WordPlayer: Indika and the Possibilities in Weirdness

A game that takes players on a profound and surreal journey as a nun

WordPlayer: Indika and the Possibilities in Weirdness
Source: SUPERJUMP.

There was a moment, early in Indika, when I grew giddy with excitement at the possibility that the game simply did not have a “run” button. The opening sequence plays up the tedium of the eponymous character’s life as a nun in a freezing 19th-century Russian monastery, engaging in meaningless, monotonous tasks for in-game experience points that the player is told, straight away, are completely meaningless. What conviction, I thought! What confidence the game has to make me slowly amble through these environments. How courageous it is to trust that your audience might find boredom interesting. The game had won me over before it had even revealed what it really was.

Indika does, in fact, have a run button. After the opening sequence — which is full of surprising moments I do not want to spoil and with which I’m still coming to grips after finishing the game — Indika receives a letter and is sent out of the monastery, heading out into the cold to deliver her message. It’s a typical video game set-up for an extremely unconventional main character, a central tension that Indika plays with, and subverts, throughout its 5-ish hour runtime. 

By the time the run button is enabled, it does not feel like a concession: there’s a huge open area in front of Indika, and trudging slowly through several kilometers of snow would take the tedium too far. Yet every time the game disabled the run button and made me slowly wander through an area, I nodded in agreement. Sometimes Indika will run, and sometimes she will walk. In two different sequences, she rides a bike. She contains multitudes! The game does, indeed, have the confidence to let itself be boring when it makes sense to be boring, to have faith that the player will see the virtue in slowing down and living in the discomfort of Indika’s life.

Source: Steam.

How courageous it is to trust that your audience might find boredom interesting.

Indika is a game about a nun who must go on a cross-country trip with a personal demon in tow; the demon’s voice in her ear grows louder during moments of quiet and peril alike.

Early in her trip, she meets Ilya, a clearly cursed man on a journey of personal and spiritual significance. Ilya seeks a religious miracle that someone has promised him — but he, too, appears to be haunted by his own demons. Indika has to battle her own shaken faith, and the increasingly surreal circumstances she finds herself in, hoping to find some kind of peace and acceptance, while players learn more about her past and her inner turmoil as the game progresses.

Reading back the last paragraph, it might be difficult for a player who hasn’t experienced Indika to picture what it is, exactly. In some ways, it’s a fairly traditional third-person puzzle game, where you travel through environments and solve light puzzles to progress. It’s horror-tinged without explicitly being a horror game, and it has a real habit of introducing and then immediately abandoning interesting gameplay mechanics.

I don’t want to dig into specifics too much here, because a lot of Indika’s power is in its ability to surprise. That’s because this game is, above all else, working in service of generating a vibe, one that changes and morphs and evolves as you play. It’s a game made to be weird in interesting ways, to keep you second-guessing, knowing you’re unlikely to get answers to every question it raises.

Indika is not a traditional video game protagonist, except for the fact that she generates and gathers experience points throughout her adventure. Collecting items and exploring thoroughly can reward you with enough experience to level up your “shame” meter, which a loading screen hint informs you is totally meaningless. The meter branches, allowing you to choose how you grow over the adventure, but the loading screen wasn’t lying — none of it matters.

So why have it at all? Because it’s funny. A game about a nun who collects XP by lighting candles and collecting religious artifacts is an inherently comedic process and a sly wink about the nature of game development. Sometimes, you need to give the nun a run button — and will people think it’s more of a traditional “game” if the nun can level up?

Source: Steam.

Indika has to battle her own shaken faith, and the increasingly surreal circumstances she finds herself in, hoping to find some kind of peace and acceptance, while players learn more about her past and her inner turmoil as the game progresses.

Despite knowing that I was the butt of the joke, I could not stop collecting XP. I always found myself wanting to level up. I wanted to deepen Indika’s shame, even though the story is, on some level, about her trying to overcome that shame. It’s the sort of satire that will not play for everyone, but I found it very effective in its weird playfulness.

Thinking about the experience points system got me wondering if anyone had really made a good game about a nun — or nuns, broadly — before this. While games like Pentiment include nuns, none of them are designed to be played. By doing a quick Google search, you’ll find an entire series of games within the Evil Nun franchise, including a game called Nun Massacre, which shows that the idea of an “evil nun” is quite popular in pop culture. Bayonetta briefly gaslights as a nun to lure in demons, and a handful of fighting games feature nuns (shout out to Guilty Gears’ Bridget), but I cannot find any evidence of other games that involve performing the duties of a nun in any real way.

Perhaps Indika is about something real underneath all its weirdness. The XP is a fantasy abstraction, perhaps conjured by a woman who is going through a crisis of faith; it could be a way of rendering meaning from repetition and monotony. There’s a growing glut of games about performing jobs — pilot, farmer, powerwash hose operator, train conductor, office manager — but few if any of those games go to real lengths to explore the psychology of those jobs beyond gamifying the required skill sets and management abilities. If the player gets a high score, does the character understand the metric differently? What if the points are equally meaningless to both players and the protagonist? Gathering “shame” is a joke from the player's perspective, but how would the character experience this? Indika is an exaggerated, surrealist game, but I wonder if there are women in the world, or throughout history, who might have identified with the themes this system is grappling with.

Without spoiling it, Indika is a hilarious game, but also curiously sad, especially when I think back on it now. Incorporating traditional video game aesthetics and markers, it weaves a narrative about spiritual emptiness in the face of oppression, alternating between the surreal and the mundane to delve into the complexities of its protagonist and their life. It layers on fantasy elements and blurs its own internal reality. It’s a game that really got under my skin, with a central character whose sad eyes are going to stay with me. 

Source: Steam.

Indika is an exaggerated, surrealist game, but I wonder if there are women in the world, or throughout history, who might have identified with the themes this system is grappling with.

Indika also made me think about the technology underpinning the games we play. It’s a janky but ambitious experience, one rendered beautifully in high-detail 3D. In an earlier technological generation, this might have been what we’d call an “AA” game, because of the weird value we assign to these little letters. It would have received flack for being short and mechanically simple.

In 2024, this is firmly an indie narrative game, just one with a high degree of realistic 3D fidelity. Indika doesn’t feel expensive, and I faced a lot of audio issues and abrupt cutscene transitions in the PS5 version, but it has that extreme facial detail that we’re seeing in more and more games these days. 

The trend towards higher quality, costlier game productions carries risks. However, it also provides an opportunity for small teams to create innovative and unconventional games that can compete with the more mainstream, heavily marketed titles. I don’t know if Indika would have gotten off the ground in 2010, or if it would have needed to look different, last longer, or position itself differently, with deeper mechanical complexity or more “satisfying” gameplay. I’m glad that now, in 2024, it could just be what it is.

Games like Indika give me hope for other weirdo narrative experiences, that there are still publishers who will take on a game that definitely, thoroughly, does not exist anywhere else on the market. We need games that aim for something other than crowd-pleasing thrills, that give us unconventional leads and mechanics that defy expectations in whatever way they can. Indika gave me a feeling that I rarely get to experience: that “oh, I didn’t know video games could do this” rush. I hope to have that experience again in the future, while also hoping that no game ever ruins the effect by trying to emulate it.

A PS5 review code of Indika was provided by the publisher.

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