"I am telling the stories of the people who have inspired my life’s story."
INTERVIEW with Jack King-Spooner on rural life, poetry, games, knights and sub-marines.
Jack King-Spooner is one of the more interesting indie developers out there: His games, while made with simple tools like Adventure Games Studio, are a fascinating pastiche of different techniques, tackling topics that are rarely addressed in games. I talked to him during the Kickstarter campaign for Beeswing, a game that focusses on the small Scottish village King-Spooner grew up in, the people living in it, and their stories. It resonated strongly with me, village-born myself, and often surprised about the fact that games hardly ever choose such places as their setting.
So, where are you talking from? Do you actually live in Beeswing?
I'm afraid, I do not. I am going to be there by the week-end, though. I live in Edinburgh at the moment. But I visit Beeswing a lot, I still got family in the area. So it’s not entirely wrong.
But you spent all your childhood in Beeswing?
All my childhood, yeah. My dad moved away before my memory started, so I would visit him wherever he was. But that was only intermittently. So I spent all my childhood in Beeswing, with my mum. And, you know, it was great. Tree houses, trying to stop streams with mud, things like that. I consider myself really lucky. I can’t imagine many children nowadays will have such a childhood.
This is a much debated topic right now… what the American writer Michael Chabon called the “Wilderness of Childhood”, that important freedom to explore. It’s hard for children to be adventurous when their parents are always on their back, fearing that their offspring is in constant danger.
Well, I’m sure my mum thought I was in constant danger.
Was she right, though?
Yeah, probably… because I usually climbed up pine trees… well, all the kids did it. It was like: „I bet you cannot climb so far up the tree that it bends over and you can jump onto the other tree.” That’s stupidly dangerous. [laughs]
It does sound like it, yeah… Which makes me wonder: most of the games you did so far were, in a way, somewhat linear. Will you change that for Beeswing? Will you try to evoke that pleasure of exploring, that adventurous side?
Well… the stories in the game only have one way of being told, there is no multiple outcomes or anything like that, there can't be. You see, I think people have fooled themselves into thinking that if they have multiple endings or multiple ways of discovering the same story in a game, then it is a better story. I don't agree.
That said, the stories can be discovered non-sequentially depending on who you want to or don't want to chat with or what objects you interact with. This way of fracturing a narrative is more interesting for me. I feel it is the difference between a make-your-own-adventure book and a Burroughs-esque cut up technique. David Foster Wallace used footnotes to do something similar with narrative (not that I'm anything on Wallace). I'm not sure if this answers the question, but you could say that structurally, it's a collection of linearities.
It will do! Anyway, Beeswing seems to be rather wonderful place. Its Wikipedia page is a thing of beauty! It’s like the ramblings of a lovely, drunken guy. Like, you will not find the information you expect on a page on a place like this. Instead, they talk about a famous football player, as a total non-sequitur. It does not say who the footballer was.
[looks up the page on his computer] It really doesn’t!
So who was he?
I have no clue. I never heard about that. But that is a really strange sentence: “The village once had a world-class footballer as a resident, and is involved in Arthurian legacy.” It kind of makes it sound like the footballer was part of the King Arthur-legacy.
It’s perfect, in a way. I can imagine knights walking around in full plate armour, trying to kick that little ball without falling backwards over. And the village was named after a race horse, right?
That’s true. The house across from me is a really big manor house, where wealthy land owners used to live. Their butler placed a bet on a horse called “Beeswing”. It won the race, and he never had to be a butler anymore. That left a big impression. You see, the village was actually a mining village. And, although the butler obviously wasn’t a miner himself, because of his fate, of getting so fabulously rich off of this horse, the gossip around the place must have slowly changed the name. It used to be called “Lochend”, because it’s situated at the end of a “loch”, a lake. I imagine that the people in the village must have forgotten that and started calling it “Beeswing”. That’s just how language works, really. But I think it’s quite nice that it is called after a bet on a race horse.
And before that, the name referred to Arthurian legend, right?
Of course, there is also the Arthur-thing. I mean, there are lakes and lochs all up and down Britain, which people link to King Arthur. But about ten years ago… or maybe longer, they actually found a U-boat in the loch near Beeswing…
A German submarine?
No, I do not mean that at all. Why did I say that? It definitely was not an old submarine, sorry. [laughs]
That would have been amazing, though.
Football-playing knights and submarines… what a place! But unfortunately, it was just a thousand year-old boat which was somehow preserved in the Loch. It is in the national museum of Scotland now. You see, not much happens in the village, but things like that are a talking point for years.
I can imagine that. You say that not a lot is happening there, but I have to admit that from afar, Beeswing really looks like a special place.
It actually is quite special. Well, a lot of places around here are, because they are not really being touched by tourism. No one really goes down to the southwest of Scotland. They either go north, were the highlands are, or to the Glasgow and Edinburgh area. But there are things about it that are really special. There is a community which cares for disabled people. I think it’s really sweet. They also make amazing food there. And also you’ve got forests, you’ve got hills, and you’ve got water, the Loch. And the sea is really nearby as well. It’s really nice, a kind of magical location, I think. But of course, I grew up there, so I’m probably biased.
So how did you get from climbing trees in a place like this to study arts? The usual cliché is that for people in villages, arts are not very high up on the list of priorities.
I don’t know, actually. My best friend from the village is a carpenter, and another one is a brewer, he makes beer. Actually, there is something artistic about them, if you look at it from a funny angle. But I don't know… maybe there were some weird movies on TV? I remember that there was a Jodorowsky film on TV, and that kind of changed my way of thinking about things. That things just can be really weird. There used to be some really late-night, kind of druggy TV-shows which I used to like as well. For example, when I was a kid, about six years old, Twin Peaks was on TV. I used to watch that with my mum.
On top of that, it might sound a bit cliché, but I have always been creative, making things. I showed a talent for it in high-school, and I passed everything pretty easily, without studying, at least in terms of art. After high-school, I first went off to study English literature. But then I realized that I was not going to get a job studying this… so I might as well study something that I enjoy. And not get a job. [laughs] So I swapped courses.
Ultimately, I completely gave up on my initial studies, took a timeout to earn some money, and started studying art. I was sure that I would never get a job studying that… But honestly, I really don’t call myself an artist by any means. I am just making things, really. Things which I have not seen before.
At Indiestatik, Chris Priestman called what you do “bricolage”. I think that’s a good word.
Yes, I like the word, too. They are quite insightful on Indiestatik.
I actually discovered you on the site. In a feature called “Who is the next Cactus?”.
That one was just a bit silly. I don’t think that I am doing the same thing as the other people in that article. I mean, I don’t mean to be pejorative or negative towards what they are doing. I think that it’s really fun and expressive. That said… they have got a kind of boyishness to their work, and that’s actually a side I sometimes worry about. That anti-intellectual attitude. I can’t be bothered with that, really.
There is also that label out there, “Weird Games”, that is applied to all of you. I think I first came across the word describing games by theCatamites. But it’s truly a somewhat strange idea to take the weirdness as the defining characteristic of a genre.
It’s pathetic, really. As soon as you put labels on things, you start to negate them. You start to say: “Oh, I know what that is.” But that does just not work at all. Even though I think that theCatamites is fantastic. I don’t think that what he is doing is anti-intellectual at all. I’m a big fan of his.
At least superficially, there are clear parallels between what you are doing and what he is doing… like that aspect of “bricolage”, where both of you are working with your hands and materials -- clay, cardboard, and so on -- that show their materiality even in digital form.
That’s true. He is an influence on a lot of young indie developers, like myself. He has actually written about my stuff in his A1reviews. He seems to be a fan, even though he says that he does not really play videogames. It’s nice to think that he has tried my stuff, though.
That’s another thing you have in common, isn’t it? You said that you are not playing a lot of commercial videogames either…
So another label used for your work, that of “outsider art” might be more accurate, in a very literal sense of the word?
I don’t think it’s outsider art, something that I really, really, like. It's not that at all. Well, I don’t know. What is certainly true, though, is that a lot of freeware games are a lot more artistic than a lot of commercial, high budget games. The latter often do not have a lot of artistic merit, at all. I’m sure that most people would disagree. But even if a game like that has an artistic merit, it does not really have an artistic function, in the way that good art often has a function… a social function, for example. It just panders to the masses, kisses arse left, right, and centre, doesn’t it?
For example the new BioShock [Infinite]. They asked twenty year-old boys what should be on the cover. And what did they and up with? A man with a gun. What else could it have been? If you are just going to do what the biggest demographic wants, then you have no social function, no matter if you are computer game, a film, or what have you.
Beeswing obviously is very different. And in a way, it’s a project I had been waiting for. I mean, in so many art forms, the village is such an important topic and setting for stories. So it’s all the more surprising that it’s really rare that a videogame chooses a village as its setting.
I never really thought about it, but that’s a good point.
Do you know why that is?
It’s probably the same thing that we just talked about… that idea of trying to please everyone. There’s that silly idea that people think they want BIG STORIES, they want “epic”. Somehow I think that everyone just fooled themselves into thinking that… But whatever way you put it, a village really can’t be epic.
But why do YOU think that villages are rarely depicted in games?
I actually have several theories. What you are saying is surely one of them. Another one comes from something that Robert Sherman said. He argued that the “Hero’s Journey” is so important for videogames because it provides them with a clear structure. It’s much more difficult to tell stories that are true to life, because reality is often messy, and it’s more difficult to extract a straight narrative from that. The “Hero’s Journey” is, literally, straightforward: People moving through space, having life-changing experiences. It’s something that videogames are good at, much better than the more introspective perspective that is at the heart of stories set in villages.
Actually, what you say might be a problem for Beeswing. I mean, sure, it’s a Zelda-like setting, but the stories in the game are real stories. For example, one of the neighbours suffers from a kind of social anxiety, which is a lot more common than almost anyone expects. One in ten women will have social anxiety-problems… that is an incredibly amount of people. But what is the answer to this? There is a clear problem there, but how do find a solution to that? Should you really make a game where you find a magic potion to solve social anxiety? A lot of people would like that, probably. But I’m afraid; I’m not going to do that. [laughs]
I know that might sound bizarre in light of the unusual settings and characters you often depict in your work, but still: Would you call your games more “realistic” than what a lot of games are trying to achieve? Maybe you could even use the word “Magical Realism”? There's another label for you!
Someone actually used the word “Magical Realism” to describe Beeswing, but it’s not really fitting. Not that I am not interested in it. Well, let’s say that I just aim to represent things visually, aurally, and with narrative, and kind of illustrate the same thing through all my games. I just don’t quite know what that thing is. That’s up to the person interfacing with my work to say.
That said, I think that there are a variety of themes in Beeswing, childhood as the most important one of them. I don’t know, do you have Calvin & Hobbes in German? Of course, that’s far better than anything I will ever make, but I’m definitely borrowing that kind of childishness, except with an informed viewpoint. Well, lots of people use it.
It's at the heart of the Picaresque novel, for example.
Yes, that kind of thing. But what’s interesting is that it’s not only an artistic thing. It’s actually a perspective you sometimes adapt, depending on who you are talking too. Like, when you are talking to your mother, you automatically take on aspects of a child… probably more from the point of view of the mother than the child, because she is talking to “her little baby”. Whereas when you are talking to other people, you are forced to be an adult. I am not ignoring that. You are not constantly a child, or an adult in the game. It really depends on who you are talking to.
But the character will be a child, physically?
It is a child, but it’s got a beard. [laughs]
That absurdity there… it ties back to a thing you alluded to before when talking about Jodorowsky. A narrative making sense only on an emotional, or even a subconscious level. That’s something a lot of people experience for the first time while encountering the work of David Lynch, I think. In a way, he was to me what Jodorowsky was to you: An eye-opener of sorts. You said before that you watched Twin Peaks as a child, and of course, this is also one of the most famous recent depictions of small town-life in popular culture. Is Beeswing maybe influenced by it, too? Do you let yourself inspire by the depiction of small town or village life in movies, or other art forms, at all?
Twin Peaks is not a direct inspiration, no. The other works which are inspiring it are Lewis Grassic Gibbons Sunset Song, a fantastic novel. It is about a young, intelligent girl growing up in a village, who has to decide if she wants to become an English teacher or if she is going to stay in the village as a farmer’s wife. Another one is Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, which is a big influence to the game. And there are others… Ted Hughes, for example, and the Tolstoy-short story A Spark Neglected Burns the House. These kinds of stories, where the morality is hard, but not really clear, which is representative of real life. There is definitely a smell of morality all about the work of those writers, in a good way.
It’s interesting, because these days, “morality” has an almost pejorative connotation. Like morality automatically has to be something oppressive, something negative.
Yes, it’s that whole notion of “Don’t tell me what to think!”
Which is kind of narrow-minded, really. I like good writers exactly because they can show me new ways of thinking. It’s what good literature should do, in a way. Another writer for whom this is certainly true, and one you just mentioned, is the Scottish poet Ted Hughes. How does his influence on Beeswing shine through?
I was thinking about his poems which are representing rural things, simple things often. Like, there is one about a tractor in the rain. Or there is one about a lamb being born… it’s spring time, and lambs are very cute, and they jump around, and all that… but he does not talk about any of that. He talks about the farmer having to put his hands inside the sheep and pulling the lamb out by its feet, and how the lamb is flumping on the ground in a pool of blood… you know, I used to help lambing when I was a kid. You always help out at the farms.
The birth though… it is profoundly hard. It ties back to the hard morality we were talking about, in a way.
I once assisted at a cow birth myself.
There is just something incredibly profound about that. Instead of how "profound" it is to see baby animals in spring, which is comparably trivial. The birth though… it is profoundly hard. It ties back to the hard morality we were talking about, in a way. And of course, in a village, you are also closer to death… when a neighbour dies in such a place, everyone knows about it.
That’s actually something which is at the heart of village life, I think: That aspect of it being a very close-knit community, for better and worse. That is, to come back to videogames, something that almost all games disregard, with one sole exception… have you played, by any chance, Mother 3?
I have not, yet.
It’s one of the few games that border on getting what makes a village a village, I would say. (The other ones being, for different reasons, Animal Crossing and Deadly Premonition.) The whole first chapter of Mother 3 is just there to show how such a small community deals with a catastrophe in their rows.
Well, I have played the second Mother-game, Earthbound. I remember liking it; even though it has been so long that I have played it that I do not remember specific details. I do remember that I was not very fond of the combat, though. But did that game not also have a community-kind of feel to it as well?
It did, to a certain degree. It started in a small town, too. But that aspect is nowhere as strong as it is in Mother 3, where you have at the very beginning the death of a person, and the whole village being reunited in mourning, in trying to deal with it. Unfortunately, it moves away from that later on. The village remains important – in a way, Mother 3 is the story of this village, and how it transforms under the influence of external powers. But unfortunately, very soon, the "Hero’s Journey"-structure kicks in, and you spend most of your time travelling around and fighting.
That's a pity, really. I have to admit something to you: the whole Kickstarter thing is difficult, in a way, because you have to sell your project. So I tried to sell Beeswing on the sweet side of things, and with a focus on the storytelling. People who are familiar with my work will know that it will not just be sweet, and cute, but there are things I have to leave out for other people. I can’t focus on the realistic side of it, and I did not really talk about the fact that death is a really big theme in the game.
But I have to say I really don’t know why death is dealt with so irresponsibly in almost all media, literature being the exception. In games, it's reduced to mindless fighting. Whereas it is actually something that is incredibly interesting, at least for me. It’s one of my favourite topics, in a way.
It’s clear from your games that it is… there is a morbid streak to all of your games.
Yes, they often are literally morbid. You know, morbid has got such a bad name. [laughs] It’s not like I hang about graveyards, and those things… I just think that the way that Western culture deals with death is just preposterous, compared to the way African or Buddhist cultures deal with it. Here, it’s all about immediate denial… I mean, I have heard people say often enough that “he has gone to a better place”. Well, no… he’s dead, you know? [laughs]
You addressed that topic in Blues for Mittavinda and the Will You Ever Return?-games… come to think of it, in the latter, you returned to a setting you had visited once before. Which makes me wonder: are you familiar with the comic artist Gilbert Hernandez? He has been working on stories about a village, and the people living in it, for about thirty years now. The structure of this seems very well suited to the topic, I think: You start with the setting, the village, and then you build stories around that. This way, you are free to add stories over time, without losing your focus. You are deepening the narrative with each story you tell. Could you imagine doing something similar with Beeswing?
I would love to do that. I just love to tell people’s stories, really. There’s that Hedda Gabler-idea that your story is not complete until your death. That’s why an autobiography can never really tell your own story. Of course, I am not telling my own story. I am telling the stories of the people who have inspired my life’s story, these people in the village, and the seminal moments in our relationships with each other.
But it’s funny that you should be saying that. I mean, the Kickstarter campaign is not even finished yet, and I already have got more than the money I was asking for. Of course, I have ideas of what I will do with the additional money… but I do not want to communicate stretch goals. I don’t really want to ask people about more money. I know that every other person does this on Kickstarter, but I’m not every other person. That attitude seems strange to me. “Yes, we have made 50’000 dollars, but if you give us 25’000 more, we will…” I mean, fuck off! That’s just greedy, isn’t it?
There is also that somewhat absurd moment in some campaigns, when the interest has exceeded all expectation, and you feel that the developers are just running out of ideas of what to promise. Why can’t they just promise: “We will make a better game with your money”? Or even: “We can make another game with it”?
Absolutely. Just the other day, I was looking at the campaign, and I was thinking: “Gosh, it’s really going well. More than 200 people are interested in this. If it goes on like that, maybe I could do another one.” And I was thinking about what I would be able to do with a second one… exactly what you said: I could gather together some more stories. And I was thinking. “Gosh, that would be so nice… to be able to meet more people, hear their story, and share them with everyone.”
But, honestly, I'm incredibly thankful that people are considering supporting my work at all. I mean, I’m just so overwhelmed that it has come to something. It’s just… very touching. Very moving.