Interview: Navigating the Asian diaspora through roguelikes with Sherveen Uduwana
When I think about growing up in America, I often consider what my definition of home is. The answer usually circles between complicated and chaotic. At GDoC Expo this year, many games and developers dove into the same question.
We took some time to talk to Sherveen Uduwana (he/him), an award winning designer and producer based in Riverside, California who was also a speaker on several panels. His current project Midautumn was featured at the expo, and we got to dig deeper on the feelings and realities of the diaspora, how Midautumn tackles gentrification, and how you can help Asian devs right now for free.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Could you describe your journey into a career in the gaming space?
I grew up outside of the states. I’m originally from Sri Lanka, but I grew up in Vietnam, Singapore, things like that. It’s kind of a weird pan-Asian childhood. I came over to California for college in about 2013 and studied Game Design in college, which is kind of atypical, I would say, for a lot of folks in games. But for a lot of immigrants, it’s a very common way to get into games, because you can’t really come to a lot of the places where games get made without some kind of student visa. I did a proper game design course for four years.
Eventually, I started doing a lot of freelance work at different companies. I was at a mobile game studio for a while. And then around 2020, right before the start of the pandemic, I started trying to work with more value aligned teams–folks that kind of understood who I was, where I was coming from, and the type of experiences I wanted to make. That had varying success, because I was doing that, but also the pandemic had happened. The tail end of 2020 was when I started working on Midautumn. And I think I was just very frustrated with a lot of things. For one, I was frustrated with a lot of the rising xenophobia during the COVID era, and just not really finding ways to deal with that.
So for me, it was really like, I’m going to try and make a project that not only lets me speak to a lot of the kind of shared aspects of the Asian diaspora, but also just lets me work with a lot of really cool Asian collaborators and improve their material conditions in some way… where it’s like, “Oh, I can send them funds for a thing. And because I’m working on a thing, we can ask for money for it.” I would say that’s the Cliffs Notes version of my career.
How did Midautumn come about?
So it was something that I kind of had an idea for for a long time. And I think the original nugget of an idea was from me kind of traveling around a lot and coming back home repeatedly. So a big part of Midautumn is reconnecting with your hometown. And it’s a lot more of a fanciful interpretation of that. I would spend a lot of time, just like on a plane trip back home, and then feeling like, “Oh, everything’s different, but everything’s also the same.” And there’s a lot of conflicting feelings about returning home.
As I got older, I started to connect that very specifically to my Asian-Sri Lankan upbringing. It’s not the same way that everyone else approaches going home. A really big distinction is Thanksgiving every year in the US is so different. Thinking of going home, it’s a much more introspective thing for me. I feel like for a lot of my friends in the States, it’s a lot more stressful when they go home. So that was the emotional starting point there.
But I’ve always really been interested in roguelikes in general and procedural narratives. I’ve always thought that a game that had roguelike elements that was very narratively driven would do really well with a lot of different audiences. When Hades came out and Children of Morta and more recently Cult of the Lamb, I thought if I’m going to make it, I should make it now because otherwise it will be oversaturated with the type of things that I want to make.
I think in one of the panels, or maybe in the live discussion, you mentioned that you didn’t want Midautumn to just be an Asian art game, which I thought was really interesting, because that is kind of the signifier for me when I do see Asian-ness represented in games. The art style is sort of anime, maybe a little folklorish, but not being centered on that as its aspect of Asian-ness exploring other realms… I thought was really compelling actually.
Yeah, I think that there is this tendency when you talk about non-Western culture in general. Asian diaspora is a specific thing versus Asian culture. In the West, specifically, when you do that, it ends up being framed as artsy regardless of the team’s intent. Like, that this is a high-brow thing. I like those experiences, but I also kind of have some friction with that, because I feel like a lot of the things that we’re talking about are incredibly universal, relatable experiences.
So in my game, I’m making something that’s very massive, but a lot of people talk to me as if I’m making something very artsy. And I think I don’t see why that is. So yeah, that’s how I perceive it, at least.
Could you talk about gentrification as it connects to Midautumn and why this topic was important to the team?
The longer I’ve been in the US specifically, it’s just been very interesting to see the ways that structural racism or different aspects of xenophobia in the US affect a lot of marginalized communities. I got really interested in these ethnic enclaves in the US like Chinatowns and how they have kind of evolved over time. Personally, the thing that I see, primarily growing up in Vietnam, was this kind of rapid industrialization which is very different from gentrification — where you would leave and you would come back and a bunch of US corporations are in the city now. There’s a McDonald’s and other businesses now. I think about it a lot. When I came to the US, I kind of got to asking how this exists in these different communities.
I think the reason why I wanted to speak to it is it was almost like a challenge of, “Can we make this thing that’s overall a very positive, enjoyable world to be in still very upfront?” Let’s talk about a thing that’s happening… that the people in these communities are dealing with. I also thought that roguelikes, as a genre, are very interesting in terms of this idea of persistence, and continued resistance against a big problem. I’ve always found them really fascinating in being able to speak to this idea of combating structural inequality or something.
It’s not really the type of stories that roguelikes are used to telling. But I feel that this idea of like, you just gotta get up every day, and you’ve got to go do something. Some days, it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But the most important thing is that for you, there’s no end point. You just kind of have to keep working at it. You have to keep building your community and making sure everyone has resources. And if you get complacent, that’s when folks do things. And I just find that really compelling. I just don’t think it’s been applied to that kind of narrative structure before.
I learned a lot in your GDoC panel, “Introducing Chaos: Let’s Build Some Procedural Narrative Systems.” Can you tell me more about procedural design and why people should love it?
Yeah, so I have, I think, a lot of folks maybe outside of games — and in games too probably — view procedural design or procedural systems as this cost saving thing, or this is a thing that you do, and it lets you make your game a lot larger. And it kind of does. But I find in practice, that’s not really true. I find that a lot of folks who go into enabling procedural systems and implementing that into their work end up thinking, “Oh, our game will cost less to make, or our game will be bigger, and it just ends up eating a lot of time.” Especially when you’re not sure what makes your game fun, or what makes your game compelling. And you’re learning that at the same time you’re having to implement a system that codifies that and explains that to a computer so that you can generate the systems. That’s adding a lot of additional work.
But the thing that I love about procedural systems are the things that it tends to do to your players. When you know that there’s an element of randomness in your gameplay, and you can’t necessarily get an optimal run every single time, it changes the way that we approach games. A lot of the time people like to play games is to get the perfect score. I really like this idea of accepting that, “Okay, I messed up here, I’ve just got to figure things out and go forward.” I find that very interesting from a gameplay perspective.
I also find that very compelling from a narrative perspective, because it almost reintroduces stakes in a way that I don’t think a lot of other games, other systems, get to do. So that’s the thing I really like about it. I also really like getting to surprise players. I like when something happens, and it reacts to the player in a way that they didn’t necessarily expect. Those moments are really, really special. A lot of authorship can go into the actual tone and texture of those moments, and still make it feel incredibly unique and responsive to the player. So those are the things I really like about procedural systems in general.
Asian America is constantly in a state of defining itself while resisting being a monolith. How’s your experience as an Asian American or an Asian in America helped shape your perspectives and the stories you tell?
For me, a formative memory that I have a lot is my dad. We would travel somewhere — we’re in the airport or something — no matter what, when he sees someone in the distance, he’s like “That person, Sri Lankan.” Or he’d even go like, “That person’s from Pakistan.” He would go up to someone and they would just talk. The credit is my dad’s just a very gregarious, likable person. One of the things I really picked up on is that especially in diasporic communities — and I think the Asian diaspora has a particular kind of flavor of this — is this ability to connect with folks even if you don’t necessarily have the same shared history or background.
That becomes more prevalent when you’re in these kinds of communities in the US where you don’t have as many choices to stay within certain communities. So there is this really interesting ability to go, “Okay, this person is Chinese American, and this person is Korean American and we don’t have all of these shared commonalities. But here’s this one thing and you’re able to really deeply make that connection if you understand how to do that.” I think that’s very fascinating.
That’s, I think, a lot of the approach in our game. We’ve been very specific to be like, “Oh, here’s an experience from me being Sri Lankan, or here’s experience from our artist having a Filipino background…” and then finding out that it’s similar. It’s just a very enjoyable part of making the game.
I recently read your article, “More Introspection Please: Why We Should All Make Time to Not Make Things.” I loved how you impact the worthiness of rest. Whether rest-related or not, how have you changed since writing that?
That’s kind of a deep cut. When I was writing that I was legally not allowed to work for seven months, because of green card processing stuff. It was this really, really interesting moment where I was very depressed about it. But also, I was noticing that it was the first time I had ever been forced to figure out what I liked about myself that was not related to making things. Because I’m a very creative person, I love making things. You know, if I wasn’t making games, I would be writing or I would be drawing, or I’d be making music or something. And there was a lot of that. I tend to try and be practical.
A lot of that stems from the fact that when you’re working in creative fields, there’s a lot of, “Well, this isn’t realistic or practical,” so you have to defend yourself and be like, “No, there’s a monetary value.” And I think that gets you into this kind of trap. I still really, really like that article. Because I feel especially post-COVID and everything happening, I’ve only felt that it’s good to separate that aspect of yourself. And it also helps you be creative and helps you do what you want to do.
If I hadn’t had that time to come to that conclusion, I think that I would probably be a lot less self aware of what was going on during the pandemic, how it was affecting me, and how it was affecting people that I care about. There should have been a lot more opportunities to rest during the past few years. I just don’t think as a society we’ve had that time to really recalibrate. That’s to our detriment. So that’s an unfortunate, unpleasant feeling that I have about that. But also, I feel if I had not had that time, I would just not really be aware of it, and I would be working myself to the bone constantly.
What other Asian artists and stories in gaming or otherwise would you love to amplify?
A Taste of the Past was at GDoC as well. And The Spirit Lift. Both of those teams are really, really awesome, both Asian diaspora devs. I actually get to interact with a lot of those folks, because they’re in one of the programs that we run at Code Coven, the Solstice Program, where we’re doing some prototyping work with them. Very, very cool folks. Definitely check those projects out as well. They’re both working on follow ups for their games.
There’s so many. You mentioned Hoa, which is so amazing. Especially as someone who grew up in Vietnam, I love that game. The Legend of Tianding is really cool. Kabaret, which is also at GDoC, is really cool. I would recommend Venba, Thirsty Suitors, Butterfly Soup 2, and 1000xResist, which is made by a majority Asian diaspora team. I would mention A Space for the Unbound, they’re based in Indonesia and recently won the Future Award at Tokyo Game Show.
There’s too many. And that’s the thing that I think is important is that there are so many amazing devs and projects out there that are making this stuff. This idea of, why aren’t there these more huge big budget things — like where is our Everything Everywhere All At Once, but for games? They’re the folks there making stuff all the time. They just need the visibility and resources and they will absolutely knock it out of the park. Whether it’s me or someone else, they’re all there. You know, it doesn’t have to be us. But yeah, I’m very excited to be part of that.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
The plug is really just that we’re coming to early access next May. May 9th, 2023. So yeah, I’m working on that. I’m excited about it. You can wishlist the game on Steam. Honestly, that’s the number one thing you should do. I will say for any of these games, any of these Asian diaspora games, if you can think of one thing that will help them, it is wishlisting their game on Steam, following it on Steam. It doesn’t even matter if you’re like, I might buy it… go do it. It helps in so many different ways. It could just be its own article of all the reasons you should do it. It literally costs $0. And you can support a lot of these games. And you can tell other people to wishlist it. If I can evangelize about that, that is one of the number of ways to help upcoming indie devs these days.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, virtually on September 26th, 2022 as part of our coverage on the Game Devs of Color Expo 2022.
Sherveen Uduwana is a game developer and project lead for the upcoming game Midautumn. Midautumn is expected to release on May 9th 2023 and is available to wishlist on Steam. You can find out more about the game and how to support it on their website.