Jack King-Spooner is something of a renaissance man. He makes visual art, object art, music, and of course videogames. To paraphrase something he once said, he can’t help leaving a trail of impractical nonsense in his wake. Well, we can be grateful that some of that takes the form of amazing games.
King-Spooner shares with us such a clear and unique vision in Will You Ever Return, Parts 1 and 2, that it’s hard to believe it’s his first pair of releases. Will You Ever Return transports you to another place, a beautiful nightmarescape that is equal parts Bosch, kitsch, pop-culture, and contemporary art. It is the tale of a man who is shot in the gut one evening on his way home to his lover and then finds himself in Hell. He discovers that he can reincarnate to visit his lover on Halloween night if he collects five skulls. This premise is basically an excuse for us to explore King-Spooner’s surreal vision of Hell. See the sights, listen to the sounds, talk with the bizarre denizens, and solve puzzles to get the skulls. The game has some trappings of traditional RPGs, having been created in RPGMaker, but it is an adventure game at heart. The real focus is on exploration, discovery, and dialogue. In some ways, the game is like a gallery show with a narrative. Playing it is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was plugging directly into someone else’s dream (or nightmare).
Will You Ever Return, Part 2 is more of a companion piece than a sequel. It begins just after Part 1 does, and the events of Part 2 take place concurrently with those of Part 1. Now, we follow the man who killed our hero from Part 1. The situation that drove him to perpetrate the crime casts this character in a more sympathetic light, but he is a pitiful guy. Perhaps we can identify less with him than with the man he killed, but this rather dim-witted antihero provides an interesting contrast to the sharp, witty fellow we followed in Part 1. And the sights and sounds of King-Spooner’s Hell are still as amazing, funny, and disturbing as ever. Together, Will You Ever Return Parts 1 and 2 comprise a fiercely original, handcrafted masterpiece (yes, I said it); a work of art that you can play.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Jack King-Spooner.
I kind of started making games so as to have a nice place for my songs and pictures then it went a bit off the tracks.
Jack, it’s been a pleasure to play your games, and I’m glad to have the chance to ask you some questions. I’m interested in what shapes a game designer, so could you tell me where you grew up, and what your formative experiences with playing games were like?
Thanks so much for playing them. I grew up with my mum in rural Scotland. It was a good childhood, I don’t know, I must’ve gone astray down the line someplace. Game-wise I had a hand-me-down NES and a gameboy and then a SNES. But, I mean, I spent a lot of time playing in streams and stuff more than playing computer games. The games that really captured my imagination though were that Zelda game on the gameboy where it turns out it was all a whale’s dream, I liked that. I also used to love how in the old Command & Conquer and Age of Empires games if you clicked on the soldiers they’d say different things and get annoyed at you, I thought and still think that was inspired. Also, I loved it in games when you left a character dormant and they’d do something. Earthworm Jim rocked my SNES for a while, that is probably my favourite game ever. Later I got a Playstation and an N64 but I can’t remember being captivated by much on them besides Micro Machines and Golden Eye. I kind of stopped playing games for a really long stretch after that.
I live intermittently in Poland and Scotland now. I’m pretty rubbish at gaming now. I play mostly indie games and am constantly amazed by how much great, expressive stuff is out there. Oh! I got that Batman game, Arkham City, to see where AAA games are now and wow games have come a long way since Link’s Awakening. I also loved Machinarium by Amanita Design and am currently stuck on their latest piece Botanicula.
What game developers or games have influenced you as a designer, would you say?
Tricky question, I don’t think my main influences are games really (probably to my detriment). Earthworm Jim is still with me after all this time. Amanita Design for bringing the point and click magic of Neverhood and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis back to life, I like their sounds too and the way things are communicated. If it wasn’t for The Catamites’ games I doubt I’d have started making games. Nik Sudan, Jake Clover, Cactus all are just incredible developers with the kind of work ethic I’d like to achieve one day.
Your games have a strong visual arts component. Will You Ever Return uses collage, diorama, sculpture, and drawing, at least. Are you influenced, as a game designer, by any particular artists who work in mediums other than games? Painting, film, animation, music, etc.?
I’m really easily influenced, there is so much amazing stuff that we have access to at the moment. I love the works of the visual artists Paul MacCarthy, David Shrigley, Bruce Nauman and Martin Creed to mention but a few. Good painters are amazing, they really know how to convey something human. I like L.S. Lowry very much, Marlene Dumas is very good. I think I’m most strongly influenced by writers though, I feel the other art forms are always playing catch-up to literature. I was really taken by the Beatniks for ages; Burroughs and Ginsberg. The way they address form is something I like to consider. Lately I’m into Don Delillo, I like his sentence structure (“People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night”, “I want to bottle-f**k you slowly with my sunglasses on”). However, my strongest, most prevailing influence comes from Ted Hughes. This kind of hard morality, or ambiguous morality or simply the ambivalence of nature. Something similar is there in Cormac McCarthy’s writing. And in Plath.
And do you make visual–or any other type–of art outside of games?
“Art” is a pretty loaded term in some circles. I like making stuff though. I made some telephones that play MP3s. I made a waistcoat for a stuffed weasel that’s on my wall.
The music in Will You Ever Return is amazing and weird. Where did you find it?
Besides the old Tielman Brothers songs (“Unchained Melody”, “Black Eyes” and “Love you Forever” covers) I make all my own music. I kind of started making games so as to have a nice place for my songs and pictures then it went a bit off the tracks. I love making music.
Your music is awesome–I didn’t realize you made almost all of it. I imagined you scouring public domain archives and then adding effects to obscure tunes from the past, and that sort of thing. Please take that as a compliment–your music sounds timeless! And do I understand correctly that you yourself covered the ones you didn’t write?
I didn’t cover the songs I didn’t write, it’s better than that. They are kind of early sixties classics but the versions I used where from band – The Tielman Brothers – that have plummeted into obscurity having once been incredibly popular in Europe (so I’m led to believe). Their story is great; they escaped a fairly conservative Indonesia and moved to Holland, I think, to follow their dream of being rock stars. I love this weird place between tackiness and sincerity. I love how they mispronounce the words but sing with utter devotion.
Did you read Dante in school, and did Inferno influence Will You Ever Return? How about other literature or folktales and mythology? There are references to a lot of stuff like Baba Yaga, Charon, etc.
I read the Divine Comedy but not at school. It influenced the game indirectly. Of course the character Virgil and the Forest of Suicides are taken from Purgatorio but the Sylvia Plath tree idea was inspired by a Don Paterson poem from his collection Landing Light. It’s a sublime book of poetry actually.
There sure are a lot of references in the game, they come from all over. Being in Poland at the moment helped the Baba Yaga thing but she’s always been a favourite of mine- not all bad but a bit partial to eating children. Both Virgil and Baba Yaga are characters which were used as narrative tools (the former a guide, the latter a donor) and so they seemed perfect for an RPG kind of game. Of course Charon and the Styx are from Greek Mythology. I used demon names from Christian mythology and I think it’s probably a Christian hell I’m depicting.
Was Will You Ever Return conceived of as having more than one installment? Will there be more?
I never thought anyone would play it and so I never thought of having more than one part but now that it’s quite popular in a funny, niche kind of way I feel like I ought to make more. I have a lot more ideas in regards to animation, story and themes.
Your Ludum Dare game uses Mitt Romney in an absurdist rather than a satirical manner… I think. What was the purpose of using him in this game?
That game is all about power in relation to violence, I rushed it out in two days to see if I could do it. From the Goomba/ pigeon stomping at the start to the optionless beating at the end, violence seems to be about dominance and that in turn seems to be a quality of power. That’s why violent games and films are satisfying if the violence is cathartic. Mitt seemed to be all about the power, seemed appropriate. I’m not happy with that game really.
Take a minute to tell me how you feel about game jams in general. Will you be jamming again in the future?
I kind of find it boring watching other people code but I think collaboration is probably the single best thing in the creative practices. So, some ups and some downs. I’ll try a jam again, they are still kind of novel for me.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time on your WIP game Beeswing. How long have you been developing it, and how far along is it?
It’s almost done. It’s been in development for a long time. This is sadly a different thing to me developing it for a long time. I was hoping to finish it in the next week but it will probably be about three weeks.
Beeswing looks beautiful from what little I’ve seen. What techniques, either artistic or mechanical, are you using in Beeswing that you haven’t employed in previous games?
Thanks very much. So it’s all watercolour paintings. It’s not linear. Well, it’s linear but you can do things in whatever order you choose or don’t do anything. It teases at the infantilism of culture. The writing addresses psychology and uses the game as an analogy for those ideas. Mechanics wise it’s the same old tricks, perhaps even simpler.
Beeswing is a game about your childhood?
Yip, partly why I’m holding off finishing it because I know it’s dull but it’s personal. Criticisms will be weird. But that’s the thing, people are so terrified of being vulnerable these days. Endless irony and post-modernism everywhere. It’s like a shield that defends from criticism (“well I was being ironic”) but also prevents really saying something about life as it is. I’m not saying that one has to essentially be vulnerable to say something meaningful but one probably has to refrain from being ironic. Having said that, I can’t imagine a Will You Ever Return? that wasn’t steeped in irony and post-modern referencing.
Tell me about Sluggish Morss? Is this a science fiction piece?
This is what I’m focusing on at the moment. It’s a collaboration of sorts with Jake Clover. We are attempting to make a game or two (or more) that have a conversation between them, based on similar themes or something. I think the name will be Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History. It’s a science fiction piece. Space as a setting – like Hell – has the brilliant potential for abstract images and themes. [Note: After we spoke, the Jake Clover half of Sluggish Morss--featuring music by Jack--was stealthily released via Gamejolt: http://gamejolt.com/games/other/sluggish-morss/12218/]
I’ve got another three collaborations currently going on; I’m doing the music for this, I’m making the graphics for a game by the awesome Nik Sudan about animals you can trust. Lastly, I’m working with another artist and a very clever musician on something smallish called Matches, a kind of retelling of the Matchstick Girl. I’m really excited about all of them but the third project is something kind of nice. It has a maturity about it in a storybook kind of way. Hard to explain… it seems contemporary.
One more question: How the hell do you get your name to appear in backwards letters like that?
Gamejolt profile: http://gamejolt.com/profile/jack-spinoza/16561/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Hack (Phack) is a gamer, writer, and dad. He previews cool indie games at indiegamehunt.tumblr.com, posts irregularly at expensiveindiegames.tumblr.com, tweets @indiegamehunt, and runs twinehub.weebly.com. He might make a game, too.