Having been captivated by the world of gaming from when he received a PlayStation for his 7th birthday, Cukia Kimani knew that he wanted to be part of that world. “From the moment I put it on and saw the magic on the screen, I knew I had to become one of those magicians making the magic,” Cukia explains. The Kenyan born game developer, spent primary school dreaming about how he could realize this desire but unfortunately did not have anyone close enough for him to learn from. “So, I just passively went through school waiting for some sign like ‘making games here'”.
When he moved to South Africa his high school offered programming. This was the first step in the direction to becoming a game developer. Highlighting the difficulty of this journey, he was elated when he made it to university where he studied Computer Science and Maths. Beginning to see the world through numbers and code, the spirit of his seven year old self never left him. He decided that instead of going to work at a bank after graduating, he began to learn about game development in his spare time. After working on a few smaller projects he was invited to be part of the festival A MAZE./ Johannesburg. With the game Boxer which he created with his fellow final year student Ben Crooks won the inaugural A MAZE./ Johannesburg Award in 2015. Boxer is a top down boxing game played using only the analogue sticks. On his website the game is described as stripping out “all the boredom of boxing and gives you what you really wanted to see in any boxing match: juicy punches to the face. No hugs, no running – just boxing”. With the award as a recognition of his ability and vision, Cukia realized that he was well on his way to making his childhood dream a reality. “I was like ‘Shit, you can REALLY do this’. That festival in many ways kick started my career with access to international independent game developers to learn from,” Cukia explains.
Curious about the indie gaming world and taking into account the way in which context influences the cultures that form from and around technology, I asked Cukia if there is a difference between African indie game development and those from other parts of the world. “Yes and No. Yes, we have a different outlook on life, different access to resources but at the end of the day with digital distribution and the internet you’re just as close to your customers as anyone else in other parts of the world.”
Since then he started a digital art and indie games development studio called Nyamakop with Ben Myres. One of their big projects is a game titled Semblance which is described as a “puzzle platformer where your character and the world it inhabits is made of playdough.” Semblance is a game that makes the platformer, one of the most saturated and stale genres of games today, feel fresh and interesting again. Players are able to squish their character and the world they inhabit to solve puzzles in Semblance’s soft, bouncy world.
Cukia has also been invited to be part of conferences, festivals and panel discussions focused on the thematic framework of gaming, including game design and game development as a whole. These kinds of spaces have influenced the way Cukia thinks about his own practice. “When I visit an international conference or festival I’m inspired by what everyone else is making. I just want to get back home and make cool stuff to show people. I’m motivated because other independent game developers are also struggling with the same issues I am. The more I attend you find people to collaborate with. Meaning more diverse games from all over the world!”
He has spent time working with Yann Seznec on the project PAINTING W/ MUSIC. The idea behind this project is to create permanent visual artifacts – a digital painting – with music. Using MIDI data from the music and generative algorithms, together the two will create a digital painting.
“We’ve developed an installation piece and performance for the Fak’ugesi festival. It’s funny to think that the original pitch of the project was 3 paintings and 3 songs on a website. Now, it’s blossomed to something that other people can interact with as well as be performed. So, developing it from that point of view has been about user experience. We developed sounds that can be tweaked at the same time as the visuals together,” Cukia explains about how the project has evolved.
When asked about what direction he sees South Africa’s game industry going, he left me with these words: “I like to say it’s like when a star is being born. It’s small but it’s dense and HOT. It’s only going to get bigger and brighter.”