Dead Island’s Purna: A Character Study

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This gunslinger from Dead Island is more important than you know – to me, at least.

For this, my 100th article, I wanted to discuss a character who is close to my heart. You can read titles, so you know the character is called Purna. Non-gamers (and some gamers) might not know that she’s the leader of the group of survivors from Techland’s 2011 Action/Survival game ‘Dead Island’.

More than that, though – she’s the only Australian Aboriginal character in the (so-called) Triple-A gamespace. I care about this, as I am one.

If you’re not a gamer, that means that she isn’t from some random indie game – she’s from the Hollywood-like tier of games. In other words: High-quality games made for the mainstream.

This matters because she’s not just an Australian Aboriginal character, she’s also a well-written one. She’s also the most wholesome type of feminist: One who’s into equality, and not man-hating for man-hatings sake.

She’s not actually wholesome herself, though. She could reasonably be described as ‘a grumpy badass’. This is because she’s a complex character with a past defined as much by her triumphs as by her struggles.

Fun Fact: All Australians are technically minorities

Relax, this isn’t going to get political – I mainly just wanted to share some statistics with you that blew my mind.

A lot of Australians aren’t aware that they’re a minority, worldwide: Australia is roughly only .33% of the world population. Yes, you read that correctly: 1/3 of a whole entire 1%.

According to NITV, SBS’s Indigenous Channel, Australian Aboriginals are about 3% of that, which means that, assuming my math is correct, Australian Aboriginals are a mere .00009 % of the world population.

And, on top of that, Australian Aboriginals (or at least my mob) have valued isolation. This is why, until fairly recently, they’ve basically been invisible on the world stage (beyond, shall we say, starring in a few British Museums).

This is part of the reason why I value Purna so much. The main reason though, as I alluded to earlier, is because (much like Taylor in Red Dog: True Blue) she’s a great example of a well-written Australian Aboriginal.

There’s an old writing tip which goes something like this: If you want to write a good example of a minority character, just write them the same way you’d write a non-minority character, and then have them deal with minority issues.

That’s what Techland did with Purna, and that’s why I love her so much.

Dead Island: A quick recap

Dead Island is a zombie game that takes place on (wait for this, you won’t see this coming) an island. The story is your typical zombie fare: There’s a group of survivors who are immune to being zombified and they need to get to safety, which you might also recognise as the storyline to nearly every single other zombie story ever.

Wow – that really was a quick recap!

Purna: A closer look

Purna, an ex-cop, is the canon team leader. More than that, she has the best gun skills in the crew, so she’s the character that most people will choose to play the first time around.

In her ingame bio, Purna refers to herself as a Koori.

That’s awesome, because that’s traditionally how Australian Aboriginals greet each other and refer to themselves. For instance, I don’t say I’m Australian Aboriginal, I say I’m a Yidinji man. This means I come from the Yidinji band (which just means ‘family group’ in this context, and not that I’m the lead singer of some musical group) which in turn means that my family hails from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland.

The reason for this might not be immediately obvious to most people: Certain bands have different beliefs regarding which animals are fair game or not. To my ancestors, eating wallaby (a small kangaroo-like animal) meat would have been on the same level of social disrespect as someone nowadays walking into a random funeral and turkey-slapping the deceased.

So, by saying they were Yidinji, my ancestors were saying ‘Don’t serve me wallaby meat, I won’t eat it’. This is, of course, grossly over-simplified – but you get the idea.

Of course, in the days of social media, you can just have that info on your profile – but it’s a harmless enough way for us connect with our past, so it’s still the done thing (although it’s already less popular than when I was a young lad).

Getting back to Purna being a Koori, this means that her Australian Aboriginal heritage is traced back to the area including New South Wales and Victoria. She lived in Sydney (the capital city of New South Wales, also known as ‘Melbourne, but if it wasn’t terrible’), so that checks out perfectly.

There was one thing about her that took me a while to get my head around, and when I finally realised the mistake I’d made – oh boy did I feel like a fool.

Purna as a Half-Aboriginal

Actually, she says she’s Half-Aborigine, but the term ‘Aborigine’ hasn’t generally been used (outside of academia) for about 30 years. This is the one thing that Techland got wrong, but hey – nobody’s perfect. Point is, I’m going to ignore that and I invite you to do likewise.

I don’t want to go into this too much, but people who identify as Aboriginal rarely call themselves Half-Aboriginal, due to the slippery slope of then having to quantify specific amounts of heritage and the social problems that such a viewpoint can cause.

Still, someone like Purna will no doubt refer to themselves however they damn well please, and who am I to tell her otherwise? It would certainly fit her character, that’s for sure – tradition be damned.

Anyway, like me, you might be wondering why she has dark skin if she’s Half-Aboriginal.

See if you can work it out quicker than I did – it took me about 2 weeks back when I played the game for the first time.

It pains me to admit I didn’t immediately realise this, but honesty’s a curse: It’s because neither of her parents are white.

We know her mother is Aboriginal because she’s mentioned in Purna’s bio, but what about her dad? According to this link, Purna is a unisex Sanskrit name, which means that her father is probably Indian.

I would have liked to have seen her given a fine Australian Aboriginal name like Bindi or Kylie (which, coincidentally, is also a Gaelic name too), but that’s just me.

Having said that, though…

Purna’s name is absolutely perfect

I’m incredibly thankful that Purna exists in the (so-called) Triple-A gamespace.

She says ‘I AM HERE!’ in a way that can’t be ignored – but she also doesn’t drone on (that’s a digeridoo joke, by the way) about her ‘connection to the land’ and all that other ‘Noble Savage’ crap that I’m sick of seeing whenever mainstream media tries to portray the culture of native peoples.

Like, just once I’d like to hear a didgeridoo that isn’t audio shorthand for ‘some magical crap is happening or whatever’.

Ultimately, Purna exists as a decently-researched and respectful example of an Australian Aboriginal who is far from perfect – in all the right ways.

Sure, she’s maybe not the perfect representation of a modern Australian Aboriginal woman, but she’s by the far the best I’ve seen in literally any game ever. She means that, however obscure that Dead Island has become since launch, us Australian Aboriginals can still see ourselves in the mainstream gaming world.

It’s apt that her name can be translated as ‘Satisfaction’ – because I’m well and truly satisfied with Techland’s representation of her.

Thanks, Techland!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my long-suffering friend, Squeaking Pie Sneak, for taking all of the Dead Island screenshots which appeared in this article.

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