HomeTech ‘I don’t see the point of me without politics’: Games writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of remaining independent

‘I don’t see the point of me without politics’: Games writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of remaining independent

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'I don't see the point of me without politics': Games writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of remaining independent

cHow does a video game writer do her best work on the largest scale of the industry? Good: Meghna Jayanth is fine where she is. Last year, with Outerloop Games, she released Thirsty Suitors., a fluorescent fusion of messy flirting and sick skating; the next is everyone gets up, a courtroom drama about climate action. These are standalone games: the hero of Thirsty Suitors is a queer Desi skater and the villain is her feelings; Of course, it’s an indie game, and Jayanth, one of the star video game writers of her generation, feels at home here, where a modest budget is the commitment to create fun games about colonialism, identity and sexuality, with people. whose values ​​align with hers.

Meghna Jayanth at the Bafta Games Awards, 2024. Photograph: Shane Anthony Sinclair/BAFTA/Getty Images for BAFTA

The money is less and that hurts the work to stand out. “It was hard to come out when we did,” Jayanth says of Thirsty Suitors. “People kept playing Baldur’s Gate III because it’s huge. The average player on Steam plays four games a year. That’s the real problem for most independent studios: how do you reach people without millions and without a marketing budget?

More than a decade into his career, Jayanth is indie by choice, but also, perhaps, by the world. During the Golden Joystick Awards 2023 in London, Jayanth sat at home, disinvited as presenter for amending his comments to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In 2019, from the stage of the Independent Games festival, Jayanth called the industry denounce fascism and support unionization; at a 2021 conference, He criticized the fundamentals of modern game design. as rooted in capitalism, colonialism and whiteness. These are not necessarily ideas that will interest producers of successful mainstream games.

Jayanth came to prominence in 2014 as a writer of 80 Days, an adaptation of Jules Verne by Cambridge studio Inkle. A countercolonial vision, 80 Days takes history back to the Scramble for Africa and inverts it, filling the world with people, cultures and ideas as fantastic for their time and place as any technology of Verne’s imagination. 80 Days is a singular achievement: a rich, romantic, engaging work that delights audiences and explains why the world has looked the way it has for the past three centuries.

The game gave Jayanth a job in the open-world Horizon: Zero Dawn from Guerrilla Games, then best known for the Killzone shooter series. Horizon, released in 2017, is an adventure about hunting robot dinosaurs in post-apocalypse America. “The writing team at the time was all white men and they were making a game about a young woman that also dealt a little bit about indigenous cultures,” Jayanth says. “That’s not my area of ​​expertise, but I did a lot of world-building for them and tried to build a (fictional) culture in a respectful way.” But, she says, it ended up becoming deformed because of the way she looked. “I did a lot of little internal presentations about brutality and savagery and how these are colonial concepts. And, you know, then it’s like, ‘Welcome to these wild lands!’”

‘The scale really took me by surprise’… Horizon Zero Dawn. Photography: Sony

“The magnitude of this really took me by surprise,” he says. “I joined about a year before we shipped it thinking, ‘God, that’s a long time,’ but teams of hundreds of people had already been working on it for years. There were a lot of things written in stone and you realize that it is a very difficult ship to turn.”

Horizon has sold more than 20 million copies, has two sequels and counting, and there’s a TV show on the way. That’s where the ship was supposed to go. But Jayanth, who has worked on other unreleased AAA projects, has come to believe that on a ship like that, a single person can only be a sailor. “You can put a veneer of gesture on (progressive) ideas in the narrative, but the game systems themselves don’t reflect that. There may be representative bodies and skin colors, but (the player) is still a kind of colonialist.”

Since then, Jayanth has mainly focused on independent bands. Her experiences developing mainstream games haven’t broken her heart, but when she’s brought in to think about what makes such games tick, she’s less satisfied with the answers or the supposed prestige of working on the biggest franchises in the game. industry. “It’s basically a pretty silly job,” she says of the games. “Entertainment is important, (but) looking at the world around us asks us: what’s the point? What are we participating in?” Her parents, both doctors, operate with a moral clarity that Jayanth envies: how wonderful it would be to know that what you do is good. “I need to feel that there is something worthwhile in what I am doing for this career to make sense to me… As a marginalized person, I believe that there is a position that ‘the other’ must occupy within the imperial court, where you ‘You’re a bit of a pet. It’s really important to be suspicious of success. “Effective resistance to dominant power is never rewarded with success.”

giving lectures about the embeddedness of colonial and capitalist thinking in modern game design systems and describing triple-A developers as “the imperial court” might well exclude you from ever writing for a game of theirs again, not that she cares. “I don’t see the point of me without politics,” she says. “If my work is good then everything that makes it good comes because I care. And the longer I’ve been in my career, the more I want to be more disturbing, instead of making people feel comfortable.”

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A rich, romantic and engaging book that will please the public… 80 days. Photo: (c) Nyamyam

A critique of how games have been created for decades won’t prompt shareholders to change ships, and a call for a ceasefire at a video game awards show won’t end a war. But Jayanth knows. The difference she believes she can make is to the individual. Jayanth has seen young designers exhaust themselves trying to challenge the ways games are made, trying to talk about colonialism or color. “In the studio system, very often people make promises to you like, ‘We really want to reshape all this stuff, we really want to rethink this, we really want your ideas,’ and you end up having to fight a whole system. and a structure without power or authority.”

Jayanth has been there, and that’s why he now speaks so openly and stridently about the things that matter to him. It’s lonely being the junior designer in the meeting with concerns. The games industry, she says, is risk-averse “in this very silly way” and she needs to see that something has been done before if she wants to try it.

She may be the person who has done it before. Her work can provide cover for other designers to stand up and say, “look, it’s not just me.” If Jayanth loses opportunities or money for speaking her mind, she doesn’t care: she has found her worth.

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