One level up: Indie games are playing on desi history, poetry, myth
When a boy is sacrificed by a group of robed men, he rises from the ashes as a demonic form, vowing vengeance and looking like an Indianised version of Hellboy. The trailer for Asura, a videogame released in 2017, looks like a scene from an animated Bollywood mythological drama, complete with rich visuals and a Hindi narrative. The hack-and-slash game involves obliterating fortresses and equipping the character with special abilities for a final battle with the King who turned him into a demon.
Created by Ogre Head Studio, a five-member team of indie game developers working out of Hyderabad, the game has won nine awards so far, including Game of the Year at the Nasscom awards in 2017.
Drought-stricken Indian villages, humans with elemental powers and demons with a tragic past, crumbling cities and forgotten museums are all storylines in some of the desi-themed games created by independent game developers from across the country.
In addition to Ogre Head, there’s Holy Cow Productions in Bangalore, a two-person team in Chala, Gujarat, that makes up Studio Oleomingus, and Nodding Heads Games in Pune, all trying to put out a slice of India through videogames on global gaming websites like Steam, GOG.com and itch.io.
“When we think of Indian games, we think of merchandising games based on films like Dhoom and Baahubali, where the script is not original and there is barely any plot progression in terms of skills and powers, so indie games like Asura are a breath of fresh air,” says Abdullah Faiz, 23, an avid gamer based in Mumbai. “Gamers who like experimenting with different genres, find such games interesting because they have an immersive narrative and well-developed design elements.”
And while the gamers eager to try out these indie games is a small slice of the total gamer population, in absolute numbers, it’s a large market. Online gaming revenues (typically, sums gamers spend to download a game or on in-game purchases) have nearly doubled in India over the past four years, reaching ₹43.8 billion in 2018, and are expected to reach ₹118.8 billion by 2023, according to a KPMG report released in March.
“India saw an emergence of gaming companies not just in the metros but also in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities between 2010 and 2018, because of affordable smartphones, high-speed internet and low data prices,” says Ajay Kumar, a professor of communications at Christ College, Bangalore, who is currently pursuing a PhD on the political economy of videogame production in India.
DAMS, RIVERS, POETRY
“In India, there is a story waiting to be told in every corner and videogames are a unique way to tell them,” says Avichal Singh, 28, co-founder of Nodding Heads. Their project, Raji: An Ancient Epic, is a puzzle and a combat game that is slated for release on Steam in early 2020, and revolves around a young girl searching for her brother who has been taken hostage by a demon king.
The game’s teaser shows richly detailed Rajasthani architecture and an original music score by the Greek composer Linus Tzelos, who fuses Rajasthani folk music with western influences using an ancient Indian stringed-instrument called the ravanahatha.
In Mystic Pillars, a puzzle-fantasy videogame by Holy Cow, math-based spatial awareness puzzles help get a river flowing again, in a drought-hit and once-prosperous ancient village.
Meanwhile, in the game A Museum of Dubious Splendours, by Studio Oleomingus, founder Dhruv Jani, 30, prefers to play on surrealist interpretations of post-colonial India. A fictional traveller discovers stories written by a fictional Gujarati poet Mir UmarHassan in a town called Matsyapur. The player must find his way through a museum of surrealist displays — giant tubes of toothpaste, bottles, knives, worn-out shoes — and unravel stories that unfold within each gallery.
“I grew up in Dharampur in Gujarat, a city with a peculiar colonial legacy which is evident in its crumbling havelis and temples with Portuguese architecture. The game is loosely based on those memories,” Jani says. “The videogame format helps because it makes it makes for an interesting mix of folklore, literary writing and computational logic.”
The big problems within the indie gaming market are funding and visibility. Mithun Balraj, 27, a chemical engineer, gamer and now game developer, explains that while ‘passion projects’ have brought many people into the fold, there isn’t enough stability and money in the indie industry for a big boom. Balraj has been organising meetups for gaming enthusiasts in Bangalore since 2014, where they discuss concepts, brainstorm and network.
Getting investors who prioritise creative content is the biggest hurdle, Balraj adds, with brilliant ideas being shelved for a lack of funding.
Zainuddeen Fahadh, now 29, and the founder of Ogre Head Studio, was 19 when he left home in Mumbai to pursue his dream of becoming a game developer. “My co-founder Neeraj Kumar and I borrowed ₹6 lakh from our very supportive families to build the prototype of Asura,” he says. They started providing game design services on the side to finish the project.
The founders of Nodding Heads Games decided to go the crowdfunding way and when that didn’t work, sold their own assets to raise money. It was only in March that the international gaming platform Super.com became interested in their project, Raji, and offered funding to help them complete it.
Former NASSCOM gaming forum head, Shruti Verma, who is now the business operations head of the subcontinent for Unity, a gaming software company, says that with the mushrooming of several indie studios, competition has grown and so has quality of content.
“Since most indie developers are creating games that also cater to a global audience, there’s a polish to the design and narrative,” she adds. “A lot of the developers are very passionate and are hence great artistes but lack business acumen to market and push their products, so we need to create an ecosystem for them with mentorship programs and business incubation facilities.”