Venturing into the world of Guacamelee! is like stepping into a celebration of Mexican culture. The main character, Juan, is a brave and serious luchador on a mission through a delightfully colored world that surprises players with bursts of traditional Mexican music, references to fantastic creatures from Mexican folklore and environments inspired by the diversity of Mexico.
In many ways the game is a tribute to the best parts of Mexican culture. It's a tribute ... from a team of Canadian developers.
In an interview with Polygon, the founder of DrinkBox Studios, Graham Smith, and Guacamelee! level designer, Chris McQuinn, say the studio decided to embrace Mexican culture as a theme because it's "so under-represented in video games," despite there being a large population of Mexican and hispanic gamers in the world.
"For me, the biggest advantage is there's so much material, creatively, that's already there that just hasn't been used," McQuinn tells Polygon. "The folklore is so inherently interesting in a mystical, gamey way that you just use it. It's almost like free ideas."
McQuinn says that a member of the design team who happens to be Mexican was the first to raise the idea of setting the game in Mexico, and when the rest of the team realized what a vibrant and rich resource Mexican culture could be, there was no looking back.
"Is a sombrero something we think Mexican people wear or is it actually a thing in Mexico?"
Everything from the game's characters to the environments to the level design benefited from the theme. DrinkBox had a dimension-swapping mechanic for the game that was made meaningful both to the player and the game through its connection with the Mexican Day of the Dead and Day of the Living. Environments were all the more diverse with the inclusion of ceynotes — giant pits of water found in forests and caves in Mexico where people can go swimming. Monsters, enemies and bosses were inspired by the Alebrijes, mystical creatures from Mexican folklore that resembled lions with insect wings and lizard tails. And when players need to squeeze into tight spots or tunnels, their full-size character transforms into a tiny chicken — the same kind of chicken found in many Mexican villages.
As the player leaps from platform to platform, they can swap between dimensions, going from The Day of the Dead to the Day of the Living and vice versa. Some enemies are weak in one dimension but not the other. Some dimensions reveal platforms that don't exist in the former. And both dimensions try to stay true to Mexican culture, even after they've been given the humorous DrinkBox treatment.
"We certainly didn't want to be accused of going down the road of re-appropriating someone else's culture, so we had to be really careful," Graham says. "For example movies like Nacho Libre make luchadores look like jokes, and it works, but we didn't want our character to be a joke."
"And then there are topics like tequila," McQuinn says. "You have to look at the negative stereotypes and ask if you're pushing them, so we had to ask if it was OK to show tequila or if it would be a bad representation of Mexico.
"Well, no, tequila's like wine. It's a delicious drink. It's how you present it that matters. Or things like sombreros. It's kind of funny, but is a sombrero something we think Mexican people wear or is it actually a thing in Mexico? So with things like that we had to constantly double check to make sure it was part of the culture, and not just something we saw on TV."
Both Smith and McQuinn say they had felt they were taking a risk in portraying a culture that is so rarely represented in games, but they feel that they've pulled it off, even all the way from Canada.
"I think there's an internal agreement that if we sell X number of copies, we get to take a team vacation to Mexico," McQuinn says. "Why don't we just put that on the record now? Yeah, let's put that on the record right now."
Guacamelee! is coming to the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita later this year. A demo will be playable at PAX East this week.