If you want smell like spicy cardamom, there are perfumes for that. Or lotion. Soap. Candles are available from Williams Sonoma. This confuses Chandana Ekanayake. Growing up in an immigrant family in Maryland, the co-founder and creative director of Outerloop Games tried to fit in as best he could. If he showed up at school smelling like Sri Lankan food, the kids laughed at him.
He says things are different now, at least for some people. “It’s more customary to be ‘exotic’ for these things if you’re white. But if you are a representative of a culture, they will laugh at you.”
The Fit followed Ekanayake from his school days to his career as a game developer decades later. Until recently, he has struggled to incorporate his personality into his work. “All of my games in the industry in the past have been made primarily for white audiences,” he says. “I think over the years I have also filtered myself…Do I have the right to say this?”
This has changed from Thirsty suitors. For this new project, Ekanayake has taken that fear and turned it into something more powerful: a game based on South Asian culture. This is an Outerloop novel about romance and self-discovery, a story in which the main character Jala returns home after a brutal breakup, only to fight all of her exes. Literally – the game includes battles based on insults. Depending on how you struggle, you may or may not reconcile with your ex. It’s not so much a dating game as it’s a story about hurt feelings and finding common ground.
Ekanayake calls it a “little yakuza game” full of small moments that tie together a larger narrative. There is skateboarding, there are skirmishes, there is cooking with parents. It began as a story about an arranged marriage, but Ekanayake and writer Meghna Jayant ultimately abandoned the concept.
“We both realized that neither of us could talk directly about a marriage of convenience,” Ekanayake says. “There are a lot of different points of view on this, and I’m not comfortable making a game about something that I’m not really familiar with.” (A shocking idea for an industry that has historically represented non-white cultures with little to no knowledge of them—and a sniff.)
Instead, they did what they knew. Ekanayake talks about the game’s focus on cooking, where food is the touchstone for bonding with family. When Ekanayake returns home to Maryland, his family is waiting for him at the dinner table. “Come, you eat,” he says. “You can’t say no.”
He describes the traditions of passing down recipes and stories over decades that come from food, memories of tastes and smells that transcend generations. Not only this. This is also an emotional bridge.
“It’s very difficult to directly engage our parents in an open emotional conversation,” says Ekanayake. Cooking allows them to speak. Everyone focuses on food. “We start bringing up topics and talking about it,” he says. “[My mom] a little more will be revealed because they are focusing on that culinary aspect rather than direct conversation.” The game’s cooking scenes are similar in nature, allowing Jala to bond with her family without the pressure of direct confrontation.
Even with growth representing, creating something unique to your culture as a person of color is not an easy task. “I see these companies, mostly white companies,” Ekanayake says. “They think having a brown man on screen will make them popular. They do it for the wrong reasons.”
Thirsty suitors is a rare game that, according to its creators, could not have been made even five years ago. Forget about its whimsical, definitely modern visual and narrative style. Instead, consider his subject matter, where a South Asian queer woman navigates both her complex dating history and the generational trauma associated with immigrant families. There are few stories about South Asian communities in culture at large, and even fewer in the video game pantheon. Even as a cover for Thirsty suitors leaked out, Ekanayake repeatedly had to correct the writers that the game was not about southeast Asian culture (this may include regions such as Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia).
The people who hold the keys to funding publishers—and these are the men—can be a fickle crowd. Of the 20 or so people Ekanayake said he proposed to, there was only one woman: the rest “were white men in their 30s and 40s.” While he doesn’t usually use pop culture to promote games, he’s taken a different approach here.
“I had images Play like Beckhamsays Ekanayake, referring to a well-known 2002 comedy about an Indian soccer player, as well as more recent series such as Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy about an Indian-American woman. Never I never. The goal was to showcase the growing success of South Asian stories outside of games, to highlight the absence of such stories in games. “We are starting to see South Asian characters, stories and families in other media,” says Ekanayake. “I was hoping it could work in games as well.”
Thirsty suitors “This is the first game we make for ourselves,” Ekanayake says of Jayant and himself. “We feel that this specificity will connect with the audience.” For people who have never had the experience described, the game still tells stories about love and relationship problems – those pesky, universal problems that people of any culture can face.
What if it’s still not for you? It’s just wonderful. “I really can’t do that for a little white man who sits around my neck and says, ‘Well, I’m not sure people would like it this way,'” says Ekanayake.
Credit: www.wired.com /