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 Everything — which 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 Chris –OS]. 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.