Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted September 19, 2017
Edits and introduction written September 21, 2017
Ever since the divisive Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days roared onto screens seven years ago, the game has seen the emergence of a cult following and a critical reevaluation that has given it new life. Its bold artistic direction channels a YouTube aesthetic of grainy, handheld footage subject to intentional glitches, lens flares, pixelation, and image compression that marks a sharp departure from a videogame culture that typically privileges ever higher visual resolutions and peak graphical performance. Moreover, its unforgiving gameplay pared down to the essence of a shooter game complements an austere story of unapologetic criminals with little left to lose. Lynch, now settled down in Shanghai with girlfriend Xiu, fantasizes about retirement before the prodigal Kane reenters his life with the offer of a “one last deal.” Their inevitable descent back into toxic cycles of denial and violence results in a desperate nighttime exodus from Shanghai as Kane and Lynch attempt to rescue an endangered Xiu, prompting a murderous horde of policemen, gangsters, and a private army to give chase.
Art director Rasmus Poulsen has had much time to reflect on the changing conversations surrounding the game, and the myriad factors that led to an uncompromising direction and attitude during pre-production. Hailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, his work with IO Interactive shaped the aesthetic of Kane & Lynch and the documentary style of Dog Days. The 2010 game emerged from a period of misfortunes rooted in financial recession and an antagonistic gaming audience that ultimately compelled artistic nonconformity. Now currently based in Montréal, Canada, Poulsen looks back on the game with thoughtful, at times wistful, contemplation. When answering questions, Poulsen’s thoughts conjure memories of a pre-production captivated by a city far from home and driven by a do-it-yourself ambition. His reflections give context to a maligned project that expressed the outward ugliness of violent criminals while hiding a poetic universe of urban loneliness within.
On a Tuesday morning in September, we had a chance to discuss his thoughts on the critical reconsideration of Kane & Lynch 2, the origins of its distinct style, what it means to be an anti-game, and dealing with a culture that was determined to dislike it from the start. Below is our interview (conducted September 19, 2017), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Before we talk about Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, we should discuss your background because I think a lot of people don’t know enough about the faces behind the games we play. What was your education before entering videogame development, and how did you come to enter this line of work?
I originally started my studies thinking I was going to be in poster and graphic design. I studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and their School of Design in a broad field called visual communication. That includes everything from graphic design, fonts, illustration, special effects, advertising, stop motion animation using little puppets with wireframes inside them, and 3D graphics. Eventually, I remember thinking how I used to love to draw castles and cities from my imagination, and other silly, playful things that we draw when we were kids. And I remember visiting the Sijun forums those days, which I believe was made by one of the artists for Half-Life. The Sijun forums are still around by the way. I saw the artwork there, and then I started going to town, drawing like a city person for years and years. I just had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day, about what was the best part of studying. And my response was, “the width of experimentation and space to do things.” So even though I think I’m a very focused person in terms of what I want to do, those five years started out pretty vague, which was great.
Only during the second or third year [of studies] did I start focusing on videogames. I remember when the first Hitman game came out from IO Interactive. I was living with my parents at the time when I played it, and realized, “Here was something that was lifted far above the rest.” The [player-character’s] tie had its own physics, and I remember looking at the textures on the sidewalk and thinking, “This is some really classy, high-end stuff.” Of course, when we look back at it, it’s not anymore. But when compared to its peers at the time, that’s when I realized while living in Copenhagen that maybe this could actually work as a career.
In shifting gears to Kane & Lynch 2, that’s a game that initially saw mixed to negative reviews, but now I think we’re seeing a critical reevaluation of the game and a cult following. Many colleagues and I have written a number of pieces on the game, and Gareth Damian Martin conducted a really fascinating interview with you this past year for Heterotopias. What do you make of this reevaluation? Do you think people misunderstood the game upon its initial release?
Well, yes and no. The game came out during the financial crisis, and people were more careful with their money. And you could also say that if there’s a financial crisis and people are concerned about what their future will bring, then maybe they are more interested in uplifting entertainment rather than super bleak experiences. So that’s one of the outside influences that might have made the birth of the game somewhat challenging for us. Of course, there were some issues with the first Kane & Lynch as well—GerstmannGate it became known as—where there were some questions as to whether or not Eidos Interactive [publisher of Kane & Lynch] had paid advertising for GameSpot when Jeff Gerstmann gave the game a bad review. So the Internet, if you will, was set against us. Of course, we knew all that, and I think that partly influenced us to just go all in. We knew that we couldn’t win the hearts and minds of the wider audience anyway, so we might as well just knock it as hard as we could.
“So the Internet, if you will, was set against us. Of course, we knew all that, and I think that partly influenced us to just go all in.”
Then I think there were definitely certain challenges that we had a hard time overcoming during production, in terms of refining the controls and cover systems. Although we focused quite heavily on that, making a super smooth shooter has proven difficult. I play Battlefield 1 all the time right now. That’s a game that’s twenty years in the making, right? So it’s no joke. There were mechanical challenges with Kane & Lynch, audiences who wanted more positive media, and the issues of the first game that haunted us. That was what was against us upon release.
As for the retrospective retake on it, it’s just really interesting for me to see. Of course, it’s very interesting to talk to people, especially because I can talk about the art and approach we had.
Right. I was interested in your thoughts on the art style and the initial ideas about the game because I watched your GDC [Game Developers Conference] talk in 2010 where you discussed pre-production in Shanghai and how you and your colleagues would take low-resolution photo and video as visual references that would become the foundation for the game’s art direction. How did this style come about? When photographing Shanghai, what kinds of images were you looking for in particular?
The whole Shanghai idea came about for several reasons. One of them was that we felt we needed to do something drastic from the first game. Dead Men was sort of like a globetrotting crime caper with a slightly “cool” cinematic vibe we were going for. So we were looking for something that felt like a fresh take on what cinema was, and that informed the YouTube aesthetics. I remember Miami Vice came out, and of course the whole of IO were huge Michael Mann fans. So there was a funny serendipity because Michael Mann had been doing what we wanted to do at the same time. But then again, it felt like a stamp of approval for some of those ideas.
At the time we went to Shanghai, Martin Emborg—one of my colleagues who just released his game called ECHO from his company Ultra Ultra—produced some vibe videos based on material he and I had shot to explore what I would call an “urban loneliness” vibe. In the meantime, the core production team and I went to Shanghai to location shout with some of the outsourcing teams from out there. We were looking for these “off the beaten trail” locations to combine both the high street and the markets, places where we could really play as tourists and then see the true Shanghai.
These were the areas we found fascinating as outsiders, and areas that we thought would lend themselves well to our version of what this crime backdrop would be. The story is that Lynch and Kane are both on the run and need to lay low and hide, and we figured that a complicated and massive city such as Shanghai would provide a cool background for that story. During the location scouting, we got more and more sloppy with our camerawork. I think it was half-intentionally to push the limits of that particular aesthetic. It became more and more obvious to us that when we filmed these locations with the cheap camera I had brought, that there was something real unique and punk about the aesthetic. It felt fresh, and new, and dirty, and real, and dangerous, and we didn’t give a fuck. We had a punk attitude because it felt like it was the only way we could survive: by standing tall against the odds.
I was struck by your description of the vibe you were looking for because the phrase “vague poetry of urban loneliness” pops up in the Technouveau webpage describing the game’s art direction, and in your GDC talk, you also use the phrase “sad poetry.” What did that mean for you?
I’m fascinated by the urban cityscapes and all that stuff that isn’t presented to consumers: not the storefront, but the back where everything else is kept and workers have a cigarette while waiting for their time to go home. The inside, un-presented parts of cities are like the real face of the place you’re in. I remember working in a supermarket as a teenager. I was sorting bottles and all that stuff. And I remember the feeling of going from the store area to the back, and you start seeing the fruit flies and how things are just not nice back there. I think that affected me quite a lot in the sense that I discovered the backside of the city.
And when we talk about loneliness, I have a fascination for disused stuff, whether that’s buildings, or junk, or plastic remains of something, or chairs, or whatever. Maybe it’s me trying to be cognizant of all the things that you don’t normally see. You try and find meaning that is random and not presented.
“It felt fresh, and new, and dirty, and real, and dangerous, and we didn’t give a fuck. We had a punk attitude because it felt like it was the only way we could survive: by standing tall against the odds.”
Yeah, and even the menu screens of the game convey this sense of poetry and loneliness, with these tranquil shots out of windows onto Shanghai. They remind me a lot of the pre-production shots that you took.
Very much. Some of them were basically texture bashed from photos I took there, and sort of restaged using that same mentality. The reason why we chose to do that was because in action games, where it’s all about running and gunning, there’s very little time for repose. The production art we did, in terms of research photography, focused much more on the non-action parts such as the cigarette you have after a tough day of shooting and being a gangster. That stuff can be more interesting than action parts because it’s more revealing of character and their space to think. I wanted to try and make sure that the audience had a little bit of that waiting and non-action as a strange, awkward contrast to the game, which is running at full speed at all times. Once again, this is not the story. This is just driving from the airport or looking out the window of an apartment. This is not what it’s about, but where things take place. Maybe it’s where you sit and think of the things you did, and this is where something dawns on you. Something doesn’t dawn on you when you fight for your life, right? You’re busy. So I think it’s to give space to both the characters in the game and also the players to have that moment of solitude and reflection.
I’m glad you bring this idea up, because one of my favorite moments in the game is a very brief scene where Kane and Lynch are eating at a restaurant in silence before a shootout breaks out. That moment always stuck with me because even though they’re being hunted down all this time, they still had a chance to sit down and eat, which I really liked.
Yeah. Karsten Lund, the director, was also very much focusing on these quiet moments. We tried to put as much of that stuff in as we could. Meanwhile, we were very aware that the game itself was going to be full-on, all-out, all the time. But sitting and eating and not having a conversation was our version of what that new Hollywood would be. It’s not a conversation that’s character revealing, it’s actually just them sitting there and having half a conversation. Or maybe Lynch wants to say something, but he doesn’t. And then there’s that moment of no communication, which speaks volumes. Even in the introduction of the game where they meet on the street, it’s all half-conversations. Lynch tries to ask about Kane’s daughter, and Kane is like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And that’s it! Because he’s in denial and that’s the whole point. It’s as shallow as a real-life conversation, but that’s because everything is hidden. It’s about the back alley, not the storefronts. There’s a lot of metaphor going on there; it’s all behind the scenes.
“Sitting and eating and not having a conversation was our version of what that new Hollywood would be.”
And when we talk about those themes of abandonment and emptiness, I find that these things are often motivated by financial interests. I remember in your GDC talk you mentioned how Shanghai landowners would leave a plot of land empty while waiting for real estate prices to go up so they can sell the land for skyscraper development. It feels like an anti-capitalist critique in the game, in how this speculative real estate market is what’s causing urban decay and poverty. How important was it for you to convey these ideas?
I would say for me, it’s less about anti-capitalism as such because I think that’s an oversimplification of things. China’s a complicated place, and especially Shanghai, which is like Hong Kong in some ways where it’s a land onto itself. China is a land with a lot of state rules, so it’s really about the complexity of how things appear and why they are what they are. I think it’s weird to have glass skyscrapers on one side and then an empty field and an old, dingy street next to it. There are reasons for that, but what I’m really sad about now is that both the field and the dingy street are gone. Now it’s just glass skyscrapers. That contrast appeals to me on an aesthetic and human level. I’m fascinated with things in flux: half-states and things transitioning from one to another, like the influx of capitalist Western money and interests into Shanghai. This is a very old place with a history that goes way before the cultural reforms of the 1970s, and for me, it’s this complexity and weirdness that things are always changing that is more interesting than something big and static.
That sense of juxtaposition was really striking. I remember playing the game and seeing the glass skyscrapers in the background as a symbol of wealth, but then Kane and Lynch would burst through an old sweatshop and see workers toiling. And I remember one moment where you find a room with bunk beds, suggesting that people were living in this workplace. It felt like a prison, of people kept hidden.
We took some creative freedoms, and I don’t remember the research exactly as to what type of sweatshops you might have in and around Shanghai, so I think we definitely wanted to showcase how a realistic criminal underworld would look. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the conditions of workers in Dubai, for instance. People in India come in and have their passports stolen and then work on high-rise construction without safety equipment. Since they don’t have documentation, they can’t leave, so they’re basically slaves. Some of those things where people have their rights removed is a thing that felt both right for the story and the atmosphere of the game. It’s something that’s everywhere, but we don’t really see it. That’s anti-capitalist in a sense. For instance, where are my jeans made and by who? I don’t really know. That’s definitely a critique of the blindness with which we approach our shopping these days, at least, in the West.
I think this sense of juxtaposition and the rapid changes in China come through in the level design, where it feels porous and the lines between inside and outside have become blurred. I remember one moment where Lynch kicks down a door and is surprised to find that it opens out into empty space because the adjacent building was torn down. What interested you about this urban infrastructure, and what did that sense of change mean for you?
When we talk about the skyscraper, the empty lot, the street, and the tea kitchen with coal and neon, I guess it’s where that sense of flux and juxtaposition becomes more personal. An open door is something that you can relate to at a human experience, whereas a skyscraper and empty lot might be a bit more theoretical, if you will. And of course, we riff on the Kowloon Walled City, where you are not sure if you are inside or outside because the alleyway is so narrow it feels like you’re in a hallway. This kind of space was something I hadn’t experienced where I’m from in Copenhagen, which is a city that is old and very organized. Shanghai felt like it was old but very disorganized, so it was also a play on a city that is growing too fast. Rather than on a human scale, those principles of contrast and growth are chaotic and uncertain.
“I’m fascinated with things in flux: half-states and things transitioning from one to another, like the influx of capitalist Western money and interests into Shanghai.”
Have you ever returned to Shanghai since then?
No. I’ve only been there to work on the game, first for research and then later as an envoy for the outsourcing studios that we were working with. Art direction and process tweaks. That was business, so not much traveling or visiting places. I would love to go back though, because it’s an amazing place.
Even beyond the setting, the way the game is presented is remarkable. The camerawork is shaky, and images are marred by pixelation, glare, and lens flare. Was this experimental style difficult to pitch to IO Interactive? Was there pushback to this presentation, or any pressure to revert to a more straightforward visual style?
I would say all the time. Some of it was because it’s hard to believe in a vision before it happens. When it’s done, people go, “Oh, I see what you mean,” and “Yeah, I like that.” And when it came out, people still didn’t like it. But why would I go bland and try to please everyone by making something that felt designed by a committee? I would say there was pushback on all levels. It was never up for discussion whether or not we were going to do it; it was a question of how much we were going to do it. So I think most people were onboard because they felt the freshness and newness of it. Of course, we added a check to settle down the camera shake a little bit because we had complaints. It’s always difficult when you want to make a product that is a half-art, half-commercial entity. But it had to be non-pleasing. How non-pleasing? That’s the question. Of course, people are still like, “That’s the worst game in the world” because of the camera shaking, and I’m okay with that. Like I said, it was a chance we took, and I think we felt that by doing something outrageous, there was a better chance at standing out rather than doing something bland considering the opposition of the environment we landed in. I still think that was the right move.
I think that chance definitely paid off, because people are still talking about that game seven years later.
Yeah. And it was a game that wasn’t even that big, and had its share of mechanical issues. It’s amazing to me that people are still interested in what we tried to do. And I think the people who are willing to go the next step and write articles about it—they get it. They understand that it’s an anti-game, and they also understand that it will make them feel uncomfortable and tired. Not that there are no problems with it; that’s totally fair to talk about that too. But there’s something there, and that something came from the style and the fact that we chose to go so punk. I call it punk for lack of a better term… “Anti-establishment,” if you will.
“It was never up for discussion whether or not we were going to do it; it was a question of how much we were going to do it.”
I remember sifting through the game’s marketing campaign and finding the tagline, “The world’s first documentary shooter.” Where did this idea come from? What does it mean that a shooter game can also be a documentary?
Well, can it be a documentary? I’m not entirely sure, but of course that’s a play with the notion that the game felt so real. We also had a tagline saying, “Real ain’t pretty.” With these, we were playing with the idea that the game knew that it was ugly and off-putting, and you could call it snuff, YouTube, documentary, gonzo. There’s many terms in that cloud of association when you see the aesthetic, and if you say gritty, it’s kind of meaningless now. I suppose it was the marketing department trying to say it in a more fulfilling way.
But documentary? Of course people have asked us, “Who’s holding the camera?” We’re playing with that notion that the camera is a character, and it gets dropped on the ground when you get killed. But it’s very meta. I mean, who’s holding the camera in any game? Why is it only when it shakes that you have to ask that question? We were playing with giving that meta layer more of a character and role to play. We’re almost forcing you to ask the question even though there’s no answer.
I love that tagline too, “Real ain’t pretty,” which fits nicely with your idea that realism isn’t necessarily about high resolution graphics and seamless visual fidelity. What’s “real” can also be a blown-out YouTube video captured on a cellphone.
Especially in those days, YouTube was pretty new. During the production of the game, the resolution went from really low quality to the high definition we are used to today. So the early stuff at the time was super terrible quality, and we always played with errors and faults as part of realism. Like glares and lens flares for instance, which are more evident in camera shooting and filming than to your eyes. There are so many ways in which the artifacts of the filmed world get associated with reality because we see so much of the world through film and television. So it was a play on that. The aesthetics of the game are pushed so far to make it feel hyper-real even though it’s just errors, faults, and artifacts. People can argue that all the time, with the camera, there’s no lens flare in real life. And I would say, well no, but with your eyes you see strange glaring with the sun and stars. It’s actually not about being true to either; it’s about playing with associations to create an experience. Sometimes those associations can be super rigid to get you a very specific experience, and that’s what we did in this case: handheld camera, cheap lens, lens streaks, JPEG pixelation, MPEG compression. It was a very strict set of rules we followed, but in theory, I don’t care about following the rules. I care about you feeling a certain way and giving you a unique experience.
“It’s always difficult when you want to make a product that is a half-art, half-commercial entity. But it had to be non-pleasing. How non-pleasing? That’s the question.”
It reminds me—and maybe it’s just because you’re from Denmark—of the Danish Dogme95 films: the use of natural lighting with shaky handheld cameras, and the lack of special effects. Did these movies ever cross your mind in making the game?
I would say not actively, but I’m sure it was part of our shared creative fabric. I mean Lars von Trier, he likes to cross the world, and I think there’s definitely some shared artistry and cocky behavior that is off-putting but still has heart. I read an article from Waypoint that said Kane & Lynch 2 is super bleak and didn’t have a heart, and I don’t agree that it doesn’t have a heart… it’s just not presented to you. Just because I show you something ugly doesn’t mean I don’t believe in beauty. You need the darkness to have the light. Of course, the game doesn’t have the light, but I would expect you to be able to see through that and see that we’re still saying something. What happens when you don’t have the conversation? Kane and Lynch can’t communicate, so what happens when you can’t communicate? Well, not good things. Being stubborn and too proud to let go and let your guard down means that you’ll end up running and hiding for the rest of your life. You won’t confront what you need to confront, and then you end up alone in a dingy back alley in Shanghai.
Kane and Lynch’s inability to confront things, their denial they both have, is neatly visualized in the pixelation. It somehow makes the violence more unsettling too. In any other game, dead bodies would be left alone on the ground, and it’s almost comical at times. I was playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag the other day, and civilians would just walk around piles of dead guards unfazed. But with Kane & Lynch 2, the pixelation seems to say: this dead body is too gruesome to even be seen. And I also get the sense that the characters also don’t want to see this reality for what it really is, and that the consequences of their actions are left blurred.
It’s a lot of commentary on the gamer as well. We want a game where we mow down hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, and we prefer as gamers to try and justify that. The war game is fine because, “Look! It’s the enemy!” or so says the CIA or the United States army or whoever, and you can mow people down. By setting the game with you shooting criminals, civilians, and cops, we had that commentary. The argument for killing hordes of people would always be a little bit fishy.
The same with the violence. I remember doing some textures or blood splatter, something really vile and disgusting. I was playing the game and pulled off a headshot, and blood smeared on the wall and the face got pixelated. I was so disgusted that I couldn’t stop laughing, almost as a neurological defense where I have to defend myself from what I’d created because it was so off-putting. And that’s when I knew that there was something going on that was interesting.
“Just because I show you something ugly doesn’t mean I don’t believe in beauty.”
I was also interested in the game’s motif of dead animals on display. There are hunks of meat in the night markets, and also diorama displays of taxidermied animals in [antagonist] Shangsi’s skyscraper. And of course, we have to talk about the two dogs at the end. I see a parallelism with Kane and Lynch, especially when they’re quite literally butchered like pigs.
The last two dogs were, of course, a fun play on the title and Kane and Lynch as characters. Basically, Kane and Lynch are like wild dogs on a leash, and what happens when the leash goes? They go nuts and run off. In many ways, we don’t see dogs as the most honorable creature, even though they’re also man’s best friend. So it’s a tongue-in-cheek take. In terms of the meat in the marketplace, it’s a life or death thing, and we wanted to put the physicality of death on the forefront. I don’t entirely remember the reasoning for the taxidermy thing, but we just figured that it would be a really strange place for it to be. We figured that the boss had a penchant for taxidermy, which would make a really weird and memorable later level in the game. It’s almost like set dressing for a strange crime lord with eccentric habits. I think the game had been so cold: very few trees, if any. We had a couple of trees, but not many. It’s very devoid of plant life in general. So I think it was an attempt to make something feel out of place. And also again, the story doesn’t go where you want it to go, so we were playing with the expectations of the player. The absurdity of it all.
That’s an interesting thought now that you bring it up. The idea that the game didn’t really have any trees or natural things, and it’s only until that moment where you’re inside the skyscraper that you get that, but it’s all dead. The outside on the inside.
Exactly. I can’t offer you any more deep, poetic reasons for that, but I’m happy it gave you an experience because that’s what we were trying to do.
Was a third game ever discussed?
Among the team, we had many ideas for a third game. I doubt anyone save for a few thousand people would be very interested. I’m not sure if anybody has looked into the numbers… No, I am sure, and I’m sure they all said, “Hell no. It’s not gonna happen.” So those ideas will just float around in the collective consciousness of the team who worked on it.
And those ideas are part of the vault, locked away in the basement. We’ll go down there and giggle when we think about some of that, but of course, some of the ideas included: Where would the next stage be for these characters? Where do you go next? And what style would that game be in? We’ve had our take on a slick Hollywood thriller, we’ve had our take on YouTube and handheld, user-generated gonzo content. What’s the next version of that?
What was the last thing you remember working on Kane & Lynch 2?
Wow. [pauses] The last thing I remember was polishing the menus. The raindrops on the window from the hotel. That was the last thing I made for the game.