Interview with Jonas Kyratzes, indie developer of such games as ďThe Infinite OceanĒ, ďThe Museum of Broken MemoriesĒ and ďThe Sea Will Claim EverythingĒ.

By Peter Rootham-Smith

His games are noted for having rich underpinnings of philosophy and literature and poetry. He is currently working on ďThe Talos PrincipleĒ (from Croteam) described as a first person philosophical puzzler.

Q: How did you get into making games?
A: I just thought it would be interesting. I was sixteen or fifteen many years ago, and I got Visual Basic from a friend in Greece. I thought Iíll make a game, and so I made my first game. I was still sixteen when I finished the first version of it a hundred years ago. I liked Adventure games because they seemed like a good medium for telling a story. I am a writer now, I thought of myself as a writer then, so I went ahead and made an Adventure game.

Q: Youíre a writer and a software developer and Ö?
A: Iím a writer who accidentally also makes things. I think of myself primarily as a writer, more than anything else.

Q: And an artist?
A: Artist is a general term that applies. Certainly the idea of making art, of creating something meaningful, transcendent, powerful. Thatís part of the intent, Iíve never seen it as a job. The reality is thereís a job part to it, but itís also always been a vocation, a calling. Otherwise you wouldnít work yourself to death like you have to do, for so little money if you didnít really believe in it at a fundamental level.

Q: Youíre known for your Indie games
A: When I started the concept of indie game didnít exist. Now it does. I once almost bought the website ďindiegames.comĒ really early on. It would have been a funny story if I had done that. I regret not doing it. I was one of the first people to use the term ďindie,Ē though now itís become meaningless. All my games have been indie apart from this one (The Talos Principle) but even that is counted as indie by most people even though Croteam are a big team.

Q: Which games do you like playing yourself?
A: I play all kinds of games, I play a lot of RPGs and strategy games. I like Adventure games when they donít frustrate the hell out of me! I have a hate love relationship with Adventure games in that I love story telling in games. I love the potential. I often hate the puzzles, I hate how itís done. Which is also why Iím making my own ones! My own take on what would be interesting in a game. I like Interactive Fiction as well. But I also play the occasional shooter if it has an interesting narrative of some kind. I do need normally some sort of narrative hook. The Stalker games for example are really hard-core shooter games but they have such an interesting setting and story and freedom to them that I enjoy them very much. They give me the same feeling as a really good Adventure game does of being in a place and interacting with a world. Thatís what I look for, a sense of place.

Q: What influences your game-making?
A: A wide range. Most of my inspirations are literary and poetic. A big influence is William Blake whom I adore as a poet and a thinker. But itís a fairly wide range. The game weíre making at the moment (The Talos Principle) is a mixture of Biblical imagery, and also classical philosophy and the classical Greek mythology that I grew up with. I have a literary background in terms of literary studies so my mind is always getting a wide range of sources and synthesizing them into new things. Itís everything from William Blake to Isaac Asimov, writers like that. I know it sounds awfully sort of pretentious but itís what I like, what inspires me. On the ďLands of DreamĒ Adventure games which Iím known, influences were the writings of Lord Dunsany and Lovecraft (who himself was influenced by Dunsany.) In terms of literature thatís where things stop for me, early 20th century. Since then post-modernism is not so much to my taste. Tolkien and people like that were a huge influence on me, I still adore these people and I read them a great deal.



 

Q: Do you make games full-time?
A: At this moment yes. Kind of surprising as Iím still trying to write, mainly novels. Iím going to try taking some time off soon to finish a novel Iíve been working on for a very long time. Iíd like to get into writing screenplays and other things, but right now itís full-time games. For the first time Iím managing to make some kind of living making games, which has been really hard.

Q: Who do you make games for?
A: The most pretentious thing would be to say God! Youíre just making them because you feel they should exist, the sense thatís a great thing and it should be. I wouldn't say for myself because youíre so into it that you never consider yourself as a player. You canít see yourself in that position, you canít play your own games ever really because you know them too well. I do sometimes write things because I know my wife will laugh about them or enjoy them, she might be my ideal target audience in a way! The truth is you have this story and the feeling it ought to exist. Your responsibility at the end is to the story, not to the audience, because you donít know who the audience will be. I donít like the idea of writing for a target audience, or tailoring things to that. You just write because you need to.

Q: Are you working on multiple games?
A: I have to. Partially because Iíll just go mad if I donít. Partially because a project comes along and you canít just say no. I was working on something very big but this (The Talos Principle) came along and you canít say no to something like this. Sometimes itís good to have something to distract you because it gets tiring to always be sitting in front of the same thing.

 

Q: What can you say about ďThe Talos PrincipleĒ?
A: Weíre calling it a first person philosophical puzzler. I think itíll appeal to an Adventure game audience. In any meaningful way itís an Adventure game. It doesnít have any particular action sequences. Itís about solving puzzles.

Itís a first person puzzle game in which you find yourself in a very strange world. Youíre apparently a robot. You notice after a while that you have a robotic body. That is if the world youíre in is real. And a voice which calls itself ďElohimĒ which is one of the names of God starts speaking to you and insisting that you should do this. He says heís your creator, and you should do these things and you should certainly not do that and not go there. Itís a very strong element of the Garden of Eden in this, mixed in with classical philosophy and classical Greek mythology. Those who are interested in William Blake will find a parallel in the ďMarriage of Heaven and HellĒ. Thereís certainly elements of this. Itís quoted a few times. Ideas of synthesis are very prominent in this.

But itís very a much a mystery, a science fiction mystery, for the player to figure out themselves. Itíll be possible to complete the game without figuring everything out but I think itís nice for Adventure gamers to go in, find the text and build up theories as to how they could be connected, and how it all fits together.

Q: What inspires you about ďThe Talos PrincipleĒ?
A: I find it exciting that it is a seriously philosophical game. Itís a game with literary and poetic and other underpinnings and references. You donít have to come in knowing all this. Thatís not the point at all. Itís not supposed to educate you directly or impress you by being all ďwe know all these things and weíre so wonderfulĒ. Itís just that like any good work of art itís connected to the world of Art, and connected to history and philosophy and science. And you can engage with it, and I find that so exciting that we can even take all these elements and put them together into a real story. I donít think a lot of people have done that, certainly not in games in the way we have. I find it tremendously exciting to be given the freedom to do that.

Q: Does the story come first in a game?
A: Yes in a way. In the sense that there are games I really enjoy from the gameplay and all that but if theyíre lacking a narrative framework I tend to just get sick of them at some point. It can be a very simple narrative framework. But when thereís no narrative framework at all like in some building games and survival games and crafting games... Iíve played plenty of Terraria, for example. But the fact thereís no context to it -- no reason why Iím building these stupid buildings and digging into the earth -- robs it of meaning to me as an experience. All the other elements have to be there. But without a context, a narrative purpose, it just seems like a waste of time to me after a while.

Q: How important is contact with Adventure game fans?
A: I donít know because I almost never see anyone. I very rarely go to any events so Iíve almost never met anyone whoís even played my games. For most of my life itís been a very abstract endeavour. I make games, I upload them. I get emails, I get fan mail, which is wonderful and inspiring. On the other hand itís very abstract, just an email, just text on a screen.

Q: I was very pleased to see you were at Gamescom.
A: It is very curious, the very idea Iím known to people is completely alien to me. All Iíve ever done is sit in our flat, I donít have an office, itís just my computer at home with the cat annoying me when Iím trying to type and make things. The fact thereís actually an impact on the real world, that people have played what Iíve made, sometimes having powerful experiences, is so divorced from my everyday life that it seems completely unreal.

Q: Would you recommend making games as a living?
A: Only if they really really REALLY want to! Itís fun. Itís also frustrating. Thereís a million people making games now which makes it very difficult. Itís not the life saver that people have come to think that it is. Theyíve come to think it can lift them out of poverty; it can do all these things. The reality is for most people itíll never do that. I fully understand the concept that if you need to make something then you will make it even if it kills you. I abandoned my studies to continue making art and writing. I was breaking down mentally, just needing to do something else so badly. But if you can have an alternative, if you have a source of income, if you have a way of living (that has to come first) then you build on that if you can. The idea of the starving artist? Thatís a reality for some of us. But itís not a particularly nice reality. Itís not romantic. Itís fairly awful most of the time.

Q: Only the top very few in any Art do well.
A: To me William Blake was one of the greatest poets of all time, but he died in absolute poverty. He frankly never had a big success in his own time. He was considered a madman. So if thatís your experience, thatís not so nice. You should not have a romantic idea of what being an artist is. If you have to make games, make games, if thereís no other way for you to live. I write because I have to write.

Q: Can games have a message, express opinions?
A: Absolutely! Though Iím not interested in opinions as such, Iím interested in art. Art contains ideas, opinions, but itís not the same as going and making a statement. People confuse message with engagement with the world. I think itís a bit more than that. Itís not just that. Sometimes people, when they confuse that, end up making things which are boring, because all they are is just preaching to someone.

Even though my games are very political and very philosophical, I do think Art has an element of transcendence in it. Weíre creating these strange worlds and stories. It has to have a reality and a grace of its own. Thatís incredibly important to me.


Q: Games can be Art?
A: They must be, I canít see any other way of it being.

Q: Games reflect their creator?
A: Yes, by necessity. But not necessarily in any way that anyone can understand. Itís dangerous to conflate the artist and the Art. The artist can be an awful person, and the Art can be wonderful. Or the artist is wrong about everything and the Art can be right about everything. I do think thatís part of what I mean when I say Art is transcendent. Itís not just me and my opinions stuck into a game. Thereís a process which happens between that, in the process of creation, where the Art becomes independent of yourself. Itís reflection, itís not autobiography.

Q: Will you still be making games in ten years' time?
A: I donít know, I honestly donít know. I hope to be making games occasionally in ten years, but not primarily, because thereís other things I really want to make, like books and movies. I want to branch out into that.

Q: Will there be more games in the ďLands of DreamĒ?
A: Thereíll be two, of which one will come out soon, a small one and a medium sized one, then ďIthaka of the CloudsĒ. After ďIthaka of the CloudsĒ, I donít know.
 

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