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Giving video games a distinct Italian flavour doesn't mean what you might think

“Are we sure that the only way to use...video games as a medium is to profit from them?”

Everyone seems to love Italy. You can visit Tuscany in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed 2 sub-series, and roam a fantasy city inspired by Venice in Final Fantasy 15. You can fight in Venice in Final Fight 2 and in Pisa in Castlevania: Bloodlines. You can drive on Italian roads in Gran Turismo and you can ski on the Alps in Steep. You can murder in an imaginary Sicilian town in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and in an imaginary town near Naples in Hitman (2016). But are these games "Italian"?

The answer is clearly "no". These games are developed by Japanese, American, European and international teams; Italy is just one of many geographical and historical flavours they add to their receipts. And the question could look quite uninteresting, too: why should you care whether a game is "Italian"? Maybe you planned a trip to Italy and wish to eat pizza there, but you sense that at the end of the day Italy is not so important in the grander scheme of things. And I must admit you are right. But what's happening in Italy shows how developers are looking for their own identity, drawing new tools from their own cultural heritage and shedding light on lesser known stories and places.

A 2016 survey claims that 11.4 per cent of tourists discovered the small Tuscanian town of Monteriggioni because of Assassin's Creed 2, which places the familial home of protagonist Ezio Auditore there. This case inspired local institutions interested in promoting smaller cities and developers interested in digging up new stories, traditions and legends for their video games. "They always say that video games are a global medium that should be designed with a wide, international public in mind," sats Andrea Dresseno, the founder of IVIPRO, the Italian Videogame Program. "That's very true. This, however, doesn't preclude the possibility to use this medium with the aim to reach a specific public that was never reached before, or as a means to talk about particular themes in a local setting." IVIPRO is an Italian association that seeks to connect institutions and developers in order to promote video games set in Italy. "First and foremost, it is necessary to start distinguishing between the different types of works and the various aims [they chase]" Dresseno continues. "I always hear people talking about business, about the importance of the growth of this industry, about investments and revenues. All of that is legitimate, but are we sure that the only way to use and take advantage of video games as a medium is to profit from them? Let's try to look at video games as a medium of communication and expression, not only as a product. By shifting the perspective, we could start using [video games'] peculiarities in a way that's free from the constraints (and the stereotypes) imposed by the commercial urgency."

During IVIPRO Days, an event organized by IVIPRO itself with the help of Game Happens, Pietro Righi Riva from Santa Ragione explained how the studio's video games are influenced by Italian design and traditions and how European and Italian institutions and IVIPRO helped the development of their new video game, Saturnalia, set in Sardinia.

"Our Sardinia isn't the Sardinia that tourists know, but the hinterland," Righi Riva tells me on the phone. "There's a mix of attention to detail, immediacy of the interface, accessibility for new players, location, themes, a progression system that is not based on abstract puzzles... all of this makes me think of a peculiar kind of survival horror that follows principles that we, in Milan, have developed during these past few years. It's a game that could only exist here and now."

Of course, that's not the only way of being Italian. "What Kunos does, for example, is also very Italian: it is not innovative per se, but there's the ideas of luxury, innovation, attention to details," Righi Riva adds.

"In design, many people refer to an Italian style as the particular effortless glam that apparently Italy evokes. Clearest examples are given in fashion and other luxury goods." Claudia Molinari tells me via email. Molinari is one half (the other one is Matteo Pozzi) of Italian duo We Are Müesli, developers of visual novels that often cover Italian history and culture. "But as strange as it may sound" Molinari continues, "we believe that Italy has always expressed its creative best out of its (many!) hard political times. There is a tendency in a small niche of Italian game makers to use games as a tool to express specific political views - or at least not to hide them even if that is not the point of the work. Games to document contemporary history. Games to cite, mention, honor events that somehow are starting to fade away."

During his talk at IVIPRO Days, Righi Riva said something maybe even more interesting while talking about the studio's space exploration game MirrorMoon EP and another Italian game, Alessandro Ghignola's Noctis. "They have in common this taste for not explaining things [...] and a big part of the game is understanding logics behind how the game behaves" he claimed. "And I think if not specifically Italian this is at least a very non-American way of designing games."

You can see other examples of this design in Andrea Pignataro's horror and puzzle games and in Open Lab Games and Demigiant's Football Drama: culture can affect more than the setting and the assets of a video game. It can affect its mechanics. "I think there exists a difference between European and American design" Righi Riva tells me during our phone call. "You can see it also in the recent Nauticrawl or in Mu Cartographer, from French dev Titouan Millet. It's a series of games focused on deducing the rules through experimenting; if you will, it can be traced back to the not-games from Tale of Tales and The Chinese Room." It's interesting to point out that Tale of Tales have just moved to Italy.

Mattia Traverso (co-creator and designer for Fru and lead designer for Last Day of June) dealt with a similar topic in his talk at Internet Festival in Pisa: "What's an Italian game?" he wondered. "It's clear by now that having Italian subjects in video games (cities, folklore, characters) is not enough" Traverso tells me via email. "Take Dante's Inferno: this is quite clearly a game with American sensibilities, even though the subject matter is Italian. This incredible focus on power and violence as a gratifying matter is not something we would express this way. [...] To me an Italian art piece has something that has an extremely strong focus on small communities and the relationship of the people between them. [...] I get the feeling that Italian art deals with the small. The relationship between a mother and a son. The everyday actions in their simple life. The rituals and traditions in their communities. It's as if we focused on what American art would cut off as superfluous."

Maybe "What's an Italian game?" will never receive an answer. As Molinari says at the end of her email, "heterogeneity is probably a distinctive trait of the Italian culture." But in Italy as in other areas of the world developers are claiming their own voice. We can see it in Upper One Games' Never Alone, Lienzo's Mulaka, Juan Useche and Linsey Raymaekers' La Carga, StoryTale Studios's Pamali, Simogo's Year Walk, Elizabeth LaPensée's When Rivers Were Trails and many other games. Artists are expressing their culture and its stories through video games and their mechanics, revitalising a Western scene that is all too often flattened by American tastes.

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Matteo Lupetti