Interview about video games: Jordan Magnuson

Se presenta la entrevista en inglés, la lengua de trabajo del desarrollador de juegos, Jordan Magnuson, cuyos títulos juegan con las emociones geométricas para aproximarnos dramáticos acontecimientos recientes como el genocidio camboyano o las violaciones de Derechos Humanos en el sudeste asiático. Entre sus producciones podemos destacar The Killer, Freedom Bridge, Grandmother o Loneliness.

Fotografía de Jordan Magnuson y su hijo Marcus.

Biography: brief personal details, academic training, professional career, influences

I was born in Tunisia in 1984, the son of a cultural anthropologist. Consequently, I grew up with sand in my teeth, eating spicy food. I miss Tunisia, and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night craving Harissa. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. I miss Tunisia because I haven’t been back there in years: I’ve spent most of my life as a nomad, wandering from place to place, and it seems to be in my blood now. I don’t feel like I have a home anywhere, and I can’t seem to settle down. I guess I can blame my parents for that.

I grew up speaking three languages, reading a lot, writing a lot, drawing. My parents encouraged curiosity and creativity, and when I was young I had what seemed like an infinite well of each (which it turns out is not so unusual for children). I guess this is a story about me and videogames, so I should say that I never had any videogame consoles as a child. My first encounter with computer games was on my father’s Macintosh which he was using to write his Ph.D. dissertation in Tunisia. Duck Hunt, Stunt Copter, Social Climber. I thought these games were moderately fun, as a kid, but they didn’t make a huge impression on me. The first computer game that really made an impression on me was SimCity 2000, which I played some years later. I loved Legos, I loved to create, and SimCity kind of blew my mind from that standpoint. Around that time I also came into contact with some other games that I enjoyed, including Prince of Persia, the old LucasArts adventure games, Myst, and some of the early shareware titles.

I liked playing games, but even as a child I was more interested in coming up with game ideas of my own, which I filled several notebooks with growing up. Eventually I learned some Turbo Pascal and Visual Basic when I was twelve or thirteen, then I found Clickteam’s Multimedia Fusion and I was off to the races. During high school (now in Cairo) I founded a shareware games company with a friend, and we released a couple of titles that sold a few hundred copies between them. Mostly we made local multiplayer games, because that’s what we enjoyed playing together.

At university (now in the United States) I launched the indie games website, but generally my interest in videogames waned. That old tired story: the medium just didn’t seem capable or interested in addressing the questions that I found myself caring about (in Annie Dillard’s words, “Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?”). After studying a bit of everything I graduated from university with a degree in physics, got married, and moved to Korea, where I taught English for a while. While in Korea I was introduced to Jason Rohrer’s early work, and his games made me question everything I thought I knew about videogames: they were short, personal, and powerful; they defied typical gameplay expectations, and they seemed to punch above their weight–and they were interested in questions of love, death, and the human condition.

I was inspired, and started making short games about various things I encountered in my day-to-day life: a game about loneliness, prompted by the middle school students I was teaching; a game about the irony and tragedy of the division between the Koreas, prompted by a visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. These little games garnered a few responses from some of the people who played them, and my excitement in the potential of videogames as a medium was reignited. So in 2011 I launched a Kickstarter project to travel Asia for a year on a shoestring budget and make short games about the things I encountered along the way, in what I thought of at the time as a kind of analog to travel writing (I called the project “Gametrekking”).

Since the conclusion of that project I’ve continued to wander, and have continued to make short experimental videogames on and off as my other commitments have allowed. Most recently I completed an MFA degree in digital art and new media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I made some small games inspired by my new experience of parenthood, and wrote a thesis about how videogames can also be poems.

Applying the «A Not Game» concept to your creations, such as The Killer, is a true narrative revolution. You could tell our readers what lies behind this term

I came across the term “notgame” in 2010 in a manifesto written by Michaël Samyn and Auria Harvey of Tale of Tales, right around the same time I discovered Jason Rohrer’s games and was rethinking everything I thought I knew about videogames and interactive media. Michaël and Auria had made some very interesting videogames and interactive artworks around that time that were, like Jason’s work, pushing at the boundaries of classic conceptions of “games.” In 2010 they wrote this manifesto about “notgames,” and started a forum dedicated to discussing the concept. Basically, it was a place for avant garde indie game developers to gather, post prototypes, and discuss how we might expand the notion of what videogames could be. (Several game makers who would prove to be quite influential were active on the forum at that time, including Ed Key, who posted his first screenshots of Proteus there, Erik Svedang, who was working on Blueberry Garden, Jeroen Stout, who later made Dinner Date, and Josh Larson, who went on to work on That Dragon Cancer).

The basic idea behind “notgames” (if I can risk distilling it), was that videogames were an exciting new medium, and that they shouldn’t be chained to classic conceptions of games. That we could make videogames that were even intentionally notgames, and in so doing, escape some of the limitations that videogame developers were imposing on themselves at that time (that their games should be “fun”, or challenging, or have certain kinds of goals, or provide a certain amount of “entertainment value,” etc.). To quote from the manifesto:

Can we create a form of digital entertainment that explicitly rejects the structure of games? What is an interactive work of art that does not rely on competition, goals, rewards, winning or losing?

The manifesto inspired me, the other developers on the forum inspired and challenged me, and I found the concept of “notgames” very liberating as I attempted to make small videogames about abstract concepts like loneliness, that didn’t lend themselves to traditional gameplay goals or notions of “fun.” For a while I labeled most of my creations as “notgames,” (I may have explicitly labeled more creations as notgames than any other developer, I’m not sure). The point of this label, in my mind, was not to say that my creations weren’t videogames, or to say that videogames shouldn’t be fun, but rather, I saw the label as a kind of challenge to the player; a provocation, if you will (and also a kind of warning). I would post my games (see, I still call them games in addition to notgames) on places like Newgrounds or Kongregate, where people were expecting to encounter traditional flash games, and suddenly they would find themselves confronted by this artifact calling itself a “notgame” and presenting a very different kind of experience. That juxtaposition, between games and notgames, was important to me: in my mind it was a crucial part of working to expand notions of what videogames can and should be.

Jordan Magnuson
The video game Margarite Duras (2013) is a good example of notgame developing by Tale of Tales.

For readers interested in going deeper, I’ve said more about the significance of the notgame label in an interview with games culture website Videogame Tourism, and given a talk at IndieCade that dives further into this topic (Videogames Are Not Games–And Why That Matters).

How has your time in Southeast Asia influenced your titles?

Well, for many of my titles, it was a very direct influence. As I’ve mentioned, my Gametrekking project was fundamentally about making small games inspired by travel in Asia (primarily Southeast Asia, as well as Korea and Taiwan). When I set out, I didn’t have a strict definition of what that meant (games “inspired by travel”): the idea was that I would just go, and see what my experience was like, see what I encountered, see what impacted me, and make some games that would try to capture some of that.

Some of my Gametrekking games ended up being about particular moments from my travels: the kindness of strangers I encountered along the way (The Kindness of Strangers), or watching a man leave flowers by his grandmother’s columbarium during Tet in Vietnam (Grandmother). Other games ended up being about complex cultural or historical realities tied to the places I visited (Taiwan, The Heart Attack, The Killer). But none of the games were meant to be “objective,” per se, or to present the full complexity of their topics. I was very aware of myself as a traveler passing through these places, having a particular experience, encountering particular things–always as a subject, always as an outsider. So even the games that appear to be more documentary in nature are really games about me attempting to process my particular encounters with a place. I was overwhelmed, for example, learning about the Cambodian autogenocide during the Khmer Rouge era, visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, and I felt that I had to make a game about that–not an objective game about the history, but a game that would try to capture something of what I was learning, something of what I was feeling. That’s how The Killer (and later A Brief History of Cambodia) came to be. Similarly, when I visited Vietnam, I wasn’t expecting to make a game having anything to do with the Vietnam/American War. But as I traveled there, I was surprised and impressed by how the legacy of that war seemed to be everywhere I turned. So I ended up making a game about it (The Heart Attack), because it was part of my experience encountering that place.

One of the most striking components in titles such as Freedom Bridge or A Brief History of Cambodia is the graphic simplicity but impact of the narratives. How can the receiver be impacted through geometric forms? What influence does psychogeography have on this?

I think I’ve been more influenced by symbolism and poetry than by psychogeography, but of course there are interesting overlaps there. My continued interest in using basic shapes instead of more literal or iconographic imagery in my games is partly about my interest in exploring how meaning can be conveyed in nonvisual ways (via computation and interaction, for example), and partly about my interest in exploring the use of ambiguity, symbolism, and metaphor in games (the poetry influence).

Videogames have been obsessed with a particular idea of realism and literalism for a long time: the desire to achieve ever higher fidelity in graphics, sound, and physics rendering in order to attain a kind of hyperrealism where there is no use for metaphor. You can see this in most commercial first-person shooters, for example. These games rely on indexical-inspired visual representation and established conventions so heavily that people who are used to playing these games don’t have to do much conscious interpretation of what they are seeing as they are playing: you are simply this person, running through this environment, carrying this gun… it is a straightforward experience of “literal” meaning.

On the other hand, I’m interested in poetry. I’m interested in exploring aspects of human experience that are very real, but not straightforward, not literal (“Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?”). I think videogames can explore this kind of meaning, but only by challenging established conventions and moving away from literalism. Using basic geometric forms is one easy way to prime the player for more ambiguous, metaphoric meaning. A Brief History of Cambodia is clearly not about squares floating in water. So what is it about? It is not a complex metaphor, but it does eschew literalism and introduce ambiguity, the need for imagination, the need for a personal, subjective interpretation.

How can video games bring us closer to human rights violations in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam or North Korea?

That’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t feel that I am qualified to say much on this topic. I consider myself more of a poet than an activist, and the question of how to identify and bring to light human rights violations (particularly across cultures) is a vast and complex question that I simply don’t know how to answer. In the case of my travel games, I simply encountered some things, learned some things, and tried to make a few games/notgames that expressed something of what I was encountering, what I was learning. Is that activism? Does it help bring something important to light? If so, is it better than using another means? I don’t know.

One thing I will say is that I think videogames are better at making people feel uncomfortable than other forms of media, something that can be useful when it comes “bringing us closer,” as you say, to difficult realities like human rights violations. Will Wright has said, “People talk about how games don’t have the emotional impact of movies. I think they do—they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.” And I think he’s onto something there. We’re used to hearing about bad things, we’re used to watching bad things happen, but we’re less used to being asked to role play through a difficult situation (something I ask players to do in The Killer, and A Brief History of Cambodia, for instance), and I think that’s something special that videogames can offer.

What was the documentation and information process behind each of your projects? What made you decide on one subject or another?

I read your interview with Marcus Richert recently, where you asked him a similar question, and was struck by his reply, which was basically that there was no method to his method. If the news made him angry, and he got an idea for a game, he’d sit down and make the game. I guess it’s pretty similar for me: if I encounter something that impacts me, and I get an idea for a game, I’ll sit down and make the game. I guess having the idea for a game is the hard part. During my Gametrekking project, for instance, there was no shortage of inspiration, no shortage of things I would have liked to make games about. I would have liked to make ten or twenty games for each country that I visited. But having an idea for a game (or notgame) that would capture what I wanted to express… that was (and remains) the difficult part.

It’s not as simple, of course, as grabbing an existing game (say Super Mario Bros.) and re-skinning it to reflect a certain theme. Ideally (I say ideally), I want every part of the game to work together towards a holistic expression. How do I make a game about the little moment of fleeting beauty and existential longing encountered on an empty soccer field on a fall evening in Korea, on my last day of teaching English at my countryside middle school? How do I make a game that captures something of what it feels like to walk through the Choeung Ek killing fields of Cambodia, and all the overwhelming emotions that are stirred up? How do I make a game about the inexplicable sacredness found in the mundane task of caring for the gravesite of a deceased relative? How do I make a game that expresses the wonder of encountering strangers in a strange land who would take me into their home and treat me like family?

The American poet Kathleen Norris has said, “Once, when I was asked, ‘What is the main thing a poet does?’ I was inspired to answer, ‘We wait.’” And I guess, if you’ll humor me, that’s one of the main reasons I think of my work as related to poetry. Because if I have a “method,” if I have a “process,” it’s waiting. I put a lot of things on the backburner, and they sit there and bump around in the back of my mind. And I wait. I do a lot of sitting under trees; I take a lot of long walks. And it’s all far less romantic than it sounds, because I sit under these trees, I take these long walks, and I get nothing, nothing. But every once in a while, every once in a long while, something will come to me. An image, a thought, an idea for a game mechanic. And most often the idea’s no good, and I throw it away. But every once in a while I think, “yes, that’s it,” and then I make the game. The idea for The Killer, for example, came to me late at night as I was lying in bed listening to Jónsi’s “Tornado” on repeat. I had been in Cambodia for a couple of weeks trying to process the horror of that country’s past, and as I listened to that song for the hundredth time the image came to me of two stick figures walking, walking, one with a gun. And that was it.

Screenshot of The Killers.

So the hard part (what I consider the real work) is the waiting. Most of the time I get nothing. (You can’t count the number of games I haven’t made.) But once something comes to me, making the game is easy (just a bunch of if/then statements, really, a few pixels here and there). That’s the fun part. But I can’t help thinking that all of this probably sounds like romantic nonsense. Which is why most of the time I just say what I said at the beginning, and leave it at that: if I encounter something that impacts me and I get an idea for a game, I’ll sit down and make the game.

And maybe I’m not answering your question at all. Because you asked about my documentation and information process, and I’ve been blathering on about my creative process more generally. But that’s probably because, for most of my projects, I don’t really have anything I would call a documentation or information process, besides soaking up as much as I can. For the Gametrekking project I did as much reading as I could, and tried to be conscious of the world around me as it flew by the train window. I took a lot of photos and recorded a lot of sounds as I traveled, thinking I might use them in my games (and I did use some of them). But the problem is that it’s hard to get the right photos, or record the right sounds, when you don’t know the game that you’re making. Which I never did, thanks to my “process.” By the time an idea would come to me for a game inspired by something in Country X, I would generally already be in Country Y, and it was too late to go back and get the documentation that I wanted. I work slowly, and travel is fast, so I was constantly behind, trying to make due.

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

Most of my work is pretty solitary. The closest connection I have with other game developers is probably the connection represented by the notgames movement that I’ve already discussed (“movement” is actually far too grandiose a word, but I’m not sure what else to call it). I feel solidarity with developers like Jason Rohrer, Tale of Tales, Anna Anthropy, Pippin Barr, Increpare, Numinous Games, and others who are working to expand the expressive potential of videogames without regard for traditional gameplay expectations. (It seems that there are quite a few of these developers out there nowadays–a lot more than there were ten years ago–but I’m not very good at keeping up with the scene.)

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

Loneliness has definitely had the most publicity of any of my games (Extra Credits covered it some years ago, and it kind of took on a life of its own after that). Though I don’t know about acceptance: I get as many negative comments about the game as positive comments. I think when that game came out, ten years ago, it was somewhat unusual for how it attempted to explore an unexpected emotion (for videogames) using abstract representation and simple mechanics–and it resonated with some people. Others were scandalized that it was getting so much attention, and wasn’t even a proper game. Now it’s kind of a textbook example of an “art game,” or a “notgame,” or something. The funny thing is, I made that game in three hours, as a kind of sketch, and only put it online as an afterthought. Would I have done things differently if I knew how much attention it was going to get? Probably. Do I think it’s my best work? Probably not. But I guess it’s an okay example of a certain approach to game design, a certain kind of aesthetic (though I think A Brief History of Cambodia uses a similar aesthetic to better effect).

Of my Gametrekking games, my own personal favorite may be Grandmother, a short HyperCard-like game in which the player clicks on a series of still images to traverse a columbarium, then navigates an ambiguous input scheme to slowly wash a headstone using a bucket and sponge. As I’ve mentioned, the point of the game was to try to hint at the sacredness that we often find in the most mundane activities and circumstances in life. And the game kind of does that for me. It’s so completely mundane, so ordinary (I took the photos under a glaring midday sun, and they came out incredibly dull and banal, which was just perfect). I think it’s often easier to make art or media about sensational topics, or terrible tragedies, than to capture those things we care about in our day-to-day humdrum existence. Personally, I’d love to see more games trying to do the latter.

What future projects do you manage?

I’ve been kind of immersed in the art world for the last couple of years, but I’d like to find my way back to the internet, and a broader audience. I’ve been working on a number of small games and experiments that I haven’t publicly released outside of art exhibitions, so my current priority is to complete some of these games and release them more broadly. These games can be loosely clumped into three main projects, the first of which, Stations of the Cross, is an interactive installation project in dialogue with traditions of spirituality, pilgrimage, and contemplation, as well as artworks like Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series. The installation consists of three enclosed booths, or “stations,” each of which presents an abstract, contemplative, touchscreen experience that can be encountered in the space of a couple of minutes or over a longer time frame depending on the pace and inclination of the player. (You can find a bit of documentation about this piece on YouTube.)

A recent art installation of Jordan Magnuson´s games.

The second project is a series of games in explicit dialogue with written poetry. So far I have completed two of these: When Gold Is in the Mountain, a digging simulator in dialogue with a poem from Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Icarus Also Flew, a poem about an unusual perspective on the Icarus myth, in dialogue with «Failing and Flying,» by Jack Gilbert.

The third project is a series of small games inspired by my infant son, and my new experience of parenthood. Again I’ve completed two of these so far, one of which evolved from one of my earlier games (Walk or Die) and involves walking with a stroller on a dance pad, and the other of which is perhaps my most minimalist game to date, made with the highly-constrained Pico-8 fantasy console (I’ve really enjoyed challenging myself to make games with tighter and tighter mechanical and representational constraints).

So hopefully you’ll see some of these games on my website (and maybe on Steam) in the near future.

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

I feel like the expansion and acceptance of videogames as cultural products is kind of a natural and inevitable process, and I guess I’m kind of ambivalent about it. On the one hand it’s exciting, because in theory the medium will mature, and in theory we’ll make more interesting videogames, and in theory those interesting videogames can reach more people. And I do think you see all of this happening. But it’s a slow process, and at the same time you have loot chests, and cow clickers, and everything else. And even as it’s exciting to see a medium (slowly) mature, those early days when a medium is just fresh and brand new and wild are also pretty exciting, and you don’t get to be around for that much. So I find myself simultaneously excited for the future, and nostalgic for the past. On balance, I’m just trying to enjoy the ride.

As far as recent titles, I’m afraid I’m a slow mover. I played Ocarina of Time recently. That was pretty good. But let’s see, games released a little bit more recently… Kentucky Route Zero. What Remains of Edith Finch. That Dragon Cancer. One Hour One Life. 80 Days. Bury Me, My Love. Florence. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Journey. I thought each of those was interesting for different reasons. What I’m looking for in a videogame, most of the time, is just to be a little bit surprised. Just to find something interesting, something resonant, something lovely, something horrible, something a little bit unexpected. That’s it, really.