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Detective Dotson by Masala Games is a cultural joyride through modern-day India

When you live in a country that houses twenty percent of the entire world’s population, yet hardly see a genuine and honest representation of that country in video games, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. And that’s precisely what Shalin Shodhan is doing with his studio, Masala Games. In the outlandish adventure game Detective Dotson, modern-day India plays an equally significant role as the titular hero. “We realized that if we don’t tell our stories, someone else will and it won’t be an appropriate representation.”

While there certainly are games which feature India as a setting, both from Indian studios and international companies, they tend to focus on fantasy or mythical aspects of the nation. “While those are great, we believe the India we live in to be a compelling canvas to paint fascinating stories for the world at large”, says Masala Games Founder and Director Shalin Shodhan. “It’s this choice of setting, modern-day India along with inspirations from our pop culture like Bollywood and crime shows like CID, that make Detective Dotson a cultural joyride through our country unlike any other.”

With its stylized blend of pixelated 2D characters against realistic 3D backdrops, Detective Dotson boasts a visual flair that truly sets the game apart. That choice was very much deliberate. “We use pixel characters to represent people of India as the endearing and expressive lot that we are!” explains Shodhan. “But to make the characters truly pop, we decided to make the world 3D and a bit more realistic. At first, we went looking for some assets in the marketplace to get a running start, but soon realized that there are no 3D assets representing modern India out there! So we had to build all of that on our own. We hope to address this issue after our release, by giving assets back to the community so other creators don’t hit roadblocks in telling their stories from modern India.”

Three Oscars

Shalin Shodhan is no stranger to building immersive worlds. He worked on some of the most well known entertainment IP during his time in the US. At Electronic Arts he did the graphics in Will Wright’s team that created Spore. Later, at Pixar, he worked on animated classics like Toy Story 3 and Brave that went on to win three Oscars. He returned to Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India and founded Masala Games. Now it’s an independent studio of 30 developers, animators, storytellers and artists. 

“We started referencing the India around us rather than the image of it in collective media and that re-training was quite a challenge.”

“Our mantra is ‘constraints foster creativity’. So we’ve tried to build a framework for what Dotson is and isn’t, we creatively explore that space to delight the audience. After that, it’s all about trusting the process and letting the India around us inspire a compelling narrative. Being that we’re a small team, it’s inevitable for everyone to pitch in at one point or another. The same person shooting reference footage to add in-game is the same person putting an environment together based on said footage or the same person directing the game is also composing music for it too.”

‘Aha!’ moments

In the game, players assume the role of Dotson, a detective, somewhat unwillingly. He would have preferred to pursue a career as a Bollywood star, but when his father was murdered, solving the mystery took precedence. To make sense of all the information that players gather during their adventure, the dev team came up with the evidence board system. It’s a seemingly simple but elegant solution for all the part-time detectives. “We can scale its complexity as you get deeper into the game and each time you crack it, you feel clever!” says Shodhan. “There’s ‘aha moments’ built in and you can’t just trial-and-error your way through. At the same time there’s very reasonable hinting in there so you won’t get stuck. So far players have been engaging very well with this system and we’re excited to use it as a framework to generate lots and lots of fun cases.”

“There are barely any games that have India as a setting. If we don’t fix that, who will?”

The team likes to involve the audience frequently to see if they’re on the right track. While this generates tons of helpful feedback, it also leads to mild heartbreak especially in the beginning. “Even though our mission was clear, the references and years of consumed narrative kept leading us to make Indian locations that were old or dirty. We had to stop and look around – India is not like that. We actually had to really hard reverse-brainwash ourselves and show India the way it is!”, admits Shodhan. “What came out of it, was a fresh take on India that non-Indian folks are absolutely charmed by and Indian folks are coming up to us and saying – ‘It feels like summer vacation when I was a kid’. That’s truly heart-warming feedback and was worth all the trips back to the drawing board.”

Solid pipeline

By taking the time to build a solid pipeline the team is now at a place in development where it’s easy to create new content such as episodes, story beats and missions. “We had some of India’s best streamers check out the game on their channels. They responded enthusiastically to our premise and narrative. They also provided some meaningful feedback that will shape Detective Dotson into a better game.” 

Detective Dotson is expected later this year for PC, consoles and mobile. The game will be accompanied by an animated mini-series. “It’s a prequel of sorts to get audiences into the world of Detective Dotson. We’ll be revealing more details closer to an official reveal.”

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.

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