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INDONESIA IN THE LAND OF SPIRITS 

Article Indonésie Immersion par Isabelle Arvers

I have just experienced my first earthquake: it was a bizarre but not unpleasant experience. One simply wonders when it will end. Animals, on the other hand, seem to be panicking and there is something scary about realizing to what extent we are so powerless in the face of natural elements. At the same time, one experiences a deep connection with nature in such instances. Later on, I was told that in another neighbourhood people were shouting and beating on walls with anything they could lay their hands on, such as pots and pans, anything that could help in exorcising bad spirits. There is no doubt I have arrived in Indonesia, in “the ring of fire”, the area of the world with the most earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Here people say that when volcanos erupt they are actually yawning. Welcome to the land of spirits, ghosts, and supernatural beings, where everything is impregnated with mysticism and where different religions collide.

In Indonesia, the belief in spirits -ruh- is deeply rooted. It inscribes itself, as it does in Taiwan, coexisting of Hindu spirits, the souls of Muslim prophets and the local beliefs of villagers. The belief in ghosts and the supernatural has its roots in pre-Islamic belief systems. Koranic texts talk mention the existence of invisible worlds: when God created humans, he gave them the Ruh, which continues on once our physical body disappears. A spirit which continues to exist for around forty days after death when it then starts to fade away. 

Islam spread to Indonesia between the 9th and the 12th century. It is today the largest country in the world to have a Muslim majority, and it is mandatory to state your religion on official documents. There are only six officially tolerated religion: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Judaism, for instance, is illegal under the law. Spirits in Indonesia are considered to be a protective force: they are considered past loved-ones who stay on to guide the living. Their presence is permanent, and people spontaneously mention them. As Amry Anton from the Serlok Bantaran community in Bandung explains: “Spirits are everywhere around us, but we cannot see them, because if we could see them we wouldn’t be able to see what is physically around us.” The Ruhne spirits are not to be mistaken for Jinns, who are other supernatural creatures who are more linked to spectres or and ghost and have a malevolent connotation. 

In addition to spirits, we can find many different types of ghosts in Indonesia which the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has classified in three categories in his book called The Religion of Java. They are: The Meledi (ghosts) the Lelembut (mischievous spirits) and the Tuyul (fairies and leprechauns and mermaids). Ghosts often appear in sombre stories. Some ghosts are said to be the spirits of women who have been rapped and then abandoned and who as a result have committed suicide. But they can also be the spirits of those whom’s murders have gone unpunished, people who have been massacred or simply who have not been buried properly. Other ghosts are the children who died during childbirth. In this manner, ghosts become a coping mechanism for traumatic events, bloody and violent stories linked to colonialism and strife, whom through ghosts come back to haunt the present. 

TABOU

If horror films are amazingly popular in Indonesia, it goes the same for video games. Survival horror games are amongst the most played video game as tends to be the case in the rest of Asia. Dread Out from the independent video game studio Digital Happiness which is based in Bandung, is one of the most successful Indonesian games internationally and is getting a feature film adaptation in the coming years. In Maren Wilger’s memoir “Unique Indonesian Horror? Representations and Intermediality in the Indonesian Horror survival Game Dread Out”, Wilger suggests that what is specific about Dread Out amongst other survival horror games in Asia has less to do with the gameplay or the narrative which are common to the genre but rather to the representation of Indonesian local folklore. “What is authentic is the universe of the Indonesian “desa” or village. If spaces tend to be an important element in video games, it is novel to be plunged in the universe of a traditional Indonesian village.” This was the intention of the Indonesian developers who made it to permit the discovery of their local culture and mysticism. This educational aspect is enhanced by the Ghostpedia, an encyclopedia of ghosts set up by the developers and which has subsequently been worked on by fans.

Bandung a city gobbling up nature and growing exponentially to the detriment of local ecosystems seems to be a great source of inspiration for local developers. One studio from Bandung named Storytale has recently released Pamali, which also inscribes itself in the survival horror genre. The word Pamali comes from Bahasa, a Sudanese language which is spoken in the locality of Bandung. It broadly defines someone when they are doing something which goes beyond taboos, whether consciously or unconsciously. In Pamali we dive even deeper into Indonesian culture as the gameplay is truly original and local culture serves a purpose in the game beyond simply being the background to the story. The gameplay itself requires you to delve deep into Indonesian culture. In this first-person game, we start off as a gravedigger and then move on to embody the character of someone who has recently died. This enables us to discover the lives of characters from different regions of Indonesia. 
In Pamali every act is meaningful and leads you to a different ending of the game. When a player acts in a “Pamali” manner, his actions are recorded and at the end of the game, the player is notified about his or her wrongdoings and is told how to act in a manner considered respectful to the spirits. Most players will at first act in a “Pamali” manner due to the fact he or she is unfamiliar with local cultures. The more one plays the more one learns about local funerary rituals and learns how to behave in order not to provoke spirits, not to chase them away and to be able to speak to them in a manner which helps them leave in peace.

Beyond the folkloric aspect of the game “Pamali” also helps us discover the day to day life of Indonesians: the player discovers details related to politics and social struggles in Indonesia. The whole game is in Bahasa language, which truly emerges us in this local culture. Every chapter of the game is built to unveil a spirit, ghost or local tradition. As I ask Andreas Andika who is a technician working at StoryTale studios, about the folkloric aspect of the game, he explains that for instance the first chapter of the game is based on Kuntilanak. Kuntilanak is the spirit of a woman with a long white robe that travels the land in search of her deceased baby. In the game, the player must clean up a house haunted by Kuntilanak. The player has the choice to chose how to interact with the spirit: “face it arrogantly, help it find peace, or run away”.

Pamali was mostly developed for the international market. “We imagined a video game which implicitly and explicitly teaches the player about traditional cultural values and superstitions. The actions consider as pamali or taboo are explained at the end of the game in the form of a bulletin”. The studio was founded by a group of students, and their beginnings were a little chaotic. “To be honest, our journey is not the journey which traditional Asian parents wish for their children. We didn’t even have an office, nor any funds or any of the basic equipment a studio needs. The first year we worked like nomads in cafes in which we could get free Wi-Fi”. Nonetheless, they managed to publish Pamali and they are now developing a new game: As if Dreaming when you’re Wide Awake. A free narrative game that explores the point of view of a young boy who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Inspired by real events, the team at StoryTale hope to give visibility to issues about mental health through this next game. 

DYING IN YOUR SLIPPERS

 A lot of things are considered taboo and should not be named in Indonesia, this includes some areas of personal life which should not be mention, things such as depression are not discussed openly. This is what Dominikus D. Putranto from the independent studio Rolling Glory explains. He is the creator of the game Rage in Peace. “Everybody is always meant to be doing well at any point in life, this might come from an Asian culture which puts enormous amounts of pressure on young people to succeed. This makes talking about your inner feelings difficult in a context where family life is central. Depression is thus not a subject one can easily discuss. At one point in my life, I was reflecting on many things and questioning myself, that’s how Rage in Peace was born”. In order to develop it, Rolling Glory had to engage in a series of activities, from Business to Business, to the conception of interactive applications, to website developing and other digital strategies tools and most importantly the conception of the video game. Its a rather common phenomenon in Indonesia to finish with the development of the game in an economy where game developers are barely surviving. Of a team made up of over 50 people, only 8 are employed full time on the development of the game. This game with its cute graphics reminding us of a cartoon inspired by the studio Ghibli and Jake Parker aesthetics remains rather brutal. We keep dying in a different context when the main character we embody simply dreams of dying peacefully in his bed wearing his nightgown. Timmy Malinu the protagonist who feels nothing and does so wilfully as a form of protection from past traumas and who works in an insurance company. Suddenly death itself appears and tells him he is going to die on that very day. Thus the plot is set, will Timmy manage to fulfil his dream of dying comfortably wearing his slippers? To do so rage must be evacuated and a careful and precise progression through the game is needed in order to rest in peace. 

In Rage in Peace, there are references to local tradition and culture, such as the Burung Enggang bird or the Osaze mummy. The game also touches on metaphysical concepts of life and death which are impregnated with Indonesian philosophy. Thus at one point in the game, a Morse code appears stating: « karepmu opo neng kene? sing penting ki migunani tumrap liyan urip kui urup ». A message in the local language of Java which indicate: “What do you seek? What matters is to do good upon others, living is about illuminating”. The last sentence: « urip kui urup » comes from the writings of the philosopher Sunan Kalijaga. Literally “urup” means “turning on” as in “turn on the light”. Which is the meaning of life according to the game, to give to other light as a lamp turned on illuminates space. 

This appeal for supernatural and dark stories is once again found in the game My Lovely Daughter designed by the studio GameChanger which is based in Tangerang south of Jakarta. The game is also published by Toge Productions. The team is rather uncommon as it is directed by an ex-librarian and was set up by two academics who had the dream of developing games. They achieved fame through their game Not A Simulator for Working, a simulation game that is based on doing your best not to work, and which became popular for YouTubers focusing on video games. 

One of the members of the team then came up with My Lovely Daughter, which is inspired by her personal story. She used to dream about becoming an artist and to male video games, but her parents forced her to study more “serious” things and to work in a domain she hated. That is how she imagined a game focusing on children and the abusive practices of some parents. A manner for her to question the pressure families can put on their children to have a “perfect daughter”. The team is actually impressed and surprised by the success the game is having in the Chinese market (about 60% of their sales), showing that Chinese gamers resonated deeply with the main character and narrative. Something which might have been expected from a country which has followed the one-child policy for decades, which has provoked a surge in abandoning or killing infant girls (an estimate of up to 100 million throughout the ’90s). Ironically the illustrator of the game has had to go back to her family and has been forced into a life she did not want making it impossible for her to develop her career with Game Changer studios. 

My Lovely Daughter is a simulation game in which we embody Faust, an amnesiac alchemist who has lost his daughter and wishes to bring her back to life. To do so, the player must summon homunculus, which are small bizarrely shaped creatures using materials such as water, mud and wood. According to Malay culture, when a soul leaves its body, it takes the shape of a homunculus that once having achieved this shade, can feed off the souls of others. In My Lovely Daughter, it is the alchemist that uses the homunculus that he creates to subject them to his will. He develops their character and personality to be able to sacrifice them, steal their souls and transmit them to his daughter, hoping that this will bring her back to life. On of the inspiration to the game is Don’t Starve a now world-famous game which graphics are mirrored in My Lovely Daughter. 

The studio is getting ready to present a new game which this time will be called My Lovely Wife. It’s a by-product more than a sequel in the sense that the characters are completely different. In My Lovely Wife, the goal is to find the perfect love: the story is about a man desperately trying to find his soul mate but who continuously fails at doing so and ends up becoming a dark figure in the process. In Indonesia, there is a famous saying that goes: “if your love has been rejected, a shaman will help you make your love a reality.” This man thus embarks body and soul on online dating apps. My Lovely Wife builds on the gameplay of its successful predecessor but adds to it this dating sim dynamic. This time we don’t embody young women but rather female demons named Succubus. Lilith is the first woman brought to Adam, who rebelled against order, and thus was banished and is locally understood to have become a Succubus. In pre-Islamic mythology, qarinas are very close to the Succubus, demons that appear at night to tempt men into their fantasies and dreams. A new game to discover in 2020 if the spirits don’t oppose it. 

Isabelle Arvers