A video game tribute to the Feminine

Tara with some of her friends

A while ago, something terrible happened in India, my home country. A young girl, a student, was brutally raped and mutilated by five men in a moving bus and died of her injuries shortly thereafter. As a nation, it shook us to the core. Many of us realized that there was something fundamentally wrong in the relationship between males and females in our country. Every year, millions of female foetuses are aborted in India because males are preferred; it has led to the odd situation that if you’re going to have a baby, it’s illegal to find out if its a boy or girl.

This world of individuals like myself seems to be a cynical, brutal and self-destructive place. When I find myself assigning responsibility for this mess to other individuals, I cannot help but see slivers of the same darkness within. This leads me to examine my life, and further, my work.

I’m a husband and father of three (two human and one canine) and a game designer/developer. Apart from providing for my family, I see my work as a responsibility. I make video games; I also lecture and mentor students at a game development college. Among the subjects I teach is “Influence of Video Games”. I've had to research this subject in some depth, and it has been a revelation. Many games use Operant Conditioning to create addiction in players, and the effects of video game addiction are well documented. I worry about the effects of violence in video games and while there are lots of studies and opinions out there, common sense tells me that a human cannot be exposed to simulated violence for prolonged periods without adverse effects.

A disclaimer: I like playing skill-based games; shooters are my favourite kind of game and I'm a fan of the Halo and Gears of War franchises. I'm also aware of the predominantly masculine, even patriarchal content and tone of most mainstream games. I also strongly believe in the adage ‘To each, his own’ and think that people (and their companies) should be free to create the kind of content they like, as long as it’s rated correctly.

About a year and a half ago, I started working in earnest on a new game concept. In the beginning, I worked on designing the gameplay and mechanics, which form the core of the game. Once we were a ways into creating it, I started to think about the fiction of the game (the game world, characters, theme).

At this point, my daughter Sitara (means the Morning Star) was born and Shit Got Very Real. She had been born into a misogynist, violent world and it struck me that I couldn't just sit there sharing articles on Facebook.

The most effective tool I possess is my work creating video games. I decided to make a game that would strive to be fun without using violence, battle gender stereotype and be engaging without creating addiction through psychological trickery.

I was lucky to be part of a team (a buddy does all the coding and another group of collaborators created the artwork) that supported this direction for our game. We were aware of the consequences of these decisions; we were going against the market. Gratifying violence sells, and a female protagonist in an action game is considered out of place; but then this is exactly what we’re trying to fix.

Bird of Light has taken a year and half to make; for most of this time, we've managed to support ourselves through our part-time teaching jobs, client projects and loans from family. It’s been interesting, to say the least. At one point, you realize that a project born of purpose stops being work and becomes a central part of life; personal and professional challenges start to become indistinguishable. Survival starts to feel like victory and once you've lived like this for a while, the fear leaves.

The Universe has helped; I’ll give it that. Strangers from across the world appeared, willing to collaborate with us for little or no money. A Romanian composer agreed to do the music. A schoolboy from the Czech Republic who happened to be a video editing wizard, made the trailer. There is a stunning nobility to the community of independent video game developers across the world, connected intimately via social media, cooperatively creating the most radical work the world has ever seen.

It seems, however, that the Universe may also want us to market and publish the game by ourselves. Publishers are wary of the theme of the game, particularly the female lead. One asked us outright if we would be willing to change the protagonist to a male; another asked to let players choose between a male and female character. We said No, Tara is a girl, and this is her game. Thousands of games release every day and only the luckiest or the ones with biggest marketing budgets grab the spotlight in the digital stores.

And there’s something else in there that we don’t talk too much about.

Animals.

The game has a deeper theme that explores our relationship with animals. I have a Labrador Retriever, Flor de Lis , whom I love her with all my heart; she is no lesser a child than my human children. Her presence in my life has brought about tumult in my food habits; this is an ongoing struggle that finds expression in the story of the game.

Bird of Light has turned out well; it is truly a game that we are thrilled to have made. It is unapologetically feminine; the gameplay is multi-layered and reveals itself slowly. I’d be lying if I said that we didn't care about how well the game did in the market. We want lots of people to play it, and to this end we've designed the game to be free-to-play.

Bird of Light is in Beta now; that is, a few people are playing it and giving us feedback as I write this. A Soft Launch is planned for January 2016, and we expect a full worldwide iOS/Android launch in Feb/March 2016.

Making a living doing what we love is a rare and awesome super power, one that we have fought hard for; we shall use it wisely.