Somewhere: abstract Indian indie exploration game explores aftermath of colonial rule
Somewhere is an abstract first-person exploration game created by Indian indie team, Oleomingus. You manipulate gravity to traverse the undulating, angular landscape on a quest to discover the whereabouts of a missing person. As you travel, you encounter invisible spirits with their own internal monologues. You can possess them and learn more about the world through their commentary and conversations they have with other characters.
It sure looks unusual, but this isn't an exercise in arbitrary fantasy imagery. Somewhere will attempt to represent the enmeshed perspectives of an entire community. Lead developer, Dhruv, was inspired by the people he met studying a series of insular fishing towns on the West coast of India. Those psychedelic shapes you see in the shot above are abstractions of fauna and architecture from the region. The developers have woven those inspirations into a story set in the early '50s, in the aftermath of India's declaration of independence from British colonial rule. I called up Dhruv to find out more.
The "where" in Somewhere is a fictional place called Kayamgadh, an amalgamation of characters and experiences recorded from populations in and around the West Indian towns of Bordi, Daman and Nargol. "We were doing a small ethnographics survey over there and I was mapping the place," Dhruv explained. "We entered the community and started talking to them. We stayed for about fifteen days. At the end of the whole process of getting to know everybody I wanted to take the whole idea of a complex community and put it into an interactive medium. We started experimenting with using Unity."
Somewhere is both an artistic and journalistic endeavour. Stories recorded from these very private communities will make their way into the game. "We are actually going to the village, photographing it, talking to people there and trying to distil characters. There's a character in the game world, he's a barber, he has been staying there for about 20, 30 years inside the dump, he also has this secret stash of alcohol which he smuggles to the neighbours.
"We had these small, small characters detailed with their own individual stories that you'll start exploring once you are inside the game world. By listening to them talk to other characters, and by making your character talk to them."
The lurid colours and ambiguous forms of Somewhere's environments are designed to alienate. A straightforward representation of the communities that inspired Somewhere would be difficult and problematic, relying much on the designers' interpretations of local customs and events. There's a sense that an abstraction inspired by those communities can do more to evoke the character of a place than a direct photo-realistic recreation.
By way of example, Dhruv drew my attention to the twisting, tree-like forms in the screenshot above. "That is directly derived from Mangrove clusters that you find on the coastal towns," he explained. "They have all these crooked forms, absurd branches going around. But we removed the colour and the feel of the Mangrove cluster, which usually very dark and moist, and replaced it with a very absurd orange that you see in the screenshot."
This environmental alienation extends to your avatar's abilities, which are deliberately restrictive. You have freedom of movement, but you cannot converse directly with the characters. You can only initiate conversations while possessing a character, and then you have no control over the content or direction of what's discussed. You're never one of the people. You're a tourist attempting to appropriate a foreign community by slipping clumsily between voices. In this way Somewhere confronts the player with the limitations of a colonial perspective.
"What we are trying to do is create a very uncomfortable game world in some ways, create a very absurd space. The feelings about the game world should be that the player feels as though they are outside the game world always. You should not become one of the characters."
Somewhere unifies narrative and spatial exploration in a similar way to Dear Esther. Dhruv mentioned that thechineseroom's haunting exploration game provided plenty of inspiration. "I really like that game, it's fantastic! It's beautiful," he enthused.
"With Dear Esther they've retained control of the player. The player can only do certain things within the game, physically, whereas the storytelling is more random. The story keeps popping up several times, in a different order depending on where you are in the space. We are doing something similar, but we're giving complete control to the player to move around as he wants, but we take control of the storytelling. You cannot even listen to what he's replying, the person he's taking to, you can only listen to the person who's speaking."
Somewhere will be released for free on Oleomingus' site and their Indie DB page when it's done. They're also working on a recently Kickstarted turn based strategy called Oxygen, and are sketching out "a very peculiar gravity shooting arcade game." The team consists of Dhruv, a dedicated musician and a small group of part time programmers. I had one more question. Is Dhruv operating as part of a bustling indie scene in India, or are the team working alone?
"I know of one developer in a city close by, but I have not had any contact with them, they develop for the touch devices, I think. Other than that we are developing in a bubble," Dhruv laughed. "I don't know of anybody who does independent gaming. Explaining to people what we do is also very, very difficult."