Road to the IGF: David Kanaga's Oikospiel, Book I

Developer David Kanaga's heady Oikospiel, Book I is an opera in five acts, taking the player on a surreal journey with music, canine programmers, bear assassinations, and unions.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Oiκοςpiel, Book I is an opera in five acts, taking the player on a surreal journey of music, canine programmers, bear assassinations, unions, and a relationship between player and game world, breathing life into it through the manipulation of objects and sending their will to move through the computer.

Developer David Kanaga's heady, almost overwhelming work has earned him an IGF nomination for the Nuovo Award. Gamasutra sought him out to talk about the process of Oiκοςpiel, Book I's creation, and how that, and all are aspects, became a part of an extensive message told through imagery, interactivity, and sound.

What's your background in making games?

I've been working with games for about 8 years. I'm probably best known for doing interactive music designs on projects such as Proteus (with Ed Key), Panoramical (with Fernando Ramallo, et al) and Dyad (w Shawn McGrath). My blog, wombflashforest, has some of my writings on musical game theory.  

Before working explicitly in the field, and as a kid loving games, I was brought up Zelda, Conker, group improv, Fruityloops, and D&D -- Josh Bothun, who coded the website, was the one to introduce me to game dev as a doable thing and got me into it! 

How did you come up with the concept?

I'd always wanted to compose for a game in the AAA style. In late 2014, while working on Panoramical, Fernando Ramallo showed me the unity landscape sculpting tool and the unity asset store, and I realized it'd be possible to make my own Frankenstein-ian AAA game with these tools. 

I sculpted some landscapes, imagined different activities on the landscapes, and had a desire to run with a pack of dogs and to trigger a few things, including perspective shifts, between First, Second, Third person, etc. So, I bought the dogs and I hired Fernando to make the tools for triggering things, and he made these amazing scripts that after about a month of debugging together, basically never crashed for me again, which means I was able to write the game without coding and without running into fatal "bugs"-- a huge boon. 

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unity, the "Oik OS" tools, coded by Fernando Ramallo, Ableton, Money.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

A little over two years.

How did you turn the storytelling and musical styles of opera into a game? How did it shape what you wanted to create?

Videogames already have a generic tendency to be operatic, and I wanted Oiκοςpiel  to riff on this - that engulfing quality which is the totality of the screen and sound system (outputs), the inputs, and the throughputs which hold it all together. I wanted to be able to accommodate any possible form that I could manage within the game - weaving them together was much of the difficulty and pleasure of working. 

If I could code, there would bits that feel more like TurboTax and Bloomberg Terminal in there, so there was this synthetic thing going on, piecing diverse components together, and then there was some kind of pun-warhammering going on, pitting the Pluarality of opera (which means, plurally, works) and dispersion of Form in a playful skirmish with the Unity of the development environment and the idea of Totality and coherence. So, there's also, on yet another scale, the attempt at Unionization in the plot, but also the scabby dog and Koch Games who want to prevent the union.

Oiκοςpiel, Book I tells a dense, complicated story through its imagery. What thoughts go into capturing what you wanted from the story with the visuals you've presented?

As an example of this process in action - a murky image of global warming, and the industry of its denial, inspires much of the game's dread. To "write" with this concept or mood, I select potent signs… e.g. GLOBALLY: the Earth, the biosphere, glowing coltan ore, the Epic scale, the north pole, travel, airplane, shipping container; WARMLY: the image of Heat, leads idea of Energy (en-ergos, means In Work), leads to the words of Wind turbines and oil pumpjacks.

With all of these keywords, I search the asset store and find these, and buy them. Thus, an image becomes a word becomes a commodity. And now in Unity, for example, with the wind turbine, which was first just a word, I attach the speed of its rotor to the mouse input scrubber, and it becomes a cyborg creature with the player, who assumes the allegorical role of Wind. And player, being Wind, e.g. Atmospheric- is thus considered the air which the dog breathes.

The internal mythology of the game expands in this way, constructing itself out of words, assets, mechanics, all treated 'flatly' as one substance. In general, the potency of imagery was something I was always keen to follow formally-intuitively, the chains of associations give rise to the 'shaggy dog tale' style.

Music is important to your work in games. What thoughts go into connecting music and gameplay in your work?

I like to think of the game as a kind of instrument or animal, and the player is its external world, and the inputs are its various peripheral nerves or sense organs. The outputs are its voice and visible body, the song it sings and movement it dances as it experiences the world of the player's "breath", while the inner game topology is a kind of mentality or central nervous system holding the animal's experience all together. 

The game is a kind of bildungsroman about the life of this imaginary "animal", which is actually a piece of material software or musical instrument.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Mu Cartographer & Everything are both enchanting. Excited to dig into Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor & Quadrilateral Cowboy. Inside was really lovely and expensive!

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

Money of course! In Oiκοςpiel, Book I, everyone is aching to unionize except the loyal dogs. Really, though, I wonder - would indie devs ever collectively band together in a kind of Union-like? Obviously, classical unions are not designed for the kind of precarious freelance / boom / bust economy most indies are caught in, where people are constantly being employed by and employing each other, with ambiguous hierarchies, and no clear "boss"-- but some kind of imitation of the idea might work. Just as a little daydream… from the game, the GPU : General Precariat Union.. just for fun-.

Imagine, each member - and it's all types of devs, programmers, designers, artists, musicians, producers--pays some percentage of their annual earnings as union dues. It could be a flat rate or progressive, ultimately voted on by all members. Let's say 5%. It's an added expense, sure, but I'd guess possible to budget into expenses as a given. Compared to steam's 30% cut of sales (and for many devs, I imagine a large percentage of income is thru steam), it's not a whole lot.

And the idea of sharing money is not new in indie games - allows the developers to choose their percentage of a game's cut; humble bundles collectivize profits amongst a select group; recent game sales with 100% of profits going to ACLU and other organizations showcase the flexibility of game pricing and profit sharing. Game developers could be more nearly poised to try on some collectivism like this than other culture industries, which I think are not as familiar with the idea of a variable, the means by which collective sharing can be formalized and automated.

So, now, imagine, the GPU has come together, and everyone is potting 5% of their earnings into a collective bin. What next? How would the "union" money be spent? This should be voted on. And for instance, it could be split like this:

50 percent - Internal welfare
25 percent - External action
25 percent - Administration

I've put 50 percent towards that first category, because I imagine that a crucial purpose of the union would be as a mechanism of internal redistribution - that this might end up being the primary function, just like collective bargaining is for the classical union. The history of computer games has coincided with the history of neo-liberal economics - thus, the lack of a safety net has been perceived by many as a state of nature, as opposed to what it is - an explicit set of policy decisions functioning as instruments of ambient violence directed against the poor in order to help the rich grow richer. 

Our current US government is not about to better things in this regard - so it's an even greater reminder that it's time to step in at as big a scale as possible. Right now, some people are beautifully supportive about helping each other with Patreons, game-tippings, donations, kickstarters, etc. But these systems of aid are still hyper-individualized - person-to-person - and not adequate. Something more ambient is needed. 

The Union could step in, and walk the walk with all this "We love indie games!" patriotism, which doesn't recognize the dark underbelly of this love, which is so much love giving rise to so much concentrated wealth, on the one hand, and so much precarity, mental and physical illness, etc, on the other. It would step in, and play the part of the proto-nanny nurse state for the indie games world. Welfare would most likely take the form of basic cash assistance, although it would be great to help with health care and other such costs if that were practical. The 50% (or whatever) of union income could be netted out equally to all members, a la Universal Basic Income, or it could be inversely redistributed to members based on need. 

I would favor strong redistributive measures as an attempt at creating a safety net which ideally would allow game developers the freedom to practice their craft without its being always put to the service of pleasing the marketplace's whims. Thus, richer members would join the union at a loss of profit, but a gain of creative biodiversity (and yes, the top dogs benefit very much from this too-- it's more energy), while poorer members would hopefully join at a profit. The profit would be small, but perhaps an ambience of inter-class solidarity would be formalized to good effect? I believe many of those more well off who pay their dues into the union's pool would do so gladly, and understand this giving as a way to share gratitude for the kind of value indies are making off of the commons community effort. 

There is so much unpaid and underpaid labor which makes the game community the vital space that it is. Might even some scoundrels like Notch join in? He was a big supporter of Proteus early on, which I'm grateful for, even while his politics since becoming a tycoon have disappointed me very much. Although, did he support Bernie before he supported Trump, and he's not the only one - once ran into a man in a hot tub who did the same thing - he loves indie games -. Notch, would you join an indie game union that might help the form flourish? 

There is so much unpaid labor happening, because people love the work, and paying into a pool would be one way to express gratitude for that, and also a means of joining a community committed to rising up together. Also it would be a small measure of protection against future busts into precarity for even the more well off (who are always afraid of sliding back down).

Aside from the internal welfare, there would obviously be administrative costs. At a bare minimum, a regular voting period would need to be administered at regular intervals, which would probably be a fairly involved systems procedure. This would require a dynamic voting website (though maybe could be as easy as Google form?) and backend needing to be managed. There should be a forum for union members, where ideas for union action are proposed and discussed. I would encourage quarterly voting, as it could stimulate more regular interest amongst members in shaping union policy, and create an ambience of micro-political efficacy which wouldn't be lost in its ripple-out effects. Admin jobs would need to paid, as a matter of principle, as well as to get them done well. The union should be an attractive offer, and its forum a lively place to hang out.

The budget for "external action" would be determined by vote. This could be anything whatsoever. Events at GDC and other conferences, emergency/strike funds, "salt" training, protest sign-making, attorney hiring, even a stash of investments to grow union capital? Party? I imagine this forum of coming up with proposals would be quite a fun project. Again, it would be a little microcosm of the larger political theater, and a kind of training in a way, at least tuning in to a system which allows smaller voices to be heard.

Anyway, that's all just some dreaming, a bit of a D&D campaign of the imagination, but I would love to join something like this (hungry to be organized!), even if it ended up being a chapter of the UAW or something…

I do think material basic needs and free time and their shared symbolic medium MONEY are very clearly the biggest hurdles facing indie devs, as with people in general. And money is very interesting because it is an Ideal-Real, equal parts fiction and material. Check out this info-graphic.

It's tempting to think something must be either one or the other, fictive or real, but with money, that's not the case. And we live in a world conditioned by what Mark Fisher calls the "business ontology"-- which we could also call the ontology of money, one quirky feature of which is that the Real and the Fictional are intimately entangled.

No wonder people are trying to come to terms with "post-truth", "fake news", etc. The business ontology treats these flatly. In any case, I think one of the sad Real fictions attached to money is that each person is responsible for their own, and earns precisely what their merit deems them worthy of (if merit is defined by the market, this is tautological) -- I think a healthier Real fiction would recognize that money is an atmosphere that we breathe-- a commons constituted from a surplus of value generated by a huge community of devs-- and that it should be formalized and shared accordingly.

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