The winners of the XYZZY awards, the Interactive Fiction community’s answer to the Grammys and Oscars, have been announced. A plethora of science fiction and fantasy titles are among the award recipients, chief among them Matt Wigdahl‘s “Aotearoa“, a speculative fiction piece which also won the Interactive Fiction Competition last year. “Aotearoa” swept the awards, winning in no less than seven of the thirteen categories, including Best Game, Best Setting, Best Puzzles, Best NPCs, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Implementation, and Best Use of Innovation. Clearly, the game has a lot going for it, especially for a work of short IF, though its length teeters on the edge of our definition: It will take average players two hours to complete this game, if not a little more.
“Aotearoa” follows the adventurers of 12-year-old Tim Cooper, a denizen of an alternate Earth where the microcontinent of Zealandia did not sink beneath the ocean. Instead of the New Zealand we know today, the landmass of Aotearoa formed, harboring climate and geographical elements that permitted a few species of dinosaurs to survive the K-T extinction. In the modern era, when we meet Tim, man and beast coincide on the island in relative harmony through the efforts of the joint British/Māori government’s effective conservancy policies. Tim has been selected by the Aotearoa Conservation Service to participate in their Junior Fieldwork Program. While en route to join up with others, Tim and his Māori guide, Eruera, find themselves in the sights of profiteers who, in the tradition of ivory hunters, wish to poach the dinosaurs. The poacher’s destroy Tim’s boat, leaving him and an injured Eruera stranded on a remote beach. It’s up to the player to guide Tim as he seeks to return to civilization.
It’s evident that a great deal of thought and research went into crafting the game’s alternate history. In addition to the information that the player learns within the game itself, Wigdahl includes a number of appendices containing geographical and historical information about our own New Zealand and its “Aotearoa” counterpart. However, it’s not the information alone that earned the game its Best Setting award; it’s the way the setting is realistically brought to life. Wigdahl takes full advantage of his alternate time line, bringing species other than the dinosaurs back from extinction, and creating at least one species that conceivably might-have-been. And it’s the behavior of these imaginative creations that cements us in this new reality and earned the game its Best NPCs award. Showmanship, mating dances, and mimicry abound–in essence, these animals act like we might expect them to act were we to discover them in our own world. These interactions also serve as the key elements to solving many of the game’s puzzles.
As with the physical setting, Wigdahl takes as much care to implement the cultural and spiritual background of the island. Like the New Zealand of our world, Aotearoa is populated by the Polynesian ancestors of the tribal Māori, and thus their heritage suffuses both island and game. The introduction opens with a dream about Māui, the Māori trickster, bringing the island into existence; Eruera, his speech studded with Māori words, assists the player with additional tales; and finally, a glossary of the Māori language is included among the appendices.
Wigdahl’s weaving of these settings, both physical and spiritual, into Tim’s personal journey makes this a solid piece of character-oriented fiction. We first meet Tim as a timid boy, certainly excited to have an opportunity to see dinosaurs, yet feeling alone and afraid in foreign surroundings. He’s not unfamiliar with being alone and afraid–we soon discover he’s an orphan, his parents the victim of a horrible accident. Although Tim’s tragic history doesn’t necessarily serve as the obstacle he must overcome, his lack of family suggests he’s more alone than many people, and establishes his need to connect with someone. It turns out this someone is the human, animal, and spiritual inhabitants of the island with whom Tim collaborates to outwit the poachers.
The bond between a white male and non-white, indigenous natives inevitably brings up comparisons to the ‘White Messiah’ fable, wherein a white man finds spiritual fulfillment among a ‘race’ typically oppressed by white men. This oppression is usually sustained by superior technology, though the ‘natives ‘seem to have a superior sense of how all beings and their surroundings interrelate (another familiar trope, that of the ‘Noble Savage‘). Embraced by the ‘natives’ and exiled by his own kin, the protagonist leads his new brotherhood to victory against his oppressive family. It’s a popular, if controversial staple of science fiction and fantasy. Avatar, Dune, even portions of The Wheel of Time, herald the exploits of the ‘White Messiah.’
To be certain there is a dash of the ‘White Messiah’ fable within “Aotearoa”, enough to warrant comment from several reviewers, one of whom actually downgraded her rating of the game because it shares some elements of the trope. But unlike Avatar and Dune, the ‘White Messiah’ fable isn’t the point of “Aotearoa”, and many crucial elements of the fable are missing: It’s evident that the island and the inhabitants can and will survive without Tim (the poachers are a mere inconvenience, at best), Tim hasn’t been exiled by anyone, and he isn’t on his way to becoming the Māui’s leader. Tim is simply a 12-year-old boy who happens to stumble into an adventure that many 12-year-old boys would appreciate: A chance to explore a fantastical island inhabited by dinosaurs.