Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘Like taking a shovel to your brain’: dark fairytale game Indika takes aim at the Russian Orthodox church
Culture Games

‘Like taking a shovel to your brain’: dark fairytale game Indika takes aim at the Russian Orthodox church

A young woman stands amid the labyrinthine architecture of a Russian nunnery. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the scene for one from Tomb Raider. Then the woman moves – slowly, and without the athletic gait of action hero Lara Croft. Her head is bowed, shrouded in black cloth, and her shoulders are hunched in such a way that you have to angle the camera just so to catch a glimpse of her bright, nervous eyes.

Indika, the titular protagonist of this dreamy yet eerily photorealist adventure game, cuts a “submissive” figure according to its creative director and writer, Dmitry Svetlov – and that is precisely the point. The Moscow-born developer set out to make a game about the ways, in his view, people have come to “hate themselves” while growing too used to “living in fear.”

In his native Russia, Svetlov lays the blame partly at the feet of the Russian Orthodox church. It’s an institution he knows well, having grown up in a religious household: visiting church twice a week, taking communion, and even spending time in a monastery (his abiding memory is of unpleasant food). Then, in a teenage rebellion as profound as they come, Svetlov renounced his faith.

“When you’re a 15-year-old, and you’ve believed in something for your whole life, it requires so much effort to change it,” he says. “It’s like grabbing a shovel and putting it into your brain.”

Indika is about a young nun questioning every aspect of her similarly stifling surroundings. The game plays like an artful third-person walking simulator, soundtracked by her philosophical soul-searching. In one section, she debates the nature of free will with a sweet escaped convict named Ily, whose blackened arm is in dire need of amputation. These discussions drew from Svetlov’s teen years, when he would try to persuade believer friends of his own sceptical position. “I almost didn’t have to write the scenes from scratch. They were already complete,” he says.

Indika.View image in fullscreen

Thanks to the quick-witted, acerbic script, the game never becomes tedious. Less interactive sections are punctuated by spatial puzzles, and the overall experience is elevated by exquisite yet unnerving environment design that verges on unearthly.

In one puzzle, wrestling with her feelings towards her monastic life, the youngster must navigate out of a rocky enclave that has cracked across two different planes – reality, and a more fantastical realm. You’re able to toggle between them in real-time, revealing a passage to an exit, to a soundtrack of disorienting music and narration – from chintzy, loping electronics to deep, ominous rumbles; from the torment of the devil himself to Indika’s muttered prayers.

For Svetlov, it was important to design puzzles that appear to rip Indika’s world apart, “because that’s precisely what is happening to her mind at that moment”.

It’s practically impossible to disentangle the history of the Russian Orthodox church from the current moment in Russia. Svetlov asserts with palpable disdain that the Russian church has become a “weapon of propaganda” for Vladimir Putin’s government. “Priests just say you should defend your country, you should die for your homeland, and you go to heaven. It’s madness,” he says.

Partly as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, most of the 14-person development studio behind Indika, Odd Meter, emigrated to neighbouring Kazakhstan. A number of its employees are of conscription age (between 18 and 30), so it was a risk for them to stay put.

skip past newsletter promotion

For Svetlov, a little older at 38, it felt too “uncomfortable” to remain. “Even if you don’t watch television or read official newspapers, you still see a lot of propaganda from billboards and screens. It’s very emotionally difficult,” he says.

Amid this upheaval, he and his colleagues have crafted an aching fairytale full of odd, phantasmic details about life beyond the “easy answers” of the church and its God-fearing doctrine. “I believe that you really cannot love others until you learn how to love yourself,” says Svetlov, a process that plays out through Indika herself. By the game’s devilish conclusion, she is uncloaked – her eyes shining brighter and more wildly than ever.

Source: theguardian.com