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Interview with Giant Bomb

18 Jul 2011

This is the complete text of the email interview conducted with Giant Bomb for Patrick Klepek’s July 11th article.

Giant Bomb: You say that The Killer isn’t a game. What is it?

Jordan Magnuson: I don’t view The Killer as a game, because it’s lacking almost all the defining characteristics of anything we might meaningfully call a “game”: no clear goals or objectives are given, there are no “rules” to play by, there’s no element of challenge, and there’s nothing about the experience of playing it that can really be called fun or entertaining. In some ways it’s an experience to be “endured” rather than “enjoyed,” which some people may find odd or objectionable, as the idea of “interactive experience” (outside of the realm of software tools) has become conflated with entertainment for most of us.

Others will see the umbrella term of “interactive experience” as still being too liberal a label for The Killer, when one’s means of interacting with it are so limited. But just as we have a huge range of written expression, from the sensationally entertaining to the terribly serious, and from the lengthy epic to the short haiku, I think there is room for every kind of interactive creation. The Killer, as far as I see it, is something like a short interactive poem, and it doesn’t intend to be anything more. I call it a notgame to try and spark a little bit of realization that not everything interactive has to be a game, and also to try and prepare the player for encountering something that won’t be fun.

GB: What’s the line between a “game” and what “this” is? Can a traditional game achieve this kind of emotional resonance?

JM: I think we can make general observations about the elements that tend to go into making something a “game” (as I was just doing), but drawing a line in the sand ends up being a rather difficult thing to do, and I’m not sure that such a line would be particularly useful once drawn. I believe we’ll end up with a huge spectrum of interesting creations where the interactive medium is concerned, and some of them (probably the most interesting ones) will be hard to define. “Killer” is fairly easy to describe as a “notgame” because of its rather extreme position on the spectrum, but I’m not incredibly interested in finding the exact “line” it would need to cross in order to become a game… or that games would need to cross in order to become “notgames.”

Regarding your second question, I think most gamers can testify to the fact that it is certainly possible for traditional computer games to achieve moments of strong emotional resonance. I think the question we have to ask is, do we encounter such moments because of a game’s gameplay elements, or inspite of them?

I feel like we have all these formulas for making games, and mostly we stick to those formulas while trying to improve them by making our games more entertaining, and bigger, and more 3D, and more addictive, and more “hard core”, so we’re adding more dungeons, and bigger monsters, and more intense combos, and higher resolution textures, and we end up with these games that often involve a lot of grinding, that encourage repetition and mastery and competition, that require honed and rigid skill sets… and then occasionally we get this idea that we want to add in a moment of “emotional resonance.” The problem is, the formula we’ve started with, and all the mechanics that support it, may not be particularly conducive to exploring a very wide range of emotions, or to engaging the general population in a way that is both accessible and meaningful.

I’m not saying that gameplay and emotional resonance can’t go hand in hand: it may be possible to create something that is very much a game, and also very compelling in its exploration of an emotional space. But I don’t think our curent formulas are particularly good starting places for achieving such a goal. I think we’re at a point where we could really benefit by forgetting everything we know about games, and asking ourselves how we might craft an interactive experience from the bottom up for the sake of expressing an idea, or exploring an emotion, or communicating some part of the human experience… rather than feeling from the outset that we have to make something that’s fun and entertaining in a particular way, and follows a certain formula for gameplay.

That “bottom up” search for alternative interactive experience is a large part of what I’m attempting to do with my GameTrekking creations. At the most basic and primitive level, mind you: these are just little experiments, sketches, doodles to pin on the fridge—there are other people doing this kind of work on a much grander scale than I am.

GB: Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the idea for The Killer, and how it does/doesn’t vary from other works you’ve produced in the past?

JM: I was lying in bed one night listening to Jónsi’s “Tornado” when the idea for The Killer came to me. I was traveling in Cambodia at the time, reading about the Khmer Rouge, and I had just been to visit Toul Sleng: a prison camp in Phnom Penh where 10,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1979. As I listened to Jónsi’s lyrics, and those haunting vocals, I imagined myself marching someone to the field where I would shoot them, or bludgeon their head in (as was more typical). Imagined getting to the field, and having that simple choice to make, of whether to carry out my purpose… or not. Once anything is in my head that way, it’s only half a step to my imagining it as some kind of computer game, or notgame.

I wanted the (not)game to be about reflection, to involve a repetative or constant simple input that would indicate a long march. Turns out I had already made something about the simple act of walking a little while earlier called “Walk or Die”, which I was fairly pleased with, so I reused the basic presentation from that piece, and that connection is the biggest similarity to a previous work.

In terms of differences, The Killer is the first thing I’ve made that relies so heavily on a particular piece of music… or perhaps I should say, a particular piece of lyrical music, as that is a somewhat significant distinction. English-language lyrical music from Iceland, no less. My tendency for a piece like this would typically be to use some instrumental music rooted in the culture I was exploring-in this case, Cambodia. And that may indeed have been a better choice. I’m always interested in trying new things, though, and my whole project is about experimentation; so while the sheer distance (both geographic and cultural) between Iceland and Cambodia bothered me somewhat at first, I couldn’t get away from the fact that “Tornado” perfectly expressed a good deal of what I was feeling while traveling through Cambodia and learning about its past. Ultimately, I came back to the fact that my GameTrekking project is not about attempting some objective presentation of Cambodia, or any other place that I’ve been to, but rather about my trying to express something of my own particular encounters with places as I travel in the twenty-first century… where I may be in Iceland one day, and Cambodia the next; or be in Cambodia listening to music from Iceland, and find myself startled by how well it seems to compliment my experience in a location so far-removed from that music’s origins.

At the end of the day I’m happy enough with the choice I made there, because I think it was honest. It resonates with some people, while for others it falls completely flat. Which is how it should be, because everyone’s coming from someplace unique.

GB: How much does your experience with Game Trekking inform the gameplay itself?

JM: I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “the gameplay itself,” but in general terms it’s impossible for me to see any of my GameTrekking creations as seperate from the travel that inspires them, and that’s as true for The Killer as for any of the others. Some of my pieces, like “The Kindness of Strangers,” which I made after visiting Taiwan, are more rooted directly in personal encounters, and the day-to-day experiences I have while trekking; something like The Killer is clearly more historically grounded, and some might say that I could have made it just as well from my living room in the United States, or wherever. But my reading and my encounters and my creation are all inextricably linked, for me: I read because I travel, and I travel because I want to make games about the places I visit, and vice-versa. It was because of this project that I was studying the Khmer Rouge, and it was because I was in Cambodia that I saw how much its past history is still affecting the country today. I strongly doubt that I ever would have had the particular idea that turned into The Killer if I had not been able to actually visit Toul Sleng and the Cheong Ek killing fields, and while I may have been listening to Jónsi’s music regardless, it certainly wouldn’t have had the meaning it did for me when I heard it in Cambodia.

GB: There are multiple endings in The Killer. Is there a “good” ending? How does one parse that?

JM: One of the things that excites me with the interactive medium is the ability to present different experiences to different players, even in games that are very simple, and very linear. I think as a rule game developers are rather fixated on making sure everyone who plays their game has essentially the same experience—a kind of quality control, I guess (plus it makes a game much easier to understand, and much easier to review, if everyone’s basically getting the same end experience). I think that’s fine, and perhaps it’s necessary where big budgets are concerned; but it’s not necessary for me.

I like to experiment with interactivity at the most basic level, so The Killer is very linear, and revolves around two simple choices: the choice of whether or not to hold down the spacebar and march, and the choice one makes at the end of whether or not to kill the victim. There is also the possibility, outside of the player’s control, that a landmine will explode, killing both soldier and victim (regarding this ending, Cambodians are still being killed to this day by the millions of landmines that were laid during the KR era, and I wanted to express something of that reality to some players).

Despite the simplicity of the choices involved, I like to think that each possible ending creates a somewhat unique experience. There are also other small variations from one play to the next that have to do with the environment and the length of the march, which insure that no two players have precisely the same encounter.

Most people won’t play The Killer more than once, and I don’t want them to. The reason for all of these small differences essentially comes back to experimentation: I’m interested in the idea of a work that cannot be experienced exactly the same way twice, where wholistic meaning can only emerge through conversation. I’m just dabbling in this idea with Killer, but the thought is that some people will play the thing and not realize they have a choice at the end, and comlain about the lack of interaction; that other people will point out that choice; that some people will be blown up and say “what the crap, is this just a game where you walk and get blown up?” Maybe someone else says something about the reality of landmines in Cambodia; Perhaps someone gets a particularly long walk, and is annoyed by it; someone else says”no, the walk’s not that long” (because their experience was different), etc. etc. Eventually, perhaps, some kind of tapestry emerges through the discussion, which maybe allows each player to have a broader understanding about how their particular experience relates to the whole. That’s the thought, anyway, and to an extent I think the conversation is taking shape as I had hoped, on my website, and places like Newgrounds.

Sorry, I’m afraid my rambling on about this theory stuff is making The Killer out to be much grander than it is. To answer your actual question: I really think it’s up to each individual player to decide what they think of whichever ending(s) they encounter.

GB: What’s been the reaction from people who’ve played The Killer? Specifically, any negative response?

JM: Haha. Like people calling it the worst fucking thing they’ve ever played in their lives, and asking me to please go get a girlfriend for their sake, so that they don’t have to suffer through any more of my crap? No, nothing like that :) .

In seriousness, the reactions tend to vary between extremes: most of the ratings at Newgrounds seem to be 0s or 10s, for instance. I’ve gotten emails from people saying how much the game touched them, etc., and other emails telling me to go die because it was so lame (my favorite of which was somebody ranting about how they already knew everything there was to know about “Columbia,” and consequently didn’t want to play a stupid flash game about it).

There have been a few people in the middle (some of them offering really insightful criticism), but not too many. I find the polarization interesting.

GB: Gamers say they want more emotion in their games, but if that comes at the expense of “fun,” is it ever going to work?

JM: I think if we’re afraid of “losing fun,” we’re going to severely limit our potential for exploration where this medium is concerned, and that would be a shame. Games are going to be around forever… I don’t think we have to worry that our grandchildren are going to end up in some kind of grayscale world where they’re forced to play boring notgames all day long. So my feeling is, let’s not worry about it “working”: let’s experiment, and see what’s outside the box. I think there’s plenty of room for all varieties of fun and emotion and meaning to exist together, and side by side.