One of the best parts about playing video games is losing yourself inside whatever world they take place in. Maybe you’re a plumber tasked with saving a princess from a great sorcerer. Or you could be an agent with the British secret service trying to save the world from Spectre. But if you’re Dima Veryovka and Sean Vesce, the objective is a little different. The games they make are all about how you connect to the world around you.
These two created the gaming company Colabee Studios which focuses on education and celebrating cultures we often don’t interact with. They refer to their products as “world culture games.” And if that doesn’t sound as sexy as playing as a secret agent, you might be surprised.
Veryovka and Vesce have decades of combined experience in making what most would consider “traditional video games.” Just think of the ones where you’re holding a gun, or raiding tombs. They used to make those. And as you might assume, especially if you’ve ever tried prying a controller out of a kid’s, or, let’s be honest, even an adult’s hands, the industry brings in a lot of money. Last year, total revenues hit an all-time high of $23.5 billion, and that was just in the U.S.
But even with this wild popularity, and all the money that goes along with it, Vesce says he and Veryovka weren't happy.
“Both of us have young families. So as game developers, and as we started to become parents, realizing that the work that we do, we want to be able to bring it home and enrich the lives of our kids and people all around," Vesce said. "So we were trying to figure out how can practice our craft, the thing that we know how to do, but do it in a way that was socially responsible and enriching?”
Vesce says a chance meeting with Cook Inlet Tribal Council President Gloria O’Neill actually paved the way for them to do the kind of “socially responsible” gaming they were looking for.
"She really approached us and said, 'I wanna connect with youth in my culture. And we think that games are the way to do it. That’s what they’re playing. We wanna meet them where they are. And we think, actually, if we make something great that we could show what really Alaska Native culture is about to this whole new audience.'"
Vesce and Veryovka looked into it. But Vesce tells the Tribal Council it's too expensive, and it’ll take too long.
“But they were very persistent," Vesce said. "And I think they won us over, both in terms of their perseverance and their values and we slowly began to develop trust with them. And that whole process, the project itself, was a learning experience for us. And it showed us that there was another way to do games.”
And what came out of this whole process is the game called “Never Alone.” It’s narrated in an entirely different language called Inupiaq. When the game starts, we’re told a story about a young girl who lived in a small village. Soon it starts snowing, and it never ends. The villagers can’t hunt and face starvation. So the little girl sets out to find the source of the “eternal blizzard.” As the gamer, you play as the girl, or an Arctic fox. It’s a very old Inupiat story. And to learn it, Veryovka says he and Vesce had to spend a lot of time in “the field.”
“We believe to make it about a specific culture, about people, the right way to do it is to go there and immerse yourself," Veryovka said. "Meet with people; share food with them.”
All of this is so completely different from what you’d expect from traditional game developers. It's likely you're imagining a group of "dudes," sitting in cubicles and writing code for hours on end. But these two got outdoors. They did their homework to make this game. They traveled to Barrow, Alaska and spent time with Inupiat elders, storytellers and community members. They were so immersed in their authentic experience, that at one point, Veryovka says they found themselves on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, helping the villagers to pull a whale out of water.
“It was very spiritual; a very interesting experience where people were kind of celebrating and at the same time inviting that whale to them. And everybody’s there," Veryovka said. "It’s 2 o’clock in the morning; kids, elders, of course the captain and his crew, his wife is cooking right there. So it was an unforgettable experience for us.”
"... it was a real privilege to then take all those things that we learned and then create a game experience, so when players play, they not only have fun, but they walk away enriched, seeing the world in a new way," Vesce said. "And hopefully learning something about themselves in the process.”
'The Forest Song'
They release "Never Alone" and it does really well. The game gets rave reviews and wins awards. The community it's based on is thrilled. Vesce and Veryovka couldn’t be happier, so they decide to do it again.
They’re working on a new game now called “The Forest Song.” And this one is especially important to Veryovka. He grew up in Ukraine, but it was part of the Soviet Union. He mainly spoke Russian, and he wasn’t really connected to Ukrainian culture in a meaningful way. As it turns out, Veryovka’s not alone. He says he’s part of a “lost generation” who missed out on connecting with Ukrainian traditions and mythology. But now, he’s making this game and connecting the dots.
Veryovka and Vesce are using the same process from the first game: researching, talking with experts, but most importantly, they're taking trips to villages to talk to the actual people who live there.
“To me, going into that village, that’s the source of this wealth of Ukrainian culture. These people who live in the villages, they preserve that culture," Veryovka said. "They have all these beautiful stories to tell, and they still practice the traditions. And learning all that, it is emotional because I felt like I would never do that. But now, going there, and listening directly from these people. Now the picture kind of comes together.”
“The Forest Song” is based on a drama of the same name. It focuses on a forest nymph named Mavka, who falls in love with a mortal: a guy called Lukash. The love between Mavka and Lukash causes a clash between the natural world and the world of humans. So, of course, things do not go well. This story was written more than 100 years ago by Lesia Ukrainka and is beloved by Ukrainians. It’s been the inspiration for ballets and songs. It was even made into a movie in the '80s.
“'The Forest Song' talks about our relationship to nature. Our responsibility to nature. And then consequences of what happens when we turn our back on that responsibility," Vesce said. "And I can’t think of a more timely theme.”
“At the moment, especially with that’s going on in Ukraine right now, where it’s a war, there’s a lot of people talking about these dark things. People are getting tired of that, simply," Veryovka said. "And a game like that, it’s just the window to something really good. To something that can make the highlight of the day.”
They saying this game can help shed a positive light on a region that is so synonymous with war and upheaval. With “The Forest Song,” they get a chance to celebrate Ukrainian culture. There are videos embedded into the game explaining what certain traditions mean and why they’re important. There are interviews with elders sharing stories. Plus, they include beautiful, traditional music as part of the soundtrack.
“We’re getting stronger when we understand who we are. We understand our roots," Veryovka said. "You know, it’s almost like if you wanted to learn something about Alaska Native people, or this particular region in Ukraine. We believe that in 10 years from now, you can always go and play and experience. Kind of like you will open the book.”