Interview - Jack King-Spooner
Posted On 8/18/2013 By indiegamehunt
Jack King-Spooner, AKA Jack Spinoza, is something of a renaissance man. He makes visual art, object art, music, and of course videogames. To paraphrase something he once said, he can’t help leaving a trail of impractical nonsense in his wake. Well, we can be grateful that some of that takes the form of amazing games.
King-Spooner shares with us a clear and unique vision in his work. Will You Ever Return set the precedent by transporting you to another place, a beautiful nightmarescape that is equal parts Bosch, kitsch, pop-culture, and contemporary art. It is the tale of a man who is shot in the gut one evening on his way home to his lover and then finds himself in Hell. He discovers that he can reincarnate to visit his lover on Halloween night if he collects five skulls.
This premise is basically an excuse for us to explore King-Spooner’s surreal vision of Hell. See the sights, listen to the sounds, talk with the bizarre denizens, and solve puzzles to get the skulls. The game has some trappings of traditional RPGs, having been created in RPGMaker, but it is an adventure game at heart. The real focus is on exploration, discovery, and dialogue. In some ways, the game is like a gallery show with a narrative. Playing it, and Sluggish Morss, is the closest I've come to feeling like I was plugging directly into someone else's dream (or nightmare). It, like much of King-Spooner's work is a fiercely original, handcrafted work of art that you can play.
I had the double privilege of interviewing Jack King-Spooner twice: once in early 2013 and again recently.
Part One: February, 2013
Jack, it's been a pleasure to play your games, and I'm glad to have the chance to ask you some questions. I'm interested in what shapes a game designer, so could you tell me where you grew up, and what your formative experiences with playing games were like?
Thanks so much for playing them. I grew up with my mum in rural Scotland. It was a good childhood, I don't know, I must've gone astray down the line someplace. Game-wise I had a hand-me-down NES and a Gameboy and then a SNES. But, I mean, I spent a lot of time playing in streams and stuff more than playing computer games. The games that really captured my imagination though were that Zelda game on the Gameboy where it turns out it was all a whale's dream, I liked that. I also used to love how in the old Command & Conquer and Age of Empires games if you clicked on the soldiers they'd say different things and get annoyed at you, I thought and still think that was inspired. Also, I loved it in games when you left a character dormant and they'd do something. Earthworm Jim rocked my SNES for a while, that is probably my favourite game ever. Later I got a Playstation and an N64 but I can't remember being captivated by much on them besides Micro Machines and Golden Eye. I kind of stopped playing games for a really long stretch after that.
I live intermittently in Poland and Scotland now. I'm pretty rubbish at gaming now. I play mostly indie games and am constantly amazed by how much great, expressive stuff is out there. Oh! I got that Batman game, Arkham City, to see where AAA games are now and wow games have come a long way since Link's Awakening. I also loved Machinarium by Amanita Design and am currently stuck on their latest piece Botanicula.
What game developers or games have influenced you as a designer, would you say?
Tricky question, I don't think my main influences are games really (probably to my detriment). Earthworm Jim is still with me after all this time. Amanita Design for bringing the point and click magic of Neverhood and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis back to life, I like their sounds too and the way things are communicated. If it wasn't for The Catamites' games, I doubt I'd have started making games. Nik Sudan, Jake Clover, Cactus all are just incredible developers with the kind of work ethic I'd like to achieve one day.
Your games have a strong visual arts component. Will You Ever Return uses collage, diorama, sculpture, and drawing, at least. Are you influenced, as a game designer, by any particular artists who work in mediums other than games? Painting, film, animation, music, etc.?
I'm really easily influenced, there is so much amazing stuff that we have access to at the moment. I love the works of the visual artists Paul MacCarthy, David Shrigley, Bruce Nauman and Martin Creed to mention but a few. Good painters are amazing, they really know how to convey something human. I like L.S. Lowry very much, Marlene Dumas is very good. I think I'm most strongly influenced by writers though, I feel the other art forms are always playing catch-up to literature. I was really taken by the Beatniks for ages; Burroughs and Ginsberg. The way they address form is something I like to consider. Lately I'm into Don Delillo, I like his sentence structure ("People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night", "I want to bottle-f**k you slowly with my sunglasses on"). However, my strongest, most prevailing influence comes from Ted Hughes. This kind of hard morality, or ambiguous morality or simply the ambivalence of nature. Something similar is there in Cormac McCarthy's writing. And in Plath.
And do you make visual--or any other type--of art outside of games?
"Art" is a pretty loaded term in some circles. I like making stuff though. I made some telephones that play MP3s. I made a waistcoat for a stuffed weasel that's on my wall.
The music in Will You Ever Return is amazing and weird. Where did you find it?
Besides the old Tielman Brothers songs ("Unchained Melody", "Black Eyes" and "Love you Forever" covers) I make all my own music. I kind of started making games so as to have a nice place for my songs and pictures then it went a bit off the tracks. I love making music.
Your music is awesome--I didn't realize you made almost all of it. I imagined you scouring public domain archives and then adding effects to obscure tunes from the past, and that sort of thing. Please take that as a compliment--your music sounds timeless! And do I understand correctly that you yourself covered the ones you didn't write?
I didn't cover the songs I didn't write, it's better than that. They are kind of early sixties classics but the versions I used where from band - The Tielman Brothers - that have plummeted into obscurity having once been incredibly popular in Europe (so I'm led to believe). Their story is great; they escaped a fairly conservative Indonesia and moved to Holland, I think, to follow their dream of being rock stars. I love this weird place between tackiness and sincerity. I love how they mispronounce the words but sing with utter devotion.
Did you read Dante in school, and did Inferno influence Will You Ever Return? How about other literature or folktales and mythology? There are references to a lot of stuff like Baba Yaga, Charon, etc.
I read the Divine Comedy but not at school. It influenced the game indirectly. Of course the character Virgil and the Forest of Suicides are taken from Purgatorio but the Sylvia Plath tree idea was inspired by a Don Paterson poem from his collection Landing Light. It's a sublime book of poetry actually.
There sure are a lot of references in the game, they come from all over. Being in Poland at the moment helped the Baba Yaga thing but she's always been a favourite of mine- not all bad but a bit partial to eating children. Both Virgil and Baba Yaga are characters which were used as narrative tools (the former a guide, the latter a donor) and so they seemed perfect for an RPG kind of game. Of course Charon and the Styx are from Greek Mythology. I used demon names from Christian mythology and I think it's probably a Christian hell I'm depicting.
Was Will You Ever Return conceived of as having more than one installment? Will there be more?
I never thought anyone would play it and so I never thought of having more than one part but now that it's quite popular in a funny, niche kind of way I feel like I ought to make more. I have a lot more ideas in regards to animation, story and themes.
Mitt Romney and the Case of the Sex Doll uses him in an absurdist rather than a satirical manner... I think. What was the purpose of using him in this game?
That game is all about power in relation to violence, I rushed it out in two days to see if I could do it. From the Goomba/ pigeon stomping at the start to the optionless beating at the end, violence seems to be about dominance and that in turn seems to be a quality of power. That's why violent games and films are satisfying if the violence is cathartic. Mitt seemed to be all about the power, seemed appropriate. I'm not happy with that game really.
Take a minute to tell me how you feel about game jams in general. Will you be jamming again in the future?
I kind of find it boring watching other people code but I think collaboration is probably the single best thing in the creative practices. So, some ups and some downs. I'll try a jam again, they are still kind of novel for me.
You've spent quite a bit of time on your WIP game Beeswing. How long have you been developing it, and how far along is it?
It's almost done. It's been in development for a long time. This is sadly a different thing to me developing it for a long time. I was hoping to finish it in the next week but it will probably be about three weeks.
Beeswing looks beautiful from what little I've seen. What techniques, either artistic or mechanical, are you using in it that you haven't employed in previous games?
Thanks very much. So it's all watercolour paintings. It's not linear. Well, it's linear but you can do things in whatever order you choose or don't do anything. It teases at the infantilism of culture. The writing addresses psychology and uses the game as an analogy for those ideas. Mechanics wise it's the same old tricks, perhaps even simpler.
Beeswing is a game about your childhood?
Yip, partly why I'm holding off finishing it because I know it's dull but it's personal. Criticisms will be weird. But that's the thing, people are so terrified of being vulnerable these days. Endless irony and post-modernism everywhere. It's like a shield that defends from criticism ("well I was being ironic") but also prevents really saying something about life as it is. I'm not saying that one has to essentially be vulnerable to say something meaningful but one probably has to refrain from being ironic. Having said that, I can't imagine a Will You Ever Return? that wasn't steeped in irony and post-modern referencing.
Tell me about Sluggish Morss. Is this a science fiction piece?
This is what I'm focusing on at the moment. It's a collaboration of sorts with Jake Clover. We are attempting to make a game or two (or more) that have a conversation between them, based on similar themes or something. I think the name will be Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History. It's a science fiction piece. Space as a setting - like Hell - has the brilliant potential for abstract images and themes.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
I've got another three collaborations currently going on; I'm doing the music for this, I'm making the graphics for a game by the awesome Nik Sudan about animals you can trust. Lastly, I'm working with another artist and a very clever musician on something smallish called Matches, a kind of retelling of the Matchstick Girl. I'm really excited about all of them but the third project is something kind of nice. It has a maturity about it in a storybook kind of way. Hard to explain... it seems contemporary.
Part Two: August, 2013
Hi Jack! Thanks for doing this again. Since our last interview, you've released more games than you had up to that point, so we've got a lot to cover!
Let's start with Beeswing. By the way, I just realized that it's "Bee's Wing" and not "Bee Swing"! I've had the privilege of playing some Beeswing, and it's some of your most beautiful, heartfelt work. So, you've recently moved back to Beeswing in real life. Are you going to finish the game? Please finish it.
It is a bit heartfelt, isn't it? It's really on my mind at the moment, the kind of balance required. Too heartfelt is gross in anyone's book but with some topics it's hard not to get a wee bit twee. I mean, this is the game I've wanted to make for about a year now, mio primo amore, all the stories and thoughts I've accumulated as an ode to my childhood. I know it will probably be intensely dull for some but I'm holding onto the feeling that one of life's nicely parceled joys is hearing someone's stories and that relating experience is always worthwhile. Twee as heck.
I've been considering getting funding for it but I find the whole thing very scary though. Probably I'll launch a modest Kickstarter next month if I find it in myself. A Kickstarter also seems a nice way to share assets from my work, paintings and such, in one fell swoop, which is something I couldn't do so easily otherwise. It's this weird border of something being a hobby and it being something else, I think that's what is making me nervous.
And all the art for Beeswing will be hand-painted/drawn by you and scanned in? And you're composing and playing original music for it?
Sure is, it's very nice to be making a project that requires painting scenes from my childhood. There's something about Dumfries and Galloway that is profoundly bleak; untamed land, beech trees, lochs and Corbetts. The music has developed along the way. It started with trying to mimic the naivety of the story and the pictures by having melodies that are semi-semitones out. I've kept a lot of that but it's gone into other areas now such as those great Steve Reich patterns I used to love and some humble Scottish laments.
Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History, along with Jake Clover's Sluggish Morss, made quite a critical splash. It's one of my personal favorite settings of any recent video game. There's so much going on in Sluggish that it's hard to describe succinctly. Here's my pitch: "As a starship begins slipping through time as well as space, the lost Id of humanity begins to resurface among the stoic humans of this age. This allows an interdimensional being to make contact, but what does it want?" How's that sound? It's probably dull to just explain things, so can you tell me some of the questions that Sluggish Morss is asking?
Yikes on bikes, not sure about this one. I thought it was all pretty self-explanatory. I guess the question of why we don't start genetically enhancing people to be super babies is hot on the agenda. I think the fun thing was the narrative structure, multiple dimensions, premonitions and so on. Silly stuff.
Might there be more games set in the Sluggish universe?
I've got a page of notes on possible Sluggish Morss games with phrases like "time perambulator" and other nonsense. Maybe something to do with free will or Descartes' Meditations. It's a kind of whim sort of thing you dig?
You made the music for Jake Clover's Sluggish Morss, as well a for a couple of his other games (Nuisuardu and not august, and an unfinished game or two). Have you contributed music to any other upcoming games? And what do you like about making music for other people's games?
Not really, other than collaborations. I feel it's just a real honour that someone would consider using my music.
Blues for Mittavinda was very well-received. Deservedly so, because it's an amazing experience. Blues and Hinduism, cowboys and Indians--using actual Indians, not native Americans, was a brilliant touch. What gave you the idea to combine these seemingly disparate elements?
They just kind of go together. There's always something spiritual about deserts. I needed a place to set a game and the Wild West seemed cool. I love Hinduism and the moral teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
Job to God - Why is there so much suffering?
God to Job - What do you know about being a God?
Arjun to Krishna - Why is there so much suffering?
Krishna to Arjun - To thicken the plot.
There is something violently cool about it, not to mention Buddhist stories. I don't like how death is understood in Europe and America, a clingy need for permanence. Yuk. Botox? In all my days...
The guided meditation at the end is great. I must say you have quite a soothing voice. Did you base this reading on a particular passage or technique?
It's my "bore the children" voice. The meditation is based on Vipassana and I first came across it, almost word for word, in an Aleister Crowley book of all places. I know that something similar is encouraged by cognitive therapists and it's a nice introductory meditation that spans religions.
The spaghetti western-blues music is great. Any chance of an expanded soundtrack release, like you did for Sluggish Morss? Or any other music releases?
I don't think many people are interested really. It would be nice to share more of that sort of music but so many people do it much better. It's got balls though, doesn't it? That guitar break in the longer theme that robs time is one of my favourite improvisations. Are you allowed to have favourites of your own stuff? I'm really into making grunge music at the moment, it's an obvious progression. I like music that you need to perform lying on the floor, groaning or screaming. Music to make your mamma worry.
Okay, Mammoth. This art-piece is essentially a short film with playable intersticials. It was made for the Ludum Dare with the theme of minimalism, and while the presentation is anything but minimal, the player's interaction is. Was this project actually conceived for the jam?
It was but I used footage I'd been collecting for ages, mostly piss-takes of performance art pieces. To form it into a game was the idea I had for the jam with interactive interludes and dialogue. I found the whole thing absolutely hilarious. I was really going for the nonsense "what is a game?" thing that dull people think is of importance. It's quite mocking, I wouldn't waste my time with it if I were you.
I know that's you narrating, but is that you in the film? And if so, who was filming?
That's me in the film playing the accordion and a few other things that I couldn't convince other folk to do. Not sure who was filming, probably my poor girlfriend who had to tolerate such nonsense.
What does the blow-up doll represent? I had the impression that it was about objectification. And that as life gets dull and frustrating, we become objects ourselves--hence the dressing up in the blow-up doll. What are you questioning with Mammoth?
The inflatable-sex-aid was a joke from when I was in my late teens. I used to live near a sex shop and we always had pranks involving it:
"Excuse me sir"
"How can I help you mate?"
"I was looking for something I could masturbate to"
Run away giggling.
The sex doll was one where two of us went in and asked the man for an obese doll ("Fatty Patty" they were called) then asked to see it out of the box, then asked if he thought one of us could fit inside. In retrospect this kind of request is probably less absurd than I once thought.
Anyhoo, the idea stuck, no idea is wasted, and I came back to it and made the costume. I like making clothes. It's represented a few things: sexualization of performers is the main one, objectification is a big one too, especially self-objectification.
I guess the game is basically a joke on the player by feigning a false sincerity and a contradictory piece at heart. Then again, it is a work of quotes and references too. The whole thing is a response to Lucas Moodysson's Container and the name Mammoth comes from another of his films. It's also built on Montaigne's quote, "We are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the result that we do not believe what we believe, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." Uncompromised contradictions are nice, as are dialogues between the parts of yourself.
Gosh I've got a lot to say about something that isn't worth bothering with really.
Right, where are we?
Another artistic success, and somewhat overlooked, I feel, is WIll You Ever Return? In da Hood. First of all, why the erect penis in the game's opening?
I think more games should have erect penes, I mean, we all have one.
Why is it a WYER game at all? It's much more of a spiritual sequel than a direct companion, like Part 2 was.
It's following the convention of schlock horror where the third is cheaper and set in either space or in "da hood". Life is a bit like a threequel, under-funded with a poor choice of actors.
The game is full of satire, but I also think it's a sincere tribute to Will Smith, and the cheerful innocence represented by his sitcom persona and other icons, like Hulk Hogan.It seems to comment on our mental images of Smith and the Hulkster, and the disparity between those and what is probably reality. Am I far off? Does that make sense at all?
It's really wonderful to have such a nice reading of the game. I still love their influence on my childhood. Who can forget Thunderlips of Rocky III? Not me.
How was your experience with making pixel art? Will you use it again?
I didn't really make pixel art, I just did a bicubic resampling (me neither) to shrink photos until they were pixely. Don't think I'll bother with it again, not my thing, too derivative.
Nah, I asked for the assets and the respective developers were kind enough to share.
Have you ever considered making a straight-up action game? Like a shooter or a platformer?
Any possibility of more WYER games? You could still do one set in space, like that awful Friday the 13th sequel. And of course, you could do "WYER 3-D". Though you've already done part 3, technically, so maybe you could do 4-D.
I like the whole Will You Ever Return thing, it comes very easily. I like these old folklore stories and there is a wealth of them to borrow from. I like the border of sincerity and absurdity. Who doesn't? It feels a bit crap going back to it though, like I might be struggling for ideas or something. Same with Sluggish Morss. In space, that could kill two birds with one stone.
Ooo, a crossover!. One of your trademarks (says I) is how you often mix erudite discourse and bodily function-based humor in the same game. Do you have an inspiration for this? Is this a conscious goal, or just your sense of humor?
What a trademark! I never realised. I think it's just my northern sensibilities. I don't think they are mutually exclusive either, something about Julia Kristeva's Essay on Abjection or Simon Critchley On Humour might be an inspiration but not a conscious one.
I know you've got quite a few projects cooking, and I'd love to hear a little about some of them. Let's see... Ok, I remember you mentioning you were doing a game with Jared Johnson, developer of Binary Boy?
Gosh, I feel bad about that one. It came at a very busy time for me, I'd written a story for it and Jared had a very clever engine made but it just sort of petered out. Sadly, these things sometimes happen with collaborations of any kind.
And what about the game you're making with Nik, The Tale Of Mr Rabbit and his Animal Associates, or The Tale of Why the White Rabbit Died (or, TTOMRAHAAOTTOWTWRD, for short)? It looks like a top-down exploration horror game, almost. What's it like and how are you and Nik dividing the work?
It's got a few different elements to it but there is a nice top down thing making up the bulk of the game. We're trying to make something ostensibly British and not pander to Americanisation (Americanization as you say in America). It's got Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, Beatrix Potter, Landseer, erm, the Midlands and not much more. . . but it feels quite British. It's a real joy to make, Nik is great to work with and brings such good ideas to the table that I really feel privileged to be working with him.
You're making a very dark and sexually explicit "adventure" game, Butter Me Up, with the talented and frankly underappreciated Swofl. All I know is it involves amputees and a gameshow. What's it all about?
Gosh, that is fun to do too. Games are somewhat behind when it comes to mature themes, sure there is violence but Homer had violence (he cut off the ears, nose, genitals and lips of one his characters, if I remember correctly). Not sure if there is much more to say about it other than gameshows and amputees, maybe that sexuality doesn't stop after an accident, it doesn't work like that. I'm making a quite druggie, grunge soundtrack for it and again making the graphics. It's a kind of fever dream about sexual frustration, quite Kafka-esque. Swofl is great to work with too, I like his work a lot and again I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.
I've seen a beautiful piece of art from a game or series of games you're designing with mobile platforms in mind. Tell me about that project.
Ah, this is the next thing after Beeswing if everything doesn't go awfully (as it could well do). I want to make "depressing" mobile games. Self-contained stories for people to go through on the bus or in waiting rooms. I have a number of stories written about a small town and its inhabitants. Fictions that speak about human frailty. Nietzsche in his Zarathustra said that we aren't delicate (dew drops on a rose petal) but durable and tough workhorses. He's not wrong. When forced into frugality with the coming times we could well realise this. I think we're living with a latent understanding of our own mortality, video games are the outcome of this.
I know, I know, this doesn't sound too appealing, does it? But I'm hoping that people don't know what they really want. No I'm being silly. A prototype is The Train Kid, which I'm thinking to give as part of the Beeswing bundle. It is soft and ambiguous. A story about a child who wants to understand what makes the great tick. I love her as a character, she gets it.
Is Matches anywhere near finished? It seemed very far along and the prototype/demo I got to play was wonderful.
Matches is part of Beeswing now, I think it probably always was. It is now focused around stories of homelessness, in particular that of a homeless man I met in Warsaw. His story is heartbreaking and not an isolated one. If ever I come into money, beyond just scraping by, I'd like to invest it in helping the homeless. As a kid I remember thinking why on earth were there homeless people, it seemed absurd. I still kind of think that from time to time.
Are there any other balls in the air? Anything else in whatever stage of development?
A non-fiction called Hard Language I'm making with my dad dealing with language. Still in the planning stages. It's very text-driven but I feel quite an important work. Also I'm thinking about some violent rant kind of games because of how much I hate the current Prime Minister David Cameron. I'd love to see a squillion games condemning him.
Who are some of the most personally inspiring indie devs making games right now? What games are you looking forward to playing yourself?
Everyone is inspiring in different ways. I love all these indie games, they are such unbridled expressions and I don't know how anyone could feel otherwise. Of indie devs I find inspiring (the list will be long and not in too much order): Jake Clover, the Catamites, Lucas Pope, Terry Cavanagh, Porpentine, Nik Sudan, Michael Brough, Jake Clover, Jasper Bryne, Tom Van Der Boogaart, Swofl, Sophie Houlden, Edmund Mcmillen, Myformerselves, Mooosh, Tommy Refenes, Richard Hofmeier, Kan Gao, Droqen, Stephen Lavelle to mention a few. I'd love to say thanks to all of them for making such wonderful works that have influenced my life in the recent years. There are so many more.
I'm looking forward to playing Mewgenics, Hotline Miami 2, Polaris by Robert Yang, That Dragon, Cancer. There's a bundle of games I've not got round to yet, Kentucky Route Zero and Monaco being at the fore.
Jack, thank you so much! I hope we can do another one of these in the near future.