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Taking on Cu Chulainn at his own game
TALL, BROAD, bald and bearded, Owen Harris, lead game designer for BitSmith Games, could be one of the characters from Kú. The company’s new videogame takes inspiration from Celtic folklore, with a dash of steampunk, and is currently in the final stages of development, in Dublin’s Digit Games incubator. Here, Harris discusses the game’s Irish roots
Why the Táin and why the Cú Chulainn myth? I’ve always been interested in Ireland’s ancient history. There’s so much there that hasn’t been exposed. People like Tolkien dipped heavily into our past for inspiration. Greek mythology is everywhere – I don’t know how many harpies I’ve killed in videogames. But I’ve never killed a púca, or fought a fomorian. And these are interesting archetypes, so the chance to show that people in a game is exciting. When we showed it overseas, people had inklings of these cool stories and given the chance to be exposed to it, they jump at it.
Do you think audiences are more open to something they’re only vaguely familiar with? The biggest surprise with international audiences was with the Irish language. You can play it completely in Irish. Very few people in this country seem interested in that, but Americans, Germans and Scandinavians are as interested in seeing the language . . . as much as our mythology. I think there is a cynicism about Irish culture [here] and I can understand that. But we’re talking about going back to these old, primal stories that are part of what built our people’s psyche. And I think if Irish people were exposed to it in a modern way, they would be much more interested than they currently are.
Is that why you’ve introduced that steampunk element? We started building it over a year ago at the height of all the stories about economic doom, so I guess we pulled in what was going on at that moment. I think it fits quite well – the idea of Ireland returning to this tribal time. Obviously it’s a fantastical story, but it’s something that people can relate to.
Is there a fear of alienating Táin purists? Some people will be upset that we didn’t do a more direct translation. My response to that would be that these stories grow out of an oral tradition where it was constantly changing. It was only relatively recently that these things were written down. I believe that we are following in that oral, storytelling tradition. It’s not just about the person telling the story; it’s also about the listeners. It’s not just about the people making the game; it’s also about those playing the game. We’re inspired by the Táin; we’re not trying to re-tell it.
How Foras na Gaeilge involved? They’ve been a tremendous support. They looked over what we were doing and they’re helping us make sure the Irish translation is to the highest standard. There’s a huge amount of people learning Irish in the US. We want to make sure that if it’s being used as a tool, that it is correct.