Thirsty Suitors has all the makings of the next big game.
One minute you’re busting out skateboarding lines that’d make Tony Hawk weep in envy. Next, you’re waging turn-based combat against your third-grade ex. In the interim, you may cook a meal with your mum (while desperately angling for her approval) or, who knows, find the love of your life (for the seventh time).
You do this all as a young woman named Jala, who left town three years prior — torching bridges with friends and family and lovers along the way — to be the mayor’s wife.
Things didn’t work out.
First announced during the 2021 Game Awards, Thirsty Suitors immediately caught attention for its vivid art style and its Scott Pilgrim vibes. It’s the latest from Outerloop, whom you may know as the team behind the heady adventure game Falcon Age. Thirsty Suitors is currently set to be published next year by Annapurna Interactive — an offbeat outfit that just released speedrunning shooter Neon White and cat game Stray, both to acclaim — on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC.
You’re able to give it a spin yourself now. Last week, during Annapurna Interactive’s second annual showcase, the publisher released a demo for Thirsty Suitors on Steam. It offers a sampling of what you get in : a little bit of skateboarding, a peek into Jala’s past, and a battle against Sergio, Jala’s third-grade ex. The fight plays out as a standard turn-based RPG battle, though you’re able to inflict status effects such as “thirst,” which weaken him. It’s a highly fantastical battle, at one point even going into a realm he’s conjured in his mind.
“It’s more like a dance and a date and a verbal back-and-forth that we’re visualising through RPG combat,” creative director Chandana Ekanayake told Kotaku in an interview conducted shortly after the game’s debut at this summer’s Tribeca Festival.
Sergio, you’ll note, is kind of an arse (see the video above). He’s pushy. He’s arrogant. He’s an obvious paragon of insecurity, hiding behind fine fashion and showy yet ultimately useless muscles. You probably know this guy, or a version of him. He used to be way worse, though.
“We initially made him real mean and a lot more forward, but people were like, ‘He’s real charming!’ and so we’re leaning into that,” Ekanayake said.
Throughout Thirsty Suitors, you’ll end up battling half a dozen of Jala’s exes, all of whom have an ax to grind. (The demo teases these exes as a league of sorts but doesn’t go into details about any of them.) Plenty of games grapple with dour, traumatic storylines, Ekanayake said, but Outerloop wanted to do something different, a bit more positive-leaning. Each fight culminates with “a sort of reconciliation,” he said, though the door is left open to pursue either platonic or romantic relationships with each character.
Ekanayake acknowledged the obvious Scott Pilgrim comparison, in that Thirsty Suitors is also about romance, and features an everyday setting that spontaneously morphs into a fantastical one. (“Scott Pilgrim is like a video game,” he noted.) But Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics aren’t the deepest creative wellspring here. In 2013, O’Malley lamented and apologised for the overwhelming whiteness of Scott Pilgrim’s cast, and said in 2016 that he wouldn’t write a white protagonist again, telling NBC News: “Honestly, when I saw the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ movie it was kind of appalling to see just how white it was — to not even really see myself represented on the screen … I guess I whitewashed myself out of my own story.”
Rather, Thirsty Suitors is more inspired by a wave of recent media that’s featured South Asian people in starring roles; Ekanayake, who grew up in Sri Lanka, cited Hasan Minaj’s 2017 special Homecoming and Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy Never Have I Ever. “We’re [seeing] more of these kinds of stories and sort of exploration of South Asian characters and just Asian characters in general,” he added. “I wanted to do the same thing for games.”
The name for Thirsty Suitors came first, before a rough idea or even a concept. Ekanayake knew he wanted to explore elements of what life is like as a South Asian immigrant in America, at one point even discussing with writer Meghna Jayanth (who also wrote for Falcon Age) the idea of including an arranged marriage component. But they scrapped it.
“Neither of us had gone through arranged marriage,” Ekanayake said. “We had friends and family and all that, but we just didn’t feel comfortable basing it on something that we weren’t personally involved in.”
Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, the team focused on their own personal experiences. Take the cooking segments, for instance. (The cooking mini-game wasn’t part of the Tribeca Fest demo; too much stuff to cram into 30 minutes.) Ekanayake noted that cooking segments tend to default to starring mums over dads. But he’s a parent himself, and cooks at home all the time. So in Thirsty Suitors’ kitchen segments, which demand you whip up recipes through quick-time events, you’ll have to vie for the approval of Jala’s mother and father.
“That’s something we talk about weekly, actually, as we talk about the story and try to be true to ourselves,” Ekanayake said. “There’s a specific story and a specific narrative, and if you try to kind of represent all of it, it’s just going to be watered down.”
Earlier this summer, Thirsty Suitors made waves at the Tribeca Festival with a demo of its first chapter. It won the award for the festival’s games segment, beating out competitors like American Arcadia, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, and a meaty, hotly anticipated expansion for Cuphead.
“It feels good, man,” Ekanayake said. “We’ve been working on it for a couple of years, so this is the first time people could play it. We were definitely unsure how people were going to respond.”