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.

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  1. Great interview and great character. Keep it up! (both the gnome and the kyratzes)

  2. Why, thank you boukensha. I'm sure we will :)

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