Stu­dio Oleomin­gus

Some­where is a game which Stu­dio Oleomin­gus has been work­ing on for more than half a decade. I can de­scribe it. I have seen screen­shots and sketches from it and re­lat­ing to it. I have writ­ten about it. I’m writ­ing about it now. Yet Some­where might not exi


Pip pro­files the stu­dio that’s build­ing a game that ex­ists, but maybe also doesn’t.

My con­ver­sa­tion is with Dhruv Jani, the author and artist who, with pro­gram­mer Sushant Chakraborty, makes up the stu­dio. Some­where, he tells me, be­gan life as a sin­gle game. “A sim­ple project where we would tell the story of Kayam­gadh and its dis­cov­ery by nar­rat­ing it through a se­ries of char­ac­ters.”

You can catch glimpses of that project if you scroll back far enough through the duo’s Tum­blr. The game you’ll find be­ing out­lined in 2013 has fig­ures who act as ves­sels through which the player can in­ter­act with the game, swap­ping from one to an­other for new per­spec­tives via a sneak­ing stealth process. Screen­shots from the blog give a sense of a game be­ing de­vel­oped, with the team fig­ur­ing out char­ac­ter models and im­ple­ment­ing ideas.

There are other games and ex­pe­ri­ences which have sprung up around the main game. A Mu­seum of Du­bi­ous Splen­dors is one of the most re­cent, and it in­ter­sperses po­etic writ­ing with a sur­real mu­seum space. You’ll read an ac­count of a mys­te­ri­ous ob­ject found by a his­tor­i­cal figure and then find your­self in a gor­geously pan­elled and wall­pa­pered room fac­ing a gi­gan­tic float­ing tube of tooth­paste while rain falls around you and two man­nequin arms reach for the ceil­ing.

Me­nagerie is from 2015. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence set in an over­grown bath­room where a wooden man strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion with you. Walk­ing away from him spawns more wooden men, all keen to con­verse with you. As Oleomin­gus said at the time: “As you gen­er­ate more copies of the dia­logue it will be­come pro­gres­sively harder to com­pre­hend the con­ver­sa­tion.” I be­lieve I likened it to a net­work­ing event. Me­nagerie is not ex­plic­itly part of Some­where but shares the same art style, re­peats the same mo­tifs, and plays with a sim­i­lar strand of con­ver­sa­tional plu­ral­ity.

“What be­gan as a sin­gu­lar project is now ap­por­tioned across sev­eral medi­ums and many small ex­per­i­ments,” says Jani. “And the first, mod­est story that we set out to tell has mu­tated be­yond recog­ni­tion, be­com­ing in­stead a dense his­tor­i­cal text that drives our next game: Un­der

A Porce­lain Sun.”

Un­der a Porce­lain Sun is a text-driven adventure game sched­uled to come out later in 2018 on PC. It’s de­scribed as an ab­surd adventure game set dur­ing the tu­mult of the an­nex­a­tion of South­ern Malwa, and the screen­shots re­veal the stu­dio’s fa­mil­iar mo­tifs and colour pal­ette. There’s a shark sus­pended in midair, over­sized chairs whose legs form a for­est, beau­ti­ful pat­terned tiles and but­ter­fly col­lec­tions dec­o­rat­ing the walls.

un­rav­el­ling cities

The stu­dio has an­other story set within that same re­gion and the same time pe­riod: An In­di­vis­i­ble Mar­gin of Er­ror. But you won’t find that one on a games plat­form. In­stead, it was a site-spe­cific in­stal­la­tion which formed part of an ex­per­i­men­tal ret­ro­spec­tive of the famed ar­chi­tect Charles Cor­rea in Jaipur, North­ern In­dia.

Jani also men­tions Lan­goors in the Labyrinth which I hadn’t heard of but which, he says, “ex­am­ines the un­rav­el­ling of a city through the lens of the author of Kayam­gadh’s history, Mir UmarHas­san.”

The thing which these sto­ries (and oth­ers which have emerged from the stu­dio over the years) have in com­mon is that they stem from Some­where. As the idea of Some­where has grown and de­vel­oped, Oleomin­gus has built up what Jani de­scribes as “a con­sid­er­able amount of in­tri­cate lore” which is writ­ten in such a way that it in­ter­twines and blurs into ac­tual history of the Western In­dian states in the early 19th cen­tury.

Jani ex­plains, “As we delved into Colo­nial history we started to mask our writ­ings for the game by cre­at­ing the per­sona of Mir UmarHasan, a fic­ti­tious Gu­jarati poet writ­ing in early ’60s, whose works we are os­ten­si­bly adapt­ing in game form.”

Cre­at­ing the fic­tion and then adapt­ing it rather than try­ing to build the fic­tion as an in­ter­ac­tive thing from the start was im­por­tant. It made it eas­ier for the team to nav­i­gate their lit­er­ary in­flu­ences from tra­di­tional writ­ing forms and it also meant Some­where could be­come a trans­me­dia en­ter­prise, with each el­e­ment pulling from

“Some­where, like the city of Kayam­gadh, does not ex­ist”

the same core body of work but be­ing adapted in a way that suited the de­mands of a spe­cific project.

So these smaller satel­lite projects ex­ist. I’ve played the ones which have emerged on­line and read up about the ones tak­ing place far away from me. But there is a line from one of the story snip­pets Oleomin­gus posted early on in the game’s life and which has stayed with me: “You per­ceive my house as I de­scribe it to you.”

The idea here is that the lis­tener’s ex­pe­ri­ence of a space is me­di­ated by the per­son telling them about it. Gen­er­ally you trust that ac­count, but it might be fic­tional, or it might re­veal the bi­ases or the in­ter­ests of the teller. Two peo­ple can de­scribe the same space and evoke en­tirely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences. Fol­low­ing Oleomin­gus’s work over time, that idea of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing events or places through the lens of other peo­ple pops up again and again.

At some point in the last cou­ple of years I re­alised that the idea had be­come so dom­i­nant that I no longer thought of Some­where as an ac­tual game which would be playable at any point, but – like the mys­te­ri­ous city of Kayam­gadh – as some­thing I would only ever glimpse via these other games and other per­for­mances.

That’s not to say that Some­where has never ex­isted. There have been at least two demo builds for the project and el­e­ments like the ar­chi­tec­ture and the body-swap­ping were real enough. But the duo’s un­der­stand­ing of what Some­where is and the form it takes has shifted.

Jani says that the team dis­carded the body-swap­ping idea after a demo build called Rit­u­als be­cause it wasn’t work­ing in con­junc­tion with the sto­ries Oleomin­gus was telling. In­stead the stu­dio pre­ferred “to use sim­pler and sub­tler meth­ods of cre­at­ing plu­ral­ity”.

He puts for­ward a new ver­sion of Some­where’s char­ac­ters where they are no longer dis­tinct en­ti­ties, en­tirely sep­a­rate from one an­other, but form a cast which can merge or di­verge:

“Peo­ple in the story, re­duc­ing into sin­gle en­ti­ties be­cause they col­lide with each other on a map and amal­ga­mate or char­ac­ters split­ting apart in a mi­totic act of gen­er­at­ing repli­cas with er­rors in their rec­ol­lec­tion of their nar­ra­tives. This is how the fis­sures of views and sto­ries now man­i­fest them­selves in the game.”

That idea is also anal­o­gous to how I think Oleomin­gus sees the re­la­tion­ship be­tween dif­fer­ent fields of study or ex­per­tise. They aren’t dis­con­nected but flow into one an­other “as a con­tin­uum of a cy­cle of ar­gu­ments, from lin­guis­tics to evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, from ar­chi­tec­ture to history and from ther­mo­dy­nam­ics to lit­er­a­ture”.

This de­scrip­tion of char­ac­ter in­ter­ac­tion is re­ally in­ter­est­ing, but it also fur­ther re­duces the sense of

Some­where as a con­crete project that I can latch onto. I ask whether

Some­where ac­tu­ally ex­ists in the sense that a tra­di­tional game does or whether it’s just some­thing the player sees through these other facets.

“Some­where, like the city of Kayam­gadh, does not ex­ist,” says Jani. “You are right it is al­ways meant to be seen through the oc­cluded lens of our other work. In that it is a lit­tle like R.K. Narayan’s town of Mal­gudi or E.M. Forster’s Marabar caves. A trope of post­colo­nial fic­tion stretched to the ex­treme, and ap­plied to the very form of telling these sto­ries.”

He also points to the work of Card­board Com­puter, the cre­ator of

Kentucky Route Zero and as­so­ci­ated an­cil­lary projects, as ex­plor­ing in sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory – satel­lite works which or­bit a main game that it­self “seeks to draw very per­ti­nent

par­al­lels to ac­tual peo­ple, char­ac­ters and lit­er­ary forms.”

I con­sid­ered fol­low­ing up to try and pin down whether one of the facets through which we would glimpse Some­where would be a game ti­tled Some­where. What stopped me, though, was the fact that I don’t ac­tu­ally want an an­swer. Part of my en­joy­ment of Stu­dio Oleomin­gus’s work is that I en­joy the blur­ring of fact and fic­tion, and I love that there is a stu­dio whose mag­num opus might just not ex­ist in a tangible sense while still be­ing in­flu­en­tial and beau­ti­ful.

The en­joy­ment of not know­ing can be com­pli­cated, though. Fic­tions and metafic­tions of this sort can be dif­fi­cult be­cause play­ers some­times feel stupid or em­bar­rassed by be­ing ‘taken in’ – that maybe they are the butt of an elit­ist or ob­scure joke, rather than part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Some­times the de­sire to pin down which parts are ‘true’ and which are not starts to dom­i­nate, con­vert­ing a fluid ex­plo­ration into some­thing closer to a test which you could pass or fail.

With that in mind, I ask what play­ers’ re­sponses have been like to the stu­dio’s games, and how much they have wanted to in­ter­ro­gate what is ‘true’.

“Pre­dom­i­nantly, and per­haps be­cause we re­lease games across long in­ter­vals and work slowly, most peo­ple ap­proach each in­di­vid­ual game as a stand­alone story or ex­pe­ri­ence,” ex­plains Jani, “often be­liev­ing a por­tion of the fic­ti­tious con­text we pro­vide to be true.

“This often lends an aura of strange au­then­tic­ity. For ex­am­ple, many of those of who have played A Mu­seum of Du­bi­ous Splen­dors feel com­pelled to men­tion that is an adap­tion of some ver­nac­u­lar work. And their pa­tient jour­ney through the game re­wards them with lit­er­a­ture from a source that’s oth­er­wise alien to them, and one that is be­ing benev­o­lently brought to this form. When of course it is all just a mis­chievous nest­ing of sto­ries within sto­ries.”

He con­tin­ues, “On the other hand, we have had peo­ple write to us and men­tion the ex­act au­thors and texts that our work re­minds them of – which often turn out to be ac­cu­rate and pre­cisely the ones we chose to em­u­late when craft­ing our sto­ries. Our favourite re­sponse thus far has been when an ex­pa­tri­ate wrote to us to say our work re­minded her of home in Pak­istan and the nostal­gia she as­so­ci­ated with it.”

On the sub­ject of A Mu­seum of Du­bi­ous Splen­dors, this is an ex­cerpt from the ‘About This Game’ sec­tion of its Steam store­front page (the word­ing is very slightly dif­fer­ent from its en­try):

“These tales, have been recre­ated from a col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Mir UmarHas­san, a Gu­jarati poet whose works have proven no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to trans­late be­cause of the mel­liflu­ous use of Urdu and Hindi in his com­po­si­tions. The col­lec­tion, en­ti­tled ‘in Du­bi­ous Splen­dor’, was writ­ten (in Gu­jarati) in 1962 for the Malwa Chron­i­cle, but the sto­ries therein were man­gled and edited with­out the author’s per­mis­sion prior to their pub­li­ca­tion in se­ri­alised form.”

The de­scrip­tion in the top right of the game page notes that this is “an ir­rev­er­ent ru­mi­na­tion” and a “quiet game about pro­saic ob­jects and spu­ri­ous his­to­ries”. So the in­for­ma­tion that this is a fic­tion is of­fered (although gen­tly, rather than with any fan­fare). But if you skim past it or don’t in­ter­ro­gate it, it’s easy to take the blurb, which ac­tu­ally forms part of the broader fic­tion of Some­where, as an au­then­tic ex­pla­na­tion, so plau­si­bly is it writ­ten.

Oleomin­gus op­er­ates in un­cer­tain spa­ces

The cur­rent Steam page for Un­der a Porce­lain Sun is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in that both chunks of text seem to sit more clearly out­side of the game’s fic­tion. Each ref­er­ences genre and cam­era po­si­tion­ing (nar­ra­tive adventure, first-per­son) and there are no am­bigu­ous his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, just a tan­ta­lis­ing se­lec­tion of fan­tas­ti­cal char­ac­ters and set­tings — wax peo­ple who melt at noon, salt ban­dits, cas­tles of glue...

con­found­ing ex­pec­ta­tions

I won­der whether this slight shift in how the ex­pe­ri­ence is pitched to play­ers will re­sult in dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences of the fic­tion. Or per­haps, when this par­tic­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence ar­rives later in the year, I’ll sud­denly re­alise that the sources of un­cer­tainty have sim­ply shifted to an­other lo­ca­tion, seep­ing in un­de­tected by my cur­rent radar.

But to go back to what play­ers have been mak­ing of Oleomin­gus’s work so far, “There is also often ab­so­lute be­wil­der­ment as to what the game is ‘sup­posed to do’ or why it ex­ists,” says Jani. “The lit­er­ary threads that bind it to­gether seem to many play­ers too loose and too ir­rel­e­vant to merit the sort of en­gage­ment with the fic­tion that the game re­quires.

“But for our lo­cally ex­hib­ited work it is much eas­ier for peo­ple to draw con­nec­tions be­tween fic­ti­tious events and ac­tual game lore. It also then en­ables us to par­tic­i­pate in dis­course sur­round­ing other dis­ci­plines like post­colo­nial stud­ies, ver­nac­u­lar lit­er­a­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture.”

An In­di­vis­i­ble Mar­gin of Er­ror is one of those works. The Charles Cor­rea ret­ro­spec­tive in which it was ex­hib­ited was called When is Space? and Jani notes: “We are ar­gu­ing that videogame spa­ces are dif­fi­cult to in­habit be­cause they are per­pet­ual ru­ins, an ar­gu­ment cre­ated in re­sponse to peo­ple play­ing our work dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion, and sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions with those who were skep­ti­cal of its form or in­tent.”

Oleomin­gus op­er­ates in un­cer­tain spa­ces, us­ing real projects to in­di­rectly tell the story of a fic­tional place. Re­gard­less of whether a game called Some­where comes out, it has ex­panded into a fas­ci­nat­ing (and hugely am­bi­tious) web of evoca­tive text and dis­tinc­tive, ar­rest­ing art. As Jani puts it, “At the heart of this ef­fort is a firm be­lief in the po­tent func­tion of sto­ries and their ca­pac­ity to record, mu­tate and in­duce change in lan­guage, po­lit­i­cal history, cul­ture and built form.”

We fin­ish with me ask­ing him to tell me the story of an image from Some­where – a for­est of tooth­brushes. “I could tell you that the tooth­paste for­est is an adap­ta­tion of a folk­lore,” he says. “The tale of a prince who is wrongly ac­cused and ex­iled from his king­dom, and who de­cides to re­venge him­self by be­com­ing the ruler of a land of giants and by wag­ing war on those who ex­iled him. And that the only de­pic­tion of this fa­ble from the com­pany pe­riod, is in the form of a litho­graph at the Vic­to­ria Mu­seum, which shows the prince seated on a throne sur­rounded by over­sized ev­ery­day ob­jects in the gi­ant’s realm, in­clud­ing a large tree-like tooth­brush in the cor­ner…

...but that would be as fic­ti­tious as many of our other sto­ries!”

BE­LOW: Enor­mous tooth­brushes be­come trees.

Fa­mil­iar ob­jects are gi­gan­tic and strange.

A glimpse of Some­where in early al­pha build Rit­u­als

ABOVE: Tim­ruk al­ter­nates be­tween sto­ry­book pages and 3D rooms to ex­plore.

ABOVE LEFT: Con­ver­sa­tions in Me­nagerie start sim­ple then build into in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity.


Has­san’s head ac­tu­ally sits within a glass-fronted box.

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