Interview with Jonas Kyratzes: From Lands of Dream to The Talos Principle
First of all, we would like to thank you for giving us this interview. Let's start with the essentials. No doubt our readers are already familiar with your work, however would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?
My name is Jonas Kyratzes and I was raised in Thessaloniki. Presently I live in Germany, in Frankfurt to be specific, and I have been designing games for almost 15 years. I started quite young, with a freeware adventure game called «Last Rose in a Desert Garden». Since then I have made several small games and some considerably longer ones - all of them share an emphasis on screenplay and text. I think I'm more recognized as a writer than a game designer. The most well known game series I have created, along with my wife Verana, is the «Lands of dream». «The sea will claim everything» is the most widely known installment of the series. I have also written with Tom Jubert the screenplay for «The Talos Principle». Now I work on the story of «Serious Sam 4».
Recently you co-wrote the story for the breathtaking "Talos Principle" and its expansion "Road to Gehena". How different is it to work in a large collaborative project in comparison to creating your own personal games? How much creative freedom did you have while writing the story for Talos? What have learned from working on such a big project?
It was different. Mainly because I worked with Tom -collaborating with another writer is a totally different thing to writing alone. When I write my own games with Verana, it is an altogether different experience, because we are too much alike, it's like we share the same mind. Whereas, Tom and I are very different people, though we do share similar views in politics and philosophy. We are quite unlike, so it was indeed a novel experience working together.
On the other hand, we had a lot of creative freedom. There were, of course, things that could not be changed: the game world, the stylistic choices, several things were already set. However, in terms of the story we wanted to tell, the themes and the ideas expressed, in these areas we were allowed a great deal of freedom. Therefore, I don't think it was anything like working for a major developer, where all our ideas or storytelling decisions would have to be approved by some manager, who might reject them because "they do not fit the intended target audience" or some other nonsensical reason like that. We did not come across anything close to that.
The most significant lesson I learned from the whole experience, I think, is the importance of talking with your teammates, the importance of communication in a large scale project with many people working on it. You must get acquainted with the people you work with, get to know them as individuals and human beings. With proper communication among coworkers, all sorts of unnecessary problems can be avoided. For example, when we started working on the game, there were a few problems, not serious ones, but we seemed to be plodding for a while, because we were not sure what each other wanted to do. We weren't sure what the company expected us to do. "Should we do this?" "Are we allowed to do that?" "Will they mind this?" The better we got to know each other, the more we conversed, the less problems we came across. Things got even better and more straightforward with Road to Gehena. And things still continue to get easier, because now we have all become friends. This is of extreme importance. When working on a big project you have to communicate with others properly and frequently. In our case we need to use Skype, sometimes we even have to meet in person with our collaborators. For instance, in the case of «Serious Sam» I went to Croatia with Verana to write the screenplay with the designing team. So, communication! This is what is most important.
The release of "Ithaka of the Clouds" has been repeatedly postponed and now seems to have given place to the upcoming "Council of Crows". Is it one or two games we are expecting to be released? Tell us something about them.
It is going to be two games. First the «Council of Crows» and then «Ithaka of the Clouds». The «Council of Crows» is the game we announced as «Ithaka of the Clouds» some time ago, while «Ithaka of the Clouds» is going to be something completely different. The «Council of Crows» is the classic «Lands of Dream» point-and-click adventure game we promised. The story will not be quite the same as the one originally planned for «Ithaka of the Clouds», in a way it is a part of that story. But in terms of game design, this is going to be the game we set out to create initially - a classic, long «Lands of Dream» game like «The sea will claim everything».
«Ithaka of the Clouds» will be more like a «choose your own adventure» type of game. A classic text game with a whole lot of text, but also graphics and music. It will not be a classic point-and-click game. I think both games are going to be great. The story we set out to tell some time ago has grown considerably and will be told by both games. «Council of crows» will be released first -very soon I hope, in a few months time, unless I... kick the bucket first (Editor's note: Jonas had a nasty cold when giving this interview). «Ithaka of the clouds» will come later, it still needs a lot of work, there is enough text in that game for 3-4 books!
Did you expect Talos to be such a big hit? Has that opened doors for you in the gaming industry?
Was Talos such a big hit? I certainly hope so... I am not sure, marketing did not go very well at the beginning, the game needed some time to get in touch with the audience and start making sales. Obviously compared to my other games, it was an astounding success. Reviews were very positive, which is excellent. I don't know yet if it has opened doors for me. On finishing Talos, I went straight to working on the story of "Serious Sam 4", so there has been no opportunity for things to sink in. However I do think Talos has made a difference. Whenever my name is mentioned in the media, it is in relation to this game. Therefore it must have made some difference. But I can't say quite yet that I now have better job offers and conditions because of Talos. However, as time goes by, I think the difference will become much more noticeable... at least I hope so!
You are currently working on the script for the new Serious Sam game. Should we expect a story with philosophical undertones similar to your other works or will you strive to follow the story logic of shooter games?
«Serious Sam 4» is going to be a «Serious Sam» game. In short, it will be a comedy, an «action comedy», or something like that. Of course there will be a few serious thoughts and ideas there, but I don't want to repeat myself in my writing. Besides, I always thought it would be fun to write something like that. I should clarify that I am writing the story with Verana, not just by myself, and she has actually written most of Sam's "silly macho one-liners". The feel of the game will be that of a classic "Serious Sam" - hopefully even better! I hope we are doing a good job, I hope we are writing a more interesting, funnier, more structured story. But it will be a "Serious Sam" story.
In your more personal projects, you are working with your wife Verana. How easy or difficult is it to work on the same project with your wife? Do you often suggest changes or corrections to one another?
Working with Verana is very natural and simple, we don't have many problems. We think alike and we suggest ideas to each other, we recommend changes. We don't usually plod and we don't fight. It's very easy-going! We have worked on many things together, such as in the theater or in games. In general, we help each other in our writings. Since we are always together, working together, doing everything together, there is never a big problem, perhaps because we are very much alike.
In "The Sea will claim everything" poetry goes hand in hand with philosophy and ideology. In your opinion, should art be primarily poetic expression and emotional/existential experience or should it strive to express a philosophical/political view of the world? What reactions (positive or negative) have you come across regarding the clear political stance of your games?
It's a bit difficult to answer this question. I don't believe that art should be expression or experience. I view art more as something visionary, something that transcends the artist as an individual. The artist's job is to do his best so that he brings into our reality an idea, that elusive something that came from "somewhere else". So, it is not my job as an artist to express a specific political ideology or my personal experiences. My job as an artist is simply to express the truth. Of course, you can't help but see the artist himself too. He has his ideas, he has his beliefs and naturally these seep through into the game, but ... the artist's goal is not to make a propaganda piece. Art can be political in the sense that it can touch political issues, but its aim isn't to bring about political change, art is not necessarily a political weapon.
So, the way I see it, the only thing that matters is for the artist to strive to express his personal truth. Even if he doesn't like it. Even if it's difficult. Simply to express what he inwardly believes to be true. Whatever that is, political or not.
As for the reactions that I have come across regarding the political stance of my games: there are some people who are bothered by it. However, I have also met people who are conservatives, who have different political views to mine, yet they like my games. It doesn't bother them that they express a specific political view, - and as I have already said I don't believe that this is the purpose of my games, not in this sense, I am not trying to send a message through them. Of course they openly touch upon certain subjects, but it doesn't bother these people. Like it doesn't bother me. I have read many books by authors who were conservatives or Christians - I am not a Christian. It doesn't bother me, if it's beautiful, if it's true. We don't all have the same ideas, we don't all see the world in the same way. The important thing is for it not to be propaganda, not to be lies. The important thing is to really believe in what you write.
We know that you are very interested in politics and problems of modern society. Respect and tolerance feature prominently in the plot of The Sea will claim everything - and are actually quite a timely concern. Would you be interested in writing a game about recent world developments, like the war, the refugee crisis, the economic crisis, the resurgence of racism and xenophobia? Do you think games are fit to express such messages and concerns?
I am sure that issues like the refugee crisis and war will be very prominent in «Ithaka of the Clouds». Simply because it is a game based on (Konstantinos) Cavafy's "Ithaka" and other of his writings, because it is a game based on (Homer's) "Odyssey." All these works contain motifs that inevitably lead into the creation of a game about refugees, wars, xenophobia, "barbarians". But as I have already said, for me it doesn't quite work like that. I mean, I am not trying to create a propaganda piece. I am not trying to say: "This is what the game is about". The game's plot, its story must breathe freely in its own space and I have to respect that. These themes will feature in the game, because they are an important part of the story. Not because I am trying to create something that will change people's political views.
Like I said, I don't want my games to contain ideas and messages in that way. If I wanted to write a political message, I would write a message or an article. Of course games as art are always allowed to have political themes. But they must touch on these themes with artistic means, which is quite different to the way such themes are approached in an article or a political treatise. What matters most in art is the story itself and the characters. These the writer must respect above all. Everything else must follow.
What do you think of Kickstarter, both as a concept and as execution? Does it actually help independent developers? Are backers safeguarded against fund mismanagement by the designers?
No, I don't think they are safeguarded at all. For instance, we wanted to finish our game in 6-8 months and it ended up taking us 3-4 years. It's a funny, modern, capitalist idea. Of course it can help developers and it has certainly helped us, but I don't think it's the best route. I prefer funding sites like "Patreon", that support creators monthly and installments of the projects are released regularly.
I think something like this is a bit more useful than Kickstarter. Certainly some kickstarters have succeeded and occasionally they work amazingly well. Other times however you have no idea what you are doing, you don't have an inkling how long it will take to finish the game. Especially in regards to games, it is very difficult to plan a release date. More than any other art form, games change a lot during the creation process. But what can you do, we live in strange world. Everyone does what he can to survive and create what he wants to create.
You live and work in Germany. Do you think that is an advantage for your work? If you lived in Greece, do you think it would be easier or harder to promote your work and to get the attention of a studio like Croteam?
I don't think living in Germany makes any difference. When I was hired by Croteam, they had no idea where I live. I believe they thought I lived in the UK or something, I'm not sure, anyway they weren't concerned about it. Why would they be? They had seen my games, they knew the quality of my work, that was all they were interested in. Of course I appreciate that today it's difficult to live in Greece for many reasons - working in Greece today is difficult too. But ultimately I don't think it makes such a big difference. Truth be told, I want to leave Germany. Undoubtedly there are some advantages, but for someone like me who doesn't work in an office but through the internet, these are not significant. Also, the weather is horrible!
What place do adventure games have today among modern games? Lately we have seen many remastered versions of classic adventure game titles. What do you think about this? Is it the latest trend, lack of new ideas, or simply a cash grab?
One thing is certain: adventure games are not dead, like we kept being told until recently. There is still an audience for them - and that is good. Now, regarding remastered versions of old games... some are bad, others are well-made. I don't have a set opinion on the matter. I think sometimes it's good for remastered editions to be released, it gives a chance for these games to become known to a younger audience. Some of these old games don't run in modern systems, they have compatibility issues. So this isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, I want to see new games! It's a little boring to see so many old games. But, okay, we still get new adventure games. It would be nice to see something big, a game with a long story. Personally, I would love that.
What are you dreams about your future in gaming? Is there an ambitious project in the back of your mind that you would like to create at some point and are waiting for the right conditions? Is there an artist/designer/studio in the gaming community that you would like to work with?
I have a lot of ideas, many games that I cannot create by myself alone at this point. I am waiting for the right moment, the opportunity to work with someone who can help me realize these projects. Of course I can't tell you anything about them! But yes I have some ambitious ideas. Come to think of it, it seems to me that «Ithaka of the Clouds» is one of these ideas, it may well be one of the great games that I will feel happy about when I have finished it, I will be able to say that I have created one of my dream projects, one of the things I have always wanted to do. Some of these projects require more than 1-2 people working on them. I have in mind something that is more akin to an RPG, we will see about that. We have to see how things go, the game scene changes so rapidly, so does my place in the world, so... we'll see!
As for designers that I would like to work with, yes, there are many amazing designers with whom I would like to work with at some point, many studios that create great projects. But there is nothing specific. For now, I want to see how things turn out, we will see.
How do you see the future of gaming in general? What games would you like to see in real or virtual shelves? And speaking of "virtual shelves", what do you think about Steam and GOG? Do you think there is a difference in their ideology?
I'm not sure how I see the future of gaming. It's hard. We live in times of a great crisis of the capitalist system and I believe that this affects gaming too. There are a few positive developments, there are also negative ones, but generally it is just chaos. There are good things in the indie game scene, there is also much boring stuff. Where this goes, is almost as big a question as what's going to be the future of mankind. I have no idea right now. I hope it will all turn out well.
Personally I would like to see more freedom in games. There is a tendency to follow clichés. Take for instance the open-world games. I really like the concept of creating worlds, entering a world and doing stuff in it. But in the end, all open-world games follow the same formula, and that quickly becomes boring. There is a tendency to do everything the same way, to follow the same rules. There is no reason for so much restriction within a genre. I hope for this to change, I would like to see more artistic freedom in games. Both in AAA and indie games. Indie games too tend to be way too similar, everyone now is making roguelikes, and that's just as boring as what's happening with AAA games.
As for Steam and GOG, of course there are differences between them in terms of how they sell things. This is very nice, but I don't want to go so far as to turn it into a political thing. Ultimately, they are just two websites that sell games, they work within the current capitalist system and that is all.
Thank you very much for the wonderful interview, we are happy and honored to have spoken with you. We wish you all the best in the future, both professionally and personally. And we are looking forward to taking you out for a coffee next time you come to Greece!