Think India and there are a million possibilities for inspiration; so many moments and encounters that would work brilliantly in a video game. You’d almost think India and games are a perfect fit: a chaotic, intricate urban jungle, the licence to create complicated layouts, and the freedom with colour and form.
But game designers have long ignored the idiosyncrasies of a game set in India in favour of oft-repeated stereotypes—where tigers and cobras co-exist in a symbiotic food chain, feeding on action heroes and their sidekicks; where cities consist largely of an opulent palace flanked by a crowded market; where every detour leads to a cursed temple or an evil vizier. Let’s not even get started on the snake charmers and yoga gurus.
We look back at more than two decades of India in video games, and find out what you can expect in the future.
The Great Tiger (1985)
The original prototype on which all future Indian characters were modelled, Great Tiger (who first appeared in Nintendo’s 1985 title Super Punch-Out!!) neatly ticks off every point on the stereotype checklist. Gratuitous tiger references: Check. Jewel-encrusted headgear: Check. Inexplicable use of mysticism and magic (in a boxing game, no less): Check. The Great Tiger disappeared after his first appearance, but was resurrected in the 2009 remake of the original Punch-Out!!
Dhalsim and Street Fighter (1991)
For a good decade, Dhalsim was India’s most famous gaming export. The rubber-limbed pacifist yoga master, who first appeared in Street Fighter II (1991), enrols in the world fighting tournament to raise money for his village. As is expected of him, he owns an elephant called Kodal, wears a necklace of skulls and shoots fireballs from his mouth because, you know, all yoga masters can.
Tomb Raider III (1998)
The early Tomb Raider games were always slightly troubling: cherry-picked “exotic” locations, horrendous camera controls and the indiscriminate gunning down of local wildlife jazzed up by innocuous phrases such as “action-adventure”. Tomb Raider III (1998) continued this unsavoury tradition with its opening part, putting Lara Croft in what the designers imagined to be India. There are “Hindu ruins” along the Ganga river, the caves of “Kaliya” (the goddess, not the talking crow, we presume) and tigers and cobras galore. Groan.
No One Lives Forever (2002)
The flashy, stylish and quite frankly insane spy series No One Lives Forever took a brief, ill-advised turn to India in its second instalment. India, for the talented bunch at Monolith Productions, meant pot-bellied policemen, cows, big palaces and bananas. Granted, it was all mildly amusing, especially the part where you drop banana peels to thwart the hapless police (who are dressed like traffic cops, for some reason). But then an evil mime imprisons you, a Scot shows up on a tricycle and things tend to cross from over-the-top to overkill. And no, we’re not making any of this up.
Civilization and Total War (2005)
Strategy games have fared slightly better in their representation of the country, perhaps because historical accuracy is a bit more vital here to create immersive experiences. On the fringes are games such as Civilization IV (2005), which aren’t so much about history as they are about the concept of history; this means they can do things like make Gandhi one of the playable faction leaders. More centrally, there is Creative Assembly’s epic Empire: Total War (2009), which includes an entire campaign for the Maratha Confederacy, and has the Mughals as another playable faction. The Maratha campaign is perhaps the only attempt in gaming to depict a historical Indian period (in this case, 17th century Maharashtra) with any semblance of accuracy. Another upcoming title, The East India Company , could do the same for a slightly earlier period: the 1600s.
Uncharted 2 (2009)
The good news is that the future looks slightly more promising. While India’s first home-developed console title Hanuman: The Warrior failed to kindle much interest, India as a game location has. The much-awaited PS3 exclusive Uncharted 2: Among Thieves seems, if early screenshots are to be believed, to be set at least partly in India. There’s a bombed-out cityscape, with a half-buried Tata truck. There are STD/PCO booths and small apartments with balconies. The emphasis on details over flights of fancy is a welcome first step.