What comes to mind when you think about Malaysia? Perhaps the diverse foods pop into your brain. Maybe you envision the peninsula that encompasses the region. But what if I told you it’s also home to an energetic indie game development scene taking place right as we speak? Persona Theory Games is one of the game studios leading the charge for unapologetic Southeast Asian representation in games at every angle thanks to their multidisciplinary DNA and fascination in morally gray, relationship-centered narratives.
Off of their appearance at GDoC Expo 2022, I found time to chat with Persona Theory Games Co-founder and Managing Director Saqina Latif, and Art Director Michelle Lee to discuss their upcoming games Kabaret and The Lonely Hearts Petshop. Find out what the pulse is on Malaysia as a source of inspiration and beautifully dark, fully realized games to come.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Persona Theory has a creatively diverse team. Can you tell me how Persona Theory began and how these different backgrounds have influenced the games you’ve made?
Saqina Latif: Persona Theory began because the three co-founders didn’t come from games. I was from advertising in Leo Burnett, Kuala Lumpur handling clients like McDonald’s. Buddy is from the film world. He’s actually part of three generations of film directors in Malaysia, his father and grandparents being quite prolific directors themselves. He graduated from the Asian Film Academy in Busan. And the third co-founder is Derek, who is in digital marketing. So somehow the three of us found our way to games because we had an opportunity to write on a prototype project and it went really well. And we decided that, you know, games are more accessible for us to tell our stories and reach a wider audience than say in indie films where there’s a lot of bureaucracy and rules attached to them. So with games we decided we can really tell our Southeast Asian stories.
Can you tell us about the game development scene in Malaysia?
Latif: I would say that a Southeast Asian gaming community is definitely growing. There’s a lot of Indies coming out every year. Especially in Indonesia. Indonesia has a lot of talent coming out. In Malaysia, we are starting a bit slower than them. But you definitely see new studios trying to make new IPs.
In Malaysia, the biggest one is Level Up KL. That is mainly for anyone in Southeast Asia. Even the awards are open for Southeast Asian game developers. And then we have IGDX Bali. That one is mostly for Indonesia, but it is open to everyone. The awards, I think, are for Indonesian game developers. And then the third one, which might be the biggest one, is GamesCom Asia in Singapore.
International publishers are coming in for these game shows. And hopefully, they will help fund all these smaller studios so all of us can make our games.
Your upcoming game Kabaret is described as a dark fantasy folklore adventure game. Could you tell us what we can expect from the game narratively and visually?
Latif: Narratively, it’s going to be very difficult for players for sure. The choices in this game matter. Every step you take matters. Even if you win or lose at a mini game, it will affect what kind of ending or what kind of alignment you get. And I think it will really… we will push the players to think about themselves more, like how do they feel about being human? What does it mean to be human? What is the value of life, and maybe question their own alignment. There is no right or wrong, there is no good and bad. There’s only gray in this world.
The monsters are definitely portrayed as more sympathetic and more human than the humans in the game. The humans in the game tend to feel a bit more monstrous with the things that they’ve done. Partly because in Southeast Asia, a lot of our monsters come from tragedies and even some have a background to our heritage. Women being treated badly, and then coming back as a vengeful vampire. All of this has to do with Southeast Asian society in general, how certain races are treated, how if you’re born from a certain race in Southeast Asia, you’re automatically lower than some. So all this will be brought up and talked about including tougher topics.
For example, during the Japanese occupation in Malaysia, those are the things that we touch upon because it is so rooted in our grandparents stories about the whole village getting massacred. We wanted to put it in there. We don’t know how our Japanese players will react to it. It is a thing that we were concerned or thought about, but ultimately our collaborators at Wings Interactive and even Xbox, they’re like just tell the story you want to tell. That part is not fiction. It won’t be an easygoing game. It will definitely be something to think about, and something that will make you feel after you finish the game. And hopefully you will replay and see what else you can get because there’ll be multiple endings [depending on] which of the three main characters you align with.
Michelle, could you talk a little bit about the aesthetics of the game?
Michelle Lee: The aesthetic is going to be a bit different compared to the other games that we’ve made, especially because of the visual novel direction. We do involve a lot of traditional cultures and art and design stuff in the games. So it might look a bit different for people who never actually understood the kind of art form that we are showcasing. Other than that, there will be some form of violence, blood and gore involved. *laughs* So please look forward to it, for those who actually enjoy that sort of stuff.
How would you feel if you saw cosplay of your characters in Kabaret?
Latif: Excited! I wonder which one?
FTI: Yeah, that’s a good question. What characters would you be excited to see cosplay?
Latif: Oh, my favorite– The Caretaker. He’s the weretiger. So if somebody can actually make that mask that Michelle drew, that’d be like ooh super cool.
Can you talk about some of the influences and decisions that brought the world of Kabaret to life?
Lee: Definitely tons of research on Southeast Asian culture, folklore and traditional arts. Especially our character outfit and teaware designs. We definitely got a lot of our inspiration from some of our traditional Southeast Asian art forms, like from batik art, and also from nyonya culture as well. A few of our environmental designs are also inspired by existing places in Malaysia, such as the Istana Bunian from Kelantan, which roughly translate to “place of the supernatural.” It is where the existence of the other realm resides. So it’s like the spirit world in our case. To showcase the differences between the human world and the monster world in Kabaret, our character designs are influenced from this ancient art form called cloisonne where colored glass paints are placed within inclusion made of copper or bronze wire, hence the gold outline that you can see in our character designs.
I really liked the gold line. I think that really just makes it stick out versus other like visual novel games that you might compare it to. Really, just changing the line color does a lot for sticking out and I think that more people need to follow your example.
Latif: In the beginning, our team thought, “Would this actually work? A lot of times, the more people think that we shouldn’t do it, the more we do it.
Lee: I think two days ago, we were at a local event. A friend of one of the artists there was actually inspired by Kabaret. So she actually incorporated the gold outline because of Kabaret. Not because of cloisonne but because of Kabaret.
I hear that Persona Theory is also developing another game called The Lonely Hearts Petshop where the player is a cat that has to match cats to humans. Can you tell us about this game, where it is in development and what it’s like to work on multiple projects at the same time?
Latif: The Lonely Hearts Petshop was in development at the height of the pandemic in 2020. It was right after we wrapped and shipped our first ever studio game called Fires At Midnight which was about a pandemic. It was all coincidental. Our game’s world was on fire and then when we looked outside, it felt like it was on fire so we needed to take a step back, take a break.
At that time, I felt that the reason why I could keep going was because of my cats. And I wanted to make a game about relationships with how humans treat their pets, their companion animals. At the time I was also rereading Animal Farm by George Orwell. So I was feeling very inspired. And I told Michelle and my co-founder Buddy about it. I just wanted a pet game man, and they said, “There’s so many pet games, why don’t we just do it the other way around where the pets are the ones running the pet shop? And then the humans are the pets?” I was like, “Okay. This sounds like a Planet of the Apes thing going on.” So I didn’t know how it would turn out. I didn’t know how the art would turn out.
I wanted to showcase Jonker Street because it was such a heavy part of my childhood and where my dad’s family’s from. I wanted to showcase the Baba Nyonya culture. So it was Baba Nyonya with cats and a pet shop and the human pets and then it became The Lonely Hearts Petshop. Just when we finished making the demo, we got an email from Wings saying that Kabaret was funded. It was at a time where we didn’t think that Kabaret would ever see the light of day so it was very surreal.
Now that Kabaret is wrapping up and releasing next year in March, we are starting to go back to The Lonely Hearts Petshop. We’re rediscovering it, really looking at what we want our dream game to be. You have to go big each game right? This is the game that we want to really push as much as possible in terms of animations, story, gameplay.
Because it’s about our relationship with our pets, I think that’s so important to us. None of our games will always tell you what is good and bad. It’s always very gray. But it does explore how we as humans treat animals and pets. Whether we use it as the reason why we live, as comfort animals, as things for social media, clout chasing things like that, we really explore all these little gritty details and put it into the game. It has a very beautiful aesthetic and Michelle did a wonderful job. Still, a Persona Theory game has pretty skin, but the meat of it will definitely make you question how you actually are with your animals.
The skin and the meat. Wow. Michelle, what is it like to be drawing these human animal hybrid people?
Lee: We’re still experimenting. So we might come up with something very different. Our initial plan was to have a human baby, actually. It’s a human baby size kind of pet. That’s how small they are. But it’s too normal. So we’re trying to make it look more special. So that’s where we are starting our experimenting for our current development. We are adding a lot of new things inside as well. So it’s not just humans that we will be revamping. We will have multiple mini games soon. It’ll be very fun and interesting, for sure. That’s all I can say, but yeah.
Persona Theory games have had an emphasis on intimate relationships. On your about page it reads “romancing Southeast Asia, one legend at a time.” Does the studio have an inclination for these relationship centric stories? Or is it just a coincidence?
Latif: It goes back to our own experience. Buddy, one of our co-founders, is a filmmaker himself, and we’re all storytellers. In film, there’s this thing called intention, the director’s intention, the producer’s intention. It’s something that is ingrained into how we do things. So in every game that we do, we have to be very aware of what our intentions are, even if it’s just to make lots of money. It hasn’t come to that yet.
But usually the first one is telling an intimate story about relationships and generational trauma that happens in Malaysia. Specifically, mixed marriages of race and racial violence in the country. Nobody wants to talk about it, but we put it out there. And then Kabaret is really about Southeast Asian stories, a lot of different traumas, what each region goes through, things that people don’t talk about, things that are difficult to talk about in the region.
And then finally, in The Lonely Hearts Petshop the intention is to really, really examine how we treat our pets and how humans treat their pets. I think that is why we gravitate to relationships so much. Each of the stories that we tell can be personal to somebody on the team, because they might have put a little bit of their own stories in it. It’s us sharing our stories to the world.
What other Asian artists or stories in gaming or otherwise would you love to amplify or recommend?
Latif: The first one is a friend that is doing a film called Stone Turtle. I don’t think it will be out anytime soon, but it is definitely making festival rounds. There’s also our friends over at Toge Productions in Indonesia. They do really, really cool indie games. If you like rhythm games and talk about the state of overworked doctors in the medical field, there’s a game called Rhythm Doctor that’s done by our friend in Malaysia.
Lee: It’s just one button to get through the game.
Latif: The creator, our friend, is a mathematical genius. Definitely a different type of game from what we make. So you should check it out.
Lee: I played Rhythm Doctor for a few hours last week after Level Up, which is one of our local game dev hangout sessions. For art, I would recommend Space From the Unbound by Mojiken. Also Coffee Talk for narration.
FTI: Last official question. What other Southeast Asian stories are you interested in exploring in the future?
Latif: Definitely the colonizers of Southeast Asia. It’s something that we want to explore after the cat game and it’s going to be our biggest dream slash ambition to make this very specific game about the colonizers of Southeast Asia. We’ll probably talk about the Dutch. We’ll talk about the British. We’ll talk about the Japanese and what they’ve done to Southeast Asia. That’s the topic that we would love to go after Lonely Hearts.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, virtually on October 18th, 2022 as part of our coverage on the Game Devs of Color Expo 2022.
Saqina Latif is a Co-founder and Managing Director at Persona Theory Games. Michelle Lee is the Art Director at Persona Theory Games. Persona Theory’s newest game, Kabaret is coming soon and is available to wishlist and download as a demo on Steam. More information on their game The Lonely Hearts Petshop is available on itch.io.