a Tamagotchi,” Cudicio smiles. “Most gods or spirits in African communities need constant input.” It’s possible to acquire a whole pantheon of totems, too, though retaining them requires more resources, which is where you might then cooperate with other players or guilds who may otherwise want to claim the totem for themselves.

The notable presence of a crafting bench also draws parallels to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which isn’t totally coincidental. Especially in the COVID age, Cudicio finds it affirming that millions of people simply enjoy building things in a community without conflict. It reflects much of The Wagadu Chronicles’ tone, where there are many simple activities like planting, farming, and animal husbandry. Ultimately, this gives more room to socializing, roleplaying, and telling stories. So where does combat fit in?

“I went through a period when I wondered if The Wagadu Chronicles could be a video game without combat,” he says. “Combat is such a high-stakes, tight loop kind of challenge, that’s why so many video games use it, but our game is about creating stories, generating these experiences and plotlines, roleplaying and acting out your character.”

There certainly won’t be player-versus-player combat, but you may have to fight back against hostile spirits or wildlife. Or you could choose to become a mercenary and help protect other communities when they need to transport goods through perilous environments. Even hunting sounds holistic as you’re not actively harming the wildlife. “In some ways, it’s more like sports, like you’re engaging in a ‘ritual’ hunt,” Cudicio explains. “You have a bit of a challenge where you can get materials from the animal, but you don’t actually kill it.”

He acknowledges there’s a fantasy element to it. For example, you couldn’t take ivory from an elephant in real life without killing it because the tusks are deeply embedded in its skull. But there are analogies to other games, such as Breath of the Wild, where you can pursue dragon-like spirits who drop rare materials when you shoot them with an arrow.

You could also look at The Wagadu Chronicles’ precolonial fantasy as an exercise in decolonizing and deconstructing the fantasy genre as a whole. When examining the themes and mechanics, that’s how Cudicio approaches it.

“A lot of games is nonconsensual killing and getting rewarded for it, whereas in Wagadu, and with nature, it’s about consent,” explains Cudicio. “That’s like traditional Yoruba hunters of the south of Nigeria. When they hunt, they chant a blessing and ask permission for the animal. In some cultures, you also ask for forgiveness or thank them afterwards. I think it’s important to rethink hunting not as something that’s very Western and capitalist — which is about the domination and destruction of nature — whereas in African societies it’s about balancing and respecting it.”

That’s also why he was more keen on building his own African fantasy instead of settling for Black representation in existing fantasy, which he finds representative of tokenism at best: “It doesn’t move the conversation forward because we’re just saying everything stays the same, even the items. Let’s look at what African weapons look like, what African armor looks like, what African magic spells look like, what African architecture looks like. That’s what The Wagadu Chronicles is, and it’s already more representation for Black people than 99 percent of fantasy or science fiction.”

It’s a chance to provide a glimpse into a fairer utopian place and Twin Drums wants this to be a safe space to imagine those possibilities. Part of that will be involving the community early on, especially a core community of roleplayers who can introduce newcomers to the genre. Part of it is also in the game’s design, where communication is text based, as this would be the safest method while avoiding breaking immersion.

Suffice to say, being set in an African fantasy world also means players will only be able to play as Black characters, with a large selection of African names to choose from. “I know if people have that freedom, then white players will be lazy and just pick white people, and not challenge themselves, and then the setting will not be Black anymore,” says Cudicio. “To keep Wagadu African, there needs to be an artistic direction to say, like, this is a Black world, so everybody who plays has these features.”

It’s an understandable direction to avoid an accidental “colonization” from white players. Though it sounds more restrictive than MMOs that give players freedom to create any avatar, the idea of having exclusively Black facial presets and hairstyles will be a fresh counterpoint to many games where Black characteristics are sometimes no more than a choice of skin color.

One concern, however, could be that white players roleplaying as Black characters could run the risk of being considered “digital blackface,” but Cudicio stresses that The Wagadu Chronicles isn’t just being made for Black people in the same way that Japanese fantasy isn’t made only for Japanese people. Indeed, many people who play Japanese-themed games do it out of respect and interest for that culture.

“This is a Black fantasy world, and you go there with the intent of celebrating, roleplaying, and acting like a part of this Black community,” he says. “It’s an entirely different way of joining and connecting to Blackness. I want to really push Afro-fantasy, even just parts of it, like the clothing and makeup, into the mainstream. Look at the powerful image of the samurai. It’s seeped into everything, even the standard Western fantasy. We want to do the same for Africa.”

An exclusively Black MMO that also expects its entire player base to commit to roleplaying certainly sounds risky, but having worked in marketing prior to game development, Cudicio is also confident he can reach this specific audience.

It’s why, after over a year of delays and bureaucracy involved with originally having the game developed with government funding, Twin Drums has decided to turn to Kickstarter for The Wagadu Chronicles. With a backing goal of around $120,000, a rather modest sum for an MMO or any game of this scale, it’s important to note that development isn’t being solely crowdfunded.

Their primary source of funding actually comes from League of Legends developer Riot Games which, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, has pledged to invest $10 million in game studios with founders of underrepresented communities. Kickstarter is more of a means to prove the audience is out there, while also providing additional funds to make a bigger and more polished game. In any case, having Riot’s backing ensures The Wagadu Chronicles doesn’t share the fate of crowdfunded games that ran into funding issues late in development or worse. Cudicio is only too aware that crowdfunded games that turned out to be scams, like Oath and Chronicles of Elyria, were also MMOs.

The goal isn’t to have millions of players to rival World of Warcraft — Cudicio admits to turning down some offers to avoid a situation where they are growing the game for the sake of the investors. The goal is to have a sustainable community where there’s a wealth of activity so that hundreds of thousands of people can meet and roleplay their characters.

As an even longer-term goal, The Wagadu Chronicles has the potential to put a spotlight not just on African fantasy in popular culture but African game development, and Cudicio wants to see Twin Drums collaborating with African developers.

“I’d like to be able to contribute and be part of the conversation, and if The Wagadu Chronicles is successful in the long term, there’s definitely a lot I would like to do with African developers, and other team members have similar feelings,” says Cudicio. “In our small niche of fantasy video games, we want people to start seeing Black fantasy as normal, and we want people to get exposed to more African developers. We’re not an NGO — and this might sound a bit dramatic — but at our core, we really do want to change the world!”

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