Why I Think Dead Island’s Purna Is Well-Written

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It’s not about how she’s written – it’s about how she’s not written.

If you missed the previous article about Dead Island’s Australian Aboriginal protagonist, Purna, you can find it here. It’s not required reading but it might give you some context for this article.

In my previous article about Purna, I state that she’s a well-written character. One of our readers pointed out on social media that I didn’t really show any examples of that.

Unfortunately for me, the comment came from someone I respect, so I couldn’t just ignore it.

Or, to put it another way: I get the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite video game characters again!

Speaking of the importance of framing things…

Purna Isn’t A Magical Native

Let’s assume you’re going to make an Australian Aboriginal character in a role-playing game.

Most people in my experience, especially game developers, would usually choose to make the character a Druid or Ranger because of some mystical nature-based nonsense.

Let’s look at my real-life family. My father feels a connection to the land. My brother feels a connection to the land. I couldn’t give two shits about land (in general) beyond cultural and historical value (to be clear I mean ALL land).

I certainly don’t wake up every morning and have animals flock around me while I sing a magical song, like some kind of bearded Disney princess.

I’m told this is because I’m ‘just not spiritual’ and there’s a certain amount of truth to that – I’m more likely to mock a psychic than to get a reading from one, for instance. I’m also told it’s because I’m not prepared to let the universe handle everything on its own, and that’s also true. The universe does nothing to combat bigotry, so I’m not going to hand the reins of my life over to any system that acts like that – no matter how big it is.

Do you know who else feels like that?

Purna.

It’d be easy to say ‘Well, they just white-washed the character, really.’

Yes.

Yes, they did.

Just like society white-washed me.

Or could I have written this entire article in Yidinji and be sure that everyone would be able to read it? Of course not. Hell, I don’t even know how Yidinji grammar works, and I only know maybe three words of the language itself – because any of my ancestors who used it were physically punished by our colonial overlords. I’m pretty sure there’s a phrase for that.

Fun Fact: While academics consider the Yidinji language to be dead, it’s actually still basically alive in Yidinji country. My father, for instance, recently did a Welcome To Country in Yidinji.

Like me, Purna has all the disadvantages of being an Australian Aboriginal (mainly racism, and presumably cataracts and diabetes in her later years) with none of the magical apparently-soul-healing advantages.

This is why I find her writing so realistic – because it deeply resonates with me.

But, also like me, Purna doesn’t ignore her Aboriginal heritage either – we both meet it on our own terms. The rest of my family doesn’t eat wallaby meat because it’s taboo. I don’t eat it either, because I think it smells terrible and tastes worse.

Or maybe, in reality, it smells great and tastes even better, but I can’t have that experience because of mystical magical family reasons.

Hey, it’s not impossible – just very unlikely.

Point is, why point the bone when you can point a gun instead?

Purna Understands the Importance of Secret Business

I need to be careful here, for two reasons.

Secret Business is very serious stuff and needs to be respected, but – without the right context – it could be confused for simply being sexist.

First off, most Australians (and many Australophiles) have heard the phrase ‘Secret Men’s Business’ or ‘Secret Women’s Business’. It’s basically one gender saying to another: Fuck off, this doesn’t concern you.

For instance, there might be a certain part of Yidinji country that was reserved for young lads undergoing their Adulthood initiation ritual. A woman – no matter the circumstances – would not be welcome there. The converse is true: Men were not allowed near female Adulthood initiation sites.

Today, this kind of thing is more casual, but somehow still just as serious. If a group of Yidinji women say they’re going into another room for Secret Women’s Business, they’re saying ‘Fuck off, this doesn’t concern you’ (and again, that goes both ways).

I mention this because there’s one part of the Dead Island storyline where a character called Jin suffers intimate bodily assault. The two males in the group (oblivious to Jin’s trauma) begin yelling about vengeance and responsibility, and Purna basically tells them ‘Fuck off, this doesn’t concern you’ and kicks them out of the room.

She speaks softly to Jin and assures her that everything will be okay and that they can all leave and go back home now. She doesn’t swear vengeance or make it about her in any way, she just supports Jin – while the males are arguing outside.

She made a temporary female space where Jin could talk freely. That’s literally Secret Women’s Business.

Of course, that’s not purely an Australian Aboriginal thing, but it’s still a major part of our culture. Even if it’s coincidental that it appears in Dead Island, it’s still socially relevant to this article.

Speaking of what happened to Jin…

Purna the Ex-cop

Let’s take a look at a few lines from the in-game Dead Island bio for Purna.

I used to be a cop. A bloody good one. A vice detective in Sydney. You know how many female half-Aborigine detectives there were before me? None. You think it was easy suffering the abuse of my so-called colleagues? Half of ’em hated me because I was a girl and the other half didn’t like the fact that my mum was a Koori.

First off, the word Aborigine is outdated, and most modern Aboriginals don’t use the phrase Half-Aboriginal to describe their race: We just say we’re Aboriginal.

We might go into the ratio (half, quarter, whatever) if it’s relevant, but that’s fairly rare (in my experience at least).

Moving on, surely I don’t need to explain, in the year 2020, how terribly black people are treated by police.

The suffering that Purna experienced in order to become a detective would have been compounded by her reluctance to ignore corruption, something else that wouldn’t have made her popular.

And before you start saying something like ‘But Australian Aboriginals aren’t treated like African Americans’, you’re partially right – at least we got to be slaves in our land, and not somewhere else. In fact, Padmore isn’t even my actual family name: It’s the name of the guy that owned my great-grandfather.

My father worked on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (specifically police custody), and he was never the same after that. He’s hard as nails but that’s the one thing he wouldn’t talk to us kids about, so I’m pretty sure it was even worse than I imagine.

Point is, Australian Aboriginals have had it plenty tough. While modern Australians are, for the most part, sympathetic, it doesn’t magically undo centuries of legal discrimination – Australian Aboriginals have only legally been considered people since the late 1960s.

Still, modern Australia is slowly headed in the right direction, and that should be commended.

Anyway, back to Purna – why is she an ex-cop and not still a cop?

Purna describes how one particular rich person was enacting intimate bodily assault on his 14-year-old daughter. She confronts him about it, and he mocks Purna. He pulls out a gun and points it at her head, saying she can’t stop him because she’s just an (outdated racial slur goes HERE) and nobody would even believe her anyway.

So she does the one thing she can think of to protect his daughter – she gelds him. If you don’t know what gelding is, well – let’s just say that he probably won’t have any more kids.

Given that the rich literally own the police (when was the last time you, a commoner, got to make a law?), the outcome was inevitable: She was fired.

I believe that if she was a white cop, she wouldn’t have lost her job. I could be wrong – it’s not like white cops have never been fired before.

But the main point here is that the embezzler was comfortable viewing Purna as ‘less than’ because of her skin colour, and her fellow police officers had no respect at all for her for the same reason, and that both of these things ultimately lead to her ‘early retirement’.

Purna: My Conclusion

Purna isn’t ‘a well-written character’ in the sense that she’s a character that’s well-written. That’s not what I’m trying to say. In fact, writing is Techland’s weakest link in general – as anyone who finished the main campaign for Dying Light can attest.

But she is a fairly realistic and respectful representation of Australian Aboriginal woman who deals with things in a no-nonsense, no-bullshit manner which befits the generations of hardship her family has doubtless dealt with.

One might even say that she always was, and always will be.

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