via Studio Oleomingus

Part Video Game, Part Art Exhibition, and Entirely Mesmerizing

Studio Oleomingus' multi-part video game "Somewhere" will be displayed for the first time in America this month.

by Justin Kamp
Sep 29 2019, 9:45am

via Studio Oleomingus

For nearly six years, Chala, India-based game developers Studio Oleomingus have been immersed in an act of digital translation. Their video game, dubbed Somewhere, is a multi-part first-person epic based on the works of the Gujarati poet Mir UmarHassan, whose work Oleomingus founders Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty say they have spent years transforming into surrealistic broadcasts from an alternate India, a place at once dreaming of alternative histories while unable to escape the all-consuming truth of the country’s colonial past. On September 20th, the work will be on display in the United States for the first time, at Chicago’s Video Game Arts Gallery. There’s only one catch: Mir UmarHassan and his stories don’t exist, and never have. They were invented by Jani as part of the project’s elaborate backstory, and in their meta-fictional haziness, they serve as a perfect lens into the fractured story that Somewhere is trying to tell.

In both narrative and structure, Somewhere is a work concerned with the limits of reality. Before he invented Mir UmarHassan, before he wrote the game’s recursive lore, even before he met Chakraborty, Jani conceived of the project that would become Somewhere during a course on museum and exhibition design in college. He had been grappling with the transition from design to reality when he began to explore the possibilities of digital architecture as a way to alleviate his frustrations.

“You reach a point in the design process where you actually have to start thinking about negotiating with the site and with people, with circumstances, with funds,” Jani said. “I decided that I didn't really want to build physical structures, and I started to sort of migrate toward virtual environments, looking at what happens to architecture when you digitize it, and can only interact with it in the virtual space.”

This was the first act of translation in a work that would come to be defined by that process. In 2014, Jani entered into a residency at Khoj, an arts incubator in Delhi, to focus on honing his digital skills with the development engine Unity. He connected with Chakraborty after seeking help on the Unity forums, and the two began collaborating on gameworlds, sending each other updates and designs while working from their respective homes, Jani in Delhi and Chakraborty in Bangalore.

It didn’t take long for Jani, who does all the writing, to start thinking about the kinds of stories that could be told in these spaces, especially as they relate to the historical exhibitions he had previously studied. Jani had always been interested in cultural histories—hence the interest in museum design—but it was during a stint spent collecting archaeological data at historical sites across India that he started to think critically about the ways that the country’s cultural histories were compressed into singular, often imperialist narratives.

“In studying local histories, you start to realize that a tremendous amount of their linguistic legacy and vernacular culture is not only being eroded, it is being forced out of national conversations,” Jani said. “And so there are these pockets of absurd history scattered throughout the country that simply do not align with the relatively linear national history that we study and are proud of.”

In creating a digital world unfettered by physics, Jani felt that it should also be free from the yoke of historical revisionism, a world where India’s multi-faceted past could manifest in all its contortions and contradictions. This was the ethos that drove Jani and Chakraborty to transform their disparate architectural exercises into the haunted post-colonial landscape of Somewhere.

"There are these pockets of absurd history scattered throughout the country that simply do not align with the relatively linear national history that we study and are proud of."

By 2016, the pair had moved to Chala to work together under the moniker Studio Oleomingus. They decided to unite their various game-worlds under one thematic umbrella, with the levels remaining individual experiences linked together with a deep lore. Beneath the game’s absurdist landscape of Escher-esque villages and floating tubes of toothpaste lies a story informed by mythology, history and fiction. It’s a purposefully fragmentary story, one that references historical figures both real and invented, and it’s mostly teased out in inscrutable text interludes that have the circular logic of a riddle.

Jani took cues from multiple literary traditions in crafting the story of Somewhere. His creation of UmarHassan was inspired by Borges’ recursive magical realism and post-colonial writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, while the game’s multiple conflicting viewpoints is drawn from the democratic storytelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

For the world design, he and Chakraborty looked to place Victorian textile patterns and Islamic art alongside massive everyday objects like toothpaste or briefcases that Jani calls the “dominant language of our current existence.” The goal was to create a world where the secular and the mystical live side by side and the player is never sure of any story they read.

Take, for example, the segment titled In the Pause Between the Ringing, where massive rotary phones are strewn throughout a traditional Indian village. They are described as ancient, natural objects akin to boulders, mined by real historical figures like Ashoka and Babur. In building a world whose history was amorphous, Jani felt that they could illustrate to players what colonialism feels like when it’s affected your home’s national memory.

“We see no reason for history to be honestly retold,” Jani said of the game’s mixing of fact and fiction. “We find that every time you associate veracity with history it starts to carry an unnatural amount of authority. Whose truth is that history trying to communicate? The moment you start to consume history with the realization that at least some of it is broken, nonsensical or ridiculous, it opens up.”

In this way, Somewhere is an almost maddeningly reflexive work. It’s a video game commenting on digital placeless-ness, a visual novel about the absurdity of narratives, an art exhibition that critiques the concept of exhibitions. The irony that a frustration with Westernized museum design inspired a project that is now displaying in Western museums is not lost on Jani.

“We have not figured out a way to mitigate this sudden truncation that happens when you put it into a museum,” he said. “It’s something we continue to struggle with. But also it creates room for subtle commentary on how we decide to posit the game and the fiction we create around it.”

“We see no reason for history to be honestly retold."

For the upcoming Chicago opening, he crafted a specially-tailored curatorial program that intersects the fictional history of UmarHassan with the very real history of the Chicago Fire and the city’s subsequent role as industrial hub.

Despite the porous boundaries that Oleomingus attempt to create with Somewhere, the realities of colonial relations persist. When the pair applied for a visa to attend their first U.S. show, they were declined, a fact that Jani said he found quite amusing. In the world of Somewhere, this will likely become another fact folded into the game’s deepening mythos, translated from reality to fiction and back again as part of Jani’s vision of an ever-expanding project.

“The idea at first was that we would work up to one narrative that encapsulates what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But every time you come to some idea of completion with a story, you realize it is foolish to think it complete. It will never be complete, and that is part of its purpose.”

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