Harry Purvis sat down by the White Hart’s darts corner another Wednesday with his unmistakable composure…. and ready to give his devoted audience one of those stories which made of him the most famous London sci-fi storyteller from the 60s. That rainy evening he went on about “Proyect Clausewitz”, a 50s’ mysterious super-secret governmental project no-one had heard about before. Apparently, “PC” concentrated some of the best American scientists at that time, and tons of electronic equipment under the Kentucky National park… in a certain cave.
What truly happened under the surface between General “Smith”, “Milquetoast” and “Karl the computer” is something only Harry, his audience and the readers of “Tales from the White Hart” know.
The mysteries the Kentucky cave system holds are still today, a big source of inspiration for many writers, storytellers and gamemakers; and much like Arthur C. Clarke back in the 50s or Will Crowther in the 70s, Jake Elliott is willing to invite us all for some subterranean exploration, and many underground conversations.
AQNB: Let’s start with an easy one Jake…. do you consider yourself a caving enthusiast?
Jake Elliott: Maybe an enthusiast of imaginary caves! I guess I’ve spent a lot of time in digital simulations of caves, starting with Colossal Cave Adventure. One of my earliest memories is of playing that game on a terminal dialed up to some university computer when my dad was a student. That and “Hunt the Wumpus,” which also took place in a cave system.
AQNB: From “doing strange things with electricity” and magic mixers, to experimental digital radio stations and even working for big online publications. Where does “gaming” fall into?
JE: One thing I love about working with videogames is that it’s already a multihyphenate practice — particularly in a solo or small team project. Right now I spend most days as a writer-programmer-sound-designer.
AQNB: And if we insist on your transmedia background… are you willing to fully dedicate yourself to CardBoard Computer as a “sustainable” option?
JE: I feel really fortunate to have worked out a videogame design practice, and to have found an audience there, because videogames happen to live at the intersection of all these other things I’m into. It’s software art, it’s kind of weirdly theatrical, I can work on responsive/interactive sound designs, and there’s room for experimental electronic writing. Writing playable dialog is really familiar to me from writing-programming in my software art practice, but there’s room in games for a narrative approach that was sometimes an awkward fit elsewhere.
AQNB: So where do you see gaming narrative in the coming years?
JE: I see some exciting things being done with pacing, perspective and ambiguity right now in Twine games by people like Merrit Kopas, Porpentine, J Chastain & many others. A great place to start exploring these games is Anna Anthropy’s curated list of Twine games. It’s not a coincidence that these games are made in Twine, a tool which has probably the lowest general barrier-to-entry of modern game dev tools.
Anna and Porpentine and others have written about the radical potential of Twine better than I can, but I will say that I think bringing in people with more divergent backgrounds and perspectives than just gamers or other videogame “insiders” is injecting a wealth of new/unfamiliar techniques into videogame design, and those techniques are centered around storytelling. Specifically, a very personal approach to storytelling, which is something that your-face-here “immersive” videogames have been avoiding at their peril.
AQNB: Although “story” may not be the most appropriate word to describe your non-linear, abstract experiences… which public do you feel they are oriented to?
JE: I feel more like I’m discovering an audience, rather than targeting one. And some really trailblazing experimenters like Increpare, Tale of Tales, Christine Love, and others are creating an audience for work like this, which I’m then hopefully reaching some part of.
AQNB: And over the past few years, these new titles have aroused the big debate between “play” and “emotional”. Is there an over-hyped obsession with the interactive vs visual game design?
JE: A lot of that debate, if we’re thinking of the same arguments, seems obnoxiously essentialist to me. Playfulness as a tactic or a quality can prompt such a wide variety of responses. I’d rather think of it as a starting point than a boundary. Like, look at the way Anna Anthropy uses play to communicate and support empathy in Dys4ia, or how Gonzalo Frasca identifies the political and revolutionary uses of play in Videogames of the Oppressed.
On Kentucky Route Zero…
AQNB: While you’ve previously underlined that the story plays a key role, along with game mechanics or aesthetics, we find that since you first posted KRZ’s trailer back on Kickstarter everyone is praising the visual work you and Tamas Kemenczy have designed. Do you feel you’ve finally managed to hit the sweet spot between “visually” attractive and plot-compelling? You may not like comparisons but… could KRZ become an “immersive” story?
JE: The art direction and implementation on KRZ is all Tamas — it’s been a close collaboration, and the art and text are equally important in constructing the story; we’re looking forward to making more games in the future. Not to put too fine a point on it, but moving forward “Cardboard Computer” is for games created by Tamas and I, and if I do anything solo again it’ll just be credited to my name.
This thing about immersion is kind of messy territory with videogames. We’re trying to work with immersion as a technique rather than a goal. People like Gonzalo Frasca and Brenda Laurel have made interesting comparisons between theatre and videogames; theatre had its own crisis of “what to do with immersion,” with artists like Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal specifically working against immersion, for political reasons. It’s a funny case in videogames, though — here we talk about interactivity as a tool of immersion, like “realistic” physics and transparent interface design, but in theatrical terms immersion is passive and interaction is a ward against passivity. So (if we merge the vocabularies of the two forms) there’s this built-in estrangement from immersion in videogames: the common property that they don’t move on their own, they depend on the player.
Theatrical set design in the 20th century is incredibly rich with examples of negotiating this boundary between immersion and estrangement. That’s been a vital source of inspiration for Tamas and I in working out the spaces in the game, and in the art direction.
AQNB: Something which has evolved from the first KRZ trailer to this day…
JE: As I mentioned, the art direction is really all Tamas, and that’s why it has such a strong visual impact compared to the games I’ve done solo. He went through a few iterations of the art treatment; maybe three major ones. The game was always sort of 2D in behavior, but created in a 3D modeling tool and built with a 3D engine. It moved gradually from the finely detailed and textured look of the first teaser trailer in 2011, to the more graphic and angular look that it has now. I think we’re really fortunate to have taken the time to iterate and discover this art treatment; it creates a lot of possibilities visually.
AQNB: How many twisty little mazes of passages will we find on KRZ?
JE: Ha! This is maybe a good time to talk about the prehistory of Kentucky Route Zero. Tamas and I also collaborate very frequently with our friend jonCates. A few years ago, we did a piece together that jon concepted, called Sidequest. It was a surreal, cut-up style remix/homage of Colossal Cave Adventure, in which you play the game’s designer, Will Crowther, as he navigates the twisty little passages of his psyche. So between a personal connection to the game from childhood, and this project we’d worked on, doing something related to Crowther’s early adventure game was just in the air. KRZ wears this influence more prominently on its sleeve in a section we have planned a bit later in the game, but there are some small references even in Act I.
AQNB: And besides the artwork I’m particularly interested on the “magic realism” aspect of KRZ. I’m intrigued to know which elements can be introduced in such inhospitable environment as it is a cave and to what extent will the player be “perturbed” or influenced on their quest.
JE: Well, a lot of the game takes place above-ground as well, at mundane locations along the surface highways of Kentucky: gas stations, rest stops, diners, etc. There’s a frequent crossing back and forth between the underground and the surface; that’s the spine of the story.
When I use the term “magical realist” to describe KRZ, it is deliberately in reference to writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie who are very politically-motivated, using fantasy and realism as techniques when writing for and about marginalized people. In the case of KRZ those marginalized people are the working class of the southern and midwestern US. A lot of southern gothic fiction by authors like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers has a similar impact, but rather than include overtly fantastic elements, they just tell realistic stories with such intense gravity that it imbues them with a sort of magical aura. So we’re drawing on that connection, too.
Flannery O’Connor said “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
AQNB: And why structuring KRZ in several mini episodes? Will players be “incentivised” enough to keep “playing” with future releases?
JE: We hope people do stick with the game despite it being broken up into parts released over a year. Each act has its own arc, but the main focus is on the overall plot arc of the game in a five-act structure. We like the idea of giving each act a bit of time to breathe. There are new characters and environments introduced in each act. While we do have the overall plot mapped out, it’s also nice to have time to change our minds about things and feel the details out organically over a longer period of time. And I think working on and releasing one act at a time gives us room to play with pacing in some unusual ways. We’re already enjoying that freedom building the first act.
Back to CBC…
AQNB: What’s the ideal state of mind if willing to “play” a Cardboard Computer game?
JE: I guess I don’t know. So far they’re all deliberately pretty short experiences, but I hope KRZ gives the player a bit more time to reflect. Maybe that in itself will make it more approachable!
AQNB: And if you identify and build your story subjects before deciding which game mechanics will be applied… how do you know point&click or other will adapt and be flexible enough for your storytelling?
JE: Earlier on, we thought it would end up more like a mouse-controlled platformer. The mechanics have really just evolved into what they are now, and they’re recognizable and describable as “point-and click adventure.” So the genre is not a constraint as much as a convenient description. It will all keep evolving and changing as we go, I expect.
AQNB: What’s so “magic” about the Mammoth Cave?
JE: I think all caves are magic; Mammoth Cave has the distinction of also being in Kentucky.
AQNB: Thank you Jake