Persona Theory Games, Malaysian independent narrative game studio

Sarah has disappeared. These three words were revolutionary for the Malaysian indie game scene in 2016 when they found their way onto popular YouTubers game channels.

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

But beyond the accolades and spin-off titles, something else that came out of SIM was personality theory games (Persona Theory), a brand new independent narrative game studio.

It includes 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 chose friends and used the homes of friends and family as filming locations.

“We knew it was going to have some success due to the muscle the marketing team seemed to have, but it was still a nice surprise,” Saqina told Vulcan Post regarding SIM’s success.

But before working on the game, the three had already met due to the nature of their work. Saqina came from advertising, Buddy from film and Derek from digital marketing.

Saqina Latif during a panel at gamescon asia / Image credit: Persona Theory Games

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

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

Narrative stories that romanticize Southeast Asia

Over the years, many independent game studios in Malaysia have sprung up. Although the studios are local, many of their titles are actually based in foreign settings.

Just take two recent local games we reviewed, Midwest 90: Rapid City and SIMULAR 3that take place in westernized environments.

Of course, it’s not bad to create such games. But, distinguishing itself from these other studios, Persona Theory Games has insisted 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 cinematic experience, to tell our stories to the world,” Saqina explained.

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

The next Persona Theory game, cabaretis a clear manifestation of this – it is filled to the brim with various Southeast Asian myths, cultures and even languages.

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

This is evident in the studio’s first game, Fires at Midnight, a game set in a world where having sex without being in love will spontaneously set you on fire. 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 evoke demons and personal trauma is to make someone across the world feel the same way.

When an international audience is more supportive than the local audience

While the focus on emotional Southeast Asian stories gave Persona Theory Games a definite edge these days, the idea wasn’t exactly well received at first.

People would tell the team that Southeast Asia was too exotic for the rest of the world, and no one would care to find out. Due to this perception, many rejections were given to the team’s ideas.

“It was really tough, it was almost like we were even kicked out of the industry,” Saqina said. “People even laughed at me when I launched Kabaret locally. It was heartbreaking and I have to admit I cried.

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

The Persona Theory team / Image credit: Persona Theory

So she pitched WINGS Interactive, a games fund that funds games made by various teams, especially those with women and developers from marginalized genres in key positions.

“Honestly, it was around the time I pitched locally, and people laughed at me, and I had no hope at all,” Saqina explained. “I woke up one day with the email and almost fell out of bed. It was an amazing ride.

Kabaret is a dark fantasy game based on Southeast Asian folklore / Image credit: Persona Theory

In addition to funding, WINGS also opened the doors of Persona Theory to the big three game consoles: Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. As a representative of Malaysia, the game was even at the [email protected] showcase.

Although the team is making waves overseas, indie game players are still a niche. After all, Kabaret was first noticed overseas before gaining momentum locally.

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

On a mission to tell more stories

Scheduled to be released in the first quarter of 2023, Kabaret follows a boy named Jebat who is turned into a monster and thrown into a world full of Southeast Asian monsters and gods. This includes folk characters such as the Pontianak, Jinn, etc.

Persona Theory also revealed another title in the works, The Lonely Hearts Petshop. The game was created between the release of Fires at Midnight and the start of Kabaret.

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

The Lonely Hearts Petshop will probably not be released until 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 it takes place in Melaka, where Saqina’s father’s family is from?

Other than The Lonely Hearts Petshop, however, the studio has nothing set in stone yet. At least nothing that Saqina can divulge. But she did make one thing clear: Persona Theory Games still has a wealth of stories to share, especially those 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 games here.

Featured Image Credit: Persona Theory Games

Sharon D. Cole