In 2019, the world was first introduced to the reality of Choro 2021, a novel set in a post-apocalyptic alternate version of Venezuela that is both familiar and strange. When it was released, author Carl Zitelmann, told us the familiar elements of a post-apocalyptic alternate Venezuelan reality, like the presence of paramilitary groups, mass migration, and characters struggling to find food and shelter. Other features are less dramatic, albeit quite strange: cannibal mermaids, zombies, and a video-game-playing mummy.
However, what makes the world of Choro 2021 fascinating is that all its aspects are rooted in elements of Venezuelan pop culture like Toronto chocolates, spooky ghost stories, or the lively Christmas music videos from TV stations. Choro 2021 is full of elements fueled by nostalgia that connect the Venezuela of the past with the present and with its alternative future, creating a uniquely Venezuelan version of the apocalypse.
Now, Zitelmann did something that now seems like the obvious thing to do with CHoro 2021, he turned the novel into a mobile video game script. The first level of the game was released on December 5th and it’s available both for iOS and Android. The game has received a warm welcome. According to Carl Zitelmann, author of the novel and creator of the game, the game has been downloaded over 10,000 times. In addition, there’s a growing community of fans on social media who have praised the game. Yet, I think that the highlight of the game is the beautiful portrayal of elements of Venezuelan pop culture and its exploration of nostalgia.
I talked to Zitelmann about the development process and how a dystopian novel becomes a videogame. He mentioned that most of the game was developed last year, during lockdown, as an attempt to finish a childhood project: “During the pandemic, I started coding again, in the game engine Unity. I had this design I made for a platformer when I was like 13 years old, kinda like Megaman and I said ‘Let’s fulfill the dream I had when I was 13 of making this game into a reality.’” That game was a platform game called Sabotaje 2010.
Last year, during lockdown, Zitelmann caught up with former classmates over Zoom calls. There, he mentioned his intention of finishing Sabotaje 2010. However, his classmates encouraged him to create a game based on his Choro 2021 novel. They argued he knew the characters, the story and owned the intellectual property. So, why not? Zitelmann was skeptical: “Could you even imagine that? Zombies, cannibal mermaids, robots?” But when he realized that the structure of a novel lent itself to the format of a video game, development started.
Choro 2021 is a platform game, also known as a jump-and-run. This format is very similar to classic games like Mario Bros. and adapts the plot of the novel to this format. Unlike conventional releases, Choro 2021 will be released level by level, each one roughly corresponding to one chapter in the novel.
The first level of the game, like its counterpart in the novel, is called “La Bruja Maruja” (Maruja the Witch) and features an unnamed protagonist, who Zeitlman refers to as the Sifrino Cowboy. The cowboy has to find a pack of AA batteries for his radio so he leaves his horse and explores an abandoned housing complex built by the government of Commander Choro, the populist dictator that ruled this version of Venezuela. The character jumps through abandoned houses and explores underground tunnels while fighting zombie-like creatures called nirgüens and armed paramilitary officers.
Zitelmann mentioned that his initial focus was on the first level: “This game is experimental. The idea was to release the first level and see how people would react. Surprisingly, the response has been super positive.” Part of its success has been attributed to the depiction of elements of Venezuelan pop culture, which aims to show artifacts of a less chaotic version of the real Venezuela. This depiction has caught the attention of players who have embarked in efforts to try to find all of them.
Nostalgia, much like in the novel, is prevalent throughout the game, starting with the graphics.
The aesthetic of the game resembles classic 8-bit video games, like the ones that used to be played in Sega Saturns or SES, for two reasons. One, “I needed to find something that was appealing and that wasn’t too ambitious based on my skill set,” said Zitelmann. And there was also a thematic reason behind it: “At the same time though, it has the nostalgia of Venezuela I grew up in, it has that vibe from the video games I grew up with: Megaman, Metroid, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden.”
The game is also full of Easter eggs, subtle references to pop culture usually hidden in video games, of Venezuelan pop culture from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Zitelmann attributes this to the influence of the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, where the characters have to find and understand Easter eggs to succeed in a post-apocalyptic world. “That’s similar to what happens in Venezuela. I mean Choro happens in a future where, to fully understand it, you have to understand all that came before,” said Zitelmann. This awareness of the past is key to what he wants to achieve with the game. “I wanted to show the country I grew up in, the ‘80s and ‘90s, and tell younger generations that Venezuela wasn’t always chaotic. There was a country where things worked and where we had a great time.”
Zitelmann takes this mission to heart. A notable Easter Egg, for instance, is a Mac SE that serves as a game progress checkpoint, just like the first computer that Zitelmann saw in his house, and where he started developing Sabotaje 2010. Health is improved if you eat Torontos, a famous Venezuelan chocolate candy. One of my favorite references appears in the final boss fight of the level, during the faceoff with Bruja Maruja, and “esoteric witch that poops frogs and shoots lighting,” where you can see posters of the presidential campaigns of Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andrés Pérez.
Each level will have around two or three Easter eggs, but in the first one, there are four. The first, a pabellón empanada. The second, a pack of Harina P.A.N. Third, a carton of Riko Malt, a popular chocolate drink. Interestingly enough, this chocolate surprise has been proven tricky for gamers to find. Zitelmann explains: “Nobody has found it and if they have, they haven’t posted about it.” The last one, which is a bit more random, is a naked depiction of comedian José Rafael Guzmán on a bright pink horse leading the character to a blunt.
All of these special Easter Eggs restore the character’s health and give you a sizable amount of points for the overall score. The hunt for them is becoming quite popular among players. “People come back even after finishing the game. They are like ‘How come there’s Riko Malt?’ And then they log in and play many many times just to find it. So, it’s like the hidden treasure of Choro,” said Zitelmann.
More than just Easter Eggs, I think that the “hidden treasure of Choro” is the ability to create a fictional world that’s recognizable. Players and readers are familiar with the chaos and more dire elements of the world.
The popular depictions of dystopia and their own experience in the real Venezuela make it easy to imagine the world of Choro 2021. However, by running into these Easter eggs, they run into a unique bridge that connects their experience of present Venezuela directly with the experiences from a less chaotic past, a past they might have lived or have heard about that serves as a quick break from their everyday life.
Work on the second level has started and soon an updated version of the first level will be released with new music, featuring an 8-bit rendition of Famasloop’s song “Choro Dance.” In the meantime, players can play the first level and read the Choro 2021 novel to further continue exploring this fascinating world in search for the missing Riko Malt.
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