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SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, 2009

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Mystic masala Incredible India: (clockwise from far left) Lara Croft, Dhalsim and Great Tiger represent an era of stereotypes that could be giving way to more nuanced por­ trayals such as Civi­ lization IV’s Gandhi or Uncharted 2.

In most video games, India is the land of tigers, cobras and evil viziers. Can you expect anything different in the future? B Y K RISH R AGHAV krish.r@livemint.com

···························· hink India and there are a million possibilities for inspiration; so many moments and encounters that would work brilliantly in a video game. You’d almost think India and games are a perfect fit: a chaotic, intricate urban jungle, the licence to create complicated layouts, and the freedom with colour and form. But game designers have long ignored the idiosyncrasies of a game set in India in favour of oftrepeated stereotypes—where tigers and cobras co-exist in a symbiotic food chain, feeding on action heroes and their sidekicks; where cities consist largely of an opulent palace flanked by a crowded market; where every detour leads to a cursed temple or an evil vizier. Let’s not even get started on the snake charmers and yoga gurus. We look back at more than two decades of India in video games, and find out what you can expect in the future.

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The Great Tiger (1985) The original prototype on which all future Indian characters were modelled, Great Tiger (who first appeared in Nintendo’s 1985 title Super Punch-Out!!) neatly ticks off

every point on the stereotype checklist. Gratuitous tiger references: Check. Jewel-encrusted headgear: Check. Inexplicable use of mysticism and magic (in a boxing game, no less): Check. The Great Tiger disappeared after his first appearance, but was resurrected in the 2009 remake of the original Punch-Out!!

Dhalsim and Street Fighter (1991) For a good decade, Dhalsim was India’s most famous gaming export. The rubber-limbed pacifist yoga master, who first appeared in Street Fighter II (1991), enrols in the world fighting tournament to raise money for his village. As is expected of him, he owns an elephant called Kodal, wears a necklace of skulls and shoots fireballs from his mouth because, you know, all yoga masters can.

Tomb Raider III (1998) The early Tomb Raider games were always slightly troubling: cherry-picked “exotic” locations, horrendous camera controls and the indiscriminate gunning down of local wildlife jazzed up by innocuous phrases such as “action-adventure”. Tomb Raider III (1998) continued this unsavoury tradition with its opening part, putting Lara Croft in what the designers imagined to be India.

There are “Hindu ruins” along the Ganga river, the caves of “Kaliya” (the goddess, not the talking crow, we presume) and tigers and cobras galore. Groan.

No One Lives Forever (2002) The flashy, stylish and quite frankly insane spy series No One Lives Forever took a brief, ill-advised turn to India in its second instalment. India, for the talented bunch at Monolith Productions, meant pot-bellied policemen, cows, big palaces and bananas. Granted, it was all mildly amusing, especially the part where you drop banana peels to thwart the hapless

police (who are dressed like traffic cops, for some reason). But then an evil mime imprisons you, a Scot shows up on a tricycle and things tend to cross from over-thetop to overkill. And no, we’re not making any of this up.

Civilization and Total War (2005) Strategy games have fared slightly better in their representation of the country, perhaps because historical accuracy is a bit more vital here to create immersive experiences. On the fringes are games such as Civilization IV (2005), which aren’t so much about history as they are

about the concept of history; this means they can do things like make Gandhi one of the playable faction leaders. More centrally, there is Creative Assembly’s epic Empire: Total War (2009), which includes an entire campaign for the Maratha Confederacy, and has the Mughals as another playable faction. The Maratha campaign is perhaps the only attempt in gaming to depict a historical Indian period (in this case, 17th century Maharashtra) with any semblance of accuracy. Another upcoming title, The East India Company, could do the same for a slightly earlier period: the 1600s.

The Internet told me to do it Can’t decide which movie to watch, or whether to change jobs? Ask these two new sites for help

B Y K RISH R AGHAV krish.r@livemint.com

···························· ost people would like to believe that making a decision is a rational process that involves careful thought and deliberation. But it is more often a by-product of pure chance, a fluke, or even a headache imposed by a friend or family member. But now, another quasimystical force of nature is available for consultation when the agony of choice hits—the recommendation website. One has the option of two new websites that offer this service. Each has a broadly different approach to a familiar quandary: How do we help someone make a decision, or give a timely recommendation? Likaholix (www.likaholix.com) is the breezier of the two, a fun, easy, almost Twitter-like network

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for discovering likes and shared interests with a community of users. Founded by two ex-Googlers, the site is currently in open beta, which is a stage where they invite the public to sign up and try out the features. Likaholix asks you for your interests and “likes” (in movies, music, books, games, you name it), and delivers personalized recommendations based on what other users liked, and nudges you together with people who have similar tastes. Search, click, “like” and repeat. The more you use it, the better it gets at delivering recommendations. The Internet, of course, loves “liking” things. You can “like” almost anything on social networking site Facebook, for example, from your friend’s new photos to status updates. A little thumbs up appears next to said item, very similar to your personalized

Get educated: Sites such as Hunch get smarter the more you use them. badge of approval. “Like” a blog post in Google Reader, and a tiny smiley face adorns the post. Even Twitter allows you to declare your undying love for certain tweets with its “favourite” button. But the innocuous act of liking something isn’t merely a cute social feature, but the fuel that drives complex algorithms under the hood of sites such as Likaholix. It’s the collective likes of its users that Likaholix processes to find out what else you might fancy. Hunch (www.hunch.com) is the

other website, founded on a very interesting premise. The site asks an almost endless series of innocuous questions, such as “Do you like bumper cars? Do you live in a city?”, to “train” the system. It then takes a hunch about any decision one needs to take. These could range from the serious, such as “Should I change jobs right now?”, to trivial, such as “Should I eat pancakes today?” It’s a fresh take on search, one that delivers personalized, smart information that an objective

Uncharted 2 (2009) The good news is that the future looks slightly more promising. While India’s first home-developed console title Hanuman: The Warrior failed to kindle much interest, India as a game location has. The much-awaited PS3 exclusive Uncharted 2: Among Thieves seems, if early screenshots are to be believed, to be set at least partly in India. There’s a bombed-out cityscape, with a half-buried Tata truck. There are STD/PCO booths and small apartments with balconies. The emphasis on details over flights of fancy is a welcome first step.

search engine cannot. “Hunch isn’t directly competitive with search, but we are compatible with search,” says Caterina Fake, co-founder of Hunch. “Once you’ve found the topic you’re interested in, Hunch asks you 10 questions or fewer and gives you a result it wouldn’t give someone else. It gets smarter the more you use it, as it gets to know you better,” she says. Recommendation sites have been around for a while, especially with personalized online radio services such as Last.fm. But they’re now moving out of specificities into broader terrain, and both Likaholix and Hunch offer interesting alternatives to opaque, objective search engines such as Google or Microsoft’s Bing. By customizing answers and recommendations to individuals, and adding a fun social aspect on top, they’re gradually making the search for information less of a chore. And if you can’t decide which of the two to use—why not toss a coin?


Mystic Masala