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How India's shifting political climate is influencing local game development

Despite growing religious tensions in the country, Indian game developers are still free to create the games they want -- but where is the line in the sand is drawn?

When Nodding Heads Games' Kickstarter campaign for Raji: An Ancient Epic failed to make much headway in 2017, the Indian studio thought this might spell the end of its journey.

"We were literally looking at the bank balance and thinking, we're gonna have to tell the team to disperse because we can't afford to pay anyone anymore," says Ian Maude, one of the three co-founders of the studio. "Because we were paying people out of our own pocket, as well as just paying rent and food on the table for ourselves."

Fast forward to a few years later, and the studio has a dizzying array of achievements with Raji: a feature at Microsoft's E3 conference, an appearance in the Nintendo Switch indie show-reel, and even a nomination for "Best Debut Game" at The Game Awards, one of the most high-profile award ceremonies in the industry.

There's no doubt that Raji's international acclaim was partly due to its novel setting -- novel in the context of a largely western-dominated industry, at least -- and a stylistic approach inspired by Hindu mythology and Balinese traditions. However, a recent Vice article revealed some cracks in its splendour, with the author suggesting that its portrayal of Hinduism contains the trappings of Hindutva -- a form of right-wing populism now mainstream to Indian politics, and one that often translates to virulent anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, which has seen rising attacks against Indian Muslims.

"The only thing we consciously made sure [of] is that we do not disrespect any gods"

Nodding Heads Games

The gush of vitriol that followed its publication -- mostly directed at the author -- was intense, with some readers accusing them of promoting anti-Hindu sentiment. It was a bristling rancor that had not gone unnoticed by the team at Nodding Heads Games, who are noticeably upset with the piece, particularly as it was published in the midst of a politically fraught climate in India.

"What he wrote [...] could be interpreted, or could provoke others, to warrant violence onto ourselves," says Maude. "I think that is extremely irresponsible of them."

Maude emphasises that Raji is "not a historical tale." Nodding Heads only took inspiration from the religion, without intending to rewrite Indian mythology, and it was adamant about drawing a line between local politics and the game. Avichal Singh, co-founder and game designer, says that politics didn't affect the game's development.

"The only thing we consciously made sure [of] is that we do not disrespect any gods," he adds. "And that was [a] given, regardless of whichever year this was, right? You don't make games starting to disrespect gods, especially if it's an active religion still being worshipped. Simple as that."

Even as an outsider to this debacle, Zain Fahadh, the founder of Ogre Head Studio, largely agrees with this sentiment: "Raji, as far as I know, is set in a fantastical setting, [and] it's just inspired by Indian mythology. So, you know, it's not a real life depiction of Indian mythology, where it has to be 100% accurate."

The story and setting of Nodding Heads Games' Raji: An Ancient Epic draws from Indian culture and mythology

The story and setting of Nodding Heads Games' Raji: An Ancient Epic draws from Indian culture and mythology

As a Muslim developer, Fahadh is keenly aware of the religious conflict in India, even though he shares that he's fortunate to not face the brunt of these tensions -- tensions that have only become more palpable with the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been India's ruling political party since 2014. What makes the BJP's rise so contentious is that it has often pushed for policies that favor Hindutva, which advocates for Hindu supremacy and is also associated with anti-Muslim sentiment.

One example is the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). Ostensibly a policy that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the law notably left out Muslims -- an exclusion that did not go unnoticed by the bill's numerous critics and activists. Along with a flurry of other BJP-mandated policies -- one of which is the equally controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), which seeks to deport illegal immigrants from India in 2021 -- these developments may have encouraged a growing tide of violence against Muslims, culminating in the Delhi riots in February 2020.

Despite these events, Fahadh admits that he's still, to an extent, insulated from their repercussions.

"We are privileged to be in cities and things like that, where no matter what happens in politics, it has not yet affected us"

Ogre Head Studio

"Local politics, what happens over here, and me making games have nothing to do with each other," says Fahadh. "I would say, in many ways, we are privileged to be in cities and things like that, where no matter what happens in politics, it has not yet affected us. I'm in a very nice situation, and nothing has affected me."

This may be attributed to the fact that Ogre Head Studio is based in Hyderabad, the capital city of the Indian state of Telangana, a state where the regional political party (Telangana Rashtra Samithi) has a majority rather than BJP. Hyderabadi Muslims also have a substantial presence within the city's population -- even though they aren't the majority, the group makes up 41% of its demographics.

Yet, given that much of the country's media is facing immense pressure to stay in line with BJP's principles, one may expect the ripple effects from India's politics to eventually extend to its burgeoning games industry. However, Fahadh believes that local developers haven't faced that level of scrutiny so far.

"Let me say it like this: if [video games] can be made anywhere else in the world, it can be made by me too. That's it. Like, the freedom that you have in the most liberal of areas? That's how much freedom we have."

But other local developers speak cautiously of this freedom, sensing a sea change in the state of public discourse in the future. Indie developer Nikhil Murthy, who's working on an anti-colonialist 4X strategy game, Syphilisation, says there is a subtle but strong pressure against media and art that carries anti-Hindutva narratives.

"If you're making games that push against Hindutva, you're going to get hit again from that side"

Nikhil Murthy

"The government itself, I expect, is not going to pay any attention to this game because I'm just too small for them to bother with. I mean, I'm an independent game developer; only so many people are ever going to play my game, and they just probably will never learn of the game to do anything about it. But the thing that the BJP has encouraged is a very toxic community online.

"If you're someone like me, if you're making games that push back against white supremacy, you're going to get hit from that side. And if you're making games that push against Hindutva, you're going to get hit again from that side. So I do expect that, when I speak on these topics, I am just going to get a lot of heat directed at me, and that's not a thing that I'm happy about... It's not a pressure that I'm going to succumb to, but it is nevertheless a heavy pressure."

Another indie developer, Ashwin (not their real name), feels the same way, pointing out that there's an undercurrent of caution among developers, even though there hasn't been a spotlight on the Indian games industry. This may change, however, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking out in support in August last year, even though his official statement has classified the industry under the broader category of "toys." Like Fahadh, Ashwin hasn't found the need to practice self-censorship in their games yet, although they believe this may not last long.

"We have religious fanatics and dogma-charged politicians...who will not hesitate to track someone down. This is a known fact and is something all Indian devs are cognizant of... With the spotlight slowly shifting, you may find devs being far more cautious, and if not, somewhere down the line, facing some form of harassment."

With Asura, Ogre Head Studio was a pioneer in its use of Indian mythology in video games

With Asura, Ogre Head Studio was a pioneer in its use of Indian mythology in video games

Studio Oleomingus, a two-person team based in Chala, was founded just as BJP was coming into power in 2014, and when "the political discourse in India was shifting from center to the right," according to its co-founder Dhruv Jani. And when the CAB was passed in 2019, Jani said it galvanized a movement among academics, poets, students and Dalit leaders to resist the government's mandate.

"A lot of them are now facing severe backlash from the government -- including imprisonment for years, and then without bail -- for participating and failed debts and so on," he says. Studio Oleomingus started to adapt its own games to discuss the shift in political discourse in the country. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, as well as recent events around India's religious conflicts, inspired its game Edible Places, which was released in February last year.

"There is immense online and societal pressure to censor yourself or curtail what is and is not a part of common and political discourse"

Studio Oleomingus

"As our games started to become a little bit more explicitly political, in the modern context [...], we did start to get some unsavory responses to our work," Jani says. "We were also a little active in the local community we live in, in helping protest the Citizenship Amendment Act and distribute leaflets, which led to some degree of online backlash. Certainly not from the government; the government still adheres to some norms of democratic behavior, and they are called to step in, and a series of checks and balances that still surprisingly seem to work even though some of them are actively failing over a period of time. But there is immense online and societal pressure to censor yourself or curtail what is and is not a part of common and political discourse."

India's games industry has been steadily growing, primarily as outsourced labour for game development. But even as an emerging creative and technological field, there aren't many government schemes in place to support local developers. Most people I spoke to aren't looking to the government for monetary support, and this grants them a degree of freedom when making their games.

"The government has no policies, no tax breaks, no schemes, etc in place to support game development," says Ashwin. "They're starting to wake up to how ubiquitous the industry is. [But] the most you can hope for is some free publicity."

Murthy echoes this sentiment. While he is entirely self-funded, and able to make the games he wants without being beholden to any institution, he acknowledges that schemes targeted at helping local startups do exist.

"The government has no policies, no tax breaks, no schemes, etc in place to support game development"

Ashwin

"There are official funds earmarked for things like this. It's just, I don't know anyone who has ever got it. Something like the 'Make in India' program was supposed to provide a lot of money for...startups in India, and video games were explicitly mentioned as one of the categories."

The founders of the Bangalore-based Roots Collective, Abiram Shanmugam and Mithun Balraj, feel that this lack of funding is due to games not being a priority for the government to invest in -- at least for the moment, although some officials have expressed interest.

"There was actually a very active member from the Telangana government for the last two years," says Balraj. "They were talking about a lot of tax benefits and a couple of things along those lines, incubators and stuff... But this was at a state government level. As a national plan, there is not really anything."

But game development can be as laborious and expensive an endeavour in India as it is elsewhere. Aside from offering game development services to bigger studios, indie developers still take on odd jobs, or even full-time jobs outside the industry, to survive. That's why the Roots Collective developers believe that government funding is going to be essential for the local games industry to thrive.

"When you start to run out of money... options go out the window, and you can't do anything," says Shanmugam. "It gets very difficult in that situation, but we hope in the future that... I think sooner or later, there's going to be support for the industry from the government itself."

Studio Oleomingus is one of many new developers who are more expressly political in the themes of their games

Studio Oleomingus is one of many new developers who are more expressly political in the themes of their games

Whether that means trading in the freedom and control that local developers have over their games in exchange for long-term sustainability, it's hard to tell for now. While the government hasn't exerted any overt influence at the moment, the pressure to conform comes from the ground.

"Something is happening, right? It would be blind to say that it is not, but it does not have a form yet," says Shanmugam. "No one is really censoring anyone." While he characterizes this pressure as a somewhat intangible force that's gradually taking shape, such sentiments have been swelling recently. Shanmugam adds that it has reached a place "where reactions start to come out, and they're quite loud... And so nobody really knows how to navigate the landscape."

For the most part, the developers I spoke to say that those who know how to stay under the radar -- by avoiding direct confrontations or controversial statements -- should be able to steer clear of ruffling any feathers. In particular, historical topics are often a contentious issue in India, and whatever medium that's centered around this topic -- be it films or games -- will end up attracting more attention than those that do not. Shanmugam cited one incident in the film industry: the movie Padmaavat, a period drama that resulted in several Rajput caste organisations protesting against the depiction of Padmavati, a Rajput queen, and which also saw violent riots erupting across the country.

He also suggests these developments didn't just happen when BJP became the largest political party. Like that of many other countries, the paradigm shift in India's political history has taken place over time.

"If you look at it a little deeper you'll realise these are simultaneous consequences of something deeper," he elaborates. "I went off saying, I wanna make Indian-based content by looking at Unrest [an Indian RPG released in 2014]... But at the same time, the politics are moving in a different direction. Something else is happening, and I don't think most people truly understand what is going on. I know that these are not connected to each other in such a direct sense, but they are connected at a deeper level... It's a very tough thing to put your finger on."

India is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse countries in the world. The interweaving of narratives surrounding the numerous cultures in the country complicate the stories told about them -- this is what makes retelling historical tales such a minefield. This amorphous tension is may become a challenge, particularly for Indian creators and storytellers who wish to share more nuanced perspectives about their nation's past -- creators very much like Studio Oleomingus

"Most of our work is deeply concerned with ideas of historiography, how histories are recorded and stories are told through time, and postcolonial literature, and their intersections with speculative architecture and interactive fiction," Jani says. "Most of our interests are focused around how authority and power structures get to define conduits of what is considered truth, what is considered normative within a society, and with these kinds of definitions, what kind of stories get inevitably lost, or fragmented and fractured."

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