15. Oooh, trippy !

Lands of Dream

I came in for the trip, I stayed for the marxism and the discussion about aesthetics. Let’s chat with Verena and Jonas Kyrazates about their Lands of Dream. French version here.

What are the Lands of Dream exactly ? You seem to be quite inspired by Dunsany, and your worlds sure are very litterate with a slew of bookish references... But then it’s a very special universe. How did the idea came to you ?

Jonas : I guess the Lands of Dream were created somewhere in the intersection between Lord Dunsany and William Blake. It all came together as we were making The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, which was concerned with themes of creation and destruction, permanence and impermanence, imagination and corruption. Making that game was a very organic process, and out of it came this rather complex setting which could be described as the world of imagination, under threat by a force that claims to be Reason, but isn’t.

The Fabulous Screech

The Land of Dream is transmedia : you also publish children books in the setting. What’s the biggest difference for you as creators between a book and an adventure game ?

Jonas : Telling a story in a book is structurally very different to telling one in a game. Games are very much about creating spaces, whereas a book is far more linear. The aesthetics, in terms of writing, are also different, since the text in games tends to be broken up and not always in a specific order, whereas "regular" fiction (whether it’s a short story or a novel or a children’s book) has to flow right, sentences building on each other in ways that are pleasing and interesting. That said, we’ve tried to give our children’s book a sense of space, of details that can be explored by a curious reader, both in the text and in the images.

"The Fish with no name", l’un des énigmatiques personnages décrits dans The Oneiropolis Compendium

Verena : Creating images for a children’s book is much more about telling a story, as opposed to creating spaces. The images have to complement the words and expand on them, making the story come alive in the reader’s mind. But, as Jonas said, we tried to create a book that children would want to explore. The structure of the book itself also reinforces that.

A big concern for a game designer is that he has to think of the way the player will approach his work. While playing The Sea Will Claim Everything, I sometime felt a bit lost, because of the dreamlike logic... I managed to progress (I haven’t finished the game yet, I’m slow like that) but I had to use a walkthrough at some points. Is it something you tried to mitigate ?

Jonas  : I try to make these games as accessible as possible, except when I think it’s funny or interesting to make them confusing. They’re never difficult for the sake of difficulty. But the truth is that players react in entirely unpredictable ways. Most people say the game is too easy, for example, but some find it very difficult. It may be a matter of taste, or habits, or just neurology. The same part of the game may be unbelievably difficult to one person and ridiculously easy to the next, and the part after that may be the exact opposite.

Jonas, in your short biography you say that you’re not interested in concepts like “notgames” and “art games”... I like that, I feel there’s a lot of bullshit behind those terms ! Can you expand a little bit on that idea ?

Jonas : I’ll begin by saying that I do understand why designers use these terms. There have been times when I’ve been tempted to just call my work "interactive art" to avoid the people who complain whenever they encounter something unusual. But I intensely dislike the terms "notgames" and "art games" because they tend to imply that games aren’t art, i.e. that you need to tag on a qualifier to turn them into art. Much like "literary fiction", these terms redefine art to describe only a very limited cluster of interlinked philosophical and aesthetic directions, while implying that everything else is... well, not art. To me, art is not a goal or an ideology ; I don’t set out to create "art" or send a "message". These things are the natural result of the creative process, of reaching (intentionally or not) for the sublime. Art is not a judgement, it’s a description. A lot of art is terrible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not art.

"The Great Catanthrope"

Although they may look childish (which is not an expletive, especially because so few games are intended in good faith for children), your games carry grown up concerns. There’s a lot of melancholy in a game like The Sea Will Claim Everything... Where does that come from ?

Jonas : It’s just a reflection of the world, I think. We live in a very bittersweet world, so full of horror yet so full of beauty and potential. I don’t see how one could tell any kind of story that doesn’t somehow reflect that. That feeling is particularly strong in the Lands of Dream games, of course, because they are so concerned with time.

Jonas presents himself as a socialist (yeah !). Do you view yourselves as political artists ? The foreclosure of the cave seems pretty obviously satirical, and I guess with your ties to Greece you must be pretty concerned by the economic situation (Hey, I might be french, I’m concerned too).

Jonas : I dislike the term "political artist" much in the way that I dislike "art games" - I don’t think art can be apolitical. The artist belongs to the polis and speaks to the polis, so what the artist produces is inevitably political. Designating a small number of people as "political artists" is how the increasingly disconnected art world has justified its own collaborationism. On the other hand, however, I think American rapper and communist Boots Riley put it best : "A rebellious aesthetic is not an actual revolutionary movement. An aesthetic is always absorbed and used by the class which is in power." Breaking with artistic traditions is not, by itself, a threat to the existing capitalist order.

The Sea Will Claim Everything

This one is more for Verena : the illustrations are gorgeous, and very dream-like. They look like a cross between Claude Ponti and Tommy Ungerer, with a bit of psychedelism thrown in. What are your influences ?

Verena : I would really love to give an answer to this that makes me sound incredibly thoughtful and deep, but as much as I’d like to claim that I was inspired by the likes of van Gogh or Monet, that is just not the case. It’s not that there aren’t a number of artists that I really admire (van Gogh and Monet amongst them), but I didn’t approach the first Lands of Dream game, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, with the conscious thought of "let’s make this like that guy’s work". Instead we were thinking of making a game that looked a bit like a child’s drawing, something that a very talented kindergartener might come up with. All the Lands of Dream games share a very odd... how to call it... flavour. It’s both whimsical and thoughtful, sometimes hilarious and sometimes very sad. If a story wants to pull off this sort of emotional 180° turn, then the player needs to really be in it. We thought that using this simple, child-like style might bring the player back to that place when they were four and everything seemed possible. And from then on it’s really just a matter of refining both the technique and our idea of what it should look like to arrive at the more detailed, smoother look of The Sea Will Claim Everything. From child’s drawing to children’s book, basically.

Verena et Jonas

How do you manage to work together as a couple ? Is it a source of tension, or mostly a way to share ideas ?

Verena : There really isn’t that much tension, although Jonas sometimes gives me a much-needed kick in the behind when I start feeling like we’ve worked on a project for about a century and I just want to stop and sleep for a decade or two. Honestly, though : mostly it’s a pretty awesome experience because we are always right here, in the same space, which makes it very easy and natural to quickly throw a few ideas around and see where they take us. We also think alike to a certain degree, which sometimes will take us into really crazy territory where one of us has an idea and then the other elaborates on it and so on and so forth until we arrive at the mini-game of "whack the schädel" or a giraffe with an ostrich’s head. The process is really quite natural and I think we’re doing a fine job of motivating each other.

Jonas : Yeah, it’s fairly harmonious. It would be easier if we had a bit more space (our flat is rather small and I’d kill several people for an office to work in) but all in all it’s a pretty simple process.

What’s the weirdest game you’ve ever played ?

Jonas : You know, I’m not really weirded out by games that are intentionally strange. Games like Frog Fractions or Space Funeral, though they are very good, don’t really strike me as weird. What’s really weird is the unintentionally surreal stuff, like Skyrim. Coming out of a beautiful if generic landscape into a village to meet a family composed of Fake Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Swedish Dalek and a child who obviously went to an American boarding school, all while a glitched-out bear dances in the sky... now that is really weird.

Verena : Don’t forget the convulsing dragon skeleton that startled the shit out of us.

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