Gaming scene hits the Middle East
Middle East gamers have been bemoaning the lack of homegrown games for years. Now a Saudi development house has stepped up to the plate to give us one.
Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta isn’t the first console game from the Middle East - Quirkat’s Pro Foosball beat it to the punch in February.
Nor is it the first to try and give gaming an Arab flavour; that honour belongs to Breakaway’s PC strategy game Arabian Lords from back in 2007.
But Pro Foosball is a simple emulation of a table game, and Arabian Lords was a rather dated vixel-fuelled American game with the serial numbers filed off.
Unearthed is a ground-up offering written, developed and produced by Saudi IT house Semaphore. It’s their first venture into games. It’s available via the PlayStation Network for PS3, on PC and on multiple mobile and handheld devices, including Android and iOS.
Unearthed was launched in Dubai - appropriately enough, at the Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel, last Thursday.
The game has an intriguing structure. Semaphore, established as a multimedia house rather than a games studio, is following the structure of a TV show, with short episodes released some time apart carrying the story forward.
The game has Arabic and English audio, and is subtitled in more than 20 other languages, including Hindi, Japanese, Urdu, Farsi and Malay.
The story of the game revolved around a supposed missing chapter to Ibn Battuta’s published travels, handed down through generations of the family of his Moroccan ghostwriter.
Our heroes are Faris Jawad, a cocksure young gamer who acts as the brawn, and his older sister Dania, an archaeologist who provides the brains, but is quite able to handle herself in action sequences as well.
As well as providing a game, Semaphore hope to drip-feed snippets of Arabian culture and lifestyles to the worldwide gaming audience.
“There’s always the stereotypical portrayal of the Middle East in media and games in general, and we’re trying to break away from that by presenting the side that’s not often explored, both in current times and in past times,” said Unearthed writer/director Ahmad Jadallah.
“With Dania, we wanted to present a non-stereotypical portrayal of female lead characters in video games, by providing someone who is a scientist, who’s well versed in history and who knows her way around puzzles and around more research-based aspects of the game.
“We are planning a lot for the upcoming episodes of the game.”
And although Semaphore hope the game will give gamers worldwide a look into Middle Eastern life and culture, there are no rosy-tinted spectacles.
“We’re trying to present the region in a very different light,” Jadallah told me, “which doesn’t necessarily mean a positive light. It’s not like we’re trying to present a marketing campaign for the region or anything like that.
“Sometimes just presenting things the way they are is more functional, more effective than anything else that you might do.
“That’s why the game is taking place in the modern day. We didn’t want to present the old, classical desert areas you see in movies like Lawrence of Arabia.”
But despite the wish to give an insight into Arabic culture, Semaphore are clear that Unearthed is first and foremost a game - and that one of the toughest markets to crack will be the Middle Eastern one.
“Gamers here don’t accept anything just being Arabic,” company president Emad Fahad Al Doghaither said. “Even now, though it’s not released yet, they’re starting writing that they are not expecting much.”
One of the criticisms is that Unearthed, being an action puzzle-solver featuring an archaeological quest, is a clone of Uncharted or Tomb Raider. It’s a criticism Jadallah recognises and embraces.
“We are die-hard Uncharted and Tomb Raider fans. We consider it the ultimate form of fanboyism, to take something you love so much, put your own spin on it, your own twist, and use the framework to deliver your own stories.
“So we virtually met with Amy Henning, who is the creative director and writer of Uncharted, in San Francisco a couple of years ago. She’s heard about the game. We had a very nice chat actually, about how they’re looking at the game as paying homage to the Uncharted series.
“They are the example to learn from. If you’re going to learn from somebody in a triple-A industry, Uncharted is the example to follow, especially if you’re learning.
“Their first game, actually, is called Way of the Warrior. It’s a very exact replica of a game called Mortal Kombat back in the 1990s. It’s a way to learn.”
The episodic structure allows Semaphore to release at low cost - the PlayStation version of Episode 1 will set you back $10 (Dh37) - and to refine their skills and take advantage of new technology as time goes on. Jadallah demonstrated an early work-in-progress for Episode 2 which displays impressive lighting and environmental movement. Semaphore is already an approved PS4 developer.
“A console game is something that a lot of people expect a certain quality bar from, and so a lot of people tend to start with simpler, casual games. But in our case we wanted to also showcase story and culture aspects of the region, which don’t lend themselves to simpler casual models,” said Jadallah.
“So we decided to look at the action-adventure genre, which is the most demanding one of all, because you have the character shown on screen all the time, you have all the story elements, the cinematic look and feel, which is very intensive work to produce.
“We’ve always looked at it as a challenge, but it’s also something that’s long due, and if we don’t make it now, thenâ¦ We’re not going to wait for someone else to do it.”
Semaphore are remaining coy about the release schedule for upcoming episodes. They acknowledge a tug-of-war between the business need to get episodes out as quickly as possible and the development need for long lead-in times.
Nor is the number of episodes fixed. While they have a story they want to tell, the episodic nature means it can be expanded if there’s sufficient interest in the line.
By Andy Staples