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Indika or the Labyrinths of Faith

O Indika, young nun in the heart of icy Russia, what does your weak, sinful nature have in store for you? What will your cursed flesh have to endure, wrapped in thick fabrics that mistreat your body and reveal only a saintly face? Your existence is a mystery to those who approach you and to yourself. May you be guided all the way in your holy mission.

As an Introduction

Undoubtedly, Indika is first and foremost a work of influence. The question is whether it also manages to be something else. By the creators’ own admission, there’s cinema (Aster, Aronofsky) and, of course, literature (Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov). Although it’s not quoted, I saw in it a lot of Bernanos’s Under the Sun of Satan: the story of a quasi-saintly country priest tempted by the devil and in constant struggle with himself, where the great sin that threatens is not so much that of the flesh as that of unbelief and the plunge into nihilism. A book, by the way, that I can only recommend. Anyway, back to our Russian nun.

What does Indika have to say? Over the course of four to five hours of gameplay, we follow the young nun who gives the game its title. Living in a nunnery, probably not much appreciated by her praying sisters, Indika is soon entrusted with a mission that will send her out of her dreary monastic life. Finally, some fresh air! The game immediately plunges us into a disturbing, anxiety-inducing, oppressive atmosphere. Our nun’s discomfort and delusions quickly make us feel trapped in this Christian, too Christian, fortress. Once outside, Indika’s mission quickly takes on the air of a strange road trip, in the form of a walking sim, in the middle of a snowy, hostile rural Russia. Her encounter with Ilya, a convict who has escaped from a wrecked train (once again, Dostoyevsky is not far away), leads her down unexpected paths – both external and internal.

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Indika is meant to be a double journey: first, through a world that the young woman, who entered a convent at the age of 15, rediscovers with all its violence, but also its moments of grace. Then there’s the inner journey through the twists and turns of her faith, since from the beginning she’s not really alone. Her journey is punctuated by a voice that speaks directly to both the player and Indika. As much a narrator as an intradiegetic character, it soon becomes clear who it is: nothing more or less than the devil himself. Unless…

Man, a religious animal

Indika claims to speak directly to us about religion. This topic is rarely discussed. Very often in video games it is reduced to a strategic tool among others (medieval management games, for example); or it is an element of lore, more or less important depending on the title. In the latter case, it’s often no more than a background, and it’s all too rare for the phenomenon of religiosity or faith to be portrayed in its proper light.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the “phenomenon of religiosity” as that which relates to the outward appearance of religions and consequently touches on their social dimension: organizations, rites, dogmas, prayers, but also the effects of domination, etc. On the other hand, I will use the term “faith” to refer to the inner conviction, the inner life of the spirit in relation to a divine being. Obviously, these two realities overlap, influence and transform each other, and we’ll come back to that later; but a semantic clarification was needed.

In fact, I think that’s the heart of Odd Meter’s project: to question, titillate, and tickle the complexity of these two realities. Does it succeed? The question is worth asking. I won’t beat around the bush: to this day, I still have a particularly bitter taste in my mouth from seeing Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part 2. This is due to a treatment of the religious phenomenon that is absolutely ridiculous to my taste – a problem that was already present in his very good Blade Runner 2049. Is it incompetence? Or cowardice? Probably a bit of both. Villeneuve is haunted by the fear of being misunderstood, of being mistaken for a glorifier of holy war and its protagonists. Need we remind you that Frank Herbert’s book is about jihad, and that Paul Atreides is nothing more than a prophet warrior, a kind of space Muhammad? To this end, Villeneuve uses comic effects right at the beginning of the movie to defuse the great seriousness of the matter – isn’t religiosity characterized by its great, dreary seriousness? The result: at no point do we believe in Paul’s religious-political ascent. Putting on a hood and walking with a swaying gait doesn’t make you a prophet. In a world where masterpieces like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker speak to us not of religiosity but of faith, it’s hard to accept this kind of treatment. I wasn’t originally here to talk about Dune, but it was necessary to say something about the state of mind with which I started Indika.

To talk about the game, I’ll start with what I consider to be one of its most brilliant moments – at once completely innocuous and of rare videogame intelligence. At the beginning of the story, Indika is asked to take a basket to another sister, then fill a barrel with water from a well fifteen meters away. For the player, this means making five round trips, each time taking water from the well, pouring it into a bucket, and then emptying the bucket into a barrel. The sequence itself is great, but then there’s the cinematic sequence that follows, in which another nun spills the contents of the barrel onto the floor. Mean humiliation, abuse, harassment? In short, does this illustrate a place where Indika is out of place, unloved, and from which she must flee? Such a reading is naive and reflects both a lack of understanding of the Christian religion, its dogmas and practices, and a clumsy displacement of now-classic Western cultural tropes. In the second filling, the demon speaks. To some connoisseurs, his intervention may seem a bit forced and overly explanatory. The fact remains, however, that it allows us to grasp exactly what is at stake – and, by extension, in the entire game:

Useless labor is the basis of spiritual development. Obedience is above fasting or prayers. Indika didn’t understand why she needed to retrieve the water from the well if there was a pomp next door that took it from a sacred spring. She didn’t understand why drinking from the spring was allowed, but cooking soup was a sin.

Indika’s treatment has nothing to do with her, nothing personal. It is inextricably linked to the practice of obedience in Christianity. This has been at the heart of monastic practice since the earliest centuries. To obey, to place oneself under the unconditional authority of another’s will, is to practice letting go of one’s own will, of one’s own selfishness, of the vanities of the flesh and of the world. Consequently, obedience to the absurd orders of a clerical superior means total submission, beyond all rationality, and consequently an equally great loss of self-will. Such obedience is highly valued. “The Son of God is dead? You have to believe it, because it’s absurd. He was buried, he was raised: that is certain, because it is impossible,” wrote Tertullian in his treatise On the Flesh of Christ. Christianity is a destructive challenge to reason, a sacrificio dell’intelletto, a veritable suicide of rationality in favor of faith, to the point of absurdity. True faith requires a leap beyond rationality and is lived in the mystery of the Cross. It shakes us to the core until we find peace in Christ.

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But in return, the high spiritual value of obedience and self-denial makes it as much a practice to strive for for those seeking holiness as a devil’s trap for the weak vanity of man. The devil can even hide in the quest for spiritual perfection, in the most total self-abandonment. This is why the attention of the aspirant, far from being able to slacken at any moment, must, on the contrary, always be intensified. This is the central point of Bernanos’ Under the Sun of Satan: is this holiness and communion in the Body of Christ or mortal sin, the ultimate trap of evil?

The Christian faith has a formidable and terrible power of self-aggrandizement. The practitioner’s faith is internally nourished by his or her own spiritual progress. Each act of faith calls forth the next.

In a kind of dialectic, the most holy man paradoxically appears as the one most prone to sin, the one most subject to temptation, the one who in the smallest of his actions puts at stake the salvation of his soul to the highest degree. On the other hand, the most wicked man – the convict, the criminal, the murderer – shows himself to be uniquely close to holiness. His own misery brings him closer to the companions of Christ on the cross. He has suffered so much that he is the one who, in one fell swoop, can be struck by the divine light, transfigured, saved in communion with the Body of Christ. This is the theological part of what came to be called the “Russian soul” in the 19th century, and which would be central to the writings of Dostoyevsky in particular. Think of “Memories of the House of the Dead,” a story set in a Siberian penal colony, or “Crime and Punishment,” in which Raskolnikov finds redemption and the road to recovery at the end thanks to the quasi-Christian character of Sonia, a kind of saintly prostitute driven by an infinite charity.

A devil, but for wich Worlds?

These few theological, historical and literary deviations I allowed myself to bring, set the scene for Indika. This is a quite odd (or more) world for westerners of the 21st century, taking us to a strange and ambivalent playground atmosphere. Indika takes full advantage of this and intends to play with it throughout its short adventure. In this respect, the first-rate Russian dubbings add to the intellectual, cultural and moral disorientation in which the player finds himself embarked. But it doesn’t stop there, as the game plays around shifting these same references through its artistic and sound directions.

The high quality of the main title, which seems to draw a realistic description of Russia at the time, actually play an entirely different role. As the game progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the universe we travel to is set in an almost surrealist crossroads. The fledging industrial revolution takes on an almost steampunk-like trait of gigantism. The buildings are massive, vertiginous and almost Greco-Roman in their unreal nature. It’s as if Shadow of the Colossus had met a kind of 19th-century brutalism with steampunk. A surprising combination, if ever there was one, that wonderfully works and reinforces the print created on the player by the environment. In a journey where the quest for the miraculous becomes central, it is the entire world that seems both to converge towards it and to oppose it. In this quest for the miraculous, which distorts time and suspends the laws of the universe through the direct irruption of the divine, temporality and spatiality are already caught up in this spiral that borders on the summits of being.

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I’d almost forget to mention the absolutely brilliant soundtrack, which is itself totally untimely. The soundtrack of the game is mainly composed of electronic music – the surprise is almost tetanizing when the game begins. Rarely has a game surprised me so much with its music; never have I heard anything like it, and never was it so out of tune with the musical expectations raised by the game’s universe. All the more so since, in addition to offering electronic music, it often borders on the noise genre. The most memorable moments are those when the presence of the fallen archangel becomes more prominent.

But Indika has a double visual dimension. The game begins with a pixel-art sequence: a fall that forces the player to collect objects to earn points. A sort of original fall, and the first steps on the path to Christ’s salvation. This visual style recurs several times in the story, each time providing the opportunity for a flashback to the life of the young nun and, ultimately, to the reason why she took holy orders in the first place. Indeed, if the young woman entered the convent at the age of fifteen, it was not because of compulsion – from the outside at least – but by choice. But was it really a choice? For it was indeed motives – the guilt of the criminal lover who was violently killed by her father in front of the young girl – that led Indika to where she is now. Where is the freedom of choice here? This question of inner motives, of the existence of freedom and moral responsibility, permeates the entire art work.

The permanent presence of a score at the top of the screen, displayed in pixel art, is a constant reminder of this “other world”, that of the heroine’s past. This point is all the more important as it is this initial, paradoxical guilt that is the ground on which the young nun’s faith grows. Paradoxical guilt insofar as Indika feels responsible for the death of her young lover: she is not, however, the one who encourages him to rob his father – quite the contrary – nor the one who pulls the trigger. But isn’t she responsible for the passion she aroused in him and the sin of concupiscence she consummated in the sexual act? It’s this fascinating labyrinth of human motives that Indika sets out to explore, right down to the roots of seemingly absurd and even contradictory behavior. The connection with Dostoyevsky could not be clearer.

This on-screen score represents nothing more than scores, points of faith, and therefore the threshold for moving up a level. Indika begins the adventure on level nine. Each level (shame, guilt…) is the occasion for a bonus that increases the points earned (either immediately or later). But… the game is playing on us and on our blind behavior, as we are subjected to our videogame-player logic. Several times, during loading times, it’s made clear that these scores are strictly useless. So who’s talking? The developers or this world’s Prince? The question arises as the latter seems to have already perverted the narrative functions of the software.

Just as Satan’s greatest trick is to make us believe he doesn’t exist, isn’t this another of his traps? To make us believe that our progress in faith is… vain – dare I say, vanity!

The game plays with the history of the medium and the videogame codes it uses to serve its purpose. In this respect, it pays particular attention to the psychological springs of faith and their use in the game. What I’ve described so far, simple as it may seem, is a brilliant piece of videogame intelligence. These intuitions have nothing to envy a game like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.


Video Game, a crual Art

But video games are crual art! It is crual because it imposes the game. I believe the play act needs to be taken as a constraint. By some points, Indika reminded me of Decarnation from the French developers from Studio QDB. Both have in common to play on phsycological horror and to strongs moments of non-play. The greatest ones in Decarnation are when Gloria is just in her cell that her captor kept for her.  She has nothing to do but go around in circles, looking what she has in front of her, listening to the pervert keepers’ speeches or slowly sinking into madness. We can add to this a good number of the narrative sequences in which we learn more about Gloria’s background, or the opening scene in which she becomes a kind of inverted Dorian Grey, stripped of her own physicality. In these moments, Decarnation is absolutely terrific; the rest is superfluous and artificial. It’s clear that we had to act, so we acted. Did anyone understand me? Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Decarnation, just as I, at times, thoroughly enjoyed Indika. However, these games are too often caught up in the injunctions of their own medium – or what is expected of it – from which they struggle to really break free.

All in all, such games raise an interesting question: how far is it necessary to make the player play? And, on the opposite, how tolerable is it not to? The walking sim is a fascinating genre, and it sometimes succeeds wonderfully without needing to disguise itself and without creating boredom (except that necessary for its own pace). Firewatch, for example, is one of the masters of that genre. With its extreme playful simplicity and lack of artifice, the mastery of its writing combined with its small panel of actions make it a work of rare caliber and playful intelligence.

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On the opposite, Indika suffers at times from trying too hard, yet again, to be a video game. And it doesn’t always do it well. On the controller, the L2/LT key is dedicated to the action of praying. Under normal circumstances, this is of no use at all: all it does is make Indika make the cross sign. Its usefulness is only relevant on two occasions: during the puzzle-platform phases. In these moments, the architecture of the site seems to be shattered by the growing presence of the prince of demons in the nun’s mind. The young woman’s spiritual instabilities shatter a world already announcing the gates of Hell. Colors turn red, noises become oppressive, music and Lucifer’s voice jolt our ears with information. The key of prayer-play then serves to return Indika to a normal, peaceful world, where the voice of the devil is no longer heard. While artistically – both visually and in terms of sound design – these scenes are a success, the fact remains that they taste like an admission of failure. Should one of the few moments when the gameplay really interacts with the background of the game have been done in such an artificial way? Now, you might say that in these two scenes the game alternates between praying and the devil claiming total sovereignty over the world. It will then be argued that in order to move forward, Indika must embrace the whole of herself, relying on both the devil and the saint within her… Blah, blah, blah. Nonsense, bad taste and childish. Let’s grow up and learn not to be satisfied with such petty reasons.

In a way I can understand that the uselessness of praying resonates with the uselessness of the points of faith. But then you’d have to make it completely useless! It would have made sense to dedicate a button for the entire game to an action with no gameplay value. Or, on the other hand, to be able to silence the devil by praying at any moment when he speaks to us. As it stands, it’s only when he’s at his strongest that he can be chased away. This seems very incongruous. Although these two moments are excellent for their atmosphere – especially the first one, because of the surprise – they undoubtedly called for a crescendo that doesn’t happen. As the game progresses, you begin to wonder if the Dark Lord isn’t just a poorly talented prankster. The game never really manages to suggest temptation. We are never even tempted by evil for evil itself. The inner crusade never manages to show itself as the hard battle that it is. But deep down, perhaps we are too modern for that – to feel that way; to feel even the idea of an intense spiritual conflict in which evil can be hidden everywhere.

The Devil and the Nun

All the more so because the structure of the game does not fall short of the mark, and it manages to make its point with a certain degree of accuracy right up to the end. I’ve been talking about faith for a long time, and I’ve deliberately left out the whole dimension of what I’ve called the ‘religious phenomenon’. Two points stand out: towards the end of the game, in a surreal puzzle that takes us around a room that we enter through a new entrance each time and from which we have to leave, Indika sees herself in the next room, which is the same, but from a different angle. She sees herself as the beast. The fact that that it is herself that she’s seeing then only becomes clear in the final scene of the game, when it’s the demon instead of her in the mirror. Visually, we are presented with the young nun’s heartbreaking face-to-face encounter with herself.

The second point I want to mention is the barely visible presence of the convent’s superior in the story. She appears at the beginning, and it is from her mouth that a small creature emerges during one of Indika’s hallucinations. Then, after the riddle, she reappears surreptitiously in the aforementioned room, like a reminder, an enigmatic and disturbing presence that is paradoxically marked by its absence.

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And now let’s get back to where we left off at the beginning of this article: is it really the Devil who has been whispering in Indika’s ear since the beginning of the game?

The ambiguity of this presence lingers throughout the game. Does Indika hear the evil whispering temptation in her ear? Is she simply mad? Or is it something else? I don’t think the second option is interesting in itself. It would only serve to repeat a trope that has been seen over and over again, and often treated too lightly. At best, it makes sense only in conjunction with one of the other two options. But what is this last possibility?

It is Sister Superior who gives Indika the mission that begins her journey: to deliver a sealed letter. But, as we all know, her path quickly diverges from this task, so much so that Indika ends up opening the letter in question. We never find out what is in it, but the devil’s voice suggests that the contents of the letter are merely a pretext and that she knew it would be opened – in short, that Indika would disobey. For the young nun, the Sister Superior is the matrix of her earthly obedience. She is the one to whom she owes obedience and, we can assume, the recipient of her confessions – for, as in Catholicism, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Russia gives an important place to the repeated sacrament of confession. If the superior is the external eye, the external source of obedience of the sisters in the convent and the authority that judges their misconduct, is she not in fact – and is this not the fundamental role of any priest or religious – the necessary mediator for the emergence and development of the internal eye, that of the moral conscience of the believer?

The eye was in the grave and was looking at Caïn.

“The Conscience”, Victor Hugo

The eye from which Cain fled was obviously the eye of God; but it is the inner eye of God, the eye of moral conscience. Through the practice of rites, confession and blind obedience, it is the moral conscience that the believer cultivates, but this can only be achieved through the mediation of this third party, the Director of Conscience. In short, there is no devil unless there is a bad conscience, unless this bad conscience is cultivated and skilfully maintained by both external and internal work. The aim is to create a desire for self-flagellation, self-humiliation and self-loathing. In short, Indika is not haunted by the devil, the real one, she merely is the subject of her own guilty conscience; and the expert rudder of this conscience is the superior sister. So there is no more sin in Indika than in the rest of the world, but an internalisation of religious norms and practices that have become pathological. As we can see, it is only here that madness can finally intervene: as a reaction to power, to its practices on body and mind.

The camera choices themselves are part of all this, all time long. When we play Indika, the lens is extremely close. But as soon as the cinematics start, the camera moves away. But it does so in a very precise way: the locations and angles chosen and the slight movements of the camera suggest a third observer. This reinforces the anxiety and claustrophobia within the film: the protagonist is constantly being squeezed in, and any escape or exit is imposed on her from the outside by these cameras and the sense of danger they create. Add to this the gigantic scale of some of the sets and the nun’s apparent fever, and you have a largely hostile world hanging over her head, ready to crush her at the slightest weakness.

If Indika is not alone, it is because of a diabolical presence – but an induced presence, expertly created and orchestrated to the point of illness. The devil as the final symptom of Christ’s illness. And from then on, the vain accumulation of points of faith takes on its full meaning. It’s a logic that is basically empty in the game, and only serves to reinforce itself and the progress of the faith. The closer you get to sainthood, the greater the risk and the more you have to watch out for yourself. There is no end, no final reward other than that of strengthening yourself, control upon yourself.

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As far as possible, I try to avoid interpretations that expect too much of the artists themselves. Every work has a life of its own, and in its very creation escapes the conscious grasp of its creators. However, I don’t mind pointing out that Odd Meter is a Russian studio, most of whose members fled the country shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, and that the Russian Patriarchate has officially declared its support for Vladimir Putin. In general, the land of the tsars has a long history of close relations between political and religious powers. Behind religion and its dogmas lies a very earthly power over very human lives.

Once it has been revealed that the Kudets, the holy relic that performs miracles, is actually empty; once it has been shaken in vain, producing thousands of points of faith until the player tires of it and finally realises the vanity of his gesture (but how long will it take him to accept that it’s all for nothing?), the masks come off, the reflection in the mirror changes. The beast gives way to… Indika. There will be no miracle, no Christ-like convict saved, no delicious saving saint (neither saint, nor whore, nor both – the Russian soul sent back to the ropes of history). In the end, there is only Ilya, who collapses psychologically after his appeal to the divine goes unanswered in a pathetic sequence. And then there’s Indika…

The final scene is just perfectly fine. After all hope of a holy miracle has been left behing, the devil disappears from the mirror, the voice falls silent, the music finally becomes more soothing, and there’s no more pixel art score. Above all, the camera has changed its point of view. The final moments are experienced from a subjective point of view: gone is the inner inquisitor, the pathological self-observation, the raw vivisection of the soul to the point of madness. By changing the point of view, a whole relationship with oneself is sketched out in a fleeting moment. Then, with a glance at the open door, the outside world is flooded with light. No more is to say – final.

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… What if he had finally won? What if he had won by convincing us… that he doesn’t exist?

A special thanks to @shkegulka who allowed us to use his virtual photographs to illustrate the article.

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