Interview: Jake Elliott of Cardboard Computer

Last week we wrote about Balloon Diaspora, an indie adventure game that challenges a lot of the standard ideas of what an adventure game should be. Instead of focusing on puzzles and obtuse mechanics, it focused on conversation and on experiencing a world inhabited by refugees from the Balloon Archipelago.

The best part is, you don’t have to be believe me. You can download it yourself for free. I recommend it highly, as it was one of my favorite experiences of the year so far.

After we played and posted about it, we asked the man behind Cardboard Computer, Jake Elliott, some questions about the game and its design process.

To start with the generic, why did you start making games?

Well, I’d been making software art and experimental/noise music for I guess 10 years or so and I had made a handful of small games and game-like things as a part of that practice — like weird small things
in art school; games that were deliberately broken or had strange interfaces, nothing too focused. Then in the beginning of 2009 I worked on a project with my friends jonCates and Tamas Kemenczy — a
text adventure game called “Sidequest” which was a poetic, experimental homage to Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure. There’s this kind of beautiful and sad story behind “Adventure” — Crowther actually designed it for his daughters to play, after going through a divorce. So we were responding to the emotional charge of the game as well as its cultural significance.

I actually didn’t contribute too much to that game, but working on it and talking about it with them helped me open up to a different way of working with games that was still experimental but more narrative and affective. So that was really exciting, and then after getting familiar with some tools like Flash and the Flixel game engine I started making more involved games.

Balloon Diaspora is fascinating to me because it’s founded on the concept of diaspora and specifically the experiences of the Hmong-Americans, who obviously don’t feature in the game. It seems like the lion’s share of games tend to do this the opposite way, by finding a clever mechanic and then building out on it. Was your method a conscious choice, to find a subject matter before the actual game element?

Yeah, I’m not really one of these people who’s super into game mechanics as such. A lot of indie developers are really focused on finding novel mechanics and exploring them thoroughly, which works great for them but honestly I don’t think I’m really clever enough to get much out of that process. Which works fine for me — I’m more interested in poetics and stories anyway.

Did you do a lot of research for the game? Was it helpful to the overall experience?

I did, actually; I read a few books on the subject of diaspora from different disciplines (historical, sociological, etc.). I think it helped me treat the topic with an amount of respect that I feel good about, and to represent the spectrum of ways people can relate to living divorced from their homeland.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the player defining themselves in conversation with others. Why did you put so much focus on the player character?

In addition to the idea of diaspora, the game was inspired by the experience of engaging and exploring a foreign culture. So there’s one way that you can explore a foreign culture which is being like a tourist or an impartial observer, but another way is to just embrace the fact that you’re presence is disruptive and that a cross-cultural encounter is a two-way street. There’s a line in my favorite movie, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where he’s filming people on a pier in Africa and the narrator says “frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” It’s important to me that the player character is being defined by their experience in the same way that the characters they meet are being defined, rather than being an impartial observer.

What’s influenced you as a game developer?

Mostly fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of magical realist and southern gothic fiction, and that’s really directly influencing the game I’m working on now, Kentucky Route Zero. And of course, other independent game developers. Especially Increpare, Gregory Weir, Bento Smile and Terry Cavanagh. I also follow the “notgames” stuff very closely — like Tale of Tales, Jeroen Stout and Jordan Magnuson. I think what I’m doing is related to what they’re doing, but not exactly the same thing. But I like the direction they’re going.

What differentiates your games from “notgames” work like that done by Tales of Tales?

It’s probably not quite right for me to talk about notgames as a single body of work (ToT themselves said “notgames is not a genre; notgames is a project”) — but ToT seems focused on creating immersive experiences rather than telling stories, so that’s a big distinction. Also from the discussions I’ve followed on their forum, it seems that high-resolution, polished and detailed graphics are very crucial to them, probably because of this sense of immersion they’re striving toward. Games I’ve made like A House in California and Balloon Diaspora are relatively low-res and undetailed visually, sometimes even pretty crude, because they’re just not about immersion — they’re about stories and relationships between people.

It was a little bit of a (pleasant) shock to start Balloon Diaspora and realize there wasn’t much in the way of complicated, adventure game puzzles. Why did you opt against adding significant puzzles to the experience?

I guess I’m just not very good at designing puzzles, and moreover it’s not something I’m interested in working on at the moment. It was kind of an experiment too — like to see if I could really get away with having the game be entirely dialogue. I’m encouraged by the response and I plan to explore that more.

Neither Balloon Diaspora or A House in California feature anything in the way of adversity. This sort of game has become more and more prevalent in the past couple years; is it gratifying to see there are people interested in playing these more experimental, exploratory games?

Yeah it’s awesome! Again, I think Tale of Tales has done a lot to make this kind of game visible and get people excited about it, despite (or partly because of?) how controversial as they are. But they’re not the only ones — there’s quite a lot of work like this happening and that’s very inspiring to me.

To move on to your in-development game, Kentucky Route Zero. When I first saw the trailer (a few days after the Kickstarter ended), I was blown away by how different it looked. Was there an inspirational moment for it, like with Balloon Diaspora, or was it conceived differently?

Yeah it looks very different, definitely! That’s because I’m working with my friend Tamas Kemenczy, who I mentioned earlier. It’s a pretty deep collaboration but generally he’s in charge of all the art direction and producing all the art assets, and I’m doing all the writing, and we’re both programming and doing design type stuff.

The game is inspired by magical realist and southern gothic fiction, and by the landscape of Kentucky. A lot of the game is set in Mammoth Cave, the same setting as Will Crowther’s “Colossal Cave Adventure.” So in that way it’s related to the project we worked on with jonCates a few years ago.

I think what started me developing the concept that ultimately became Kentucky Route Zero though was playing Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 and having this reaction like “why do I have to fight all these robots? I just want to fly around and make weird space friends!” Kentucky Route Zero is really about developing relationships and exploring weird environments.

Speaking of Kickstarter, were you impressed by the community’s reaction to the game?

Yeah it was/is amazing! Even more than the financial support — which was really essential for us to be able to get this game up and running — Kickstarter has been a great way to find an audience for these games. The games I make don’t exactly have mass appeal so I can’t “make it up in volume”; I need to have a core audience of people who really care about what I’m doing and really want to support it.

To keep on the business side, why did you decide to release your game for
free but with monetized special editions?

It’s an ongoing experiment. The idea is to have the games free and open source, so they can reach people with a low barrier and also contribute to a free culture, but still somehow make it profitable enough to support myself. For now I’ve almost broken even between A House in California and Balloon Diaspora as far as the printing costs go, but not quite. I think it’ll just take time to find the right balance — it’s something I’m committed to figuring out!

Thanks for your time! We appreciate it!

My pleasure!