Idylls Under Threat: An Interview With Jonas Kyratzes

If you’ve played the acclaimed 3D puz­zler The Talos Principle, you’ll have heard Jonas Kyratzes’ voice. Not lit­er­al­ly, but in the words of Elohim, the pater­nal god of the game’s glitched world, and those of Alexandra, humanity’s last record­ed voice. While that game, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with FTL writer Tom Jubert and Croteam, was Kyratzes’ most promi­nent recent work, he’s been mak­ing games with his wife Verena for years.

Most of these are adven­ture games set in the mytho­log­i­cal Lands of Dream, with The Sea Will Claim Everythingwhich was just re-released on Steam — being the most well-known. A cou­ple of years ago, Kyratzes ran a suc­cess­ful crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for the next Lands of Dream game, Ithaka of the Clouds. As we dis­cuss below, that project has grown larg­er than orig­i­nal­ly imag­ined, and will also result in a full-sized sec­ond game, The Council of Crows, which is due for release later this year (and which you can now vote for on Steam Greenlight).

The lat­est thing to come out of the Lands of Dream, how­ev­er, was A Postcard From Afthonia, a small vignette of a game that served as a reminder to me of what these games are all about: inter­est­ing and funny char­ac­ters in a lov­ing­ly drawn idyl­lic world that is, how­ev­er, under siege. Kyratzes never shies away from incor­po­rat­ing real-world polit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal themes into his games.

I sent Jonas some ques­tions over email to delve a bit deep­er into his moti­va­tions and inspi­ra­tions for the Lands of Dream, his work on The Talos Principle, and what’s in store next. Along the way, we dis­cuss cap­i­tal­ism, the influ­ence of William Blake, hybrid iden­ti­ties, and the Kyratzes’ col­lab­o­ra­tion with com­pos­er Chris Christodoulou.


Oscar Strik: You’re not afraid to ref­er­ence cur­rent and past polit­i­cal issues in your games. In A Postcard From Afthonia, for exam­ple, there’s talk of an evil mayor sell­ing off the beach­es of the island, which is some­thing that’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing in Greece. For those who are unfa­mil­iar with recent European eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal events, could you briefly elab­o­rate on your take on the sit­u­a­tion?

Jonas Kyratzes: Well, it’s a com­plex sit­u­a­tion and not easy to sum­ma­rize, but here’s an attempt. For the last few years, Greece has been the tar­get of extreme­ly bru­tal aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies that have forced the entire coun­try into abject pover­ty. A mas­sive trans­fer of wealth has taken place, from pub­lic to pri­vate hands, enforced by extreme­ly anti-democratic means. The pri­ma­ry polit­i­cal force behind this has been Germany, or more specif­i­cal­ly the German rul­ing class, in coop­er­a­tion with the Greek rul­ing class. That this is a sys­temic issue has become painful­ly obvi­ous with the elec­tion of SYRIZA, a sup­pos­ed­ly left-wing party that (under pres­sure from Germany, but it’s hard­ly an excuse) com­plete­ly sold out the Greek peo­ple and con­tin­ued with the same cat­a­stroph­ic poli­cies.

I hap­pen to be both Greek and German, and have expe­ri­enced both “sides” of this con­flict. I am very aware of German nation­al­ism and racism towards “lazy” Greeks who are “steal­ing our money,” but at the same time I can see that such big­otry isn’t actu­al­ly the cause of these events, but mere­ly a way of dis­tract­ing German peo­ple from the under­ly­ing eco­nom­ic mechan­ics, which will even­tu­al­ly affect them just as much. The same goes for fas­cist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece, who try to dis­tract peo­ple by blam­ing immi­gra­tion. The truth is that this does­n’t have any­thing direct­ly to do with Germany or Greece as such. What we’re wit­ness­ing is a pro­found sys­temic cri­sis.

To me as an indi­vid­ual, all of this is obvi­ous­ly frus­trat­ing, at times infu­ri­at­ing. It’s very dif­fi­cult to see peo­ple strug­gling to sur­vive in Greece while Germans, whose lives are infi­nite­ly eas­i­er, sneer at them. But it’s incred­i­bly impor­tant not to take one’s per­son­al emo­tions as a guide to pol­i­tics. Nationalism pro­vides no answers, no mat­ter how oppressed the Greeks, no mat­ter how racist the Germans. The truth is we’re all vic­tims of an out­dat­ed eco­nom­ic sys­tem, not par­tic­i­pants in some cul­ture war.

The refugee cri­sis, com­ing on top of all this, has real­ly just high­light­ed that even more. We need to orga­nize based on our com­mon eco­nom­ic inter­ests and our com­mon human­i­ty, not along lines of nation­al­i­ty, race, or gen­der. We need to because oth­er­wise we’re never going to win.


How does the ‘idyll under threat’ set­ting of the Lands of Dream con­nect to this view of cur­rent events?

That theme actu­al­ly goes back to the very first Lands of Dream game, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, which pre­cedes the cur­rent eco­nom­ic cri­sis. So I don’t think it’s a reac­tion to cur­rent events per se, though of course there is an influ­ence in games like The Sea Will Claim Everything and A Postcard From Afthonia. But I think “idyll under threat” is pret­ty much the def­i­n­i­tion of life. We’re all these incred­i­bly frag­ile beings, in an astound­ing­ly beau­ti­ful yet uncar­ing world, try­ing to find moments of mean­ing and hap­pi­ness before the end. Civilization itself is an attempt to pro­long and defend those moments, but it’s always under threat — by nature, by human­i­ty, by entropy. Doubly so these days, as we’re wit­ness­ing the painful and messy col­lapse of an entire sys­tem.


In your audio com­men­tary for A Postcard From Afthonia, you char­ac­terise Kyon and Katerina’s unborn child as “hybrid” — obvi­ous­ly a cat–dog in this case. What does hybrid­i­ty mean in the Lands of Dream, and how does this relate to how you view real-world iden­ti­ties?

I think hybrid­i­ty is present every­where, and always has been. The idea that any­thing in our his­to­ry or cul­ture is “pure” or “authen­tic” is absurd. It’s not just that cul­tures aren’t mono­lith­ic, it’s that the very con­cept of clearly-defined cul­tures sep­a­rat­ed by pre­cise bor­ders is laugh­able to any­one who’s actu­al­ly exam­ined it. Humanity is one big won­der­ful mess, always has been, always will be. Those who attempt to per­pet­u­ate these mytho­log­i­cal cat­e­gories are pro­mot­ing not only a high­ly reac­tionary ide­ol­o­gy, but also one that is total­ly con­trary to where the very cul­tur­al ele­ments they trea­sure orig­i­nate. It’s like advo­cat­ing incest because you love your fam­i­ly.

In the Lands of Dream, some of this gets trans­lat­ed into mythopo­et­ic terms, but real­ly, the prin­ci­ples remain the same. Hybridity destroys the myth that things are neat­ly divid­ed across cul­tur­al lines, and those whose posi­tion (or sense of self) depends in some sense on this divi­sion try to erad­i­cate it. Categories, espe­cial­ly vague cul­tur­al cat­e­gories that don’t reflect real-world inter­ests, are tremen­dous­ly use­ful at keep­ing peo­ple divid­ed while you plun­der them. That’s as true in the Lands of Dream as it is in our world.


The per­haps dif­fi­cult posi­tion that peo­ple with hybrid iden­ti­ties face in the real world (and in the Lands of Dream) is, if I under­stand it cor­rect­ly, bet­ter in Oneiropolis, a place where there is com­mon­al­i­ty among all beings. Will we see this rep­re­sent­ed in one of the future games, and do you see this pos­si­bly com­ing about on Earth?

Will we see Oneiropolis? In some fash­ion, yes. There’s a Lands of Dream novel I intend to write some­day that will be all about the city, and there are glimpses of it in most Lands of Dream sto­ries. But of course the main point of the City of Dreams is that it rep­re­sents what we aspire to, what the strug­gle is all about. Can this come about on Earth? Yeah, I think so. Not eas­i­ly; it is, with­out a doubt, the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge in human his­to­ry. On the other hand, I don’t think we’re that far from it already. We have the tools to build a bet­ter sys­tem — large­ly, in fact, due to pre­vi­ous sys­tems. And I’m not talk­ing about all of us becom­ing friends, hold­ing hands and singing Kumbaya. It’s not about per­son­al change. That is, after all, why it’s a city, not an indi­vid­ual state of being.


An impos­ing fig­ure in the Lands of Dream is Urizen: an enig­mat­ic and rather single-minded creator/industrialist/capitalist — how do you inter­pret the Urizen in William Blake’s work, and how did you adapt him for use in the Lands of Dream?

None of Blake’s mytho­log­i­cal fig­ures are one-dimensional, and the more Blake elab­o­rat­ed on his mythol­o­gy, the more com­plex they became. To Blake, Urizen cer­tain­ly does­n’t rep­re­sent “evil” as such; nor are the things he fre­quent­ly does rep­re­sent, such as law, reli­gion, rea­son, or sci­ence, evil in and of them­selves. It’s their fall­en nature, their incor­rect and sim­plis­tic appli­ca­tion, that is the prob­lem.

So far, in the Lands of Dream, we’ve main­ly seen Urizen in his role as king/priest, opposed to free­dom and imag­i­na­tion, some­what mono­ma­ni­a­cal­ly attempt­ing to impose his “sin­gle vision” (in Blake’s words) on the world. And that is his main func­tion, that is what he’s become, but it’s not all there is to him, and more of that will be explored before the end.

The funny thing about all this Blakean mythol­o­gy is that when we start­ed mak­ing Desert Bridge, the first game, it was­n’t there. I’d used a lot of Blakean imagery in a cou­ple of pre­vi­ous games (The Great Machine: A Fragment and The Museum of Broken Memories), but I always thought of those as a sep­a­rate thing. But as we were mak­ing Desert Bridge, I real­ized Urizen was there, and march­ing on Oneiropolis. It’s just how it was. So it’s real­ly been more of an explorato­ry process. Somehow the fig­ure of this fall­en, author­i­tar­i­an Demiurge struck a chord with me.


To you, in what way is Urizen con­nect­ed to other creator–demiurges, such as Elohim in The Talos Principle, for exam­ple?

They are sim­i­lar fig­ures, aren’t they? I don’t think I even thought about it when I was writ­ing Elohim, but the con­nec­tion is obvi­ous­ly there. You could say that both of them rep­re­sent sys­tems that no longer work quite as they should, though for dif­fer­ent rea­sons and in dif­fer­ent ways. Both of them are very much fig­ures of author­i­ty that are not to be ques­tioned. And of course they are both very much root­ed in the Bible (which is, to return to an ear­li­er ques­tion, an utter­ly tran­scul­tur­al work).

Elohim is more direct­ly present in The Talos Principle than Urizen is in the Lands of Dream games, and his story is wrapped up in a sin­gle game, not spread across half a dozen games and a decade or so of writ­ing. The advan­tage being that Elohim can express his point of view with dig­ni­ty. No mat­ter what you make of him in The Talos Principle, he has a cer­tain grace. That was extreme­ly impor­tant to me, because the cul­tur­al tra­di­tion that he’s derived from has that grace, even as it’s wrong in a mil­lion ways. Urizen is more remote, seen only through his poli­cies.

So I sup­pose you could argue that Elohim is more of an indi­vid­ual, where­as Urizen is more of a force, an idea.


To what degree does Blake’s Urizen fore­shad­ow the mod­ern state of cap­i­tal­ism? Or does he rep­re­sent a more under­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of human cul­ture?

I think Blake’s Urizen is at least par­tial­ly a cap­i­tal­ist fig­ure; cap­i­tal­ism (those “dark Satanic mills”) fig­ures promi­nent­ly in Blake’s poet­ry and thought, even if not iden­ti­fied as such. Some peo­ple misiden­ti­fy Blake as an anti-Enlightenment fig­ure, but he’s real­ly not. He’s not anti-reason or anti-science, but opposed to the inhu­man way in which rea­son and sci­ence were used in his day, and are still used in ours. He was opposed to cap­i­tal­ism, that is, but not to the human ener­gies that cre­at­ed and pow­ered cap­i­tal­ism.

Which is why char­ac­ters in the Lands of Dream iden­ti­fy my ver­sion of Urizen as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of False Reason, a per­vert­ed, fall­en under­stand­ing of logic. Urizen, if you ask me, sim­ply has too many pre­con­cep­tions about what works and how things are sup­posed to be. It’s a lot like mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism — you can yap on about “the cold, hard num­bers” all you want, but if your basic cal­cu­la­tions are off, if your assump­tions about how things work are erro­neous, the results will be hor­ri­fy­ing.

To go back to your orig­i­nal ques­tion, I’d argue that Urizen is tied to cap­i­tal­ism, but that does­n’t mean he does­n’t reflect — and isn’t also very much meant to reflect — under­ly­ing ways in which soci­eties func­tion. Priesthood is older than cap­i­tal­ism, and Urizen is very much a priest. So if he’s a cap­i­tal­ist fig­ure, it’s because cer­tain older pat­terns of author­i­ty find this par­tic­u­lar expres­sion in cap­i­tal­ism, and Blake was writ­ing in cap­i­tal­ist times.


How were you approached for writ­ing on The Talos Principle?

I just got an email out of the blue, Tom Jubert ask­ing me whether I was inter­est­ed in col­lab­o­rat­ing on this big­ger project for a well-known devel­op­er. I said yes, of course, and then it turned out it was Croteam and I said YES, OF COURSE. Tom had played an older game of mine, The Infinite Ocean, which is also about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and phi­los­o­phy, and thought it’d be fun to work togeth­er on this, espe­cial­ly because it was a rather huge project for one per­son. The folks in charge at Croteam played The Infinite Ocean, liked it, and off we went.

What was real­ly nuts was when we’d be talk­ing about nar­ra­tive and some­one from Croteam would say “well, you know how in The Infinite Ocean you did this…” and I’d be like, the guys who made Serious Sam have actu­al­ly played my game! They feel like fam­i­ly now, but at the time I was quite star-struck.


Could you describe your col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tom Jubert?

It was a dialec­ti­cal process. Each of us came up with some pitch­es for the story. Then we com­ment­ed on each oth­er’s pitch­es, improved them, set cer­tain goals and bound­aries. Then we pre­sent­ed them to Croteam, who picked one. Then we decid­ed who was going to write what (most of Tom’s work going towards Milton, most of mine towards Elohim, Alexandra and the ter­mi­nal texts). Then we wrote it, while still dis­cussing things via Skype and leav­ing com­ments on each oth­er’s work. Each of us con­tributed some­thing impor­tant to the oth­er’s work, shaped it, while at the same time we worked quite inde­pen­dent­ly.

It’s an odd and inter­est­ing process, which we’ve repeat­ed with Road to Gehenna, in that we’re both very sim­i­lar polit­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly, but at the same time we’re total­ly dif­fer­ent as peo­ple. Tom is witty and charm­ing and care­free, where­as I’m this lum­ber­ing com­mu­nist oaf-creature. And we could prob­a­bly argue about the details that we dis­agree on more than peo­ple who are polit­i­cal­ly com­plete­ly opposed. But that’s good, that helps make our col­lab­o­ra­tions rich­er and more var­ied.


I clear­ly felt your hand in The Talos Principle, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the many Blake quo­ta­tions, which are dear to my heart. While I think I’ve got a ten­ta­tive grasp on the most impor­tant themes of the game, I was some­what baf­fled by the third end­ing (Messenger). Why was it the most dif­fi­cult to get, rather than the end­ing that seems to rep­re­sent the ‘prop­er’ con­clu­sion to the game’s over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive?

Um. OK. So, story-wise it makes sense to me. The peo­ple who are the most devot­ed to doing as they’re told, who see that some­thing is wrong with the sys­tem but per­sist any­way, are the ones who are reward­ed the most (in the sys­tem’s terms).

But is that sat­is­fy­ing? Not entire­ly. (I do think it’s quite funny, though.) Would we do it the same way again? I can’t speak for Croteam, but prob­a­bly not. You live, you learn.


How did your col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chris Christodoulou start? Could you describe the feel of his com­po­si­tions for the new games?

I was look­ing for a com­pos­er for The Sea Will Claim Everything, because Helen Trevillion, who had scored the first few Lands of Dream games, had just had a child and was under­stand­ably busy. This was rather ter­ri­fy­ing, since her music had done much to define the mood of the games, whim­si­cal on the sur­face but fre­quent­ly melan­cholic under­neath, and find­ing some­one who could pull that off and make it feel right seemed very dif­fi­cult. Chris was rec­om­mend­ed to me by Konstantinos Dimopoulos, who’d been in touch with him about some other project. I went to his web­site, lis­tened to some sam­ples. One of them had that cer­tain some­thing I was look­ing for, so I hired him. Well, he did me the favour of being hired, since I could only pay him a per­cent­age of prof­its. And when he sent me the music he’d writ­ten, it blew me away. It cap­tured every­thing that I want­ed. I still lis­ten to it some­times and get the shiv­ers.

For The Council of Crows, Chris has writ­ten incred­i­bly atmos­pher­ic music [You can hear some of it in our pod­cast inter­view with ChrisOS]. It’s all very win­try and mag­i­cal and mys­te­ri­ous, and some of it out-Elfmans Danny Elfman. And some of it is just huge, full of dark­ness and beau­ty and melan­cho­lia and I don’t know, I can’t describe music and I’m bab­bling. I can tell you it impressed me so much I decid­ed to make the game big­ger, because I felt the game had to earn it.


How did The Council of Crows grow into what Ithaka of the Clouds would orig­i­nal­ly have been?

We’d been intend­ing to make a Lands of Dream game set in a win­try envi­ron­ment for a while now, and Ithaka seemed like a great place for it. But as time passed, things began to go wrong in an odd way. For one thing, I was stuck on the over­all struc­ture of Ithaka. Something felt wrong, and I could­n’t quite put my fin­ger on it — I felt like I was mak­ing a more lin­ear ver­sion of The Sea Will Claim Everything, and I kept dream­ing of this com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent game, a kind of inter­ac­tive novel about sail­ing from island to island. But one bit of Ithaka kept grow­ing, becom­ing a story of its own — The Council of Crows.

OK, so I fig­ured we’d turn it into a sep­a­rate, medium-sized game. We get to tell a cool story, the Indiegogo back­ers basi­cal­ly get an extra game (rais­ing the final total to three, plus 50% off The Talos Principle), every­thing’s won­der­ful. But then it would­n’t stop. I had an idea that imme­di­ate­ly dou­bled the size of the game. Then I had more ideas. It’s like I was dis­cov­er­ing a game I’d always been meant to make, but had some­how for­got­ten about. Still, I kind of resist­ed think­ing of it as a full-size Lands of Dream game. It was sup­posed to be small, dammit!

Meanwhile, while on hol­i­day in Greece, I real­ized the blind­ing­ly obvi­ous: Ithaka and my dream game about sail­ing were one and the same. Of course they were — I was imag­in­ing the Lands of Dream ver­sion of the Odyssey, and we know where the Odyssey ends. Stupid Jonas.

As I was think­ing about all this, our com­pos­er, Chris Christodoulou, start­ed writ­ing music. I had­n’t asked him for much, because I did­n’t imag­ine the game would be that huge, but he got inspired, and he kept writ­ing. And not only did he pro­duce more music, but music that was so much big­ger, so much more pow­er­ful than I’d antic­i­pat­ed. I felt the game had­n’t earned that yet… which means I start­ed expand­ing the game so it could fit the grandeur of the music. And then I final­ly admit­ted to myself that this was the big Lands of Dream game Ithaka was meant to be, that the names got changed around and the story went to unex­pect­ed places, but that this was the game I’d told peo­ple we would make. It took me a while, but I think fans will agree it was worth it in the end.


What can we expect from The Council of Crows?

Unlike TSWCE, which was set on sev­er­al islands, Council is all about one area: a small town and its sur­round­ing coun­try­side. But that means you get to explore things in a lot more detail than before. It’s about as big as TSWCE, actu­al­ly, just very dif­fer­ent­ly struc­tured.

The set­ting is the town of Fifth Pumpkin, in Hyperborea, the far north, so there’s a much stronger ele­ment of Norse mythol­o­gy: trees and crows and wolves and squir­rels and all that. But this being the Lands of Dream, there’s also plen­ty of odd­i­ty. And this time you play a char­ac­ter, as in The Book of Living Magic, not your­self as in The Sea Will Claim Everything, Desert Bridge, or Afthonia. A lit­tle boy who gets lost in a storm and ends up in Hyperborea. So expect themes of child­hood, and home, and learn­ing to live in the world.

As usual, there are many con­nec­tions to pre­vi­ous games, but it can be played com­plete­ly on its own.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.