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Studio Profile: Atawhai Interactive

An interview with Mickey Treadwell and Lisa Blakie at Atawhai Interactive.

Toroa seems like a very personal journey for your studio. How much does this game mean to you and why?

M: For most of us this is our first time starting a company, and for all of us it’s the first time we’re really in the creative driver’s seat on a production like this. We have certain principles that we’ve discussed at length - about how to treat each other as colleagues and as workers - that we’re really striving to uphold throughout development. This makes the game significant in that it will show we can complete a project together without compromising our ethics as a studio.

L: It’s also personal in that Toroa is about our home and who we share it with. Most of us have lived here for the majority of our lives and I have tupuna buried just minutes away from where the Toroa have made their home. It feels special in that everything in our lives and the game is connected through whakapapa and really represents something that we all feel a deep connection with.

What will players get out of the game?

M: First and foremost this is a fun game. Players are going to enjoy hooning around as Toroa and having this sort of free open-ocean-cloudscape experience that we haven’t really seen any other examples of. Additionally, players are going to see a lot of the Pacific that they haven’t seen before in games; Toroa features a lot of animal characters from the southern ocean alongside characters from Te Ao Māori (the Māori world).

L: It’s a narrative driven, flight extravaganza! I hope players will gain a deeper understanding of Toroa and their incredible journey as well as discovering the magic that nature and the ocean possess. The sea and skies are full of wonder, full of mystery and full of a vast and unique ecosystem, it’s something we don’t see everyday but we all (mostly billionaires) need to do our bit to ensure it can thrive for generations to come.

Why a game about this particular bird?

M: The actual journey of the Toroa (albatross) is really fantastical. It’s unbelievable. Toroa spend the first 7 and a half months of their lives feeding and flexing their wings then, when the wind is right, they take flight and migrate 9000 kilometres over the pacific ocean. They’re spectacular flyers and we know they take incredible advantage of the wind in their travels but much of the journey is unobserved, so there’s still a lot of mystery there. It’s also melancholy because now they also have a staggering volume of plastic and fish hooks we’ve strewn across their migration routes.

L: After the first lockdown in 2020, Connor (artist) and I went on a wildlife cruise with some of our friends and got to see Toroa up close, running across the water and then lifting into the air. It was totally surreal. And then a Toroa winked at me and said “make a game about me, you won’t” and so here we are. Toroa are a significant bird for many iwi across the motu, they breed and nest right here in Ōtepoti and are in danger from the effects of pollution and overfishing while feeding in the ocean. Making this game feels like a small step to help raise awareness of their importance in our ecosystem as well as what we can do to help them thrive not just on land but at sea too. Make sure you vote Toroa, bird of the year 2022!!!

What would you suggest to other developers interested in making games with Te Ao Māori themes? (Feel free to tweak this question into a more appropriate form if need be).

M: For pākehā devs like myself, I would suggest they reflect on why they want to include those themes: is there going to be a benefit to the community in terms of understanding or representation, or are you just interested in the aesthetic? If it’s the former, definitely pay a consultant to explore the idea and work out if it’s appropriate, and make plans to continue consultation throughout production. If it’s the latter, even with the best intentions, I’d suggest you reconsider.

L: In the grand history of video games, Māori culture has been subjected to decades of thoughtless cultural appropriation as well as stereotypical, racist portrayals of our people. Making a game grounded in te ao Māori for me is about reframing representation and making something self determined, taking back the narrative of what it means to see te ao Māori in games. It’s also important to know that some things within te ao Māori are not appropriate or not made for fitting the mould of games, the key to success for representing te ao Māori is collaboration and consultation. This is not just reading a book or googling something, it’s relationship building and whanaungatanga with the people whose culture you want to represent.

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