An interview with the creators of Unrest, an Indian RPG like no other
Pyrodactyl Games is what happens when a studio decides to make games for itself rather than chase what’s trending.
Forged from the heady fever than encapsulated many a ’90s kid with an aptitude for code and games; Arvind Yadav, founder of Pyrodactyl, cut his teeth by working on Half-Life 2 mods such as Dystopia.
On discovering that licensing the Source engine was cost-prohibitive, he decided to go ahead and make his own game engine. The Source isn’t exactly suited for 2D games anyway, and making his own engine also enabled him to learn a lot of programming fundamentals.
This resulted in Pyrodactyl’s debut effort, A.Typical RPG. In his words, it was a game on “how much college sucks and my god, aren’t adults annoying!?”.
Following this was Will Fight For Food, a quirky role-playing brawler and now, Unrest, an RPG set in ancient India. I managed to have a conversation with Yadav on what makes Pyrodactyl different, why Unrest isn’t your usual RPG, and the social issues prevalent in his latest effort.
I started making games when I was in college. Pyrodactyl is a studio that makes role-playing games and [they] usually have very different conversation mechanics. My first game had you choosing tone and emotions instead of replies. The second one allowed for over 48 different responses to a query in some case. And Unrest has a different way of judging an NPCs opinion of the player by using three variables: friendship, respect and fear.
One of the rare PC-only developers
In a country where mobile game developers are in the majority, it’s rare to see someone develop for PC. Reason being, for most it doesn’t make commercial sense despite the humungous install-base and new found profitability. Yadav seems to be cut from a different cloth. He doesn’t throw statistics, numbers or jargon around. Rather, his reasons for sticking to the PC as a development platform revolve around personal interest:
I think part of it is that I always wanted to make games that I would play. When I was growing up the games I played were on PC. I’m a huge fan of the Prince of Persia trilogy, and my brother and I played a lot of Virtua Fighter 2 on PC as well. I never really got into mobile games growing up. People when given the freedom make games that they want to play. I guess if someone grew up playing mobile games, they’d gravitate to that.
What makes a game “Indian”?
While it’s admirable for him to follow his passion, it was odd to see a game from India, steeped in Indian culture. His reasons for making Unrest were, in his words: “To see Indian stories and Indian protagonists in video games, which is super rare”. His goal was to make something holistic and organic that wouldn’t seem like a force-fit by any stretch:
What I was interested in was modelling social and caste systems in a game. To make a game Indian I can’t take Super Mario and put the guy in a dhoti kurta [traditional Indian clothes]. Or if it plays like a match-3 where the diamonds or whatever are Indianised a bit, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t feel Indian. It’s better to consider mechanics, plot and how the game plays to give it the right feel.
Though Unrest is set in ancient India, unlike most portrayals of the era, there are no elements of mythology. Modern day Indian entertainment is replete with flying chariots and magic weapons thanks to TV shows based on epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. And if it’s not that, period pieces such as Bollywood’s Ashoka and Jodhaa Akbar focused on the grandeur of their respective era.
Compared to these, Unrest is extremely grounded. You play normal characters and you don’t have any super-powers. There’s scarcely any combat. In an age where video games are synonymous with empowerment, it’s a different take. But it’s deliberate, he tells me:
When you give the player a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So combat will undermine the message we’re trying to tell in the game. It’s just another mechanism. There’s no rule that your game has to revolve around combat. We went for a grounded approach because that’s suits what Pyrodactyl usually does: games with multiple endings, scenarios and options.
He goes on to explain that there’s a need to have more than just the binary outcome that combat provides in all games i.e. kill or be killed, and that it’s usually an attempt by developers to resolve gameplay systems that aren’t as cohesive as they should be. Instead of adding one more mechanic, it made more sense to focus on a few that haven’t been done in this manner before.
Fundamentally I think, in any RPG for me, are interpersonal relationships, how I role-play my character: am I [socially] removed? Do I try to please everyone? Do I please a few people? Generally RPGs are about role-playing in a world. If we put combat in it, for example the demo scenario, the entire weight of the social system is lost.
He goes on to explain that combat happens Unrest when the player ends up angering way too many NPCs. It’s meant to take you by surprise and that it is possible to play the game in its entirety without experiencing combat at all. A single play through is around three to four hours, he tells me. In order to experience everything the story has to offer, you’ll need to play it at least twice.
Why did you choose to make an RPG?
The lack of combat might have you thinking of other genres, like visual novels, and it did have me wondering as to why Unrest wasn’t a visual novel instead of an RPG. Yadav tells me it’s because that’s the way the game was envisioned. Though some might find traversing across farms in a village an annoyance, the idea was to focus on exploration:
I play a lot of visual novels for story structure and such. But when I was thinking of ancient India, in my head it was it was walking on a dusty path in a village, much like the demo you see.
And this focus extends to the game’s UI and level structure. Unlike most games that give you a hint (if not a full picture view of what your choices would lead to), Yadav prefers not handholding the users with the use of colored dialogue options or choices labelled as good or evil as he feels it dilutes the experience rather than make it richer.
Unrest‘s demo had you in the role of a girl named Tanya all set to be married off at the tender age of 15 to a man from a different caste. She’s just one of the many characters you end up playing in the game, but the most interesting. That may be because although Yadav is male, he made sure women were involved in the game’s development process, too. He told me: “I’ve had freelancers who were women work on this game. Some have been doing commissioned art for the project since 2012 and others have had input on the narrative.”
Social issues in Unrest
Further along the discussion I asked him about something he mentioned on the game’s Kickstarter page: that the game would feature social issues prevalent in India today. He was a bit hesitant at first, fearing to offend some of the more sensitive sections of the internet, but he eventually opened up, saying:
For example, the scenario in the demo, it deals with stuff like child marriage and arranged marriage, it touches on the caste system. Later on you play as a priest. In olden times priests would go door to door for alms, diksha as it was called, we touch upon that aspect as well as begging. And the last scenario has tones of communal violence.
Not exactly scandalous or taboo, but it’s a start. Most games from India rarely touch upon social issues. Be it arranged marriage or the caste system, these things are rarely discussed in games. It’s refreshing to see the most interactive of mediums delve into some of these issues in a manner that so far appears balanced and nuanced.
While Yadav doesn’t have any concrete plans on what he’s working on next, what with the launch of Unrest weighing heavily on his mind, I can’t wait to see what’s next from Pyrodactyl.
Unrest is out next week on July 23. From what we’ve played it looks to be one of the better games coming out of India in a long time. Stay tuned to our full review.
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