Released roughly a year ago by Mexican indie studio Lienzo, Mulaka is one of precious few games that tries to introduce a foreign culture to its players: it’s steeped in the culture of the Mexican Tarahumara indigenous tribe.
Unlike a game like Okami, which can count on a large part of its player base to implicitly understand its cultural references, the Tarahumara are likely completely unknown to most people who play Mulaka.
Mulaka hopes to spark interest in Tarahumara culture, both in Mexican locals and everyone else playing the game. Colourful locales modeled after the Sierra Madre, mythical creatures, as well as music and character design are faithful to the real-life tribe and its people.
In November 2018, Christian Cardenas released Making Mulaka through his own independent book publishing venture Select Start Press. The connection to the Tarahumara is Mulaka’s most important feature, and to spread the word and explain the influences behind the game in more detail, Lienzo even released a short documentary. With so much dedication to the subject, a book could have been a great addition to shed light at the creative process. Books that chronicle the creation of a game from beginning to end right from the mouth of the developer are still rather rare after all, used as we are to following the development of games through articles and other glimpses in progress (notable examples include the Two Player Productions documentary series about the making of Broken Age or the Spelunky book from Boss Fight Books.)
Making Mulaka however isn’t really about the game itself, but its makers and their journey to make it in the first place. In the tradition of game development, or any creative endeavour, the story the book tells rather tells you how not to make a game. For anyone making anything, it’s almost reassuring to see that even when the existence of the book tells you that Mulaka was eventually made, most of it was luck and sheer unbelievable tenacity.
Cardenas is undoubtedly eager to tell Lienzo’s story, just as eager as they were to make a game. He happened on the game by accident and felt spoken to, acknowledging the effort of a group of Mexicans to represent their own culture. Unfortunately, Cardenas is also very eager to tell his own story, dedicating one chapter to how he found out about the game and a whole chapter on how he flew from Los Angeles to Mexico to meet Lienzo. This isn’t without purpose in a book that tells a story that is of personal importance to both parties involved in it, but Cardenas anecdotes have the habit of detracting from the story at hand. The whole book reads like someone telling you a story, gradually distracted by his own thoughts.
Many long-winded descriptions feel like an attempt to fill a few pages, simply because the details of the story are actually not interesting or complicated enough to fill an entire chapter with. There are a lot of attempts to heighten anticipation by asking questions that the author poses and then answers pages upon pages later. “What did they do next?” “What did this lead to?” Please, by all means, stop asking and tell me.
Overall, Making Mulaka is like a long post mortem, leading readers from the initial idea for Mulaka (“What if we made a Zelda-style game about the Tarahumara?”) to chasing funding, making the game and following the critical reception of the finished product with bated breath.
The book contains a very interesting chapter with background information on the Tarahumara tribe, and a few pages on the personal connection Lienzo’s founders Edgar Serrano and Adolfo Rico have to it and their native Mexico. Both were absolutely adamant from the very beginning that in order to represent their idea to the fullest, Mulaka had to be a game made by Mexicans in Mexico. This made Mulaka into an even more ambitious project than it already was: not only was it the dream of a group of people with no prior experience in game development, it also came to be in a country that has no game industry to speak of.
Yet many steps on the way echo the familiar woes of game development: a failed Kickstarter campaign. Investors that want the game made on terms its makers don’t agree with. Contest participation in an attempt to improve experience and business acumen, and the continuous mantra that every failure to secure funding and every detour offers the value of experience. Still, you could mistake some decisions for self-sabotage if you didn’t know better, such as hiring a guy for his cool hair, not his actual skill, or setting unrealistic time development timelines.
In these aspects, both the creation of Mulaka and the resulting game are a lot less unique than the idea that started the whole process. Yet, Lienzo made something out of nothing, in a country that didn’t make it easy. It’s a highly commendable achievement, but not the kind of story that’s best told through a book.
You can order Making Mulaka in print and as ebook in the Select Start Press online shop.