Regarding the pacifist first-person shooter I designed in 2000-2001 to teach Hindu principles of non-violence using the Unreal Engine, you may justly feel skeptical.
This Hindu non-shooter was conceived and produced entirely by – nobody ever believes this part – recent graduates of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Yes, really. In early 2000, a gaggle of upscale white American 20-somethings with fresh MUM animation and graphics degrees thought it would be fun to create a computer game based on Hindu teachings. Funded by the young heir to a chain of furniture stores, who scraped by on a parental allowance of half a million dollars a year, they licensed Epic Games’ hotly anticipated Unreal Warfare engine – six months’ allowance right there – and set to work.
After these enthused neophytes spent nine or 10 months learning the editor and designing some levels, it eventually occurred to them they might need a game design. The team’s producer – I’ll call him “Newbie” – was a huge fan of Deus Ex. (He pronounced deus “dee-us.”) Newbie contacted DX designer Warren Spector, who referred him to me. The project attracted me because there’s tons of good game material in Indian culture. Everybody knows about Thuggee assassin cults, but we never hear of the many Indian martial arts, nor Kundalini yoga, nor the siddhi powers of legendary yogis. As for India’s history, you could do games about a dozen empires, like the Gupta Dynasty, the Mauryans under Ashoka, Vijayanagara, the Mughals or the British Empire in the time of Gandhi. India today, a rising world power, could inspire games about tangled political scandals, Kashmiri separatism, inter-caste tension, the children’s films and stories of Satyajit Ray, Bangla bands, Bollywood musicals and so on.
The MUM people, though, wanted a story inspired by Hindu mythology that illustrated the Hindu principle of nonviolence, ahimsa. In other words, having spent $250,000 to license one of the most kickass, muy-macho, hyper-adrenalized deathmatch shmups on the planet, the Maharishi disciples wanted a game where you could only win if you never killed, injured or damaged anyone or anything in the game. Anything at all.
Well, OK. I bought a stack of books and hit the web. In the dark age of 2000, Year 1 B.W. (Before Wikipedia), I found no Hinduism portal, but there were sites like Hindu Books Universe, Hinduism Today magazine, Kamat’s Potpourri and the Saiva Siddhanta Church in Hawaii. I stumbled on oddities like Saranam (“Hindu Puja and Ritual Services”) and utterly jaw-dropping stuff on About.com’s Alternative Religions page.
Because few of the Maharishi grads had relevant experience, I first pitched a simple puzzle-based design inspired by the 1993 Trilobyte bestseller The 7th Guest. This approach aimed for a humorous, upbeat tone:
“As the game begins, you are a humble monkey who has gotten lucky. In an incident drawn from Hindu myth, you performed a service for Rama’s consort, Sita. As a reward, Hanuman the Monkey God grants you the opportunity to ascend to a new life – perhaps even to the celestial court of Vishnu.
“Searching for enlightenment, you journey through the mysterious astral realm called Mandala. Hanuman, Rama and Vishnu encourage you to solve their puzzles and reward you by teaching you ever higher states of consciousness. Through each state (each game level), you strive to please the gods by demonstrating cleverness. Along the path, you encounter gurus and demons, helpers and thieves, and a rich array of creatures from Indian mythology.
“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 …
Newbie finally understood his team wasn’t ready to tackle a Deus Ex. He grudgingly had me adapt the story to the original puzzle-based approach. Now, the player was the goddess Indrani; Venadatta used corrupt soma to strip her of her powers, then threw her down to Mother Earth. Indrani proceeds across a (sharply reduced) number of levels, progressing linearly by solving puzzles that, we hoped, would be integrated more or less gracefully into the setting. By locating gurus, she gains siddhi powers that help her return to her palace. There, she solves puzzles to purify polluted areas and opens the way to Venadatta, whom she can drive out by tricking him into drinking his own corrupt soma.
With that, I was done. My final check cleared. No one called again. Presumably, the furniture-store heir, having spent well over a year’s allowance for not-so-much, finally pulled the plug in early 2001.
It all happened just this way. If I lie, may I be reborn as a worm.
I never got to visit Fairfield. Though the producer told me of his team’s happy life of 20-minute Transcendental Meditation sessions twice a day under MUM’s twin golden domes, I didn’t apprehend the spectacular weirdness of the Maharishi community until much later, when I found a long list of Maharishi articles compiled by the cult-hunting Rick A. Ross Institute. Note the September 2006 Los Angeles Times story, “A lotus amid the Iowa corn” by Carina Chocano, about the glitzy new MUMburb under construction outside Fairfield, Maharishi Vedic City.
My Hindu shooter originated in Iowa, among Americans. Technically, the experience says nothing relevant about India in gaming. Still, it was a peep into the future; one way or another, whether with Hindu shooters or in a hundred likelier ways, India will eventually become a force in gaming, as audience, developer and, increasingly, as buyer of Western studios.
Currently, India is a minor outsourcing destination (in the game industry, that is) that pulls about $50 million annually in console and PC gaming, and a little more in the mobile space. So far, there’s only one Indian MMOG development shop, Level-Up, which is a branch of a Philippine company that licenses the South Korean game Ragnarok Online for India, Brazil and the Philippines. But Indian gaming is growing fast, piggybacking on the exploding animation business. In September 2006, the Association of Bangalore Animation Industry staged its first conference on animation, visual effects and gaming. Onetime developers have become publishers. Just as large Indian companies outside gaming are going global and taking over foreign firms, Bangalore game publisher Dhruva Interactive plans to quadruple in size within three years, and is looking to acquire game studios in China and Eastern Europe.
One big problem is a lack of skilled workers. The Image College of Arts, Animation & Technology in Chennai, “India’s first digital media college,” is introducing game design classes this year. Wonder if they need an American instructor? Some rash student may conceive a nonviolent Hindu shooter, and someone should be there to slap him and wrestle him to the ground.
Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.