"Your quest to realize enlightenment will take you through the eight states of consciousness, each with a characteristic gallery of fascinating puzzles. When you overcome ignorance, you ascend to Vishnu's celestial court as a rishi, a venerated sage. Quite a trip for a monkey!"
OK, not much there for an Unreal Tournament fan. Yet, six years on, I still think there's a market for a free-roaming 3-D puzzle game - an Unreal Big Brain Academy, if you will.
But the puzzle idea didn't fly with the MUM team. Newbie the producer wanted an ambitious, innovative triple-A design like Dee-us Ex.
A nonviolent shooter presents interesting, if not necessarily sensible, design challenges. We decided on a story of demonic invasion in mythic ancient India. Gameplay would permit violence and perhaps even reward it in the short term, but violence would pollute your karma and ultimately complicate your long-term progress.
This was indeed ambitious, not to say foolhardy. If you're facing powerful adversaries but must circumvent them nonviolently, obviously the game needs that always-tricky feature, a stealth model. The game also has to judge your actions. If you trick two demons into killing each other, what is the karmic effect?
Fortunately, the Hindu theme offered other, equally interesting gameplay. We had elephant riding. We had Vedic abilities: astrology, Ayurvedic healing, breathing (meditation), herbalism, Gandharva Veda music, architecture (which let you purify demonic areas) and yagyas (rituals). During the game, you could acquire the siddhis of clairvoyance, levitation, invisibility, shrinking and strength. Your aim was to achieve pure consciousness by cleansing your six chakras in ascending order. But your current karma (depicted as a gray pall over your character's silhouette), if it covered any chakras, prevented you from cleansing them. So you had to remove karma by completing quests before you could purify yourself.
The coolest feature:
"During the game, you may die repeatedly, but this doesn't end your adventure. Through reincarnation you resume play in your next life; the storyline's mythic war is assumed to continue unabated for generations. Your karma at the time of death determines your next incarnation. If you have purified yourself and spread enlightenment, you may return as a rich merchant or Brahmin priest; if you have defiled yourself with violent actions, you may instead become a lowly peasant or even a pig, dog or worm. The game is winnable in any human form, but your current incarnation governs how much people and other beings will tell you in conversation, the price you must pay for equipment and so on."
The storyline starred a young female sneak-thief, Kendi, who was as karmically low as you can get and still be human. Aided, for mysterious reasons, by a demon named Venadatta, Kendi travels from a Himalayan valley across the gigantic carcass of the fallen dragon Vritra, through the city and palace of King Vasudev, up the legendary World-Axis of Mount Meru, to the palace of the gods in the celestial city of Navagraha, and from there to the demon realm of Asat. She's looking for the long-lost mortal hero Anagha, a Brahmin who aided the gods many years before. It turns out Anagha is dead, and, owing to a contrivance too complicated to summarize, Kendi herself is his mortal reincarnation; Venadatta the demon is another aspect of her own spirit.
The MUM team expressed understandable reservations about the ambition of this design, but they set to it. Some months later, when Newbie sent samples of the team's work, I understood why the Maharishi University of Management has its current reputation in art and animation circles - that is, none. The level design was halfway decent, but the graphics, well ...