I played an hour of "Raji: An Ancient Epic" before I stopped and restarted. While it's not uncommon for players to reboot a game after learning its basic controls, that wasn't what made me want to begin again. "Raji: An Ancient Epic" reminded me of a sensation I hadn't thought about much during the pandemic: the feeling of exploring and discovering a new place.
"Raji: An Ancient Epic" isn't a replacement for a vacation, of course - no video game or virtual reality experience is yet that transportive - but it sparked a desire to analyze, to examine and to understand the in-game surroundings and its inspirations. A game that could be completed in a weekend stretched into a full week as I began writing down the names of deities such as Mahishasura and Kali for further research.
On the surface, "Raji: An Ancient Epic" is an action-adventure game.
Its tale of a young woman rescuing her brother from forces of the underworld can be told with many backdrops across numerous cultures. But "Raji: An Ancient Epic," a labor of love that was often a struggle to get made by its small team, has a rather specific design intent. Beyond asking players to tackle its demonlike monsters with acrobatic fight moves, the game seeks to highlight a place - ancient India - and the culture it birthed.
Thus, as I advanced through "Raji: An Ancient Epic" and dedicated myself to mastering the game's relatively robust combo-based fighting system, I discovered a decorative, lush world. The way "Raji" mixes and matches game genres is slickly done - running, jumping and climbing through ruins requires precision and concentration. But for all of its sense play, the game also seems to possess an understanding of history. Its interactive text is built on mythologies that have gone largely unexplored in modern Western media, especially games, where an America obsession tends to dominate.
"Raji: An Ancient Epic" made me feel like a traveler called to dig deeper, to learn more outside the game about the Hindu and Balinese legends, stories and settings that are interwoven into the project. One area of the game was directly inspired by the golden sandstone prevalent in the Indian city of Jaisalmer, home to the famed fortress whose tiered walls seem ripe for video game leaps. The intricate carvings of the Ajanta Caves served as inspiration, too, as our hero, Raji, traverses ruins with larger-than-life animal carvings.
"From the very beginning we wanted to do a game that represents Hindu culture. We didn't see any game that was made from India that had that," says Shruti Ghosh, cofounder of the Pune, India-based Nodding Heads Games, whose founders had jobs at the Indian outposts of major game studios before going independent in 2017. "We had not seen a game made with this mythology. So we just went for it."
While the game uses religious iconography, seeking to re-create Indian temples and their patiently painted murals of Hindu legends, "Raji: An Ancient Epic" itself is an original good-versus-evil story.
The gods and demons are shown in art throughout, and the game is narrated by the deities Durga and Vishnu. The small team uses the stories more to illustrate a lineage, to create the sensation that the player-led character is creating a new myth. Great pains, however, were taken to show reverence.
"Smudging the image of any god was a big no. Even small things, like in Hindu culture your feet cannot point toward a god," says studio cofounder Avichal Singh.