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Ruins explores the sadness of Chopin's Preludes

Indie developer Jake Elliott, who recently released short, narrative based game Ruins, talks with Gamasutra about how his game was inspired by Chopin's Preludes compositions, crafting an "ambient, nonlinear story" and more.

Jason Johnson, Blogger

January 24, 2012

5 Min Read

Sometimes less is more. The sentiment is especially true for Fredric Chopin's Preludes. Many of these 24 classical piano compositions are so short that they could be played in their entirety on a music box. Prelude No. 7, which plays during the title screen of the game Ruins, tops out at a mere 41 seconds. Though brief, it conveys a distinct feeling of sadness. The same can be said about Ruins, a short, narrative-based game by Jake Elliott, the creator of the 2011 IGF Nuovo finalist A House in California. Whereas A House in California combined an adventure game with poetry, Ruins is an interactive short story inspired by Chopin's Preludes. Like the Preludes, it is dreamlike and impressionistic. When I spoke with Elliott over the phone, he was polite and thoughtful. His mannerisms could belong to a classically trained pianist. Yet Elliott's interests are contemporary. He co-founded Southbridge Slow Electronics, a noise music record label based in Chicago, where he creates slow, drony musical distortions. He composes poetry with crowd-sourced data and software. And he makes video games that are about experiencing emotion rather than honing a skill. Ruins is themed around Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28. How would you describe the Preludes to someone who has never heard them before? Jake Elliott: They are short piano sketches. However, it is hard to imagine a listener hearing them and thinking of them as just sketches. Why do you think Chopin only wrote the introductions? Maybe he didn't think of them as introductions. Maybe he felt like they were complete objects, but there wasn't a vocabulary for talking about pieces of music that were short at the time. Their length is what drew me to them. All my life I've been listening to pop songs, which are typically around 4 minutes long. A lot of classical music, like Mozart, is too complicated for me. I have trouble following it. Something that has just 5 or 6 ideas, instead of all the ideas of a larger classical piece, is easier for me to grasp. Do they gain anything from being fragments? Absolutely. There is a lot that is unspoken. The piece that I used for the title screen, Prelude No. 7, is my favorite. It seems to say so little, but is totally effective. I admire that. I try to leave a lot unsaid in my games. It can be hard to resist though. Are there any other parallels between your games and the Preludes? The Preludes are really expressive. That's another thing that drew me to them. They came at the beginning of the Romantic period, when music was moving into a more expressive and less formal period. The game ideas I'm working with, as well as the games I am playing right now, are similarly moving into Romantic and more expressive territory, instead of being overly formalistic. Why did you decide to make a game based on the Preludes? I was listening to those pieces while sketching out the game. I'm not a huge classical music buff, so I Googled them. I found a quote by Robert Schumann. He was a friend and contemporary of Chopin's, and he described the Preludes as being like ruins. ("They are sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.") I had understood them as being sketches, but the ambiguity between whether something is a sketch or a ruin, a remainder of something else, fit in cleanly with my idea for the game. I was working with the idea of a longterm relationship, in which the characters have separated. It had a sense of incompletion. Is the story autobiographical? To an extent. My girlfriend has had a dog for 11 years. Last winter, the dog got sick. She hurt her leg and she had to be boarded at the vet. She had never been boarded, and they had never been separated for very long. It really upset my girlfriend and the dog. It was really powerful to see the bond they had. They had a wordless connection. Your games often have a sense of sadness to them. A House in California is vaguely nostalgic. Ruins has a feeling of incompletion. Why do you think that is? Games cover some territory really well. Exhilaration, for example. Games have covered that thoroughly. Sadness is an antithesis to that. It is an interesting challenge to explore. Your games are driven by narrative, but they seem to defy spoilers. You could tell me everything that happens, and I still wouldn't feel spoiled. What is the difference in mentality between Ruins and a more easily-spoiled game? Ruins doesn't have plot points. It isn't about twists. The story isn't based on cause and effect. You're getting all these different fragments. There is no specific order, so it doesn't necessarily have a direction. I think of it as a story space. A lot of people who have done hypertext fiction have talked about it. You can move through it in different directions, and you get an ambient, nonlinear story. Could you give an example of how you achieve nonlinearity? In A House in California, I was working with a gameplay mechanic from the old LucasArts adventure games, where a sentence was written at the bottom of the screen. You could click on the verb or the noun. When you hover the mouse over an object on the screen, it dynamically forms a sentence. I didn't really know what the puzzles were going to be, but once I had this thing up and running, generating these verb and noun statements, I got carried away with making poetic combinations. The project started to be about making poetic puzzles and finding poetic combinations--not about being rational. Your games generally involve dreams, or they take place in dreams. How have dreams influenced your work? I think dreams and video games are really similar. They are both these magic circle spaces where fantastically improbable things happen. We use dreams to try out different scenarios. We can learn about our feelings towards other people. If you dream that someone you love dies, you get to learn what that feels like, and it can change the way you relate to that person. Similarly, in games, you get to explore a simulated space with no consequences. You can try on different behaviors, see the outcomes, and learn how you feel about it. That is why I use dreams as a premise.

About the Author(s)

Jason Johnson


Jason Johnson is a freelance writer, a writer of fiction, an amateur painter, and a student of ancient knowledge and mythology. He also writes weekly reviews for our iPhone centric sister-site FingerGaming.com.

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