Studio Oleomingus

Deconstructing colonial histories through interactive worlds

August 28, 2020 / Interview by Jamin Warren | Photography by David Evan McDowell

Dhruv Jani makes up one half of Studio Oleomingus, an independent game design studio based in Chala, a town in the Indian state of Gujarat. Blending play with postcolonial narrative and thought, literary translation, and architectural worldbuilding, Studio Oleomingus’ body of work aims to interrogate political histories and dismantle power structures in India and the world at large.

At the conceptual heart of the studio’s work are questions of memory: whose stories are remembered, who they are remembered by, and who allows them to be remembered. We caught up with Dhruv about the commemorative power of narrative worldbuilding, the legacy of colonialism in the realm of games, and folding contemporary politics into interactive design.

What was it like training in architecture and exhibition design, and how did it influence your approach to building worlds?

I started training to be an exhibition designer, and then to become a temporary architect. My final project in school was to create a video game or a video game-like space. That is where I started looking seriously at games—if they could become places where very interesting dialogues could be conducted.

At that point, I was not even thinking of video games as a medium. I was so excited to have spaces that were not bound by constraints of working on-site or as part of an architectural process. I’ve never worked onsite except for in college, and I hated it. It was liberating to be able to shift away dramatically and start to use space that’s far more open than a [physical] site.

That was, of course, quite a while ago. [Chuckles] Since then, both in practice and concept, I try to move away from spaces being the dominant lens through which I view a game. I see them as sites of discourse and dialogue.

Can you unpack what it means for your games to be sites of dialogue? 

When I’m building a game, I’m hoping that it will be played, but I’m also aware that the game can exist without anybody ever playing it. It’s the notion of a player capable of playing the game, but also a dialogue with me trying to wrestle with whatever intended logic or system I’ve built into that particular game, to try and figure some fundamental truths of narrative impulse embedded inside.

Is there a persona or person that you’re making games for? Writers often try to write with a person in mind. Sometimes that person is real. Sometimes that person is imagined. Maybe they’re a class of humans or even a version of themselves. Who is that person for you? Also, how has growing up in India, and having experience with colonialism and its legacy impacted your worldbuilding?

It’s not so much a player. All our work is adapted from the writings of the character called Mir Umar Hassan, an author who does not exist. In many ways, I want the games to serve as a translation of his works. I imagine him not so much playing them, but being aware of the fact that the game exists as a natural continuation of his work, pushing it towards the kind of completion that was not originally achieved in its original textual form.

Each game is an attempt to try and take Umar Hassan’s original pieces and then build upon it within a contemporary context. A lot of the work is rooted in what is happening in India, either what’s happening now or what has happened—and how it is remembered with or reconciled with at the same time. There is always a dominant Indian at the other end who is going to play.

A lot of game designers talk about their games in this ahistorical way. You’re taking what seems like a very natural point of view because the experience you have is the experience that you have.

Game tools automatically seem ahistorical and apolitical or at least, atheistic in how they are configured. There’s a tradition of tools and game techniques, styles, control systems, and there’s the legacy you have to follow to be able to end up with what is recognizably a game that people can interact with.

But it rubs against an impulse for vernacular control over what it is that you are trying to tell inside games. And I completely understand the impulse to suppress the game-making process entirely from it being rooted from there, but that also makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Still from A MUSEUM OF DUBIOUS SPLENDOURS

Digital tools have biases—any form of user interaction has a bias towards something not just in terms of its endstate, but also the thing itself. What were some of those biases?

There are two dominant biases that we always struggle with. One is language. All game-making tools are in English, and there is a particular kind of English which is very didactic, strict, and sudden. It’s imperious in how it forces you to structure and name and associate your games.

Traditional tools can often be even more overwhelming. You have to ask precise questions on forums that are all guarded spaces in very specific ways, not open to allowing discussions beyond certain domains. Literacy seems to be funneled through a very specific cultural lens. It forces everybody to become eurocentric, at least, to begin with, and then work their way back.

What are some of the things that you feel are unique to your context that add to the larger tapestry of game making?

There are lots of small details that we embed into most of our games that only reveal themselves to people that have adequate context. If a Gujarati speaker or a Marathi speaker is playing our game, then the main role characters will mean something very specific. Often, something ridiculous, political, or strange. The same goes for motives that you see on walls. Old posters, the titles of books, sometimes shapes of buildings, and how and where they are cobbled together from. Usually, because it is such a dense and energetic mixture of components that we have taken from places around us.

Without that context, it becomes a single matter without all these interjections grating you that you need to read it, which also makes them extremely local and requires the players to sort of meet us halfway, by having to learn Gujarati or Marathi. That degree of specificity, even if it makes the game redundant, or even if it makes it unplayable for a lot of people, is very interesting. That lets us wind the story around all these constraints that we have set for ourselves as I’m building it.

I wanted to ask about story worlds; this idea of these larger universes in which something sits. It seems like you share in that idea because there is a consistent theme, but your approach to it feels much more ‘authored.’

I’m obsessed with trying to figure out how to tell stories of a place, of Dharampur, the ones in the place that I live in. I’m also obsessed with trying to figure out how to tell stories of a place where the stories have ceased to exist. They simply have vanished. The very few stories that do remain are actively being effaced. The processes of how those stories are remembered, of writing histories of these places but also lived memories of these people are an overwhelming concern. All that automatically results in some kind of a contiguous set of facts and narratives and histories between the games. 

Some common points of conduct in how we approach games: they are more lore-like. There tends to be a history surrounding the games not already present in the works. They are dramatically different both in approach and intent from a shared universe or an active lore-making process where you write an entire space that’s a counterpart to the real world and posit your stories within it and try and keep them as consistent as possible. I don’t find that particularly appealing as a process.

You have a unique sense of scale that is hard to replicate in the real world—trying to exceed the eye; giving clarity to the sense that there is something much larger than them. Can you tell me a little bit about the primacy of objects in your practice?

The scale started as a very physical thing. A very simple tool to jolt the player into a different sort of physical domain, or rather a virtual domain through which they are moving. The scale then becomes the tent pole artifact that you can then navigate around. A giant toothpaste tube simply becomes a feature of the landscape.

A while ago I realized that scaling up objects could also become very interesting to the language, like giant toothpaste tubes. If I posit them in the 1960s, it becomes dramatically different from 1842 or 43. I randomly posit some shapes together and start to see what comes out of it.

That was a fascination with scale that the rest of us continue in most of the environments that have started to withdraw from a little bit. I still like putting gigantic objects in extremely small spaces or defining landscapes within very large objects. The scale has to reveal more of what you are trying to demonstrate—the extent of landscape interaction. Tilting it, trying to demonstrate the intent of a population without showing people in the game, and morph it into all these other explorations of scale or volume.

In your games, the objects themselves seem to be generally more universal or they’re identifiable in a lot of ways. I had to look some words up, but the object seems to be at least consistently universal. 

Our games are often set, 60 years in the past, or 120, or even 30 years in the past. And words from that period have survived better than objects have.

The generic objects that we use in our games is a ‘language-of-objects’ that is immediately available to me, and it is very different from a landscape that I would set out to recreate if I were to do it historically. It is like an integration between two disparate times, where words harken back to a specific history while the Objects (and landscapes) tend to lock the games into a very specific cultural space. Without such generic objects profusely scattered through our gameworlds, it is easier to slip into forms of appropriation without recognizing that you’re doing so—especially when working with stories and languages that do not entirely belong to me or that I have little familiarity with.

With language, at least it is easier to parse through your own writings and then revise them so that you don’t make glaring errors of appropriation—but without the same processes, you would inevitably do that in a visual medium looking to reanimate history, because the temptation is simply too strong. The use of generic objects helps soften that.

You are a commercial partner with Technicolor, but then also supported by the India Foundation for the Arts. Do you think of yourself more in the camp of other digital artists or do you think of yourself more as a game designer?

Part of the decision is made for us by who is willing to give us funding for projects and it’s almost always art spaces and so we have to be visual artists. We have to be an art practice studio sometimes. I like to think we work somewhere between writing for a theatre space and then writing very personal narratives. All the visual function and the video game function is the unfortunate accident of having to put that writing in a form you’re comfortable with. If I ever figure out a medium that lets me write faster and in more inventive ways than video games, then I’ll immediately switch [laughs].

It sounds like you’re not wedded to video games—you view video games as a vehicle for you to be able to express something but you don’t feel an attachment to the medium to express it. 

Yes. What is interesting is despite my resistance towards video games, some of the most exciting work that in the recent past, in the telling of stories, happens to be in video games. Maybe I just resist the usual conversation around video games, especially in India, and the general bias and rejection of video games as valid cultural spaces or even spaces at all of any kind.

Lots of mediums have faced this pushback but not as fiercely as video games have, certainly from cultural gatekeepers. I think one way around that is tying what you do to other creative traditions, in your case like literature or postcolonial thought. 

It also seems to open up this window into video games both as a practice and a medium of what can we possibly do within the space now that it is there? Once you execute it, however clumsy the execution might be, there is enough dialogue around it for the process to be meaningful. 

Have politics, whether global or in India, influenced the way that you look at your body of work, or what you would like to create in the future?

Until last year, we were very happy working with processes of history alone: at least our history in India, and solely within the area that I live in, the Dharampur region. With the actions of the government that we are currently under—a right-leaning and often authoritarian government—has implemented a series of policies that have been extremely violent and extremely discriminatory, especially against Dalits and Muslims.

It started a series of protests in the country last year, and then a series of retaliation by the government against the protests. These are protests we slowly started to contribute to, we are now trying to understand through our work. The last game that we built, became a game about the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the eventual Supreme Court judgment which essentially gave the right to the land effectively to the same people who demolished the Masjid that once stood there, thereby validating the erasure of history.

We are still concerned deeply with ideas that we were previously animated by and are trying to understand. It is still the same set of authors that we process it through. It is just that there are sudden and dramatic shifts that are happening in the Indian political landscape, that we feel compelled to respond to.

Modern political discourse is happening on the internet or spaces created through internet-based intervention. All of it is ordered and structured in ways that are not dissimilar from how video games are structured in their narratives, and how hypertext works. By thinking deeply about how video games tell stories—and what you can challenge within video games—perhaps we can start to intervene in what seems to be these overwhelming digital hierarchies which are currently very susceptible to propaganda or misinformation and so on.

Still from UNDER A PORCELAIN SUN

How do you find other people who share a point of view, or that can inspire you outside of where you are currently?

Where I’m based is a very small town. There are no other creators in my vicinity, but we’ll travel, when possible to Bombay and Delhi, especially when we are showing up where—or respond to festivals and gatherings. Most of the people that we talk to, or write to, and then discuss things with, happen to be artists. Either people who are architects, fine artists, or authors. Rarely game developers.

When I started making games there were a few people who had started making games as well. They were not looking at the same things we were looking at. They were also working on commercial games. For one reason or the other, all of them shut down over the years, or have drifted into all kinds of practices altogether. Somehow we just lost the connection, the habit, with people who are building games in the more traditional domains.

You don’t want to pander to an audience at the cost of what you’re trying to say, but there is some grain of intrigue in legacy systems and in what games have done before and what you can make them continue to do. Especially, with text and how it is shown and represented and interacted with. I think a game like 80 Days did it beautifully, where it can do a set of revivalist colonial fiction embedded into the structures in other ways.

What comes next for you? 

We’re working on a game called Under a Porcelain Sun. We want to talk about language and movement. It is also one of our more ambitious projects, in terms of the number of spaces and the scale of space and what we do within it.

So this one that I’m very excited about—we’re thinking about the privilege of movement in the light of the migrants in India not being allowed to return home during the lockdown. The government fears it will cause an economic crisis because there won’t be cheap labor available in cities.

Last year, there have been many explicit and inhumane goings-on, even in small and secluded places like Daman close to where I live. Akin to state restriction on people’s movements leaving the migrants trapped in cities, there have been protesters barricaded in places like derelict schools, activists and lawyers imprisoned under draconian laws, and without bail for resisting this authoritarian government.

I’m developing thoughts about such fundamental injustice through a partition story—a very small parting story about an old lady living in a house, wanting to leave to travel across the border as the country is split, and having already said goodbye to her home where she has always lived, who finds that she can no longer leave, that she’s trapped in her house. So yes—working on that.