Gamescapes: Indian video game developer Studio Oleomingus reconfigures history

In the fourth part of the series, STIR looks at the vast potential of video games in re-imagining history and visualising the future, building visual and lateral narratives.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 28, 2020

Imagine if the entire human race dissolved into extinction. Tomorrow! Imagine an alien species visited our planet shortly after. What would they learn of our human reality? Where would they learn it from? Our legacy lies in our art and cultural heritage, in the motivations which drive us to create, discover, understand and accept. We are driven by a hunger to make sense of the puzzle that is our world. A hunger, which pulls us into a cyclone that is enveloped in the past, propelled by the future and rooted by the present. If aliens were to rummage through the debris of this cyclone, they would find the pieces of a re-imagined past and an unbuilt future. What is the present really, when it perpetually recalls the past and uses it as a tool to set the foundational bricks of an unfolding future? It might be said that the moment in which we live is created by the tension that pulls apart the spaces between yesterday and tomorrow. Art provides us with evidence of the inarguable relevance of these two parallel realities. The very nature of art itself allows us to explore and gauge how we are influenced by these phenomena. Whether it is about re-telling history in the context of the surrounding narrative of the present, or about visualising and imagining the future, art documents the stories that humanity is influenced by.

Here, we look at the work of an Indian duo comprising Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty. The two-person Studio Oleomingus plays with the boundaries of past and present, using video games as a platform for examining the dynamics of various cogs in history that continue to mould our present.

‘In the Pause Between the Ringing’, supported by V&A London, is an exploratory game part of project ‘Somewhere’ | In the Pause Between the Ringing | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
In the Pause Between the Ringing, supported by V&A London, is an exploratory game part of project Somewhere Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

The inception of Studio Oleomingus dates back to 2014, when Dhruv Jani had just joined a residency programme at Khoj. Here he began project Somewhere, an anthology of text driven video games. He met Chakraborty online via Unity Forum and they began working collaboratively on projects from their respective locations, meeting only on the occasional weekend. Jani says, “Since the both of us were convinced that the video games portended a fundamental shift in how stories are told, and since neither of us was any good at building or understanding games or literature, we figured we would make a perfect team. An author-programmer pair, ignorant enough to be willing to blunder their way through making video games in an attempt to unravel the implications of a discordant medium”.

‘A Museum of Dubious Spendors’, supported by IFA Bangalore, explores non-linear narratives in an absurd yet beautiful setting | A Museum Of Dubious Spendors | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
A Museum of Dubious Spendors, supported by IFA Bangalore, explores non-linear narratives in an absurd yet beautiful setting Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

The dyad explorers of the video game format use the platform’s incredible multiplicity to their advantage, celebrating its ability to tell stories through text and visuals and equally, the capacity to recall the past and visualise it in a nonlinear way, consequently treating it as part of a larger context and not as a solitary event. Jani explains, “We practice at the intersection of post-colonial writing and interactive fiction, using video game spaces as sites of discourse, resistance and record. Using the inherent frivolity of games, we try to study colonial power structures and the histories that they occlude and how interactive fiction might be used to pollute, challenge and intertwine a single reductive record of the past of people. We are keenly interested in the role of languages, translations and questions of authorship. Especially how the record of our lives and the stories of our various identities are remembered and exploited by individuals, organisations, states and archives. How narratives are lost and rebuilt within fissures of identity, community, race and gender, and how these fissured and fragmented stories evolve into profound forms of recollection when compiled as hypertext. With each game we enter into a negotiation with our players, a common pact if you will, that for the duration of the game we will together seek myriad and uncomfortable truths about difficult histories. We believe that privilege in various forms withdraws from us the right to consume our own histories. And in the overwhelming presence of such hegemony, some stories can simply not be told, because the violence of their recollection and the absurdity of their form is not accommodated in the method of their telling”.

A Museum of Dubious Spendors is a storybook from project Somewhere, introducing the writings of Mir Umar Hassan | A Museum Of Dubious Spendors | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
A Museum of Dubious Spendors is a storybook from project Somewhere, introducing the writings of Mir Umar Hassan Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

Studio Oleomingus often incorporates literature into their games, weaving it as one of many threads of their own artistic impressions. For instance, in In the Pause between the Ringing and A Museum of Dubious Splendors, the player is introduced to the writings of Mir Umar Hassan, a fictitious author. Their use of this fictitious literature as hypertext in a game, which is itself nonlinear, emphasises the plurality of history and the fiction of a single narrative. Jani says, “A singular conceit that repeats across all our work is a deliberate delegitimisation of authorial and historical veracity of the stories being told from within the shadow of colonial rule (or any similar modern authority). A conceit that we call: Redacting Authorship - where we nest our work inside a series of fictitious translations and appropriations until any original source for the work is completely obfuscated. Mir Umar Hassan is one such obfuscation… This conceit, of a fictitious author inveigled within the writing of our games and their performance, has allowed us to repurpose local history and to appropriate places of colonial occupation and entangled heritage into virtual domains that become arenas for post-partition and contemporary political and historiographic discourse. We believe that such deliberate obfuscation in the recounting of history is a form of imposed plurality and a powerful site of democratic performance. Hypertext after all is the stage on which the theatre of our public lives is now conducted and the state in which a memory of our performance, recorded. Especially amidst the contemporary revival of a despotic colonial political order, when there is a palpable danger of erasure of plural voices from the margins, there is a grave and urgent need for a pirated history of our times. A munificent history that can assimilate and succumb to stories from a bewildering variety of sources, a history devoid of concerns of authorial prestige and veracity, a history such as can only be written in the form of hypertext”.

01 min watch A peek into ‘A Museum of Dubious Spendors’ | A Museum of Dubious Spendors | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
A peek into A Museum of Dubious Spendors Video Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

Studio Oleomingus works to revive Indian history by shedding new light on its construction. They reclaim both the narrative as well as its surrounding aesthetic by melding commonplace objects of today with colonial iconography, the resulting fusion of which creates a new visual language. The concoction of absurdism and magical realism meet unabashedly vivid colours creating dream-like landscapes, which wash over the player’s visual senses like a cool wave. Jani explains, “Most of our stories exist in small voids. Voids of memory, and an unremarked past, voids of violently repressed cultures and voices. Voids engendered by fractures in time and forms of record. While stories can, to a certain extent, fill such gaps with imagined and fantastical concoctions, the arenas for performing these tales have to be drawn from a recognisable and material reality. Our game spaces therefore become the principal sites of historical reanimation, and in an effort to keep our own privilege at bay, and to avoid appropriating histories of people we scarcely understand, we created an industrialised language of objects that would serve as components of architecture for the world of Somewhere”.

Langoors in the Labyrinth, created with support from Phoenix, Leicester, is an exploration of histories, spaces and language | Langoors in the Labyrinth | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
Langoors in the Labyrinth, created with support from Phoenix, Leicester, is an exploration of histories, spaces and language Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

While the traditional gamer might find their games lacking in the satisfaction of ‘winning’ or ‘beating an opponent’, Studio Oleomingus makes up with their stunning visuals and narrative bending which pushes beyond mere entertainment and ropes in other forms of artistic practice, historiography and literature. What might be difficult to enjoy for a less mature audience, creates abundance for the player interested in history, literature and a wider scope to the world of video games. The pair is currently building their next game, one which promises to be more intricate and longer than the previous ones, titled Under A Porcelain Sun. “Set in Southern Malwa of the 1800s, it is an adventure game that chronicles the journey of two itinerant thieves, exiled from Ujjain and in search of a mythical city called Kayamgadh, and becomes a collection of fissured stories about faith, fervour and disillusionment at the margins of a land opening up to the ravages of colonial rule,” informs Jani. The game is set to be released by the end of 2020.

‘Under A Porcelain Sun’, created with support from IFA Bangalore and Irregular Corp. London, will be playable on Steam | Under A Porcelain Sun | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
Under a Porcelain Sun, created with support from IFA Bangalore and Irregular Corp. London, is playable on Steam Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

While Studio Oleomingus stands inimitable in their practice, there are numerous games which incorporate re-imagined histories and fantastical futures into their gameplay. Some popular examples are Borderlands, Dwarf’s Fortress, No Man’s Sky, Nier: Automata, Outer Wilds and Raji: An Ancient Epic, which is as of yet unreleased.

Studio Oleomingus duo - Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
Studio Oleomingus duo - Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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