When Pyrodactyl Kickstarted story-driven RPG, Unrest, the studio echoed the ambitions of countless indie devs. Promises of exploration and tough decisions have been heard before, but Unrest’s explorers, and the decisions at hand, are quite different from the industry standard. Amid the rigid tradition and structure of ancient India, Unrest aims to break with convention. Its protagonists include a Hindu priest and Tanya, a young girl ordered to wed. They’re as far as can be from the sci-fi and fantasy RPG tropes we’ve become so accustomed to.
“The focus is on characters who are normal people compared to the usual demigods that we see in videogames,” says team lead Arvind Yadav. “They have to use their wits to solve things how people usually would – by conversation and maybe manipulation of people and using certain items if possible.”
Omnipotence escapes you. When playing as Tanya, ‘normal’ is a generous description. You are sub-human, the dregs of a caste system in which women are disregarded and peasants despised. This is your lot, and Unrest dares you to moralise.
“The idea was, ‘Let’s make you play as a character who has literally everything going against her’,” Yadav tells us. “We wanted to see what a person can do with just their wits. Because as soon as you start having combat the entire social structure goes out of the picture. Suddenly it’s about who is best at fighting. That undermines the point you’re trying to make a lot if the player can just be like, ‘No, okay, I don’t want this wedding; I’ll just kill everyone in the village!’ Though that might be entertaining, I think there’s merit in approaching it from a different angle.”
Its ethical dilemmas are reminiscent of Papers, Please. You’re roleplaying, in a sense, reacting to those around you as your conscience dictates, but you’re ever in the grip of a strict social system. Push the boundaries and you’ll end up dead, your family in peril. It’s a galling dilemma for those of a liberal sensibility. At your most heroic you keep your head down and go unnoticed, bowing to insurmountable social injustice.
Like Papers, Please’s Arstotzka, Unrest’s setting is an untapped moral playground, even in India. “I don’t think that a lot of Indian developers make games with Indian settings,” says Yadav. “Because the usual perspective is to aim for the bigger market, and the bigger market is obviously America or Europe. Several Indian developers asked me if the setting was appropriate because they didn’t think the game would sell.”
Unrest’s PC platform is a problem too: India’s dev scene is dominated by studios working on mobile games. “In my usual experience in conferences – there’s a GDC in India for example – when I walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I’m making a game. It’s a PC game and an RPG’, there are three questions which everyone asks: ‘Why isn’t it on iOS; why isn’t it free-to-play, and how will you monetise it?’” As Yadav explains his preference for PC, it’s apparent that problems with free-to-play respect no national boundary. “It’s constantly a struggle of, ‘Give us this much more money so you can enjoy it for n more minutes’. I would rather that my players focused on enjoying the game as opposed to this weird kind of psychological warfare.”
Unrest feels tuned for the West. Ironically, ‘psychological warfare’ is a fitting descriptor for its system of choice and consequence. Unrest’s dialogue is laced with choices compatible with progressive ideologies. Refuse your marriage. Reject the street gangs. It goads you into choosing the ‘good’ option, then shows you its worth in the slums of ancient India. The walk to your husband with dowry in hand has potential to unsettle in countries where arranged marriage is unimaginable.
Of course, that’s not a walk you’re forced to make. Bold themes and brash retorts are accompanied by more subtle responses. Suppressing knee-jerk reactions and working within the system uncovers considered dialogue. Characters respond on the basis of Friendship, Respect and Fear. A Naga merchant harangued by humans is no friend, but his fear could be advantageous. A guard captain, however, has neither fear nor respect for a peasant and forcing conversation is a waste of good air.
Whether these metrics hold meaning across the length of Unrest will be its real test. From the three chapters played, there is scope for insightful exploration of the moral greys of a neglected culture. That neglect grants Pyrodactyl considerable freedom. “I live in India, so I was looking for games to play and I was like, let’s see if there’s a game in ancient India – and I couldn’t find any apart from bargain bin titles that were created ten years ago. If nobody has made this game yet, why not me?”
Unrest is an anomaly. It presents a people faceless in gaming on a platform unpopular at home; its cast is of commoners whose win state is mere existence. From a PR perspective, Unrest is untouchable. But when Pyrodactyl asked Kickstarter for $3,000, they received $36,000. Its otherness has proven alluring, and this early build suggests there is substance to support its unconventional approach.