IndieCade can be a place for discovery, for showcasing brand new projects. For Chiapas-based studio Bad Tomato Games, it was the place to demo a prototype of their first game, Balam and the Spirit Within.

A girl in a jaguar mask, levitating slightly above the surface of a jaguar-shaped temple.

The Girl in the Jaguar Mask

With roots in Mayan culture, this 2D action-adventure game follows the journey of the titular character Balam, a mute girl wearing a jaguar mask.

“It’s a Metroidvania platformer,” said Uzzu Abadia, founder and creative director of Bad Tomato Games. He felt it used to be a less popular genre, but that games like Hollow Knight have been making people fall in love with it again.

Two people playing a demo of “Balam and the Spirit Within” on two computers, in the yellow rooms of the Santa Monica College Center for Media and Design.
IndieCade 2018 attendees playing the “Balam and the Spirit Within” demo at the Santa Monica College Center for Media and Design.

Abadia said the backstory is still being developed along with the rest of the game. But he did talk a little more about Balam’s hidden face.

“There’s a reason behind the mask, why she wears a mask,” said Abadia. “And eventually down the road we will go into that.”

Abadia shared that Balam is the Mayan word for “jaguar.” He explained that in Mayan culture, personality tends to decide one’s name. People could be called “jaguar” or “deer” based on how they behave.

“Your name chooses you,” said Abadia.

Screenshot of  “Balam and the Spirit Within” gameplay. Balam, girl in jaguar mask, is in a dark room, near a floor of spikes.

Developing the Game Industry in Chiapas

According to Abadia, Bad Tomato Games is the first game development studio in Chiapas, Mexico.

“Gaming is virtually nonexistent there,” said Abadia. “I wanted to do something about that.”

For that, Abadia left his work as a concept artist, and founded Bad Tomato Games. He said it’s comprised of a small team, including a part-time composer.

 One person playing a demo of “Balam and the Spirit Within” on a computer with headphones, in the yellow rooms of the Santa Monica College Center for Media and Design.
Another IndieCade attendee plays the “Balam and the Spirit Within” demo while wearing headphones.

Creating their first game has been challenging. Abadia said finding resources in Mexico and more community involvement has been difficult. He explained that it’s hard to work without a platform there; for example, there’s no real place to put up a job posting.

“Making games is expected to be hard,” said Abadia. “It’s been stressful, I won’t lie.”

Another challenge has been research. “Part of the project is dictating what I have to learn,” said Abadia. He mentioned that as a concept artist before, he had been self-taught.

“But I’ve been happy,” said Abadia. “It’s a good experience; I wouldn’t change it.”

Screenshot of  “Balam and the Spirit Within” gameplay. Balam, girl in jaguar mask, is in a dark forest, with bats flying around her.

Besides wanting to address the lack of game development in Chiapas, Abadia said he wanted to prove that games didn’t have to be an overseas market, and that a quality game could be made there.

Different Voices

Also hoping to encourage more people to get into game development, Abadia tries to reflect a more varied world in Balam and the Spirit Within.

“Mostly in the gaming industry, it’s a male protagonist,” said Abadia. “Feel a need in the industry for more diverse heroes. So that’s why Balam is female, and brown, because she’s of Mayan descent.”

Screenshot of  “Balam and the Spirit Within” gameplay. Balam, girl in jaguar mask, begins to climb a stone wall. Like Otus from fellow indie game Owlboy, Balam is a literally mute protagonist. Abadia said he wanted to explore themes of communication with her.

“To have a voice, it’s not necessarily about who speaks the loudest; your actions can matter,” said Abadia. “Voice can be translated into action.”

Playing with Language

The demo at IndieCade featured a dramatic finish, ending with a work-in-progress boss fight against an armadillo-like creature—Kauil Ahau, Lord of the Eternal Flame.

“In the beginning, I was debating with myself about making names more mainstream,” said Abadia.

But he decided against it.

“It’s okay to have Mayan names,” said Abadia. “It’s okay to have names in our own native language. Why shouldn’t we?”

Abadia said that at IndieCade, no one made a fuss over Kauil Ahau or any other name used in Balam and the Spirit Within.

“You should feel and be proud of where you came from,” said Abadia.

Alyssa Wejebe

Alyssa Wejebe

Alyssa Wejebe writes about games, reads about games, and plays them too. RPG and fighting games are some of her favorite genres. One of her earliest gaming memories center around battling her grandmother and younger brothers in “Super Bomberman 2” on the SNES.
Alyssa Wejebe