Interview with Marcus Richert, Raitendo

Se presenta la entrevista en inglés, la lengua de trabajo del desarrollador de juegos Flash, Marcus Richert (apodado Raitendo), autor de títulos como el afamado Raid Gaza! y You Only Live Once -entre otros muchos-, creaciones caracterizadas por su provocación y narrativas radicales como instrumento de crítica social y política.

Marcus Richert en un vagón de tren de Japón, su actual lugar de residencia.

Biographical notes (origins, formation, influences…)

I was born on the island of Öland in southern Sweden in the early 80’s. My father was born in the 1920’s into a rich upper class Stockholm family but lived the life of a rogue adventurer, marrying 3 times, having a total of 15 children. In the 1960’s, he bought the big estate «Pedruxella Gran» on Mallorca with a fortune he had made smuggling Swedish securities/stock to Switzerland. He lived there with two of his wives – at the same time, for a while! – and at the time 8 children (because the first marriage hadn’t been annulled in Spanish court, he married his second wife on a boat on international water). My father wasn’t good with money and soon both his wives left him, and he eventually lost all his money because as it turns out, owning a large medieval Spanish estate was quite expensive to maintain, especially on no income. My dad returned to Sweden and moved to Öland and built, together with his younger brother, a ramshackle Spanish restaurant without a roof in a protected nature reserve, illegally without any permit. And that’s where he met my mom on the opening night, a 19 year old rather sheltered Stockholm girl. They married after a week and before the summer was over they had moved to Spain, this time to a small village on the southern coast of Andalusia, where my dad worked on-and-off as a fisherman. Eventually they moved back to Öland, where they had first met, before my older sister was born, then me, then 5 other little brothers and sisters.

I grew up there, very much countryside far from everywhere, where there were not real any idea of «social class». There were no rich kids, no poor kids. Very egalitarian, stereotypical Swedish I think, but this isn’t the reality in most of Sweden, esp. not in the cities. When I became a teenager, my friends and I became punks and satanists. We didn’t really rebel against our parents, more against some idea of «society» in general, I think, not based on what we had experienced so much as to what we thought society might look like. But I don’t think our teachers really cared either, even the countryside was kind of liberal. Though this was the mid-90’s, when punk was considered long dead, we were very much inspired by the politically-minded (almost exclusively) Swedish punk bands from the 1980’s. I loved bands like «Ebba Grön» who were very very political, very left-wing, with songs like «Always red, always right» and songs about war and peace, the iron curtain, the Palestinian situation. I think I didn’t often understand the meaning or the backgrounds of the songs very well but they still left a strong impression on me. I think I also picked up the whole punk mentality, «you don’t have to be good at what you do! You just have to do it! You have a voice!» You know, that type of thing.

After high school I studied linguistics at UCL in London and then East Asian studies /Journalism in Lund, Sweden. I had been making various small animations and games since high school but at university I actually started earning money doing it, and after that I never really ever considered getting another career. I moved to Kyoto, Japan for the first time in 2005 and have stayed here for most of the time since then.

Why use the video game as a tool for political and social criticism?

I’m a typical «jack of all trades, master of none» – I can program, I can draw, I can write, I have ideas, but I don’t excel at any of these things. For people like this who want to be seen, making games by yourself was kind of ideal when I started out, in the mid-00’s. My dream was actually to work with animation, not games, but I don’t think I ever had the patience or the skill to make it work. I have made some small animations too, both political and apolitical, but they weren’t good enough to make a splash. If you were an artist type, I mean an illustrator or an animator, you still had to be really really good or make something extremely interesting to stand out, this didn’t really change all that much with the advent of the Internet, not immediately. You got rid of the gatekeepers, sure, but you still had to be good. But if you were making games, this was a whole new world that was opening up at the time, there was hardly any competition. Shareware games had of course existed since the 1980’s but you didn’t need any computer know-how to play flash games, you just needed a computer with an Internet connection.

It was such an explosive phenomenon growing out of nowhere and the beautiful thing about it was that it wasn’t ever co-opted by the larger companies because there was never enough money in it, it was just a bunch of kids (and later 20 year olds, 30 year olds…) doing whatever they wanted, often low in artistic value and high in shock value, sometimes ultra-violent, sometimes even pornographic. There was something of a connection to the software piracy scene too, the idea that started out here that everything should be free, so of course we’re going to share our games, our movies for free, and so should everybody else, whether they want to or not. The Pirate Bay was of course based in Sweden, and the first Pirate Party was launched there too, so these ideas were perhaps especially strong there.

I think the site and the flash scene that developed around it in the early 00’s really was our take on the «punk» phenomenon, in a way allowing kids to relive the ’80’s punk scene in our own way through the Internet, through games development and animation. There was certainly a lot less sex, drugs, rock and roll, but this whole thing, sharing your shoddy work and having it viewed by an international audience of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions or tens of millions of people, it was very exhilarating, very exciting. I personally didn’t set out to be exclusively political in my games but I made whatever I felt like at the time. Being politically minded, sometimes my games ended up being political, but initially, it was more childish, more blood, poop, swearwords. One of my first creations was a short animation of an old woman getting shit thrown in her face, and complaining about it. I remember winning two tickets for the cinema with this 8 second movie, in some silly, poorly monitored competition sponsored by a Swedish lemonade brand.

What leads you to choose certain topics? What is the work of previous documentation like?

There was never really any method to it. Two conditions, I guess – if there was something in the news that made me upset AND I suddenly got an idea from somewhere, then I’d sit down and do it. It was never awfully planned out, in my professional (and non-professional) life I have always done what I’ve felt like at the moment, maybe as a result of ADHD (my wife says «No! You’re just incredibly lazy»). If I had a sudden silly idea that I thought I could finish quickly, I would try and do it.

Why the Flash format as a means of production? Why are they so short and direct? How do you fit the criticisms to them?

Making a short game – not always political – was like a break for me from whatever the bigger project I was working on at the time. I made money from larger (non-political) games, so I couldn’t afford to spend to much time on the political ones/short ones I made for fun. As a result, the ones I made were often made in a day or two, or a week at the absolute most. Flash was an extremely easy software to work with if you were visually minded and not from a programmer background, I think. It was also, in the ’00’s, a great way of reaching a lot of people. It’s the only software I know how to make games in.

Is there a community of Flash developers who participate in your guidelines? Who would you highlight? What would be their most relevant work? Why?

When I began making political games, I was certainly inspired by Molleindustria, author of McDonald’s Videogame (2006), who I think was a trailblazer when it came to political games, at least that reached a wide audience. There was also a game where you threw shoes at George W. Bush (I think this one: Sock and Awe (2008)). I wouldn’t say I was inspired by the game – which didn’t have a message, and was super simplistic – but I do think I was inspired by the amount of media attention it got. I wanted to get attention too, to stand in the limelight. Outside of political games, I had a lot of influences/inspirations in the contemporary flash games scene, there was a lot of interesting content being produced at the time. I loved Kian Bashiri’s You Have to Burn the Rope (2008), for example, which I made a pastiche of in You Have To Defecate Upon King Bhumibol (2009). I was very inspired by many Japanese developers too, like Takahiro Miyazawa (SKT Products), but Japanese developers and people in general are very apolitical and I don’t actually know of a single Japanese political game.

Which of your own works have had the greatest acceptance at user level? Does this assessment coincide with your own preferences?

Hmmmm… out of my political games, the one that got the most attention was Raid Gaza! (2008), but I don’t know that it was well-received by players. My own feelings about the game? No creative person can be happy with something they made more than 10 years ago in the beginning of their career 😉 It’s ugly and clunky, but it was certainly well-timed, at least, and the criticism against Israel is still valid.

My game You Only Live Once (2009), which wasn’t political but more a parody of the game concept of «game over/continue» which was a finalist at the «Sense of Wonder Night» at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show was probably my best-received game overall. It’s a funny concept, but as a game, I hate everything about it, the art style, character design, the controls, the level design… it’s so ugly I don’t even want to look at it!

Of my political games, I’m definitely most satisfied You Have To Defecate Upon King Bhumibol (2009), maybe especially because I’m still very happy with the ending song I made together with a close friend. My most well-made game though is definitely Lee-Lee’s Quest 2 (2012), a parody of various video game tropes.

What future projects do you manage? Continue with the political denunciation through mechanics and provocative messages?

I haven’t worked with flash games for quite a while now. I haven’t actually released anything under my own name since 2014. Unfortunately flash games feel like a thing of the past. These days, you can hardly play a flash game in your browser without changing your browser settings and clicking through two ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO LOAD THIS CONTENT? popups, and in less than a year, Chrome will retire Flash permanently, making sites like Newgrounds a graveyard. It’s a great sorrow to me. I don’t think there’s a place like Newgrounds today for short and silly games like the ones I used to make, where they can quickly and easily reach a mainstream audience. Even if you can put games for free on Steam, it feels like a closed market, it’s only for dedicated gamers, you can’t reach out to normal non-gamers this way, like you could with Flash. And asking people to make an effort to download and install a game that takes less than a minute to play? It’s a stupid proposition. Flash was the perfect platform for what I did and I really miss it. I wonder, why did we all decide we had to kill Flash? We made the web a more boring place as a result.

As things stand, I don’t know if I’m going to go back to making political games in the near future, but I would like to make more political animations if I could find the time.

My current project right now is very apolitical and very analogue – a card game inspired by hanafuda, a Japanese playing card game.

Actual proyecto de Raitendo.

Do you think, in the words of Jane McGonigall, that «VIDEO GAMES CAN CHANGE THE WORLD»?

If I’m being honest, I have a pretty negative view of games at the moment, but it might stem partially from not being up-to-date with the scene, and just being poorly informed. I haven’t owned a games console since the Wii and I now only play analogue games, board and card games, with friends and family. I believe in video games as a medium for sure and I’m convinced that in the future, games will become more meaningful then they are today. If a book can change the world, of course a game has the same or even more potential. That said, as it stands today, I’m not sure I believe that video games are changing the world in a meaningful or political or larger non-cultural sense, but I’m convinced they one day will.

To conclude, how do you value the expansion and acceptance of video games as cultural products? What recent titles would you highlight?

This is a very hard question for me. I hate games that are designed to be addictive, games that hide away their content behind hours of grinding. I don’t believe games that contain these elements are deserving to be accepted as «cultural products». They are pure «content» to me, like those spammy blogs/»news sources» with clickbait titles, or soap operas/telenovelas. I’m not anti-technology and I love my smartphone and I use it all the time just like everybody else, but when I see Japanese «salarymen» or «office ladies» who grind away their days in cubicles grind away their commute on the train on games like «Puzzle & Dragons» and other similar games too, it makes me a little sad. I wish these games weren’t so widely accepted. On the other hand, I’m sure now is a great time for indie game developers who are prepared to spend the time on making larger, more advanced games and reach wider audiences easier, and I think this is a very good thing. I did play Undertale for example and was quite impressed with it.