The following excerpt from "The Far Shore: Indie Games, Superbrothers and The Making of JETT" digs into the gameplay philosophy and narrative design of Superbrothers' meditative interstellar adventure, Jett: The Far Shore.
Penned by Adam Hammond, associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto and the author behind "Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction," the book delves into the creation of Jett, offering insight into the complicated genesis of the long-gestating project and recounting the successes and setbacks that went into realizing those titular far shores.
To provide additional context, Hammond also dives into the history and changing nature of indie games. In this excerpt, pulled from Part 1: 4. "In which we learn about Craig's next game, then called The Future," Hammond recalls how Jett creative director and Superbrothers A/V founder Craig D. Adams first introduced them to Jett -- then called 'The Future' -- back in 2013.
It begins as Hammond has been ushered into a mysterious room by Adams, who, seemingly keen to position his next project as the antithesis to Superbrother's previous title, Sworcey, begins by explaining how Jett would be an entirely different beast.
"The Far Shore: Indie Games, Superbrothers and The Making of JETT" will release on November 30, 2021, and is available for pre-order right now directly from the Coach House website as well as Amazon or your local independent bookstore.
In which we learn about Craig's next game, then called The Future
The first description I got of the next project was an avalanche of negations. No pixels. No irony. No hipstery language. No dumb manifestos. No weird indieness for the sake of being indie. No ‘indie aesthetic’ at all. No posing. Instead, 3D. Sincerity. More of a videogame-videogame, made for a traditional console, not a phone. Videogames as a form of ‘exercise’ rather than a Marinet-tian vehicle for social explosion. An evolution of Fatal Inertia, in some ways. It was a flying game. My heart sank.
The new room was a kind of solarium, tucked behind the kitchen. It had a couch, a TV, and a big theatrical poster for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home framed on the wall. My sister had been a dangerously obsessive Star Trek fan as a teen – her watch was set to Pacific time so that she would always be able to visualize the daily routines of Brent Spiner, the actor who played Data on The Next Generation, who lived in Brentwood, California – and I’d been dragged along to the point that I had all the movies memorized. The Voyage Home was the goofy one where the original cast slingshot themselves off the sun and time-travel back to present-day Earth to retrieve a pre-extinction humpback whale and save the future. It was one of my favourites. Craig and I geeked out on Star Trek for a while and then moved on to Star Wars. That had become my own dangerous obsession in my first year of high school. For whatever reason, I’d avoided making friends that year, and had instead spent most of my evenings and weekends reading horrible spinoff novels (those Timothy Zahn novels where Luke Skywalker fights clones of himself, designated as such by extra U’s in their names: Luke, Luuke, Luuuuuuke), collecting terrible comics series, endlessly rewatching my VHS box set of the original theatrical releases of episodes four through six. I remember the deep envy I felt for the people who had never seen these films, because they would still be able to experience them for the first time, have that thrill of fresh discovery, something lost to me forever. It may have been my first experience of nostalgia, the earliest stirrings of adulthood.
I hadn’t thought of sci-fi much since high school. It was some- thing that I had consciously put behind me in order to become a somewhat normal teenager with friends and a life. I definitely didn’t have time for Zahn-level trash when I was studying Serious Literature during the decade of my B.A.-M.A.-PhD cycle. Like videogames, sci-fi was something I’d outgrown.
Craig felt differently. Over the years, his respect for the genre had only grown, fuelled by his admiration not for its otherworldly escapism but its ability to provide hope and direction in the present. That day, in the Sci-Fi Solarium, he spoke to me in staggering detail and at incredible length about 2001, Alien, Dark Star, Antonio Jodorowsky’s doomed adaptation of Dune, Werner Herzog’sAguirre, the Wrath of God and Lessons of Darkness. A lot of his interest in them was fan interest: improbable stories, amazing art, cool ships, weird planets. But the main current was a belief in sci-fi’s ability to get people to imagine a different life. Not just individually, but collectively: to model different social arrangements, different values, different ethics. Star Trek was his favourite example of this. Even the original series, for all its silliness, showed the 1960s what it might be like to live in a world where people of all races and backgrounds worked together for a common goal, governed by stringent moral codes and guided by a faith in science and reason. Craig had just finished reading My Dream of Stars, a memoir by Anousheh Ansari, who had paid $20 million to become the first female space tourist. She had spent a week on the International Space Station, her flight patch bearing both the Iranian and US flags at a time of particular tension between the two countries. Craig found the story inspiring, and he was not in the least surprised to learn that Ansari had been an obsessive Star Trek fan as a kid in Iran, that that was the origin of her ‘dream of stars.’
I bet we spent five hours in that sunny secret room talking about science-fiction. Not a word had been spoken about the game, but I felt a bit like I was being led through the basement of a closed construction site, like when a banker is given a hard hat and allowed to prowl around where they wouldn’t normally be permitted. I’d been shown the ideological skeleton of the game, the myths and tropes that its narrative had been built on. Looking back on this now, I wonder if it wasn’t also some kind of test. If I could keep up during the tour of the subterranean realms of the game, if I could show that I knew my stuff and had paid my dues in the sci-fi underworld, then I could see the other levels. Maybe if I hadn’t memorized the script of Star Trek IV – I remember Craig laughing hard when I repeated Spock’s immortal line, ‘Double dumbass on you’ – I wouldn’t have been admitted to the next room. But eventually, after lunch, I was – literally. Now, in a new corner of the living room, sitting beneath the wooden stag head gifted him by Jim Guthrie, he began to tell me about what was then called The Future.
Basically, it was a game where you fly a little spaceship around a planet. You explore, you encounter creatures, you interact with ecosystems, you listen, you look around, you find things that interest you, you try to survive, you make decisions that affect the creatures you’ve met, the ecosystem you inhabit, and your own place in that world.
So how do you actually tell the story? He and Patrick had some ideas about this.
You start by subtracting. You want your characters to be relatively blank so that your players can bring them to life, inhabit them with their own experiences and values. You want a mini- mum of cutscenes – those little quasi-movies that link together playing sequences to tie everything into a coherent narrative. You don’t want to ‘tell,’ or even ‘show,’ but leave genuine space for players to create meaning in their own way. In this sense, the Sworcery manifesto, ‘Less Talk, More Rock,’ still applied. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds through dialogue, but all the dialogue needs to be optional. You can’t force players to sit through conversations with other characters, or block their prog- ress until they’ve clicked through a massive thread. For it to have an impact, they need to actually want to listen and talk.
So you start with a commitment to giving the player full control over how much of the narrative they actually want to dig into: you’re never going to force it down their throats. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore narrative. Even if the player only ends up taking two steps on the 514-kilometre-long road you’ve created, those two steps will make sense and resonate only if you’ve imagined every bend along the way, every intersection, every station house, every tree, every bird on every branch. It’s Hemingway’s iceberg, only in a good videogame you don’t get to decide how much of the iceberg the player actually sees, because at any moment they should be allowed to put on their scuba gear and go explore underwater. So you build the whole thing, you imagine everything, and you develop game mechanics that allow your player to dive in exactly as deeply as they want to.
This can all get overwhelming when your game is set in a different universe, focuses on a totally different culture, and takes place over a span of more than a thousand years. You need to imagine entire histories, governing philosophies, scientific systems. But if you can sort out these grand macro-level things, they will seep down into all the micro-level details of the game and give everything a ring of truth. Who are the pilots? What culture formed them? What kinds of ships and equipment would people formed in this culture produce? If a pilot is sitting alone next to a fire and you tap them on the shoulder, what will they say? What will their voice sound like? To have good answers to any of these questions – answers that resonate with the big themes of the game, that connect the micro level to the macro in a seam- less chain – you need to have what Craig called ‘lore.’
Shigeru Miyamoto, legendary game designer and producer at Nintendo, once said that an idea is something that solves multiple problems at once. ‘That’s what we’re driving toward,’ Craig told me. ‘I see lore as a tool to sculpt our world, make it cohesive and implicitly meaningful.’ I was about to be introduced to The Future’s lore.
But before he laid it out, Craig asked me if I wanted another coffee. We got up and went back to the kitchen, and as we stood around the espresso machine, he talked to me a bit more about the way that game mechanics connect to lore.
The BioShock series functioned for Craig as a kind of cautionary tale. It was famous for its killer lore. The first two installments,BioShock and BioShock 2, set in the fictional underwater city of Rapture, were explorations (and, quite transparently, travesties) of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, with a bit of George Orwell thrown in. BioShock Infinite, set in the floating city of Colum- bia, makes an ideological assault on the racism and elitism at the heart of American exceptionalism. I remember when I was on the job market in 2015, touring around universities giving talks about digital literature and the future of narrative, BioShock was the only game anyone would admit to playing. The professors, I’m sure, genuinely didn’t play videogames. But I’m positive all the grad students were secretly spending their spare hours on Animal Crossing and Gears of War – they just wouldn’t admit that to a poten- tial future professor.
BioShock was one of the game series I’d given a shot when I was starting to get excited about videogames, around the timeSworcery came out. I truly hated it. I downloaded the original BioShock and BioShock Infinite, all bazillion gigabytes of them, from the App Store, and had been turned off both almost immediately. In the first one, I felt like I was back in Doom, gun in hand, stubbly and muscular and troubled in an ex-military kind of way, descend- ing into some scary world where I would have to shoot a bunch of living things. I stopped playing before I had to kill anything and long before I had a chance to delve into the game’s argument against Ayn Rand. BioShock Infinite held my interest a little longer. I was having fun poking around an early twentieth-century float- ing carnival, checking out the snack stalls and the hat shops, listening to a barbershop quartet anachronistically crooning the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ from a miraculously suspended platform. Then, suddenly, brutally, a gun was forced into my hand, I was shooting people – I had no choice – and there was blood everywhere. That jarring transition between the wonder of the floating city and the horror of dead carnival-goers was the most awful thing I’d experienced in a videogame.
Craig explained this as a failure to connect lore to mechanics. Sure, BioShock was informed by a bunch of high concepts inspired by history and religion and philosophy, which is great, and which videogames need. But in its DNA, it’s still as dumb as Doom: it’s a shooter, you run around and kill lots of people. The high-concept lore remains skin-deep – insultingly so – unless you give your players something to do other than shoot stuff. You can’t just squish your big ideas into the existing framework of a stupid viol- ent videogame. You need to fundamentally reshape the gameplay to match the idea. One of the goals of The Future was to create an experience where narrative reality and gameplay were one and the same.
Mugs in hand, we returned to sit beneath the stag’s head. It was time to be initiated into the lore.
The story of The Future begins with a story. In a world some- thing like our own, with a geography somewhat akin to that of earth, there is a place a bit like the USSR. It is a period a bit like the mid-twentieth century, but different. Rather than being domi- nated by ethnic Russians and centred in Moscow, this USSR is led by a people reminiscent of Mongolians, who have consolidated their global power over centuries, descendants of a figure like Genghis Khan. This people is the dominant world power – there is no United States to rival them – and they owe their position of global dominance to technological ingenuity. Theirs is a fully industrialized society whose domestic and military machinery is much more advanced than that of any other civilization. But there are two problems. First, this civilization faces imminent ecological disaster. They have industrialized too rapidly and too completely, and they are rendering their world unlivable. Second, evidence has begun to suggest that this civilization’s mythic belief in periodic planetary cataclysms – year-long meteor showers that destroy all but the most ingenious and farsighted – is not legend but fact. The next such event is due in the coming centuries.
This double threat has brought renewed prominence to a clas- sic literary work that is beginning to look more and more like non-fiction, like prophecy. Toward the end of a period analogous to our nineteenth century, as the first wave of industrialization was coming to a close, there emerged a writer analogous to Tolstoy: a beloved and towering figure remembered as the greatest artist of his time. His masterpiece is a work that blends traditional legend with science fiction. The first part of this work takes place in the deep past, narrating the civilization’s central cultural myth, the story of the female shaman regarded as the nation’s founder. She foresees the first of the planetary cataclysms and, shunned for her unorthodox beliefs, nonetheless succeeds in surviving the apocalypse, sheltering herself and her adherents by tunnelling into a massive, symmetrical mountain, where they live for a full year. The lessons drawn from the shaman’s tale are fearlessness, iconoclasm, ingenuity, and the importance of careful observation: she and her people survive because they noticed the celestial portents, overthrew traditional beliefs in responding to imminent threat, and intelligently harvested the plants and resources necess- ary to survive underground.
The second part of the Tolstoy figure’s book takes place in the distant future, on a different planet. The shaman’s descendants, colonists dispatched from the USSR-like civilization, are living in a settlement whose landscape is dominated by a huge, symmetrical mountain, an echo of the mountain where their civilization took root. They have been called to this distant planet by a signal – a transmission across far reaches of space and time, carried deep into their civilization’s collective unconscious. For centuries these people had dreamed every night of a mountain on a far-distant planet, a shelter to which their civilization could escape before the next meteor shower, predicted to be so powerful that it would destroy their planet completely. Impelled by their dreams, they build equipment that detects an actual radio signal originating from an eons-distant planet. They build ships to reach it, and eventually live there in peace.
Most read the work of this Tolstoy figure as fiction, but others treat it as fact. They too are haunted by dreams of a distant moun- tain, huge and symmetrical, signalling life and survival. As the society’s technology advances, as radio telescopes develop, they are the ones who first hear it: the signal, an uncanny pattern, uninterpretable but unquestionably meaningful, impossible to dismiss as noise. As in the fictional work, in the real life of this civilization, the mythic signal turns out to be real. As telescopes develop, they reveal the source of the signal: a planet, with an atmosphere and ocean, regulated by life. With the threat of cata- clysm and ecological disaster upon them, this civilization unites to send colonists to the planet. It takes decades, or hundreds of years, but they succeed in building the ships and training the pilots to undertake this mission. The crew is placed in suspended animation and, after a thousand-year journey, awake to find them- selves orbiting the planet.
The story as a whole was called The Future. The first slice of it, which Craig was already working on, told the story of the initial contact with the new planet. It was called The Far Shore.
That, at least, is the brutally simplified version of it, as best as I can remember it. It took Craig hours to talk me through all this – it was pitch black by the time he finished. He couldn’t mention the name Genghis Khan, for instance, without getting up and taking his Khan biography off the shelf, telling me about the salient points in his life, all the reasons Craig respected his crafti- ness and survival skills, all the ways that world history would have been different if he’d managed to seed a genuinely dominant global civilization. It was a magnificent performance. Inevitably, my account above will sound cheesy and clichéd and uncomfort- ably like the Wikipedia plot summary of blandly by-the-book sci-fi. You will have to trust me that in the moment it was mesmer- izing, even for a thoroughly cynical, done-with-sci-fi person like myself. Craig had been reading and dreaming and imagining this world, clearly, for many years. He was totally possessed by it. For a few thrilling hours, he laid it all out before me, in such over- whelming detail and massive scope that I was unable to take notes, or take it all in, but just let it hit me like a rogue wave.
Part of the appeal, too, was that Craig seemed to have some kind of role in mind for me in all this. I wasn’t there just to listen. I wasn’t there just to make notes that would someday turn into a book that would serve as a marketing device or give the game a scholarly sheen. Craig repeatedly paused to solicit my advice and input. It was quite clear, for instance, that he thought I knew a lot about Tolstoy, and that this knowledge of mine would allow him to nail down his thinking about this all-important writer-figure, eventually known as Tsosi. Well, I had read War and Peace a few times, and Anna Karenina a few more. I had read Nabokov praise Tolstoy and Bakhtin trash him. But I was really just a fan. My PhD was in twentieth-century British literature: Tolstoy was from the wrong country and century. I remember saying, at one point, ‘You do know Tolstoy never wrote any science-fiction, right?’ That was about the limit of my usefulness.
That didn’t seem to diminish Craig’s faith in my abilities, some- how. I could see, in his intense and earnest eyes, that he believed in me – believed that I could bring something to this project, some kind of intellectual ballast, some kind of shamanic wisdom. The thrill of this stayed with me for the rest of the weekend. It stayed with me that night, when he showed me the stingy, scraggly, clunky demo of a tiny, pixellated ship flying across a roughly coloured landscape, with characters sliding into ships like chess pieces. It stayed with me through a long bus ride back from Magog to Montreal. Walking toward the Gare Centrale to catch my train back to Toronto, I stopped at a Tim Horton’s, which I knew had free wi-fi, and wrote Craig an email on my iPhone 3GS:
Thanks again to you and Jori for being such amazing hosts. I’m really excited about the book and The Future and the future!
To bury my earnestness a little, I added another line:
I’m pretty sure I forgot my travel shampoo thing in your shower, btw. No big loss!