An Interview with Dog Opera manager and Koch Games employee David Kanaga, on Oikospiel, Book I

This interview originally served as research for the March 1st article that appeared in Hyperallergic- A Video Game Immerses You in an Opera Composed by Dogs. The full text of the interview is below.

Katie Rose; Hi David! I just wanted to start with a bit of background information at first. You worked on both Proteus and Panoramical in a collaborative context, but this is your first major solo game, right?

David Kanaga; Yeah, thats right, first major solo. And about past work… I guess my work was kind of divided into several categories:

1) Game collaborations and soundtrack work, like those you mentioned.
2) Solo music production / composition (see davidkanaga.bandcamp.com)
3) Group improvisation (some weirder bits of which I did with my friend Bryan Sonderman at https://ilinxgroup.bandcamp.com/)
4) “game theory”, writing, at http://wombflashforest.blogspot.com/

KR; As far as first solo projects go, a monumentally-scaled opera seems like a pretty brave choice. That being said, I know you also made liberal use of the asset store, of re-contextualized models, textures, and sounds- and I was wondering if you could talk a little about that? Were the assets an aesthetic choice? Time saver? Political?

DK; Haha right, it is a bit of a big project! But I only decided on that after feeling out how easy it was to work with the particular tools I had, when I realized I could kind of draw work out of indefinitely.

But about the asset store- you’re right, there was lots of others’ labor to learn on. It was very much a time-saver — and honestly, I think we’re talking about years or decades of saved time. The asset store makes it possible to employ a virtual AAA labor force very quickly.

And then politically — it was ambiguous to start, but some sense of working with all of this embodied labor of others comes through, especially some sort of encounter with the “Labor Theory of Value”. This is often associated with Marxism, but has roots in economics before that, like David Ricardo, and probably beyond.. in any case, the notion that value comes from labor time embodied in the object was in the tools I was using, and wanted to celebrate that.

KR; So, from a technical side- did the tools and asset purchases precede the game? Or did they become necessary partway in?

DK; Kind of both. I spent a few months just working in Unity’s level editor, kind of playing it like the Sims, and never entering run-time. Then Fernando [Ramallo, who also did some tool scripting on the game] showed me how to hook up Ben Esposito’s “First Person Drifter”, which allowed one to run around the environments. But very quickly I craved moving between first-person and other camera perspectives, and that was the beginning of the tools development. The game really didn’t find itself before that (I don’t think any of the original scenes from pre-tools period are in the final).

KR; So, going back to the aesthetics part of that question- for me, there is something really radical that happens when playing, which is that the fundamental building blocks of the world seem to be… much bigger than our own? Like, in AAA games, there is a sense of things being made at ever-smaller scales, ever more detailed, these atoms that become mutable at increasingly greater resolution. But in OIK OS, the fundamental particle feels like a rabbit model, or a sound clip from Zelda, or the Disney-font D. Each feels that they weren’t detailed look like that, that is just as small as they get.

DK; Right, and the container ship which is like a huge atom, a “hyperobject”. Though also some of these building blocks are themselves containers for their constituent parts, so it’s possible to, e.g. sculpt with the bones of the rabbit, or the stacked containers of the ship. But yes- not to sculpt with the bone marrow, or the iron of the container — which is what AAA-mimetic power fantasy might want.

KR; Right- and I suppose that sense makes me feel as if the whole world is already used up, there? Like the container ships and mountain ranges and rabbits have been assembled for a long time, and all you have left to work with are these large cultural pieces.

DK; Hmm, it is definitely made out of whole parts, lots of ready-mades. I guess they’re kind of like musical ‘notes’ — a musical note, even though it can be decomposed in various ways, is already a whole, and is used as such. Words are also this way; even though can be broken into letters or signifying-references, there’s still some solid wholeness and objectivity of the word itself.

Which is also related to the referential, since that aspect seems to me to function much like words- the signification of things.

KR; Can you talk a little about the re-appropriated components you’re working with? I see Disney, and Zelda, and Koch Industries, and Donkey Kong, and references to historical literature- and probably lots of things I’m missing.

DK; Well, I think the biggest urge for me in using those was to create a kind of mythic texture, and those often freely intermix historical and fictional elements. There’s also some desire to fight back against copyright law, which favors big players. Right now, those kinds of mythic textures made of elements from the 20th century are effectively illegal.

KR; There is also a significant amount of power stored in the brand- are you interested in borrowing that power? Or dispelling it? I guess I’m also asking if this is satire- or if you are grounding this work so thoroughly in the brand-ecosystem of the present to use that space sincerely?

DK; Oh yeah! So much power, and I think I’m interested in borrowing it for sure. And dispelling? I hope borrowing and dispelling can happen at the same time, though I think these borrowings may amplify the power of some of the ‘brands’- but as ‘images’, citizens of the imagination, as opposed to corporate stamps… so, I mean, I hope that the power is allowed to be shared.

As far as satire goes- maybe more the latter? There are hints of satire for sure, but… I try to treat the brands as realist objects, like the rabbit or shipping container.

KR; Oh, that reminds me- speaking of objects, the dogs at some point state that they are trying to make an eternal work, something crystalline that can live forever. And there are so many conversations about immortality; the 100-year play, the dogs’ death and the continuance of the thing by their children. I suppose I’m wondering if the game is trying to be that eternal object? Or if that goal is only in the fiction? Or for you, is that even a useful or valid goal?

DK; I think that goal is mostly in the fiction- kind of playing with the bombast of opera. The “eternal object” quote is a Alfred North Whitehead shout out. The way he talks about “actual immortality” is beautiful; the eternal objects are not a crystal, or a bit of computer software of Peter Thiel’s body or anything, but are the Forms which inhere in any ‘actual entity’ (which itself is always in flux, and always dying).

So, like, the relations established between components in the game are defined by the presence of actually immortal eternal objects. Its like, in a chord of C, E, and G — the ‘eternal objects’ of the chord, reductively speaking, are the mathematical ratios which define its being. But those relationships are in the game itself, on the desktop, at runtime- its a very temporal thing.

KR; I don’t have a lot of history in Whitehead, but he proposed process philosophy, right? That those processes have ongoing effects, forward in time, outside of the now? I feel like I mostly see him referenced in environmental writing. Which reminds me- so much of the game seems to have a real ecological bent- the cargo ships, oil wells, and wind turbines; gated-community development of the north pole; the deaths of the animal actors. It forms a backdrop on which the main-conversation of labor and the union seem to unfold. Are these related concerns for you?

DK; Yeah, absolutely! And oikos is the root of “eco”, so on the one hand there’s the ecological background, and on the other the economic foreground- of labor, union, financing, etc. And at the same time, the labor themes have a more hidden presence in the wind turbines and oil pumps — because these are signs of objects which do WORK, and generate POWER (work through time). So I wanted to examine economic functions amidst the ecological backdrop — and also, the ecological aspects of the economic foreground (like, you mentioned the “brand ecosystem”, or the “asset store ecosystem”, etc).

KR; Okay, switching tracks. For me, one of the most surprising things about the game is that- well- it really is an opera. It has acts- the characters sing- music and sound drive everything. I mean, it has a whole separate libretto. And I suppose I wanted to ask the kind of obvious question of- why an opera? Why a game that is an opera and contains the story of making an opera? What is it about opera that seemed to fit that space?

DK; I mean, so opera means “works”. So its related to the labor theme immediately, intrinsically. And Unity, just the name of the software this was built in, has this grand kind of Totalizing gesamkunstwerk kind of resonance. And I wanted to explore the form of a game which can shift mechanics all the time- thus “works”, e.g. a pluralistic work that isn’t all gravitating around some mechanical essence.

And really, I think many games are already structured pluralistically like this. The mechanics change, and the game is a container that tries to marry disparate forms together, and to massage them and their relationships until it really feels like it’s all meant to be one thing. So, I thought the opera idea felt like it was governed by a nice tension — to have the “works” pulling toward formal pluralism, and the “unity” toward formal monism — also of course because I’m most comfortable with the musical aspect at heart.

KR; Hah, so in some ways it is a pun- but also a comment about works, working, “the life-work”, the grand romance of those goals?

DK; I think so, yeah! And yes- a lot of pun-thinking happening throughout development, which was kind of weird, as I’ve not historically been that into puns. But I grew obsessed with a network of them, re: opera, and oikos, etc, as ‘eternal objects’ of a sort functioning as a theoretical ground I could build upon.

KR; So, correct me if I am wrong- but much of the music in the game is not actually appropriated or purchased?

DK; Yeah, most of it is composed pretty straightforwardly. There is a bit of riffing on a few Zelda themes, and an internal “adaptation” of the first few minutes of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, and the Wagner Tristan playable sheet-musics.

KR; And Celine Dion?

DK; Haha, oh right.

KR; Can we talk about Celine Dion, actually? ‘My Heart Will Go On’ opens the game..?

DK; So- obviously it is from Titanic, which has an interesting role in the culture ecosystem. And I watched Titanic recently, and one thing I was struck by — when the ‘My Heart Will Go On’ theme first comes in, it is played instrumentally, no singing. But at the same time, Leo is humming a tune, an old pop tune from the early 1900s (I believe it was “Come Josephine in my flying machine”). So before the song was ever sung, its harmonic bed served as a background for this “sample” or “quotation” of an old pop tune. So that resonated, and I thought it’d be fun to re-use that device.

But the year Titanic came out, 1997, (Ocarina of Time came out in 1998) — I think these were kind of “Neoliberal dream years”. We were still causing immense harm around the world, but there were all these disaster movies as delightful romantic affairs. And I really like them, honestly. Titanic, Dante’s Peak… there’s a looming danger, whether it’s a volcano, or iceberg, and people know its there, but some bureaucrat or whatever thinks its all safe. And then trouble erupts and finally everyone is aware of it.

KR; So, the whole work is organized around the labor strike, or the failed labor strike- and dogs, these kind of infinitely laboring animals, the first domesticates. And I just wanted to ask about dogs- which for me become stand-ins for people, but like- the ideal employee, forever faithful. Is that why you picked them?

DK; I think you hit part of it right on the nose- they are ideal worker animals. But also some other things… I think, inversely, I’d long considered dogs as ideal PLAYERS of a sort. So, they’re both work/players. (And when I was building unity landscapes, I just had this kind of gut desire to run around it as a dog.)

KR; Your dogs are not exactly doing traditional dog labor. I suppose I’m used to dogs being cast as manual laborers, aesthetic objects, emotional support systems- but rarely artists. (I can think of other animals that are sometimes cast as artists- in kid’s media for instance, cats as artists seem to get a lot of play.)

DK; Yes- and that’s partly just fantasy, to employ the dogs how I like! But I do think, if there’s a particular resonance with traditional dog labor forms, emotional labor is a strong one, because doing art seems very much to be a form of that, trying to balance the emotional energies of all the different materials, components, forms, etc. It’s like the dogs are therapy dogs employed by the asset store to calm the other assets and teach them how to come together or something.

KR; I also wanted to ask about the name- Oikos? Oik Ospielen? Oiκοςpiel, Book I? All of the above?

DK; Right! It introduces these pun-networks I guess. Again, oikos being the root of “eco”, and then Oik OS being the operating system- OPERAting system- and spiel means “play”. For instance “singspiel” is a classic opera genre, Mozart’s Magic Flute is an example of one.

KR; Does it have any other names? (For years, when people would bring it up to me they would just ask, “have you played ‘The Dog Opera?’”)

DK; Yeah- “Dog Opera”- I just called it that for a long time too.

Oiκοςpiel is downloadable for PC and Mac at http://oikospiel.com/, for a representational fraction of your annual income.