One of the unsung strengths of video games is their ability to paint pictures. Video games do not merely lecture; they let players move through and experience stories as though they were happening to them, personally, in real time. But while the finished product can tell beautiful stories in a seamless fashion, players rarely see what goes on behind the scenes. Nodding Heads, the team behind recent indie hit Raji: An Ancient Epic, shows that some developers are working hard to create a more interconnected world. By infusing Raji with myths, legends, and tales they grew up with, developer Nodding Heads reinforces the idea that the future of video game development will be globalized.
“Since everyone in the team shares the same vision, communication has been fairly easy”
Even in an ideal situation, game development is rarely a cakewalk. But during a global pandemic, releasing a video game that works properly on multiple systems in a timely fashion is a Herculean effort. Nodding Heads met the challenges head on. They were quick to point out that “remote working does pose its challenges, but we did pretty good as a team.” Though the studio is based in Pune, India, the team is global, with members from Greece, the U.K., and even Australia. Lead designer Avichal Singh is proud of his team, noting that “[Co-founders and art directors] Ian Maude and Shruti Ghosh have worked in the games industry for a long time for companies like Rockstar, Stainless, Ubisoft, and EA.” But even the most experienced teams have had to change how they do things in 2020.
The spread of Covid-19 impacted the workflow of the studio, but not as much as expected. Instead of being able to “just turn around and resolve an issue”, as they would in an office setting, Nodding Heads had to use alternate forms of communication. Fortunately, they were able to adapt and keep up with production. “We used Slack and Discord for our day to day communication, [since] with the covid situation we had to go under a lockdown and work from home.” Rather than delay the release of the title, the team rallied.
Nodding Heads understands the importance of a strong group dynamic. During development for Raji, the entire team visited Rajasthan together. Teambuilding exercises are a given during difficult development cycles, but Nodding Heads combined research with adventure. They collected a ton of references on this trip. After marveling at some in the in-game setpieces for Raji, it is clear that the trip was informative as well as inspirational.
Raji: An Ancient Epic is a special game.
The results of this team’s hard work and bonding have been undeniable, with Raji: An Ancient Epic currently enjoying an above-average critic and user score on Metacritic. The developers were “overwhelmed by the response”, in a good way. Shruti Ghosh, co-founder and art director, says “we are really humbled and grateful for every message and review coming our way… for an indie team based out of India to release through [Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase] is a big achievement.”
But Raji: An Ancient Epic‘s release and success was far from a sure thing. Even before the struggles of creating a game during a worldwide pandemic, development ran into snags. Though the story of Raji‘s release has ultimately had a happy ending, the team struggled to find funding “for almost 6-7 months post our Kickstarter failure”. Development time may have been lost, but the team’s spirit never wavered.
Flexibility Is Key
Raji: An Ancient Epic is a special game. Its influences are clear: Nodding Heads says that “inspiration came from games like Bastion, Transistor, Journey, God of War, and Prince of Persia.” But it may surprise players how many of its most memorable features were not present initially. Some of this game’s most interesting content came along during the development cycle, showing that some of the greatest assets a developer and creator can have is patience and an ability to turn adversary into accomplishment.
Take the running commentary by Vishnu and Durga, two godly beings who have a vested interest in how player character Raji completes her quest. The two immortals have a natural banter, honed by centuries of conversation. They comment on how well Raji does in combat or discuss her plight against the demonic invasion. But these narrators weren’t in the game from the jump. Avichal Singe, co-founder and lead designer, notes that “initially, we didn’t have Vishnu and Durga as narrators in the game. It was midway through the development of the game that we came by with this idea… Durga and Vishnu are the yin and yang.” It’s interesting to think that such an iconic and seemingly vital part of the game came about so late in the development process.
It’s a huge feat that Raji: An Ancient Epic is able to inform as well as entertain.
Similarly, Raji‘s storytelling murals were not there from the start either. While the developers are proud of their inclusion, they admit they were “pretty much a feature creep!” But including them has been something that will become part of Raji‘s legacy. Nodding Heads says that ever since the game’s release, “a lot of people have reached out to use since the launch of the game that the murals have helped them know and understand stories and lore from Hindu mythology.”
It’s a huge feat that Raji: An Ancient Epic is able to inform as well as entertain. Video games are more popular and lucrative now than they have ever been, with the recent acquisition of Bethesda by Microsoft to the tune of 7.5 billion dollars as evidence enough. As the influence and popularity of video games grows, some wonder what to do with this influence. Nodding Heads has an answer: they want to see more video games with different cultural influences. When asked what other stories or perspectives from around the world they would want to see represented in games, the studio said, “We would love to see…the African continent, where they have just as rich and diverse a culture as our own, not to mention the variety of languages spoken. Knowing about their myths and lore would be extremely enriching. How about the aborigines of Australia, or the indigenous folk of North, Central, and Soth America and their descendants?” It’s an excellent question, and hopefully, one that will be answered soon.
The road to release of Raji required Nodding Heads to be willing to change things on the fly, and to completely adapt how the team interacted with each other. It wasn’t easy, and Nodding Heads has expressed that they’re looking forward to a “long break to rejuvenate” themselves before thinking about future games. Nodding Heads wanted to “make a quality game and put India on the game development map”, and it’s safe to say they’ve done that. The release and reception of Raji is to be celebrated, and will hopefully be the bellwether to a new crop of culturally-rich video games from studios around the world. Raji: An Ancient Epic is currently available on Nintendo Switch, and is coming to PC, PS4, and Xbox on October 15, 2020.