Jonas Kyratzes on capitalism, indie games and the Lands of Dream

Posted July 3, 2012 by Richard Plant in Editorial

Jonas Kyratzes is an oddity in the grand and golden arc of game designers. While the biography of many a ludologically-inclined sort usually partakes of some standard tropes like sticky-floored arcade gaming, Nintendo and long dateless evenings spent delving the underworld of imaginary continents, Kyratzes’ completely true and in no sense fictional biography sets out his stall pretty clearly:

“Growing up, Jonas was primarily influenced by his psychic link to the spectre of Karl Marx, which was haunting Europe. Another major influence was a mutant turtle that hovered above his bed every night, singing Leonard Cohen songs.”

It’s exactly this admixture of pungent absurdity with hard-nosed politics of a kind that doesn’t often intrude upon the world of gaming, beyond the occasional invoking of the undeniable symbolic power of Stalin’s moustache, which drew me to Kyrates’ work. That, and the fact that with his last games The Sea Will Claim Everything part of the Bundle in a Box promotion, he has seen the indie-publishing-phenomenon-that-will-save-us-all in action.

So how does the games industry look through the prism of the international struggle of the proletariat? What makes indie game development so attractive? How do you make the perfect poached egg?

Read on for the answers to some, all, or none of these burning questions.

Okay, so tell us about the gestation of The Sea Will Claim Everything. Can you shed some light on what impression you want people to walk away from it with?

Like several of the other Lands of Dream games, it sort of came about by accident – or perhaps serendipity. The Bundle in a Box folks contacted me about making a game for the bundle, the idea came up of making a new Lands of Dream game, and I just got to work. I had been planning a much bigger Lands of Dream game that would take almost a year to complete (Ithaka of the Clouds), so I thought this would also be a good opportunity to prepare myself for that project. The beginning was really quite simple – no visions from God or anything. Just a fat guy sitting on a couch telling his wife ‘I think I want to make a game about three islands’.

It became a lot more complicated after a while, though, when I realized I couldn’t really make any progress until I found the heart of the game, which sounds pretentious but is entirely true. So suddenly the game started to draw on all the things I was currently thinking about, and it became very personal and very political – and a lot easier to write.

As for what impression I want people to walk away with… I don’t think I could reduce that to a single thing. I want people to feel they’ve been to the Fortunate Isles, to feel the reality of that place. I wanted them to feel they’ve experienced a journey that meant something. I want them to laugh. And I’d be delighted if the journey also made them think about our world, maybe even motivated them to help make it a little more just – or even better, a little more compassionate.

Was it part of your thinking that you want the player to be aware of the artificial nature of game-playing at all times? The interface you created is such a primary part, literally a window on the world, were you attempting to distance the player a little from the fiction?

Quite the opposite! Commenting on the artifical nature of the window makes the content of the window more real – for most players, anyway. You’ll notice that there isn’t any kind of self-aware look-at-me-I’m-a-game stuff. There’s just the fact that you’re sitting at a digital window that allows you to interact with an imaginary world. Isn’t that what all games are, in the end? It just so happens that the people in this world are aware of your odd little habit.

The Great Catanthrope

Is Ithaka of the Clouds still a project that you’re working on?

I hope so. It’s a story that I really want to tell (homosexual trolls in an adventure inspired by the poetry of Cavafy! how could I not?). Finances allowing, it will happen.

What makes the Land of Dream such a compelling setting for you? I might be tempted to read it in part as a reaction to brutality that characterises a great deal of mainstream gaming, but is it somewhere that means something specific to you personally?

In a way, the Lands of Dream are far more brutal than the worlds of most mainstream games. All of the games set there have a bittersweetness that I find much harder to take than the ridiculous adolescent posturing of so-called “grittily realistic” games. So maybe one reason I like them as a setting is because they are far more like the real world: colourful, crazy, full of strange creatures and people, eternal and yet changing, deeply beautiful and sometimes profoundly bitter.

But that’s a rather mechanical explanation, and doesn’t do the place justice. I guess I could say that the conflict between Oneiropolis and Urizen is representative of how I experience the world, or that the Lands of Dream capture a certain feeling that I yearn for, the feeling of distant shores and majestic peaks… in the end, though, the most honest answer is probably simply that I love them.

The game is part of series you’re calling the Oneiropolis Compendium, what’s the idea behind releasing a string of linked experiences?

The Oneiropolis Compendium is actually just a series of stories and images that form a sort of encyclopedia; the games aren’t part of the Compendium, but both the Compendium and the games are all part of the Lands of Dream.

Linking the stories isn’t motivated by some sort of desire to build a franchise, and none of the games are really sequels to each other, though they do share elements. I’m more motivated by the chance to build something complex and layered, a sort of mosaic in which each element is beautiful and unique in its own right, but also forms part of a bigger picture. It allows me to employ many different perspectives and tones, to explore various ideas and stories, to create distinct themes and symbols, while always contributing to something greater. And I find that there’s something very special about stories that inhabit the same world. When it is done with grace and caring, it can be a very pleasing experience (if not, it becomes Star Trek Voyager).

Most people probably know of your work from The Infinite Ocean, which is a different kind of psychological-horror adventure. Is there something special about the adventure format that brings you back to it?

I’ve loved adventure games since I was a child… or rather, to be honest, I’ve loved the idea of adventure games. Some were brilliant (like the Quest for Glory series) but a great many disappointed me with their focus on silly puzzles and even sillier stories. I don’t really want to antagonize people by saying this, but I was disappointed by how childish most adventure games were. I always expected them to have more story than other games, but usually they just had more exposition. I expected them to transport me to other worlds, but they very rarely took to anything other than a cheap imitation of some movie or book. (The first twenty minutes of Lost Eden came so close, then the rest of the game turned out to be crap. I still weep for the lost potential.)

In the end it really comes down to making the sort of games I’d like to play. It’s not all adventure games, though, and I do not share the opinion of those who think adventure games are more intelligent than other genres. In fact I wish we could just get rid of the concept of genres completely.

I understand if you’re a bit reluctant to talk about future projects, but can you give us any idea of what you’re working on at the moment? Is there something which has got under your skin recently, and made you go “I want to show people that”?

I have a lot of projects that I care about greatly, but I don’t know which one will be ready next. It’s very possible I’ll be doing some rewrites for Selma’s Story (working title) soon, a game I’m making with Terry Cavanagh. But I haven’t quite decided what I’ll do on my own.

About the Author

Richard Plant

Author, producer, dreamweaver… also actor. Willing to talk at length about JRPGs for food.