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Sara Is Missing. These three words were revolutionary for Malaysia’s indie gaming scene in 2016 when they found their way onto popular gaming YouTubers’ channels.

A mobile horror game, Sara Is Missing (SIM) bagged awards and fans alike, ultimately resulting in the SIMULACRA series, which has just released its third title.

But beyond the accolades and spin-off titles, something else that came out of SIM was Persona Theory Games (Persona Theory), a whole new indie narrative games studio.

It comprises three Malaysians who worked on SIM—Saqina Latif, Buddy Anwardi, and Derek Mui.

The trio worked on the script and produced the content. They even cast friends and used friends’ and family’s homes as shooting locations.

“We knew it was going to have some success because of the muscle the marketing team seemed to have, but it was still a good surprise,” Saqina shared to Vulcan Post regarding the success of SIM.  

But prior to working on the game, the three had already met each other due to the nature of their jobs. Saqina came from advertising, Buddy from films, and Derek from digital marketing.

Saqina Latif on a panel at gamescon asia / Image Credit: Persona Theory Games

“We worked together on short films and indie projects, but because of the nature of films, especially locally, where there are so many restrictions, we felt that we couldn’t tell the stories we wanted to,” Saqina explained.

The success of SIM convinced the three to dive into the medium in 2017. Persona Theory Games was formed, and the team has been telling stories through games ever since.  

Narrative-driven stories that romanticise Southeast Asia

Throughout the years, many indie game studios in Malaysia have popped up. Although the studios are local, many of their titles are actually based in foreign settings.

Just take two recent local games we’ve reviewed, Midwest 90: Rapid City and SIMULACRA 3, which are set in Westernised environments.

Of course, it’s not wrong to create such games. But, setting itself apart from such other studios, Persona Theory Games is insistent on telling stories about Southeast Asia since the beginning of its inception.

“It’s in our DNA, and I think it definitely stems from our film background, about telling our stories to the world,” Saqina explained.

Saqina Latif with other panelists at gamescon asia / Image Credit: Persona Theory Games

Persona Theory’s upcoming game, Kabaret, is a clear manifestation of this—it’s filled to the brim with various Southeast Asian myths, cultures, and even languages.  

On top of that, Saqina said that the team tries to explore things that “people generally don’t want to talk about”, which was why the co-founders had decided to move from films to games in the first place.

This is evident in the studio’s debut game, Fires at Midnight, a game set in a world where making love without being in love will make you spontaneously combust. An interactive, narrative-driven visual novel, it expertly and succinctly navigates the nuanced nature of romantic relationships.

According to Saqina, Persona Theory’s goal in telling stories that bring up personal demons and trauma is so that someone across the globe might just feel the same way. 

When an international audience is more supportive than the local

While the focus on emotional, Southeast Asian stories has given Persona Theory Games an arguably sharp edge nowadays, the idea wasn’t exactly well-received in the early days.

People would tell the team that Southeast Asia was too exotic for the rest of the world, and no one would care to know about it. Due to this perception, a lot of rejections were given to the team’s ideas.

“It was really hard, it almost felt like we were being pushed out from the industry even,” Saqina opened up. “People even laughed at me when I pitched Kabaret locally. It was heartbreaking, and I have to admit, I cried.”

However, Saqina isn’t one to back down. The more people told her she couldn’t do something, the more she wanted to prove them wrong.

The Persona Theory team / Image Credit: Persona Theory

So, she pitched to WINGS Interactive, a games fund that finances games made by diverse teams, particularly ones with women and developers of marginalised genders at key positions.

“Honestly, this was around the time I pitched locally, and was laughed at, and I wasn’t feeling hopeful at all,” Saqina shared. “I woke up one day to the email, and nearly fell off my bed. It has been an amazing ride.”

Kabaret is a dark fantasy game focusing on Southeast Asian folklores / Image Credit: Persona Theory

Other than funding, WINGS also opened doors for Persona Theory to the big three in gaming consoles—Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony. As a representative of Malaysia, the game was even at the ID@Xbox showcase.

Although the team is making waves overseas, indie game players are still quite a niche. After all, Kabaret was noticed overseas first before it picked up steam locally.

However, Saqina believes regional games events such as Games Bagus, Level Up Kl, and Noizucon have created some change on this front, giving indie games a platform to reach a wider audience locally.

On a mission to tell more stories

Set to be released in Q1 of 2023, Kabaret follows a boy named Jebat who gets turned into a monster and thrown into a world full of Southeast Asian monsters and Gods. This includes folkloric characters such as the Pontianak, Jinn, and more.

Persona Theory has also revealed another title in the works, The Lonely Hearts Petshop. The game was made between releasing Fires at Midnight and starting on Kabaret.

“Fires at Midnight was a game about a pandemic, and it was 2020, the height of a real-world pandemic,” Saqina pointed out. “We needed a break from the game, and we felt what really kept us sane was our studio cats, Flynn and Goji.”

The Lonely Hearts Petshop will likely only be released in 2024 or 2025 / Image Credit: Persona Theory

An exploration of the complex relationships between humans and animals, this game is once again a continuation of the local studio’s passion for telling stories that evoke emotion.

Oh, and did we mention that it’s set in Melaka, where Saqina’s dad’s family is from?

Other than The Lonely Hearts Petshop, though, the studio doesn’t have anything set in stone yet. At least, not anything Saqina can divulge in. But she made one thing clear—Persona Theory Games still have a wealth of tales to share, especially ones told through a local lens.

“We know telling Southeast Asian stories was never going to be easy,” Saqina said. “But then, that’s who we are.”

  • Learn more about Persona Theory Games here.
  • Read more articles we’ve written about gaming here.

Featured Image Credit: Persona Theory Games

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)