I’ve died a lot in Dandara, the newest game from Brazilian studio Long Hat House. As frustrating as it is to reach a new room filled with enemies only to die over and over, I’m relieved by the fact that items I collect before my death don’t completely go away.
Much of the game involves gathering salt, which acts like a type of currency Dandara can use to upgrade her health and stamina. Salt is also incredibly precious and coveted by those who want to destroy the world or use it for their own purposes. Killing enemies gives Dandara salt, so if she dies, then she will lose the salt she’s collected. To regain that missing salt, Dandara has to return to the place she was killed and find her former body, a ghost-like spirit that holds all the salt previously collected.
Letting players collect their lost items after death is nothing new in games. Plenty of titles like have implemented this handy feature, from Minecraft to the Dark Souls family of games. But in Dandara, death doesn’t seem like just an opportunity for a difficult game to show a small bit of kindness. To me, each death felt like an advancement in the plot of Dandara as an eternal figure. No matter how many times she falls in oblivion, she will always return, ready to rid the world of evil for as long as it takes.
One interesting thing about this is that this spirit always says how Dandara died. I’ve only seen it say she died of “serious injuries,” but I’ve also come across other people’s spirits. One person died of sadness, another from betrayal. Yet, none of the spirits return to life like Dandara. Only she holds the ability to continue her fight despite the many enemies she’s encountered. It reinforces Dandara as a mythical hero—that her death isn’t necessarily the end of her journeys, but a continuation of the journey, a caesura in the ersatz epic poem that is Dandara.
Dandara is a mysterious being who awakens to help the world of Salt be freed from its oppression. When the game’s opening scene starts, Dandara forms from a body of light. She’s crouched in a fetal position and is fully born as who she is in the game, fully prepared to help the civilians overcome by monsters. She’s a mythological symbol, as magical as superheroes who can die and be reborn again. When I die, I don’t think I’ve come across a new Dandara, but the same one, who will not rest until her quest is complete. And, according to the few bosses in the game, I may be correct.
The little spirits aren’t the only thing that notices when Dandara has been somewhere before; the game’s bosses also know it. The bosses acknowledge when they’ve encountered Dandara more than once, confusing her multiple attempts as a sign of inability. In a sense, the game is breaking the fourth wall by pointing to the fact that this is a game, and as such, Dandara can die and return as many times as the player pleases. But I don’t think this is a break. These villains don’t know of a player controlling Dandara, they only know her, a pest to their plans to keep the salt for themselves. This points directly towards Dandara’s immortality as a symbol of power and courage.
Dandara empowers the player by presenting a character equipped with the power of videogame restarts. Her restarts are explained in a way. She is born with a supernatural power to save the salt, no matter what. Her adversaries believe her many defeats to be a sign of her inabilities, but in reality it means she (or, in other words, me, the player) is only getting stronger. Understanding this empowerment also requires us to learn about the real woman who was used as inspiration for the main character, Dandara dos Palmares.
Dandara dos Palmares was a 17th century warrior and Black liberator in Brazil who fought to protect and defend Quilombo de Palmares, a city created for escaped slaves to live safely. She was a formidable capoeira fighter who hunted and grew agriculture and tended to sick children and the elderly. She was a huge part of Afro-Brazilian liberation, and yet very little is known of her. Her birthplace and ancestry is a mystery. Even her appearance is not completely known, despite the insurmountable effort she put into maintaining a safe haven for escaped slaves. On February 6, 1694, Dandara was arrested, but she took her own life before she was forced to become a slave again. Dandara was adamant in her quest to end slavery. She learned to fight, and refused compromise from oppressors. She ended her own life without hesitation, because she knew a life in slavery was not the life she wanted for herself or for any Black person.
Her husband, Zumbi dos Palmares, was also an African warrior. He is widely known as a hero in Afro-Brazilian history. In Brazil, November 20th, recognized as Black Awareness Day, is also called Zumbi Day, to remember the day of his death in 1695.
There are an innumerable amount of women in history who are forgotten or ignored. Dandara, while not completely lost to time, lacks the same sort of remembrance as her husband, but her strength and mystery has certainly lived through her in death. The game isn’t a historical look at Dandara’s life as a warrior and Black liberator, but it uses Dandara’s courage and resilience against oppression as inspiration for the game’s main character. Dandara is as dizzying and mystifying as the woman it’s named after. The game’s story is sparse because its story is simple: When Dandara sees oppression, she fights to end it. What more needs to be said?
The mysterious life of the historical figure has turned her into a type of myth, an everlasting story of resilience and courage. Even in death, Dandara lives on as the mighty warrior who fought her hardest to keep slaves safe. Death was always a part of the fight; I doubt she ever feared it.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.