Designs and Consequences

For those interested in the development of Lands of Dream games, or those curious about game/narrative design in general, a few thoughts about what I’m currently working on.

Having added a big and entirely unnecessary secret to the upcoming Steam version of The Sea Will Claim Everything, I thought I was almost finished updating the game. But then I remembered one of the most frequently requested features: a way of telling which conversation topics you’d already talked to a character about. It’s not an irrational idea: there’s a lot of talking in The Sea Will Claim Everything, and a lot of characters, and sometimes it can be hard to keep track of what’s new and what isn’t. And what if the character has something new to say about the same topic? How are players supposed to know?

Now, one of the weird things about programming, especially when you’re really more a writer/designer than a programmer, is that it’s easy to build systems in such a way that adding a simple feature can be ridiculously overcomplicated. And then when you make multiple games, you keep building and iterating on those systems, and it all feels like a huge mess. (This is how Bethesda games happen.) Anyway, I thought I was in that situation with the dialogue system in the Lands of Dream, but then – literally while falling asleep – I came up with a simple way of adding this feature without having to break too much. So on the next day I tested it, and the basics worked! Yay!

Of course, it can’t work perfectly, because so much in an adventure game is essentially hardcoded. So, in this case, because of how the existing code is structured, there’s a bunch of places where I just have to manually tell the game certain things. That’s OK; it’s extra work and thus an extra delay, but it’s not in insurmountable problem. It’s all late as hell anyway at this point.

But then a narrative design issue crops up. The dialogue screens suddenly feel different. Why? All that’s changed is that when you click on a topic, it becomes greyed out. It’s the tiniest thing, just a convenience for the player. But now the dialogues have become quantifiable; the variables have become visible. Where before there was mystery (did the character have something new to say? when did the dialogues change?), now there is a list to work through. The existence of explicitly “used up” topics makes the characters feel less alive.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe most players won’t notice. But I’m noticing. And it matters to me, because I care about these characters.

So there are three paths. Either I remove the feature, which means the game will continue to be frustrating in a way it doesn’t need to be. Or I keep the feature and don’t do anything else, which means the game is less frustrating, but the characters potentially lose some of their sense of reality.

Or I add more dialogue.

Which is, in a game that came out years ago, has been in several bundles, and is more of a cult thing than a huge financial success, entirely insane. But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that makes the Lands of Dream games what they are.

There is another good reason to do this, which is the next game. You see, most of The Council of Crows takes place in one area, with the town of Fifth Pumpkin acting as your temporary home in Hyperborea. And the more I work on that game, the more important it becomes to make the place as alive as possible. So expanding The Sea Will Claim Everything, even if it’s just little touches here and there, is useful in a variety of ways.

But to be perfectly honest, that’s not my real motivation. I mean, while career-wise everything is great, I’ve been pretty depressed lately. The weather is killing me, our roof is being repaired and the constant noise is driving me insane, the political situation is beyond words, and I’m generally pretty bummed out. It would be easy to just dump the game on Steam, release a disappointing but essentially “complete” version of The Council of Crows, and just put it all behind me. The real money’s in other projects, anyway.

But you see – what are the characters of the Fortunate Isles to me? Are they puppets I move around my grand design? Are they abstract storytelling elements? Are they parts of a brand I co-own with my wife?


They are people. They are family.

I’m making them more alive because they deserve to be more alive. We all do, of course, tragically so, but at least in this case there’s something I can do.

And so on goes the grind… but always with the hope that things will get better. Making worlds is a strange business.

A Serious Project


So, it’s official – Verena and I will be writing Serious Sam 4! Yes, both of us. Initially it was just going to be me, but Verena ended up contributing so much to the script that she officially joined the project. Which is excellent, because she writes the best one-liners, and solves problems rationally when Alen and Davor and I get stuck on something like the hard-headed fools we are.

We spent a week in Croatia recently, working full-time on the script with the team, and I’m massively excited by the results. I think we’re going to produce something really awesome, which will do justice to the franchise while enriching it with context, flavour, and character. It’s a challenge – let nobody tell you that this kind of writing is to be taken “less seriously” – but after the hard work we all put in, I really feel like we know where we’re going. If all the pieces come together, it’ll be a ride you won’t forget.

More soon!

Links! 23/09/2015

  • Rambling Through The Garden is an article about the literary influences and intentions of The Talos Principle. I try not to link to too many articles about, uh, me (it becomes rather narcissistic), but this one turned out really excellent and I thought you might enjoy it.
  • When doing publicity for Talos at various conventions, I frequently stood next to a stand for Dropsy (also published by Devolver), but I never got the chance to play it. Richard Goodness writes about why it’s really good, and I trust Richard’s taste more than most people’s. The post also touches on wider sociopolitical issues, including queerness, identity politics, and shaming/callout culture, in contrast to the game’s themes of empathy. It’s really worth reading.
  • Tom Morello has started a new record label called Firebrand Records, and one of the bands they’ll be publishing is the utterly awesome The Last Internationale. I love many of their songs, including this one.
  • I stumbled across this interesting old article about the making of Alien 3, an awful mess of a movie that has always puzzled me. Writing a sequel to Aliens seems like the greatest fun you could possibly have as a screenwriter, but every single sequel they’ve made has failed to understand what was great about the original movies.
  • The lovely Steven Brust has been writing a series of posts about Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. They are very much worth following.
  • Identitarians Say Elect People ‘Regardless of Their Policies,’ Exposing Inherent Conservatism of Identity Politics is an absolute must-read on the revealing reaction by capitalist liberals to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. Comes with some very telling statistics on the difference between what the majority of women support versus what the people who claim to speak for women support.
  • Kenan Malik’s lecture Free Speech in an Age of Identity Politics is excellent, and goes well with Fredrik deBoer’s Round and Round the Trigger Warning Maypole and his tremendous post about trauma.
  • While I’m linking to political stuff, there’s an excellent article by Touré F. Reed called Why Liberals Separate Race From Class. It involves Bernie Sanders, who is mainly interesting for how he causes other liberals to reveal their allegiances (much like Corbyn), but the main points about race and class are well-made.
  • Finally, I made this meme about the Greek election. The Left really needs a global debate about why, in an age of extreme economic crisis, it has failed to achieve pretty much anything at all.

Diversity and Second Chances

I’ve mentioned before that some of my very favourite works of art – the film The Matrix Revolutions, the TV shows Lost and Stargate Universe – were things that I dismissed or actively disliked, usually because I’d gone in with the wrong expectations, or had at some point misunderstood what the artists’ intent actually was. I’m extremely glad that at some point, either on my own or via input from other people, I managed to change my perspective, because my life would be much poorer without these things.

But sometimes I really do dislike something for a valid reason. And, especially at a time so full of weird cultural tensions, it’s very tempting to just completely dismiss an artist because they made one thing I didn’t like. (Parts of Twitter seem to exist primarily for the purpose of disavowing one artist after another as if it accomplished something, as if purging your personal bubble from everything that doesn’t fit will somehow fix the world’s problems.) In recent years I’ve stumbled across a couple of really excellent examples of why I shouldn’t be too hasty in doing that.

The first one is China Miéville and Perdido Street Station. You see, that book just made me angry. It’s hard to summarize why. I suppose I felt that while it was full of fantastic ideas, something about its tone struck me as misanthropic, revelling too much in ugliness and pain. I felt that its conception of art ultimately boils down to pretentiousness and nihilism, and that when it was trying to be “artistic” it became insufferable. Most of all, though, I was bothered by how the suffering, the injustice of this extremely capitalist society, was depicted but not questioned. So much effort spent on describing the awfulness of New Crobuzon, but so much of it simply taken for granted. It provoked a kind of restlessness in me as a reader, a desire to scream at the characters to get off their asses and do something. That made the book hard to enjoy.

What made me doubly mad was that there was real genius in the writing, so much so that it actually inspired me to do some worldbuilding of my own (for a role-playing game whose story you might get to see in some other form someday). Yes, New Crobuzon pissed me off enough that I felt the need to create a world of my own and do it properly.

At this point, I might’ve completely dismissed Miéville. He might technically be a socialist like myself, but there’s a lot that I disagree with him about, and his most famous novel turned out to be long, exhausting, and infuriating.

But if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have read Iron Council, and Iron Council is incredible.

I decided to read Iron Council because, from the summary, it seemed like its story was going to be less frustrating to me. Finally it was going to be about resistance, or even revolution! Not that every story has to be about that, mind you, but the setting itself created a kind of narrative pressure for me which made such a story profoundly necessary. Of course, good intentions don’t automatically mean the book is good, and revolution is a theme that is easy to mess up, to turn into something awful and reactionary. I was worried about that. I didn’t start reading with a ton of enthusiasm, and I had a couple of false starts, bouncing off the rather dense prose in the beginning. But then I got into the story, and the book turned out to be riveting and deeply, deeply moving.

I haven’t really changed my mind about Perdido Street Station, even if I generally feel more tolerant towards it now. I still think it’s very flawed. I think Iron Council has a certain painful honesty to it, a reflection of the real history of the Left, so full of struggle and loss, which makes it a far more believable, far more human work. It’s too busy dealing with the revolution to show off or to add bits of Serious Artistic Writing – and as such it feels much more like genuine, serious art.

In any case, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I know that China Miéville is capable of writing such a book, because it means the world is a better place than I thought it was; a richer, more interesting place.

The other, more recent, example is Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. My beef with Mr. VanderMeer was quite simple: he wrote an introduction to Lost Worlds, a collection of Clark Ashton Smith short stories, which derided and misunderstood the qualities of Smith’s prose to such a maddening degree that one might easily conclude that Jeff VanderMeer simply doesn’t understand words.

Except, of course, that I just read all three Southern Reach books and they are nothing short of brilliant. So really, all that one introduction means is that Jeff VanderMeer doesn’t entirely get some of the qualities of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose. Big deal! How many good and valuable things have I misunderstood or dismissed in my lifetime? Probably too many to count.

These days, we are frequently encouraged to dismiss and anathematize everyone and everything diverging even a little from our belief systems, to build for ourselves an illusory world free of “harmful” ideas. And partially that’s understandable, even necessary, given the strange fruit produced by the intersection of global communications and increasingly atomized societies.

But when excommunication becomes a way of life, life inevitably becomes duller and poorer; and when we feel that there’s nothing of value in the world, we turn to nihilism and misanthropy. “Diversity” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, mostly in reference to tiresome neoliberal identity politics, but we do need diversity in our lives. A diversity of ideas and possibilities; a diversity that allows for people to be capable of more than one thing; and above all, a diversity that includes a diversity of tastes, flavours, preferences, likes, dislikes, and all the rich variety of human thought and expression.

A huge world in which we can be surprised is a much better world than a tiny one in which we know everything.

Road to Gehenna

Hey folks,

I’m currently in Greece, on something of a working holiday, so I can’t write much. Typing this on my phone, which is quite hard with my oversized fingers.

Road to Gehenna comes out today! I’m quite nervous about it. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s really good, but it’s also much weirder, much more extreme than the original game, so possibly more likely to be divisive. Still, I’m quite proud of what we did, and grateful that we got to do it. Whatever its flaws and quirks, no-one’s done something quite like it before, and I think it explores themes that are genuinely interesting. (I’m being vague because it will be more fun without spoilers.)

Tom and I put so much stuff in there. I mean, it’s mad. It’s unbalanced. It’s ambitious. It’s silly. It has flaws. It has secrets. It’s a place.

We went in with the idea that we have to deliver something that’s as good as the original, but that DLC is also an opportunity to go nuts. And we did. It was fun.

Oh, and don’t forget to interact with the terminals after every puzzle. Gehenna is a living world, and if you ignore it too much, it’ll start ignoring you back.

In totally different news, today is our wedding anniversary. Verena and I have been married for six years. Time is a weird thing. I feel like our relationship is still new, but at the same time I cannot conceive of a time before it. How oddly pleasant and pleasantly odd.

Anyway, we’ll spend a relaxing day with friends, totally not constantly checking what people say about Gehenna.

– Jonas

Putting the ease in disease


Hey everyone,

Apologies for the lack of updates, including the promised video about The Council of Crows. I am, to put it simply, sick as a dog. I got sick in San Francisco just before GDC, got even sicker in Boston during PAX, and then stayed sick for a long time in Frankfurt. For a while I was almost deaf, which wasn’t fun. I’m slowly getting better now, but “healthy” is still a state I can’t quite imagine.

Otherwise things are actually going really well, projects-wise. Loads of exciting news to share. As soon as I’m not coughing my lungs out, that is.

Infectiously yours,


What Europe means for SYRIZA

Watching last week’s Eurogroup meeting has been fascinating. With SYRIZA replacing the servile ND/PASOK governments, which consented to every measure without debate, the fundamental character of the EU was revealed: it is an organization controlled by the German capitalist classes, steeped in an ideology of racism and nationalist contempt, and aimed purely and solely at maintaining the short-term profits of those classes at the expense of everyone and everything else.

(To be 100% clear: these are not the interests of German working people, or of the “German taxpayer” the German leadership so frequently invokes. They are the very opposite.)

As I wrote in my previous post, there is no need to have any illusions about SYRIZA: it is not a socialist party, not dedicated to dismantling capitalism. It is simply a younger, more vital Keynesian capitalist party, offering Europe a chance to revitalize its economy a little, stave off catastrophe by redirecting some funds towards growth and social stability. The big question the Eurogroup meetings were posing was this: can European capitalism still act in its own long-term self-interest?

The answer was a resounding no.

And that, it would seem, is where SYRIZA is running face-first into the limitations of its programme and ideology. The EU is not, as SYRIZA’s leadership fervently believes, a bulwark of cosmopolitanism, rationality and good government. It does not represent some kind of European ideal.

In the press conference after the last meeting, the journalist Paul Mason asked Dijsselbloem: “What do you say to the Greek people, whose democracy you’ve just trashed?” And that is a very fair assessment of what happened. The European Union does not care what people voted for. It is an organization with next to no transparency or accountability which is fundamentally opposed to the very concept of democracy. All the peoples of Europe are to be allowed is to choose the faces of the people who implement the EU’s predetermined policies.

The open contempt displayed by the Eurogroup leadership, the stoking of racism in Germany, the utter inflexibility even within the capitalist framework, all point to one fact: the EU cannot be reformed. It must be overcome.

The irony of all the pre-election propaganda is that SYRIZA is constitutionally incapable of doing so. It cannot even imagine itself outside of the EU, outside the fantasy of liberal capitalist cosmopolitanism.

The question that remains, then, is: what can SYRIZA still accomplish? Since we’ve reached the point where Germany claims an occupier’s right of determining which policies a Greek government can or can’t implement, what changes will they allow? And are any such changes still conductive towards the goals of a socialist movement? At this point, I’d say it’s still unclear. On the one hand, if SYRIZA can take advantage of wriggle room in the agreement, they can maintain some of their momentum and make some meaningful changes. Even relatively minor improvements could make a big difference in establishing the idea that change is possible, while – perhaps more importantly – there might be a certain degree to which optimizing capitalism in Greece by dismantling some of its more extreme clientelism and bureaucracy might actually make it more feasible to build a genuine socialist movement.

On the other hand, SYRIZA’s failures could well lead to a total disenchantment with the Left and to the renewed rise of the far right. (Paul Krugman described German policy as objectively pro-Golden Dawn.) If they cannot break with the memorandum in the slightest, then their inability to understand or accept what the EU really is will lend credence to the most extreme nationalist forces and undermine the Left for years to come. If they cannot take the necessary radical measures to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Greece (because Germany forbids them, or because they choose to appease Germany), they will be forced to employ tactics that will make them extremely unpopular and will probably break up the party from within.

That’s certainly what social-democratic parties have done in the past.

In the long term, parties like SYRIZA cannot deal with the fundamental contradictions at the heart of capitalism. These contradictions have produced a state of economic and cultural decay that SYRIZA is now coming up against in its attempt at becoming a renewing force of the kind that have previously lifted capitalism out of crises. But it would be a mistake to think of capitalism as cyclical – these crises are never really overcome, merely displaced. Germany’s rigidity is the rigidity of a corpse, the rigor mortis of capitalism.

Can SYRIZA buy us some time to organize before the zombies come to feast? Stay tuned for next week’s episode.

What SYRIZA means for Europe

The electoral victory of SYRIZA in the Greek elections has been described as everything from momentous victory of the Left to gigantic catastrophe, but the truth is that a lot of the coverage wildly exaggerates what SYRIZA is, what it stands for, and what it aims to achieve.

The Past


It’s impossible to detail the long and tortuous history of labour struggles in Greece, but a couple of important historical facts should be noted before we look at recent events.

  • In World War II, Germany invaded Greece, slaughtered its population and looted its economy. At the end of the war, Germany’s massive debts were forgiven, as rebuilding the German market was extremely important to the revival of capitalism. Small countries like Greece were left devastated.
  • Over and over, from the end of World War II to the Greek Civil War (1946-49) to the military dictatorship (1967-1974), Western European countries and the United States supported the most reactionary elements of Greek society in order to maintain geopolitical advantages. This included siding with Nazi collaborators to slaughter the Greek Resistance.

Austerity hardly began with the recent economic crisis. The necessity of austerity was already a major mantra of the PASOK government of Kostas Simitis (1996-2004). PASOK, like most social-democratic parties in Europe, turned to increasingly extreme neoliberal policies long before the crisis, policies that continued to intensify under the notably corrupt Nea Dimokratia government of Kostas Karamanlis (2004-2009). The notion that Greece was some manner of “socialist paradise” where workers enjoyed huge benefits is erroneous and cannot be backed up by facts. In simplistic terms, Greeks always worked more hours, for less money and with fewer rights, than Germans.

It is ironic that the PASOK government of George Papandreou (2009-2011) was voted into power precisely to stop this process of erosion, as it was this government, under the pretext of “we have no other choice,” that began the total destruction not only of labour rights, but of democratic processes and general quality of life. When his government fell apart, it was followed by an unconstitutional, unelected “interim government of national unity” – strongly supported by Germany and the EU – which included the far-right party LAOS and legitimized fascist and neonazi tendencies that ultimately gave rise to Golden Dawn. This illegal government (2011-2012) was followed by a coalition between Nea Dimokratia, PASOK and DIMAR (the Democratic Left, a short-lived party formed in a successful attempt to divert votes from SYRIZA), under Antonis Samaras (2012-2015).

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General Updatey News Stuff

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So, hey, The Talos Principle got some pretty nifty reviews, and even won some awards! That’s pretty cool. In fact, that’s awesome. I’m very, very happy. Whatever reservations I may have about the state of games criticism, I’m pretty glad that we were right in assuming that the people who play games aren’t as stupid as we’re constantly being told, that treating players as adults is not actually a crime. Sure, there’s a lot of infantile stuff out there, but if we all tell ourselves that nothing else can succeed… well, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m currently extremely busy alternating between really fun stuff and really boring stuff. On the one hand, there’s The Council of Crows, which is basically what we said we were going to do when we started Ithaka of the Clouds. It’s a full-sized Lands of Dream game. It has a really unique atmosphere. It has some of the best images Verena has ever drawn. It has stunningly beautiful music. And it even covers some of the themes Ithaka was meant to cover, which makes sense, since at one point it was actually part of Ithaka, though that seems silly now.

It’s obviously taking a bit longer than I’d like to, but that’s mainly because it started as a medium-sized game and now has as many images as The Sea Will Claim Everything. (It’s differently structured, and thus probably a little bit shorter, but it’s still quite big.) In general, it’s going really well and I’m very excited about it.

Unfortunately, I also have to take care of a bunch of tax-related paperwork, which is extremely exhausting and time-consuming, and it doesn’t help that January and February are usually the months when my depression is at its worst.

There’s also other work, good work, to take care of, so right now my schedule is somewhat overloaded. Overall, I feel like I’m making progress, like my promise last year that I would accelerate is working, but I’ve got to make sure I keep some kind of balance. It’s easy to start feeling hopeless and cynical when the world is full of problems and the main respone seems to be hypocrisy.

You should really read Lud-in-the-Mist, by the way. I read a lot of good novels last year, but that one went straight to my top ten favourites. I realize that’s a pretty random thing to say, but there you go.

(Oh, and if anyone’s looking for a writer… my schedule is really full right now, but it won’t be in a few weeks, and I could use another gig. Just saying.)