Thirsty Suitors is the latest game from developer Outerloop Games, a team that prides itself on being a minority-led indie studio focusing on telling the stories of the underrepresented. After sitting down with game director Chandana Ekanayake, also known as Eka, it’s clear that Thirsty Suitors is more than a game about nailing epic skating combos and beating up your exes by getting them horny; there’s regret, growth, and the reality and expectations of being born to immigrant parents.
Eka talks about the story behind Thirsty Suitors, the incredible remote team, and how underrepresented game developers and enthusiasts can advocate for themselves to tell their stories.
“We're starting to see stories from other cultures and like Netflix and Amazon shows but not so much in games. I thought there was room. We're getting kind of tired of the same perspective in games.”
Players follow Jala, the prodigal child, returning home after three years away to attend her sister’s wedding. Like any other human being, Jala left behind messy relationships with lovers —as well as family—that she comes back to and has to deal with. Thirsty Suitors includes three very different gameplay genres that build on Jala’s character and add to the uniqueness of the game, including combat, skating, and cooking. Eka mentions it was one of the more interesting challenges the team was faced with at the time.
“So each chapter has a start, middle, and end, almost like an episode of TV. So at the beginning of the day, Jala wakes up at home. She might cook with her mom or dad, then she might get a call from 1 of her exes. You go out to meet them. There might be a battle. You might have to go to the skate park.”
“The way cooking in the game works is once Jala enters the kitchen, [in] the house you grew up in, you pick a recipe from the book and your mom or your dad tells you each step… Your mom or dad has an approval meter. So if you do the steps properly, the approval meter goes up and they're happy. The skating is not exactly Tony Hawk cause we’re not trying to make it challenging, but it is more like a jet set radio level of skating. And then how do we combine all that stuff together? It was the challenge, you know, how to weave all those three things together into a cohesive narrative.”
Eka mentions that some gameplay mechanics were based on games such as Paper Mario and the aforementioned Tony Hawk. You can apply status effects to your enemies, build your thristsona when you level up to improve Jala’s abilities, cook to win your parent's approval, and battle hot exes.
Teamwork makes the team work
However, this game about failed romances and family drama could’ve taken a different turn, says Eka.
“Originally Thirsty Suitors was going to be a card-based game about arranged marriage. And neither of us [Chandana and Meghna Jayanth] have had any personal experience with arranged marriage. So we decided to make it more about relationships and exes and repairing those relationships. And that's the whole theme of the game… The team is made up of a lot of immigrants from all over the place. So we wanted to kind of do a story about immigrants in the US.”
The Thirsty Suitors team is composed of 14-16 different members working from all around the world, most are immigrants with vast personal histories outside of game development that contributed to the story of Thirsty Suitors. Chandana says that the team wanted to tell a story that others could see themselves in and shine a light on the stories they want to share. When working with a small team, it’s easier to include everyone and hear what everyone has to say since you’re not fighting for dominance in a crowded office space; and especially since everyone comes from different areas all over the world, there’s a lot of ideas to go around. Besides, it’s important to make sure that the needs of the team are met to reach deadlines and create the product you hope to achieve.
“We switched to four-day work weeks, like, two and a half years ago. Then we designed the project and timeline around that. I feel fine now. I have plenty of rest and so does the team. The longer you can keep a team together over multiple projects, like everybody knows each other and knows what we can do, we can do better, more interesting things.”
If a team is stressed, nothing gets done… and stories don’t get told.
How to fight for yourself and others
When audiences want representation of themselves and their culture in the media, how do we advocate for ourselves? Chandana says to speak up about the games you want to make and the stories you want to see, you’ll likely find someone interested in helping you build on your work. Thirsty Suitors isn’t just a diverse game, it’s a combination of stories that were never told because there was a fear that this wasn’t what people wanted to play. That's why it's important to find the right people who see, respect, and want to publish your vision. A lot of studios, mainly triple-A studios, are trying to take an approach on what modern day players want to see. It can be hard to tell the stories of the underrepresented when it’s not the underrepresented behind the desk working on the game. It’s easy to have characters of color in the game voiced by people of color, but how can we be sure of the accuracy if we aren’t the ones working on the characters ourselves?
“You don't think of it as, ‘Oh, let's make a diverse game.’ Let's like, let's make a thing that we feel we're uniquely positioned to make and we have a perspective on. These kinds of stories, I don't see enough in games. So that was part of my pitch when I was pitching this game too. They've [Annapurna Interactive] been great partners. I think they got the game, from the demo on.”
Also, now is the time for indie studios to stand up and out of the darkness. Whenever a triple-A studio decides to work on something that highlights the stories of the underrepresented, the masses of “fans” race to comment on the company being “woke” and threats of boycott. Advocate for yourself by fearlessly ignoring those who don’t support you for doing what's right.
“We're making games to be released and sold to an audience. The smaller that game is, the more specific and unique you can make it because you don't have to cater to all. The reason we talk about triple-A games, they're trying to sell to everybody, and when you're trying to sell to everybody you can't be specific, you have to round some of the rough edges to not piss people off or exclude certain folks.”
Build relationships early on, he adds. Keep them updated and interested, as you have no clue who might put in the good word for you. But also, in a world where major companies are beginning to use AI to develop stories, voiceover videos, and create “art” for their works, it has become a stress for many creators to pitch their works and advocate for themselves. AI copies and pastes; it cannot replace.
“AI imagery stuff is ripped off of actual artists' work. AI art can't really do anything other than remix and reshuffle stuff. But without that original work, it’s useless. AI imagery is something that can’t replace artists because it can't make something new, something with a soul.
Coming soon to a platform near you
From its countless colorful GIFs and trailers, you can tell at a glance that Thirsty Suitors has quite a story to tell about fixing relationships and, of course, South Asian culture. For many players in marginalized communities, the game will provide a look into the stories untold by triple-A studios. And the cosplays and fan art it will spawn will be incredible.
“I hope they enjoy it. I believe folks that have played it really enjoy Jala’s story. Folks from the culture are like, ‘Oh, I haven't seen this kind of stuff before that.’”
“I feel like I'm being represented, which is important. We're making this interesting story. I hope people enjoy it. And I hope they learn something about it. I hope they get hungry from all the food in there as well, we've made sure to render the food really, really well.”