The IndieBeat: How Studio Oleomingus is crafting its Indian post-modern fairy tale

For the last three years, Indian indie studio Studio Oleomingus has been crafting its first game, a post-modern fairy tale called Somewhere. It’s gifted the internet with occasional peeks into its magic realist world of stories within stories, notably with the interactive parable Timruk and the delightfully weird conversation-generator Menagerie. This weekend, it plans on releasing a new short PC demo called A Museum of Dubious Splendors, which will be available on its Itch.io page. Next year, it’s also releasing a two-hour game called Under a Porcelain Sun.

The game exists in a realm of luxurious patterns and striking colors. It juxtaposes odd everyday objects such as enormous tubes of toothpaste against lush trees with bizarre silhouettes. It’s a surreal adventure through a fictional world built around a fictional playwright’s writings, which seem to somehow intersect with modern reality. It’s a game about stories in their various forms.

“Somewhere is a video game adaptation of an anthology by the Gujarati playwright Mir UmarHassan, about the search for a mythical city called Kayamgadh,” said Oleomingus founder Dhruv Jani in an email to GamesBeat. “Set in the southern Malwa region in 19th-century British colonial India, it traces the lives of several people as they search for pages of a fabled journal which charts a route to Kayamgadh.”

In Timruk, reading a book sometimes shifts the scene entirely to a new room or environment. In A Museum of Dubious Splendors, you wander through corridors, gazing at items like cassette tapes displayed like works of art. Though it’s not clear who we’re playing in both of these short experiences, Jani says that Somewhere will mainly follow the travels of Aziz and Azaam, a duo of thieves who trade in forgeries. The pages they’ve duplicated come from the journals of Charles Henry Connington, the explorer who first discovered the legendary Kayamgadh. As the player joins them in tracking down the rest of the pages, they’ll transform into various other characters and take on different identities, some of whom exist only in the imaginations or stories of other people.

“Our principal argument in creating Somewhere is to attempt an exploration of a particular form of fiction, one that we call ‘concentric fiction,'” explains Jani. “Where each node in the story spawns a repetition of authorship, and a series of nesting of narratives.”

Oleomingus’s approach to games is hyper-literary. Jani cites authors like Jorge Luis Borges (Ficciones, The Aleph) and Italo Calvino (CosmicomicsInvisible Cities) as influences on the recursive, meandering structure of the game. Other inspirations are graphic novelist Sanarth Banerjee’s The Harrapa Files and its fragmentary narrative style, and playwright Girish Karnad’s fusion of mythology and the modern.The themes of Somewhere’s stories take their cue from colonial and post-colonial authors, such as Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster.

A Museum of Dubious Splendors is what Jani calls a “rumination on the nature of an archive of recollections.”

“[It’s] an attempt to resurrect people from within the margins of stories that have never been recorded with any permanence — in that they are folklore-like, full of spurious histories that get told about each prosaic object on display,” said Jani in an email to GamesBeat.

Oleomingus is a two-person studio, Jani and Sushant Charaborty. Jani writes, designs, and does the artwork and Charaborty handles the coding. They started collaborating while Jani was part of an art residency program at Khoj, an artists’ workshop and space in south Delhi.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about the two of you and how you came to form Oleomingus? Is this your first project? 

Dhruv Jani: Our studio is based in Chala, a small town near Daman, on the western coast of India.

I am an exhibition designer by training, though I have never practiced as such, preferring to work on a combination of speculative architecture and literature. Sushant is a programmer by training, and practices as one. I first met him on Unity forums, when I was working at Khoj about three years ago.

Since then we have sought to concentrate our work on the confluence of post-colonial literature, speculative architecture, and games, combining avenues of investigation that interest us both. Somewhere, and the various stories that spawn from it, are indeed our first project.

GamesBeat: How long have you been working on Somewhere, and how has the project evolved in that time?

Jani: We have been working on Somewhere for about three years, though our work on the project has been intermittent, starting and stopping to accommodate other practice and teaching assignments. But throughout this time, Somewhere has remained a continuous strand of inquiry and has recently become a predominant occupation of ours.

Somewhere began as an exploration game at Khoj. At Khoj, we met the game theorist and author Souvik Mukherjee, and worked with artist and author Prayas Abhinav, both of whose works informed our first tentative approach towards the creation of our game. Prayas’s writings (especially his curation of the Museum of Vestigial Desire) continue to remain a source of lasting inspiration.

When we started working on Somewhere, the procedure of building games was alien to us, and we blundered the best we could while spending a large amount of our effort delineating the narratives that would occupy our game. The fictional world of BhulaDesh, the kingdom of Kotananku, and the search for Kayamgadh were all created while we grappled with learning how to build spaces and make them interactive.

And as we delved into colonial history we started to mask our writings for the game by creating the persona of Mir UmarHassan, a fictional Gujarati poet whose works we are ostensibly adapting in game form. This was done in part because it was easier to negotiate our literary influences in a traditional form of writing rather then use interactive fiction from the start. It allowed us to broaden Somewhere from a game to a trans-media project, rooted in post-colonial textual practices. And it spread the implications of our narrative across a span of nearly a hundred years, letting us demonstrate recognizable effects of events in the 1800s on the record of history as understood after independence.

Eventually, as our craft grew and as resources permitted, we started building one story at a time from this narrative space. All the while adding to the fiction, embroiling it into history, and inveigling our own characters into the stories of many who lived and wrote prolific records at the time.

With aid from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Khoj amongst others, we started building our game and codifying our collection of stories by Mir UmarHassan. Some of this work is made available online, and some is meant to be consumed locally at exhibitions and at institutions.

But over the past year, a confluence of support and a certain confidence in our skill have allowed us venture something a little more ambitious. With IFA, we started working in earnest on the theoretical implications of our work, on whether games could meaningfully contribute to the pantheon of post-colonial discourse.

And we also started working on a two-hour long Steam build for the game, using our most ambitious story set in verse as the template. This Steam build, is called “Under a Porcelain Sun” and we will be releasing it next year.

GamesBeat: Can you talk a little about your inspiration for Somewhere? Do you draw from a lot of literary sources?

Jani: Our work is deeply influenced by post-colonial writing and post-modern literature and early magical realist literature. Our literary references are broken into three distinct categories that pertain to their specific domain of influence.

Structural: Jorge Luis Borges (Ficciones, The Aleph); Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities); Orhan Pamuk (“The White Castle,” “My Name is Red”), Sarnath Banerjee (The Harrapa Files, Barn Owl Capers); Sukumar Ray (AbolTabol); and Girish Karnad (Tuglaq, Hayavadna).

Narrative, especially writings of colonial and post-colonial authors: Sadat Manto, Agha Shahid Ali, E.M. Forster, J.G. Farrell, Amitav Ghosh, John Lang, Fanny Parkes, Rudyard Kipling, and others.

Theoretical and historical: Ania Loomba, J.M. Coetzee, Edward Said, John Keay, Romila Thapar, Arthur L Basham, and Manuel DeLanda.

For example, the build we are crafting now — a museum — is a rumination on the nature of an archive of recollections. An attempt to resurrect people from within the margins of stories that have never been recorded with any permanence. In that they are folklore-like, full of spurious histories that get told about each prosaic object on display. Here we burrow a structure from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, and super impose that atop something like Calvino’s recurring motifs of dialogue from Invisible Cities.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about the game’s story? Are some of the events and characters based on cultural or historical fact or is it mainly fiction? 

Jani: Somewhere is a video game adaptation of an anthology by the Gujarati playwright Mir UmarHassan, about the search for a mythical city called Kayamgadh. Set in the southern Malwa region in 19th century British colonial India, it traces the lives of several people as they search for pages of a fabled journal which charts a route to Kayamgadh.

The discovery of Kayamgadh is attributed to Charles Henry Connington, who having become separated from his caravan after the Matsyapur siege, stumbles into this fabled city in the year 1812. Upon his return an account of his travels to Kayamgadh are published, accompanied by intricate sophistry and peculiar theocentric writing. Connington’s blasphemous writings and a passionate avowal of the book by a group of influential Dubhashi, leads the Company to purge all copies of the published text, leaving only individual pages from the original document. Which inevitably become artifacts of great value.

Amidst this history, the game itself limits its narrative to the adventures of Aziz and Azaam. A pair of itinerant thieves and forgers who have been trading in fake Connington pages, and who get embroiled in the search for a complete copy of Connington’s travelogue.

Our principal argument in creating Somewhere is to attempt an exploration of a particular form of fiction, one that we call “concentric fiction.” Where each node in the story spawns a repetition of authorship, and a series of nesting of narratives.

Take for example Somewhere itself. It is a game adaptation of a short story collection that is derived from the recollected history of a character who is searching for a journal that points to the location of a city that might not exist! The repeating cycle of authorship removes from the story any individual authority that a person writing it in a single age might be able to impart.

This is a form, we argue, that is prevalent in folk literature and theater practice, and can be put to splendid use in the telling of fragmented subaltern, post-colonial stories within video games. It centers around the notion of redacting authorship, where we argue that veracity of a story is not embedded in the authority of its telling but in the repletion and mutability of its lore.

GamesBeat: What’s the inspiration behind Somewhere’s visual aesthetic?

Jani: Much like the tapestry of literary references, the visual analogues are also numerous. And they are sometimes harder to delineate, because many a reference simply bleeds into the rest without making itself known.

Nonetheless, some obvious ones are: Thomas and William Daniell; Tilly Kettle; numerous other Orientalist paintings from the Company School by various artists; Hiroshi Yoshida’s watercolors; Pieter Bruegel incredible narrative landscapes; Rene Magritte splendid oeuvre; and Minoru Nomata’s incredible structures,

Add to this the architecture I grew up with, studying in the shadow of Corbusian modernism, and the Sultanate monuments of Ahmedabad, and the Portuguese forts and Cathedrals of Daman.

I have always enjoyed narrative paintings, like Mughal miniatures or Mala miniatures, where each frame is so suffused with detail that you have to read the individual characters like logograms.

In the works of the artists or ateliers mentioned earlier, there is a theatricality of posture and composition and a consciousness of the frame — which is a characteristic feature of illustration, puppetry, and theatre sets, and does not belong to traditional and archaic forms of painting. It is perhaps this need to respond to familiar tales and to aggrandize the performance of a story that attracts me to their work.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me a little more about Khoj and what it was like to be a part of an incubator? Are indie game incubators common in India? 

Jani: Khoj is not really an incubator, in fact our time at Khoj was spent as part of a rather traditional art residency program — except we were working on videogames. For about three years, Khoj conducted a game residency culminating in an exhibition of the work created. And during the period it funded and curated a splendid selection of works, which were predominantly created by visual artists, architects, filmmakers, and theater practitioners and not game developers.

I do not know of any incubator in the country, though commercial game projects and games for mobile devices do receive considerable monetary support from various groups or publishers at events like Nasscom Game Developers Conference. Though again, since we do not practice in that space, I am ignorant of current developments.

GamesBeat: Is your project mainly supported by grants, such as the one from the India Foundation of Arts? What’s the indie game community like where you are? 

Jani: Yes, indeed our work is predominantly supported by grants and by art institutions, our engagement with India Foundation for the Arts being the most substantial one thus far.

Over the past few years there has been a slow but tenacious growth of a small concentration of indie studios in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore. Many of whom are doing wonderful work, and I am acquainted with them, having interacted at common events, or exchanged notes on the Internet.

But aside from the half dozen or so dedicated game studios there is also a slew of artists, like Prayas (who I mentioned earlier), Gayatri Kodiakal, Antariksh Sanchar, and several others who are using interactive media to explore their own disciplines and in the process create really strange and exciting speculative games or software.

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s new weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.

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