The art of storytelling usually comes with its special set of nuances.
Being a mode of self-expression which is so rooted in its own traditional utterances, the narratorial voice is often completely lost.
Nodding Heads Games’ avant-garde approach to the Mahishasura Mardini creates a series of contradictory dualities that are at an eternal impasse with each other. And it is this friction which helps create the well-grounded harmony that is Raji: An Ancient Epic.
In an exclusive conversation with Sportskeeda Esports’ Abhishek Mallick, Avichal Singh, the co-founder of Nodding Heads Games, opens up about storytelling in Raji. He talks about the inspirations from both traditional and modern cultures, which helped him and his team make an incredibly successful indie game.
The Art of Storytelling in Raji
Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
Q. Well, everyone likes an origin story. So let’s start at the very beginning with how things took off for you and Nodding Heads Games. How did the company come to be and what were the initial days like?
Avichal: Well, Nodding Heads Games started on the 10th of January 2017, but before we were officially registered, we were working behind the scenes for a while. And if we have to talk about the very first idea of Raji: An Ancient Epic, or back when it was not even called Raji, it all started with our trip to Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) on New Year’s eve in 2013.
So, there is a place there called Patwon ki Haveli which was built during the early 18th century. There was this moment when I was completely awestruck by how beautiful the Haveli was, and the first thing I thought was, “why is this not a video game?”
At that point in my life, I was transitioning from a “game developer” student to almost a professional developer in a year’s time, as I was already in my 4th year.
As I am a game designer and not an artist, I knew by then of course that I will need the whole structure for a team to make my game. I went back to college, where I did know about Shruti, who was, at the time, a game art lecturer in DSKIC Pune.
So while I was graduating from there, she had just joined in, but we had already connected over some amazing Supergiant Games like Bastion and Transistor. DSKIC was also where I met Ian, and what truly inspired us was the fact that Supergiant Games were able to make such incredible games with just an eight-member team.
The fact stuck with us, and we felt that it was something that even we could do. We loved Bastion and Transistor, and we looked up to Supergiant Games and wanted to achieve what they have.
But in the following two years, nothing much was happening for us, and it was only during late 2016 when we actually started playing with the idea of “is this a possibility?”
So it was Ian, Shruti, and I who were the first three in the company, and we soon set our sights on finding a programmer, an animator, and a VFX artist.
The first person whom we found was Paras. He was a very good friend from college, and was at the time, exiting a company that he was working in, looking to take up something new.
Soon, we started prototyping some early stuff in Unity for Raji, but even before that we made a very early version of the game in a PPT, and we had Shruti sketch a number of 2D models. We used those sketches to get some honest feedback from our friends, and surprised them basically by asking, “Hey if this was a game would you play it?”
And when all of them said yes, we started exploring the idea of “can we make this a reality?” Slowly, step by step, in late 2016, we formed a team, and had our first meeting in December in Pune.
For those two years, I was working in Zynga, which I quit later on. Shruti was in EA, Hyderabad, at the time, but also quit, while Ian was still in college.
Soon we all came back to Pune, and we started working on Raji. This was the time when we also added new members to the team - Anirudh our concept artist, Shreyash our 3D environment artist who joined much later, we then found a VFX artist, and Himanshu, our game animator.
Q. Raji is an incredible visual journey. The narrative takes place throughout some amazingly picturesque settings, with a great amount of detail added to every level of design. What were some of the inspirations which went behind Raji turning out to be what it did today?
Avichal: When it comes to video games that inspired us for Raji, the list is rather long, and we actually have a blog about it so do check it out.
From books, movies, and other mainstream media, we saw inspiration coming from Star Wars which Ian loves. Then we saw inspirations coming from a movie called The Fall, which had an amazing narrative, in a passive voice and not an active one. The Fall is one of my favorite movies, and it had a very beautiful setting, where some of the scenes were shot in Rajasthan.
From the fantasy genre, we took inspiration from Lord of the Rings, and there were many others from which the team drew elements from, to incorporate into the game.
There was a lot that came from personal experiences as well, and the team drew from what they liked in certain movies, and which movies they thought would fit these criteria.
Q. The central theme of the game does seem to rely on the notion of “cosmic balance” and how Raji’s journey is essentially a fight to bring about equilibrium to the forces of good and evil. Much can be seen in the dual narrative structure of Durga and Vishnu as well. Why did you and your team choose to go with this style of narrative?
Avichal: What’s at play here is the fact that the dual narration is the process through which we plan the character arc for the story. It represents two sides, or rather two different perspectives, which even though have the same goal in mind, are essentially different in their approach.
If you notice that when Vishnu (who is usually cautious) started to get a bit aggressive and was being intimidated by what Rangda was doing to his capital city of Hiranya Nagari, Durga (whose voice has a sense of urgency) takes a step behind. The way she talks becomes different and she is the one who becomes the voice of caution.
The narration was written in such a way that the voices compliment each other in context to what was happening in the story.
Q. Raji’s story to me felt like a postmodernist re-telling of the Mahishasura Mardini. Is this something that you and your team consciously moved towards when approaching the story?
Avichal: Yes you could say that, as this particular story of the Mahishasura was a big influence on Raji’s story.
Moreover, one of the first murals that were made and painted was of Mahishasura. So we heavily drew from that story, and the fact that most Indian mythologies revolve around how you become immortal. And then that power corrupts you, even when you were not necessarily a bad person to begin with.
The corrupt and immortal being leaves a mess behind, which one has to clean up, and it is the gods who often take up that role, or grant someone the power to do so.
Hence, Mahishasura’s story is very important for Raji’s narrative along with the other murals in which we decided to put in the game. There is a story surrounding Garuda which I personally find to be very interesting and I felt that it perfectly fit the level and the environment where we chose to put it.
Another aspect of Indian mythology that inspired us was how it often represented gods as the ones who are the source of all mess. But there is a duality in their nature, as to clean up the mess, they heed to humanity’s call and try to balance the scales.
And if you might have noticed, in one of the early cinematics, the game shows you how even Mahabalasura came into being. Much like Mahishasura, he too prayed to the gods and was granted with power in return, and that very power is what corrupted him.
We tried to have that sense of familiarity in Raji, but keep the story still fresh. And that’s why when the team started working on the story, we knew that both the Hindu and the Balinese mythology are going to play a big part in helping us take something old and putting a new spin to it.
We wanted to write an original story in a universe that we crafted, and that’s why we particularly chose this story of Raji and Golu. But you know, you can always say that this game is about Durga and Mahishasura played out in a completely different narrative.
We’re storytellers and I think that I would probably get bored if I just saw a story and decided to represent it, in exactly the same way. So, a lot of work went into those stories and I am very proud of how it turned out.
Q. Who were the major contributors to the story in Nodding heads Games?
Avichal: So it was primarily Shruti, Ian, and myself who were involved with the story. And the three of us have spent countless hours on these excel sheets, trying to figure out the direction into which we can take the narrative forward.
Then we would pick a story and bring it to the rest of the team and tell them that this is the direction in which we want to move forward.
And there were so many things that we used to be confused about when deciding on what background or context the story will stem out of. The rest of the team members would then give us feedback and then we would act on it, and that’s how Raji’s story was shaped.
Much later, during the production phase, we hired a narrative writer for the actual script, as we wanted a professional to write the dialogues for Durga and Vishnu.
Q. When it comes to providing Raji, the protagonist with weapons, you chose to take them straight out of Indian mythology. So why did you particularly pick 4? And why was your choice the ‘Trishul’, the ‘Sharanga’, the ‘Nandaka and Srivatsa’, and the ‘Sudarshan Chakra’?
Avichal: The Trishul was a very obvious choice for us, because of how it stands out. The silhouette is very striking and in terms of gameplay, we feel that it was ideal because of how it works with the character.
It’s very famous to our culture, as well as the western culture where it’s called the Trident, which is something I felt that a great many of the players will be able to relate to. Now, a similar theory applies to the “bow and arrow” and “sword and shield” as well, because it’s in the ‘Action-Adventure’ genre where you see the use of these two weapons a lot.
And we wanted to use weapons which players will be familiar with and have a previous knowledge of from other games. But we tried to bring in new mechanics to each weapon which gave gameplay in Raji a fresh new element.
Hence, that was the primary thought process. And when it comes to the “Nandaka and Srivatsa” particularly, incorporating a great deal of martial arts was required from a gameplay perspective.
So for inspiration, we drew elements from the “Gatka” which is a form of “sword and shield” martial arts among the Sikhs. It was a huge reference for us, and as we have portrayed Raji to be an acrobatic street performer, we were very easily able to blend that particular form of martial arts into her movement.
Moreover, the movie - The Fall, too had a Sikh warrior who used the “Gatka” style of martial arts, and to me, it just looks amazing. The movement was smooth, fluid, and it fit Raji’s profile incredibly well.
So all the weapons in the game come from a gameplay point of view, from a story point of view, as well as from a cultural point of view.
When it comes to the Sharanga, we tie up the weapon to the giant bow that you break right before Vishnu blesses Raji with it.
Even in the 1992 animated Ramayana movie, you will find an iconic scene where Lord Rama breaks the celestial bow “Pinaka” while attempting to tie a bowstring to it. Both “Pinaka” and “Sharanga” are sister bows created by Vishwakarma. While the latter was given to Vishnu, the former was blessed to Lord Shiva, which he may have later thrown down to earth.
And this is how we were trying to draw parallels to Hindu mythology with Raji’s narrative
Q. What was your thought process behind tying up various elements to the weapons? Fire, Thunder, and Ice, each played a unique role in the game, and you were able to tie them up to the story quite masterfully.
Avichal: Elementals I think were also drawn from the “Action-Adventure” genre itself, and given the sole fact that we get to see elemental passives play out in so many games, we felt like incorporating them.
Moreover, at times we even see the elementals propping up in Hindu mythology from time to time, examples like Indra and his thunderbolts, Agnidev… etc. helped us realize that the weapons needed an extra layer added to them from the gameplay point of view.
And the layers came from the story itself, where we tried to incorporate the fact that gods can grant elementals to Raji as well, and are not just limited to gifting weapons. Additionally, these elements play a part where they are utilized throughout the game and change gameplay significantly once you start mixing and matching the various elements and weapons.
Keeping gameplay fresh is a challenge and these elementals help us diversify the passive abilities at least.
Q. The art of the antagonist Rangda feels very similar to the designs which are prevalent in the works of Atlus co., namely the Persona and the Shin Megami Tensei series. Was her art for Raji inspired by some of these games?
Avichal: Not really. We found out about Hindu mythology and character representation in Persona much later. And Rangda was our favorite choice for the antagonist in Hiranya Nagari from the very start of the project.
We knew that the universe that we’re trying to create is a crossover between Hindu and Balinese mythology and both of these cultures have big overlaps and similarities.
Rangda has a backstory related to Durga which is very interesting, and when we saw her for the first time, everyone in the team was like “Yes! That is a boss.”
Now, if you read about Rangda or even try to draw her from imagination, then you will probably end up somewhere similar to what we have done. There are a lot of temples and scriptures in Bali, that represent Rangda exactly like this.
There is a whole dance play in Bali, which is quite similar to the one we have here during Dussehra. The dance also known as the ‘Bali-Barong’ dance depicts the eternal battle between good and evil, where Barong defeats the demon queen Rangda and makes her flee.
Q. The way you used Mandalas and Demon tree puzzles in the game were quite interesting. Symbolically, they represent a lot of what is going on in the game. The whole backdrop of purification and Mandalas acting as gateways to past memories are very unique in terms of storytelling. Why did you use them the way you decided to?
Avichal: So, the first iteration of the Mandalas started in 2017 and the idea of puzzles in Raji was to not have them be challenging.
We knew that the combat itself would be taking a load on the player’s head because of how intense it could get for some particular players. Hence, puzzles formed the in-between negative space to help the players find a point of relaxation.
You can solve the Mandalas and the demon trees at your own pace, as there was no timer to hurry you along.
During the initial Kickstarter development, we started with an actual Mandala, giving it a pattern supporting three different colors. Back then this was all we could do, and after making the mechanics, we saw that it worked and people enjoyed it and liked matching these three circles.
At the time we only had a VFX play out for a successful Mandala solve, and a door would just open out. However, this time around, when we started the full production of the game, in between the brainstorming, and I have no idea at what point, we came up with the idea of giving Raji and Golu a back story through the use of the Mandala.
The idea of giving them a context came from two thoughts that ran in parallel, one was that Demon Trees show you a glimpse from the future, and Mandalas show you a glimpse from the past.
So when you come across a Mandala you always see Raji, Golu, or even Raji’s parents after solving the puzzle, and this is how we decided to provide her with a relatable context.
This was the thought process behind the mechanics and the storytelling and we knew Mandals had to come in the game in some form, as we are making a story that is heavily inspired by Indian mythology.
The Demon trees represent cleansing, it represents corruption as well as the cycle of change. So the thought process behind including them in the game was that Raji is powerful enough to affect the actual world, and the player needs to feel that.
So how do we incorporate this feature in our game? We knew about Demon Trees from Hindu mythological stories, where these temples and places of worship had giant trees that were very powerful.
But that power was turned over by the demons to use them as actual portals that would allow them to phase in and out of the human world. So these Demon Trees were actual locations where demons would spawn and that itself corrupted the place. And we gave Raji the power to purify the corruption and restore the place to what it used to be.
The glimpses of the future worked quite well with what was happening with Golu and showed who Mahabalasura is and what he is up to. This allowed us to provide more context to the progression of the story.
Q. The word Raji means “Name of a King” or “the one who shines”. Was there a great deal of thought that went behind the name of the game as well as the name of the protagonist?
Avichal: Well, not really, and neither was it something that we randomly picked. The name of the project started during the first version of the sketches, when we were playing with the idea of making a protagonist who is Durga’s devotee.
It was a work in progress for a very long time, and we used to keep the files of the game in the main folder called Rajasthan. Ian, who is a co-founder and Art Director, has this habit of shortening names, as he is from the UK, and has a difficult time keeping up with each of our names.
So he shortened Avichal to “Avi” and Shruti to “Shru”, so whenever we used to talk about Rajasthan he couldn’t pronounce it properly. And when it came to the character for the game, he just said it, he said “Raji”, and realized that it’s a name which fits perfectly with what we are trying to make.
That’s when the name finally came in, and everyone agreed that the name Raji was perfect and it has that element in the name itself, the name also has its original roots in Rajasthan and ties up incredibly well with Raji’s character.
Q. Cinematics playing out in the form of a puppet show is something that is very unique to Raji. It tied up with the story and the backdrop perfectly and allowed players to have a more interactive experience with the narrative. How did you come up with the idea of using puppet shows in Raji?
Avichal: I have a very interesting story when it comes to this.
Raji was initially supposed to have 3D cinematics, there was no plan for any 2D cinematics or even a puppet show for that matter. Our animator had already done a small test, and we had decided to go with it as 3D cinematics looked and felt very immersive.
However, five months later, we saw the first version of the cinematics, which were looking very promising. But taking the cinematics from the place it was looking promising, to a place from which it looks presentable to our international audience, is a big journey.
And we don’t not have enough time to make our animator go through that. That’s one of the biggest decisions during the development phase of the game when we felt that we had to ditch 3D cinematics entirely.
This is where the 2D cinematics came in. During our early days, we came across “Wayang,” which is a distinct form of puppet show in Bali, and we just loved how it represented stories. So we tried to incorporate a similar shadow puppet show in Raji, and puppet shows, we realized, are integral to so many cultures across the world as well.
“Kathputli” in India is a big deal, and we knew that a lot of people relate to that, but we figured that shadow puppetry was the best way forward and that it is something we should stick with.
I think the whole idea of storytelling and how these things relate to your childhood, and how Golu specifically is a puppeteer, ties back beautifully to the story and narrative.
Q. What are your thoughts on the ending of Raji, and why did you choose to keep it open-ended the way you did?
Avichal: We kept the story open-ended because we felt that putting a full-stop to the universe will not be the best idea right now. We did want to keep things a bit open not just for the player but for ourselves as well.
You never know when we might plan for a sequel, and though you might just spin it off as a one time game, we would still like to keep future possibilities open.
So it was more beneficial for us to let Mahabalasura escape than to have Raji kill him then and there.
The primary goal of the ending was to have Raji and Golu unite, and though it might not be a complete closure, it solves a lot of our purposes.
Q. Raji’s BGM and sound effects provided a sense of ‘synesthesia’; at least when I was playing it. Can you provide me with some insight on all the difficulties that you faced while incorporating sound into the game, and how you went about giving it so much detail?
Avichal: Our music composer started working very early on in the project, and we decided to present the sound in the story and levels through emotions. The player is supposed to feel what Raji is feeling and we wanted to create an emotional connection between the two.
It is with this thought process that we started to design the music in the game layer by layer. Hence, combat music, or the layout of the music of a particular level, represents the emotions that Raji is personally feeling.
And this is how we were able to provide each level with its own unique soundtrack, and unique set of instruments.
Moreover, the Unreal Engine allowed us to record stems, which are basically 16 different instruments that can go on and off based on a trigger. This helped us to choose a particular set of instruments which represent particular emotions and particular tempo and allot them to various places in the game.
So when you put instruments on and off, like 4,7,9, which is probably the Violin, or the Guitar or the Sarangi, we are able to provide an entirely different feeling compared to 10, 11, and 12 which is Tabla or just Ghungroo, or let’s say an Electric Guitar or an even something as subtle as a base.
With the help of the Unreal Engine, our composer was able to come up with this kind of structure for each level, and then from there, he derived a unique combination for each structure and each movement in the game.
Music in Raji does follow the pacing of the game, as well as the intensity and the emotions that the story represents.
Q. How did you plan out the settings and the various maps for the game? Is there anything particularly special about the progression that they followed?
Avichal: The map choices for us started very early during pre-production when we decided on this. And the fact that we were trying to apply real-world themes, we had to look at this universe as a real one, where we ask ourselves “When Raji is traveling through these places, how far in real-time these places are? How much will the infrastructure and foliage change with each map and level?”
The first map, Runes, was simply a representation of Raji’s inner feelings. The theme revolved around “broken” and how distraught Raji felt when she was not able to save her brother, who is her only family.
So the story starts in Runes, and in the first few minutes, the players find Durga near the cave exit. This symbolizes an underlying theme of hope, and is also the place and time when the combat in the game gets unlocked.
In the cave, Raji starts off tame, timid, and constrained. The surroundings are dark and Raji’s progression is quite hesitant until she exits the cave; however, even then the environment is quite grey, and that presents the inner turmoil and doubt that Raji still has.
The map Fort, for us, was a classic setting, and it was definitely something that we wanted to incorporate in the game. We did go for a small trip to Rajasthan for inspiration and we went through these massive forts from which we took a lot of inspiration.
The Amer Fort and the Jaisalmer Fort can be quite overwhelming and that is how we decided that for the player as well, the entry to the fort level will also be something overwhelming.
The level, much like the real-life forts, is huge, and all the feelings that the players had of rescuing Golu quickly, instantly dissipates. Right before the Fort level, you kill a mini-boss and you feel very powerful, and with Fort, we try to negate a lot of that. It represents that there is still a long way to go before Golu is rescued.
The subsequent maps help Raji realize that there is a bigger universe at play here, and there is a bigger quest she needs to accept rather than just saving her brother. With the dead villagers and a child dying in her arms, Raji realizes that along with saving Golu, she needs to save the entire world as well.
Thematically the settings represent how Raji will go from caring for her little brother to caring for the entire world, and broaden her vision in the process.
The capital city Hiranya Nagari was the biggest level. And while developing the map, we tried to imagine the capital city of the Human Kingdom in that era. So we thought of a place that flourished, and the human race flourished, so much that they became careless.
You will see these places of leisure, you will see that the cities are almost made of gold at places, and with cogs and levers, it’s almost an engineering marvel.
Moreover, with the capital city, we wanted the players to relax a little, and not throw combat at them right away. We tried to introduce the peacock in this level as well, as that would work as a reminder that Raji’s quest is more than just about her quest of finding her brother.
The Mystic level, which comes after this, is rather far, and we imagine the setting taking place in the foothills of the Himalayas. The level was inspired by the saints and sadhus from India, and we represented them as the only race who knew about magic in Raji.
The mystics were once a unified race, but once the demons disappeared and humans became careless, there was no need for mystics anymore. The mystics then disbanded themselves from the rest of the human race and settled themselves near the Himalayas.
Hence the underlying theme of overgrown foliage represents how untouched this place is, and there is a civilization here that lives with nature but is under siege by the evil forces of Mahabalasura, who himself was once a mystic.
All of these themes came naturally to us because this is what we wanted to showcase keeping in mind the context of the story required.
Lastly, the final desert level (Desert of Thar) is something that we wanted to keep mysterious and represent it at a place where gods once used to reside. The desert shows how long it has been since the gods left. It’s in ruins, and the place is quite desolate, but it still possesses some form of residual magic in it.
And this residual magic is what Mr. M (Mahabalasura) is trying to take advantage of, by the end of the game.
Q. Raji has some unique designs for enemies. What were your inspirations behind them?
Avichal: Most of the AI came first from the game design point of view. Ian, Anirudh, and I were the most involved in this process and tried cooking up enemies by keeping combat requirements in mind.
So questions like “is it a tank?” “is it agile?” “is it something that blows itself up?” “How does this AI affect gameplay?” “Do they add something new to the gameplay?” “Do they feel too familiar to the other AI? How do we add variation?,” all these we were thinking of during pre-production and charted them down on an excel sheet with particular attributes, character streaks, and how they will visually look in text form. We even took inspiration from Pinterest and put up all these ideas in a slide show and took it over to the art team for them to go over.
Ian and Shruti did eventually decide upon bringing the whole Balinese mythology into Raji’s universe. They even met someone in Bali who actually handcrafted Demon masks, and after seeing how amazing his work was, I guess they wanted to incorporate it, and it fit perfectly in the story that we were trying to make.
So whenever the design requirements come, we go through it, reiterate it a bit if required, and then we do silhouettes and then go through the whole process of creating a character from just a design requirement.
Q. The inclusion of Kali’s alter was something that I found to be rather curious. What were your thoughts behind it?
Avichal: Kali plays a very vital role in Indian mythology, and we wanted to represent her in the game in some way.
As the team loves to incorporate gameplay and story together, we tried to go with the angle that Kali’s shrines are still left in the human world and they are both places of worship and places of power.
So Kali is someone who you need to please. As she adheres to violence, if you are fighting in that particular area the shrine charges up, irrespective of who is hitting whom. If you are hitting the “Gadasuras” or getting hit by them, the shrine will charge up nonetheless.
So Raji is being empowered by Kali; however, not directly off of how well she is fighting. You will need to impress her and appease her desires to gain boons from her.
Q. Why did you want to develop a game for the console and PC market and not for mobile? As Indian game developers are generally more inclined towards exploring the mobile market.
Avichal: The reason we made this game for PC and console is because of our own background as developers and as PC and console gamers. So these platforms are places where we understand games better.
Now we could probably develop another game later on after a lot of research, but Raji for us was a passion project. People came together to make something that they wanted to rather than settle for making a free to play mobile game just because it’s probably going to make them money.
Raji was a representation of our dream, of our passions, and our love for video games, and we have drawn inspiration from so many of these other games, right? Hence PC and console were the obvious choices for us.
Moreover, porting this game and having it run on mobile is not an easy job, and that was never really a part of our development plan. It takes a lot of extra resources to achieve that, along with a lot of testing. So, that’s why we were much more confident with PC and consoles first.
Q. Raji: An Ancient Epic was recently nominated for the Best debut Indie game at The Game Awards 2020. The game had a lot of support over the recent months, and there were even times when prominent esports personalities of the nation were streaming the game on their channels. How did you feel about the number of positive responses you got from them?
Avichal: I am honestly thankful to the Indian streamers for doing this because I feel and believe that something like this asks for a cultural change. All their audiences like PUBG Mobile, Valorant, Call of Duty Mobile, Free Fire got a chance to watch their professionals play something which was not a first-person shooter.
And in a previous interview, I did mention that I don't care if some people are getting upset with the game, because a majority of Raji’s player base loved it. Some big names like Mortal and Scout played Raji and they too loved it.
So because of this, I feel that it matures their audience a little, and shows them that here is an indie game set in India, made in India, and your favorite esports pro is playing it. It goes onto lay some groundwork for future developers in the nation.
I would personally love to see the streamer community and the developer community collaborate for future projects, as this is the way that this industry can progress.
And I feel that just someday, it might help people grow together as a result.