In 2002, the stars of Bollywood aligned, quite literally, to release a spate of movies on the revolutionary Bhagat Singh. Five movies, each drawing from the subject to a varying degree, were released that year, of which the Ajay Devgn starrer The Legend Of Bhagat Singh was the most successful. Amidst this banal celluloid fervour, the now-defunct Lumen Phon Multimedia and Mitashi Edutainment (which still sells 8-bit game consoles, go figure) combined to produce India’s first 3D game. What’s more, it allowed anybody to don the trilby hat and go after the Empire.

Bhagat Singh: The Game was born. And it was wonderfully terrible.

From the early days of gaming history, the Nazis have held pride of place as the definitive villains. Bionic Commando (Capcom, 1988), a platformer that was released as Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret in Japan, had a barely disguised Hitler as the final boss, even though the makers tried to conceal the fact in North America. Wolfenstein 3D (iD Software, 1992), the godfather of the First Person Shooter genre that spawned a still running franchise, was blatant about including Nazi iconography and had an on-steroids mechanised Hitler as the final boss. Doom (iD Software, 1993) catapulted the genre to fame and featured relentless “demons from hell” on deserted research facilities on the planet Mars.

The birth of the FPS genre in the West needed seemingly irredeemable villains to justify its gratuitous violence, and so too it would seem in India with Bhagat Singh: The Game – the British Raj’s hated imperialist apparatus makes for a delicious enemy and who better than the most lionised young revolutionary from the Independence movement to be taking them on in 3D.

Killing British police officer John Saunders is the first mission. (Credit: Neeraj Dikshit)

History and gaming

The marshaling of historical spaces in video games to inflict punishment on past enemies has almost entirely been the domain of the West. Emerging triumphant in the second World War, it acquired a pop culture carte blanche to further a straightforward black-and-white narrative that ignored colonialism and its underbelly. The assembly line of World War II-based games that are churned out year after year reflect various shades of the same.

In the post-colonial context, this phenomenon may also act as a form of crude cultural catharsis. The Bangladeshi government sponsored the release of the game Heroes of 1971 (2015) and its sequel, Heroes of 1971: Retaliation (2016), which are both unambiguous about allowing a whole new generation to kill scores of Pakistani soldiers to liberate East Pakistan in the bloody Bangladesh War of 1971.

Bhagat Singh: The Game taps into a similar sentiment. The shrill nationalism on the packaging (“For the hardcore Indian…”) hardly bothered me as an 11-year-old as I popped the CD (remember those?) into my personal computer. Get to gun down British imperialists while playing a celebrated national hero? Bring it on, I thought.

The game begins with you as Bhagat Singh, killing British police officer John Saunders while declaring: “Saunders! Yeh Lala Lajpat Rai ki maut ka badla hai!” or Saunders this is to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai! In fact, Bhagat Singh and his associates had intended to kill James Scott, the British superintendent of police who ordered the lathicharge that grievously injured the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai (who died shortly after). The group had mistakenly killed Saunders and it was Singh’s associate Shivaram Rajguru, who fired the first shot at Saunders.

None of Singh’s associates from history are included in the game. It is the dead of night in February of 1928 and you-as-Singh are a lone wolf in a near-curfewed Lahore. The stage is set for Singh – this is an FPS, and you need to shoot your way out by killing dozens of Indian and British officers patrolling the streets. Gameplay-1 History-0.

In the game, Bhagat Singh must shoot down as many British and India policemen patrolling the streets of Lahore. (Credit: Neeraj Dikshit)

Artificial intelligence?

The first thing that strikes one about the game is how dated it looks, even for 2002. The modelling is awful, and Bhagat Singh – looking more like the fictional vigilante Zorro without the cape and eye mask – suffers for it. The British and Indian policemen seem to be clones of a single model each and while the former succumb to bullets by collapsing, sometimes with an “Oh god!”, the latter simply burst into pools of blood.

Lahore appears to be a walled enclosure resembling a large jail-like facility more than a city. Through all the intense shooting, it remains dimly lit and painfully slow to navigate. Bhagat Singh moves sluggishly and the poorly mapped controls, which cannot be changed, do not help. The poet Munir Niazi’s couplet seems to be about this Lahore:

“Is mulk par aseeb ka saaya hai ya kya hai

Ke harkat teztar hai, aur safar ahista ahista” 

Is this country haunted by a spirit? 

All seems very animated, and yet the journey is so slow

The artificial intelligence of the game’s characters is limited to policemen standing frozen and shooting at you. They appear to have no reason to reload their weapons, but killing them and collecting their ammunition bizarrely yields only a single bullet every time. How hard could it have possibly been to add a range-limited random number generator (a programming method that makes a game less predictable and hence, more challenging)?

Around the same time that iD Software released the raved about Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the makers of Bhagat Singh: The Game seem to have drawn their inspiration from that game’s predecessor, Wolfenstein 3D. The visual layout and maze-like structure of the maps is the same, but Wolfenstein 3D managed better artificial intelligence and gameplay in 1992.

There are no checkpoints here, no clear mission objectives. You simply wander around fumbling in the dark, shooting policemen with the un-guiding voice of Durga Bhabhi (Durgawati Devi, the revolutionary comrade of Bhagat Singh) in the background: “Bhagat, mein Durga Bhabhi. Jaldi upar aa jao” (Bhagat, this is Durga Bhabhi, come up quickly). The pay-off for completing a mission? An abrupt slide that expects you to read what happened next, accompanied by a guitar instrumental of Kar Chale Hum Fida in the background.

Escaping from Lahore and bombing the Raj’s Central Legislative Assembly involves the same formula – shoot your way through poorly designed and suspiciously similar looking maps, followed by a slide or a crude video exposition.

Older games can acquire extraordinary charm, even if dated by modern standards, but there is none here. The amateurishness of the production sticks out in 2017 as it surely did in 2002. Thankfully, it all ends pretty quickly.

Similarities between Wolfenstein 3D and Bhagat Singh: The Game. (Credit: Neeraj Dikshit)

India’s first 3D game and FPS

As far as virtual retribution for historic wrongs goes, this is as unsatisfying as it can get. Bhagat Singh: The Game is no forgotten masterpiece, its obscurity is well-earned. Yet, it retains its significance as India’s first-ever 3D game and First Person Shooter. A brave but loudly misfired attempt at a commercial game at a time when the term “Indian gaming” did not mean much and non-Western stories had little hope of being told through the video game medium. For this, it seals its place in the digital history of India.

In the post-colonial context, where history is a restive, contested space, any developer seeking to make meaningful and nuanced games that draw from history and culture risks stepping on the outsize toes of self-appointed cultural and moral overseers. But it is a battle worth fighting if we are to achieve any real azadi from Western gaming hegemony and further a worthy artistic cause. Surely, we can make a better game on a remarkable personality like Bhagat Singh?

So, Bhagat Singh lives on, not just in our memories but in pixels, in awful 3D, in forgotten hard drives and scratched CDs. If you can get your hands on this game, you too can make the trek from Lahore to Delhi to attack the Central Legislative Assembly. And if you can look past the graphics and pretty much the entirety of the gameplay, you can get to experience India’s first First Person Shooter. Think of it as wandering a museum. A rather dilapidated one but nonetheless, one whose story is far more interesting than the one it tells.

Wanted posters all over Lahore. (Credit: Neeraj Dikshit)