Video Game Starring A Teen Girl in Ancient India Defies Industry Stereotypes
Raji: An Ancient Epic is the story of a young teenage girl whose life is completely devoid of conflict, until she is chosen by the gods to serve as protector of the human realm, and rescue her younger brother. The video game, which is slated to be released in 2020 (but a demo is available to play now), derives its inspiration from ancient India, a world that is visually replete with Rajasthan-inspired forts and palaces and demons such as Mahabalasura; and textually, with myths and lore taken from Hindu and Balinese mythology.
It all began with a trip to Rajasthan in 2014, when Avichal Singh, Raji‘s game designer, was fascinated with the medieval architecture in Jaisalmer and wondered why he had never seen any of that majesty in a video game. Two years of discussions, one failed crowdfunding venture, and a slow expansion of the team accompanied Raji’s transformation — from a seed of an idea, to a game that garnered almost universal acclaim at a game developers’ conference in San Francisco in March. It’s one of the first games to come out of India to be popular on a global scale — especially in a market that is saturated with stories and characters out of Greek, Japanese and Roman history.
“In India, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of gods, and you have all the stories that go with that, which is wonderful from a western perspective,” Ian Maude, who works on character development in Raji, said of the breadth they could employ while creating Raji’s mystical world — one that plays to original scores created by Greek composer Linus Tzelos, who combined Indian classical music with Western notes.
The game, created by three Pune-based designers and a team making up Nodding Heads Games, is designed in a puzzle / combat style, wherein Raji fights the demons with the help of the gods who chose her, through levels that gradually get more difficult and complex. In the trailer, Raji is seen donning a flowing red dress and sporting a long braid — a far cry from other female-oriented video games popular with the masses, especially the oversexualized Tomb Raider, and Grand Theft Auto. That’s a concept the creators of the game made a conscious effort to move away from — that sex sells.
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“We didn’t want to oversexualize Raji — it is a complete distraction from the story. We want people to fall in love with Raji and look after her and follow the story and how it is so integral that you will not want to lose a battle,” said Ian Maude, the game’s environment designer, adding that Raji’s journey is not simply physical, but one that has emotional aspects to it as well.
The designers didn’t set out to create Raji as a girl — it’s not a mere gesture to appease any equality rhetoric, said Avichal Singh, one of Raji’s game designers. People relate to the struggles of the protagonist, which was the focus of the storyline, he said. One of the reasons they could do that, according to Singh, is because the audience for video games has matured and diversified in recent times, which has normalized creating games that represent non-traditional protagonists and environments.
“I don’t see ourselves as a team who would just throw in a male or a female character. Who is this story about? What is it about them that makes the story special? If it was another gender, we could make it work. So, why not Raji then?” Singh added.
Another reason Raji seems compelling from early visuals is the intricacy of its aesthetic — every single frame is painted and animated by hand, by game artist Shruti Ghosh and animator Himanshu Thakur.
In a video game industry where most work is created out of big studios, India has a slow burgeoning of independent talent, partly stimulated by a greater demand: India’s online gaming revenue almost doubled in the past four years, nearing Rs. 43.8 billion in 2018, and is slated to rise to Rs. 118.8 billion by 2023, the Hindustan Times reported.
In light of the trend, more game designers are representing Indian aesthetics and stories in their work. For Raji, the team’s passion stemmed from a curiosity, as articulated by Singh: “We all had this desire to make a difference, to make something that came purely out of passion, and mostly wondering — why hasn’t this been done before?”