‘those terrible landscapes of fire’ – An Interview with [half of] Outlands

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‘Sometimes, I fear that I’m looking at ghosts. That I’ll end up on the screens too.’

Empathy is both a simple and a complex thing. It can feel beautiful, earnest, and genuine, or attempting it can just feel patronising.
Games and interactive media have often struggled with conveying the experiences of those in difficult situations, and the results often vary wildly. How can you encapsulate such a singular experience, and how can the player every really hope to truly understand how someone else feels through experiencing an interactive abstraction of those feelings? Gabriel Helfenstein of Outlands, the person with whom I recently had a conversation that can be read below, very much subscribes to the view expressed by Anna Anthropy, who has stated that she “[respects] games too much to see them relegated to a way for the privileged to opt out of their responsibilities, to allow them to become the trendy new format for afterschool specials” . In other words, art needs to be complicated and multifaceted, not a simplified version of edutainment that makes those far-removed from situations like gender dysphoria or depression feel better about themselves. Whether or not you agree with that perspective is, of course, up to you, but there is an undeniable truth in the idea that attempting to find a simple, crowd-pleasing message from a complicated topic can feel, for want of a better word, cynical, and perhaps even cheapens the topic being discussed. I’ll leave you to think it over in your own time. I still am.
I was introduced to the oeuvre of Outlands – a two-person team made up of the Berlin-based French-born Tristan Neu and Gabriel Helfenstein – through their two-thousand-and-sixteen work NORTH. Though the term is often misused, it’s a game that could genuinely be described as Kafkaesque in nature, being, as Jeroen D Stout deemed it, a “very strange thing” that’s “quite harsh on you”. It’s a work that could be said to be heavily inspired by the ongoing Refugee ‘crisis’ (more a crisis of governmental failure and popular apathy rather than a crisis caused by the refugees themselves, both within Europe and around the world).  This influence is apparent both in the work’s content, as well as in the fact that a portion of the game’s profits go to the organisations Refugees On Rails and Refugee Open Ware – but, as Helfenstein is quick to remind me, it is not an ‘empathy game’.
NORTH almost feels like the video game equivalent of Beckett’s Catastrophe – it’s a piece that unsettles in an indefinable way, a piece that forces its audience to view a figure being manipulated for purposes that will remain permanently unclear, a piece that darkly amuses in its absurdity. Yet, unlike Beckett’s tribute to Havel, NORTH’s paean to the stateless unpersons running for their lives lacks any display of defiance, however materially futile, any display of resistance, however small.  The player character must be oppressed and must meet the state’s demands, always without any ability to fight back, to plead their case, to even slightly display any real kind of disquiet with what is being asked of them (they can’t speak the language, after all, and the world around them is governed by a series of systems that seem deliberately designed to obfuscate, baffle, and leave one feeling unwelcome).
In presenting such a confusing, hopeless reality, and without ever openly referencing or attempting to convey the modern-day crisis, NORTH faithfully conveys the plight of the refugee. They are without statehood, defined by the nationality of a nation that they have been forced to flee, and trapped behind the language barrier. How the government of the nation they flee to responds, and how the people within it view them, makes all the difference. Their lives are in the hands of the state; they are socio-politically powerless. They must WORK, otherwise they remain trapped at the lowest level of society. They must be SEEN; everything they do must be observed by surveillance cameras, and even their dreams must be forensically inspected by medical professionals. They must CONVERT; but in the eyes of G-d, the people, or the state itself? They must be TESTED, asked if they recognise the faded images of ‘terrorists’ that they have never seen before.  It’s all very deliberately absurd, and at certain points it almost seems as though the game itself is laughing in your face. When objectives are achieved, an almost Zelda-esque achievement sound blares, completely out of place in relation to the rest of the game. Whenever the appropriate documents are acquired for one to further their desperate quest for asylum, there is the sound of canned applause, seemingly coming from nowhere. Basic hallmarks of games are being mocked, and thusly made hollow. Nothing makes sense, because if it were to make sense you would have some semblance of control. NORTH could be said to be a confluence of various themes and topics that Outlands has explored over the years. It has echoes of the bleak absurdity of their state-sanctioned-torture simulator Dämmerung, as well as of the quiet, haunting, and worryingly-familiar horror of Breeder and Pictures of a reasonably documented year – mixed in with the Dadaist terror so often seen in the output of Ice-Pick Lodge.
To my great fortune, Gabriel Helfenstein agreed to sit down with me (in a digital sense) and discuss his and Tristan’s body of work – his co-developer was unfortunately unable to participate. Our conversation veered from denunciations of machine-generated empathy and nationalism to expressions of admiration for Lavelle and Márquez alike. His answers are wonderful, thoughtful, and brimmed full of real humanity (and his English is incredible), and I hope you enjoy reading through them as much as I did.

[RIGHT MOUSE to feel the irony]

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Why do you make games?
As for many people of my generation, it was kind of a childhood dream. Then, growing older, I just assumed games were too complicated to make and abandoned the idea. I came back to it 2-3 years ago, when I discovered Unity. At the same time, everything I did before was related in one way or another to games – interactive fiction, web-documentaries, etc.
Apart from that, what I like about games is that they are a new medium. When you write literary fiction, for example, you have thousands of years of tradition behind you, which can be very oppressing. There is this sense that everything has been done before, that you are in constant competition with centuries of ghosts. Games are different because they are such a young art form. Basically you could come up with almost any slightly original idea different from the classical roguelike-survival-shooter and be pretty sure nobody ever thought of it before. That’s an incredible luxury for an artist.

“There is this sense that everything has been done before, that you are in constant competition with centuries of ghosts.”

Why do you choose to abstract the thematic content of your games: for instance, having ‘strange creatures’ in place of people in NORTH?
We didn’t want NORTH to be what is sometimes called an “Empathy game”. It’s a label I really dislike, and I can only recommend this article from Anna Anthropy on the subject. We didn’t want NORTH to be a game people would play thinking “oh, so this is what it’s like to be a refugee”. I don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee and even if I did, you cannot approximate the experience of a human being in a 30-40 minute video game. Trying to do so would be an insult to every refugee out there. The abstraction of people and places allows us to address the questions and challenges posed by massive migration and severe inequalities in a more universal way. It’s not about Syrian or Malian migrants, it’s about feelings of confusion, boredom and disorientation; it’s about the fear of unknown places and customs – something refugees feel for sure, but that neither constitute the whole of their experience nor is an emotional cocktail uniquely known to them. Also, this abstraction is a very common tool in storytelling – basically what a lot of science fiction authors do by rooting their story in a future world in order to be able to speak more freely about the contemporary one.

To me, your games often embody several of the core principles of Absurdism*. To what extent is that an accurate, or indeed fair, observation?
*NORTH in particular presents its player with a series of irrational and contradictory rules and expects them to be followed, punishing the player harshly for failing to meet its baffling list of demands. 
In terms of atmosphere, design and language, our games definitely owe a debt to absurdist fiction. If you speak about absurdism as a philosophical concept, though, it depends.
The way I understand it, absurdism explores the impossibility of humans to find meaning in a world which is too complex for them to ever understand. That could be said about some of our games like Breeder and Breeder: Homegrown, wherein the player ends up confronting a creature so weird and powerful it defies every possibility of understanding. It could also be said about Dämmerung, where everything the player does ends up being totally devoid of sense.
But in NORTH, the absurdity of the environment is a product of humans (or whatever creatures populate its world) – a creation of society. So, if that doesn’t necessarily go against the principles of absurdism, I would say that the focus of the game, rather than to explore the inherent meaninglessness of existence, is to try to show how existence can seem meaningless, once it is controlled by a society that has access to every parts of one’s life (from religion to health to entertainment, etc.) and how this experienced meaninglessness is weaponised by states to corner their citizens – and especially refugees – into political inactivity.

The fact that NORTH is influenced by the ongoing refugee crisis is clear, both in its content and in the fact that a portion of a person’s purchase goes towards Refugees On Rails and Refugee Open Ware. With that in mind, if you were making NORTH now, would the end result be the same? Have things gotten better or worse in your eyes?
Things definitely got worse. We started developing NORTH in 2015 after having spent two years working on a documentary about European migration policies and, back then, the refugee ‘crisis’ just started getting attention in the media. Since 2015, not only did thousands and thousands of people die, end up as slaves, or were trapped in an endless limbo of administrative bullshit, but the idea of refugees as an invading force became such a huge leitmotiv in the media discourse and the political farce, that refugees unwillingly played a decisive part in the recent resurgence of nationalism. The way the neoliberal forces of Europe and the US handled the refugee crises directly killed people, but it also – rather ironically – corrupted and brought to its knees the very same system these forces were trying to protect.
I’m pretty sure that if we did a better job at taking care of refugees and did really try to address the problems that force people to flee in the first place, there would be no Brexit and no Trump. So, yeah, things got worse.
When it comes to NORTH, I think the game would be more or less the same. Probably a bit darker.

Does the former division of Berlin – and indeed of Germany – play a part in the narrative makeup of your games**?
**For instance, the focus on North and South (particularly, funnily enough, in NORTH), and the impact of that division.
Not really. We live in Germany but are French and were 2 years old when the wall fell, so the former division of the country is still something pretty removed from our own lives. You can see some relics of the separation scattered around Berlin, but the city changed so much since 1989 that those times feel more like a childhood memory nobody can really remember.

There are two of you in Outlands – who does what in the development process, or is it not that simple?
Tristan composes the Soundtrack and I write the story/text. I also do the programming even if I’m very bad at it. For the visuals, it depends on the game. For our 2D games, Tristan is in charge of the design/art while I’m generally the one doing 3D modelling and environments.

Who would you say are the most important developers currently active at the moment, if any, and why?
It’s very difficult to answer this question because there are a lot of people I would consider important: Brendon Chung, David Kanaga, Kitty Horrorshow, Ben Allen, Jack King-Spooner, Loren Schmidt, Strangethink, Nathalie Lawhead, Jacob Buczynski, and many many more.
But still, I think the most important developer currently active is Stephen Lavelle, aka Increpare, simply because of his incredibly vast body of work and eclectic gameplay ideas. I haven’t played all of his games and probably never will, but when I’m in need of inspiration, I sometimes simply pick one at random and I’m rarely disappointed. Also, Slave of God is one of my favourite games.

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‘You can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like: the burning heat. Landscapes of fire.’

What would you say are the most important games ever made, if any, and why?
Of course, from a historical perspective, you have all those classical contenders: Pong, [Super] Mario, Doom, etc. But that’s not really interesting, because I guess everyone would agree. Instead, I will try to tell you what the most important games were for me:
[The first] Baldur’s Gate, Deus Ex and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time because they were my favourite games as a kid and deeply influenced me in terms of storytelling and aesthetic. Also because I very rarely play AAA games nowadays, mainly because I quickly get bored and don’t have time. So I still look back at my experience with these games to remember what it actually felt like to invest hours and hours and hours into a single game.
Every day the same dream [by Pablo ‘Molleindustria’ Pedercini]. Back when I [first played it], I was writing interactive fiction in flash and I thought that making real games was simply impossible for someone who didn’t study it. But then I found this game, and it seemed so simple and doable. I think it’s the first time I really thought about making games myself. Also, I like the political consciousness of Molleindustria’s work.
[Tale of Tales’] The Graveyard. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Tale of Tales. On one hand I really don’t like their big “We are important artists” stance and I often find their games to be cringingly pretentious [not holding back, are we?]. On the other hand, I can’t deny that they had a huge influence on the early “Indie” scene and that their arrogance was probably needed at the time. For me, The Graveyard was important because it revived my fascination for games. Back then, I still had a lot of hope for the medium, but nobody seemed to be coming along with new stuff. The Graveyard – even if I’m not 100% convinced by it (the music sequence…) – still was a revelation because it was the first game I played which didn’t want to be “fun” or “scary” or whatever. It definitely showed me that it was possible to make games differently.
Slave of God by Increpare [aka Stephen Lavelle], and Road to Ruin by Tom Cooper. Both these games taught me that it is possible to create deeply emotional experiences with a very limited gameplay and almost no story at all. It was also somewhat mind-opening to see how beautiful these games were without any fancy AAA elements, just using simple colours and funny shaders.

What was the last game that you played – and did you appreciate the experience?
The last game I played was Islands by Carl Burton, and I loved it. I’m really interested in games which manage to convey emotions through abstract mechanisms and pure audiovisual stimulation. All the games we’ve made as Outlands are story-based and rely heavily on text, and even if I do like that too, I definitely want to explore and experiment more with non-verbal, sensual storytelling in the future. And I’m sure Carl Burton’s piece is going to be a huge influence for that.

What can you tell us about ‘A Violent Time’?
I would prefer not to release too much information before the game is out. Sorry.

You are to be stranded on a barren islet in a part of the ocean formerly used for nuclear testing that officially doesn’t exist. For an undisclosed reason, those stranding you – a trio of black-suited operatives who are all inexplicably called ‘Gideon’ – have allowed you to take one book, one film, one video game, one album, and one other item along with you to keep you company in your years of solitude. Which of each do you bring, and for what reason?
Book: Probably One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel García Márquez], because it contains so many books in itself.
Film: The Thing. Because it’s great, I guess.
Game: Dark Souls, because I never played it [me neither; wear the badge with pride]. In recent times, I’ve mostly played short free games, and when it comes to bigger games I’ve found myself enjoying more and more the “story-based/one-sitting/no difficulty” formula (like [Giant Sparrow’s] What Remains of Edith Finch, for example). But I know deep in my heart that I would love Dark Souls, and, stranded on an island, I would finally have all the time in the world to beat it.
AlbumSunset Mission, by ‘Bohren & Der Club of Gore’ – for the atmosphere, and because it would remind me of the city which I would surely miss.
Item: Pen and paper so I could write…if that counts as one item [it does]. If not, a musical instrument I’ve always wanted to learn; probably a piano, or a saxophone. Or maybe drums.

Pacman, or Space Invaders?
Space Invaders.

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Thank you for reading! Please do consider buying and playing Outlands’ work; you’ll never forget it. 
You can find and play all of Outlands’ works HERE.
You can follow them on Twitter HERE.
Their website can be found HERE; from there you can find out more about them, and donate to them to support their work!

You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, should you be so inclined.
The song of the day is Put Your Money On Me, by Arcade Fire.
Have a lovely day, now. 

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An Interview: Connor Sherlock

One of my favourite video-game related memories is of wandering the desert outside of the citadel in Naughty Dog’s Jak 3.
If my memory serves me well , so long as you exited the hub world without a (spiky, PG Mad Max) car, you could just wander and wander and wander around without being bothered for as long as you liked. I loved being able to just walk and walk and walk across an awe-inspiring (to me, anyway) alien landscape. Sure, I enjoyed the jumping and the racing and the shooting and the story-ing as well, but honestly, my most positive memories of Jak 3 are those where I just walked.
(I suppose that means I hate video games, right? To be honest, I probably do.)
It’s not the only game I remember in such a way. And at least it let you do it. Unlike some games. Like when I just wanted to swim in the river and visit the islands and houses in Dishonoured, and the game delivered damage unto me until I went back and played it properly (not to knock that game too much; I value both it and Mr. Harvey Smith a great deal). Or like when I wanted to drive off-road in Insert Driving Game Here, and was blocked by unbreakable barriers. Or like recent video games, like those made by Ubisoft, which offer this great space to explore, but just dump so much stuff in it to the point where you can’t breathe. There’s no real time for contemplation when there’s an unrealistically vicious tiger running towards you
(Note to self: have that last sentence carved into my tombstone).             
Sometimes the best moments in games are the moments that just let you walk. That just let you explore the beautifully-constructed interactive space presented to you, not shoot your way out of it.
Often those optional moments, moments that the game doesn’t want you to focus on and sometimes even left in by accident, are the best parts of the whole game, the parts that stay with you long after the gunplay has faded from memory. As Connor Sherlock notes below: “I thought the Mako sections in Mass Effect were great!” Heck, the wonderful Mr. JP LeBreton set up his ‘Game Tourism’ project precisely so you could just walk without having your head blown off.
But what about those games that are expressly designed for you just to walk within the interactive space they offer? Those so-called ‘walking simulators’?
Games of that type have received what this writer believes to be a horrendously, almost comically disproportionate level of vitriol from many; the kind of vitriol often reserved only for when a female celebrity dares to look like a normal person in public, or for when Netflix’s servers are down. Walking simulators are seen by some as an out-an-out threat to the sanctity of video games with others just dismissing them out of hand.
Connor Sherlock is a self-avowed developer of ‘walking simulators’; he’s made a fair few in his time, his style constantly developing and maturing in genuinely artistically exciting ways. He even runs a Patreon – his ‘walking simulator a month club’ – wherein, in return for a small donation (one USD), one can have a small, completely new interactive space to walk through delivered straight to their inbox every month.
Pretty cool.
More recently, he’s announced plans to fully remake his hour-long B.P (before Patreon) horror piece Marginalia (the original having been made over the course of one month in 2014) with the help of Cameron Kunzelman (writer, developer, academic, clever person); just last month, a self-described “spooky Halloween teaser” to the project, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler, a fascinating curtain-raiser that promises an equally fascinating concerto to come sometime in 2017.
Really, the best way to describe his approach as a game developer is using one of his own games as an example; Grave Apologies (made as part of his self-described Patreon “experiment”). On its itch.io page, Sherlock said this: “Inspired by walks with my partner through Forest Lawn Cemetery by Frank Olmstead”; that one sentence manages to say so much about Sherlock’s approach as an artist. His fascination with the tangible yet surreal spaces that exist in our memories; how memory and our interpretations therein both abstract the space in our heads; his fascination with architecture and the way he incorporates the structures and the spaces that exist in the real world into an interactive exploratory space in a way that feels natural, effortless even; and the way he uses other people’s works as a jumping-off point, textually (utilising Lovecraft extracts verbatim in TRIHAYWBFRFYH), musically, and spatially.
Just as Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales were able to reappropriate the term ‘notgame’ and turn it into a positive statement of intent, so too has Connor taken the term ‘walking simulator’ (used essentially as a slur word these days) and done the same. After all, who doesn’t like walking? Especially through weird, beautiful, haunting alien landscapes that linger in the mind, or Scottish islands possibly constructed by the mind, or hand-drawn Hamlets that explore the past of probably one of Scotland’s greatest artists, or sun-dappled American vistas tinged with mystery, or the creations of a possibly-real possibly-fictional possibly-both game developer that tell the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand?
I could go on, but then I’d be moving too far away from our subject for today.
“At the end of the day”, Sherlock noted in a recent article on the subject by Killscreen, “I don’t care what we call them if it will get people playing them.”
Enjoy some wonderful, erudite, and insightful answers to some mediocre questions from a pretty brilliant developer (or, in the words of one of those online video game magazines, the “master of the quote-unquote walking sim”), who’s turning a negative term into beautiful, positive art.

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What was it that attracted you making notgames (as coined by Michaël Samyn)?
The first creative things I put on the internet were Let’s Plays that I started making in 2011 on a whim. They weren’t great, but it was fun to learn video editing, and create bizarre new narratives out of the games I played. I started using a lot of copyrighted songs and movie footage which YouTube eventually stamped down on, and instead of going back to playing them straight, I decided to try my hand at actually making a game instead of chopping up footage of somebody else’s and replacing the soundtrack. King of the Wood and Slender are the two that stood out the most and inspired me to start making short story or vignettes-style games in unity, both of which I found through LPers [that stands for ‘Let’s Players’, or ‘players of games on the internet’ for those not in the know].
At about the same time Merritt Kopas, who I was good friends with growing up, was doing great work with LIM and championing the game-mechanic-as-artistic-statement. Even though my own ‘statement’ ended up as having as little traditional game mechanics as possible, knowing somebody in ~real life~ who was doing important, interesting stuff in games definitely gave me the courage boost I needed to put weird stuff out into the wild.

What do you think it is about exploratory works like yours that means that they’re so disparaged by so many? Why is it that they’re labelled “walking simulators”, viewed with contempt, and seen as unfit to stand alongside “real” games? In other words, what the hell is their problem?
Videogames are products that become more complex visually and mechanically to justify always being sold at a premium price. Walking Simulators are purposefully simple mechanically, and often visually since they’re usually made by amateurs or small teams. They are “bad” videogames, and generally only get away with it by being free/cheap. They are also bad Art, since they don’t lend themselves well to galleries or live performances, and are infinitely reproducible. They’re maybe coming close to making good folk art now that the tools to make them are getting easier to access and use, but that is getting swallowed up by “user-created content” in closed ecosystems like Mario Maker. I think Walking Simulators do make great lower-case ‘a’ art though. It’s just that videogames have never much cared about expressing anything personal or political or real, and I would argue still don’t. Our little art-game movement is very small and very insular and very isolated. For most people (often me included), “Indie” still means mindlessly shooting aliens for Points, and not much besides that.

Your “walking simulator a month club” is a decidedly novel usage of Patreon, and an idea I firmly advocate and endorse (I mean, I am a member, after all). However: do you at any point intend to work on a longer form project? And if you do/are already, surely the pressure of having to deliver an operational interactive experience on a monthly basis for sixty people distracts from the creative process?
Thanks for being part of the experiment! Switching on the Patreon page was admitting to myself that I didn’t have the time/money/resources/expertise to make a shelf-ready product. For nearly a year I was trying to cobble together something that I could eventually sell on steam, or pitch as a Kickstarter, but the level of polish I was going after was paralyzing me, and I had nothing to show for my hand-wringing. I probably should have spent that year doing nothing but programming courses, but at the end of the day I’d have just learned a different set of lessons. After going about trying to learn all the various sub-jobs that being a one man band entailed, I realized I was less interested in mechanical elegance and flow, or traditional/cinematic narrative structures, which guts most of what people expect from “games”. The bits of games I’d been trying to emulate – standing on roads between towns in Morrowind gawking at the skybox, or the long, quiet slogs between Nav[igation] points in Mechwarrior 2 – are completely incidental, almost throwaway parts of the whole they’re a part of.
Ditching all that stuff means it’s hard to sell what I’m making as games, and if I can’t sell it, I’ll never be able to do it full time. With Patreon, it feels acceptable to be working on whatever I felt like at the time, without having to worry about title screens and options menus, or worry about whether what I was making fit into accepted notions of videogames or art. It’s nowhere near full-time employment, but it’s holding steady as a weekend gig, and with a bit of luck will keep growing.
The pressure to make something digestible and worthwhile every month is definitely there (I knew that going in, reading about it from other people, but ooooh man the pressure), but it’s good for me! I’ve learned the hard way how to get a good workflow going and how to do creative work when the motivation or inspiration is not necessarily apparent or freewheeling, which is important if this is to ever become a full time job. I’m getting way better way faster than I would loafing about on my own terms, at least at the level design part… the nature of the projects means my programming skills haven’t grown as fast.
As for longer term and more traditionally ‘gamey’ projects, I definitely have a few that I’m dying to make happen, but at the moment I just can’t seem to find the time. I’m happy right now with working to maintain a good life/work/walking simulator balance, and any extra found time at the moment gets absorbed into the walking sims. The pipe dream at the moment is the work and walking simulators become the same thing, then longer form projects can become the hobby.

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Sherlock’s Patreon experiment has yielded fascinating results like As the Fog Burns (pictured above). The ‘walking simulators’ Sherlock delivers to your inbox remain in constant realtime; uninterrupted by action, they are they for you to explore at your leisure. They work for someone who just want five minutes in some alien landscape, or for someone else who wants to spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of the developer’s deceptively simple worlds.

My favourite work of yours is “The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home” (not least because of its brilliant title). It’s bleak, compelling and impactful in all the best ways. How did the idea come to you, and what was the process of development like?
It being my first videogame and going in with no skills whatsoever, I forced myself to keep the game to as few moving parts as I could so that I wouldn’t over-scope. I felt comfortable making music, so it was going to revolve around a piece of music, and I felt comfortable with the terrain editor in unity, so it was going to take place in a field/forest. I was listening to a lot of post-rock and Brian Eno at the time, and wanted to embrace minimalism of the latter, and wanted a bad-ass, overly-long name that tends to go with the former. Until I recorded the music, I was using [the album] Evening Star by [Brian] Eno and [Robert] Fripp as a placeholder [not to be confused with the British communist newspaper of a similar name]. The title came to me out of the blue while walking down the street on the way to take the bus to work, but I immediately recognised it as something worth keeping. I ran with that and started building something around my father’s experience with religion as a kid, merging that with my own childhood experiences exploring Prince Edward Island alone during my family’s yearly summer vacation there.
The Lovecraft element was added later. I wasn’t confident enough in the game to release it without a spoken script, but on the flip side wasn’t confident in my own writing. I was reading Lovecraft and knew that his work was in the public domain, and I decided to use snippets of his as placeholders while testing out ideas. I didn’t expect it to fit very well, but I loved the odd juxtaposition of Lovecraft’s themes with the quasi-religious ones I had been working with. The abstract nature of the game lets people mix the two together as they see fit. The mechanics of the game, namely slowly revealing the otherworldly geometry as you go through the stories, naturally fell into place once I started choosing specific stories to cut up and include.
As I was making it, I tried to embrace the scrappy, freeware nature of the game whenever possible and use it to my advantage. The unity engine had a reputation for being ‘plastic-y’ at the time, and I tried to tie that into the timbre of the music with the moog sounds, and make the square geometry feel almost wet or organic at times.
Being a free to play game, I felt free to be malicious in ways that you couldn’t get away with if I were charging for the experience. The working title became “Evil Proteus”. I wanted the game-as-object to be as violent and unwelcoming as possible, while having the gameplay be smooth and serene. The basic walking around and swaying grass and glossy music was as AAA as I could make it, but everything else was harsh and mean and trashy. The trailer is just a still shot that occasionally jumps to bombast, with a full minute of nothing at the end. The description is just a jumble of letters and something about the world ending in 22 minutes to cause confusion, only to grow into vague alarm when it unfolds to “THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOU HOME” when you open it.
I wanted the emotions felt in the game to bleed out into real life. I tried to keep the player somewhere between being fully lost in the experience of being in a field and accepting their death, and being reminded that this was videogame they were supposed to figure out and ‘win’ but never could. Nothing fades in or out smoothly, it’s constantly jerking the player through load screens, audio starts and stops jarringly, and geometry purposefully slams into existence in front of the player.  The music and terrain were the grounding elements, but trying to run away from the sky-object leads to obviously artificial walls that you can’t get across. Collecting the obvious collectibles only makes the world more sinister and inescapable. Your final moments aren’t a slow fade to black but blinding light and noise followed by being torn to another screen without warning.
I’m toying with releasing a HD remix of sorts for a few bucks on steam/itch (it’s why I haven’t released it on itch.io yet!) but don’t know if I can justify all these malicious and purposefully bad design decisions and feel good about charging money for it. I’m also torn on whether I want to ditch the abridged Lovecraft elements of the game and go back to the original plan of having being purely musical.

Leading on from the above question: would you say you have a specific design philosophy when developing your games or do you just go with the flow?
All of my games are pretty improvisational once I actually start working on them instead of mulling them around in my head. The music is always very free-form and improvised initially, then gone back over for later to editing and layer the short pieces I came up with into the correct length and tone. For the level geometry, I tend to start with a central vista or piece of architecture and work outwards from there, moving around it and adjusting things in a somewhat of a Cézannian fashion.
The exact design goals change from project to project, but I’m usually trying to build up a particular emotion, and let the player stew in it. I often do this by using a lot of dead or negative space, allowing the player’s mind to wander in the long slogs between goals/set pieces. I’ve heard a number of times that “good design” is giving the player something new to focus on or task to complete or corner to turn every 6 seconds, or they will lose interest in what they’re doing. That always sounded kind of desperate to me? I want my games to allow for self-reflection and personal thought in the same way looking at a painting or listening to a piece of instrumental music would, and it’s hard for that to happen naturally if you’re drip feeding distractions to centre a player’s attention.

What is it you’re hoping to accomplish with the upcoming remake of Marginalia that you didn’t accomplish the first time around?
Honestly, I’m still all fucked up about charging money for stuff, and giving it a nice paint job and some options menus will go a long way towards making me feel comfortable about it. I’m hoping to turn Marginalia from looking like an N64 game to as close to modern AAA as I can.
Cameron and I had been talking about making a thing together since the release of Catachresis and TRIHAYWBFRFYH, after he tweeted something to the tune of “hey if anybody need a writer for a game hit me up”. After almost a year of not getting anything off the ground (I kept on getting distracted by game jams), we decided to whip something up quickly for Halloween. While I’m happy with the end result, Marginalia was built off the cuff in a few weekends, with the old free version of unity that gated a lot of the fun graphical stuff. I decided last minute to charge money for it, just to dip my toes in the water – everything else I had made was free of charge. Submitting it to [Steam] Greenlight was the same. I figured if it got through it was worth revisiting, and giving it the love I wish I had time for originally. It took a while, but I’ve gotten a lot better at making spooky forests since then, so it’s worked out nicely.

house-on-fire-1

Made in collaboration with Cameron Kunzelman, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler is, in its creators’ own words, “a short game where you walk through the forest”. With a burning house thrown in for good measure.

If you don’t mind me saying, you’re one hell of a musician, but most of the work you release is scores for your games. Would you consider dedicating yourself to a musical project for music’s sake?
Thanks! I occasionally get the urge to get a band together (though no desire to do live shows, stage fright is the worst), or do a Perturbator-esque concept album, but the budget for these ideas get really bloated really quick. I’d need to buy new instruments, real synths, proper mics, etc. for me to feel ‘legit’. Whether I actually ever get around to making an album is up in the air though, it’s competing with wanting to start brewing and pickling, and making Warhammer 40,000 terrain buildings out of concrete to sell on Etsy.

Who would you say are the best, most groundbreaking developers currently active at the moment, and why?
You didn’t say game developers, so I’m going to say Leaf Corcoran and the team behind itch.io, and Cross and company at Gamejolt. They are the roomy pots full of earthy soil that are letting indie games grow heathy and large.

What would you say are the most important games ever made, and why?
This question is mean! I’ve been completely unable to come up with an answer that I find in any way acceptable. My joke answer is Ecco the Dolphin [there is nothing funny about Ecco the Dolphin, slayer of the Vortex Queen, Connor; you should know this].

What was the last videogame you played, and did you enjoy/appreciate the experience?
During the Steam Summer Sale I bought Horizons, the expansion to Elite: Dangerous that lets you land on atmosphere-less planets. I finally fired it up, and they pulled off the generated terrain flawlessly, and it looks gorgeous from orbit to being on the ground.  It gets the magnificent desolation right. It’s the infinite-Mako-experience I was hoping it would be – unlike everybody else, I thought the Mako sections in [the first] Mass Effect were great! They made the galaxy feel like a real, explorable place instead of a series of set pieces. Unlike Mass Effect, Elite actually does have a huge universe, but it felt a little disconnected from itself not being able to visit any of the places you see, save space stations. This goes a long way towards fixing that problem. Now all I want to get out of my ship and hang out in the space station bars.

Leading on from the above question, what would you say are your favourite games you’ve played this year are, and why? (They don’t necessarily need to have been released this year, if that helps)
The Long Dark! Holy moly have I lost a lot of time to this game. It transitions wonderfully from a tense fight for your life against the elements, pillaging the remains of civilization into a serene hunter-gatherer existence built on routine and preparation. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from their use of the unity engine and its terrain system, and how they design large levels in general.
Metal Gear Solid V! It’s somehow a wondrous remix of my two favourite Ubisoft Clint Hocking games: Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I like that your wolf friend can’t kill people until you buy it a knife.
I’ve also been finally making my way through Dark Souls, after dropping it for nearly a year after hitting Blighttown. I am a cleric with a +9 Divine Claymore in Lost Izaleth named Odrade and having a blast. I’m in it for all the interconnected levels and twisty architecture and it is not disappointing.

Have a non-game-related question: is the biggest problem facing the world right now, and what can we do about it (if anything)?
Tightening borders and isolationism. Vote against it, I guess… [Judging by recent events in both my country and beyond, it would appear that people DIDN’T GET THE MEMO]

To conclude: you are to be stranded on a desolate rock in the middle of the Atlantic by a bunch of way-not-cool pirates. For some reason known only to themselves they’ve allowed you to take one film, one book, one album, one video game and one other item along with you. Which of each do you bring, and why?
MovieBrazil. I’d feel happier about being deserted and alone.
BookThomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. Or the Dark Tower series [by the relatively obscure Mr. Stephen King] because I’d want something I haven’t read before.
Album“Heroes” by David Bowie: probably the best album by probably the best musician of the 20th century. Side A is great pop songs, side B is great ambient tunes.
GameCrusader Kings II: tons of replayability with emergent medieval soap opera dramas
Item – Maybe a telescope? A good one, so I could see planets. Being able to set fires and look for passing ships is a bonus.

*

You can download Connor’s wonderful interactive pieces HERE
And follow him on Twitter HERE
You can also join his Walking Simulator a Month Club HERE, to support the continued production of his “propaganda pretending to be art”.
You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, though to be perfectly honest I don’t know why you’d want to. Not because I’m not an excellent tweeter (which I’m not, but that’s beside the point), but rather because Twitter is an angry fascist garbage fire run by people who seem to like it that way.  Still, follow Connor though.
Thanks for reading; do please check out Connor’s work, any other articles on this website that might interest you, and lastly, have a lovely day!

An interview: Jack King-Spooner

The collected games of Scottish independent game developer Jack King-Spooner are among some of the most unique, original, daring, gripping, fantastical and dreamlike ever made. Each of his works (from Will You Ever Return to Mitt Romney and the Case of the Sex Doll) are imbued with a genuine creative spirit, and each is better than the last; he’s built his career off of constantly surprising his audience and challenging its expectations. To me, the current high point was his last game, Beeswing.
Beeswing was a beautiful, striking, offbeat and powerfully moving autobiographical depiction of his titular home town in which he explored such themes as childhood, loss, the ageing process, television’s effect on people and, most prominently, memory.
I cannot state enough how much Beeswing means to me. I love it. I love it I love it I love it, so much, so very very much. There was never a dull moment, never a moment that didn’t move me, shock me, surprise me. I could’ve taken a screenshot of any moment in the game and framed it on my wall – in fact, you could say the same for all of King-Spooner’s games. It’s a game that means so very much to me, and it’s one that deserved far more attention than it received, considering how it, y’know, blows pretty much every other game out of the water in terms of sheer artistry and maturity (with a few exceptions).
Jack’s currently seeking funding via Kickstarter for his newest work, entitled Dujanah. A nonlinear, clay-punk exploration of the idea of revenge (namely in how and why it manifests itself), the game promises to be another truly fascinating game from a truly independent indie developer, and perhaps the culmination of all of his talents thus far. He himself believes it’ll probably be the best thing he’s ever made, and I see no reason to doubt that. I mean, how often do you come across a Claymation videogame with an Islamic female main character that explores mature themes in a mature way?
“Never” is the answer to that question.
Not until now, anyway.
I sat down to talk with Jack (in the figurative sense) about Dujanah, politics and the merits of free games.

Imagine I know nothing about you or your game, and answer me this: what is Dujanah?
It is a video game where you get to explore a grungy, tactile world made from clay and paintings. You play as Dujanah, who is out to find answers, and on your journey you will encounter all sorts of strange characters, moral dilemmas and fantastical situations.

What are your own views on politics, religion and the usage of violence to both instigate societal change and as a source of vengeance, and how have they influenced Dujanah?
Politically I am pretty centre-left to full-on left; I voted SNP, but it was a toss up between them and the Green party. I find politicians pretty dull, and most conversations about politics more often than not sound like two walls shouting at each other. I was brought up in a secular environment, being taken out of primary school nativity plays and prayers and the like, and as a result I find religion fascinating. I follow some Mahayana Buddhist practices but I wouldn’t regard myself as anything other than an agnostic.
In terms of the use of violence, I’m not a pacifist but I do believe that most recent military interventions have been destructive illegal messes; I protested the Iraq war alongside 72% of fellow Scots. I have to say that I do think the Scottish Army has done some pretty important work, particularly in Afghanistan. Violence in terms of vengeance is a terrible idea and only ever leads to exacerbated suffering.
I’m not sure how these views have influenced Dujanah. I think there is perhaps a focus on the areas I find difficult, the views on violence, for example, somehow tie into the subverted hero narrative, dying/ killing for a cause whatever the intention. I find criticising religion and politics rather uninteresting really compared to telling odd, morally ambiguous parables.

You’re a man of many talents, Jack. Outside of making games, you’ve proven yourself to be both an accomplished musician and artist. What was it then that attracted you to the world of game development? What have games got that other mediums lack?
From Janice Galloway to Don DeLillo, from Lynch to Kieslowski, the narratives I love have always romanced the idea of non-linearity. When I came to thinking about making a piece with strong autobiographical elements, I felt that I wanted to make it in a medium that embraced non-linear stories. Beeswing started as monologues for a contemporary theatre piece but I soon realised that a game would be a better way to tell it, and a better document. I don’t think games have anything in particular that other mediums lack; they are simply another medium. They do have a way of courting those with short attention spans a little better than a book or an installation though.

You’ve turned to Kickstarter in order to fund your last two games, and have also turned to Patreon in search for more consistent monetary support. You’re hardly alone in this approach; many of your peers and friends also use the same avenues, as they are seemingly the only place where creators such of yourself can hope to find anything even vaguely resembling funding. Do you think the large amount of people who turn to such methods (yourself included) do so out of reliance or preference (or both), and do you believe that more could be done to support independent game creators, and indeed independent artists in general?
I honestly think things are getting better and better for independent game creators. Of course things aren’t perfect, but four years ago I never would have dreamed that I would have a game on Steam. I think the most interesting voices in independent games are interesting because they don’t have monetary gain temptations. Sadly the reality is that money enables things to get made and when making longer pieces the choice is either to designate all my free time to game making, to the detriment of my mental and physical health, or to ask for funding. The crowd funding was largely in preference to asking for arts funding which comes from the tax payer, I like that with Patreon, Indiegogo and Kickstarter the funds come from people who want to support games. I supported a VR game about dolphins cheating in a high school test. I’m not sure if the average tax payer would happily support that. Also, would that even get government funding?

Who would you say are the best developers currently working in games today, and why?
So many cool developers. Stephen TheCatamites is the best because his games are like finding a toffee whilst scratching an itch. All the freeware developers are the best. It is honestly a privilege to play every game on Gamejolt. I like developers who work by themselves on smaller projects; they are the best.

What was the last videogame that you played, and did you enjoy the experience?
The Witcher 3 was the last game I played. My partner is Polish and I lived a while in Poland so the game really resonates with me. I keep thinking it will be boring but it keeps grabbing my interest. I find it hard to comprehend how much work must have one into it.

Many developers express the belief that the game industry is still extremely far behind other mediums such as film in terms artistic merit. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so, what do you believe it is that’s holding the medium back?
Yeah, games often have a different aim, going for fun and immersion rather than meaning and form. It just takes time, I guess.

You are to be stranded on a desert island. You are, for a reason that eludes me, permitted to take with you one book, one film, one album, one videogame and one item just for yourself. Which of each do you bring?
Underworld by Don DeLillo, The Decalogue by Kieslowski, the complete Goldberg Variations, Dark Souls by From Software and some musical instrument; a piano maybe, or a pipe organ.

In case you didn’t get the message by now, you should seriously back Dujanah on Kickstarter right now. Seriously. Back it. Now
Follow Jack on Twitter HERE.
Visit his website HERE.
Back Dujanah HERE.
And follow me on Twitter HERE. That is, if you’re fond of making poor life choices.
Thanks for reading. Back Dujanah, and have a nice day. Don’t back Dujanah, and have a mediocre one. Your choice.

An Interview: Llaura Dreamfeel

Llaura Dreamfeel is a fascinatingly distinct voice in independent game development. Her work (which is deeply underrated) can be strange, dark, moving, witty and unearthly (sometimes all at once), and is quite unlike anything else out there. Though she’s only been making games for a short time compared to some of the other people I’ve talked to, she has without a doubt made her mark. Whenever you boot up one of her creations you can expect something totally unpredictable, original, and memorable. Her work just feels handcrafted, and in some cases is handcrafted, as is the case with her game Train Song. She’s made several great works, but it was last year that I believe she well and truly hit her stride with Curtain, a pixelated nightmare of noise and colour that depicted in unremitting detail the overbearing and destructive effect an abusive partner can have on an individual.
In the game, you the player are a woman trapped in a relationship with Kaci, a woman who uses and abuses you, a woman who alternates from loving you and totally depending on you to callously disregarding you and dismissing you. Kaci is never seen in Curtain. Not even once. Her presence is represented by a text box, a huge, overbearing and intrusive text box that dominates the screen, and never goes away, even when nothing is being said; you can’t escape from it, or from what Kaci is saying within it. You, the player, are forced to read from it. I shan’t go into more detail because there’s a point in this interview where this aspect is addressed, but believe me when I say that the absence of a physical representation of Kaci doesn’t detract in the slightest from the fear she brings. Kaci wasn’t a monster, at least not in the traditional sense. She was a human being. A broken, nasty, abusive, controlling, terrifying and unpredictable human being, yes, but aren’t there so many people like that? Out there in the world, the real world, there are so many people like her, so many people causing so much pain.
That was the true potent power of Curtain, and if you think I’m banging on about it, that’s because I am. Because before you read what Llaura had to say, I want you to understand her creations, and why I wanted so badly to sit down and talk to her (via email, admittedly, but you get the point). She’s a highly intelligent and talented individual, and throughout this interview she was nothing if not eloquent, intelligent and witty, and she was generally just a lovely person to work with. Even if there are some points on which I disagree with her. But enough of me! Join me as I talk to Llaura Dreamfeel about video game exceptionalism, UI design, Horrible Screaming Murderers and a bunch of other things as well.

Curtain is my favourite of your works for many reasons, but one reason in particular that stands out to me is in the way you depict the player-character’s abusive partner. Instead of showing them in the flesh, their presence is highlighted instead by invasive and emotionally abusive comments shown in text boxes. To me, anyway, the character is given more presence by their seeming omnipotence; you can’t escape from those text boxes, basically. What was it that inspired you to go down this route, and do you think you pulled it off effectively?
That was the point at which I knew I had a game! Curtain was something that had been brewing for a while. I wanted to make a first person game in this vein, and I had been working on the story actively for a bit more than a month, trying to express particular feelings, but it was still missing something to tie it all together. This insight and the last part of the story came as a pair, and I knew I had an experience that could work.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint any decision but I can mention a couple of things which led to it. The game is in a bunch of ways partly a subversion of immersive sims and a lot of the early ones had these big dirty UIs filling your view. I loved how cramped the screen was. Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy did something similar in a bunch of games like Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan and Horrible Screaming Murderer IV, and he used this to play around with the narrator. I was also thinking about how I could tell a story with another character at the same time, rather than in the past again like nearly all embedded narratives. There’s no way I could model or simulate a person. Then I realized the textbox could be perfect, it could be an ever present, disembodied character and narrator. I could use my biggest weakness as my best advantage.
At the same time I was thinking a lot about structure. I realized I could have the textbox appear at the end but empty. That is the possibility for Kaci’s voice to return is hanging there for a few minutes, that it never quite goes away. This was super intentional and really important for what I wanted to get across with Curtain, the lasting effects of abuse. Only a few people have commented on this directly, but I think this call-back has an unconscious effect on people. With that the direction was settled. It’s up to others how effective it ultimately was, but I’m happy with it as a form. That, along with the time aspect, has actually made me fairly loathe to make another first person game with an “embedded narrative”. I feel like I killed that trope pretty well.

Train Song is such a weird, wonderful little game, and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and probably will ever play again (interactive stop motion-animated epistemological timed trained experiences aren’t exactly dime-a-dozen). Where did the idea for that particular project come from? Also, it having been made in collaboration with Dave McCabe, who did what on that project, development wise?
I think the initial idea was a cartoon Dave found of a bunch of people crammed into a train (went back and found it: https://twitter.com/MClendaniel/status/420571078306435072), and for some reason he wanted to make a game about that somehow. GGJ was coming up, so we met in a pub, The Hairy Lemon, to discuss it. The core idea of Train Song – as a train journey of a certain length you will have to play over and over to see everything – came out of that. I was super into the idea of games like pieces of music that you could dip in/out of but that it would play itself regardless and could score moments of someone’s life. We wanted to make the game in a day and to make all the art (neither of us were artists) out of physical materials (after a bit of discussion of art styles).
On the day (in Dave’s flat) Dave wrote half the characters and made half of them out of clay, as well the clay border guard. I probably did some of the adventure game programming that day, but I mostly got carried away with the sudden idea of making the intro film from found footage, which was really enjoyable. We were talking to Ronan Quigley (the game’s composer and sound designer) remotely from Dundee at silly hours in the morning the night before and that night, for music. Over the next 5/6 weeks it was mostly me finishing the game and created the background & train art from coloured paper. I wrote the second half of characters (the more verbose ones! And the ones with more custom things, like the one that links to the first-person segment) and Dave wrote a couple more bits and pieces like the conversations in the carriages you can’t see into, and Ronan did more sound.
The game was a bit of an experiment. I was starting to realize a lot of stuff about videogames and making them beforehand. This was the first time I put a lot of that into practice. I wanted to make the gameplay as simple & non-existent as possible and instead within a strong structure put the emphasis on characters and the writing, and creating lots and lots of flavour.

It’s common for many game developers to say that they make games because they can accomplish things that they simply could not in any other medium. What is it in particular that attracted you to that particular field? What can you accomplish in video games that simply isn’t possible in any other medium?
That’s a tricksy question. I guess that’s the end of the easy questions about my work!
So, I really don’t think much of video game exceptionalism, the idea that we should focus on what makes videogames different from other media or that videogames are the one true medium and in the darkness bind them. We’ve seen the same thing with film for example, where people got obsessed with the edit for a short while, but to focus on one aspect above all others totally misses the bigger picture. Video games, like every medium, are a phenomenological blend of senses. What matters is how they mix.
Take Twine, which is often compared to CYOA (that’s short for “choose your own adventure”, in case you were wondering). What’s interesting isn’t choice. Very few of the noted Twine games have much real choice. But the interaction does make a huge difference, it’s another way to express flavour to the audience. It gives you pacing and involvement. That feeling of involvement might not be so different from an engrossing film, but it’s also unique to the specific form of use.
So what makes videogames unique is their specific blend of senses. That completely depends on every videogame and what that particular videogame emphasizes. I like to see the lines between film, music, videogames, poetry, etc, etc as incredibly blurry, and I usually find the most interesting stuff near those boundaries because they are less explored.
Rather than grand sweeping statements, memorized and drilled into us as rote, what I like about videogames at any time is what I’m usually trying to explore at that time. For example last year, I was very interested in creating discongruent textures, combinations of audio, visuals, writing that work at cross purposes and that resulted in Curtain.
Videogames allow us to do different things than other media, not better or worse ones. If anything I make videogames because I think there’s a lot of room for interesting work that isn’t being done. All I can see are unexplored possibilities.

Can you identify any drawbacks with the medium of video games; any unique problems that simply aren’t present in, for example, cinema or literature?
Production! I think video game making as it stands is too finicky and slow and breaks too easily. We spend far too much on things that shouldn’t matter, and what we make isn’t easily and quickly changeable. What’s the equivalent of a jazz band improvising music on stage? I want videogames that break in interesting ways when you make them. Rather than just not running, and needing to be debugged endlessly, make something happen. More analogue. In other less solely digital pursuits it’s easy for happy accidents to find their way in. Videogames emphasize the creator and the design doc far too much. I want to be able to make a game as intuitively and easily as playing music.

This one’s sort of related to the above question: many game developers (including a few I’ve spoken to in the past) have complained that there’s a fundamental lack of progress in video games, and that games have yet to become an art form on par with the rest. Do you subscribe to this particular belief, and, if so, what do you think is the main problem that’s holding games back?
It’s definitely not any kind of technological or design challenge. This question is often associated with “IN THE FUTURE… GAMES WILL BE AMAZING”. This is a kind of techno-utopianism that excuses the way things are right now. We have had great games, and we have great games right now. Some of the most exciting creations in the world are coming out of video games. And we have had incredible games since games first started being made, like Deus Ex Machina (by Mel Croucher of Automata) in 1984. What new breakthroughs/technologies/paradigms give us are simply NEW possibilities, not better/worse ones.
What’s “holding us back” is that we need more people who can write well for video games. To have more really good video games we need to have more really good video game writers. It’s as simple as that. I’d like to see more people consider the structure of what they’re doing. Of course diversity is really important too. We need more diversity of material and theme, but most of all diversity of creators, in background sure, but also diversity of their life experience. The biggest road blocks are the assumptions of what videogames are and who they are for, as promoted by commercialisation of the form since the beginning.

Many game developers whose creations are decidedly niche have turned to Patreon or one-time crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter as a way to pay the bills and to support their endeavours. Do you ever see yourself going down that particular path?
Yes, it’s definitely a possibility. I would like to find the right projects that I’m committed to, rather than just doing it. For example, I would really love to do a Patreon where I’m travelling for a year and each month collaborating with another person on a small game, and sharing the Patreon with them (a good idea, and one practised to great effect by Jordan Magnusson with his “Gametrekking” project). Or even more specific than that, I could release one graphic adventure made from clay every blue moon. Perhaps when I finish my current main project I’ll think about something like this.
I don’t like ‘decidedly niche’. Niche in terms of the typical audience of video games maybe, but often more appealing to a general audience. ‘Decidedly’ implies people have a choice also. That someone could make money if they just made what the widest audience wants, but that’s a bit of an illusion. At present it doesn’t seem like there’s much room to support many more creators even if they make the most mainstream video game work possible.
That’s why I think it’s really important that these alternate channels for helping make a living from video games exist. If we want to see different kinds of things that what we have, we need to support different ways of making art.

Since I’ve always asked interviewees what their favourite games were in the past, I’d thought I’d try something a little bit different this time round. Here goes: what is the greatest flaw in one (or more) of your favourite games of all time?
I don’t really know if I have favourite games of all time. That question is very loaded with a specific set of culturally correct answers I can’t really relate to anymore as an adult. The work that means a lot to me and I think is special, like Space Funeral, or Dys4ia, or Rat Chaos, I can’t really apply consumer-ish criteria to them, such as ‘improvements’. What would you do to the roof of the Sistine Chapel? It is what it is.
An easier question might be what I’d do differently if I made it, if I wrote Crime & Punishment what might be different, rather than trying to guess the author’s intention. With (thecatamites’) 50 Short Games I think it would have had more impact if they all came out at once, but maybe I’m wrong.

(Keeping this question because I’m always interested to hear the answer) Who would you say are the best game developers currently working at the moment, and why?
I think it’s most important to look beyond video games for influence, and increasingly I don’t really look to emulate anyone else at all anymore. But if you were to ask me last year I wouldn’t hesitate before I mentioned thecatamites & David Kanaga.
– Stephen Murphy – marries a fathomless and innate understanding of videogames, effortlessly juxtaposing scenes and interaction together, with well-read, wicked writing and language. Strangely empathetic and deeply affecting.
– David Kanaga – composer, game designer, and philosopher. His work on game feel and the music of play and interaction gives me chills. Of course special mention should go to his amazing collaborators like Ed Key & Fernando Ramallo, but mentioning both himself and Stephen for their writing as well as their games.
I would say the above two (polar opposites in obvious ways but brethren in less obvious ways) for me make the most interesting work in games today. Both of them operate very far outside the norms of traditional game making culture.
I haven’t found people who’ve grabbed me as much as them in video games, but there are a lot of others doing really interesting work right now and redefining what games can be like: Stephen Lavelle (form), Porpentine (flavour), Nina Freeman (poetry), Tale of Tales (subject matter), Ben Esposito (style), Squinky (conversation), Anna Anthropy (voice), Robert Yang (sexuality), Merritt Kopas (touch), Holly Gramazio (play & creativity)… Maybe things aren’t so bad!

Would you say you have a particular design philosophy or aim when making games, or do you just go with the proverbial flow?
Oh, totally.
When applied to what we do I dislike the word design! It implies objectivity and ‘good’ design is possible, that somehow you could imagine the platonic form of a perfect game. So rather than assuming everyone is going for the same aims, I think it makes sense to consider whether what you make achieves whatever idiosyncratic aim you personally have. With that in mind, my approach very much depends on the game and what I want to achieve. I’m always evolving so my philosophy is too, and each game is very much an expression of where I was at the time. I believe thinking about things differently is important if you don’t want to repeat yourself or others.
I could make some blanket statements… like that the rules of a game / 30 seconds of fun most people talk about it with regards to games is the *least* important part of interaction, not least because it’s what everyone else obsesses over. That both the kinaesthetic, second to second stuff of how a game feels, and the 20 minute/play session stuff of structure and larger movements, are both more important. Generally though, it makes more sense for me to talk about philosophy in relation to each game, for example Curtain was really influenced by considering the phenomenological texture of the game and how the different elements, sound/art/UI/text all play off each other. Its ending is read by some people as really sad and others as really upbeat. There’s a strong tension between the music and the text and also the prior contexts. It doesn’t resolve easily, so it may stick with people a bit more.
At the moment I’m really considering my process a lot. How what we create is shaped by our processes. I’m trying to create a space where I can make decisions more quickly and be more open to outside influences and chance. This includes working with physical materials, and lots of self-imposed deadlines and leaving space to reflect after the fact. I want to be able to introduce as much opportunity for serendipity and happy accidents as I can.

You are to be stranded on a desert island by a malevolent cavalcade of pirates. For whatever reason, they’ve allowed you to bring one film, one book, one album and one video game along with you. Which of each do you bring?
Let’s put aside the obvious choice of anything that lets me create, like rpgmaker/zzt, a notebook, etc etc, or clever answers to help me escape (Looking at you, Nicky Case), and pick actual complete works by other people.
– Film – The New World. This film, both cuts, is so beautiful. It creates a strange beguiling rhythm of time. Not unlike Tarkovsky but more Hallmark and dip in/out-able. Or maybe I could go with The Decalogue and remind myself of the breadth of humanity.
– Book – The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes & Seamus Heaney. This is an eclectic and impressive collection of poetry I’ve had since I was a teenager. Although maybe I should take the opportunity to read Remembrance of Things Past. Or perhaps Nevada, about a queer woman in NY, so I can remind myself I’m real.
– Album – Music for 18 Musicians (by Steve Reich). I haven’t listened to it as much recently, but this piece soothes my soul. Although maybe I would go a little loopy listening to it forever and I should opt for something like the ambient recording of a 6 hour train journey.
– Video game – I think I’ve mentioned it enough, so let’s say Space Funeral. It’s clearly the work of a 21 year old, but that’s part of its charm. I would be happy to potter about its worlds for a while. Also for the past few days I’ve been playing a lot of Panoramical by Fernando Ramallo & David Kanaga, then just staring into the distance. It’s pretty amazing. I think it would make not seeing anyone ever again kinda okay.

You can follow Llaura on Twitter HERE.
You can visit her website HERE.
Annnnd you can follow me on Twitter HERE.
Thank you for reading! Do please check out Llaura’s work if you have the time, and have a nice day, wherever you may be!

An Interview: Nicky Case

I was quite the prolific Newgrounds user at an early age. When I got home from Primary School, more often than not I would boot up my parents’ computer and binge play flash games for hours. From Alice is Dead to Haunt the House to No Time To Explain, I spent a lot of my youthful years playing weird flash games that have forever stuck in my mind. One series of games that left perhaps the most lasting impression however was Nicky Case’s :The Game: series, a trilogy of silly, violent and sarcastic interactive things that made fun of politics, the internet and, yes, video games. Despite the fact that they aren’t as proud of it as they once were, the :The Game: series put Case on the map.
They continued to make flash-based games for a while before launching their biggest project yet: a crowdfunded anti-stealth game about internet surveillance called Nothing To Hide. Launched on a custom crowdfunding site not dissimilar to Patreon, the game was able to raise the required funds, partly due to their previous Newgrounds fame, and partly because of an interactive blog post that detailed an aspect of the game’s coding entitled Sight & Light. Although they had now begun work on NTH, he found his interests in game design and what they wanted to make soon began to change.
Recently, their work has gone from being traditionally “gamey” to something else entirely, rejecting traditional game mechanics and structure in order to deliver different sorts of messages.
Case proved their worth as a storyteller with the blisteringly real and fiercely powerful Coming Out Simulator, the IGF-nominated “half-true game about half-truths” that detailed Case’s experiences of coming out as bisexual to their extremely conservative parents, and the subsequent fallout (in my opinion, it’s their finest work). Following on from, they developed the adorable yet powerful Parable of the Polygons, an “explorable explanation” about collective bias, made in collaboration with Vi Hart. Both works were picked up and talked about at length by many major publications. It seemed Case had finally figured out what kinds of games they wanted to make, which was confirmed by the recent cancellation of the crowdfunded project that set the dominoes in motion, refunding backers and promising to make a game about the same topic, albeit in a completely different way than was first intended, fully reflecting the new direction that they have now found themselves going in.
Over their career they have amassed a loyal following, as well as having worked with several notable industry figured and having a successful Patreon campaign (OBLIGATORY DISCLOSURE: I’m a patron of theirs. I was also an NTH backer. Sorry. A thousand pardons. My corruption levels are SKY HIGH).
Join me as I talk to Nicky Case about notgames, procedural rhetoric, and dragons.

Do you think you’ll ever want to return to the crowdfunding platform to find funds for a future project, and do you think you’ll ever want to make a project the size of Nothing to Hide ever again?
As for crowdfunding, I really do still believe in it. In fact, the pledging-in-parts mechanism I used for Nothing To Hide‘s crowdfunding campaign actually proved its own worth, ironically, by the project failing. Because pledging-in-parts was meant to mitigate risk for the backer, should I not deliver all the goods.
So, I think crowdfunding-in-small-pieces is probably the way to go, which is why I’ve been happily on Patreon for the last few months! I just hit 100 patrons a while back (now at 111 at the time of writing). I probably won’t do a large all-or-nothing campaign, like a Kickstarter, for a long time, though. And if I ever do attempt another project on the scale of Nothing To Hide, it will be with a much larger team, rather than just literally me for art + code + design + pretty much everything else.

In a blog post released earlier this year you revealed that you’d temporarily put your project “Riot Cop Selfies” on hold. Considering recent occurrences, do you see yourself returning to the project anytime soon?
Probably not, mostly because I think the message would be better served in an Explorable Explanation than a traditional videogame (this is also partially the reason why I’m ending Nothing To Hide).
Besides, the mechanic of Riot Cop Selfies is fundamentally about the camera, and while that’s a really interesting and socially important dynamic, it’s a very small part of the larger systemic issues regarding police militarization in the US.

What can you tell us about any future projects?
So right now, I’m working on an augmented reality game that messes with your face in real-time. Here’s a GIF of that.
After that, I want to focus a lot more on Explorable Explanations. Right now, I have working prototypes for an Explorable on neurons & learning, and another one on privacy & context collapse. (which I gave a sneak preview in my Goodbye Newsletter to NTH backers!) I have many other topics planned for Explorables, but I don’t want to over-promise stuff.
(Also, for the last 5 days, I’ve been really tempted to make an Every Frame A Painting-like series for the craft of play design?)

Your recent “explorable explanation” about collective bias (Parable of the Polygons) was made in collaboration with the talented Vi Hart. Out of curiosity, who did what in that collaboration? Was it as simple as one did coding and the other did writing, or was there crossover?
Other than code, (which was all me) there was a lot of crossover in art and writing. She actually designed all the in-between-text playable segments. And my favorite: she designed the puzzle where you have to bring all the polygon-people together (resulting in confetti)!

The last people I interviewed (Tale of Tales) recently announced that due to the commercial failure of their most recent release, Sunset, they are bowing out of the commercial market? What are your thoughts on this occurrence, and how do you think it relates to the games market as a whole?
First, huh. I had no idea that Michaël (Samyn) of Tale of Tales coined the word “notgame”. (which my :The Game: series has been described as multiple, multiple times.)
Second, huh. I totally missed the recent news about Sunset. I’ve been nose-to-the-grindstone in the last two weeks over my face-messing-up game, since I’ve got a deadline for it.
I’m reading their post-mortem on Sunset right now, and I’m thinking, wow, I totally dodged a bullet with Nothing To Hide. Because I can so painfully relate to the goal they attempted, “making a game for gamers”. Which was exactly what I was doing with Nothing To Hide, going through the whole… ritual… of indie gamedev. From the crowdfunding campaign w/ demo, to getting press on all the big sites, to the promise of Steam Greenlight and everything, to make a four-hour mechanically-engaging indie game where you’re a lone hero in a dystopian world, yada yada, so on and so forth.
As for how it relates to the games market, I think Chris Crawford said it best 20 years ago in his Dragon Speech (paraphrasing):
“What the customers want is depth. What I want is breadth.”
20 years later, Crawford’s quote still resonates today. Thought I guess every entertainment industry has that conflict between artists wanting to explore the medium, versus customers who want more of the same.

Are there any video games that you hold in higher regard than all the others?
Oh, wow. This is a hard question because I don’t rank things on a single dimension, from 1 to 10, from bad to good. I use several scales when measuring something, and even then I consciously know I’m oversimplifying.
In any case, here’s five games/interactive experiences I consider masterpieces:
-Telltale’s The Walking Dead, for its new approach to interactive narrative design, and punching me in the feels.
Portal (1 & 2) is a masterclass in puzzle mechanic design, going from depth over breadth.
The End Of Us is proof you can tell a powerful story solely with play, using minimal visuals/audio, and no words at all.
Papers, Please for merging gameplay with narrative.
Thirty Flights of Loving is groundbreaking for so many reasons I can’t even list right now.

Who in your opinion are the best game developers currently working today?
Anna Anthropy is at the top of my list! Dys4ia meant a lot to me, and was the game that gave me the courage to publish Coming Out Simulator. But on top of that, Anna Anthropy’s writings show she has a deep and solid grasp of game design, she examines games in a way I’d never seen before, and each one of her games is a self-contained game design experiment. (Triad is my favorite – a puzzle game with level progression yet only one levelHOW?!)
Also, I gotta praise Telltale Games and Simogo. They make consistently great and groundbreaking interactive experiences.

Looking back, which one of your projects are you the most proud of?
So, I’m one of those people whose pride in a piece of work quickly diminishes over time. Creative peeps tend to be their own worst critics. The more time after I’ve already released a project, the more I realize I could have done in hindsight. But that’s good! Because now I do those things in a new project. And the cycle repeats forever.
Anyway, right now I’m the most proud of Parable of the Polygons. But that’s most likely because it’s the most recent project I’ve actually done. When my next game or Explorable comes out, I’ll probably be most proud of that.

You are to be abandoned on a desert island by a scheming cabal of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed to bring one film, one book, one album and one video game along with you. What do you bring?
I’m going to be an asshole, and say I’ll bring some mobile game that has geolocation and a post-to-social-networks feature, so I can get rescued.

Your original flash-based “the game” series is was thrust you into the spotlight. Those games were very political in nature, and expressed many observations about life and game systems. How much have your opinions on all of the above changed since you made that series?
You know how I just said I become far less proud of something over time?
I have really mixed feelings on the :The Game: trilogy. Because I feel it was all fake. It had the same amount of cleverness and wit as a newspaper political cartoon or JibJab video, and yes, I was very hooked on both political cartoons and JibJab videos at the time I made :The Game:. I wasn’t really making insightful observations, I was just taking whatever I found on Wikipedia and presenting it in the silliest (and/or most violent) way possible.

Eh, maybe I’m just being too harsh on myself.

But like I also said, realizing all the things I could have done better in hindsight, drives my future projects. In fact, you could already kind of see this in Reimagine :The Game:. At the time, I felt like an impostor with the first two :The Game: installments because they didn’t have any actual game mechanics, they were all relying on crude humour and parody. Reimagine :The Game: was my first real foray into good game mechanics! (My next game, Gap Monsters, a negative-space sliding puzzle game, is still the game mechanic I’m most proud of making, coz it’s so mindfucky)
Now, all my thoughts on how to do social/political critique better has gone into my work on Explorable Explanations!
But even now, I’m still thinking about what could I have done better. For example, I’m starting to have doubts about Explorables & procedural rhetoric. My mentor Bret Victor recently emailed me, saying the real power in Explorables isn’t to put forth an argument, but to let the reader argue back. Bret proposed that I shouldn’t just focus on rhetoric, but also anti-rhetoric.
It’s a cycle. It’s always been a cycle. And the cycle will continue.

You can follow Nicky on Twitter HERE.
You can also check their website HERE.
You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, if you so desire.

Thanks for reading! Do please check out Nicky’s work, and have a nice day!

An Interview: Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales

Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn themselves. They’d go far in the modelling industry if their games stop selling.

Tale of Tales is perhaps the most unique and divisive developer currently working in games today. Founded in 2002 by husband and wife team Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, this Belgium-based developer seeks to push the boundaries of what games can be, with co-founder Samyn stating that they create their own works out their frustration with how little they believe games to have evolved. Their games have attracted praise and scorn in equal measure, with the duo seeming to take particular delight in the negative criticisms they receive (evidence of which you will find in the interview below).
They’ve been accused of making games that “aren’t games”, or making “overly arty” and “pretentious” creations. They’ve worn their non-traditional nature on their sleeves, however, having even founded a website (notgames.org) that celebrates games that apparently “aren’t games”, having even come up with a “NotGames manifesto”, challenging developers to think outside the box, and to make experiences that explicitly reject the structure of games as an art form.
The duo has made games that explore various different themes and topics: life and nature (in the incredibly unique online game The Endless Forest), death (in the short interactive vignette The Graveyard, perhaps their most divisive game), childhood (in the dark, disturbing experience that is The Path, their most widely-known work), Biblical history (in the mysterious, Wilde-influenced Fatale), pointlessness and beauty (in the oddly-addictive virtual Skinner Box Vanitas), French literature and space travel (in the hypnotically bonkers and very very French Bientôt l’été), sex and pleasure (in the colourful and esoteric Luxuria Superbia), and finally political tensions, black rights and housekeeping in their most recent and most deliberately accessible work, the Kickstarter-funded Sunset. In said recently-released game, you control American expatriate Angela Burnes, cleaning a luxurious penthouse apartment once a week before sunset, trading flirtatious notes with your employer as a revolution rages in the streets of the fictitious South American city below.
Despite its developer’s arthouse arthouse roots and the decidedly non-commercial and esoteric nature of the games that they have made, Sunset’s Kickstarter campaign was a runaway success, reaching way over its original goal thanks to its 2,228 backers, myself being one of them, as I must now disclose (yes, I’m in bed with the industry, sorry). Sunset has now been released into the wild to perhaps the warmest critical and audience reaction Tale of Tales has received so far. They very kindly agreed to do an interview with me, and so I sat down (in the non-literal sense) with Michaël Samyn, the male half of this most unique of developers, to talk about Sunset, accessibility, and spooky scary ghosts.

The Kickstarter campaign for Sunset was a huge success. You received far more than the initial goal and with it you gained a swathe of new followers. Since the venture was so successful and your games aren’t exactly the most commercial of ventures, do you see yourself returning to the platform in order to fund any future projects?
Yes. Especially since arts funding is drying up as Europe becomes more right wing.

From the beginning of your Kickstarter campaign you made it very clear that you wanted Sunset to be your most accessible game, in order to break free of the “arty” corner you’ve so often been shoved into (hence why you hired Leigh Alexander and Ste Curran for design consultation). Now that it’s out, the reviews have been written and the dust has settled, do you believe you’ve achieved your goal of accessibility?
We’ve achieved the best we can with our particular taste and skills. But people still think Sunset is fresh and original, which is flattering but means that it’s still not accessible enough to reach the wide audience that we would like to reach. But we’ve really worked hard. So we’re quite certain we can’t do any better. If Sunset is still “too artistic” for you then we apologize if that’s a problem for you. We also feel sorry for you if that’s a problem for you. And we encourage you to open your mind and educate yourself before life slips you by without you even realizing its beauty.

What was it that prompted you to strive for such accessibility?
The initial impetus was that we noticed that some people responded to our work the same way as we respond to art we dislike (i.e. typical ironic contemporary fine art). We didn’t want our work to be perceived like that because we don’t create our work like that. To us our games are simple and beautiful and very easy to play. And we believe they would be accessible to a wide audience if the game industry wasn’t such a closed off niche. So the problem we were trying to solve was not accessibility in general, but accessibility to people who would actually try to play our games. But there was also a sort of ethical concern: that we should at least try to share our work with as many people as possible and not make it difficult by challenging people’s expectations too much.

Sorry, this is a bit of a generic question but I’m interested in the answer. Looking back, which of your games do you consider the best and which do you consider your worst?
That’s difficult to answer because our work is released in the public sphere and our own opinion is just one of many. There’s also different reasons why a piece can be good. I love Bientôt l’été and Fatale for their deep probing in my psyche. But I’ll probably play The Endless Forest or Luxuria Superbia a lot more because they’re so light hearted and uplifting. Vanitas is very dear to me but thousands of players can’t be wrong about The Path.
We have also always, purposely, tried something different in each game, explored a different aspect of the huge artistic potential that videogames have. So in a way each game is the best game, in the sense of the best we could do, with our limitations.

What’s the current status of An Empty World? (A collaborative project that Tale of Tales announced back in 2013. Little to no information about it has been released since. It has a trailer: https://vimeo.com/73765829)
It’s on hold. But we have ideas for it. We need to find funding first.

Do you hold any video game in particularly high esteem above all others?
In the AAA sphere, Silent Hill 2, the first Black & White, Ico of course, the first Tomb Raider, and the work of Quantic Dream. In the indie sphere, I love Nuprahtor‘s work, Noby Noby Boy, Mountain and, of course, Dear Esther, Dinner Date and Amnesia. But to be honest, none of these, however much I may cherish the memory of playing them, can beat experiences in other media. There’s music, paintings, sculpture, film, architecture, literature, etc that has had a much deeper effect on me than any videogame. I think this is a shame because I still believe this medium has great potential. I just feel this potential is not sufficiently encouraged and games never seem to escape the quagmire of pop culture. There’s nothing wrong with pop culture as such. But there is something very scary about a community that only has pop culture and nothing else.

Who in your opinion are the best game developers currently working today?
We are. I wish that wasn’t true. I wish there were people I could look up to. But there’s always something wrong with them. I have plenty of idols in music, painting, film and literature. Enough to not feel like a jerk. I don’t make distinctions between media when it comes to art. I don’t excuse videogames because they’re supposedly too young to produce art. I would if I saw sincere attempts at producing art. But I don’t. In videogames, calling a game a work of art is considered an insult, or at least a warning.

Do you have interest to work in any other forms of media? With your games you’ve proven that you’re more than capable.
Absolutely. We love realtime technology but we hate how videogames limit our audience. Many people have prejudices against them. And games demand quite a bit of technology to run which makes them difficult to access. Also videogames are not taken seriously as an art form and we would love to produce work in a world where we are not freaks and weirdos but actually encouraged to experiment more, to delve deeper, to be more thorough. In videogames all we hear is “wow, hold your horses you pretentious schmuck, make a Mario clone already!” It’s very frustrating for a creative person to have to hold back all the time.

This is more of a question for myself. My favourite game of yours is Bientôt l’été
You have good taste!
-and I couldn’t help but notice something: that game features two lovers communicating lightyears apart in a disjointed manner, not unlike communicating online. You two both met and began creating online, and didn’t first meet each other face to face until some time later. I suppose my question is this: is that aspect of the game deliberately self-referential, or is it just a coincidence I’m reading too much into?
It’s totally and completely self-referential. We make art about our lives. And we are in love with the way we fell in love. Even if it happened within a context of tragedy.

You are to be stranded on a desert island by a dastardly gang of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed to bring one film, one book, one album, and one video game along with you. Which of each do you bring?
Hartley or Godard?
Duras or Nothomb?
Foetus or Bach?
I don’t need videogames on a desert island. There wouldn’t be any electricity. Let alone a computer to run them.

Many Kickstarter backers (myself included) were extremely disappointed in the dearth of explosions and the complete lack of guns and/or knives in Sunset. Are you planning to patch these in for Sunset version 1.1 to atone for such flagrant false advertising?
We have released 7 games without a single explosion and only one with a gun and one with a sword. I’d say the 10,000% increase in Sunset should be sufficient for now. But we might add some ghosts that can eat you.

Tale of Tales’ website: http://tale-of-tales.com/
You can also follow them on Twitter @taleoftales
Feel free to follow me on Twitter if you lack any and all semblance of taste: @ComedicPerson
Thank you for reading. Please do check out Tale of Tales’ other work if you’re interested, and have a nice day!

Cooking, For Lovers: A Brief Discussion

Game name? Cooking, For Lovers. Game Developer(s)? Increpare
Note: The below text contains spoilers for Cooking, For Lovers, a game impossible to talk about without spoiling. I would recommend you play the game first. It’s only three minutes long. I can wait. LINK: http://www.increpare.com/2014/11/cooking-for-lovers/

Cooking, for Lovers is a game about making a Pot Noodle. That’s it. That’s the core (and in fact the only) gameplay in summed up neatly and concisely in one sentence. It’s not long either. At most it’ll take you around three minutes to complete; at least it’ll take around fifty seconds.
You play a person, gender never specified. You have a paper bag. Inside said paper bag is a Pot Noodle (or some variant thereof). You put water in the kettle, boil the water, pour the hot water into the Pot Noodle, and then go grab a fork. After that, you sit down on the floor, and nothing else happens. There’s no game over screen, no credits, no cut to black, no fade to black, no cut to white, no fade to white. The game ends when you want it to end and not before.
Oh, did I also forget to mention that it’s utterly fantastic? Yeah, I think that might have slipped my mind. Sorry.
Cooking, for Lovers struck a chord with me I can’t quite describe. It succeeds because it tells the player nothing; it’s all about personal interpretation. You can take as much or as little out of it as you want. You can take it at face value, or you can dig deeper.
Let’s take it at face value: it’s about a person who comes home and makes themselves a pot noodle. THE END.
Now let’s can look deeper. First, the title. The title is painfully ironic. It implies the act of cooking for a couple, a pair of people who love each other dearly, when it’s clear that the player character is most certainly eating alone.
The kitchen you are in is drab and functional. It feels lifeless, cold and impersonal. It’s cramped and I felt claustrophobic as I moved in it. The character moves in such a floaty way and jumps so high, but the environment you are in doesn’t reward those traits. You feel fenced in, trapped even, with next to no freedom. The game allows you to do nothing else but make the damned pot noodle. You can’t leave the room, and you can’t perform any other tasks, not that there are any other tasks worth performing anyhow. This, combined with the grayscale look and minor-key soundtrack helps to create a game with an almost oppressively melancholic feel and one that practically oozes a sense of loneliness and quiet despair. The game rewards (and deserves) multiple replays, and each one proves more rewarding than the last. All of the above is what I got out of the experience, but you could get something completely different out of it, and that’s the real beauty of it.
Cooking, For Lovers is a practically perfect experience. It joins the small group of games like Dinner Date, The Graveyard and Glitchhikers that aim to capture the feeling of a single moment and a single emotion; Dinner Date the anxiety and despair that surfaces after being stood up, The Graveyard the sensation of walking among the dead, Glitchhikers the act of driving along the road alone at night and the thoughts that follow, and Cooking, For Lovers the feeling of preparing a meal for one and only one. And honestly, I think Cooking, For Lovers is the best of the pack. And I mean that. If the thought of seeing a “Christmas Meal for One” at a local supermarket fills you with the same kind of sadness as it does me, you’re bound to make a connection with Cooking, For Lovers. It’s a wonderful, lyrical, beautiful and emotional experience, and one I heartily recommend.

(Postscript: thanks to Cara Ellison for bringing this wonderful thing to widespread attention in her Ten Best Games of 2014 list last year)