Mark Yohalem has worked both on his own projects and as an offsite senior or lead writer for BioWare, inXile Entertainment, TimeGate Studios, S2 Games, Nikitova Games, and Affinix Software. As co-founder of Wormwood Studios with two friends (artist Victor Pflug and programmer James Spanos) in 2010, he developed Primordia, a classical point-and-click adventure game that has sold about a quarter-million copies and was, for years, the highest-rated adventure game on Steam. The same trio is currently working on Strangeland, which is expected to release soon.
Jeffery Klaehn: Can you think of an example of a puzzle within a point-and-click adventure game that's been widely reviled by critics and relatively ignored in terms of serious analysis?
Mark Yohalem: The truth is that almost no adventure game puzzles, good or bad, get widespread, serious analysis. (The XYZZY Awards, for interactive fiction, have a Best Puzzle category; the Aggie Awards, for adventure games, do not—but they do have Best Story, Best Writing, Best Character, Best Setting, etc., etc.) Bad puzzles get glibly ridiculed, good puzzles generally go unmentioned.
I'll give you an example. One of the most reviled parts ofKing's Quest III is the mountain path running between Manannan's house and Llewdor countryside. Using the cursor keys, you have to navigate a narrow path, and if you go off the path, you fall to your death. (This is whatStair Quest is spoofing.) Candidly, I found the path really annoying as a kid; I was terrible with it, and died so often I think I quit the game and didn't come back for several months. So I don't necessarily disagree that it's a bad puzzle / segment in the game.
But the tendency to ascribe it to designer stupidity or malice—without thinking about why Roberta Wiliams and the team might have included it—is wrong. The path actually plays a very important thematic and mimetic role.
InKing's Quest III, the protagonist is Gwydion, a young man who is a servant (slave, really) to an evil wizard named Manannan. (As it turns out, Gwydion is actually a prince under a spell.) Manannan forces Gwydion to do endless degrading chores around his house (e.g., emptying his chamber pot), while Manannan goes off on his evil escapades, takes naps, or berates Gwydion.
The early gameplay loop of the game consists of having to do these chores. Of course, the player (unlike Gwydion) isn't a cowed and ensorcelled servant. The player wants to go on a quest. Thus, there is immediately a gap between player and character —t he player (who can always save and reload) is much less scared than the character.
How, then, to capture the sense of dread that Gwydion would feel at straying from his chores/prison?
The mountain path, of course!
The player soon realizes that to win the game, she needs to sneak out of the house, gather tools in the land below, and then get back before Manannan notices Gwydion's absence. But every jaunt out of the house, and every hurry back home, has the cruel mountain path en route. The player's fear in facing that path serves as an emotional approximation of Gwydion's fear. "God, I really have to try to sneak out again?"
Additionally, the path plays two thematic roles. Such perilous roads are a routine part of fairy tales and folklore — the one we all know is from Red Riding Hood, but they're all over the place, actually — and so its inclusion in the fairy-tale-basedKing's Quest franchise is appropriate for that reason alone. But the road also serves the emphasize the power differential between Manannan (who can teleport to and from the house at his pleasure) and Gwydion (for whom such foot travel poses deadly peril), as well as providing a sharp geographic boundary between the fairly idyllic land of Llewdor (notwithstanding its own monsters and dangers) and the miserable home of Manannan.
Perhaps there would be a cleverer way to achieve all of this than the rage-inducing quasi-mini-game of navigating the path (at a minimum, removing the boulders where you can't see where you're walking). But that doesn't mean the path is a pure negative that's there for no good reason.
AsChesterton says, don't tear down the fence before you know why it was put there in the first place.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds PhDs in Communication and Sociology. His research interests include social theory, media, power, public communication, comics, art, pop culture, the creative industries, writing, storytelling, and digital games. His interviews have been published with the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, First Person Scholar,and other journals.
Bishakh Som's artwork has been featured in solo shows at ArtLexis Gallery and at the Jaya Yoga Center, and in group shows at The Society of Illustrators in New York, the Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College, Issyra Gallery, the Grady Alexis Gallery, and, most recently, at De Cacaofabriek in the Netherlands. Bishakh received the prestigious Xeric grant in 2003 for her comics collection, Angel, and since then her comics and paintings have appeared in The New Yorker, We're Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology (and the first all-trans comics anthology), Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalypse & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology, The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance,The Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Buzzfeed, Ink Brick, The Huffington Post, The Graphic Canon vol.3, Black Warrior Review, Specs, Vice, The Strumpet, Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand. Her comics have also been included twice in the 'Notables' list of Best American Comics. This interview presents a conversation about her new works of visual literature, Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir and Apsara Engine.
Jeffery Klaehn: Thanks so much for the interview Bishakh!! Please tell me about your new graphic novel, Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir, which just released from Street Noise Books.
Bishakh Som: It was 2012 or so when I had quit my full-time job in architecture with the aim of taking a year or so off to work on a graphic novel, which I had never done before. (I had been doing comics for many years, but these were either self-published or for anthologies). When I'd finished that first book (which turned out to be my collection Apsara Engine, which came out from The Feminist Press in April of this year,) I found myself at a bit of an impasse, not knowing what to do with the creative energy that had kept me going with that project. So I started writing diary-style comics about the process of writing Apsara Engine, about what it was like for me to take this new direction in my life, to opt out of what I had trained to do (architecture) in favor of what I really wanted to do (art, comics).
The catch was that I was loath to draw myself in these diary comics so I created Anjali, a cisgender Bengali-American woman, who acted as a substitute for me. She didn't physically resemble me closely, but she would have lived my life and would be telling my story, writing my diary, as it were. As I kept writing the Anjali comics, I would occasionally veer off of the strict path of quotidian observations of my comics-creating life into reminiscences of my (& Anjali's) past, our family history, our education.
At some point, I had enough material that the Anjali project started to seem book-shaped. I still hadn't heard from any publishers about Apsara Engine, and was consequently reluctant to try and sell this project too. So I just kept it to myself mostly, occasionally posting a page or two on social media or my website. I was starting to resign myself to this when Liz Frances from Street Noise Books approached me about my comics and when I showed her the Anjali comics, she was very interested and offered to publish me, which was a great thrill. I went back to work on the Anjali project, writing longer chapters that filled in her (and my) back story and fleshed out the process of our becoming-an-artist. And seven or so years after Anjali initially manifested herself in my head, our stories have come together in Spellbound.
JK: Please take us behind the scenes on the interplay between your narrative and art, and about Anjali, too.
Bishakh Som: Anjali, as I've mentioned, started as a sort of ambassador for me, an actress playing the role of me. I had been writing women characters in most of my comics for a long time, but this was the first time that my own voice was coming directly from one of these women. It wasn't long after the Anjali stories came into being that I started to come-into-being too, with my own gender self-reckoning, with the dawning realization that I was a trans woman. So writing Anjali became a process of writing, or re-writing myself as well – she became, for me, a sort of portal into transness, into becoming femme.
The art is notably different from Apsara Engine – the first book is rendered in watercolors, which gives it a soft, dreamy quality, whereas in Spellbound, I opted for a cleaner, more graphic look.
JK: How does Spellbound connect with your own real-life background?
Bishakh Som: At first, Anjali's stories aligned with mine pretty faithfully but as I continued to work on the book, and especially after I came out as trans, she started having her own life, in a way – some of the episodes in Spellbound don't conform closely to my experience at all – but this was also a way for me to project desire, to act out a double life. My back story (my growing up in Ethiopia and New York, going to an international school, studying architecture, giving up on architecture, starting to write a graphic novel) corresponds directly to Anjali's for sure – but while the narrative in the book coincides with my life for most of its duration, it occasionally diverges off onto other paths, into other flights of fancy.
JK: What five words would best describe your art, in your view?
Bishakh Som: If you'll permit, I'll just cherry-pick some adjectives that I have heard other people use to describe my work, words that I am happy to hear as descriptors: sensual, expressive, ethereal, mysterious, feminine. (I sound like a perfume!)
JK: What does your art mean for you? And what made you want to do comics?
Bishakh Som: I wasn't able to make art, as such, when I first launched myself into higher education – I (and my parents) didn't think it was possible to build a stable career on the nebulous prospects of becoming an artist. Studying architecture was a way for me to take a side door into art instead, as it was considered to be, as the cliché goes, a meeting ground between art and science. But as you find out in Spellbound, this practice soon lost its dwindling appeal too – which is why, so many years later, now that I can finally legitimately call myself an author and an artist, that it means so, so much to me. Drawing has always been a joy for me, and of the few things I knew I was good at – so to gain validation for making art, for putting into practice something to which I had always aspired, is monumental in my life-trajectory. Further, to be able to make comics and to be taken seriously for it, is even more of a thrill – that kind of fulfillment had been elusive for me for so many years and I'm so stoked that it is coming together.
I've always been drawn to comics – which I think, for some generations of kids, is a natural tendency – and I guess I had always been drawn to drawing as an activity so the fit seemed natural. I had been drawing very silly comics in the third grade with some other kids. But while they outgrew that practice at some point (maybe the sixth grade), I kept at it, even when I didn't think it was going to 'go anywhere', because I loved drawing so much. My parents read Tintin comics to me before I could read, so I pretty much blame them for making me a comics artist.
JK: Your Apsara Engine collection released in April, at the height of the COVID pandemic, to rave reviews. Please tell us about this work and about the worlds and stories within it. Whatever you might like to share —
Bishakh Som:Apsara Engine is a collection of eight short stories in comics form. The stories oscillate between fairly straightforward modes (page layouts are more or less conventional, two characters are having a dialogue) to more experimental modes (images and text are juxtaposed, sometimes syncing up in terms of content, sometimes diverging wildly,) to combinations of the two modes, in which conventional, 'filmic' pages of conversation give way to more phantasmagoric imagery and page structure. There are, graphically and thematically, also moments when I drew on my background in architecture to collapse the space of architectural representation into the comics page. The characters and stories describe, collectively, a sort of queer, femme, South Asian constellation – there are explorations of divinity, sisterhood, desire, longing. The book addresses what it means to me to be a member of the South Asian diaspora and what it means to be a trans person and to be aligned strongly with femmeness. It's been described as eerie and uncanny, as speculative fiction and even SF, but it is a deeply personal book to me, as personal as Spellbound is, but perhaps in a more elliptical way.
JK: Thanks so much Bishakh!!
Bishakh Som: Thank you so much, Jeffery. It's been really lovely to have this conversation with you.
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds PhDs in Communication and Sociology. His interviews with comic creators have been published with the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, and the International Journal of Comic Art. His research interests include social theory, media, power, public communication, comics, art, pop culture, the creative industries, writing, storytelling, and digital games.
This interview presents a conversation with Xeric Award-winning Canadian cartoonist Kevin Mutch about The Rough Pearl (Fantagraphics, 2020), his new graphic novel which addresses issues surrounding the intersection of class and race privilege in the "precariat" creative communities in and around New York City.
Jeffery Klaehn: Thanks for the interview, Kevin!! Please tell me about The Rough Pearl.
Kevin Mutch:The Rough Pearl is an autobiographical fantasy — a mixture of truth and fiction in roughly equal parts — about a would-be artist named Adam in New York City in the 1990s. He has a crappy adjunct teaching job, a wife who makes a lot more money than him, and an ill-advised crush on a student. And he seems to be losing his mind — he keeps seeing zombies and aliens and ghosts!
Adam is someone who grew up being told that the world was full of possibilities, but he's come to see that it isn't that way anymore (if it ever was). He had all these romantic ideas about being an artist, living in New York, being with beautiful women, and now he realizes all of those dreams have become impossible — until suddenly they all become possible again, all at once.
Unfortunately, he's been having a harder and harder time determining what's "real" and what isn't — either he's going crazy or he's bleeding into parallel universes, the book is sort of ambiguous about that, heh — so he has a very difficult time navigating all of this.
The Rough Pearl is also a sequel — to a graphic novel I did about ten years ago called Fantastic Life which was about the same character back when he was a young art student in Canada. That one got excerpted in the edition of TheBest American Comics that Alison Bechdel edited, so I always tell everyone that it passed the "Bechdel Test"!
JK: For those who may be new to your work, Fantastic Life won a Xeric Award in 2010. Are there any plans to make Fantastic Life available digitally, Kevin?
Kevin Mutch: I'm chipping away at an updated version of that story because I can draw better now than I could then, and it drives me crazy to look at it (weirdly enough, I never want to revise the writing part, just the pictures). Anyway, once I finally finish maybe I'll try putting it out there.
JK: I hope you will. How long did the work take you to produce The Rough Pearl, and what about it are you happiest with?
Kevin Mutch: The Rough Pearl took me seven years from start to finish, which I guess has all sorts of connotations with itchiness and bad luck! It really could've been done faster, but I was also working on an adventure story for young people at the same time — it's called The Moon Prince and a lot of it is online — so it took a while.
I guess I'm happiest that the style I drew in it seems to have worked out okay — I wanted it to have a sort of lived-in New York-y quality and I think it does. I kept thinking of Tom Waits as I was working on it — that "Ninth and Hennepin" vibe (even though that's in Minneapolis, heh). But mostly I'm just happy to have it finished. I could have done a hundred paintings in the time it took to draw The Rough Pearl!
Kevin Mutch: Captain Adam was a "narrative collage" I made in 1991 and it was the first comic I'd made since art school beat them out of me. I was making a lot of "appropriation" art at the time (I still do) which is all about how context changes meaning, and I decided to see what would happen if I made an entire comic book that way (other artists like Chester Brown have tried this too).
So I bought a whole bunch of beat-up old comics at used bookstores, cut them all up with scissors and fished around in the pile with my eyes closed to select a panel, and then more and more panels to see if I could imagine a narrative connection between them all.
When I had 28 pages of collaged panels I redrew and re-lettered them all to smooth over enough of the seams so that readers could (hopefully) follow it. What surprised me then (although it wouldn't now since so many of my comics do the same thing) was that the collage story I came up with had all sorts of parallels with my own life.
And by the way, since I'm a happily married man who sometimes teaches at art schools, let me just hasten to add that all the boozing, drug-taking and extra-marital student-dating in the The Rough Pearl are completely fictional! It's the zombies I'm not so sure about.
Art: The cover and interior pages from The Rough Pearl are courtesy of Kevin Mutch.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include media, pop culture, power, comics, and digital games.
Jeffery Klaehn: For audiences new to you and your work, how might you describe your "brand" as a comic creator, Ben?
Benjamin Marra: It's difficult for me to self-assess my own brand. Probably easier for an external set of eyes to make a more accurate accounting. But I'd describe myself as a creator focused on genre and manipulating or subverting genre tropes. The themes of my work revolve around ideas of America and American Pop Culture. As a brand I'm a bit of a provocateur and permanently stationed on the underground side of comics. I'd say my comics are Gonzo comics that stem from the creative, subversive attitudes of the 60s and 70s.
JK: When you think about your own passion for comics and comic art, what immediately comes to mind for you?
Ben Marra: Drawing with ink and telling stories. Those are two things that I obsess over practically every minute of the day.
JK: I was thinking today that mainstream comics should be available in magazine size format at 100-page each, on slick paper, maybe for a $7.99US or $8.99US price point. Some could perhaps be printed on lower quality paper and offered at cheaper prices. And all could be distributed via comic shops, newsstands, and digitally, simultaneously. I'm thinking back to how popular the magazine format was in the 1970s and also of those great monthly Shonen Jump print anthologies I used to be able to pick up on late night trips to local supermarkets. What are your thoughts about formats and distribution of comics today, Ben?
Ben Marra: I agree with your vision of a comics magazine, except it should be printed on cheap paper to bring the cover price down as much as possible. It's the stories that are important, not the paper stock. As far as my thoughts on distribution, I love the floppy monthly pamphlet as a vessel for serialized stories. But I think the Big Two have undermined its effectiveness with their business practices. I think the pamphlet comic should cost less and be found in as many retail spaces as possible. I guess I'm describing what it was like to buy comics back in the 70s and 80s. Maybe it's foolish to think we can't go back to that place. But I think there are subscription models that Chuck Forsman and Michel Fiffe have employed that are successful with a 24-page pamphlet comic. I don't have blinders on for pamphlets however. Longform comics appear to be the future (if not present) of successful comics formats for distribution. And I'm all for webcomics. I've been doing a daily strip on my Instagram and I think it's how I will create all my comics going forward. Any distribution method that doesn't solely rely on the graces and professionalism of Diamond is a step in the right direction.
Ben Marra: Thanks! My approach to promotion has been based around this alternate-version character of myself. I take author photos for the back of my comics where I pretend to be this insane, out-of-touch guy who's creating these stories. People really connect with those author photos. Sometimes I think they like the author photos more than the comics. With the videos I've made I'm trying to expand on that character a little more. I want to get across a bit of the Gonzo flavor I think my comics have. I want to give people a taste of that with the video ads I've created. I want the ads to support the overall feel of the "brand."
JK: Looking at your body of work to date, what works are you most proud of?
Ben Marra: It's difficult to say because I'm a harsh critic of my own work. But I am proud of comics I made that felt like uncertain experiments in the moment of creation but now seemed to have all the pieces fall into place. RIPPER & FRIENDS and TERROR ASSAULTER: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) worked as comics, though there are parts of them I'm not happy about and would change if I could.
JK: How fast or slow do you typically work? Do you have specific ways of working? What inspires you to "create"?
Ben Marra: My process changes from project to project. But if I'm working on my own stuff, I usually develop a story idea and create an outline for it as fast as I can to preserve it. If I'm actually making it into a comic I'll draw out some page layouts. At least that's what I used to do until I started doing a daily strip – with that I go straight to pencils. I pencil as minimally as possible, just enough lines of information to hang the inks on. I ink as fast as possible. I like to think I ink like I'm creating a 24-hour comic. I keep trying to get faster. Speed is essential to me. For my daily comic it's possible for me to create 14 pages in two or three days. But I don't get to work on it for prolonged stretches due to my other commitments. I have a specific range of ways I work I would say. What inspires me to create are looking at the works of creators whose work inspires me to draw and hearing stories that cause me to think of my own stories in turn. Or it could be the feeling of art and stories I encounter that inspire me to try to replicate that same feeling in my own work.
JK: Please tell me about TERROR ASSAULTER: O.M.W.O.T. In what ways is the narrative thematically conversant with power? What influenced the satirical elements, your story, and overall design of the comic?
Ben Marra: The book is a satire of American action movies and Neocon foreign policy. It's also a satire of the way masculinity is portrayed and defined in pop culture. All of those things are based on examinations or demonstrations of power. So you could say O.M.W.O.T. is a satire of what power is, what it means. Obviously action movies were a huge influence on me when I created O.M.W.O.T. The title is obviously a nod to Jack Kirby's OMAC comic book series. I love action movies but I love how ridiculous they can be even more, particularly those from the 80s. The overall design of the comic was influenced by classic comics and printing techniques from the 40s on through the 80s, before digital coloring became the standard. For me the goal was to tell an interesting, compelling, and entertaining story above all else.
JK: What's on your comic bucket list, looking toward the future?
Ben Marra: I would love to complete my daily strip, WHAT WE MEAN BY YESTERDAY. But I have a feeling it will take me the rest of my life to do so. I'd love to see it printed into volumes to put on a shelf. At first it was designed to serve two purposes: 1. Allow me to experiment with a new, faster, more economical, cartoony drawing style. 2. Give me an outlet to tell my own stories while still working on other projects that actually pay the bills. Doing a daily strip is perfect because I get something done for each day, but doing four to six panels a day isn't a huge ask either. If I didn't do something I was never going to get a chance to tell all the stories I have in my head. The strip itself is about a high school in a suburban American town. All the characters in the strip are connected to the high school in some way. The first character we meet is a teacher, Bruce Barnes, and the first part of the story follows him during a particularly bad day he's having. But the strip is going to branch out in ways that will be unpredictable to readers. I'm excited for them to see where it goes. Anyone interested in checking it out can view it on my Instagram account where it's free to read, @benjamin_marra.
I'd also like to help facilitate the adaptation of one of my comics into a film or television show.
JK: What's the most gratifying part of being a cartoonist and doing what you do?
Ben Marra: When I'm inking and everything is clicking, the ink is flowing, the drawing is fun to make, I feel sure about what I'm working on, and I'm happy to ink the next panel. That's the most gratifying part. It becomes addictive and you strive to recreate that experience and keep making more.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include pop culture, music, storytelling, comics and graphic novels, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.
Jeffery Klaehn: Please tell me about BOWIE: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams.
Michael Allred: It's a visual biography about how David Bowie exploded into superstardom with the invention of his Ziggy Stardust persona. His whole life is represented, but the bulk of it focuses on the amp up to "Ziggy-Mania" with the goal to make it as visually interesting as possible, using the music and visual iconography as inspiration.
Michael Allred: It's massive. Music injects imagery into my head. It keeps me loose, lights me up, and fuels me.
JK: What's Bowie and his music meant for you?
Michael Allred: Bowie was the first musical entity I discovered on my own. Looking for comics at the local drugstore, a rock mag with Bowie on the cover jumped out at me. It was so compelling I bought the just-released "Rebel Rebel" single, and I was hooked. A crash course and lifetime addiction to all things Bowie followed.
JK: What are your favorite Bowie songs and albums?
Michael Allred: After buying that first single I started with the Diamond Dogs album and bought everything leading up to that with my paper route money all in a very short period of time. So I experienced Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, and Diamond Dogs in one gigantic mad tidal wave. Because of that obsessive repeating marathon, that era has the most sentimental power. But every album and era after was always an exciting treat, happy to follow the breadcrumbs to wherever Bowie was going.
A page from BOWIE: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams
So for my third pick, I'd probably go with Station to Station because of the still from The Man Who Fell to Earth. He took the "alien trapped on Earth" thing to a masterful level with the greatest casting coup for a rock star turned actor. And it just perfectly captures the vibe of that killer album.
JK: Your wife, Laura, was colorist on the graphic novel. Please share your thoughts on the importance of her color artistry to both the art and story in BOWIE: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams.
Michael Allred: It's infinitely priceless. She's my secret weapon. Our son, Han, helped her out with some flatting too. One of my main motivations is the excitement I personally feel anticipating the colors!
JK: What does creative joy mean for you, as an artist?
Michael Allred: Everything.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include pop culture, music, storytelling, comics and graphic novels, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.
Tom Scioli won a Xeric Grant in 1999 for his creator-owned comic book series, The Myth of 8-Opus, and gained further prominence as co-creator (with Joe Casey) of the Eisner-award nominated comic book series Gødland (2005-2012) published by Image Comics. More recently, Scioli wrote and drew a five issue Go-Bots mini-series (2018) published by IDW Comics, as well as his (very awesome) "Super Powers" (2017) back-up feature for DC Comics' Young Animal imprint. Scioli also drew and co-scripted (with IDW editor-in-chief John Barber) the critically acclaimed Transformers vs. G.I. JOE maxi-series (2014-2016) published by IDW. In 2020 he wrote and drew Fantastic Four: Grand Design, published by Marvel Comics.
Tom Scioli: Everybody's knows Marvel, everybody knows Stan Lee, but there's another guy who is at least as important in the creation of the Marvel Universe. Jack Kirby has been a big part of comics history from the very beginning and is a real life hero in his own right. If you've never heard of Jack Kirby, or just know the name and not much more, prepare to get your mind blown.
Tom Scioli: I've always wanted to read the story of Kirby's life in comics form. I always had it in my back pocket as a possible thing to work on. I figured somebody else would do it eventually. Frank Miller, Erik Larsen, Steve Rude, somebody like that, a Kirby superfan from the previous generation of creators. As Jack Kirby's 100th anniversary approached I thought, maybe it's time, and maybe it's on me to do it. That's the formula, what would I like to read, and if it doesn't exist, make that.
JK: In what ways has it been a labor of love project for you, personally?
Tom Scioli: In every way. I've studied Kirby's life story and his work for most of my life. It's a story I know pretty well backwards and forwards. The ability to really dive in on a whole other level was great. In a way, working on this book, it felt like I was living his life.
JK: Can you guesstimate how many hours you've spent working on it, in total?
Tom Scioli: A lifetime. All those years of studying Kirby's life are all part of the equation. Having an understanding of the full span of the story was a necessary ingredient. I can't imagine if I just had to go into this cold. The active time of writing and drawing it has been something like 4 years maybe?
JK: What aspects of the work were the most fun for you and what did you perhaps find challenging?
Tom Scioli: The scenes with Jack and Stan were the most fun. I think those are the parts people will be most curious about. I don't know what it is exactly, but we really want to see them together. We want to see what their relationship was like, and this book goes deep on that.
The hardest part was finding new ways to make a guy at a drawing table visually interesting. As the story goes on, more and more of his life is spent at the drawing board. It was a challenge finding ways to vary it. I think I was successful in that regard. It was kind of head spinning, being at a drawing table, drawing an artist at a drawing table.
JK: How much research was involved?
Tom Scioli: There was the casual research that I'd been engaged in for life. Once I fully committed to this project, I went all in. Just immersing myself in the research. Tons of fact checking. I'd lay out the story to the best of my recollection, but then I'd go back and double check and see where that bit of information originated from. Very different from the escapist fare I usually do in comics. There's some similarity in the kind of research I'd have to do for Transformers vs G.I. JOE or Fantastic Four: Grand Design, but this is real people and their real lives. I can tweak the stories of the G.I. JOE team, but for Jack Kirby, I needed to make sure everything was spot on.
Tom Scioli: The editor, Chris Robinson, approached me about working on it. Ed Piskor's X-Men: Grand Design was out and they were considering following it up with other creators on other books. They were tentatively considering it. Chris asked for a short pitch. After that, I didn't hear anything for a long time, so I committed to Gobots. I thought the project was dead so I posted some of the art I'd done while brainstorming on Twitter. I don't know if it was coincidence or what but shortly after I heard from Chris that the project was a go. As far as what made me want to do it? It was a dream project. This is Kirby's signature comic, the beginning of the Marvel age. And I was being asked to rewrite it, to take all the bits and pieces and tell a big overarching story from it. And to do it with minimal editorial interference. I was asked to be me and do my thing with it. As a fan, it was a chance to create something I always wanted to read. Kirby's Fantastic Four had such a feeling of being this big epic, with a growing cast of thousands that was building toward a smash bang conclusion. The realities of the comics industry and Kirby's own career trajectory didn't allow that. Instead, Stan and Jack's run fizzles toward the end. Then Jack leaves and Stan continues on and it really feels like the dream is over. As a fan I wanted an ending, where all the little subplots come together in a powerful and surprising way. Fantastic Four: Grand Design was my opportunity to give the story of the Fantastic Four and their expanding cast an ending and a sense of completeness. Like Frank Miller did with Batman with his bookends of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman "Year One." That was the big incentive. That was the opportunity.
JK: For audiences who have yet to experience it, how would you characterize Fantastic Four: Grand Design, and how do you see this work dovetailing with Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics?
Tom Scioli: I was working on the two projects simultaneously so I see them as companion pieces. Both involved close study of Kirby's work and trying to step into his shoes to some degree. It all happened accidentally, but it was a perfect segue.
JK: Please tell me about how you approached Fantastic Four: Grand Design and also Transformers vs G.I. JOE. How did your art and art style fit within your approach to design, action, composition and page layouts? Your work with both projects is endlessly bold and creative. Each panel of Transformers vs G.I. JOE has intense energy. There's an almost kinetic creative energy and joy in the work. Fantastic Four: Grand Design is very different in terms of design, yet brings that same degree of relentless creativity and joy, exuding that same passion for content and form.
Tom Scioli:Transformers vs G.I. JOE was the beginning of a new phase of my work. I was all in and writing and drawing as if my life depended on it. I wrote and drew and rewrote and redrew in an almost compulsive manner. As a result, every page is its own universe. The panels are packed with characters and struggles and life and death. I was trying to tell as much story in as few panels as possible.
Fantastic Four: Grand Design was a few years and a few projects removed from Transformers vs G.I. JOE so I approached it a little differently. I wanted to make something that read very linearly. I was trying for something like a page of newspaper comics. I was doing my thing with it, but it wasn't a purely original story like Transformers vs G.I. JOE.Fantastic Four: Grand Design was first and foremost an adaptation. I was building on a very solid structure. It was almost like an accelerated version of my Transformers vs G.I. JOE process. It's a much shorter work, and I have a lot of ground to cover. I was innovating, but almost in the opposite way from Transformers vs G.I. JOE. Instead of trying to make as few panels as possible, and as many splashes as possible, Fantastic Four: Grand Design has more panels per page than any comic I've ever done. It has no splash pages. But when you get to a panel that takes up half the page, it feels like a double page splash. I was going for a different reading rhythm with it. At first I thought of using a 4×4 grid, because it's the fantastic FOUR, but that wasn't enough panels for me to cover all the ground I needed to cover. I went with a 5×5 grid which is almost unheard of in superhero comics. I was able to hit almost every bullet point I wanted to hit.
Tom Scioli: Looking at his story in more or less chronological order was really interesting. That's where I realized Blue Beetle was the first superhero Jack worked on. I knew before then he worked on Blue Beetle and that it was pretty early, but I didn't realize it was the VERY first superhero on his drawing board. The big thing is getting a very concrete reckoning of how prolific he was. We know Jack did a lot of pages of comics, and that he created or co-created a lot of characters, but when you're drawing page after page of creation, I was just gobsmacked by the never ending parade of major pop culture characters he created.
JK: What about the work are you most proud of?
Tom Scioli: I really like the epilogue, where I show Kirby's legacy. I think it puts all of it in perspective. By the time you get to that point, it's been a real journey, this dam-breaking accumulation of a life's work and how it changed the world.
JK: Imagine you're giving a talk to an audience unfamiliar with Jack Kirby, and that your aim is to communicate three essential points on how Kirby has influenced both comics and pop culture. You begin, noting that …
Tom Scioli: Have you heard of Marvel? Jack Kirby's responsible for at least half of it. That's really all you need to say. His Marvel work changed everything. Comics, cinema, gaming. The fingerprints are everywhere. He had bestselling comics in the 1940s with Captain America and The Boy Commandos (one of the bestselling comics during World War II). He fought Nazis in France during World War II. He helped create the Romance comics genre in the 50s. He co-created most of the Marvel characters in the 60s. He broke out on his own, refusing to work with a co-writer for the remainder of his career (with a few exceptions) and in the 70s created the New Gods and Mister Miracle [at DC Comics], then went back to Marvel and created The Eternals (soon to be a major motion picture). He helped pioneer independent comics with Captain Victory. He had a whole other career in animation. This was all one guy.
JK: How do you view Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics within the context of your own career? What does the work mean for you and how excited are you to share it with audiences?
Tom Scioli: It's a culmination. I'm at a little bit of a loss as to what to do next. This is a comic book about the greatest influence in my life and career. This is the apex. Hopefully I'll find something equally good to follow it up with, but personally it feels like the top of Everest. I can't wait for people to read it. I want the world to know about Jack Kirby and really understand what he did. I think once people know his story, we're going to have a whole new wave of Kirby appreciation.
JK: The book will be available in hardcopy and digitally on July 14, 2020?
Tom Scioli: That's right!
JK: I really like that name, Ten Speed Press, by the way …
Tom Scioli: It is a pretty great name. It's a great company, great people. I'm really amazed at the job they've done from start to finish. They're really enthusiastic and energetic about this project and getting the word out.
JK: Last question. Why create this work as a comic, Tom? And why is the medium important in relation to the story and stories within the overarching narrative that you've set out to tell in this work?
Tom Scioli:The comic part is so important. It's Jack Kirby's life in the form he worked in the form he helped pioneer. I did the artwork in pencil, it's not inked. Kirby lived through his pencil. Everything just fits together so nicely. My personal journey and Kirby's really coalesced in this project. If I put it out in monthly installments, that's the only way it could more closely mirror his production process.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include pop culture, music, storytelling, comics and graphic novels, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.
Game designer and publisher Dave Gilbert founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006. This interview features conversation about point and click adventure games; digital game development, marketing and publishing; and the relationship between art, passion and real world commerce.
Jeffery Klaehn: How did you first become interested in point and click adventure games?
Dave Gilbert: I played King's Quest at a very impressionable age! I typed the word "jump" and I saw Graham actually jump, and I was so blown away that I've been playing them ever since.
JK: You founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006 to sell your game, The Shivah, commercially, then moved to pursue game design on a full-time basis and released The Blackwell Legacy, the first in what would become a series of five games. What are your thoughts on these games and on the market then compared to now?
Dave Gilbert: I am Blackwell Legacy's biggest critic. It was the first game I wrote with the intention of selling commercially – The Shivah was originally freeware, so I don't count it – and it shows every inch of my inexperience. The gameplay is clunky, the story is told in three giant infodumps, and the main characters weren't very likable. But that said, I know with absolute certainty that it was the very best game I could have made with the experience, resources and time I had available. So I stand by it.
As for the market, everything is different. Back in 2006, indie games in general were a very new thing. So few people were making indie games, let alone indie adventure games, that it was very difficult to get journalists to pay attention. Now we have the opposite problem. There are SO MANY indie games now that it's impossible to count them all. So the difficulty is getting yours to stand out from the pack. I was kind of lucky to have started my career back then. Even though the market for indie games was super small, it was easy to get noticed within that market. So my company kind of expanded with the scene. Another thing that's different: back then, people were still a bit leery of buying things with their credit card online, and it was very difficult to set up a storefront that people could trust. It's almost quaint to think about that now.
JK: How important do you feel "word of mouth" online player reviews and discussions have been to your success, particularly during these early years as you were creating the Blackwell games?
Dave Gilbert: We can't afford any major marketing campaigns, so word of mouth is our bread and butter! If it wasn't for players talking about our games and spreading the word, we would've been dead in the water. Spreading the word is a bit easier now thanks to social media, but back in 2006 I had to rely on kind hearted journalists and bloggers. I am forever grateful to them.
JK: What led you to begin publishing games others had developed in 2010?
Dave Gilbert: Pure capitalism! It took a long time for me to get a game out – a year or two at minimum. And at the time they earned barely enough to cover my basic needs. So I knew that if I had one major flop, everything was over.
My logic was that by publishing other projects, we'd be able to spread out the risk more.
JK: What's been the most gratifying part of this for you?
Dave Gilbert: I've worked with some incredible developers who have created worlds that I could never even conceive of, let alone make. When I started publishing, I had this hubristic idea that I was doing them the favor, when the opposite was really true. I have learned SO MUCH from all the developers I've worked with. It's really been a journey.
JK: What influenced your decisions to design Unavowed as episodic and to have player choice feature prominently into gameplay?
Dave Gilbert: I was very inspired by an interview with Jennifer Hepler (a former BioWare writer) where she said she wished she could skip the combat in narrative-based RPG games (since combat-based action games let you skip the narrative bits), and I thought that sounded like the adventure game of my dreams. I'd always been a fan of party-based RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but I always groaned when the action bits came along. So I waited for that kind of game to come along, and it never did. So I decided to make it myself!
JK: What are your thoughts on how classic point and click adventure games meet contemporary lifestyles in terms of design choices, gameplay, and difficulty levels?
Dave Gilbert: I honestly have no opinion on this. There are SO many different kinds of adventure games and there's no way to pigeonhole all of them into one specific genre. That said, I do think you have to design with the modern audience in mind. A modern audience knows that Google exists, and it's not enough to just have clever puzzles. You need to make the experience of solving those puzzles fun and interesting.
JK: As a developer who was designing games as a hobby prior to working full-time in digital games professionally, where's the line, as you envision it, between art and passion on the one hand and "real world" commerce and surviving and thriving as a business on the other? Do the two worlds interconnect and mutually support your creativity and passion, as a designer?
Dave Gilbert: As for the difference between it being a hobby and being a professional – it's about working through the frustrating parts. When it's a hobby, there's nothing at stake. You're full of ideas and excitement and you just want to MAKE the thing, and if it gets annoying or it's not working then you can just stop. When your livelihood depends on it, you can't do that. When you're blocked or a design isn't working and you're tearing your hair out all day, that's when the fun becomes work, and work always sucks! Forging ahead through that frustration barrier was my biggest hurdle when I started doing this full time.
Regarding art and passion versus real world commerce – who says they can't be one and the same? I got into this to make the games I want to make, and if I'm making a type of game purely because the market says it's popular, or because another game like it did well, then the final product will be totally soulless as a result. Whenever I chase trends to make a game, the end result is usually a critical and financial failure. Also, large companies with millions of dollars to burn hire entire departments to determine what's popular and even they get it wrong, so what chance do I have? So I just focus on what I like, put as much of my heart and soul into my work as I can, and keep going. Fortunately, my instincts are usually more right than wrong.
JK: What would you like to see in terms of the future of adventure games?
Dave Gilbert: I am not so hubristic to make a statement on what the genre should or should not be. My only hope for the future of adventure games is that there are more of them for me to play!
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include pop culture, comics and graphic novels, music, storytelling, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.
Eric Barone is the creator and lead developer of Stardew Valley, the indie farming and life sim RPG that's enchanted millions around the world. He's a 32-year old game developer based in Seattle, Washington, who grew up in a semi-rural area of the Pacific Northwest with dreams of one day being a musician.
A digital meditation on what's truly important in life, Stardew Valley resonates with themes of joy, magic and connection. This interview, undertaken on Friday, March 20, 2020, began with a single question on the theme of communicating, encouraging and sharing happiness.
Jeffery Klaehn: La dolce vita. How is "the sweet life" or "the good life" represented within Stardew Valley, and what does it mean for you? Is it the same as success, or different?
Eric Barone: For me, a good life involves self-actualization (finding my own purpose and fulfilling it), contributing positively to others (family, friends, community), and feeling like I'm part of something important that is bigger than myself. I guess I'd call achieving those things "success"!
JK: Stardew Valley released to universal critical acclaim in 2016 and since then you've continuously given players free content updates, providing new content and features, improvements and experiences. Why has this been important for you?
Eric Barone: I am very grateful that I'm able to make a career of this, but I'd say the most meaningful thing to me is that people love the game and are finding happiness, peace and magic in it. I've always wanted to capture a special magic with Stardew Valley. That's a big part of what drove me to make the game in the first place … I wanted to recapture a very special feeling I had as a child and hopefully share it with the world. The continued support and free updates is for a couple of reasons. For one, I keep having more ideas for the game, and I want to keep making it better. I take pride in Stardew Valley and want it to be the best it can be! Second, I really like making the Stardew Valley fans happy … it feels good to see them get excited and enjoy the new updates. I think having made Stardew Valley as a solo developer makes it all feel very personal to me.
JK: In what ways has your life changed with the success of Stardew Valley?
Eric Barone: The success of Stardew Valley has allowed me to pursue indie video game development as a career, which is great. My lifestyle hasn't changed much, though. I still spend almost all my time working, and I haven't made any big purchases or anything.
JK: How have things changed on the business side, particularly in relation to the game's success and volume of work involved in the console and mobile version releases?
Eric Barone: The amount and type of work I do has gotten bigger and more complicated. Now, in addition to developing games, I am essentially running a business and managing an entire brand. I also get lots of emails and social media messages every day and I try my best to keep up with them. So that does take up a significant portion of my time now. Although I prefer actually working on games, I can't really complain, given Stardew Valley's popularity.
JK: Both the game and your website radiate positivity and joy. Why do you feel that it's important to communicate, share and encourage happiness?
Eric Barone: It's important to me not to just entertain, but to delight. I want people to come away from my games feeling good, uplifted, and optimistic. I want people to feel like there is magic in the world, because that's a very special thing. In the same way that a wonderful meal appeals to all senses and tastes, I think a wonderful game not only entertains but enriches the soul and the heart. That's what I strive for. I want every game I make to leave a lasting impression and one that people will cherish. Maybe it's my way of connecting to other people and hopefully leaving the world a better place.
JK: The game's opening scene asks what's really important in life and answers: "real connections with other people and nature." Please share your thoughts and reflections on this message and on other elements within the game's introductory scenes.
Eric Barone: Many aspects of modern life are unfulfilling to people, and the intro shows that, albeit taken to an extreme. Stardew Valley offers a world closely connected to nature, where a person can feel a sense of belonging and pride in their community. I think that's appealing to most people, whether they know it or not.
JK: To what extent does player feedback inspire your creativity and enthusiasm for the game and its players?
Eric Barone: Hearing how much Stardew Valley means to people has definitely given me motivation to keep working on it. It feels good to provide something to others that makes them very happy. I guess that's a big reason I keep making free updates, because I get a thrill out of releasing them and then seeing how much excitement and happiness it brings to the fans. And of course, all the praise for Stardew Valley and the heartwarming messages that people send me make me feel good. But I think that's a very positive exchange that leaves everyone happy!
JK: What's next for you, and for Stardew Valley?
Eric Barone: My plan right now is to keep working on Stardew Valley (there is a new free update in the works). I'm also working on a couple of other new projects (solo developed like Stardew Valley was), but they are still years away. Working on multiple things at once is difficult but I tend to work on Stardew during normal business hours (9-5 Monday through Friday), and then I work on my other projects in the evenings and weekends. It's a full plate!
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His interests include pop culture, music, storytelling, comics and graphic novels, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.
This interview features conversation about her favorite adventure games, narrative, and writing.
Jeffery Klaehn: What about adventure games most interests you, as a writer and also as a player?
Olivia Wood: There's been a history of puzzles in adventure games feeling at odds with the narrative. I actually don't love calling them 'puzzles' in this context. Puzzles to me are more about something with its own set of internal constraints and rules that gets progressively complicated and iterated upon. I prefer to think of what are traditionally called 'puzzles' in adventure games as 'problems.'
Any story has problems to overcome. In most narrative mediums, how a character overcomes a particular problem tells you something about that character and their place in the world. In adventure games, there's often a gulf between the types of agency the character (not the player) can exercise in-world and the types of agency the player thinks they should be afforded. Sometimes, overcoming these problems in adventure games can too often become a matter of logical contortion. (Take the monkey-wrench in Monkey Island, which is a leap of logic even if you have the cultural reference, and basically impossible for UK English speaking players, as we call a spanner.)
I actually love what Unavowed does here. You will solve certain problems differently depending on which companions you've brought with you into a particular segment. This has a bunch of neat design effects, but it also makes a lot of these solutions feel narratively resonant. They stem from very comprehensible things about the characters and how they can interact with the world. And that doesn't always mean the solutions are always obvious, either, but it at least gives you a 'hook' into understanding what you're trying to achieve.
JK: What are some of your own favorite classic adventure games and why?
Olivia Wood: I started writing a list and there's a lot of LucasArts games on there. The Monkey Island games – ridiculous, genuinely funny, and taught me a lot of the way I think about problem solving in games (for good and for bad!). In the same line, Day of the Tentacle; Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Loom – god, that game! I haven't played it for literally decades. I'd have to replay it to remember what happens, but I remember clearly how it made me feel. It was one of the games that revealed that gaming wasn't just about fun and satisfying problem solving, but could be emotionally profound.
I played several of the King's Quest games – but couldn't complete them without walkthroughs (harder to get back then!). I think I was too young for them, really. I looked at the Wikipedia entry for them recently, and saw that Roberta Williams mentions being inspired by the Colored Fairy Books – sun-bleached copies of which are still at my parents' house. I still go back to those books – I'm a sucker for Fairy Tales, and how the originals are often actually horror stories, if occasionally horror-stories-with-hope.
I am particularly fond of the Broken Sword series, for personal, nerdy reasons. I find it hard to resist saying 'George' in the accent of Nicole.
JK: Do you have a favorite character from among these games [and why]?
Olivia Wood:Stan S. Stanman … because I couldn't resist giving that as an answer. Also, because of his improbable coat. (The S stands for Stan, right?)
JK: What about modern adventure games? Do you have time to play games?
Olivia Wood: I do play games, yes, but I have to strike a balance between 'games for fun' and 'games for professional interest', though they often overlap. It does mean that I really only get to play recent adventure games, and can't go back to fill in the gaps left by classics I never got around to at the time.
Olivia Wood: Not yet. I own it, keep planning on starting it, but haven't yet had a chance. The difficulty of playing old adventure games is exacerbated by the fact that many had a logical language that made sense if you were immersed in them, but which is difficult to get your head into if you haven't played many recently. It can mean that some old adventure games are basically impenetrable without a walkthrough, and definitely take longer than the puzzles within them justify.
JK: There are so many truly amazing adventure options available to new players. What guides your decision-making regarding new games you decide to play, invest in, spend time with?
Olivia Wood: Recently becoming a BAFTA member has made this a lot more difficult. I already had far too many games, causing decision paralysis whenever I sat down at my computer. Needing to vote on the Games for BAFTA meant I suddenly had more than a hundred added to my account… (I've got 473 games in my Steam account alone. That is a despairing comment, not a brag!) At that point I played as many as I could of the beginnings of the new ones, quit the second I felt frustrated or bored, and stuck with the games that kept me enthralled.
When it's not award season, I go for games that friends have worked on, games that people I trust from previous recommendations rave about, or games that I've heard mention of on Twitter and like the sound of. Or, y'know, I go with what I feel like! Which is nebulous and ill-defined, but it's more like picking something off a menu at a restaurant. You probably don't have that well-defined a logical reason for choosing something as much as trying to satisfy a mood of the moment. But I'm a big fan of games that have an actual ending!
JK: Please tell me about Lethophobia and its place within the context of your career development.
Olivia Wood: Lethophobiawas developed over the course of several years as it had to be slotted in the gaps between my full-time and freelance work. I was a professional editor then, but in Science-Fiction and Fantasy publishing, not videogames.
I wrote it with Jessica Mersky, a friend I made through Twitter (back in those days when that still happened). We'd started talking because her tweets were surreal, compassionate and entertaining, and it turned out that she was a skilled writer who shared my interest in writing for games, and adventure games in particular.
We created the game partly to see whether we could. We wanted to build something that the StoryNexus engine wasn't designed for – but it was also the engine we were both most familiar with, being regular players of Fallen London.
We pushed against some of the constraints of the engine (but in the process I learned a lot that would help me in my work with Failbetter Games), but created something I'm still proud of. The game explores memory, and the discovery of and reconciliation with trauma (particularly childhood trauma) – but I think it's a loving game. Not just because I wanted to build in an encouragement towards self-forgiveness, but because of the nostalgia towards all the games that came before it – the games that drove me and Jessica towards games writing and design, and taught us what we knew about them up to that point. There are obvious homages to adventure gaming, and straight callouts to D&D and parser games. These weren't just inserted at whim, or because we are geeks (although we are). We wanted the space to feel familiar, to remind the player of things they might once have loved, and of their childhood.
Lethophobia was actually released a while after I'd started work at Failbetter, but we began working on it years before. Work had meant we'd not been able to dedicate enough time to it to finish, and – like so many games – we had had to rework designs that hadn't worked on playtest, and had to cut scope. Nevertheless, I'm still proud of how well it stands up.
JK: A quick question unrelated to adventure games … you worked on Time Splitters 2 … do you think that game will ever be rereleased on PC?
Olivia Wood: I have no more insight than you. Honestly, I think it's unlikely – but enough people remember it fondly that there's a slim chance. I do wonder how much of its long-standing appeal is because people view it with nostalgia, and don't get to see how it stands against current games… na, it's genuinely a great game. I'm still (jokingly) sore about how one QA 'friend' actually entered a bug that was: 'Olivia can complete it on Easy without dying: the game is not hard enough.'
JK: Looking at your own career to date, do you have a favorite piece of writing you've done, or a favorite scene or sequence you've created within a game? Is it possible to choose just one?
Olivia Wood: It's very difficult to choose – I have favourites of each type of writing content I've done in games, but I can't pick between them. My favourite character is the Fortunate Navigator in Sunless Skies – I just had so much fun writing him, and I stole some of the personality quirks from a good friend. It's nice to see him in the game, and cherished by players. The Navigator is also a character filled with joy, which wasn't always the case with my Sunless Skies writing.
Take the port I'm most proud of in the game – Brabazon Workworld. Not only is it drawing from Victorian poorhouses (vile institutions), but I pitched it soon after the Brexit vote, and was writing it during the interminable negotiation time after that. I was both furious and deeply sad about the outcome, and how I saw it changing my country, and I poured a great deal of that into my work. Some players dislike the port, but that is largely the point. Sometimes, against the vastness of an entrenched political system, you can push hard to only make miniscule changes. But were the whole game like this, no one would play it. So it was important that it be only one note among many in the game.
As is often the way with writing, I'm generally most fond of my most recent stuff, as it represents the culmination of my experience up to that point. But, irritatingly, most of my newest work is protected by the NDA-enforcing orbital railguns pointed at my house at all times.
I've created a narrative bible that involved deeply personal research, and opened my eyes to life in the UK in the years after WW2 and before I was born. For the same project, I've directed voice actors for scripts I've written – and just hearing your words come to life is incredible. I'm not sure whether it was the brilliance of the voice actor (probably) or my work (not so much!), but what emerged was throat-catchingly powerful.
Jeffery Klaehn holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His fields of expertise are media and communication, comics and graphic novels, social theory, the political economy of media, propaganda, digital storytelling and game design, and interactive media. He has published interviews with the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds,Loading: the Journal of the Canadian Gaming Studies Association, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, Horror Studies,Media Theory, Synaesthesia: Communication across Cultures and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. More information about his research can be found at:http://uva.academia.edu/JefferyKlaehn
As a game design hobbyist, Mark Yohalem has worked both on his own projects and as an offsite senior or lead writer for BioWare, inXile Entertainment, TimeGate Studios, S2 Games, Nikitova Games, and Affinix Software. As co-founder of Wormwood Studios with two friends (artist Victor Pflug and programmer James Spanos) in 2010, he developed Primordia, a classical point-and-click adventure game that has sold about a quarter million copies and was, for years, the highest-rated adventure game on Steam. The same trio is currently working on Strangeland, another adventure game. Mark is also developing Fallen Gods, a role-playing game inspired by the Icelandic sagas and folklore, the board game Barbarian Prince, and game books like Lone Wolf. By profession, Mark is an attorney. In 2018, he was recognized in the Daily Journal as one of the top 40 lawyers under the age of 40 in California.
This interview features conversation about the aesthetics of point-and-click adventure games, classic and modern adventure games, game writing and design, and ways in which stories connect with both learning and play.
Jeffery Klaehn: [Imagine] you're addressing an audience comprised primarily of non-gamers, and your talk is entitled, "The aesthetics of classic point-and-click adventure games." You begin …
Mark Yohalem: The wonder of the classics is that they don't just let us hear the voice of the past, they also allow us to listen with the ears of the past. We commune not only with those who created the art but also those who consumed it — not just Beethoven but Beethoven's audience. Given my strong bent toward humanism, the capacity to hear with another's ears, to taste with another's tastes, as it were, is very important. With classic adventure games, they are so great that we can enjoy them even with our own tastes, of course. (They may not be "timeless," but they are enduring enough to retain a rich and palatable flavor after a couple of decades.) That means we can enter the past, and the perspective of the past, very easily through these works.
JK: A section of your talk is devoted to classic point-and-click adventure games, and to the question of what elements combined to make your own personal favorite games so successful, in your view …
Mark Yohalem: The transcendent moment of an adventure game is when you solve a difficult puzzle and realize that your mind and the designer's mind, idiosyncratic as they both are, nevertheless aligned on this matter. (To give an example from interactive fiction, the moment when the player realizes in Andrew Plotkin's Shade that he wants more sand, not less; there's an even better moment in Plotkin's Spider & Web.) With classic point-and-click adventures, that harmony is often coupled with beautiful artwork, a clever setting, and an outsider/trickster protagonist who solves his problems through wits and wiles rather than brute force. Probably my favorite adventure games are the ones where I formed a connection to the designer and the protagonist alike, while also experiencing a state of awe at the artistry of the game. Quest for Glory, Monkey Island 2, and Loom are examples of that. I've had the joy of watching my daughters form similar connections with, for example, Pajama Sam, Loom, and Primordia itself.
JK: And in moving to modern point-and-click adventure games, you communicate that …
Mark Yohalem: I worry that modern adventures have treated puzzles as a nuisance rather than an integral feature — like pillars in a parking garage, "They're in the way!" but it turns out they are actually supporting the whole edifice. Knock them all down, and the collapsed structure no longer serves its purpose. So I think you need puzzles. The trick is to make such supports beautiful, like flying buttresses or Corinthian columns, rather than ugly and obtrusive, like garage pillars. But because puzzle design is a hard and unusual craft (not one I'm particularly great at myself), and stories are something we create and consume every day, it's easier to just tell stories and never develop the necessary skills. But I don't think you can build a proper adventure game that way.
JK: Transitioning back to normal interview mode … Mark, how do you view digital games as serving broader public education functions?
Mark Yohalem: To speak from my own experience as a developer, Primordia is a small game, with no marketing, made by a team of three (plus a composer and voice actors). A quarter million people bought it (and presumably many more pirated it), and they embodied the character of Horatio. There is significant evidence that acting out a role inculcates values even if we know we're just acting. So this little hobby project wound up reaching and teaching orders of magnitude more people than I've had in my classes at prisons, test prep academies, colleges and law schools, and professional training venues. Imagine the impact of really big games, like Call of Duty or Stardew Valley. We can glibly say "it's just a game," but play is how mammals learn norms and behaviors.
Of course, the most important thing as a game designer is no doubt to make a game fun and rewarding, but I myself find it hard not to think about the lessons we're imparting. So I like that adventure games tend to model resourcefulness, resilience, creativity, and non-violence (along with, I suppose, kleptomania and hoarding). And even aside from "larger lessons," if nothing else we are teaching the audience how to play games, which is why I think it's important to provide challenge, agency, and interaction — otherwise you are training players away from the unique aspects of gaming and toward expectations that can be better satisfied with movies, books, comics, etc.
JK: Does your approach to storytelling change, depending upon genre?
Mark Yohalem: Most of the game writing I've done has been for role-playing games (Dragon Age: Origins, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Infinity, and my own projects) or strategy games (Kohan II, Axis & Allies, Warlords IV, and a couple other failed efforts). I would say that the three major differences are the medium, the verbs, and the scale.
The "medium" here means the primary mechanism by which story is conveyed to the player. In strategy games, it's the mission briefing and — to a lesser degree — cutscenes, with some flavor via the descriptions for units and structures and their responsive "quips." What's significant is that these are almost always uninteractive. You might also tell some story within a given mission, but that, too, is typically passive. Because it's passive, it needs to be short and melodramatic to hold the player's interest. In RPGs, the primary medium is branching dialogue (at least in the "narrative" RPG subgenre characterized by Black Isle Studios, Bioware, inXile, etc.), which goes on at great length, allowing for a lot more subtlety. The key to that dialogue is its responsiveness — the player needs to control the dialogue and feel like his choices matter. In adventure games, you have some branching dialogue, but I'd actually say that the protagonist's monologue, often delivered in quips in response to examining or interacting with the world, that's most important. These quips need to be pithy (or they derail gameplay) and perhaps a bit humorous to leaven the frustration of puzzle-solving.
The "verbs" are the means by which the player can act within the game world. The game's story should be driven by the player's verbs — otherwise, the player becomes a passive participant. In a strategy game, you act by building and destroying structures and armies. So the story needs to be driven by warfare. If the story is about romance and introspection, it will (in my opinion) fail to mesh well with the gameplay. That's why I like Starcraft's story much more than Warcraft III's. In an RPG, the verbs are typically killing, looting, leveling, and talking. The story needs to be about a protagonist who grows more powerful, and who has occasion and reason to kill thousands of foes and gather hundreds of items. In an adventure game, the verbs are item collecting, item combining, and interacting with the environment. So the story needs to be about how those actions — not gathering armies or killing enemies — is necessary to overcome the antagonist. If you make an adventure game where the story is principally about the protagonist killing bad guys, it will (in my opinion) feel absurd when, during the gameplay, you have to trick your way past a concierge or trade one knick-knack for another.
The "scale" sort of fits with the verbs, but not entirely — it refers to how large the game's world is, how large the ensemble of protagonists is, etc. In a typical adventure game, a single character does most of the action, so you need a story about a loner confronting a problem that can be dealt with alone (more or less). The scale of the stage is smaller too — even in adventure games where you globetrot, the focus is on a few densely rendered rooms or areas, not vast forests or cities (this is true even of Quest for Glory). In a typical RPG, you gather a party of helpers — but not an army of helpers, and you explore on more of a town scale. In a typical strategy game, you have an army and you "explore" on a territorial scale. These scales, like the verbs, call for different kinds of characters, challenges, etc.
Ultimately, when game-narrative fits game-play, the narrative gets a huge boost. That's why a game like Super Metroid, which has basically no story, actually feels like it has a compelling narrative — what narrative there is meshes perfectly with how you play. When a game narrative doesn't tie to the gameplay, it feels awkward and artificial, at least to me, like arcade game cutscenes.
JK: How do games encourage a sense of connection between the player and a game's story and characters?
Mark Yohalem: The story should be driven by the protagonist's actions, and those actions should be consistent with the "verbs" the player is able to do while playing. When that happens, the player feels embedded in the story.
JK: Why play adventure games, in your view?
Mark Yohalem: There once was a boy who played Loom, and he became so enthralled that he swore, "Someday, I want to make a game like that." And he spent decades dreaming and laboring under that spell. Of course, not everyone is susceptible to the same sorcery, but why not see if it works on you? Like hypnosis, it requires willingness and a certain collaboration with the mesmerist — so if you're repulsed by adventure games, there's no sense bothering. But if not… we've drained so much magic out of the world, it's worth chasing what's still there.
[Below: screenshots from Strangeland and Fallen Gods]
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His fields of expertise are media and communication, comics and graphic novels, social theory, the political economy of media, propaganda, digital storytelling and game design, and interactive media. He has published interviews with the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds,Loading: the Journal of the Canadian Gaming Studies Association, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, Horror Studies,Media Theory, Synaesthesia: Communication across Cultures and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. More information about his research can be found at: http://uva.academia.edu/JefferyKlaehn