Gaming’s hottest emerging market is India. The country is predicted to have around 300 million gamers and a $1 billion dollar games market by 2021, and all that cash and hype has fueled a modest local game development scene. While most of those game startups pan for gold on the freemium mobile game market or take up outsourced work from foreign developers, a few indie studios are struggling it out at the fringes of the economic boom, creating idiosyncratic and ambitious work like QUICKTEQUILA’s Lovely Planet, Studio Oleomingus’s Somewhere, and now Nodding Heads Games’ Raji: An Ancient Epic.
The release of Raji: An Ancient Epic on the Switch last month, and PC, Xbox One, and PS4 this month, has been greeted with cheers by Indian gamers both local and abroad. It is a kind of first for the domestic games industry, but one that’s hard to sum up in a factoid. It is not the first Indian game: that title belongs to 2008’s Agni: Queen of Darkness. It is not the first Indian game to feature Indian mythology, nor is it the first Indian game to get a high-profile console release (those belong to 2009’s non-violent action game Hanuman: Boy Warrior). It’s not even the first Indian game to drop on the Switch (that’s 2017’s Asura).
Beyond all these records is a height yet unachieved in Indian gaming, one that Raji aspires to surmount. Gaming is still marginal among the arts in contemporary Indian culture, and so far, there has been no “crossover” game to bridge it to its peers in film, television, or literature. But amid a pan-national, multimedia boom in epic mythological fantasy, Raji is on the edge of making that crossover. It may very well be India’s first prestige game: the one that finally lives up to the nascent industry’s promise and establishes gaming as a vital cultural frontier.
Raji is an action-adventure game that plays like a cross between Prince of Persia and Limbo; it stars the titular young street performer who travels across picture-postcard versions of Indian landmarks to rescue her brother from the clutches of a demon lord. Accompanying her on journey are the disembodied voices of two Hindu gods, Durga and Vishnu, who comment on the action and furnish their young heroine with divine weapons and blessings. As Raji runs and leaps her way across temples, palaces, and mountains, she is confronted by wave after wave of malicious Rakshasas, who she slays using the familiar light and heavy attacks strung together in eye-catching combos—call it Goddess of War. Short puzzles help break up the grind of the combat, as well as allowing time to drink up the game’s stylish art direction and level design. While the plot is a bit perfunctory—saving a person is the default template of video game plots—the game takes a couple narrative detours to retell the classic Hindu myths behind its small cast of gods, goddesses, and divine peacocks.
It’s that last function that is clearly most important to the developers, who stress in interviews their mission of “authenticity” and “cultural representation” of Indian culture and history.
Considering that mission, there’s not a more opportune moment for a game like Raji to arrive than at the present. Just this August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the domestic game industry to adapt “Indian culture and folk tales” and promote “Indian ethos and values.” And the Prime Minister is only reflecting the national mood: fictions that look toward an imagined Hindu past like the Shiva Trilogy book series and the Bahubali film series have become unstoppable cultural juggernauts, demolishing sales records on the back of public hungry for stories about the country’s glorious Hindu past.
It’s hard to disentangle this surge of cultural chest-beating with the ascent of Hindu right, which rose to power with an eclectic ideology that pairs neoliberalism with fascist calls for a Hindu-first India. Raji: An Ancient Epic has the best intentions at heart, but it is not exempt from the cultural eddies that swirl around it. It wants to highlight the beauty of Indian art and architecture, which has been too long confined to lithe bronze Natarajas and one white marble mausoleum. It also tries to rewrite Indian mythology to make a progressive, feminist case for the warrior goddess Durga, who here bumps Brahma off the Trimurti, the trinity of major Hindu gods.
These ambitions are unimpeachable, and if Raji summoned the critical acumen and original thinking to pull them off, it could have sat alongside Estonia’s Disco Elysium as some of gaming’s most sophisticated attempts at national allegory. But what Raji ends up demonstrating is how far the progressive vision of Indian history and culture has deteriorated under sustained attack by Hindutva fundamentalists. This is still a crossover game, but it crosses over in all the wrong ways, appealing to popular, lucrative, and conservative delusions rather than grappling with the truth. Amar Chitra Katha , the mythological comic book series beloved by generations of middle-class Indian children, is Raji’s blueprint: they both share the slick epic plot, the mission of educating a young audience, and the cultural nationalism simmering underneath. Much like its predecessor, Raji conceals an uncritical ideology, which it sells in the guise of education, though what it really proffers is alienation. Rather than produce a new, authentic image of India’s storied past, Raji is only able to refract and multiply the familiar ones, deepening the already large rift between the truth and a politically expedient fiction, and revealing how far conservatism has penetrated the nation’s sense of itself.
Raji has a flawed understanding of what it is and what it wants to do, and that starts with its confusion about the time period it is set in. School children learn the basic tripartite division of Indian history, Ancient-Medieval-Modern, which thinly papers over the old flawed British periodization of Hindu-Muslim-Colonial. Raji calls itself an “Ancient Epic,” and evokes the tropes and themes of Hindu mythological fiction written in that era, but the game’s sumptuous architecture very clearly depicts North India’s Medieval era, with its scalloped arches and Mashrabiya screens. The young Raji finds herself dashing past market stalls hawking Persian carpets and trapezing through Rajput forts sporting geometric tile work and Chhatris. The developers even claim that the overall art style of the game pulls from Mughal miniatures, which is fairly evident in the game’s rococo eye for detail. The artifacts of Indo-Islamic culture are everywhere; missing, however, are any actual Muslims, except, perhaps, for a few white-clothed, curved-sword-holding corpses.
Though Raji is technically a work of fantasy that doesn’t claim historical accuracy, that disclaimer is irrelevant in an era where, for many Indians, the fantasy of India is more appealing than the reality. The Bahubali films, for example, are set in a one hundred percent fictional composite of Ancient Indian clichés. Yet when the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh wanted an authentic vision of “our history, folklore and mythology” for the new state capital city of Amaravati, he asked the films’ director, S. S. Rajamouli, to take the helm on its design.
Raji’s gorgeous, supposedly authentic scenery is its strongest selling point: Rajamouli’s famous CGI sets are its kissing cousin. Rajput palaces, Gujarati step-wells, and Pahari mountain temples are all depicted in loving detail. Sumptuous in-game paintings draw upon many different folk art traditions, most prominently the Pahari and Madhubani styles, while cutscenes are acted out in Balinese shadow-puppet theater. It links all of these traditions—which encompass several regions and with that last one, nations—together under the aegis of representing Indian culture, and, with the quiet erasure of Islam, something more like Hindu culture.
Hinduism as we know it was fundamentally a creation of successive waves of conquest and immigration. The first person to lump India's diverse folk religions under the unified sign of "Hinduism" was an Iranian, and the “Hindu” identity was solidified thanks to the meddling of British Orientalists. Hindu art, architecture, practice—everything—was transformed by these contacts into the religion we know today. It’s the repression of that fact, the need to backdate any and all syncretic inventions into an ancient past, that creates anachronisms like Raji’s Indo-Islamic world with no Islam.
Predictably, the Indian cultural industry has been happy to create more and more realistic simulacrums of this anachronistic past. One glaring example of blatant propaganda is a certain educational theme park ride that you can take at New Delhi’s Akshardham Temple, one that features “Vedic” Hindus circa 1000 B.C.E inventing the airplane and, more to the point, living in suspiciously Mughal-esque palaces. Raji, as a fully-realized digital world, is the most realistic yet in this trend of phony historical dioramas. The idea of authentic Indianness here is somehow both elastic enough to accommodate any Hindu tradition, no matter how geographically disparate and culturally immiscible, and yet inflexible enough to not permit a cultural contact and exchange that actually did happen, namely between North Indian Hindus and Muslims. Raji creates a world where it is easier to imagine Balinese Hindiusm in Rajasthan than Islam. That failure of imagination has its trickle-down effects.
While the game is on firmer ground when it comes to story and not history, the narrative’s boldest decision, its choice to put a heroine at the front and center of the action, misses the mark. Our protagonist, Raji, is a scrappy street performer, which is also a convenient explanation as to why she can perform death defying leaps across crumbling towers or backflip off pillars to sever the necks of her enemies. She has an underdog charm, and a stellar voice actress, though the game puts both to poor use: through most of the game Raji is stuck in one boring emotional gear, a single-minded determination to find her brother. The first inklings of psychological complexity occur only in the last hour of the game, where we briefly encounter Raji’s struggle with her own insecurity, and then just as quickly overcome it. Without depth, Raji is more symbol than character, channeling a whole host of powerful women: not only the goddess Durga, to whom she is a faithful devotee, but also many legendary virangana, warrior queens, like the Rani of Jhansi. There’s no questioning that Raji, like her foremothers, is armed to the teeth and ready to kick some ass. But it is to what ends Raji’s agency is used towards where the game’s conservative visions of culture and gender dovetail.
Hindu mythology in Raji interacts uncomfortably with the in-built conservative ideology of action games. Games need a flimsy justification of why it is acceptable for us to genocide a small country’s worth of enemy footsoldiers, so Raji pulls from the puranic rogues’ gallery of Rakshasas, or mythological demons, as its big baddies. What it neglects to mention is that Rakshasas have sometimes been claimed by counter-hegemonic traditions as representations of the peoples that India’s elite caste see as reprehensible and sanction violence towards.
Rakshasas are contested symbols that cannot be flattened into bullet-spitting monsters without some violence of the epistemic kind, but Raji, nevertheless, endeavors to do so. They are not the orcs and ogres of Western fantasy, which have no resonance beyond nerd culture. They are very much alive as a slur and political symbol. Raji’s October 15th release was timed for Navratri, the nine-day long holiday where some Hindus celebrate the victory of Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasura. But the Durga Puja season also marks a counter-holiday celebrated by Adivasi communities in West Bengal, who turn the myth on its head and mourn for Mahishasura, who they claim as their ancestral king, and jeer Durga as a bloodthirsty, land-grabbing invader. Raji’s plot is essentially a retelling of Durga’s most famous triumph, but with only the victor’s side of the story told. Any mythological fantasy that doesn’t grapple with the polyvocality and clashing perspectives behind its own mythology is, at least, lazy, and at most, harmful. To put the cherry on top, the game’s script is uncomfortably charged with casteist invective: Rakshasas are polluting and corrupting the world, turning the water poisonous and the trees grotesque, which draws on a long symbolic tradition of apocalypse when the Brahminical hierarchy is overturned. The only solution the game offers you is their systematic annihilation.
It’s this attitude towards violence that makes the game hit its moral low point: the boss battle against the witch Rangda. Much like the male demon, the demoness is a figure that embodies the Other, but in her case, the latter-half of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. These symbolically wayward women, like the lusty widow Surpanakha and the poisonous mother Putana, take as their punishment for their violation of feminine norms mutilation and murder, respectively. Raji meets Rangda in an underground Vishnu temple, and she is quickly tasked with firing celestial arrows into the cackling crone’s shriveled body, whose breasts are exposed and flapping in the wind as if to highlight her villainy. This battle between symbols comes out in the Good Woman’s favor, of course—but that’s hardly a feminist outcome.
India’s tradition of militant women can and have been reclaimed as feminist symbols. But they exist within the context of Hindu patriarchy, and their ultraviolence have also been appropriated to support it. The feminist Paola Bacchetta has written about the rising trend of feminine Hindutva, who take from the warrior goddess her strength, and then channel it towards anti-Muslim violence, analogizing the Goddess’s fight against demons with their own fight against Muslims.
All this is to say: the virangana is not a symbol Raji can appropriate apolitically for its fantastical plot. Neither can it appropriate the Rakshasa. Nor the Rajput fort, nor the Pahari painting, nor the Balinese shadow-puppet. Maybe all of Raji’s flaws hinge on its lack of an explicit political program, an omission that only hides its implicit one.
That doesn’t make Raji malicious, but it does make careless in its own educational mission. In all fairness, it’s not like Raji isn’t making the same mistakes that aren’t being made by others in its genre or in pop culture at large, countless times over. This kind of stuff is everywhere—just look at the paradoxically demure warrior women mowing down hordes of dark-skinned barbarians in films, or the literal erasure of India’s Muslim history in a right-wing campaign to rename cities.
The “folklore” that media like Raji peddle have very little to do with the common folk at all. Raji creates a world where the 21st century’s upper-caste, middle-class Hinduism is projected onto the far-off past, which tells us nothing about the past but does reinforce a widely-held delusion in the present. It speaks to how deeply nationalist ideology has penetrated the subconscious that Raji finds it easier to flatten Indian history and mythology into a caricature than try to probe beyond the narrowly-defined Hinduism enshrined by Brahmin elite. The irony is that the ancient Indians themselves managed to pull that off—the great living epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are chock full of dissident, non-hegemonic voices, challengers from female, Dalit, and non-Hindu perspectives. If Nodding Head Games and other young, curious artists want to look to the past for inspiration, it would be best to start there.