I’m here to tell you why Raji: An Ancient Epic is an important game.
When the game landed exclusively on the Nintendo Switch (Xbox One, PS4 and PC versions are on the way) earlier in July 2020, it was the first ever title developed in India, with an Indian mythology-inspired theme, to have had such a high-profile international console launch. Nintendo earlier featured Raji in their Nintendo Direct stream, the first Indian-made game to be so featured. The launch of Raji marks the culmination of a dream, jointly cherished by Indian developers and gamers, for over a decade.
The game development industry began gathering momentum in India around the mid 2000s. Since then, gamers have dreamt about games based on Indian mythology made by Indian developers taking the world by storm. Over the years, this became such a common refrain at industry conferences that it started becoming a bit of an in-joke. “Yes, but where are the games?” we’d ask. We moved on to other, easier ambitions—cricket games, casual games, card games. The industry grew, but the dream of a blockbuster game based on Indian myths seemed to gently fade away.
But it’s always the crazies who keep dreams alive. Jaipur-based Pyrodactyl Games gave us the remarkable Unrest—a role-playing game set in India that experimented with storytelling based on Indian culture. Ogre Head Studios from Hyderabad saw success with Asura, a roguelike action RPG that, in some ways, was a precursor to Raji (it was actually the first Indian game to launch on Switch, albeit with a lower profile). A thousand other developers kept the fire burning with ideas, pitches and conversations at game-jams, after-parties and meet-ups over beer. Gamers, while playing titles like God of War or Ghost of Tsushima, continued to idly dream of what these worlds might look like if they were in an Indian setting, hoping for a day when they would get to kick Indian demon butt.
And finally, after a remarkably difficult and heartwarming journey, Pune-based Nodding Heads Games has given us Raji. This is the game all of us were hoping would be made. This is the collective dream come true.
For a debut game, Raji is an ace effort by Nodding Heads. The game brings together a mix of Rajasthani architecture, folk art and music, adds a sprinkling of ancient Hindu sculpture and iconography, and ends up looking and sounding remarkably original. Even on Switch hardware, the beauty of the visual design, helped along by the power of the Unreal Engine, shines through (and makes me want to get it on PC just for higher resolutions and frame rates). Raji explores cavernous temples, abandoned forts and mysterious shrines that feel instantly familiar (to Indians) yet refreshing and heartening to see in a video game. The music is a blast; I especially loved the spiritual fervour of the Rajasthani folk singing as Raji discovers the story of the Goddess Durga through a series of murals in a surreal and beautiful sequence. The cut-scenes are told using street puppet-theatre style visuals and narration.
In a world where the vast majority of fantasy games draw their influences from European or Japanese mythology, it’s great to see games like Raji being so authentic to the culture of the regions they represent. It uses iconography, visual motifs, music and sounds that come together beautifully without trying too hard to adapt to more typical “western” tastes (which, sadly, happens all too often). Even the voice-over for Durga is delivered in confident English spoken with an Indian accent (Vishnu, a little less so), which adds to the sense of authenticity. It left me wishing that they had included voice-overs in Rajasthani or Hindi with English subtitles, the way so many Japanese games do. But now that Nodding Heads has set the bar, I really hope we’ll see more games from other regions and cultures of India (and, for that matter, the world) entertaining global audiences.
It’s pretty cool that the first globally showcased game based on Indian mythology features a little girl with a braid, wearing a choli—and not some archetypal male warrior, as its protagonist. Raji is a joy to control as she runs, leaps, cartwheels and fights with the lightness and agility of an Indian street acrobat. Nodding Heads has come up with a combat system that remains simple, yet really fun to play with as you string together a series of melee, ranged and environmental moves. Backflipping off the top of a tall post and shooting arrows at multiple opponents never gets old. Despite the fact that she wields the weapons of the Gods themselves, Raji never once feels like she’s growing into some sort of soldier. She always feels like a young girl, which is a pretty difficult design challenge to pull off.
Probably the most important thing about the design and aesthetic choices Nodding Heads has made with Raji is how atypical it all really is. When choosing to make a game based on Indian mythology, the temptation would always be to make it about all-powerful Gods and demons facing off, with the fate of the world at stake, with weapons and magic and destruction all amped up. Instead, Raji manages to retain that basic essence while centreing the story on the personal journey of a young girl looking for her brother—a tale of sibling love. It’s an approach that sends a message to other people working on games—that maybe the key to unlocking global demand for Indian mythology is to use the mythology as a backdrop for more personal tales. It’s a commonly used technique in Indian folk tales, where the Gods descend upon the earth, often in disguise, to mingle with the matters of mortals.
It was only a matter of time before video games showcasing Indian cultures and aesthetics broke through internationally. The fit has always been obvious—the sheer diversity of written, verbal, visual and musical storytelling traditions in India is a virtually endless goldmine of gaming ideas. What we were waiting for is people with the skills to make world-class games. And Nodding Heads with Raji have shown that we’re ready.
For Indians, being seen in video games usually means clutching at things like Dhalsim being Indian in Street Fighter or looking at Tamil signboards in Uncharted. I just started off on Wasteland 3 and chuckled when my jaded heart still felt cool on encountering characters like Major Vera Prasad or Private Abbas. It’s so important for every human to feel seen by the world, and when your preferred media is video games, it’s all too rare for anybody who’s not white or Japanese.
That’s why I want more games like Raji. I want a game where the bad guys swear at me in Tamil while chasing me through the streets of T. Nagar, and I easily get away because I know the back-alleys without having to use the game’s map. I want a game where I understand the lore without having to read the in-game books. I want games that recognise my world.
Thanks for this, Nodding Heads. More power to you, and to those who will follow.
Follow Anand on Twitter.