The Making of Zombies and Elephants

ZOMGThere once was a short story called Elephants and Zombies. It was written in 2010 and didn’t have a very happy childhood, because the author (that would be me) was never quite happy with the first draft. She opened it up a couple of times, moved a few bits around, and then sort of forgot about it. And then a man named Richard Goodness came along…

That could be the story of how Zombies and Elephants happened, but it isn’t. It’s more like the second act of that story. Here’s the first act:

I once had a dream. In my dream I went to a small house in Cape Town (only it sort of looked a lot like Dover, which I’ve never really been to… never been to Cape Town either… ah… go figure). In the small house in Cape Town a very nice old man who used to direct plays at university was tending bar and I gave him a banjo. Might also have been a guitar, I’m not so sure anymore. The nice old man was happy and then some shit happened and at the end of the dream I was somehow up on a tree on the slope of a hill and before me a zombie elephant was eating someone’s brain.

And I thought: “Cool, I wonder how that might have happened.”

That’s how Zombies and Elephants got started.

So. Yes… fast forward to December 2013. That was when I first heard of Fear of Twine. And it sounded like a darn good opportunity to make my first game. Only I didn’t have a story. Which, if you consider that Twine games are exclusively text-based, was a little bit of a problem. But no worries… still plenty of time until the deadline.

Weeks and weeks pass, with every little spark of imagination scurrying for cover whenever I come near. I stalk the ideas, set traps, put out little bits of cheese… all to no avail.

Deadline week. Still no idea. Richard is nice enough to extend the deadline a little (not only for me; at that point I’m still not sure whether I will participate at all). Second deadline week arrives, stares at me angrily. I cower in fear.

And then while I’m talking to Jonas about his game, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, I suddenly remember that old story. And I realize that it would really be much better as a Twine than as a short story.

Three to four hours of fruitless searching on at least five hard disks reveal that I must have at some point become so frustrated with the original story that I deleted it. Oops. But what’s there to worry about? It’s four days to the deadline for Fear of Twine. Piece of cake.

And I work. I learn all I can about Twine code, I read up on South Africa, Mozambique, Kruger National Park, Limpopo Transfrontier Park. I spend a great deal of time on the names, languages and other aspects of the near-future setting. And I write like mad, pulling two all-nighters. Somewhere in-between the kind, wonderful Richard Goodness extends the deadline by a couple of days (again not only for my own sake). I forge on.

My keyboard breaks. G, H and F only work if you ask them nicely. While I’m away at my day job (with 0 hours of sleep), Jonas spends a lot of time putting Gs, Hs and Fs back into the game. I also owe him many thanks for suggesting a few brilliant changes to the game; his background in postcolonial studies comes in handy as we discuss semi-satirical ideas like the Great Limpopo Special Economic Zone.

Friday, the 7th of February. Zombies and Elephants is finally finished. (It’s called Zombies and Elephants because Jonas has convinced me that it’s much easier to say. Elephantsnzombies…. see what I mean?)

I’ve finally made my first game. And people are apparently playing it. There are reviews, most of them quite favourable. Emily Short, a living legend of the interactive fiction scene, says that it was among her top three games in the exhibition. Other reviewers, while saying that zombies are getting really old (yeah, I know, but what was I supposed to do) say that at least the writing is rather nice – or even really frightening. (Since I primarily see myself at a writer, that’s what really makes me happy.)

So yeah, people seem to be enjoying the game. That’s so cool… I can’t even begin to say how happy it makes me. I made something, and people actually like it. After trying for so long to find some sort of recognition as a writer (as opposed to as a painter/graphics artist), that is the best thing that could possibly have happened. Moreover, it is something that I urgently needed, because I was halfway ready to just chuck the whole writing thing out the window.

So people like my game. Wonderful, but am I satisfied with my game?

Mhm… I do love the game. The experience of finally producing a game of my own was awesome. I mean, obviously I’ve been making games all this time, and I do love working on the Lands of Dream games… but making something yourself is something else entirely.  And mastering Twine (which in all honesty isn’t all that hard to do… go on, try it) gave me this cool “I’m-a-superhero-programer-girl” feeling.

The story manages to get the things done that I wanted it to do. Strong focus on character. Exploration of racism and class and exploitation, but without being preachy and turning the characters into mouthpieces. And I feel that the end is horrible and gory and pulpy in just the right way. So yeah, I’m happy with the story.

StructureBut the game is still terribly rushed. Currently I have seven different kinds of hell going on at work (the paying kind of work that keeps me from making games), but as soon as that is over I intend to give the game a much-needed update. It’s not only a lack of polish and some minor spelling mistakes that still bother me.

For example: a lot of people seem to think the game is terribly linear. Well, let me tell you something: Zombies and Elephants tracks over 40 different variables. Almost everything the player does has some sort of effect on the story, but this being my first Twine, I failed to realize that most of these things, like for example whether or not you get the chance to fix the car, wouldn’t be apparent to anyone playing the game. You never know that you just narrowly scraped by the other ending, the one where everyone decides to walk to the city. My bad. I would quite like to fix some of that, making the game less linear in the last third.

And then there’s a million other, smaller things that I wanted to put in. Character moments mostly, because I am ever so fond of some of the relationships that developed between some of the characters as I was writing them. (For example: I initially wanted to have only one doctor, with the second one dying either off-screen or fairly early in the beginning, but then I ended up liking the way they interacted way too much to lose them so quickly.)

I want to expand the (well-hidden, randomised and hard to get) cure ending quite a bit, because that was the last thing I put in, mostly frantically copy-pasting at six in the morning from existing bits of the game to have something, anything, in place there. And there’s an entire other ending that I always meant to put in but never had the time.

So… um… if you find the cure ending, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, don’t be disappointed please, it’s a work in progress.

A note on the endings: The cure ending isn’t only rushed, it’s also not what I consider to be “The End”. I was innocently researching (fictional) drugs that could be used against a zombie outbreak (preferably without landing me in jail for copyright infringement) when I stumbled across this article (and the real-world science article that it links to). Originally I was just going to name-drop a few drugs while you talk to the two doctors, but after I read this I thought “This is way too good to pass up.” And thus the cure ending, and just why it is so terribly rushed. Now the *real* ending for me….

(Avast! Here be spoilers!)

…the real ending for me is the one where you watch someone else as he is killed by the elephant. It isn’t easy to put into words why I think that this is the true ending. The obvious reason is because that was the ending of my dream. I know that this sounds air-headed and flimsy in a million different ways, but the image stayed with me; it just had that much power. The other reason, the one that is really hard to explain, is that the ending feels right. It seems like a fitting counterweight to the very wordy, sometimes philosophical main body of the game, which is all about slow, creeping horror and which always stays very close to the protagonist. I tried so hard to give a realistic account of how someone in this situation would feel and react that this ending, which leaves the player powerless and which suddenly seems to take a step back and look at the events from afar, feels like the only right way to end it. After all this waiting and talking, the extreme violence of the ending seems carthartic; it dissolves all the tension in one gory rush. And don’t tell me that it’s not realistic that an elephant would suck your brains out through its trunk… this is a game about zombies.

And here’s a final thing. This game never was about winning. I’ve had several bits of feedback in which players were telling me that the fact that the elephants get infected was very upsetting to them. And that’s not really a bad thing. It should be upsetting.

But it had to happen. The fact that the final death blow is delivered by animals that are usually thought of as gentle giants seems to me to only add to the general sense of helplessness that the ending is supposed to conjure. Think more Romero and less Shaun of the Dead… that is what I was aiming for.

(End spoilers)

I think this is more or less what I wanted to say about the game. I still don’t feel like I’ve adequately expressed what I wanted to achieve with the game and its ending(s), but then again I am always ever so uncomfortable with talking about my art. You can’t just separate the imagery from the meaning or reduce it to a “message.”

I am really glad that so many of you enjoyed the game and I promise that this won’t be my last solo game. And I’ll try to update Zombies and Elephants as soon as I can.

Cellphone Poetry

I wrote a poem today:

Lemon Juicea
zahlreiche zahlreiche zahlreiche
zwei zwei Zwei zwei
zahlreiche
zwei zwei zwei zwar zwei
Aquarium Sa zwei Sa
Affäre Sa zwei zwei
as a as a as a as as A as A Sq AS
ASq as a as AS a as sad as a as a a a Zambia zwar
zwar zwei zahlreiche

zahlreiche zwar zwar zwei
zahlreiche zwar zahlreiche
zwar zwar zwei zwei zwei
zwar zwar zwei zwei

as zwar zahlreiche zahlreiche
Sa zahlreiche zahlreiche
Sa zahlreiche zwar zahlreiche
zwar zwei zahlreiche
zwar zahlreiche zwar zwar
As a zwar zahlreiche zahlreiche
As a as zahlreiche Zahlreiche
as a zwar as

I call it “Ass On Unlocked Smartphone Keyboard“.

Artist Needed!

A while ago I wrote a long short story or (depending how you look at it) a short novella named Life Support… and then I sort of forgot about it, because all those pesky elements of everyday life, like paying for food and having a roof over one’s head, were suddenly clamoring for attention.

This ends now! I’ve never been really happy with the cover that we made for the story back in the day (it was meant to be crude and bulky, but it turned out too crude and bulky for its own good), so now I’d really like to get an artist to make a proper cover. I imagine that it would be ideal to use a digitally-created image, and the truth is that I’m not really confident enough with digital painting to do this myself. Besides, I’m spending most of my time drawing the Lands of Dream.

Since I know how though it is to make a living as an artist nowadays, I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone to make a cover for free, but (since I’m also experiencing how tough it is to make a living as an artist) please understand that I won’t be able to pay very much.

So, if you’re interested, please drop me a line at verena@kyratzes.net.

Στη σκιά του Αόρατου Βασιλιά

king

«Στη σκιά του Αόρατου Βασιλιά»

Κείμενο: Ιονάς Κυρατζής
Εικονογράφηση: Βερένα Κυρατζή
Κατηγορία: Εικονογραφημένη παιδική λογοτεχνία

Μερικά βιβλία δεν είναι μονάχα ιστορίες, είναι ολόκληροι κόσμοι. Τα ανοίγεις και ταξιδεύεις. Το βιβλίο που κρατάς στα χέρια σου θα σε μεταφέρει σε δύο πολύ μακρινές χώρες, όπου θα γνωρίσεις περίεργα και όμορφα πλάσματα με ανθρώπινα ιδανικά. Για παρέα θα ’χεις μια πανέξυπνη γάτα που τη λένε Ελένη. Μαζί της θα δεις αρχαίες πόλεις και τον μεγαλύτερο πλάτανο του κόσμου, θα μάθεις για τον Πόλεμο των Κουνουπιών και ίσως ανακαλύψεις το μυστικό του Αόρατου Βασιλιά.

Μόλις κυκλοφόρησε!

(Our first children’s book is now in bookshops in Greece. This is so awesome, words fail me.)

The Art Of Selling Art

Preface: My eleventh to thirteenth grade art teacher, Mr. Ciolek, is a very talented, kind individual who has taught many a hopeless case how to paint and draw beyond their wildest expectations. Just thought I’d get that out before I start.

And now a few thoughts about that bane of society, that great misfortune which has befallen the 21st century, so-called “modern art”:

Meet my nemesis. Readers, say hello to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. Pretentious piece of crap, say hello to my readers. Bottle Rack is what is known as a readymade. The more observant ones among you may have noticed that it also happens to be, well, a bottle rack. Readymades are a great way for artists, and I use the term very loosely here, to make a fuckton of money. You take a piece of equipment –  lampshade, fork, bathtub, toothbrush, used condom, pretty much anything will do –  sign your name on it and then sell it for a truckload of money. The beauty is that you can go into a shop, buy more of the same item, and rinse and repeat until you are filthy rich. That’s pretty much what Marcel Duchamp seems to have thought when he came up with his idea for Bottle Rack, which is nowadays considered to be the first “purebred” readymade.

Here’s how it went: In 1915 Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in which he gave her instructions on how to dispose of the inventory of his studio in Paris. He mentions the old bottle rack and tells her to sign it in his name and sell it. Marcel, really, too cheap to sign your own signature? But the trend was born. Bottle racks, bathtubs, chairs… you name it.

And that was the beginning of the end for 20th century art: the readymade. Suddenly it was no longer important if you could paint or draw or work stone. It was enough now to own a pencil and a few bucks (or buckets) and to know where the nearest home improvement store was. Born was a movement that would spawn Beuys’ Fat Chair and Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and ultimately also Damien Hirst’s Pickled Shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (No, I’m not dismissing the damage done by the gradual movement from realism to abstract art that happened in painting and sculpture around the same time, but that’s a different story.)

Why have I got a problem with this? Mhm… let me see.

It all started in twelfth grade, in art class to be precise. We’re doing presentations on a selection of important styles, movements and works. And one of those is the readymade; to be more specific, Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. I knew it then, I know it now, it’s the day I meet my nemesis. A turning point in early 20th century art. I suffer through the presentation. All I want to do is shout: Why is this art? Why? I don’t get it. Didn’t then, don’t now.

Christoph Ciolek, our teacher, does. His eyes are glowing, he is truly riveted: Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso – they are all forgotten in the face of the glory and artistic talent residing in the person of Marcel Duchamp. After the presentation he announces – quite proudly, as if he expects us to burst into spontaneous applause – that our next art project will be to produce a readymade. The rules are simple: create a work of art based on an everyday object that you alter slightly. Find meaning in the mundane. Be artistic and deep, philosophical even. Be… artsy.

At this point I briefly consider killing myself. The urge deepens as I see how all my classmates actually do burst into spontaneous applause. (The reason for this becomes clear after class, when they discuss how to achieve the best results with the least amount of effort – buying and re-painting IKEA furniture is fairly high up on the list.)

Four weeks pass and the time of the project presentation draws neigh. Everyone is terribly busy being pleased with themselves.

And here they come:

1. A lamp (IKEA), its lampshade plastered with Subway napkins. It apparently symbolizes how fast food takes away our knowledge (enlightenment, get it?) of what’s healthy and what’s not.

2. A table (IKEA), with one leg sawed off, which is all about the instability of our upcoming student lives.

3. My own rather uninspired shoe that has a plaster copy of the sole of my foot stuck to it. I didn’t bother coming up with an explanation, so Mr. Ciolek does it for me. It is, apparently, about getting back in touch with nature after being coddled by technology for too long. Interesting, didn’t realize that.

4. A few teacups with plants in them. No idea what they were about, probably something to do with child labour in India.

5. The only good one, a toy gun manipulated to look like a flying dove… which is dismissed as too dreamy. I weep, despite the good grade that I got for my shoe.

What I take away from this class are two things: knowing how to approach an empty sheet of paper and that a true artist can sell anything, as long as he manages to keep a straight face. And that is after all what a lot of modern art is about. None of these people are good at anything. Many of them, just like Marcel Duchamp in 1915, don’t even touch their art personally, they pay other people to create art for them (yes, Damian, I’m talking to you, now put that skull down and be embarrassed like a good kid). Art is about doing the newest, most unthinkable things until these revolutionary ideas have actually become standard. Then you keep doing them and just pretend to be revolutionary. It’s all about keeping a straight face, love. When have you last seen a modern artist put effort into something? I can’t find the quote right now, but I believe it was Pablo Picasso who once said that in order to paint like a child one must first learn to paint like an adult. And you can see that he was good. There’s talent in all those abstract and cubist paintings. Some of his pencil drawings are spectacular. With a lot of his contemporaries and those who came after I’m not so sure of that. I’m not just talking about readymades anymore. I’m talking about how art just went down the drain in the 20th century. Just look at this guy, Alexej von Jawlensky, a particular favorite of mine. Notice how anything he made after 1919 looks kind of the same and… shit. The head to the left is one of about twenty virtually identical pictures that he did around 1930. Needless to say that they’re all considered timeless classics. One story among many. Here’s another one: Mark “fields-of-color” Rothko. An abstract expressionist. What was he trying to express, I wonder? Maybe that he really liked colored boxes. You know what Jonas calls these? Wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Where are the Rembrands and the Van Goghs and the da Vincis? Why can’t anyone just paint a landscape anymore? Because that would be boring, profane, old-school. Hell, it would almost be like actually dealing with the world that we live in. Can’t have that. Art has become afraid of saying anything other than: life is shit, nothing is certain and I’m not sure if the universe actually exists, what’s this “science” thing you speak of. Art isn’t dealing with life anymore. I don’t usually make political statements on this blog, but I assume that this decay in the meaning of art is also to a large part due to the fact that art has become nothing more than an investment opportunity, a toy, for the super-rich. Art sells for as much as never before. Art has become almost akin to stock options. To be sold and bartered and kept until it’s worth a few millions more. This gives us works such as this one: For the Love of God, by Damian Hirst. A platinum cast of a genuine 18th century human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for 50 million British pounds. I can’t even begin to say how wrong or pretentious this is. (Although, for some reason, the thing my minds keeps coming back to is this: Why an 18th-century skull?) And Damian Hirst didn’t even touch the bloody thing.

And that is what I realized that day in art class. If you can only keep a straight face and come up with a really, really good story, then you can sell anything. Or maybe an art critic will be nice enough to come up with a story for you. Like with my shoe. Or like Gertrude Stein did for an understandably baffled Picasso:

Those who attempt to explain a picture are on the wrong track most of the time. Gertrude Stein, overjoyed, told me some time ago that she had finally understood what my picture represented: three musicians. It was a still-life!

But that, I fear, is a story for another blog post. Critics, be it of paintings, movies, or literature, are a subject I’m also keen to write about. For now I merely ask: Whatever happened to works like this one? Or maybe the one below. That I’d put up in our living room.