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Jonas Kyratzes is an independent game designer whose games are known for being thoughtful, provocative, and deep. He has authored several adventure games including Last Rose in a Desert Garden, The Museum of Broken Memories, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, as well as games in other genres. Frequently collaborating with his wife Verena Kyratzes, he has created in his games a unifying fictional universe that is populated with humans and creatures from literature, myth, and history. His latest game is The Sea Will Claim Everything, released in May 2012 as part of the Bundle In A Box promotion by Kyttaro Games. Aside from being a game designer, he is also an active blogger, writing about game development as well as politics.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Jonas Kyratzes. In the interview, Kyratzes speaks about his inspiration behind The Sea Will Claim Everything, his creative process for making his games, his view on piracy, and a wide range of issues relevant to any gamer interested in the indie adventure game scene.
- The Sea Will Claim Everything is set in the Lands of Dream, a world shared by several of your other games. What are the Lands of Dream? Who are the inhabitants there?
- The Lands of Dream are... well, it's not so simple, really. You could say it's the world of imagination, where everything we've ever imagined is real - as are many things that have yet to be imagined. It grows and changes when we are creative, and yet our creativity often comes from there, and there are many things there that have nothing to do with us. You might call it Eternity, though it's always in flux.
At the heart of the Lands of Dream lies Oneiropolis, the City of Dreams, a vast and near-incomprehensible metropolis full of beauty and terror and mysteries.
The inhabitants of the Lands of Dream are... everyone, eventually. Creatures of myth, gods, animals, aliens, machines, unknowable entities, the creators and the created, and of course the dead. Thus you can literally find long-dead authors living in Oneiropolis, collaborating on a new novel with one of their own characters.
An important figure in many of the stories I have set down is Urizen, an entity/god of reason - or more accurately, of False Reason, of oppression. His purpose is to conquer the Lands of Dream and eventually march on Oneiropolis itself. Why exactly he is doing this, and whether he will succeed... we'll see.
- What is the relationship between the sea and the land in the Lands of Dream?
- That's an interesting question, because it doesn't have an answer. What is the relationship between the sea and the land in our world? We came from there, we require it to live - yet sometimes we destroy it, and sometimes it destroys us. There's always a tension between the land and the sea, and we - being children of both - are always caught in that tension and fascinated by it.
- The title of the game is a bit ambiguous. To what extent does the verb "claim" in the title imply that the sea will try to possess everything or that it will say anything?
- The meaning is (to me) certainly that of "possess" or "take" - but the question is what that implies. And that is quite central to the story, from the first sentence to the last.
- The game is full of recognizable creatures from fantasy and folklore, such as centaurs, dragons, and talking pigs. However, these characters do not seem to conform to the stereotypes typically found in fairy tales. For example, the game features a pleasant dragon and an even more helpful big bad wolf. What is the method by which you use to choose the species of the characters in the game?
- Inspiration. I know that sounds like an intentionally simplistic answer, but it isn't. There's no defined process except "hey, who do you think lives here?" Sometimes Verena comes up with the ideas, sometimes I do, sometimes they happen by accident when a drawing comes out different than anticipated or a character develops unexpected features in the writing. A great deal of care is taken to give them grace and dignity and to be true to their natures once they're there, but there is no method of selection.
- The simplicity of the game's interface is explained away as part of the conceit of the game world. Specifically, in the game, the interface is said to have been set up by a crusty old wizard in a hurry. To what extent are you, though, also exposing the use of the interface as a rhetorical apparatus to encourage gamers to look at the interface as well as through it?
- I'm not interested in having people look at the interface and go "look, it's an interface! I'm playing a game!", but I am interested in reclaiming the interface as a narrative device. I mean, look at what playing a game is - you're sitting at your computer, using a graphical window to interact with a fictional world. You could focus on the artifice of it, but why not focus on the wondrous fact that you have a machine that allows you to take part in a world that is entirely imagined? So what I'm trying to do is to reinforce the reality of that experience by making the interface something that is actually part of the story.
- Although the story told in the game is fictional, parts of the story seem to be parallels to the current real life financial and political crises in Greece. What political messages, if any, are you trying to convey in the game?
- Ah, I dislike the word message. It implies something simplistic that should more properly be expressed on a bumper sticker, something that would reduce all the characters to mouthpieces. Which doesn't mean the game isn't very political - it is! And it has a most definite set of ideas about everything from the financial crisis to the Egyptian revolution to gender identity. But these things are treated as part of a story with its own themes, and are there to serve the story and the truth of that world, not just to add my opinion to the story. That's absolutely essential. The political themes are there because they are the issues that affect that world and that affect the author - which is also why you'll notice that the treatment of these themes is always very personal, showing the effects of oppression from the standpoint of actual people (whether they are human or not).
You could definitely say, though, that this is an anti-austerity game. It stands against everything that austerity is: the glorification of cruelty, the pseudo-rational implementation of policies that are known not to function, the destruction of lives and lands to maintain a dogma that allows a small minority to enrich themselves.
- There are numerous obscure books referenced by title and author in the game. Yet, few of these references are recognizable outside of academia. Why are these obscure references placed inside the game? How worried are you that these references may alienate gamers who likely will not understand their significance?
- Here's an interesting experiment: read a few reviews of this game, and see what people say it references. Some reviews note all the academic references; others say it's all pop culture. The truth is that the game is absolutely bursting with links to just about anything. That's the joy of getting feedback about The Sea Will Claim Everything (and most Lands of Dream games): everyone finds something different that matters to them.
In fact, the reason that I can go back and replay these games myself is that they are so full of jokes and ideas and references that I don't remember half that stuff myself. I will often do hours of research just to write a single book title with a pun in a language I don't speak or about a subject matter I'm not deeply familiar with; as a result, even I don't get every reference after a while. I like that.
To get back to your original question, though - despite what I just wrote, I'm sure there's a tendency for people to be afraid of playing the game. I don't think many are frustrated when they actually play, but we've all been told so many times that intellectual content is boring or difficult that when people hear that this game is full of academic or philosophical or political content, they think it must be terribly pretentious or unenjoyable. Which is rarely a reaction anyone has when actually playing the game, even children.
Does this worry me? Well, in terms of sales, everything worries me. Games are without question the artform where departing from the norm is the least accepted. But artistically speaking, I'm perfectly confident.
- The game touches on many ecological themes, with an emphasis on technology and nature living in harmony. For example, in the game, computing devices are being grown by plants rather than mass produced in a factory. How are you using the game to explore the relationship between nature and technology?
- As those who have played The Infinite Ocean know, I am pretty much the opposite of technophobic. But technology is not good or bad in and of itself; the question is what we do with it. Do we use technology for the good of everyone using logical, scientific principles, or do we bulldoze everything over in a mad scramble to make a profit? I don't believe that there is a real dichotomy between nature and technology; we're part of nature, after all, and just about everything we produce is technology. Underhome's biotech could be seen as an illustration of that fact, and of our ability to be part of a larger ecosystem without being so incredibly destructive.
- With whom did you collaborate to create the game? What was your creative process for working in a collaborative environment?
- I collaborated with my wife, Verena Kyratzes (who made the graphics and strongly influenced the design) and Chris Christodoulou (who composed the score).
My collaboration with Verena was, as with previous games, a relatively chaotic process. Ideas were thrown back and forth as the game grew; in a way we were exploring the game world much like players. Her ideas shaped the Fortunate Isles as much as mine did, and the art style she has developed for the Lands of Dream remains absolutely essential to the atmosphere so many players enjoy.
Chris and I communicated via email and Skype, with me trying to somehow explain what I wanted and what the individual locations were about without actually being able to show him the complete game. I was terribly stressed out and dealing with a huge number of unrelated problems, so I wasn't terribly good at it, but somehow - partially because he is ridiculously talented, partially because the Lands of Dream inspire people - the results were magnificent.
- Who is your favorite character in the game? Which of the characters, if any, are based on the actual personalities of the game's creators?
- None of the characters are based on anyone I know - there's nothing directly autobiographical - but there's a lot in there that has grown from very personal roots. I'm not The, Verena is not Niamh. But if we met, I bet we'd have a lot to talk about.
- The Sea Will Claim Everything is being released without Digital Rights Management (DRM). What is your view on the use of DRM in game publishing? How concerned are you about losing potential sales to piracy?
- DRM is an absurdity produced by the internal contradictions of a society with advanced digital technology using an outdated economic system based on scarcity. Even if piracy was a real problem, which it isn't for most games, I'd still stay away from something as destructive as DRM.
- What game projects are you planning next? How soon will your fans get to return to the Lands of Dream?
- I have no idea. This whole starving artist thing (which has nothing to do with piracy) is rough, and making games that move people isn't particularly profitable. I still have one major Lands of Dream game planned out - Ithaka of the Clouds - and if I manage to survive long enough, I will write a novel called Oneiropolis. The latter is still a long time away, but the former? The one thing I've learned is that adventures are always unexpected.