We’re always trying to come up with dicta for design. Don’t do this, don’t do that. But there’s a qualification on that, or at least there should be: don’t do this or that, unless you do it really, really well.
DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee! may as well be the poster child for that qualification, right down to its fearlessly dorky portmanteau of a name. (As George Carlin once said when an audience groaned at a pun of his, “god damn it, you didn’t think of it!”) It’s a game about a supernatural luchador exploring rural Mexico (and the Land of the Dead, in a sort of light world/dark world setup) in order to save the day beat up many monsters. It aims to be nothing more or less than the best possible version of that immensely silly idea. Whether or not the idea was advisable in theory, it works like a charm in practice.
We often say that one art style was inspired by another when what we really mean that the former is just trying to be as much like the latter as possible. Which is fine. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” and all that. But Guacamelee! is a good example of using an existing aesthetic as a jumping-off point, and ending up with a markedly and substantively different one. The way Grim Fangando threw Art Deco and Noir in with its central Dia de Los Muertos motif, Guacamelee! blends luchador poster art with the clean-as-can-be textures and motion of a Genndy Tartakovsky cartoon. It’s not half as intellectually ambitious an exercise as the art direction in Tim Schaffer’s much-loved epic of rubbing found objects together, but it’s awfully pretty.
And Guacamelee! does everything that I’ve complained about metroidvanias doing—the overlarge and frequently traversed maps, the checklist of places you can come back to once you can break red blocks—yet the backtracking goes down easy, because everything from the scattering of freshly uppercutted enemies to the plod of the protagonist’s feet on the dusty ground feels right. (Though stairs always feel weird to me in this kind of game. That’s been a problem since the first Castlevania, hasn’t it? Anyway, aside from that, it’s one of those games where merely moving around is a pleasure unto itself).
So, the elephant in the room, then: the game does wade into full-on cultural appropriation territory, and all of the problems that come with it. As Jorge Albor pointed out, Guacamelee! can be overly reductive in its Mad Libs application of Mexican folklore to videogame tropes: El Presidente’s Daughter fills the kidnapped princess role, and hey, isn’t that a poster for Casa Crashers (rather than Castillo Crashers, for some reason), and isn’t it hilarious that an early-game fetch quest has you fetching salsa?
Besides which, Albor observes, the character of X’tabay is an uncritical copy-paste of the shitty gender politics surrounding La Malinche—but without any of the ambivalence, without any of the hard questions about what it actually means to be a malinchista, a “bad Mexican.”
Yet Albor is also quick to point out that many of the game’s jokes are deep cuts, culturally speaking. Much like the subtler moments in (again) Grim Fandango, a reference to La Malinche would be lost on anyone without some working knowledge of Mexican culture—or at the very least, a willingness to wiki the topic after the fact. I’m not claiming that tangential learning is the game’s main goal, of course. It’s not as serious as all that.
Still, Guacamelee! manages to stay on the right side of that razor’s edge between earnest enthusiasm and lazy exoticism. It would be a stretch to say that its treatment of the source material is respectful, exactly, but it would be far more unfair to relegate it to the frankly useless category of “offensive” things. The game appropriates, but it doesn’t exploit. It gapes, but it doesn’t leer.
And again, it all locks together far better than I was expecting. It makes a wacked, dreamy sort of sense to play a metroidvania/beat-’em-up as a luchador. After all, the real-world culture surrounding luchadors is outsized in its scope, ludicrous in its excesses, and charming as hell for it. That’s a fairly perfect fit with the similarly absurd cultural figure of the video game protagonist, who must be a one-man army, a tireless sleuth, and the single most famous human being on the planet— all topped off with a Cory Bookeresque responsiveness to the petty troubles of NPCs. Leave it to a luchador to enact a role as insane and messianic as that, and to wear it well.
“Am I offended?” Albor concluded by asking. “I don’t know. That’s the wrong question to ask. Reactions to cultural portrayals are deeply personal. We are better off asking what does the game do right? What does the game do wrong? And is the game made with care?”
I’ll go ahead and answer that last one. Sure looks like it to me.