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An interview with Jake Elliott

I interviewed game developer Jake Elliott in time for last year’s Indie Games Festival, but I never posted it anywhere. I knew the interview was too, too long for publication, okay, but it was just so great, I didn’t want to let any of it go. (I interviewed Jake over Skype during the big Chicago blizzard.)

Now, there is a far more readable version of this interview at Unwinnable.com; in the meantime I got special permission to post the less-edited version right here.

Jake’s latest work, The Penguin’s Dilemma, will be a playable installation at Super Button Mashers, a gallery exhibit opening February 11 at Chicago’s OhNo!DOOM. Don’t miss it! I’m serious!

Jenn: Let’s see. Uh, so. I should have reread my notes before this.

Jake: Oh, that’s cool. I don’t have any notes to work from.

Ha! That’s awesome. Also I am really bad at interviewing. I’m okay at having a conversation, though?

Well, okay! That’s fine!

So you’re actually nominated in [last] year’s IGF Nuovo category for A House in California. And this is an adventure game with really simple images, and simple, kind of graphical parser commands?


And I played Hummingbird Mind yesterday, and in comparison it seems like that game is simpler to play? Because it’s maybe all [conversation] trees? But visually it’s actually more complicated?

Yeah. It’s, like, photos….

Yeah, it’s photos, right. Exactly. So I guess I was curious about the aesthetic decision you made with House in California.

I mean, mostly it was a strategy about what I thought might be—like, I don’t really have much skill in rendering graphics and drawing, or anything like that, so it all kind of started as a strategy about how I could do everything in a game, for myself, without borrowing graphics from other people. In something like Hummingbird Mind, they’re all Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr that I did some processing on.

Oh! I didn’t realize that. I actually—
Yeah, I don’t call it out anywhere, but I mean, I credit the people in the—

No, I thought maybe you actually, um, had just, like, wandered around your apartment or neighborhood…

Right. I wanted to do something like that, but then I didn’t, and I just stole most of them. Or borrowed them, or whatever. Used them. [laughs]

I made my best childhood friend play—I didn’t make her play it—but my best childhood friend played A House in California. And halfway through, I asked her to stop playing it? So that we could go do something else?

[chuckles] That’s cool.

No, but she wouldn’t! And she played it to its end. It isn’t a long game, but she played it to its end. And she does not play games. So it seemed like it was this really good crash course—for her—in adventure game logic.

That’s great.

And I know that it was also part of the—was that kind of the—I mean, is that on purpose? [laughs] Like I know that it was part of the Learn to Play exhibit in, was it Cupertino?

I mean, I wasn’t thinking of it as a tutorial—yeah, it’s funny, the name of that thing, and I never really understood exactly why they called the exhibit that, or what the title meant, exactly, but—

Well, I can tell you why! Because I watched my friend play your game, and it was like, oh, this is really perfect, as an exhibit. And it’s the kind of thing that maybe other people would hover around, going, “Go! Do that! Click on the cloud!”

I guess I can…. It does resonate for me, the idea of it being a tutorial or someone’s first encounter with that genre. It was real important to me that you couldn’t make any mistakes in that game. So every action you do has a response. Like, some text hidden behind it?

I enjoyed that, actually! I think I got through the game … not missing anything.

Oh, wow.

Which is maybe the completist, or completionist, in me.

[laughs] Yeah, that’s a lot of text. I’m glad, though, because I wrote all that text, it took me a really long time. So it’s nice to know somebody read it all.

And my best friend did, too! Simply, you know, to see what would happen.

Yeah. Yeah. So that’s great, because also, the main kind of criticism that I heard from people that I showed it to, or people who wrote about it online, was that is has that kind of—what they would always talk about as this “adventure game logic,” or something where you’re trying to guess what the designer might be thinking, and [the logic] doesn’t really follow players.

And I thought about that, very early on when I was making the game, that this might be something that would happen, with these very weird [parser] verbs and these weird sentences that I wanted to have as part of the game. So I wanted there to be kind of like an advent calendar discovery thing, where there’s something underneath everything you flip over. So that it felt more you’re discovering what the words are, rather than discovering the logic.

I actually take a lot of issue with that criticism! I almost personally feel defensive, because the thing I really enjoyed in watching my friend play was, she did know what to do next in any given moment. And for her it was just, how to accomplish it? And so it was like she was learning this dream-logic language. And she knew that she needed to do something to get off this one screen, for instance. And so she automatically puts it together: Oh, why don’t I just look at the sky. And I asked her, while she was playing, How did you know to do that? And she said, I don’t know.

[laughing] Yeah, it, right, subconscious. Intuitive, some kind of…? [chuckles]

Right, exactly! But it is very much about trying to understand the dream-logic that the game’s author is directing you toward. And I wanted to talk to her about that, but our conversation was really clipped. Because we didn’t know how to talk about that.

Oh, yeah, right. Because she’s not a gamer.

She’s not a gamer! Well, and it’s not something I’ve ever asked, you know, someone who’s fresh to gaming about. How do you know? I don’t know. So there is something really interesting about the player’s decision-making, I guess.

And it’s kind of a weird case, this one too, because it doesn’t hold your hand, necessarily, there’s no instructions, really. But then, also, there’s not like a whole lot of freedom, exactly, and you can’t move through the game in a different pattern than the one I’ve built. You can play around in each space, but you can’t—there’s not a whole lot of agency, as far as progress through the game, so it’s kind of in a weird spot that’s not quite Farmville, and not quite Grand Theft Auto, you know? [laughs]

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