Dandara is a video game inspired by an actual historical Afro-Brazilian woman bearing the same name. The real-life Dandara is a little-known figure whose record was likely suppressed because she might have provided an inspirational “Harriet Tubman” effect for a population that first the Dutch, and later, the Portuguese wanted to subdue into slavery. We know that she was the wife of Zumbi, the last king of a fugitive slave haven called Quilombo dos Palmares that survived subjugation for eighty-nine years.
Bearing three children would be the extent of Dandara’s past in what we in the western hemisphere tend to designate as “women’s work.” In the quilombo, work was not gendered, but distributed according to ability. Dandara was the kind of woman who hunted and fought in military phalanxes, doing so for at minimum the sixteen years that Zumi was king from 1678-1694. His rule, and that of Dandara, would end that final year when the Portuguese finally succeeded in suppressing Quilombo dos Palmares.
Developer Long Hat House describes the universe where the video game Dandara takes place as one in which the oppressed are on the brink of oblivion. Given what I have dictated above, it is clear that the choice of heroine here was inspired by this figure whose life has been reconstructed primarily through the vestiges of her husband’s legacy. Considering that even the historical Dandara is subject to sensationalization, the game’s fantastical reimagination of her fight against enslavement subversively broadcasts additional inspiring subtexts. Following a brief, recondite introductory narrative, Dandara suddenly appears on-screen from utter darkness.
For the longest time, the story in Dandara remained impenetrable to me. Only after I began to regard it beyond the surface and as a Christian allegory conveyed in video game form did I allow myself a sigh of satisfaction for discerning at least one possible explanation. The brilliance of this revelation is that I do not believe Long Hat House intentionally sought to develop a “Christian” game. After all, Dandara began as a mobile game with a touch-screen interface and evolved over the course of two years into its current form, worthy of PC and console release too. In the story integration phase of development, it should be no surprise that as a Brazilian developer, Long Hat House would produce a protagonist inspired by the country’s history, though the choice of an Afro-Brazilian woman defies convention and is commendable. Despite Brazil having no official religion, 65% of its population is traditionally Catholic; Dandara then, is an indie project that perhaps could have only been made possible indigenously.
Dandara as Christian Allegory
The Salt was once in a beautiful peace.
Creation and Intention merged together into learning and growth.
But like cancer, a golden idea grew.
The balance broke.
And oppression came.
From the Crib of Creation
A new hope has awakened!
Dandara‘s introduction sequence reproduces the biblical (C)reation and fall of humanity, followed by a plan for redemption (Intention). God creates the universe; his prized possession inhabits Earth. Everything is perfect until humanity chooses disobedience, or sin: the golden idea.
Within the power of his omniscience, God had always maintained a long-term plan to redeem humanity, by sending his son Jesus, God made into flesh: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), and later, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). Paralleling scripture, Dandara manifests from within the “Crib of Creation”; perhaps her awakening was always intended in the event of a disruption to peace. What transpires under the veneer of a Metroidvania is an extended savior trope.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” ~ John 1:5
Jumping between surfaces in a world that corruption has turned upside-down, Dandara attacks her enemies with beams of light. She principally takes on the role of a supernatural guardian—a champion. However, the game executes its vision via proxy: rather than humanity existing in the Garden of Eden, or “a beautiful place,” it is the “Salt” that lives in bliss. To put it plainly, Salt is a metaphor for the human race, and Dandara seeks to save “the salt of the world” (Matt 5:18) from destruction.
We know from Jesus’ teachings during the Sermon on the Mount that salt is a metonym. Matthew 5:13 reads, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Salt is important in modern times, but it markedly commanded value in the ancient world; most relevant in these paragraphs is how salt equates to wealth. Therefore, it is no coincidence that salt is currency in Dandara for purchasing upgrades; after all, the etymology of “salary” is derived from salt. Likewise, the most important resource in Jesus’ ministry is people.
Dandara can find granules of salt locked inside treasure chests, so it is possible to read this design choice as “storing treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21). The surreal presentation of the world in Dandara gives way to this interpretation. The game eschews the conventional setting of heaven colliding with hell with magma and flames coexisting alongside cities made of gold. Instead, the convergence happens within scenery that is more terrestrial than celestial. As Dandara transitions from purgatory and dream into reality after her manifestation, trees of the forest greet her upon her arrival within Creation, or the natural world; she makes way toward the city where the harvest of Salt awaits.
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” ~ Matt 9:37
As a game mechanic, it is possible to extract granules of salt from defeated enemies. Yet the larger yields come from the infrequent encounters with the suspended souls of those who have expired.
Collecting saving them furnishes a one-time bonus in salt with a simultaneous revelation displaying the reason for their demise. Such reasons include loneliness, starvation, or harm as the root cause of death—those who were poor in spirit, indeed (Matthew 5:3). Their casualties can be considered the consequences of the germinating “golden idea” that fuels the oppression that Dandara fights. If this golden idea can be interpreted as sin, then we know the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
This passage goes on to say, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Dandara’s role as a savior figure is limited to Creation; her jurisdiction does not extend into Intention, or a blueprint to redeem the Salt back into balance, or perfection. As a warrior, Dandara vanquishes oppression like Jesus cleanses sin, but she does not conquer death like He does (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). This interpretation is appropriate, because while the real-life Dandara fought against the oppression of slavery for decades, she did eventually lose a decisive battle, and rather than return to bondage, took her own life. Unlike in Matthew 4:6, the real-life Dandara did not command angels to catch her; unlike with Jesus, death won. Therefore, despite Dandara exhibiting the characteristics of a savior, what she provides is not salvation, but liberation. A treatise detailing the nuances of freedom from sin and salvation is beyond the scope of this article.
Returning to the golden idea, or sin, that permeates through Creation in Dandara, requiring her intervention, I point to the settings where one is most likely to encounter Salt or their spirits. In the cities, in woods, and in cloisters resembling temples and libraries are where one might reasonably find them. Particularly in the city, Dandara can find Salt who will activate obstacles and abilities that allow her to traverse where she previously could not. I have noted that three out of five individuals specialize in the humanities; one represents STEM; the last is a transcendent being much like Dandara herself.
The game appears to make the statement that overreliance on technology brings destruction to Creation. This narrative comes forth as players advance in the game, and the organic forest gives way to a nebulous, transitional zone before crossing over to the coldness of an Eldarian ship. To not belabor the point, the final boss appears and attacks from within a giant television. This is as if to say that the Salt becomes thrall to the tools that once heralded progress. Freedom, though, comes from its destruction, for the character known as the Writer does not take up his craft again until Eldar’s defeat.
Those who spend enough time with Dandara will find more they will have anticipated. In addition to a re-envisioning of the historical Dandara, the Afro-Brazilian woman warrior who fought against Dutch and Portuguese enslavement, the game also uses imagery that evokes a Christ-like allegory. Because salt is currency in the game, I devoted most of my space here making sense of the relationship between salt and humanity and their inherent value. But there is more: in passing, I mention that the video game Dandara attacks using beams of light. After Jesus that we are the salt of the earth, Matthew 5:14-16 continues:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Rather than “Christian video games” (or movies), I would like to see more games like Dandara, that are either coincidentally Christian, or embeds its symbolism for those willing to perform the work to unveil the layers. Because of this, I consider the game among my favorites among art deployed as a mechanism for social justice. The real Dandara fought against the injustice of slavery; the video game Dandara fights against the oppression. How will you let your light shine?