A Link to the Tarahumara: Lienzo Talks Mulaka and Cultural Preservation in Games

We interviewed Lienzo to discuss the creative process behind their upcoming 3D adventure game, Mulaka.

As game developers seek new inspiration for the compelling narratives in their games, more developers have begun working with native and indigenous groups to retell their stories in video game form. Given their capacity to convey the many facets of culture, video games are quickly becoming the most pragmatic medium for cultural preservation. One developer looking to contribute to the digital preservation movement is Mexico-based indie game studio Lienzo, the team behind the upcoming Zelda-inspired adventure game, Mulaka.

Mulaka is a 3D action-adventure game based on the culture and legends of the Tarahumara people, a native society that resides in northwestern Mexico. The game uses stunning environments, challenging puzzles, and engaging combat mechanics to convey the rich history and mythologies of the Tarahumara culture.

In Mulaka, players take on the role of a Sukurúame, a Tarahumaran shaman who must try to save the world from destruction by seeking aid from the demigods. Your divine connection to the demigods grants you the ability to transform into different creatures, allowing you to access new areas and solve puzzles in unique ways. The Tarahumara are also known for their adept running capabilities, a skill that is reflected in Mulaka’s protagonist. 

We had the opportunity to speak with several developers at Lienzo about the development process behind Mulaka, which you will find below. The studio has also released a three-part documentary series outlining their work with the Tarahumara people on YouTube for those who want a closer look at the making of Mulaka.

Was there a specific reason you chose to focus on the Tarahumara culture? What motivated you to convey the Tarahumara in video game form?

Edgar Serrano, Director and Co-Founder of Lienzo: I personally have camped in lots of regions of Chihuahua, so I already knew how many locations translated perfectly to a video game setting. Choosing the Tarahumara as our main focus was a no-brainer for us.

I told Lienzo’s other co-founder, Adolfo Rico, “Hey how long would it take us to make a Zelda, but with Tarahumaras? A small Zelda, like A Link to the Past?” Being the pragmatist he is, he proceeded to mock and bust my balls for a few days; but inevitably, the idea started growing.

On top of being native to our state, they are still present in our day to day lives; it’s practically impossible to grow up in Chihuahua without having some notion about them. Additionally, as soon as we dipped our toes in their lore, we discovered they have tons of myths, legends and customs that fit perfectly in videogame format. All of this, plus the implied motivation to preserve their culture and show the world how awesome they are, cemented our choice.   

Are the team members at Lienzo connected or related to the Tarahumara?

Edgar Serrano: Not directly, although we do work with them to validate everything on the game, some of us only have a fraction of Tarahumara in us, if any. Me personally, I’m what you would call ⅛ Tarahumara. 

What aspects of Tarahumara culture fascinate you the most, and how will you portray these aspects in Mulaka?

Edgar Serrano: The way of living, the fact that they don’t have a word for “ownership”, and how they live in harmony with the Sierra. In the game we have the Kórima system; it’s the currency in the game, but we do explain that they don’t actually have a currency. Kórima literally means “share”. Also, [regarding] the mythological creatures, it’s baffling how they have similar creatures and beings to western or Asian pre-hispanic cultures, but with what is obviously a native Mexican twist. 

We know the Tarahumara are known for their running capabilities and we’d love to learn more. Please tell us about Tarahumara’s “runners” and how this feature is integrated into Mulaka.

Edgar Serrano: The Tarahumara are known worldwide for breaking 50k marathons in rubber sandals, made by them. Just last May, Maria Lorena Ramirez won a 50K ultra marathon, wearing sandals and with no prior experience. Also, Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run talks about his enchanting experience living with the Tarahumara. There have also been studies done about their running profile, diet, and way of living; trying to find out what is it that makes them so superhuman in this aspect.

Naturally, we couldn’t leave that out of the game, so on top of Mulaka having blistering speed, you have unlimited stamina. That is neatly integrated in the platforming in the game, as well as some combat mechanics. 

How did you go about interpreting the myths and legends of the Tarahumara people?

Edgar Serrano: First, with a lot of research; we read books, spoke with anthropologists, elders, and culture experts. When we had all of that interesting or “gamyfiable” lore (which was most of it), we went ahead and started selecting what would fit best with the overarching story. Fortunately, we had immense help from Enrique Servín; he was writing his book “Anirúame”, a compilation of genuine Tarahumara myths. He was very involved in the process of both pruning the myths with outer influences, and selecting the ones we would put in the game. We also presented our interpretations to certain Tarahumara leaders and elders to get their blessing. 

Can you tell us more about the main character of Mulaka and the sorts of activities players can look forward to in the game?

Edgar Serrano: Mulaka is a Sukurúame, a Tarahumara shaman. As such, he has the unique ability to see and interact with the spiritual plane. At the beginning of the game he is tasked with preventing the destruction of the world, a job only a Sukurúame can do. In the game, players can use up to four demigod transformations for combat and platforming mechanics, solve puzzles, collect herbs to craft and use up to 4 different herb concoctions, and rely heavily on the Sukurúame Vision to solve puzzles, find hints and defeat many enemies in intense hand-to-hand combat.   

According to your video "Mulaka - The Game", Mulaka’s plot centers around the idea of proving humanity’s worth to the demigods. Is this done primarily through quests?

Guillermo Vizcaíno, Writer and Programmer at Lienzo: Throughout the game, the main plot follows a simple loop where Mulaka is in constant search of the demigods. Along the way, he finds other characters that in some way find themselves in need. Helping these groups is what eventually leads to Mulaka being worthy in the eyes of these deities. On top of that, each level has its own self-contained story arc, whether it’s a besieged metropolis or the kidnapping of a beloved child by some unknown entity, Mulaka’s quests are attuned to each of the level’s context and always tie back to the game’s main plot. 

Would you describe Mulaka as linear, or open-world?

Guillermo Vizcaíno: Mulaka is a linear multi-level experience where each level serves as an open hub allowing the player to explore, engage in combat and tackle the level’s challenges freely and at their own pace. In true Metroidvania fashion, these levels are loaded with a good amount of collectibles and secrets that encourage the player to go back and re-explore them once new transformations are unlocked. 

How big is the world in Mulaka, and what sort of environments and landscapes can players expect to discover?

Edgar Serrano: In Mulaka, you’ll be able to explore a set of levels, all heavily based on real locations from Chihuahua. They all vary greatly from deserts, a lake, mountains, forests, waterfalls and even a jungle! The levels are fairly linear, having a hub area and a few branches to explore, but the game does have collectibles to encourage backtracking and exploring, even after completing a level. 

Language is an important part of preserving culture. Will Mulaka have spoken dialogue? If so, in what language?

Edgar Serrano: Yes! One of the first organizations we approached was the PIALLI, it’s a cultural branch in Mexico in charge of preserving ancient native languages. We wanted to put one of the Tarahumara dialects in the game, and we got the amazing help of Martín Makawi, a native Tarahumara musician and poet to do so. You can hear him in some cutscenes, like when he introduces us to the story. These are spoken in indigenous Tarahumara language.

In the latest Mulaka trailer, we see the main character transform into animals and wield all sorts of weapons and abilities during combat. Does the main character get his powers from the demigods?

Guillermo Vizcaíno: Whenever Mulaka reaches a new demigod and convinces it to aid his cause, he will be able to harness that demigod’s power. In-game, this translates to Mulaka morphing into the physical form of these demigods and allowing him access to some pretty cool abilities and moves!

On top of that, throughout the game, Mulaka will find different types of herbs. These herbs can be crafted into different types of potions that can really spice up both exploration and combat. 

How long can I run around as an animal?

Edgar Serrano: Mulaka has limited magic, consumed either by transforming into demigods or using the Sukurúame vision, the burn rate differs from each use. To refill said magic, just stop using any ability that drains it or any attack. 

Please tell us about the combat system and what inspired Mulaka's fighting style.

Adolfo Rico, Co-Founder and Lead Programmer at Lienzo: The combat system is designed to be simple yet rewarding. Mulaka can do a light and heavy attack, which combined add up to six different combos. In addition, you can use heal, bomb, shield and rage potions by performing a quick dancing ritual at the expense of leaving you exposed to enemy attacks for a few seconds.

Demigod transformations also play a key role in combat; gliding as the royal woodpecker allows for quick escapes, morphing into the river snake leaves a decoy that distracts enemies, and the puma and bear both deliver powerful strikes. Mulaka can also dodge and throw his spear from distance. 

Will there be RPG elements, such as a progression system or a way to upgrade/customize your character?

Adolfo Aguirre, PR & Publishing Manager at Lienzo: Besides the divine transformations and potions that Mulaka will be learning throughout his quest, there’s an upgrade system that uses an in-game economy. Finding treasures and beating enemies grant you something called Kórima, which is essentially a points system. Kórima is a word in Tarahumara that roughly translates to “share” and it’s frequently used when referring to currency or sharing money. These points can be used to buy upgrades from a character in the town of Paquimé, the game’s second area. These upgrades range from added damage resistance to improvements to the spear’s reach and power. 

Can you describe some of the creatures and monsters we can expect to see in Mulaka? Are all creatures hostile, or are there some that are friendly?

Edgar Serrano: One of my favorites is the Ganó, said to be a tree that grew too big it came sentient, or a person that grew too big it became a tree. It was most likely a vegetation god, and some consider it to be the god of the Ganokos (the other giants in the sierra). It embodies how little humans influence the day to day in the Sierra. Ganó and Ganokos don’t meddle in “smallfolk” affairs, except when it’s extraordinary. They don’t have a single alignment, sometimes they appear in the lore as helpers, and other times as villains. This, I think, gives us a very sobering view of how big, and how varied the mythological creatures can be. Also, a huge tree-giant is pretty darn cool.

In terms of play time, how long do you estimate Mulaka will be?

Guillermo Vizcaíno: For a simple run, focusing only on the main story and disregarding collectibles and secrets, we would be talking of somewhere between 6 and 8 hours. For a 100% run, perhaps somewhere in the range of 10 to 12 hours. 

Mulaka is coming to pretty much every major gaming platform. What challenges have you faced developing Mulaka for different systems? Will the Switch version have unique features that aren’t supported by the other systems?

Adolfo Aguirre: As indie developers, we face great challenges in building an audience and getting our game known, so you want to have your game available to the widest audience possible. Trying to get the game on consoles was a natural thing for us to consider, so we approached our friends at Sony and Microsoft to get the ball moving. Fortunately, the support from them has been incredible and we’re proud of having an excellent partnership with both companies. 

Getting the game on the Switch was a different challenge of its own. We were trying to approach Nintendo even before that the official name of the Switch was revealed. During the console’s first few weeks and months, Nintendo was being very selective as to who they would accept on their platform, so we tried to be extra insistent and approached some key personnel through Twitter after watching their first Nindies Showcase of last year. The conversation continued after that and we got their green light and began working on Mulaka for the Switch. Our relationship with Nintendo has been very warm, as with all our partners, and we’ll continue that over the next years. 

Getting into more technical stuff about porting the game to multiple platforms, the use of Unity was truly a blessing, since the engine allows for that with relative ease (shout-out to our friends at Unity, too). We did face some considerable challenges with optimization, specifically when porting to the Switch, but we sorted out those problems eventually and have the game running nicely on all platforms. Mulaka on the Switch supports gyro controls for some abilities like throwing your spear at enemies, allowing for more precise and faster aiming. 

Any estimated release date for Mulaka?

Adolfo Aguirre: Mulaka will be coming early this year to the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 & PC. We’ll be announcing the exact date very soon and want to assure you that the game is indeed coming early this year, so we’re very close to launch now. Stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks.

Mulaka is being developed for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC and is aiming for an early 2018 release date. For more on Mulaka, follow Lienzo on Twitter or head over to their official website. Special thanks to Edgar Serrano, Guillermo Vizcaíno, Adolfo Rico, and Adolfo Aguirre for contributing to this interview.

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