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Interview: Japanese poetry, Snake games, and the gesture looping inspirations of Blek

Kunabi Brother's Denis and Davor Mikan discuss the level design and inspiration behind their hit iPad puzzle game Blek and share details of the upcoming iPhone remake.

Kunabi Brother has described its iPad puzzle game Blek as "an open-ended experience with singular game mechanics and deep, bauhaus-informed design."

Indeed Blek's simplicity begets its complexity: players can only make one drawing that will repeat infinitely until it either touches all the colored objects or bumps into a black object, with extra challenges stacking in over 60 levels.

The player-scribbles that come to life to clear the level have enchanted critics across the Internet and earned the duo over 10,000 units in sales.

As the dev-brothers Denis and Davor Mikan scramble to finish their refitted iPhone port, due out in January 7, the have taken the time to discuss with me about the inspiration behind their fascinating game, which is their first attempt at game development.

What does "Blek" mean?

Denis: We have been told that it means "ink" in Icelandic.

What's the inspiration behind Blek?

Denis: Although most of our knowledge and inspiration comes from outside the world of game design, we have been impressed and influenced by several game creators too, especially by the work of Zach Gage (SpellTower), Patrick Smith (Windosill) and thatgamecompany (Journey).

For Blek we simply started thinking about a way to translate the classic game Snake to a touchscreen device. And at the same time my brother was reading a book by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, which contains prints of ink drawings and calligraphy.

Do you recall the book?

Davor: The original title is "Oku no hosomichi".

What is the outside inspiration?

Davor: There are many. The German composer Helmut Lachenmann is one of the first I think of. Occasionally he writes about his work and some of his writings have been published in a book called "Musik als existenzielle Erfahrung". Not sure if it has been translated into English yet. His thinking and his composition methods are very interesting and can be applied to other art forms too. Partially, at least.

Also, while working on Blek I was reading Kandinsky's book "Point and Line to Plane". I think he wrote it in the period when he was teaching at Bauhaus.

Tell us more about yourselves.

Denis: My brother - he is the creative force behind Blek - and I made everything, from the first concept to the marketing and presswork. Nadja, our friend, is administrating and editing our Facebook site. It has to be said that Blek is our very first game. We are brothers and we have never worked together before, so creating something as a duo was our main goal. We both have a background in programming, but work in other fields also. My brother's main occupation is music, he creates software algorithms for composition and sound transformation. His music is published by the media-label Crónica. I work as programmer and I have written and published many short stories and one novel "Emil".

Did sibling rivalry ever occur? How did you learn to work together?

Denis: I never felt something like rivalry, but the truth is that working together is actually a long learning process. And it's still going on.

Why did you try to make a game in the first place?

Davor: Like my brother already said, we have never worked together before, and we wanted to give it a go for a long time.

In the past I used to make little flash games from time to time. Those were freelance jobs, done solely for money. I saw some potential in creating digital toys, but I could not convince the clients, the creative directors and the project managers to take risks. Once I told Denis about that, he simply asked me: "Why don't we make a game on our own then?".

amstrad.jpgThough this is their first developed game, they have always been interested in gaming, with Denis here playing the Amstrad CPC646 over two decades ago

When did the a-ha moment hit when you thought of having a recursive motion be the key mechanic?

Davor: Somehow, the thoughts about the Snake and the Japanese drawings I was looking at just fused in my mind without effort on my side. My background is in music. And in digital music, looping through waves is one of the most common concepts. Gesture looping is something I often use in order to transform sound in realtime. So algorithms like these are just part of my "vocabulary". But it`s nothing we invented. To my knowledge, Golan Levin was the first one who came up with gesture-looping - long time before the iPhone even existed. In digital music we often use graphic-tablets as instruments.

What went into how you designed the levels?

Davor: Ok. This is where I tried to do something interesting. And while I did use things well known from literature, and probably common in game design, too (progression, simple arcs and a little teasing...), my main focus was on some ideas and thoughts that originated in arts long time ago. They were constantly developed further and further, and are still very present (in contemporary music at least). Those thoughts could be summarized with the words "reflection" and "self-awareness". Of course, a design approach based on these ideas isvery likely to collide with those based on flow-theory and with the attempts to get people caught in loops. In fact, it is often opposed to those. And this is where some player may get confused.

Now, I really would like to explain this better, but it is a very complex subject and my English is rather simple. So for now, I will say that instead of forcing the players into a certain mood or state of mind, with the design I tried to create a space in which they could ideally make an experience that would have some kind of meaning to them. And meaning to me can mean pretty much anything beyond pure absorption of lifetime.


Further I did not try to teach the people how to "beat the game", but to suggest that there are many approaches and that a good "meta strategy" could be not to rely on a previously elaborated methods but to often change the strategy by altering the way they look at the system/game. This is probably a risky way to go with the design, since people, when asked to perform such a complicated thing, may get frustrated at times. But when it works, I believe that players were given a way to create some tiny peace of meaning for them. And this is the best I can do for now.

Has the game been a financial success to allow you to make more games?

Denis: Yes, definitely. We didn't know anything about marketing, sales, numbers and that sort of stuff, but our first target was to sell 10.000 copies for iOS & Android; to get enough money and encouragement to continue. We will meet that target very soon with the iPad version only, so, yes, it's a big financial success for us.

How will this drawing mechanic work on the much smaller phone versions?

Denis: Surprisingly well. Most of the levels had to be altered, some had to be changed drastically. But now it works great. And we will submit it to the App Store very soon.

Do you have any examples of earlier iterations of Blek?

Davor: We are very bad at archiving. Sorry.

Is there anything else you would you like to talk about regarding Blek?

Denis: I would like to say something about the indie game development scene, because without it, we wouldn't be able to bring Blek to so many people. As we've already mentioned, this is our first game and at the beginning we somehow felt like aliens. We didn't know what to expect from our colleague developers, press people and other experts.

And here came the big surprise. First of all, we've found a very lively Viennese scene that has been very supportive and encouraged us a lot. Same goes for the global scene: I mean, we came like from different spheres, but the scene was not inhospitable, to the contrary, everybody was curious to see what those two aliens were bringing in. That helped us a lot. And we came here to stay.

Does the Viennese scene have websites or forums to post games?

Denis: No, I don't know any. But there is a very cool place called Subotron in the center of the city; it's where video games developers often meet. Mike Rose from Gamasutra wrote a great article about the Subotron and the local Viennese developers a month ago "How the fall of Rockstar Vienna led to an indie uprising," so that's really a good starting point for everybody interested in this growing vivid gaming scene.


[Denis (left) and Davor, all grown up. Thanks for the interview, guys!]

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