Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘I don’t see the point of me without the politics’: video game writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of staying indie
Culture Games

‘I don’t see the point of me without the politics’: video game writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of staying indie

Can a video game writer do her best work at the industry’s biggest scale? Well: 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; coming up next is All Rise, a climate action courtroom drama. These are indie games – Thirsty Suitors’ hero is a queer Desi skater and the villain is her feelings; of course it is an indie game – and Jayanth, one of the star video game writers of her generation, is perfectly at home here, where a modest budget is the trade-off for making joyful games about colonialism, identity and sexuality, with people whose values align with hers.

Meghna Jayanth at the Bafta Games awards, 2024.View image in fullscreen

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

More than a decade into her career, Jayanth is indie by her choice, but also, perhaps, the world’s. During the 2023 Golden Joystick awards in London, Jayanth sat at home, disinvited as a presenter for amending her remarks to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In 2019, from the stage of the Independent Games festival, Jayanth called on the industry to denounce fascism and support unionisation; in a 2021 lecture, she criticised the foundations of modern mainstream game design as rooted in capitalism, colonialism and whiteness. These are not necessarily ideas that interest the producers of successful mainstream games.

Jayanth broke out in 2014 as the writer of 80 Days, a Jules Verne adaptation by the Cambridge studio Inkle. A counter-colonial vision, 80 Days winds back history 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 from Verne’s imagination. 80 Days is a singular accomplishment: a rich, romantic and engaging crowd-pleaser that unpacks why the world has looked the way it has for the past three centuries.

The game scored Jayanth a gig on the open-world Horizon: Zero Dawn by Guerrilla Games, then best known for the Killzone series of shooters. Horizon, released in 2017, is an adventure about hunting robot dinosaurs in the American post-apocalypse. “The writing team at the time was all white men and they were making a game about a young woman that was also kind of a little bit about Indigenous cultures,” says Jayanth. “That’s not my area of expertise, but I did a lot of worldbuilding for them, and tried to build a [fictional] culture in a way that was respectful.” But, she says, it ended up being warped by how it was seen. “I did so many little internal presentations about brutality and savagery and how these are colonial concepts. And, you know, then it’s like, ‘Welcome to these savage lands!’”

‘The scale of it really took me aback’ … Horizon Zero Dawn.View image in fullscreen

“The scale of it really took me aback,” she says. “I came on board about a year before we shipped thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s so much time,’ but teams of hundreds had already been working on it for years. So much was set in stone, and you realise that it’s a ship that’s really hard to turn.”

Horizon has sold more than 20m copies, it has two sequels and counting, and there is a TV show on the way. That’s where the ship was supposed to go. But Jayanth – who has worked on other AAA projects that have not been released – has come to think that on a ship like that, any one person can only be a deckhand. “You can put a veneer of a gesture at [progressive] ideas in the narrative, but the systems of the game themselves don’t actually play that out. There can be representative bodies and skin colours but [the player] is still a sort of colonialist.”

Jayanth has kept mostly to indies since. Her experiences in mainstream game development have hardly broken her heart, but when she is hired to think about what makes those types of games work, she is less satisfied with the answers – or the supposed prestige of working on the industry’s biggest franchises. “It’s a fundamentally quite silly job,” she says of games. “Entertainment is important, [but] looking around at the world, like, 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’s something worthwhile about what I’m doing for this career to make sense for me… As a marginalised person, I think there’s a position to be occupied by ‘the other’ inside the imperial court, where 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 entrenchment of colonial and capitalist thinking in modern game design systems and describing triple-A developers as “the imperial court” might well rule you out of ever writing for a game of theirs again – not that she minds. “I don’t see the point of me without the politics,” she says. “If my work is good then everything that makes it good comes because I care. And the longer I’m in my career, the more I want to be more unsettling, rather than make people comfortable.”

skip past newsletter promotion

A rich, romantic and engaging crowd-pleaser … 80 Days.View image in fullscreen

A critique of how games have been made for decades will not spur shareholders to turn their ships around, and a call for ceasefire at a video game awards show will not end a war. But Jayanth knows that. The difference she thinks it can make is to the individual. Jayanth has seen young designers burn themselves out trying to challenge the ways in which games are made, trying to talk about colonialism or colour. “In the studio system, quite often people make promises to you like, ‘We really want to reshape all of these things, we really want to rethink this, we really want your ideas’ – and you end up having to battle a whole system and a structure without any of the power and authority.”

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

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

Source: theguardian.com