Jan 31, 2012

An Announcement! An Announcement!

(insert drum-roll please)
(that's enough; thank you drummer dear)

I've teased and repeatedly let things slip, but, well, the time has come to reveal a couple of pretty exciting projects I've been working on. Both of them are developed by Kyttaro Games, the indie game development troupe I've been a part of for almost a year. The same troupe for which I've designed the lovely site you too can visit by following the above link. What's more, Kyttaro Games is a deceptively small group that aims to craft some hopefully excellent and definitely innovative games, but to also publish a new and rather unique indie gaming bundle, which conveniently leads me to my first announcement:

The Bundle in a Box indie gaming bundle. A gaming bundle I have helped organize and design, and a gaming bundle that will try to innovate by offering a pretty novel take on the pay-what-you-want model, a thematically coherent selection of games and one game developed especially for it. Excited yet? You really should be you know, as them included games have all been selected by my humble self. Right... Anyway, as I can't currently reveal much more, you can follow it (for now) via facebook and the Kyttaro Games blog. Oh, yes, and the Kyttaro Games twitter account too. The bundle will be available very soon; maybe even sooner than you'd ever expect reader.

On to the second announcement then; the one regarding Artfully Framed. As you may have guessed, this one is the game we've been working on for almost a year now, but also something that I hope will play and look brilliantly. Wont describe its gameplay mechanics just yet, but I can let you know that it will be an iPhone release (possibly Android and PC too) with a distinct twitch-arcade feel. Artfully Framed has been designed around them touch-controls and will feature graphics inspired by such great modern artists as Mondrian and Kandinsky. Both Gnome's Lair and its official facebook page will soon unveil more of the thing.

And, uhm, that's that I suppose. No more announcements for today. Just wish us luck and, if possible, do spread the word.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 30, 2012

Et in Arcadia ego

Jonas Kyratzes can do much more than design innovative games; he is a brilliant writer and, well, writers do actually tend to write well and even tend to not be afraid of making games with lots and lots of glorious text. And, apparently, no puzzles either. Or anything that could stand in the way of leisurely exploring a fresh version of 19th century romanticized Arcadia, while avoiding each and every design commandment ever put to paper (or, more appropriately, posted on them internets). That game is none other than Arcadia: a pastoral tale.

Arcadia: a pastoral tale is quite a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure and you can play it for free over at that link I just posted. Though I wont be spoiling what it's all about, I have to admit I was impressed with its rich setting, its subtly subversive ideas, its whimsical creatures and the sheer quality and quantity of its words. Words are much trickier than polygons you know. And as the in-game choices provided by Arcadia are mostly concerned with aesthetics, those Jonas-crafted words do some amazing tricks. You'll see them all if you play through Arcadia twice.

It is, after all, supposed to be a stroll, an afternoon walk, and two walks are always better than one. There’s no challenge, no puzzles, no wrong choices. There’s just the path that you take and the things that you see. Oh, and it's all crafted with the excellent Twine, mind.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 26, 2012

A Pixelated Snow Tale

Ah, the lovely Neutronized is happily back with another retro-inspired freeware game: Snow Tale. It's a freebie you can play in the comfort of your browser, an embarrassingly cute showcase of the visual delights of quality pixel-art and also a rather smart hybrid of Snow Bros. and Mario-esque platforming. Also, it's impressively varied, lengthy and polished, so, uhm, have a play, will you?

Jan 23, 2012

The Dream Machine Interview

Anders Gustafson and Erik Zaring are the heart, brain and hands of Cockroach; the indie game development studio that is responsible for the amazing, episodic and visually glorious adventure that is The Dream Machine. And though I have already loved and reviewed the first two chapters of The Dream Machine, I couldn't help but ask the creative duo a few questions. Here's what they revealed; for your eyes only reader:

Let's start off with something not quite unexpected... So, who are you guys? And why, oh why, are you calling your studio Cockroach? 

Erik: We’re two bona fide Swedish nerds on a mission. Anders is the small good-looking guy and I’m the tall and slightly spherical fellow. We are the only game development studio that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Cockroaches just wait it out and crawl back, ready to re-populate the planet. Pretty much the story of my life.

Anders: I just happened to have a bunch of old cockroach illustrations I’d done on my hard drive. When the time came to start a company, I found them and thought they looked quite striking and iconic, sort of like a company logo. So I just slapped them on the letterhead and called the company Cockroach, purely out of convenience. It’s a decision I’ve since regretted from time to time.

And you've been making games for how long before The Dream Machine? Any particular favourites among your previous creations? 

Erik: I like Gateway 2 and the insanely difficult Soap Bubble 2, but I had no part in creating those games however. Anders made those before our beautiful friendship begun. The Dream Machine took my game development cherry, so to speak…

Anders: I started making games while learning Flash, sometime back in 2000. I’d made a lot of previous attempts – on Commodore 64 and Amiga – but they never amounted to anything because I didn’t know what I was doing.

A friend of mine showed me some Flash games he’d put on Newgrounds, which I thought were really impressive. So I started hounding him with questions about programming. In the end I think he grew tired with me, because he gave me access to the source code, so I could find out all the answers by myself. A lot of strong pots of coffee later, the weird words and symbols started to make at least a bit of sense to me. And that led to me being able to create my first “real” game: a 2-player fighting game, starring chickens. Needless to say, it’s pretty crap.

I still like the first Gateway game quite a lot. I like the vagueness of it, and it was also the first point & click game I actually managed to finish, after a lot of botched previous attempts. It was originally meant to be a tutorial for another adventure, but when I compared them side-by-side I though the tutorial was much better than the actual game. So I just scrapped everything but the tutorial and started over.

When – and most importantly, why – did you decide to start working on The Dream Machine? 

Erik: We loosely discussed making a game together during the winter of 2008 and the spark that finally ignited our collaboration happened during late summer that year. Just prior to that, I had sold my part of an animation studio, since I had decided that I deserved doing something nobler than to be a shit-eating service provider. The big corporate productions really wore me down and I had grown tired of polishing other peoples turds. I propelled myself into the advertising and commercial business hoping for fame and glory. That turned out to be a cul-de sac and eventually I had to fire myself. Then I eventually became utterly broke and found no other way to survive and had to make a game made out of clay & cardboard to get food on the table. That’s the honest-to-God truth.

Anders: It was a really strange time in both our lives as I recall. I’d taken employment, designing cell phone applications for some company. They were pretty much in denial about the whole smart-phone shift, and still insisted that 16-bit 320x240 screens were the future.

They lured me in saying they made a lot of games and needed my help designing them. I soon found out that wasn’t exactly true, but I needed to feed the monkey. Just to stay sane, I’d frequently call Erik (or he’d call me) to vent. During one of these conversations, Erik started talking about getting back to just doing things for the heck of it. “Like we did when we were kids…”

Looking back, that was the seed of The Dream Machine right there.

Weren't you terrified of the sheer amount of work required in order to produce those amazingly handcrafted visuals? 

Anders: When Erik started talking about creating the environments by hand, I just chuckled and dismissed the idea. It would be too labour intensive and would require too much pre-planning for my comfort. In order to show me that it was possible, he pulled an all-nighter by his kitchen table, crafting four or five strange little sets. He sent me some pictures of them in the morning and I didn’t know what to make of them. They looked really rough, but they held so much potential. The paint had fingerprints in it, which I loved. Everything looked skewed, unpolished and patched up. But compared to the corporate GUI:s I was making at the time, they were the most fascinating things I’d seen in months. They made me want to be on the other side of the screen.

I resigned soon after that and joined Erik in exploring this weird clay and cardboard universe. That decision occasionally terrifies me, but I haven’t regretted it for a single second.

Erik: When you put your heart into something it usually means that you show extra care and attention. Alas/thus it takes a bit longer. I didn’t realize what it would take to make something like The Dream Machine in the beginning. Now I have come to the conclusion that the most terrifying aspect of our endeavor is lack of sufficient energy/joy to finish this before the summer of 2012 has ended.

It’s stop motion animation you are using, right? 

Erik: It’s a bit of a mix. All the sets are built and photographed, exactly how you would traditional stop-motion. We also use limited stop-motion for simple animations, like doors opening and closing. For the trickier things (most things involving characters) however, we use 3D. Our characters are built by hand and then we grab their textures and paste them onto a 3D meshes, in order to maintain the look and feel of clay.

Anders: Doing it purely by stop-motion would’ve been too risky. The characters have to travel through a lot of different lighting conditions, and with stop-motion you only get one chance. If they hadn’t looked believable, we would’ve had to start over from scratch.

What else would you say makes The Dream Machine the truly unique adventure game it is? 

Anders: For me, it’s all about the marriage of story, gameplay and setting. Creating a full-flavoured experience, making the individual ingredients as tightly knit with one another as possible, without overpowering or counter-acting each other. That’s the goal at least.

We also try to design fair puzzles. They follow a slightly skewed logic for sure, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Ye Olde adventure games. I played Gabriel Knight III when it came out and still get miffed whenever I think about that horrible “cat hair moustache” problem. Or the pixel hunt puzzles in Future Wars. I love the genre, but hate the tropes.

Clay and cardboard still makes us pretty unique. There have been precursors in the exclusive sub-genre of handmade adventures (most notably The Neverhood, The Dark Eye and Blackout) but they all came out more than 15 years ago. We think the world is ready for another one.

Why did you decide to go with the episodic model? 

Anders: Once it became clear how long the game would take to make, we realized might possibly be working on the game for three years without knowing if it resonated with people. That would’ve been awful. So we decided to chop it up and get it the individual pieces out as soon as they were finished.

Looking back, that is one of the smartest things we’ve done so far, since getting player feedback has been invaluable and has really improved the quality of the game. It’s just too bad that we haven’t been able to release them more frequently, but we’re only two confused Swedish guys.

How would you describe your creative process? 

Erik: From my myopic perspective it sometimes happens as follows: Anders (slightly sleep depraved, as always) scribble notes on lots of Post-its using a black Pentel pen. Then he puts them in neat rows on his living room walls. Then he throws some ideas out and put the remaining ideas in a digital document of some kind. Then his slightly spherical companion gets to read it and starts to build stuff. I use foam board, ice cream sticks, Super Sculpey, glue gun and paint to create our sets. I document every step using a Canon 550D. Anders will comment and suggest modifications and eventually approve of my final design. Once lit and photographed, I jump to my next task and Anders starts working his magic, photoshopping and implementing and testing the gameplay.

Anders: That sums it up pretty well, Erik. Sleep depravation, Pentel Sign Pens, Post-its, ice cream sticks, Super Sculpey and a glue gun = The Dream Machine.

You keeping getting back and adding things and interactions to the already released episodes. Is this a cunning scheme to have us replay them? 

Anders: One of the problems with adventure games is that it’s a very fine line between being challenged and being frustrated. Dialling in the difficulty and adjusting the level of hints is very tricky. Especially in an adventure game, once you’re stuck it quickly becomes boring if you don’t receive any more feedback. You start key-chaining, using everything on everything. We see that, so we can go in and add hints surgically.

I also hate the default “That doesn’t seem to work” line. It really breaks immersion for me. All of a sudden the main character turns robotic because the developers didn’t add proper responses. Eventually we’ll cover all of them.

Secretly, I’m also sadistically fond of messing with walkthroughs by remixing some puzzles every once in a while. Creating this type of game is all about getting you to think, and walkthroughs defeats that purpose. If you use them sparingly they’re great, but it’s very easy to get dependent and comfortable. I want to keep players alert and on their toes.

What should us adventurers expect from the final two chapters of the game? 

Anders: Something wonderful...

Erik: We aim for the last two chapters to be like... a metaphorical gun. And then we shot you in the knee with it. You won’t die, but you’ll definitely feel something. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Anders: That’s a box quote right there! “Expect getting shot in the knees, kids. Fun for the whole family!”

Erik: Man, this game sells itself!

Are you happy with the critical and commercial reception of The Dream Machine so far? 

Anders: I’m very happy with how the game’s been received. People seem to appreciate what we’re trying to do, and don’t mind terribly the time it’s taking. It’s such a rush to live in an age were two confused Swedes can make and distribute a game to the rest of the world. That people actually want to go along for the ride is exciting and humbling.

What does the future, beyond The Dream Machine, hold? 

Anders: We’ve been talking loosely about a follow up game, but I’d really like to take some time off and work with a linear medium after this.

Erik: The Dream Machine afterlife? Scary thought. I really don’t know. I’m more of a “right here, right now” kind of guy. There is no future, to quote Sarah Connor.

Anders: Hopefully something less headache-inducing. Hopefully something smaller.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 20, 2012

Taste the AGS Bake Sale!

Hadn't had myself an indie gaming bundle for over a month and withdrawal symptoms were kicking in, when, heroically but not quite unexpectedly, the AGS Bake Sale came to the rescue! And what an elegant rescue that was, what with the Bake Sale's 14 previously unreleased, AGS crafted and incredibly promising games. As of course, as one would suspect (hint: AGS = Adventure Game Studio) the majority of said games is of the point-and-click variety, which is more than fine by me. You know I love them adventures. And I can point and click at stuff with the best of them.

Then again, I also love the work of Cart Life creator Richard Hofmeier, Little Computer People, CRPGs and the odd platformer; the AGS Bake Sale has me covered there too, as it also serves as a fantastic showcase of the amazing versatility of AGS itself. Adventures are of course the main thing on offer here, but as them included ones are quite numerous and I've just grabbed the bundle myself (did I mention that -sadly- all the money donated goes to charity?), I'll be writing about them in detail over the following days. Not that I'll be ignoring the rest of the offerings. Oh, no...

So, uhm, go grab yourself something lovely over at the AGS Bake Sale reader. You can, after all, pay exactly what you want for all them shiny new games. 

Delve Deeper's Gratis Grottos DLC

Lovely, indie, turn-based, dwarf-featuring, strategy-adventure board game thingy Delve Deeper has gotten itself a brand new DLC pack: Gratis Grotto. Happily, it's a free yet rather hefty offering that includes 10 new maps (among which you'll find the pretty brilliant sounding Gnome Shopping Mall) and 25 new relics. And it's been crafted by the game's fans. And you can grab it on Steam. And make merry.

Jan 19, 2012

The Updated Three Plains Rulebook

I already have written about the ever-evolving and already pretty excellent free-to-grab fantasy wargame that is Three Plains. Well, time then to let you know that the updated version of the Three Plains Rulebook (that would be version 2.3) has been released and that you can grab its 87-pages long PDF over at Epicwargaming. Then grab all those lovely army books and ready-to-print figures and start gaming.

Now, instead of describing the game myself, I thought I'd ask its creator to enlighten us. He kindly agreed and here's what David L. Sholes has to say:

Epicwargaming.com is my attempt at earning some money and doing what I love at the same time. Or, in other words, Epicwargaming.com is a private company, which is based on the internet.
So far I have achieved the fun side hands down, but the making money side... well... the wargaming market is not a very big pond and there are already plenty of big fishes in there. I started Epic because I love wargaming, but I’m not a fan of painting and the cost of it. So, that left me with print-and-play wargaming, but I soon found there isn't that much of it out there and thus decided to write my own game: Three Plains
Three Plains is an old-world fantasy setting with Orcs, Elves and Goblins all fighting it out. Why? Because that’s my thing. 
Three Plains is game not too different from Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but has more depth and realism than WFB, or so I believe. Characters and elite troops in Warhammer just dominated the field and as I got older I wanted to see more realistic games, where troops get tired and characters can be slain by the hands of commoners, and that’s what Three Plains is  all about really. I know that mixing the words realistic and fantasy together sounds silly, but that's what Three Plains is. For instance, take the 'March Over Rule': it means you can march straight over characters which would otherwise hold up entire units of men.
Reading this you might think it’s all my own work, but you would be wrong, as many people have put something in the game over the years now; far too many to mention. Then again, the game testers Tom, Alex, Matty and Trish have really shaped the game and brought it on. 
At the moment I would say the game is half finished, as I have some massive plans for it next year, like adding 3 more armies and adding a siege game on to it as well. So, we have our work cut out for us and, eh, better get back to it.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 17, 2012

The Book of Unwritten Tales Review

It's been quite some time since I last played an adventure game that took me over 15 hours to finish, and, admittedly, that was an (apparently undisclosed) offering released over 10 years ago. Seems that expansive point and clickers are so passé these days... Shockingly and quite unexpectedly then, The Book of Unwritten Tales entertained me for quite a bit more than that, while remaining a brand new game. A rare kind of brand new adventure game actually: the epic kind!

Then again, everything epic isn't by definition a great idea. Epic can easily turn into dull, though that definitely is not the case with The Book of Unwritten Tales. I already mentioned it entertained me, didn't I? It is after all such a varied, engaging, wisely paced and well-crafted game that it never feels padded, tedious or boring and will, as soon as you finish it, leave a big gaping, err, gap in your psyche in a way only, well, epic, fantasy novels and a rare few games manage. Thankfully, said gap is easy to heal, but you get the point.

Never though that gremlin scholars lived in such rustic places...
We are not talking Tolkien, Martin and Moorcock here, we are talking Terry Pratchett. We are talking light-hearted fantasy with more than a few humorous touches, that is neither satire nor farce.

The Book of Unwritten Tales, you see, is set in a more or less proper fantasy world. There are mages, there are trolls, there are gnomes (yay!), there are knights and castles, there are undead, there are hidden artifacts, there are heroes, there are elves, there are dragons and there's a battle between good and evil going on. On the other hand, everything feels like it's taking place in some sort of tongue-in-cheek version of a standard MMORPG setting. The gnomes' machines never seem to properly work, the orcs are organizing battles in order to support their weapons industry, mystical rings are trusted to little creatures, dragons get fearsome with the help of manuals and Death himself is despairing over the genre's lack of dead bodies.

Intrigued? Well, you really should be, as King Art (the game's developers) have nailed both the setting and the writing. Even better, they have nailed the humour and have created an atmosphere not wholly dissimilar to the one prevalent in Monkey Island 2. The Book of Unwritten Tales (hence BoUT; sorry, can't be bothered otherwise) can be both (moderately) dark and hilariously funny. And that scene with the forgotten mummy has easily squeezed itself into my funniest gaming moments ever; it's that good, it is, but not as funny as a certain later segment in the game where a gibberish-talking yet oddly playable character tries to provide with descriptions using only noises and gestures.

BoUT, as you may have already guessed, does provide with more than one playable characters; it provides with four. There's a young gnome that craves for magic, a slightly under-dressed elf, a Han Solo inspired rogue and his blobby sidekick. Each one has different abilities and is utilized for solving different kinds of puzzles. 

Speaking of puzzles, they are generally easy, brilliantly integrated in the plot and quite varied, as they do let gamers mix potions, talk their way out of situations, combine items, solve mechanical problems and even navigate maps based on vague and ancient writings. Admittedly a few of them (only a couple I believe) are not particularly well designed, but I do suppose that coming up with dozens of puzzles and expecting each and every one to be brilliant is simply impossible. Even Gabriel Knight 3 and Grim Fandango had their moments of pointless frustration...

Then again, for every minor flaw one might discover, there's at least one beautiful (and very dynamic) background, one brilliantly voiced character, one original puzzle or, at least, one smart joke to set things right. BoUT is, tiny problems aside, destined to become classic.

There's something for everyone. And I do mean everyone.
Verdict: A fantastic, stunning, humorous, fantasy adventure for people that can appreciate humour. Grab it now (here) or -at the very least- try its demo.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 16, 2012

The Blackwell Quadrilogy Steam Giveaway

Those excellent, ghost-featuring, New York based and sharply written adventures I have deeply loved (and warmly reviewed), the Blackwell games, have finally gotten their place on Steam. You can joyfully either grab each of Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence and Blackwell Deception on its own, or get the handily discounted Blackwell Bundle direct from the biggest gaming portal ever conceived. What's more, there's a further 25% discount both for the bundle and the individual games, provided you buy them within the week.

Now, just in case my precious reader hasn't fully overcome that ominous amnesia (and for the off chance someone else might be reading this), let me just briefly describe those Blackwell games, by mentioning that they are indeed indie point-and-click adventures, sporting lovely retro-esque graphics, full voice-overs, brilliant puzzles, quality writing, a lovely setting and multiple playable characters, one of which happens to be a ghost. As I've actually reviewed them all, here are the links that will further enlighten you: Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence, Blackwell Deception.

Regarding the Steam launch and besides the obvious advantages of having the games available there too, the good news is that the Blackwells now feature achievements, upgraded engines and, in the case of Blackwell Legacy, a brand new Five Years Later commentary track. Not so obviously but definitely very kindly people that have already bought the games can contact Wadjet Eye Games for their free Steam coupons.

Everyone else can enter this here gnomic Blackwell competition for a chance to win all four games on Steam. All you'll have to do is leave a comment on this post (preferably with some sort of contact information) and win one of three complete Blackwell Bundles. You have till Friday the 20th of January 2012 to do so.

THE WINNERS: Jerizo, Jan Jacob Mekes and Paul. Please do contact me for your codes. And congratulations! 

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 15, 2012

^_^ or Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Why spend a night at the opera or spend yourself away on a day at the races when you can always stay home and play the latest freeware game by indie adventure maestro Ben Chandler? Why not simply be a good reader and download and enjoy the brilliantly surreal ^_^ in a flash? It's a delightfully odd take on werebunnies, vampires, turntables and witches, you know. One actually sporting excellent graphics, excellent animations and excellently loud humour. Oh, and the game isn't a walk in the park either. You be lazing with it for the better part of your Sunday afternoon before getting to them deeply postmodern credits. Download ^_^ here and ignore all those silly Queen references please.

Jan 11, 2012

Eye^Game^Candy: Little Computer People

It might have inspired The Sims and that happily forgotten Tamagotchi craze, but David Crane's Little Computer People was far from a commercial success back in 1985. Surely the atrocious cover art couldn't have helped much... The game itself though remains fresh, unique, innovative, pretty brilliant and beautiful in a way only those chunky Commodore 64 games can be. And did you know that its complete title is Little Computer People Discovery Kit and that it was also known as House-on-a-Disk? Oh, I see...

Jan 10, 2012

Quest in Space with Space Quest

Sierra is no more. Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, the venerable Two Guys from Andromeda, haven't designed an adventure game since the previous millenium, yet Space Quest oddly refuses to simply lie down and die. It has instead gotten itself numerous fan contributions, maintains a healthy community, has gotten an almost decent re-release, lives happily on gog.com and, well, generally keeps on being loved and cared for.

Why? Simple really. Space Quest remains the funniest, most historically important and best designed comedy sci-fi adventure series ever. A series that helped evolve the genre, while featuring some of the weirdest characters, puzzles and settings imaginable. A series sporting the best known janitor in the history of science fiction: Roger Wilco.

Said Roger has happily embarked on two brand new adventures, or, to be precise, a new and a revamped old one. This being a most old fashioned blog though, I guess we'd better start with the old one first, shall we reader? Of course we shall, for I am indeed referring to the shiny, new and very freeware remake of Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge by Infamous Adventures. It's a more or less straightforward remake of the original classic, but with a brand new point-and-click interface, shiny SVGA graphics, a full voice-over and a few other tiny but welcome changes. The puzzles remain as fiendish as ever and the story is faithful to the 1987 release, meaning it once again involves those nefarious, cloned insurance salesmen.

The other goodie of the day is Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back. It is a fan sequel of sorts and the first full-length Space Quest adventure in over a decade. It's also free to grab and, from what I've seen so far and besides the excellent visuals, plays really great. Here's the trailer:

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 9, 2012

Two wholesome issues of Adventure Lantern

As this past month has been quite odd, I didn't get the chance to let you know that Adventure Lantern, the only adventure gaming focused PDF magazine around, has managed and published two whole issues of itself. Sadly (and once again) without any help by me, but I sincerely hope this will soon change. Anyway. Head over to the magazine's site and download both of them for some excellent reviews including those of The Dig, Salambo, Murder in the Abbey and The Book of Unwritten Tales. The mag is of course free to grab.

Jan 5, 2012

The Oneiric Jonas Kyratzes Interview

Jonas Kyratzes, a creator this very Lair can't help but honestly and deeply admire, has already given us an eclectic selection of excellent games (think Phenomenon 32, The Book of Living Magic and Alphaland), some wonderful stories, quite a few insightful looks into the world of digital gaming, a screenplay and even a number of short movies. Now, he's also provided us with this most interesting of interviews:

Though I'm pretty sure the vast majority of Gnome's Lair readers (all one of them) are familiar with you and your work, would you mind providing us with your explanation of who you are? 

My name is Jonas Kyratzes, and I... well, I do all sorts of stuff. Mostly I'm known for my games, such as The Infinite Ocean and The Book of Living Magic. I'm part German, part Greek, and grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. At the moment I live in Frankfurt, Germany with my wife and frequent collaborator, Verena.

And why are you designing and creating games? 

Because I love games! I love the medium and the enormous variety of experiences it can deliver. Because ideas for games come to me, and because I feel that certain types of games that I love aren't really being made much. And because I'm driven and obsessive and can't stop.

But why aren't you only designing and creating games? What's with the literature and films? What is this Oneiropolis Compendium

Above all, I've always thought of myself as a writer, and I think I've always known that writing would be a big part of my life, even when I was planning on becoming a marine biologist. (I never wanted to be an astronaut as a child, I thought it was too dangerous. But I was very much in favour of expanding the space program! Just not with me in it.) Now it is an essential part of my identity.

There's a novel that I've been working on for nearly a decade now, an immensely complex thing that I think is going to be simply fantastic, but I haven't had the time required to finish it. If you look at my work you will notice that one common characteristic is interconnectivity - one of my mottos is "everything is connected." The connections between individual story elements serve to pull everything together, giving it a sense of reality; you don't necessarily remember every detail about the Lands of Dream, but they feel like a place. Well, that novel is the ultimate expression of that idea: it's easy to read, but feels very real, and the more you dig the more connections you find. I think it's one of the best things I've ever done, and when the right people read it, they will experience something very powerful.

...all of which is wonderful, but kind of pointless given that the novel is unfinished and I'm having trouble getting a single short story published. So there.

Verena and I do have a children's book coming out in Greece soon, though, which I think will be marvellous. That's something I'm greatly looking forward to.

The Oneiropolis Compendium is a series of images and stories, presented as a sort of encyclopaedia of the Lands of Dream. It's part donation drive, part art project: people can donate money, and in exchange get original framed drawings. Every donation creates a new entry in the Compendium - a new image and a new story. It's been a fascinating process, because people can suggest themes for their images, but the themes are always interpreted in a way unique to the Lands of Dream, and so we've been exploring quite a few different aspects of that world. It also keeps us from starving, which is nice.

I'd do it all for free if I could, but unfortunately the economic reality does not allow that.

The wonders of the Compendium are many...
You have already based two games in the Lands of Dream and are apparently working on a new one and even a book. How did you come up with the setting? 

I don't know. I mean, the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany is obviously there, but I have no specific memory of coming up with the Lands of Dream. I think it all grew naturally out of making The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge. But I can tell you that I'm absolutely in love with that world.

One day I will write a novel called Oneiropolis, which will be the center of this tapestry of stories I'm weaving, and which will be quite unlike any other book you've read; I already know that writing it will be one of the greatest challenges and pleasures of my life, and I get excited just thinking about it. I hope I really will get the chance to do it, because I know that I'm not going to write a lot of books in my life, and this is going to be an incredibly important one for me.

Mind you, Verena's illustrations are simply amazing. Do you guys work together on capturing the games' and world's feel? 

It's never exactly the same: sometimes I come up with a story and Verena draws an image for it, sometimes Verena draws an image and I come up with a story for it. We always talk and exchange ideas; we influence each other, and the result always bears traces of both of us. It's an organic process, like having a child. That's why I felt that The Book of Living Magic should be credited to both of us: I may have come up with the specifics of the story and the silly descriptions, but Verena's ideas are all over it.

Care to give us some hints regarding the next Lands of Dream game? 

The one we're definitely making is Ithaka of the Clouds, which will be the story of two gay trolls and their journey to the legendary city of the title. It's an adventure and a love story, partially inspired by the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, and it'll be huge (more than ten times the size of The Book of Living Magic). Unfortunately it'll also take a very long time for us to finish.

We're currently thinking about making another Lands of Dream game before that, but I don't have any details yet.

Now, how about a comment on the popularity of such a unique and text heavy game as the Book of Living Magic

I think it shows that the common ideas about what's popular are not quite right. Sure, the game didn't get millions of plays. But a lot of people would have thought that the players on Flash portals like Kongregate would hate it, and instead it got a massive outpouring of love that for a while pushed it to the front page. Imagine what could have happened if it'd had some proper support and publicity.

I think a lot of what is said about what's popular is just self-fulfilling prophecy: if all you make available is dumb games, people will play dumb games. If you keep insisting only dumb games are good, people will start to think that it's true. Then every now and then they'll play something else, and be surprised that they like it.

I'm sure some people would say Interactive Fiction is dead. But look at Andrew Plotkin!

Nexus City or when Terry Met Jonas.
Oh, and could you tell us a bit on that little something you are working on with Terry Cavanagh? 

I don't quite know where to start. Think a JRPG set in an alternate-history Arizona, a western written by an Egyptian on peyote. Not that I take drugs (or even drink alcohol), but I don't think anyone's made a game like this before.

And it's Terry fricking Cavanagh designing it, so you know it's going to be crazy and awesome. I have no idea when it will be finished - it's a big project and we both have much to do - but it sure as hell will be memorable.

And what are you working on right now? I seem to have noticed something about a shmup and a certain tribe of communist space cats. 

I'm in the polishing stages of a game called Traitor, which is a fairly straightforward shmup with a rather peculiar setting. Quite unlike any of my previous games, really - much less focused on story, in a way, much more typical of casual games, but hopefully interesting and subversive in its own way.

When I'm done with that, I'm going back to Catroidvania: Communist Space Cats of Venus. I'd gotten quite far with that before, but I'm going to make some radical changes to my previous concept to make it more fun and less convoluted. As the title suggests, it's a Metroidvania-style game set on Venus, where the Communist Space Cats are rebelling against their evil oppressors, the Capitalist Dogs of Uranus. It's a silly, cartoony sort of game, which will hopefully bring a grin to the faces of the 99%.

Pigs and Dogs vs Communist Cats it is then.

How do you start designing a game? Do you first come up with a story? A mechanic? The visuals? Do you simply ask the cat? 

I ask the cat, but she always ignores me or suggests I make a game about dismembering mice, so I'm forced to come up with my own ideas.

It's a hard process to describe. Ideas don't come to me fully formed, but as... well, I'd say they come to me as cores. I get a central something, a vibe, a group of interlocking elements that define what the game is going to be, and then I build on that. The details are flexible, but the soul of the game is there from the beginning.

How fares the cat? 

Fine, fine. Except that I'm writing this on New Year's Eve, and she's starting to get freaked out by the fireworks. Soon she will probably start hiding under the table.

Something else I've been wondering about was the sheer variety of the games you've created. How can someone design everything from point-and-click adventures and interactive fiction to RPGs and platformers?

I don't want to repeat myself. That's very important to me - I discard entire concepts because they feel too similar to something I've already done, or to something I'm planning to do. Verena thinks I overdo it sometimes, but I believe very strongly in this principle. It feels absolutely essential to me, to who I am and to my work.

I've sat here for a long time, trying to find a way of articulating how I feel. It's not easy, and I don't want to make it sound like I'm condemning everyone who works in a different way. But personally, when it comes to the things that I make, I want each and every one of them to be itself. The measure of success is not whether something is appreciated by the maximum amount of people, but how well it succeeds at being that which it sets out to be. That's what I find interesting, that's what I enjoy and seek out - in people as well as in art. And I think that it's easy to lose that if you don't work hard to be true to each game individually.

There's another aspect - and this is where it gets painfully pretentious - that affects my choices, and that's my awareness of my work as a whole. I am very aware of the fact that time runs only in one direction, and the choices we make are permanent. Now we are in the world, but soon we will not be - soon everything we have done will be a whole, a completed story rather than one in progress. Whether we want to or not, whenever we create something, we are actually creating two things: the individual work, but also a part of the larger tapestry. Well, I want my tapestry to be quite mad, and to say in enormous letters: YOU CAN DO ALL THESE THINGS AND MANY MORE! NOW FUCK OFF.

Is there a common thread running along your creations? 

There are common themes: acts of creation, acts of defiance. History and our place in it, especially when it comes to war and oppression. The ways we divide ourselves against each other and trying to overcome that. And ducks. Ducks seem to crop up a lot.

As most of your games have some subtle or not-so-subtle political references, well, do you feel that gaming could work as a tool to engage people with things that matter?

If it's used as a tool, not very well - that's just propaganda, and propaganda is boring. If art is a tool for politics, that means that politics are extraneous to art (just as with "art games"). But I don't think politics are extraneous to art! In fact, I think the opposite is true. Art needs to have teeth, to be connected to the real world. It's those artists who see themselves as floating above normal people, as being outside history and writing only about timeless matters, who are the ones that produce ephemeral shit that doesn't last.

Artists have a responsibility. A lot of them don't like it. But being an adult is all about recognizing that you have responsibilities that you didn't choose; that you are part of something, part of civilization and society, part of humankind. The desire to pretend you are beyond that is as childish as the libertarian fantasy that your actions are not dependent on those of other people.

Any comments on the Wikileaks Stories initiative? 

It was an interesting attempt, and one that was certainly worth making. Was it a success? I wouldn't say so. Could we have done something different? Maybe. I think its real failure came because it didn't get enough support from the indie scene or from so-called "alternative" groups (we got more attention from the mainstream media, for God's sake!). I guess Games For Change aren't quite so comfortable when Democrats are questioned, and the indie scene is still a lot more infantile than it would like to let on.

Those may be harsh words, but harsh words are necessary when freedom of speech is being carefully dismantled and artists fail to speak out. People only realize that when it's already too late.

On to something completely different then. Are you optimistic when it comes to the future of mankind? Any insights? Some advice perhaps?

I go back and forth on that. On the one hand you've got clear signs of a population waking up: Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring show that not everyone is willing to surrender. But again and again I am left flabbergasted by the degree to which people have internalized the propaganda of capitalism, supporting the very people who exploit them and vilifying anyone who wants to inject the slightest bit of reason into the political situation. How do you argue with someone who thinks the United States are a socialist country?

The truth is that governments are getting more and more extreme, giving themselves the right to abduct, murder and torture at will and enforcing economic decisions that enrich a tiny minority while plunging the rest into poverty. There is not the slightest concern for democracy, human rights, or even system stability. And entirely too many people are still willing to go along with this, to blame scapegoats or even themselves. Some even relish finally having someone to hate again - be it Muslims or Turkish people or Greeks.

I don't know. There's hope, but only if people act, and act strongly. You can't gently nudge these governments into a better direction. You can't vote for a reasonable Democrat or a compassionate Conservative - it's nonsense, they're all going to continue the same policies. The only answer lies in genuine democratic processes and fundamental economic changes. And those can only be achieved by fighting for them.

Finally, what should we expect from you in the following couple or so of years? 

That's hard to predict. It depends on what takes off. If I had any choice in the matter, I'd like to focus on writing screenplays and books, but for now games seem to be the main thing. Depending on how the next few months go - Traitor, Catroidvania, the children's book - the situation could evolve in all sorts of directions. We'll see.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jan 4, 2012

Happy New Year and some Gnomic Plans

Well, belated as is this might sound, happy 2012 reader! I know I should have wished you all the best a bit earlier, but things here were far from calm. Actually they still are pretty stressful, but I do hope that everything will turn out okay. Preferably before the end of this very month.

Anyway, on to some gnomic news and plans then, for if things go decently, I do hope that 2012 will be a most creative year indeed. First of all, I've been working on some new content for this very blog, that -among other stuff- will include an interview I've been wanting to do for ages, new kinds of content, quite a few reviews, some game design focused articles and a ton of old, freeware and indie games.

Moving on, I have to admit that I've started work on at least two very exciting adventure game related projects, but I really can't say much more just now. Should everything go according to plan, you'll be able to find out more about them before March. Should, now, everything go better than planned, then, well, you'll be simply blown away! Or so I hope.

What's more, I've also been working on a variety of gaming projects and ideas. Then again, as the past has obviously proven, simultaneously working on all sorts of things is not the best of ideas. I've thus come up with a properly cunning plan: I'll focus on less stuff. This means that I'll try and only work on that big, commercial game I've subtly mentioned before, a new Manic Miner inspired VVVVVV level that might be a bit like a remake and a short text-based political game. If I actually manage to finish those two last projects, I'll go on and finally release that ever-changing Wikileaks Stories piece of interactive fiction and even design a short adventure game.

Mind you, Gnome's Lair will very soon be turning six years old...