Being constantly aware of the realities surrounding you is a challenge, especially when you are in a creative field. The lure of an ambitious diversion from a core idea has ruined countless projects, especially in a medium where a single change in design may result in alterations to thousands of lines of code. It’s a caution best kept in mind at all times. It becomes an even tougher task when you have had a successful Kickstarter campaign that achieved 12 times your initial goal. Such was the prospect facing Arvind Raja Yadav, the founder of Pyrodactyl Games, and the team of developers who made Unrest along with him. After a successful campaign that earned them an exponentially larger crowd-sourced budget and considerable press coverage, it could have been easy to succumb to the ambition fueled by the money and expectations. Instead, Arvind and his geographically-scattered team of seven remained grounded in scope, expanding by only a lone chapter and one character through numerous stretch goals, and focusing their efforts more on the polish of the end product itself.
Even in the build I reviewed, it was quite apparent that the game itself is well-crafted. The higher amount of money distributed between the artists is apparent in the effort they have put into creating the beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds which bring the fantastical version of ancient India that Unrest is set in to life. Adam “Rustkarn” DeCamp, an author and host of internet shows on TwentySided, wrote the game’s dialogue, and while I felt the writing was anglicized to a jarring effect given its ancient India setting, Arvind provided an interesting reasoning besides accessibility. He told me that “Unrest is about common people, and in building a relatable bridge between the ancient and modern times, we wanted to avoid projecting a feeling that we’re enlightened because we live in modern times. We wanted to show how sometimes people have the same flaws despite centuries of difference.” That goes in theme with Unrest which depicts its characters having to live imprisoned by power structures, ones based on the status attached to them by their birth—a fallacy which even our modern society isn’t entirely rid of.
Another way Unrest distinguishes itself is by almost entirely foregoing combat. Barring a few situations where the clumsy combat rears its head, Unrest is largely driven by conversation, which is with little doubt its strength. When asked if there were any other reasons for avoiding combat, Arvind replied, “if the player is given a hammer, every NPC looks like a nail. All subtlety and nuance of social systems, and the pressures a person has to face, would be lost if they could solve their problems by stabbing everyone.” This is an element where Unrest’s unique premise of putting the player in the position of the socially disadvantaged and having them play “just like common people and not beefed up demigods” works in the game’s favor, giving it an interactive visual novel-esque experience.
When it comes to writing characters that aren’t in a position of power, Arvind says, “the key challenge was to not let their caste define the characters entirely. So the characters we write would need to have ambition beyond just doing what society wanted them to do.” His words ring true largely because even today in India people tend to assume certain stereotypes associated with certain surnames and communities. The ambitions and limits of what we can achieve may not be restricted, but how the larger part of the society views an individual is still mildly tinted in shades of a system we believe we have left in our past. As a developer myself, I agreed with Arvind when he said, “it’s something we are accustomed to yet. The main challenge is to make sure players know why these limitations exist in the first place.” This is largely due to how deeply rooted the concept of “power fantasies” is to the medium. Subverting such a traditional element involves making the player understand why those limitations exist in the game world.
While Unrest tries to distinguish itself from generic RPGs with the Friendship Respect Fear (FRF) system and Traits, both come across as half-baked implementations. Arvind interjects that both are “utility elements meant to immediately catch up the player with where they stand when they load up an old save.” It’s certainly an interesting design decision, and despite robbing Unrest of depth it achieves exactly what Arvind wanted it to. Perhaps therein lies an inherent conflict with design and criticism—it’s more than simply a different perspective, it’s also sometimes what you’re trying to achieve with your approach. Arvind and the Unrest team set out to make a tightly focused game that explores the societal divisions of ancient India and they managed to maintain that vision despite their Kickstarter successes. While ambition often gets heralded as the zenith of artistic might, perhaps staying grounded in scope to an idea already exploring new avenues is equally commendable in its own way.
Ansh Patel is a game developer and an occasional pop culture critic who tweets philosophical ruminations and angry political rants @lightnarcissus. His words and games can be found at lightnarcissus.com.