Cyberpunk, Indigenous Futurism, and Learning from Discomfort: An Interview with Santo Aveiro

1870: Cyberpunk Forever isn’t an overtly hostile game, but neither is it concerned with the player’s comfort. Its branching narratives, foreboding color choices and not-so-trustworthy narrator all work to shift players’ expectations. Developer Santo Aveiro, brujx with Guaraní ties, wanted the game to resonate differently depending on lived experience.

“It’s almost metafictional, in a sense, because when an indigenous person plays the game, the concept of the AI and what that antagonistic impulse represents means something to them,” they said. “If someone unfamiliar with indigeneity plays the game, it’s more of an introduction to a different way of thinking about cyberpunk. In that sense, it’s meant for both those audiences with different takeaways.”

In 1870, you have left the comfort and familiarity of your home city, known simply as The Hub, because of your malfunctioning AI implant. But the outside world is frightening, lonely, and potentially deadly for the unfamiliar. You follow a cable buried in the sand until it reaches the home of several individuals living beyond The Hub’s influence. The meat of the game plays out via interactions with the inhabitants as you struggle to understand them, their demeanor towards you, and what your future holds.

Central to this discussion is your AI implant, which you discover has been feeding you information about the world and the villagers as you all conversed. These people have removed theirs. Is that even possible? Could yours be removed? What would happen?

Unfortunately for the player, the people living here don’t just give up their knowledge and are suspicious of your pestering, however kindly you phrase the question. In almost all scenarios, you burn through all your goodwill and are forced back out into the night where beasts or delirium or some other hazard takes your life.

I will admit: it felt bad. Wrong. Like it should have gone much differently. I’d chosen all of the nicest lines and been very courteous about barging in on their home. Speaking with Santo, I realized intentions don’t really count for much.

Santo started their career in games as an animation student in a Toronto College. They began looking for student organizations to join as a way of connecting with others, and that’s how they found Dames Making Games. “I always liked writing and things like doing art, so games gave me an opportunity to put those two together. There I familiarized myself with how to make games with Twine or Unity and helped overcome the intimidation I had around games.”

Access to game dev tools that didn’t require heavy programming knowledge opened the door to game development. Eventually Santo’s pastime bled into their studies, and they received an arts grant from the Ontario Province to begin work on a game that would eventually become Don’t Wake the Night, planned for release sometime this year.

The idea for 1870 sprang from one of 2017’s best games, Nier: Automata. “I ended up really liking that game and it’s themes about AI and the future. Specifically, what a future without humans would look like: how AI would interact with itself; how it would become self-aware.”

“There’s a concept in the original Nier about people having their physical bodies but also these alternate bodies when their soul leaves and it becomes autonomous. That’s when I started the Twine. I sat on it for several months before finishing it,” they said.

That experience is evident in conversations about the AI implants in the people living beyond The Hub. If you ask about what happens to those who are separated, one responds:

“A human body has two souls. The first half belongs to the flesh body, while the other half only manifests itself after death, and carries the consciousness of the human. When you separate these two, one remains in the body, and the other breaks free…and can be moved to another body. I am the first half, the flesh body, a vessel.”

Push further, and the people explain they don’t want foreign AI living in their minds. They instead seek to “become the AI, itself.” Another mentions they have family who live in the city, hiding their different AI, unwilling to connect to the larger digital consciousness of that place. It’s a message of protest against hegemony and a colonialist mindset at the center of the Indigenous Futurism movement.

“I’m always interested in adding Indigenous Futurism into my projects, but this is the first time I pushed that to the forefront because the project would benefit from that theme,” they said. “Also, with the news about Cyberpunk 2077 there’s a lot more conversation about cyberpunk games and the whole genre. What can I do in this game that challenges what most people know as cyberpunk.”

While more prevalent in traditional forms of art such as painting, sculpture and music, video games are becoming a vibrant font for Indigenous Futurism. Santo talked about the work of Elizabeth LaPensée, an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. Her award-winning games and art teach stories and history, but also help contextualize modern Indigenous life, especially online. Other creations are closer to Santo’s cohort within Dames Making Games and the Toronto area, like Megan Byrne and Tara Miller’s Purity and Decay, an “indigenous cybernoir” game of detectives and intrigue.

“When people outside think about Indigenous games they think about things like Never Alone, which is a pretty old example and even then wasn’t made by Indigenous people. We need games that are, in a sense, sovereign and made from an Indigenous perspective.”

Santo’s contributions to the movement, and the theme of 1870, is to push back on the popular cultural perception of cyberpunk. The newest Blade Runner film reignited the public’s interest in cyberpunk as aesthetic: neon and grit, the brutal conclusion of capitalism, but also the continued homogenization or erasure of marginalized peoples and cultures even in a far-flung dystopia. Advertising for CD Projekt’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 pushed that conversation further, while critics pointed to the company’s bigoted jokes on social media as evidence they would mishandle the subject matter. Santo instead presents a world in which a group of people have adopted a completely different paradigm regarding technology—one that enriches the community and the self rather than exploiting it.

“I feel like cyberpunk has changed over the years. For me, it’s transgression combined with technology in order to take down an oppressive system of rule,” they said. “And technology can be anything: something with electricity, or the internet, or tech that’s existed for thousands of years. Tech is really anything we use in our daily lives to enhance the way we live; it doesn’t have to require electricity or connection. It’s basically the main idea of cyberpunk – to use technology to overthrow our oppressors.”

Santo argues cyberpunk has existed for thousands of years. When the Indigenous peoples of what would eventually become the Americas were resisting settlers they did so with specific tools, medicine and knowledge. “We just don’t see it that way because the ‘cyber’ element isn’t as evident,” they said.

1870 isn’t coy with its application of these themes. The AI in the protagonist’s head primes reactions to the people outside The Hub by throwing flags like “caution” and “aggressive” to their speech. It explains why our failures were bound to happen because there’s just no reasoning with those people. It highlights presumed binary gender roles while also reinforcing the difference between the protagonist and them. A Self and an Other. And why not? Those, like me, with the privilege of being born within the majority are taught either to fear, distrust or pity the marginalized. Why not a future where we hard code such flawed moral blueprints and implant them inside our brain?

And that brought me back to my initial feelings of unjustified failure. I had assumed the people outside The Hub would share their secrets and their knowledge with me if I empathized with their plight. They would help someone who chose to leave because we were on the same side, now. But assuming kinship in this game is a critical mistake. “What helped with 1870 is approaching the game from decolonizing perspectives. They aren’t like ‘Oh, my life sucks and this is why. Now, let me teach you about this ancient rite or whatever,’” Santo said.

Approaching decolonized social interactions meant accepting a continued failure to connect with the villagers outside “civilization” as a fault on my part, not theirs. I was expecting to win the exchange and receive a prize for not being a complete ass in someone else’s home. Too often games provide wisdom, technology or lore about a broadly sketched Other as a commodity or collectible. But 1870, and Indigenous Futurism, celebrates the place those cultures and peoples have in the present, along with what we may be so lucky to learn if they have an equal hand in shaping the future.

To be clear, there is a path where your character survives the night and frees themself of The Hub’s AI, but I reached that scene only through multiple circuits through the game. By the end I was ignoring all conversation by following numbered routes along a specific track, stripping everyone of humanity and character in the pursuit of a categorical victory. It felt hollow and poisoned.

“The fear is that [AI] will be self-aware and replace humans,” Santo said. “We never talk about how it won’t replace us but enhance the worst parts of us until we aren’t human anymore.”



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About Chase Carter

Chase is a journalist and media scholar interested in fan communities and how they communicate. He loves reading, cooking and his two cat sons very much.
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