onsoon Lab's Sara Is Missing (SIM) is mobile game that you already know how to play if you own a mobile device. It's a game that embraces its simulacrum nature while weaving a mystery about a missing girl, Sara. To find her, you'll need to dig through her digital life on her cellphone, which includes scrolling past the occasional book store selfie. Like Nina Freeman's Cibele, the brilliant usage of real photos here trades the player's feeling of heroism for voyeurism. For those curious, the Malaysian-based studio just released the demo.
Over an email interview, I asked SIM's game designer, Jeremy Ooi, about the game's development, and Malaysia's own vibrant indie game dev scene.
How did Monsoon Lab come together?
I got introduced to Shahrizar and Shahazmi through Tim Wee, the editor for indiegames.com. I had the phone simulator idea for a while but without a proof of concept, I didn't really know if it could work. Then, after playing SOMI's Replica, I knew it was possible. I casually pitched SIM and everyone was excited. We wanted to park this project under a new identity and so Monsoon Lab was born.
How has the development been for this game so far?
Because there was no reference point, it was quite challenging at first. Funny enough, after we made the very first prototype, we saw games like Seen, Mr Robot's exfiltration, and Mystic Messenger. Since then, we cross reference with those games and tweak it from there: taking what we like, discarding what we don't.
For you, where did the mobile simulator idea come from?
If you look at film, TV, and even theatre, we are just barely scratching the surface on how people interact in this day and age. Imagine the Friends TV show today, I think they would all be talking in a group chat more often. You would see speech bubbles popping out of phones on film to indicate text messages.
Everyone is finding new ways to express digital communication, but for games? Not so much. So I asked myself, if someone looks through my phone, will they really know the real me? I think they might. Same goes for everyone.
How different do you think the tone of the game would have been if players found a man’s phone instead?
I think it'd be very different! Not to gender stereotype but girls really know how to take pictures of pretty things and guys might have lots of silly boy talk amongst friends.
You can really go from such a unique angle there. I am immediately thinking of a cheating husband's phone. A game where you have to "decode" his messages and find the mistress. Haha.
Were there any fears when making a game that's intrinsically tied to being played on mobile versus a more traditional, general game?
There is a risk as we are swimming up against popular advice. However, I feel games are so replacable that fighting for that number one spot in the general game scene is so tough.
How many match three, endless runners, strategy games are out there? If you don't like one, there are tens of others lined up for you. So we want to make something that is truly unique and will get people talking.
As a theatre actor and journalist, how do those two roles come into play when making a game?
Being an actor helps me understand characterization a little better. If a game is quite character driven (like this one), it really helps to identify what works and what doesn't. Just like acting, characters in games should behave with unique traits. If I remove a name from a speech bubble, you should still know who is talking based on these traits.
Being a journalist helps me to look at a game from a press perspective. I always ask myself, what kind of game or feature would make someone who looks at hundreds of games a day go: "That's really cool!"
How does the Malaysian indie scene compare to places you travelled to and written about?
I always feel there are very talented people in Malaysia. Anything skill related, I think we are up for the job. The two things we fall short on is being exposed and afraid of being Malaysian. If we are not exposed, our ideas are limited and the final result feels empty and shallow. Also, sometimes I feel we are not maximising our unique culture and history. Poland used it to full extent in The Witcher series and I think ours is rich enough to do that.
Why do you think games media doesn’t talk more often about Southeast Asia’s indie game dev scene considering some big Malaysian hits like Velocibox?
I don't blame them. The world is so big! With game development becoming more accessible, I think the media might have to divert resources to specific regions. Some [places] are more happening than others, so hopefully it balances itself out.
Since you began, do you think the Malaysian government is getting more supportive of the video game industry?
MDEC has always been supportive of the creative industry here and recently ramped up the focus to video games. Grants are available from various organizations, as long as you can prove that you can see the project through!
Name one indie dev in the world that you’d love to work with in the future?
Oh man, so many. Top of my head? Ojiro Fumoto because I think Downwell is a masterpiece.
Can you share what's next for you and the studio after SIM?
Not sure yet about our future plans, there is still plenty of work for SIM, but you will hear from us!