Dujanah is a gorgeous and bizarre indie game full of glitch cats, existential spider-men, and death. With key narrative moments and a small arcade of games that focus on death and dying, it imparts an important lesson of acceptance. We take a look in this critical video.
Disclosure: I was a Kickstarter backer on this game.
Dujanah is a game by Jack King-Spooner, creator of Beeswing that follows a mother, Dujanah, as she searches for her lost husband and daughter. The game takes place in a magical realist world, a fictional Muslim country that is equal parts beautiful and anxious. Through its gameplay and dialogue, Dujanah shows that death, while terrifying, is something we must accept. Peacefully or not.
Dujanah explores the difference between how children and adults view death. Dujanah’s daughter Ashna casually asks if her father would find her another mother if Dujanah died. Canned sit-com laugh tracks paint the moment as one of childhood innocence, but when Ashna and her father leave to bury her deceased hamster, a scene of impending military violence highlights the sudden, casual way that they could be killed at any moment.
In her search to find her family after they go missing, Dujanah seeks out various characters who might have information on their whereabouts. These conversations focus on ideas of violence, anger, and death. The general of the militarized zone dismisses Dujanah’s concern that her family was killed in a drone strike by calling such a thing a “whoopsie” and ignoring the power he has over the civilian population. The technocrat Amquey Hotchkins offers his workers a form of immortality in robotic bodies and keeps himself on the edge of death with sophisticated machinery. In conversation, he ponders the nature of the beyond and the process of dying but cannot bring himself to actually accept that he must die.
Incidental characters in Dujanah also struggle to understand the complexities of life. A school teacher attempts to reconcile her love for her husband with her love for her neighbor, concluding that she can live two different lives at once and love them both. A spider tells a story of how their friend spent a month imagining their loved ones as skeletons, which helped them live more in the moment.
Games themselves are also a vector for exploring death within Dujanah. Part of the mother’s quest involves fetching three arcade tokens for the leader of a conclave of spiders. The arcade is full of games, each seemingly teaching different lessons about death. Cities of the Doomed is a variation of Space Invaders focusing on the inevitability of death; no matter how hard you fight, eventually the enemies overwhelm to create a game over. The cutesy Poopek Loves It All is a game about exploring the world and telling everyone that you appreciate them. Pie or Anus allows players to waste their time with a frivolous guessing game, but if they explore the game world beyond this task, they can venture into a white void and perish.
The most interesting game in the arcade is The Caves of Al Dajjal. It’s a robust Metroidvania with items to find and bosses to defeat. The caves are full of difficult platforming segments and hazards that can kill you in a single hit. It’s easy to get lost, and it can take dozens of minutes to progress through a room. The game claims that the exit is locked and that there’s no escaping the caves. I got so lost that even after defeating three bosses, I eventually quit, but even that is a lesson about death. Maybe there was no way to win The Caves of Al Dajjal other than for me to accept defeat, to let go of the egotistical search for victory and understand the difference between giving up and moving on.
Dujanah’s about many things. It is a story of a mother’s love, it is the story of subverting heroic deeds , and it’s an offbeat tale about how the world is both terrible and full of wonders. But more than anything else, it tackles death and how to deal with our inevitable demise. I’m scared to die, but, thanks to Dujanah, I’m reminded that life is still full of interesting people to meet and places to see.