Jack King-Spooner is a Scottish game developer currently based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I braved the late February Snowpocalypse to meet Jack for a chat about his process over homemade cookies and tea, as well as a peek at his in-home studio space, where the signature sculptural elements of his games are born. Interviews conducted February to March 2018.
What did you make before making video games?
When I was about 12 or so, I started with the piano and guitar, just kind of working things out by myself. I was always making things as a kid though, you know, how kids make things like mud pies. Then I started painting, and I went to art college thinking I was a painter, but then I realised that painting isn’t always the best way to express an idea.
There’s different ways to think about “what is good art.” One of them is expressing yourself, in an autobiographical way. In my final year I decided that a game, or something that could go off on tangents would be the best medium to express that idea - because if you talk about your past, when you meet up with old friends who you’ve not seen for ten years or something, the conversation progresses with divergences. I like that about interactive theatre, but there was no way that I could make an interactive theatre piece. I tried a few times, because I was in a performance arts space. At the end of uni I was doing performance art, quite weird performance art.
I got into making games because I was in Poland and I realised that I had a lot of time. You often think “oh, I could never do that because I’m just not that type of person”, but I sort of overcame that hurdle and thought “well if other people can do it, I can do it!” So I started trying to learn the violin, and trying to make video games.
What were the things you couldn’t do in painting or performance art that you could in video games?
That’s kind of an ongoing question. What can you say with this medium which you can’t say with another medium? I don’t think it’s any specific thing. You can do a self-portrait, and it will show a certain aspect of something, but it might not show another aspect. Performance art is very good at showing things having to do with the human, duration, and endurance, but it would be harder to say something which is perhaps more autobiographical. Not impossible, but sometimes unvarnished prose is the best way to say something. What do you think are hard things to say with painting or performance art?
I guess I’d say, with painting it’s always a single image, so it’s hard to show how things effect each other or how they change over time.
I think even kinetics, or movement is hard to show.
Yeah, but at the same time it’s very good at presenting a single composition and a single image. It allows you to use a bunch of tactile approaches to get across what you’re visualising. That maybe is a lot harder to do with a computer or with music or with a performance.
I find it easy to say what the strengths of a medium are. Painting has this weird thing where a good painting that sucks you in also has this relationship between you and the painting, and the painting and the artist who painted it, because you’re standing there and thinking, wow, the artist stood here. You can think about how long it took and all these things, which you really don’t have with a computer game.
There’s not really a position outside of the game where you imagine the artist…
You sort of remove the artist.
That’s why I think historical paintings are so compelling still is because they express this vision of a certain time period, and 500 years later you can still see what people were also seeing or thinking about this. Games may not have that kind of connection or that sort of longevity.
Even with games that are really obviously idiosyncratic and made by one person, when people talk about them they never really say “the artist was going for this mood”, or something like this because you think about the immediacy of the interactions. So that’s a weak point of games.
You’re not really able to create an authentic scene with live art or performance art. You’re not really able to say something, then it becomes theatre.
And there’s still the variables of how people actually look and what they can do. What’s interesting about very old art like Gothic painting to me is that it presents weird things, partially from observation, but also partially from imagination. Like the religious art of these people floating around and getting crucified.
Even things like a portrait of a family, you’ll see that the artist hasn’t been able to spend enough time with each of the children so all of the children have very similar faces, or something like that.
What was the question? Oh. For me I think it was better to express these divergences as a game.
Yeah, a game can call up a bunch of different states, and allow people to navigate through all these different states on their own.
Also, you’ve got a whole lot of stuff in there. I just throw everything in there and see what it looks like. You see that with Dali paintings, though, where he’ll put some sand here and throw in some toothpaste…
How did that determine what your first few projects were like?
J: My first two projects were this very short game called Will You Ever Return?and Beeswing, which was constantly being worked on all the time. I hadn’t really been playing any video games and I managed to buy a copy of RPGMaker for £2 or something, because a new version was coming out. I realised I can have this weird Taiwanese rock band, and I can just put that next to images of Hieronymus Bosch and see what happens.
It was a playfulness with the making, and that really inspired me. When you find the things which resonate, it becomes impossible to put into words why they resonate, but with a game I can just put them all together and see what happens. I loved that. I realised it was a nice way of displaying aphorisms or short stories.
Imagine you’ve got a book of short stories. You generally read one after the next, but with this you come across one short story, and then find the next short story. Although they’re independent of each other I really think the order that you find things indirectly affects how you feel about the work.
In my later projects I realised I don’t need to add other people’s media, I can make it all myself. I can just put the music I’m making into it and the paintings I’m making into it, and the stories I’m writing and just see what happens when they’re all next to each other. You realise that the themes in these things that you think are disparate are just entwined entirely. Whatever I’m working on, I just put it together and they resonate.
It became a new way of playing with mediums for me, instead of putting paint on a canvas and seeing how the paint reveals itself or what it does. You know when you put water on a watercolour painting and it just kind of bleeds out and you dab it and see what happens, this was the equivalent of that, except with a lot more happening I guess.
I’m surprised to hear that you started working on Beeswing so early because the first games of yours I played were the Sluggish Morss games, followed by that one, so I thought of them as sequential and aesthetically and thematically separate.
Well, I stopped working on Beeswing when I was doing other things. I didn’t really know enough to do what I wanted, so I kind of had to do smaller, simpler works, to build a practice. In the first ones, there were no video aspects to it, then with Sluggish Morss I started adding bits of video. I started playing other people’s games and realised I was actually making quite irreverent work… I guess I was building up an arsenal of little things. I always reuse ideas; reuse it and slightly change it, or put it in a different context or something.
With Beeswing I learned the limitations of RPGMaker, which is a quite simple engine. The assets for Beeswing were too big. They’re watercolours, and you wouldn’t be able to see the paper grain if I used RPGMaker so I realised I had to use a different engine.
So how would you say your work has changed? Beeswing is a bit longer, and you changed the engine and the look of it, and seems a bit more serious in tone to me…
J: I think it is irreverent in certain ways. It says some quite difficult things and if you’re thinking you’re playing a game for entertaining purposes and it looks like it’s going to be a twee kind of story, but you just get battered with old people dying… I think that is quite irreverent. Polish people and Scottish people get that Beeswing is supposed to be a funny game, that it’s just that kind of absurdity of our situation that is quite funny.
It’s also things where you go into a scene and just walk around and realise there’s no exit, and that you just have to go back the way you came. There’s other things like very subtle randomisation, which no one really has noticed. That was another thing I built on from other projects, that I could randomise things and not really tell the player about it.
I don’t really see my works individually as final points. I see all the works as part of the same process which I put under “game works” in my mind. I don’t even disconnect it from the other work I do like my writing and my music. It’s all part of the same process.
From maybe ten years ago I had an idea that good art is saying one thing in a refined way. But I think as I’ve worked on game works, I realised that instead of that kind of work, the work Douglas Gordon does with something like 24 Hour Psycho, telling this one thing about how time is so flexible, I’ve definitely moved away from that just to tell hundreds of things in a way which is different, which is more of a Moby Dick kind of thing.
Just chuck loads of things different ways, and with the way the player can interact with these things in any order it becomes a really nice Burroughs-like cut-up story. In Beeswing you might come across a child who’s an immigrant and then someone who’s forlorn in love, and somehow you’ll think the game’s definitely about this, but it’s not expressly about that. This is really what I’m into now. I think it’s very dull and done to go for this one idea. Our minds are so sharply focused that we consume media in such a rapid way, and I think art needs to reflect that now.
You said earlier that you think people in Scotland have a specific understanding of Beeswing that others may not have. How else do you feel like the context of growing up in Scotland colours other aspects of your work?
One thing I can’t be bothered with is someone that says Beeswing is “authentic,” when it’s really not I think! It’s telling tales. If I dare say what my work is about, it’s about this weird line between tackiness and sincerity. That’s a really Scottish thing, where someone can be saying something really sincere, and they’ll just get laughed at. I remember when one of my first girlfriends dumped me and I was a heartbroken young man, like “oh she’s not with me anymore…” My mum was like “aye, she’s probably seeing someone else!” I thought that was the most healing thing she could have said, but I don’t think that would be healing to a lot of people.
There’s also a word called “smeddum”, in Scottish, which is a noun-adjective that describes kind of knocking someone off their high horse. My mum had smeddum when she knocked me down from feeling like the world revolved around me. That informs my work, this sense of humour, because if I find something funny, I need to go with it.
My mum was very anti-religious, her parents were Catholic and also very abusive. I grew up just with my mum, so I was taken out of nativity plays and all that. And I was also very sceptical of it because people would say “this is real” and my mum would say “do you think it’s real, honestly?” I didn’t believe in Santa Claus or anything even though my mum would have liked me to believe in these fun things. So this anti-religions and anti-puritanical thing really informs my work.
What’s your process like now?
I’m working on Sluggish Morss 4 which will have seven stories, two of which I’ve written. All the stories will be told in a fractured way, and it’ll be randomised which part you see first. Everyone will come across these stories in a different way and it’ll be really interesting. My assets have got a lot bigger and more detailed. I’m using this forced perspective in these sculptures of houses, so that when you take a photo of them to import into the game, they still fit on a grid. It’s all about play, so I’ve just got things like resin and wire to mess around and see what comes out. One thing I’ve really found useful is biscuit cases, which you can paint and dry brush them and they look like spaceships.
Most of the parts in your game are painted or sculpted by hand so do you re-use parts, or are all the parts of Beeswing and Dujanah and so on still around?
Usually once I’ve used them they disappear, and get squished into something else. I’ve given away some of my Dujanah assets. One thing with the Dujanah miniatures, was that I started painting them with acrylic paint and when I articulated them, the paint started cracking. Most people would think that’s awful but for me it was like “that’s brilliant!” Now you can see that it’s just paint, and I loved that.