April 18, 2012 5:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Jonas Kyratzes is one of the most versatile indie developers you'll ever find, and one of the few people that can actually (easily too) create a story-heavy shoot-'em-up while working on a puzzles-light adventure and tending to a cat's every whim. Better though to let him explain everything himself:
Are you a writer, a game designer or even a film-maker? Care to briefly introduce yourself and help us with the confusion?
I'd say I'm all of the above, though the truth is I don't have much to show for the latter despite it being a huge passion. Most people know me as a game designer and writer. I've been making games, many of them with a strong emphasis on various kinds of storytelling, for about ten years now. I think I make the kind of games that people either love or hate.
You've just released Traitor; a uniquely story-heavy and almost casual shmup that seems have done really well with both critics and audiences. Why did you choose to create such a, well, different game?
I believe in variation - almost religiously so, in fact. Maybe that's why I like to work in many different media, too. If an artist constantly does the same thing, there's a real danger of stagnation. Just look at Tim Burton, remaking the same, increasingly awful movie over and over!
Besides, I enjoy casual games, but always find myself frustrated by the lack of meaningful context in them. Just because the gameplay is simple doesn't mean the story has to be shallow - in fact, a good story enriches gameplay in a way that a lot of game designers don't seem to understand. With Traitor, I wanted to take the very basic mechanics of fight/upgrade/fight that so many casual games have and add a ton of context, intentionally using no more than mission/upgrade descriptions to do it. It obviously didn't work for everyone, but it worked for a lot of people, and I think it proved my point.
There's more to it than just game design theory, of course. There were a number of themes I wanted to explore. The idea of fighting against some sort of evil empire is obviously not a new one, but it's a story that is extremely important in this age of increasingly open political oppression. So I wanted to do that story, but to make the details more real, more tied to the everyday horrors of the modern world. Thus for example the missions about destroying mines, and the references to what the use of mines in war can do, killing innocents decades after the war is over, or the stories about mercenaries and how they treat people. The Roman theme also tied in really well with that.
Your adventures are also far removed from what we've come to expect from the average point-and-click offering. What are you aiming for with the Lands of Dream games?
Man, that's a hard question. I love the Lands of Dream, and they represent such a wealth of feelings and ideas that it's almost impossible to put into words. When I released the first Lands of Dream game, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, Gregory Weir wrote this in his review:
"Remember when you were a kid and you'd just played Myst and Dare to Dream, and you found Hypercard on your school computers, and you decided to make an adventure game? And it was going to be the coolest game ever, with all sorts of secrets and jokes and you spent hours drawing the backgrounds in a wide-ruled spiral notebook?
No? Maybe that was just me. Anyway, this is that game."
That, perhaps, is the best description I've ever read of the spirit in which these games were made; but it's that plus everything that I've learned as an adult. So they're intensely concerned with language, with philosophy, with literature and with politics. They're dreadfully serious while at the same time being incredibly silly. They build up a complex mythology that combines my own ideas with certain figures drawn from the work of William Blake; they also contain some of the dumbest puns ever written.
In a sense they are the purest of my games, because they're just unfiltered me. They don't have a lot of puzzles because I hate puzzles. They have details because I love details. They are wordy because I am wordy.
The Sea Will Claim Everything will be the next Lands of Dream and your first commercial offering. What should we expect?
A huge amount of terrible puns. Thousands of weird details. An alchemy system comparable to the one in Desert Bridge, so you can make lots of peculiar potions. Absolutely fantastic music. Three islands to explore. Heartbreak. Things that go squeak for no reason. A mouse in the inventory. And a story about debt and foreclosure and family and roots in the land.
And the hand-painted, whimsical graphics look better than ever...
They do! I love the graphics, and I'm not just saying that because they're drawn by my wife. No, they've always been an essential part of these games - part of their charm, and also part of what allows them to strike just the right tone. Verena is a very accomplished artist, but if the graphics had that clean, smooth, almost realistic appearance some fairy-tale games have, they really wouldn't fit the vibe of the story and the setting. In retrospect I do think we should've gone for a slightly smoother style in The Book of Living Magic, like we did in The Fabulous Screech, but we were still too influenced by the intentionally child-like graphics of Desert Bridge at the time.
I said above that the games are unfiltered me, and that's true, but they wouldn't exist without Verena, and in drawing these worlds she also helps to create them.
Care to describe one of its (apparently many) wildly imaginative characters?
I'm rather fond of EDDIE, the transvestite holographic artificial intelligence. He likes to wear clothes, which is considered inappropriate for the type of lifeform that he is. He thinks that's silly, and so do I.
When should we expect The Sea Will Claim Everything?
Soon! Shockingly soon. It's kind of worrying, really. I think I need to get back to work.
You and Verena Kyratzes are also working on a children's book set in the Lands of Dream. Could you share some of the details?
It's called In the Shadow of the Invisible King, and is the story of a forest cat called Eleni who one day decides to go explore the outside world. It'll be published later this year in Greece, with a translation into English to follow at some point. To be honest, I think that with the exception of a few classics, most illustrated children's books are just insipid nonsense. You know, wonderful stories like Little Merkel Is Never Late For School or Tiny Ted Turns On The Tap, the sort of thing lying around in a dentist's waiting room. I hated those books as a child and longed for something that would have more magic, that would take me away to its own world for a while. So we made the kind of book that we would've liked to have read (to us) as young children. It's also got a story that is much more relevant to the world as children are likely to actually experience it today. Not with iPhones, but with conflict and austerity. At the same time it's also sweet and silly and frankly gorgeous. Sadly I cannot take any credit for the latter.
(My, I'm in a combative mood today, aren't I?)
Finally, what does the future hold?
Who knows? I have many potential projects, but life is uncertain at the moment. I dream of getting a chance to sell some screenplays and make a few movies, but I'll be glad if we just have enough money to keep a roof over our heads. Assuming that doesn't change, there will certainly be many more games. And a cooking show.