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The genre mashup Thirsty Suitors was a ‘refuge’ for its developers

Outerloop Games founder Chandana Ekanayake and narrative designer Meghna Jayanth on Thirsty Suitors

A South Asian woman and man do a dance as bursts of red, yellow, orange, and pink burst extend around them in Thirsty Suitors Image: Outerloop Games/Annapurna Interactive
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

After nearly three years in development, Outerloop Games and Annapurna Interactive’s Thirsty Suitors was released on Nov. 2. From the beginning, the Outerloop Games team knew a few things: They wanted to make a game about relationships, and they wanted it to reflect the lived experience of its developers in telling an immigrant story. So much of the game was built out from there to create the wholly unique, genre-bending Thirsty Suitors — a game that blends its story up with cooking games, turn-based battles, and skateboarding.

What you get is a video game that goes beyond its individual labels. In the lead-up to Thirsty Suitors’ Nov. 2 release date, Polygon spoke to Outerloop Games co-founder/Thirsty Suitors director Chandana Ekanayake and narrative designer Meghna Jayanth about the complex, “more is more” game that explores both trauma and joy while player-character Jala kickflips her way through her hometown.

Jala, a South Asian woman, stands in from of her ex in a pink fantasy world Image: Outerloop Games/Annapurna Interactive

[Ed. note: This story has been edited for length and clarity.]

Polygon: Thirsty Suitors is so many different things — turn-based fighting, cooking, romance. It’s an immigrant story, a skateboarding game. How did you pull all these elements together?

Chandana Ekanayake: Where do I start? It starts with the theme and the stories we wanted to tell, and everything else stemmed from there. We wanted to do an immigrant story, because a lot of the folks on the team are — it’s a fully remote team made a lot of immigrants.

That’s where we started. And then we knew we wanted to do a game about relationships. The battle system came out of that, like, how do we balance this argument personified into this battle, plus the writing, the dialogue back-and-forth. So from that, the story came through, throughout just a lot of iteration. Then we added the cooking — it was always gonna be a big part of it, because culturally it’s significant to be able to talk through things while cooking. And then skating was just something that made sense after — I don’t know, it just came about.

Meghna Jayanth: I think skating began as a loading screen. There’s so much creativity on the team; it was really just a loading screen that people loved. And then we built it. Working as the narrative designer, week after week, I would come back and be like, Oh, it’s been two weeks. I haven’t checked in on this. Oh, we’re making a minigame. There’s a little bit of exuberance and creativity on the team.

I think we pulled all of that in. Eka loves to call this a “baby Yakuza,” which I really love as a description. There’s really a sense of joyful abundance, like we’re presenting you with all of these delightful things to do, but hopefully it has some focus as well.

With regard to skateboarding, it comes into the story as well. It’s the same with cooking. Did those parts grow throughout production? Or was it intended to be like that from the start?

Ekanayake: It grew through production, but we also knew the narrative was the focus of the game. We wanted all these — and this is where the “baby Yakuza” comparison is — disparate game mechanics to weave in and out through the narrative. That came through iteration.

The skate park became how Jala and Tyler bond, by doing her a bunch of these favors and trying to figure out what’s going on in the skate park. Cooking was also a way to bond with your parents and figure things out, because Jala hadn’t talked to them in years. You probably noticed that the stuff you cook at home, while there are great emotional beats, it also means you can use in battle too, as items.

Jayanth: A lot of it comes down to the fact that we were able to work on this for about three years. We had an opportunity to figure out what the heart of the story was, what those themes were, and then play around with the narrative and mechanics and really iterate and have the time for that to develop. Big story ideas could change until eight, nine months before we shipped. We edited and significantly changed almost all the content in the game just before we went into voice recording. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to develop ideas in that way, which you don’t often get given the production cycles of the games industry.

Ekanayake: That was intentional because we knew the game was going to be so different. We needed time to figure it out. There’s 19 actors for 21 speaking characters in the game. Once we cast, Meghna was like, Oh, I’m going to write to this actor now because of how they deliver the lines. That was unexpected, different from what we actually envisioned on paper. It was a really fun process.

Jayanth: We actually did a lot of rewriting on the fly in the sessions, too. It’s nice to be in those, because there’s a lot of very specific cultural context. Even the actors, we were really deliberate about making sure the actors matched the backgrounds of our characters. Even within that, there’s so much you could pick from someone. I’m from Bengaluru down south, and you could go down the street and meet somebody with a completely different sort of context.

We did seven weeks of VO straight. We had a brief break in the middle so we could go outside.

Jala works out with her aunt on a set of big tires Image: Outerloop Games/Annapurna Interactive

Ekanayake: It’s fully remote, right? The team is spread across seven cities, four continents. We have folks in LA in the studio, folks in Vancouver and New York and Toronto. It was a really fun process. The biggest dramatic thing was our lead, who played Jala, Farah Merani, was very pregnant. It was a running clock to finish. She has, like, a third of the lines in the whole game. So her bag was packed in LA at the studio, ready to go. We finished and a week later she gave birth. It was that close

Jayanth: We wrapped on a Thursday or Friday, and the following Tuesday, she was giving birth, which is amazing. We did have a little bit of a backup plan, which I’m so glad we didn’t have to institute, where maybe Aruni [a fantasy version of Jala’s sister, who is Jala’s inner voice] takes over Jala if we don’t get through those lines.

Since we’re talking about production, let’s talk about what it was like for you to work on this game. You’ve both talked about how having a good, healthy production is important — to have people who are taken care of and treated well. Why is that important to you?

Ekanayake: Mostly because we’ve had the opposite experience. This is my 25th year in games. I’ve worked on a lot of projects — bigger teams, smaller teams.

Part of starting the studio fully remote six, almost seven, years ago was part of that, to be able to work-life balance a little better. We’re made up of a third brand-new folks who've never worked on games, a third somewhere in between, and then the rest are olds, like myself. We wanted to have a variety of experience and also get folks that have never worked on games some experience as well, because I think that’s important.

That’s the great thing we can do remotely; people don’t have to move their whole lives for a job. We finished the game in almost three and a half years. The last two and half years have been fully four days a week. We started this during the pandemic, so people are going through all sorts of things, and we didn’t want the work to be another thing that was weighing on folks, while going through some hard times and trying to make the schedule work. The great thing is we control how big the game is. There’s no need to make it a certain size, which allowed us to have a flexible schedule. So people aren’t burnt out at the end of it.

Jayanth: I’m not a manager, but it’s just been really wonderful to work with a team where all these production processes really work. We hit all of our internal deadlines, which is wild to me. I’m not sure that has ever happened.

Ekanayake: We did extend the game a little bit just to try to figure out a launch window, which is so hard this year.

Jayanth: We kind of built this game a little bit as a sense of refuge for us, particularly for marginalized folks and queer folks. It felt really important that we were doing that during the pandemic as well. Getting to work on this colorful, joyful world was a really nice escape for I think a lot of us on the team from what was going on outside. I think it’s really important to be able to do that while not burning yourself out. I do think that it’s a really important model in the industry, that there are alternative ways that we can do these things. We don’t want to be making these supposedly joyful games but burning people out and destroying them in the back end. At the end of the day, it is just a video game. I know we’re out here to sell this game and we want people to play it, and we’re really proud of it, but it is just a video game at the end of the day. And I think keeping that perspective is super important.

Meghna, I know you’ve spoken a lot about capitalism and colonialism in games. Does Thirsty Suitors subvert that tendency of the games industry? It sounds like that influence goes beyond the game, but in studio practices as well. But in-game, all of the different layers of community building really stood out to me.

Jayanth: What we really wanted to do with it was just kind of create a bit of a balance. I think you want a certain amount of familiarity and familiar mechanics, especially when you’re innovating on content and themes. I talked about this at my talk at NYU just last week, as well. In some ways, I feel like maybe the most radical thing that we are doing here is allowing the protagonist to inhabit this queer brown woman joyfully. It’s a sad thing that that’s still deeply unusual in the industry, but I do think that really pushes back against the narrative of who’s playing games, and also whose humanity is interesting to play, and what kind of fantasies — to open up the space for the different kinds of power fantasies that we can explore in games.

I keep joking with my friends, whenever I’m explaining this to non-gamers, I’m like, “All right, the power fantasy of Thirsty Suitors is you get to speak up to your parents, tell them how you feel, and they listen and learn and grow. And the final boss is your maternal grandmother!” It’s about the fantasy of breaking cycles of generational trauma, which is very real, very human. And, yes, they’re very specific, but I think these are all really universal ideas.

One of the things that actually we probably haven’t talked about that much that we did want to include is that this game was sort of set in the ’90s and Jala is in her mid-20s. She has a bit of a millennial vibe, because, I guess, we are — but we really wanted to have that idea of, she’s speaking up to her parents and the older generation, but also kind of being challenged on some of her bullshit by the kids at the skate park, who are way more radical in a way. Personally, I think Jala is a lot less radical than I am, which is fine, too. With the skate park, we get to challenge some of those narratives as well. Hopefully it feels more like being in conversation rather than preaching to anyone. It’s that feeling of being challenged and having accountability, and that being OK, and learning and growing and healing. All of which I think are wonderful things for us to model right now in the world.

Ekanayake: Yeah, and also, it’s not just about Black and brown trauma, right? There’s the joys of the experience and the fantasies of it too. That’s pretty radical too, I think, for most game stories that come out these days. That was definitely intentional.

I’m really into saying goodnight to Jala’s dad every night. It’s so sweet. I have been looking forward to Jala going home, and I wonder what they’re going to watch.

Jayanth: I’m going to reveal a little secret. Some of the things you watch are actually Eka’s kids’ basketball games that he taped. It adds an extra layer of cuteness.

Ekanayake: I think we have the history of Washington wines as read by one of the folks that helped us on VO. And then we have the history of trains.

Jayanth: I think there’s a Cold War documentary, because all dads are obsessed with the Cold War.

A massive version of Jala’s dad holds her in his hand Image: Outerloop Games/Annapurna Interactive

I got that one last night, and I was like, Yep, yep.

Jayanth: Getting to put this gentle brown dad in the game was just so lovely for us. And I think it was actually quite late in the process that we really found that cycle of, like, cooking in the morning, going to the skate park, to wandering downtown and then coming back home. That kind of cycle that started feeling really good for us, where players have some idea of what to expect — and another way I think that we are respectful of players is the game is about six to nine hours in total, which I love as a length. And also, the chapters are 40-minute-to-an-hour chunks, which is, I think, a respectful amount of time in someone’s day. There’s a really deliberate effort to put a whole narrative arc in that so that it feels satisfying without demanding too much of your time.

Ekanayake: Yeah, we just want a little bit of your time. Not all of it.

The game is also very funny, but has an earnest emotional core with Jala’s family and culture. How do you pull that off?

Ekanayake: Being honest with ourselves, and taking that stuff seriously — just trying to find the truth in it and play with it, but also, we’re sincere about it.

Jayanth: All of us care. In some ways, Nicole, it’s a little bit terrifying. It does feel really exposing. We’re so much less interested in ironic distance and with appearing cool. We all just really wanted to make something really human. There’s elements of writing and story there. But I also think it’s completely the animation, the light, everything, to the way that camera angles are framed. And of course the voice acting as well, which just adds just a huge layer of humanity back in there. But I hope it feels a little bit like real life. And hopefully there’s enough humor in there that we can pull off a few of the the sincere moments. I won’t deny that I would be extremely delighted if we made people cry. [laughs]

Ekanayake: We found that through the beginning of the project. The first thing we built was the Sergio battle. And tonally, it was a lot meaner. Jala was a lot meaner to Sergio.

Jayanth: Sergio was actually fully toxically masculine in what I consider to be an unacceptable way. But people liked him. [laughs]

Ekanayake: People really liked him and felt bad for him. So Meghna reworked the dialogue, and that’s where we really found the tone for the game.

Jayanth: That’s something that was really great that we got a chance to respond to. In doing that playtesting early, we found that, Oh, actually, people want much more to make friends with this person. Each of these suitors, we’re actually spending a significant amount of time in the game with them. People want to love them. And so instead of kind of trying to push against that, we just incorporated that into our storytelling.

Initially, we had a design where you could choose to make up with the characters, or you could choose to basically be enemies as well, or it could be based on narrative choices. But I think as we went on, the game just turned into one about reconciliation and healing. And so none of the characters you meet are on unremittingly evil in any way. They’re certainly flawed, and I like some of them more than others, but they’re all just human beings attempting to make sense of life, basically.

Ekanayake: Meghna and I are both are older game developers, and I think the later we get into our career and projects, especially on this one, we let the game tell us what it wants to be through the course of development. There’s this risky and scary but really exciting part of it where it’s just like, We think we know what we’re gonna build, but leave enough room for some magic to happen and for the game to figure itself out. That really happened on this project. It doesn’t always happen, but I think being open to it really worked out for us on this project.

Tyler, a punk skateboarder, stands next to a bear mascot in an abandoned theme park Image: Outerloop Games/Annapurna Interactive

I want to talk a little about music too. It feels like 1990s hip-hop with South Asian influence. What was your approach to creating music that matched the vibe of Thirsty Suitors?

Ekanayake: For the exes battles, we were kind of thinking about ’90s music videos, when music videos were a big deal. We’re looking at the theatrical, over-the-top aspect of the spaces and those videos and trying to find a piece of music to match each of the characters and themes. So like everything else, just lots of time and iteration.

Jayanth: I love the vocals in it, which are just so beautiful. It was wonderful for us to have some Tamil in the vocals. I would say that’s really unusual in games, but this year we’ve come out alongside Venba.

You can really see there’s a lot of ’90s hip-hop meets anime meets South Asia. It’s a “more is more” aesthetic.

Ekanayake: Because of the fantastical spaces and the surreal nature of some of the battles, we were able to really push the music to fit those colors and themes, too.

Jayanth: I’ve been secretly sneaking our playlist onto my party playlist and everybody’s like, Oh, that’s really good. Hopefully you see some of that joy. And that’s what it’s been like working on this. Every single person has just put so much love into it. Every single day, when [Thirsty Suitors composer Ramsey Kharroubi] drops a track or [animator Aung Zaw Oo] does a new piece of animation, or a new piece of writing goes in, it just reignites the inspiration for each one of us.

Ekanayake: It’s a 15-person team, so everyone has something significant that they can contribute at this scale. Everyone can point to something in the game and go, “I did that.” That’s what I like about this scale we’re at, too.