It’s an unfortunate irony that as the tech behind videogames allows for richer, more vibrant game worlds, we spend less time than ever truly admiring them. Kairo is Richard Perrin’s attempt to slow things down, to shift the focus back onto the journey and not just the destination; to capture some of the magic that has perhaps been pushed aside of late.
I spoke to Richard in the Indie Arcade of the Eurogamer Expo about Kairo, story in games, Greenlight and where the future of indie development might lie.
How did Kairo come about?
Richard: It originally started as a really simple prototype, I took some images of some abstract architecture and thought, ‘I want to make a world I can explore’. From there it evolved out and I decided which things I wanted to draw from. ICO was the game I drew from most. I really wanted a game that had that feeling of wandering around these huge monolithic landscapes, these whole places decaying that once had purpose but you don’t know what that purpose is anymore. At this point though, because of how the game evolved, people tend to compare it to Myst. That’s not intentional, that’s just how the elements came together.
Would it be fair to draw comparisons to games like Proteus and Dear Esther as well?
I think we’re all interested in similar things. We’re all doing it in a slightly different way and we’re all got a different take. I’m just glad that if people are exploring similar spaces it’s not a problem. It’s not like you’re all competing with each other. Enough people have enough time to play these games that as long as you’ve got your own spin, I think that’s fine.
They’re often criticised as not being games, so what is it about games like Kairo that appeal to people?
I like exploring in videogames and one of the things I think is that the developers of AAA games make all these beautiful environments but you don’t see them and the reason you don’t see them is you’re running through them. Your mind is on, ‘who am I shooting here?’ or, ‘what am I doing here?’, ‘how am I getting to the next section?’ It’s a shame because even when these games are at their most beautiful you don’t see it and all you have to do is slow things down and let people actually enjoy what you’ve made.
Is that perhaps why games like Kairo are becoming more popular, because AAA videogames are becoming more and more restrictive?
If you look at the whole market, if you look at Facebook games and mobile games, a lot of people want to play games and the problem is the main games industry is doing the comic book thing of focusing on a tiny chunk of the market and exploiting it and mining it out as best they can and really it’s not appealing to everybody. As soon as you start making games that do different things you’ll find an audience. As long as it’s well made, there’ll be a niche. The advantage indies have is you don’t need that niche to be millions of people, it doesn’t even need to be hundreds of thousands of people. If ten thousand people bought this game, that’s enough for me to carry on making games.
Kairo is big on story. How do you feel about storytelling in videogames in general at the moment?
I’m a huge proponent of storytelling in videogames. The AAA industry is good and bad on this. Spec Ops: The Line – criminally ignored – is one of the best stories I’ve seen in a videogame and it’s a shame it’s been written off as just another man-shoot. There are people doing really amazing things even in the AAA space and I’m glad that people are still exploring that because there’s a real push back from a lot of people who are very into mechanics-based games – players more than developers saying, ‘no games shouldn’t be about storytelling, if I wanted story I’d read a book’. I think that’s a bad thing. I think we should be exploring everything the medium can do. Not saying the medium is only the thing that makes it unique as a medium. I don’t think film should just be about the most beautiful cinematography or books about the best collection of words. You’ve got to explore everything the medium can do.
Do you think mechanics or gameplay are a barrier to story?
I think they’re almost unrelated. I’ve seen games where they’ve worked together beautifully hand-in-hand and I’ve seen games where they’re totally at odds with each other and I’ve still enjoyed the experience. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way on that. The example that people use is Uncharted. The narrative stars a nice, loveable guy but the game stars a mass murderer. But to me that didn’t really ruin the game.
Is it perhaps a problem that games look at other mediums a little too much?
I don’t think that’s a problem as long as they’re not always looking at films or comics. Maybe videogames look at a very narrow set of other medium and that’s the problem. I love sci-fi fantasy, but videogames maybe have too much of it. As long as you have a wide enough range of influences I don’t think it’s a problem drawing from other mediums. Games don’t just have to focus on what makes them games. Like Spec Ops, it’s an adaptation of The Heart of Darkness, but that actually made the game better not worse.
How has your Greenlight experience been?
Kairo’s on Greenlight. It’s doing alright. It’s one of those things where it’s a popularity game. I got an initial burst when it was on there, I’m hoping this weekend will give me a boost, the release will give me a boost. It’s all a game but at least it’s a game where you know what you’re playing. Before with Steam it was a total black box, like shouting into the void, ‘please take my game’.
Do you think that with the next generation of consoles Microsoft and Sony might take more of an interest in indie developers? Microsoft began with XBLIG but that never went took off properly.
The consoles are a mess. I know people like Polytron thought the consoles were the thing to go for and over five years they found the trends had turned against them. Sony have been more supportive of developers but even then, there’s still a huge amount of money you have to throw at it to get anything back out. That’s why I avoid consoles. I’m actually a console gamer but I’m making PC games because it’s just the most sensible thing to do as a businessman.
The thing is, the tech is there. I’ve built Kairo in Unity. There are 360, Wii and PS3 exporters for Unity but they cost a fortune and even though you can do everything else in Unity cheap and simple, as soon as you step into console territory suddenly you need a publisher and you need someone to do all this and that. What you need is to be able to take your game to Sony and someone say ‘maybe we can publish this’ without needing to find £100,000 for a dev kit and all that. That needs to go away. I don’t know if it will. Right now the trend is all PC, but the problem is everyone starts developing all their games for the PC, in a few years time new consoles are out and maybe the trends have changed.
You can download the Kairo demo and keep up to date with Richard’s musings and games on the Kairo website. And you can help get Kairo on Steam by clicking on the words Get Kairo on Steam via Greenlight. Go on.