Innchanted is what you’d get if you spliced the cooking action of Overcooked with high fantasy adventure and good vibes. It’s fun, cutesy and great for friendly co-op adventures, but beneath the surface the game has a very important story to tell. It’s one of the few Australian-made games highlighting local Indigenous culture and allowing diverse voices to shine.
DragonBear Studios, the team behind the game, are a group of young, up-and-coming games developers championing diverse, queer and Indigenous voices in the local video games industry. With Innchanted, the team hopes to spotlight Indigenous culture in a way that’s accessible and welcoming for everyone, while also creating a fun and wholesome party game.
This focus on diversity and cultural storytelling led Innchanted to be nominated as Australia’s video game representative for the EuroPlay Games Contest, a digital games event replicating the classic Eurovision format. (Full disclosure: Alex Walker, Kotaku Australia’s editor, and I were two of the judges determining Australia’s local representative.)
The importance of diverse voices in the Australian video games industry is hard to overstate.
Video games are primarily designed to be fun escapism but they also carry cultural importance guided by the values of developers and the circumstances of their creation. In some ways, video games are time capsules. They represent the lived experience of certain eras, moments and cultures. For a rich games industry to grow, all voices need to be able to share their experiences.
Beyond ‘just’ being a co-op party game, Innchanted aims to share these marginalised voices and allow gamers to learn more about Indigenous culture in an approachable and fun way. Throughout the game, players take the role of adventurers running an inn while maintaining happiness for all customers and creatures inside. Along the way, they’ll encounter a bunch of chaotic disruptions (the game was originally known as Chaos Tavern) and manage as best they can.
In the day, they’ll be cooking, brewing and stockpiling wares, while at night they’ll need to figure out what to do in the evenings and plan for the next day.
Kotaku Australia spoke with Phoebe Watson and Paulina Samy of DragonBear Studios to learn more about Innchanted and how it’s pushing for more accessible cultural learning through video games.
“[Indigenous culture] is in [Innchanted’s] music, it’s in our art, it’s in the story and narrative as well. Those Indigenous ideals, the law and what we really believed in is also really being highlighted,” Phoebe Watson, Innchanted game designer told Kotaku Australia. “The ideas of taking care of the planet for future generations … the importance of looking after the Earth to look after yourself is highlighted throughout the narrative.”
In her work, Watson aims to champion Indigenous values and provide an accessible way for non-Indigenous Australians to engage with local Indigenous culture.
“[Diversity in games] is super important for multiple reasons,” Watson said. “It’s a way for non-Indigenous people to experience Indigenous culture with their Indigenous friends or explore it in a way that’s not so confronting. It’s a much more relaxed way, which is very rare when it comes to exploring Indigenous culture because there’s so much hurt and pain around it … for Indigenous people who don’t have access to their culture, they have a taste of it through this video game. It’s another tool where they can go and enjoy their culture in a completely new way.”
Multiple Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander-led video games are already exploring cultural history and representation in the local Australian games industry but these projects are often seen as inaccessible by non-Indigenous Australians. As Watson puts it, there’s often a reluctance on the part of non-Indigenous Australians to engage with Indigenous issues because “white guilt” and an inherent fear of confrontation means they’re unwilling to engage with what they perceive to be a confrontational or aggressive subject.
Watson says Indigenous culture should be celebrated for its values, not avoided because of its past. “In high school when there was this dedicated space for learning about Indigenous culture, I always felt really uncomfortable … you always talk about the horrible things that happened, which is really important to recognise but all my friends and everyone around me, I can feel their eyes on me. I can feel the intensity in the room and there’s so much more to or culture than just this seriousness. Don’t be scared about it. You’re allowed to learn it and so I think having it in this fun, interactive environment is going to change that.”
“Having diverse voices and diverse faces is really important for combating unconscious bias as well,” Paulina Samy, creative director on Innchanted said. “The more diverse your team is, the more perspectives you have, so the more grounded your worldbuilding and your game can be.”
The Innchanted team came together after funding from Film Victoria enabled them to expand the scope for the initial prototype of the game. The game is now two years into development.
“It started off with me and Ben [Boyd, lead developer] and after Film Victoria [provided funding] we were able to send our feelers into the world,” explained Samy.
From there, it was a matter of finding people who not only had the skills required of creating an independent game but also had a sense of humour, whimsy and a love for cute things. “Really lovely people were on our team and that made it so much funner and easier,” she said.
Initial prototypes were “terrible-looking” according to Samy, but the core function and values behind the game were clear. After several applications for funding, Film Victoria provided them with the means to expand their team to include artists, programmers and producers. “It really would not have been possible without that primary backer,” Samy explained.
Later sponsors included Creative Victoria (who funded the game’s soundtrack) and the City of Melbourne, who helped out with the grant. ACMI X has also sponsored the team for a residency. Without this funding, games like Innchanted wouldn’t exist.
As we’ve reported on multiple times at Kotaku Australia, funding is an essential part of boosting Australia’s local video games industry. It has the potential to boost marginalised voices and provide new perspectives on culture and lived experiences. While we don’t currently have a centralised funding body in Australia, many states, like Victoria, are providing platforms for diverse Australian voices.
Innchanted is a game with worldwide appeal. It marries the charm of cooking simulators with adorable high fantasy elements, all while showcasing the beauty and strength of Indigenous Australian culture. The passion behind the game is clear, as is its potential to create waves in the industry.
“What excites me most is to see Indigenous culture in video games,” Watson said. “I know there are video games out there that look very deeply into Indigenous culture … but seeing it mixed with fantasy is this whole other world and step. It’s super exciting to see.”
Samy shared Watson’s enthusiasm and explained her hope the game inspires new and exciting hybrid fantasy adventures.
“I’m really excited for letting players get to play in a really unique sandbox,” Samy said. “We’re really excited about letting players get to experience a world that is totally different and will potentially bring more … non-mainstream fantasies. I’m really excited that it’ll be different and that it will open the gates to what fantasy can be.”
You can also check out the latest trailer below: