Mulaka Interview (Part 1): Developing a game about Tarahumara Lore

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

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Mulaka is the second game developed by Team Lienzo, an indie studio based out of Chihuahua, Mexico. At E3 2017, I had the opportunity to try out an early build for Mulaka and I was quite pleased with what I found. With Mulaka‘s impending release, I was able to catch up with Edgar Serrano, the director for Mulaka. In Part 1 of our two part interview, Mr. Serrano talks about developing a video game that is steeped in Tarahumara lore and tradition while in a part of Mexico where there is not a history of game development, and who exactly the titular character of Mulaka is.

You can check Team Lienzo out on their website, like them on Facebook, tweet at them on Twitter, subscribe to them on YouTube, and follow them on Instagram.

You can purchase Mulaka on Steam or PlayStation 4/PlayStation 4 Pro (out now), the Nintendo Switch (releasing on March 1, 2018), and the Xbox One/Xbox One X (releasing on March 2, 2018).

You can find Part Two of my interview with Team Lienzo’s Edgar Serrano here.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.


Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?

Edgar Serrano: Edgar Serrano, director of Lienzo, the studio in charge of Mulaka.

“It was really important for us [for the Tarahuamara people] to be a part of the whole [game] design, and the whole defining of the myths and lore.”

OR: Mulaka is a love letter to the Tarahumara people in Sierra Tarahumara, with the game levels themselves coming entirely from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. At what point in the development process did Lienzo decide to base a game around these people and to focus on developing terrain from Chihuahua, and why did you choose them in particular?

ES: Well, first of all – it was kind of a natural thing for us to be inspired by the Tarahumara, because they live here as well as we do, so they’re still current. What I mean by that is they’re not extinct by any means. You see them every time you go out. If you come visit Chihuahua, you will see them. It’s a natural thing. And also, the landscapes that we represent in the game are really ‘touristy’ spots for the state. So, most of them we knew already. So we already knew that [these] spots could serve as a setting for an epic adventure.

So that was the ‘scene’ that started this curiosity about whether or not this project was viable. And then the strongest reason – at least for me- was: “Here we are, it’s this amazing culture that’s being not ignored, per se, but ‘passed over’- people aren’t paying enough attention to them as they merit, because they are this tribe that has survived in the caverns, literally cavemen, and they got to live like that until 2018. And they still conserve a lot of their myths and a lot of their lore, and we instead pay attention to some other tribes which are equally great, but extinct already. And we’re not looking at this one which could go extinct – we’re continuing to not look at it.”

And I think it’s kind of naïve to expect people to turn around and look at the Tarahumara without us presenting them in a format which is attractive to today’s generation.

Mulaka | City

OR: How involved with the Tarahumara elders with the development process?

ES: It was really important for us [for] them to be a part of the whole design, and the whole defining of the myths and lore. As with every culture throughout time, the myths and the culture get convoluted or they get influences from other cultures. So we really wanted to present them in the most authentic way. What we did at first was consult directly with Tarahumara elders – we went through a lot of villages and reservations, and we talked to a lot of Tarahumaras [to ask] them to tell us their myths and legends and lore and whatnot.

At first, they were kind of indifferent because they really didn’t know what a video game is. In their eyes, the closest thing to a video game is like an arcade machine that you [would] find at a mom-and-pop store. So we first had to educate them in that sense – telling them what the video game industry is like today, and then telling them about the project and what we hope to achieve with it.

After we achieved that, they were all for it. Especially the representatives for the culture. They don’t have a council, per se, like other Native Americans have – like an organized council- they have ‘heads of state’. So there’s a lot of villages, and each village has a representative like a regional governor. So we went with them and they were all for making more products that preserve their culture and tongue and their traditions.

And we did have to turn things around while we’re doing the prototype. Because we did have some things wrong. For example, at the beginning, in the first build, we wanted Mulaka to fight a bear in a cave. And we learned that the bear – as you would know now when you play the game- is a demigod for [the Tarahuamara]. It is this saint holy figure. And they would never ever harm a bear, its something sacred. So we have to turn that around. Or, for example, we’re only accounted for the sun and moon god, because that was all that we could find in books. But it turns out that they have a moon god, a sun god, and then also a twilight [god]. And there are different moon and sun gods – like for the setting sun and the rising sun, and also they have plant gods. Its like the same levels of holiness for them. And there’s a lot of little details that we wanted to make sure that we address with them first, so when the game came out, we didn’t have that problem of saying ‘Yeah, we made this up.’

We didn’t want to misrepresent the culture, and that was really important because – besides it being a game for a game’s sake [to] just be fun, we wanted to it to also have educational aspects to it, and to serve as a preservation of the culture. So that’s why we went to all of this – you could say anal investigation process- to really get this right.

Mulaka| Tata

Mulaka| Creatures

(Above) The bear demigod, Tata. (Below) More creatures inspired by Tarahumara lore in Mulaka.

OR: Following up on that, how do you balance remaining so faithful to this culture and integrating it into Mulaka while also creating an action/adventure game that is accessible and relatable to the general public worldwide?

ES: So we really lucked out in that. As I said, they really don’t know what a video game is. In that, they don’t know what elements a video games has. But we really lucked out because with one of the main anthropologists we talked to – Enrique Servín- he knew games. He knew Zelda, which was a major advance for us, because he was the first expert which we talked to that said ‘Oh! I know what you mean.’ Everyone else we had to first take two steps back and explain what a video game was, and then go ahead – and he was like ‘Oh! A Zelda, right?’. And with him, we never let go of him. He’s really respected in the community and he’s a really respected knowledge source for the Tarahumara and other cultures. He knew what we were trying to achieve.

So every enemy that we put in the game, we called him up or went to his office. We presented the idea [to him], we [said] ‘We need an enemy that does this, serves this function.’ Or ‘We want Mulaka to have this mechanic.’ And then he would go ‘You know what, that’s not a good idea, but they have this other myth that would fit that parameter’ or ‘That does actually go with them’, etcetera, etcetera. And so that’s how we navigated out way through design and the myth aspect of it.

“In the Tarahumara myth, there’s this belief that everything has a soul.


In our eyes, [Mulaka] is the perfect role model for the Tarahumara to follow.”

OR: In the Kickstarter, you mentioned that Martin Makawi, who is a famous Rarámuri poet and songwriter, is doing all of the narration for [Mulaka]. Is he still doing it at this point?

ES: Yes, yes! All of the narration is done by him, and he also collaborated with the musicians for some of the songs. He will be present also at our launch event, and the mini-documentary series behind Mulaka – he’s in the third one, I think. He’s with his family, telling them stories. So he’s really in the process now with us, and again, we’re not letting go of him.

OR: I think he said that he ‘firmly believes in Mulaka as a tool for the preservation of his mother tongue.’ How did you first get involved with him, and what was the process like developing the game script in the native Tarahumara language?

ES: So the script was based around this book that Enrique Servín did. Enrique Servín works with the Tarahumara, as you may well expect. And one of them is [Martin] Makawi. At the time, we were looking for someone with strength in his voice and who could communicate the narration in a way that served us. And Martin at the time was teaching Tarahumara lessons to Spanish speakers who wanted to learn Tarahumara. And we also knew that he was well-known for his poetry. So Enrique put us in contact with Martin, and that was it. He was all for it.

Mulaka | Combat Mulaka | Combat

OR: In a recent interview with Redonkulous Gaming, it was mentioned that one of the first big challenges was to get funding for the game, because of “some cultural challenges” and that you “live in a region where game development, especially on this scale and for consoles, wasn’t even conceivable.” Could you talk a little bit more about that?

ES: Yes, of course! We’re in Chihuahua, Mexico. It’s in northern Mexico, about four hours south of El Paso, Texas. In Mexico, most creative or ‘techy’ jobs or studios are located in Mexico City, Monterrey, or Guadalajara. So, the tradition around here – at least a few years ago- was that if you were into arts or making or programming or whatnot, you had to move to one of those cities so you could make it. So that was heavily based on the taboo that maybe still exists here, especially in Northern Mexico. People see games as a distraction. People see games as a waste of time. People don’t really see the business side of games. And no matter how many times we pushed that dialog ‘You know what, games are making more than movies and music together, blah blah blah’, people really didn’t see it because in their minds, games are just this Nintendo-thing where my sons spend hours in front of the TV.’

So we had to first fight against that to communicate that it was a viable industry to make money. So we had to convince them of THAT to get funding. That was the biggest hurdle, I think. That if we were on another, more open-minded community, we wouldn’t have struggled with that so much. But again, we didn’t want to leave because we wanted to start something that could serve as an outlet for creative people to not to have to move that far away [to these other cities].

Mulaka| Mulaka

The titular hero of Mulaka.

OR: Moving onto the game Mulaka. The game stars Mulaka, who is a Sukurúame. Can you tell us more about the protagonist and what exactly is a Sukurúame?

ES: In the Tarahumara myth, there’s this belief that everything has a soul. So men have three souls [and] women have four souls. And when you get sick, one of your souls actually gets stolen/taken away. Everything in the Seirra can take your soul: rivers, trees, rocks, everything. So when you get one of your souls stolen, you have to go this shaman figure called the Sukurúame and they have to go take your soul back and make it healthy again. So in their culture, these are the persons that can talk to the demigods and to the gods, and who are in touch with this other plane. Throughout history, the Sukurúames have been demonized in a way by the Jesuits and the people who came here and started Catholicism here, because the Sukurúames were the tribe leaders. So the Sukurúames were more like the fighting mages or shamans or warlocks. So [the Sukurúame] were demonized because the Church recognized them as leaders and targeted them so [the Church] could more easily do the transition to Catholicism. And so that is one of the reasons why we opted for this type of character. In our eyes, he is the perfect role model for the Tarahumara to follow.

OR: Why do women have one more soul than men?

ES: So [because the women] can get pregnant and give birth to another child, that’s how they pass it on. And then they get better.

All images were provided courtesy of Team Lienzo.

Are you excited to play Mulaka? If so, what platform are you planning on getting the game for? Let us know in the comments below!