Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted May 3, 2019
Edits and introduction written October 29, 2019
Stefano Gualeni was enjoying the early morning sun, opening his windows to savor “a full blast of Maltese morning air,” when I caught up with him for a friendly chat. Since finding success with adventure game Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths during his teenage years to his current position teaching games and philosophy at the University of Malta, Gualeni has boasted a rich career thinking about, writing, developing, and having fun with videogames. That morning, he was preparing to meet with videogame researcher and critic Brendan Keogh; on Gualeni’s mind were the labor conditions faced in indie game production. The socioeconomic context of indie games, he tells me, “is obscured or maybe politically removed because it’s inconvenient to sometimes point out how these things are done, especially from a strictly capitalistic point of view.” He speaks with clear regard for the medium, and even after just a few minutes of conversation with him, you can learn much. Gualeni has a knack for condensing challenging philosophical arguments into neatly understandable ideas. Part of this comes from being an educator himself, and his answers, apart from being thoughtful and well articulated, are also warm, candid, and good-humored. Whatever frustrations he may have with videogames are equally met with fondness and the forward-thinking hope that the future can bring about great social and political transformation.
Videogames have meant many things to Stefano Gualeni over the years. In 1996, it meant his first professional credit in Mikro Mortal Tennis before moving on to his playful and satiric Tony Tough adventure games. Its first installment delivers a Halloween whodunit, while follow-up A Rake’s Progress spins a midcentury bildungsroman of cautionary moral tales. Throughout these early years, videogames provided Gualeni a means to demonstrate principles of architectural design. A student of architecture, and later philosophy, he found pedagogical value in videogames to teach us things. Gua-Le-Ni; or, The Horrendous Parade takes the philosophical writings of David Hume and presents it through a storybook procession of mythical creatures, tasking players with developing a taxonomy for the imaginary. Necessary Evil satirizes the player-centricity of game design by positioning players as a disposable non-player character in a fantasy role-playing game, thus decentering players from the typical role of an action hero. More recent games Something Something Soup Something and Here both concern the production of meaning. The former playfully questions our definition of soup, while the latter probes the many connotations of the word “here” in a videogame world. Over two decades of work in videogames and academia have resulted in a career where both inform the other; his games are not only insightful and stimulating, but also contain rich veins of warm humor.
Of course, many years of creating and analyzing videogames don’t come without hard lessons learned. Recounting moments working unpaid and the current challenges that videogames face today, Gualeni offers shrewd insights on the changing landscape of the business and study of games. Pooling together references as diverse as David Hockney to David Hume, and François Rabelais to Dante, we talk about the interlacing of games and philosophy, and the development history and motivations behind his work. We also discuss his education in architecture and philosophy in places like Milan, Brisbane, Mexico City, and Rotterdam, and how the various influences he’s picked up from Mesoamerican architecture to Italian literature to continental philosophy have informed his videogame career. Below is our interview (conducted May 3, 2019), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You have a diverse educational background. Can you talk about your early life and work, and the journey that you took to get into games?
I was raised in a small town, and a few of my friends were into videogames and slowly transitioned into making them. And then I started to do it! This was the early 1990s. Making games ran parallel with my high school and university career: sometimes touching one another, and sometimes remaining on two separate, parallel tracks. Why did I start? Because I loved the medium and was interested in the kind of imaginative possibilities that these interactions allowed. I published my first commercial game when I was fifteen years old, a tennis game for the Amiga called Mikro Mortal Tennis. With that game, I was just working on some writing and game testing. That development team, plus some additions, went on to work on Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths, which was kind of a big production because it was released worldwide. It was 1997 when it came out in Europe. For a seventeen year old, it was almost unbelievable. I wouldn’t call it a success, but it sold enough to maintain us and kept things running.
But the day after the release of Tony Tough, I went to study architecture, which I’ve done in Milan and Brisbane. The project for my dissertation was done in Mexico City about a form of architecture that reworks traditional Aztec architecture. I also made a game called Prezzemolo in una giornata da incubo. It’s only in Italian because it’s actually a licensed game for Gardaland, which is one of the biggest amusement parks in Italy. It’s a point-and-click adventure game, but I used the same principles of Mesoamerican architecture that I was discussing in my thesis to build villages and the world where the game takes place. I used it as a test bed of whether I could apply the same principles to do something else. I was talking about what we could learn from precolonial architecture and Mesoamerican approaches to spatial design and abstract patterns. So that’s perhaps why I’m interested in colonialism, because I know what happened to the traditional culture after the arrival of Hernán Cortés and other conquistadors. Ways of thinking, building, and understanding space and symbolism were eradicated by syncretism with European symbols and styles. Afterwards, I went into the industry full-time for about seven years before I got awfully bored by repetitious meetings. To me, the industry was a drag.
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from friends who have worked in the industry.
Maybe during the first two projects, there’s enough novelty and challenge, especially if you work in a small company where they have a certain investment in the technology. For example, in the early 2000s, there was no Unity game engine. Software was expensive. You might get physics from software like Havok, or OGRE, which were very limited at the time. What you end up doing instead is working on the same sort of technologies and game genres, for years on end. As a designer, that gets old very quickly, and I always wanted to get into academia. In countries that have less funds and focus towards research, it’s very hard to find academic spaces and funding on topics such as games and culture, philosophy of technology, virtuality, and other things that I’m interested in now. So I had to relocate to Holland, because the university there had been developing a game education program. On the basis of my prior education and experience, I became a teacher of game architecture and game design there, and at the same time, I asked my employer to let me do a PhD, which I did alongside the full-time profession at Erasmus University Rotterdam. It was really great; I really loved it. It was about an hour away by train. I had a brilliant supervisor who cared for and looked after me, and encouraged me in every possible way. I felt lucky with that. I think of myself as hard-working, but without a great supervisor, that would have been much harder and much less pleasant and enriching.
Since you brought up your PhD work, I’m interested in the title or your dissertation, Augmented Ontologies. Is that in any way related to your videogame work now? I also saw that another one of your student projects involved some kind of digital work with the ideas of philosopher Martin Heidegger. Was that some kind of software that’s related to the kind of work you’re doing now?
The PhD, in a way, built on a couple of games where I was trying to give philosophical aspirations, or a philosophical backbone, to the effort. So how would I do it? What are the limitations? That’s why I’m building on philosophy of technology and post-phenomenology, because they’re very fruitful ways to discuss games as sociotechnical artifacts that can also function as mediators. I don’t want to get into technicalities here, but what I’m trying to say is that the PhD is where the practical and theoretical converged. I published a book out of that PhD after two years of rewriting called Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Tools: How to Philosophize with a Digital Hammer, with Palgrave. When you’re writing a PhD dissertation, you know the kind of language that, willingly or unwillingly, you end up using. It’s almost impolite in civil conversation to bring up those topics, so I had to find a way to transform Martin Heidegger into something polite, discussable, and understandable for the public. It’s not the easiest of books to read, but it’s much easier than the PhD.
When you ask if the PhD is connected to my work, the answer is yes. Two or three of my past works demonstrate certain ideas of communicating something philosophical in a way that was playable and accessible through interaction. And I went to make a point here, which is that when I say, “accessible through interaction,” I’m trying to exclude the textual dimension of the traditional humanities. You’re a humanist yourself, and most of the ways in which you were trained, if not all, involved a particular technology called language. You went through lectures and produced essays, papers, and presentations. The way in which you develop ideas and communicate them is through language, more often than not in a textual form. So I wondered: what would happen to philosophy if we had another venue to talk about it? You know this very well because you examine films and games as ways to convey certain political or even activist ideas. These ways are not necessarily textual. Even propaganda can be done in a form of interaction. Why not philosophy? Why not try to explore philosophical topics in a way that does not exclude other forms of technological mediation that are not textual? And I’m not trying to say that my games are purely about aesthetics and interaction; they involve text! The only problem that I have with the textual is that the traditional humanities normally excludes any other forms as “lesser” forms of communication. However, I’m trying to show that it is possible to explain difficult or uncomfortable things—things that require imagination, spatial awareness, the possibility to evaluate alternatives, so on and so forth—in a playable, interactive, and non-serious manner.
The problem with this approach is that many of these efforts can also be paraphrased, in a sense that there is no specificity to these interactions. You could always claim that I could have just written about those experiences, and that the imagination of the reader would have been enough. With this, I’m trying to do something that would not have been possible without the mediation of a computer. The philosophical points are special because they only emerge in a relationship with a machine. The PhD contains all these ideas, with a Heideggerian lens. When I was teaching full-time in Holland, they were not particularly interested in philosophical research, as they were primarily an applied science school. I was like, “Give me some space! I can do more!” And so I looked for another job and was able to connect with some friends from the past like Gordon Calleja and Georgios N. Yannakakis. Some of the best game scholars of Europe moved from Copenhagen to Malta. Much of the crowd from the IT University of Copenhagen moved here, and as I was looking for a job, they said, “Well, join us!” Now I’m here making games at the University of Malta for research, and that concludes the small path.
What was the timeframe for all this?
So my work in the industry was between 2006 and 2013, my PhD came out in 2014, and I moved to Malta in 2015.
“I’m trying to show that it is possible to explain difficult or uncomfortable things—things that require imagination, spatial awareness, the possibility to evaluate alternatives, so on and so forth—in a playable, interactive, and non-serious manner.”
I wanted to back peddle before 2006 to Tony Tough. Can you talk us through the development of that game? It’s very different from the work you’re doing now, and it’s incredible that you were seventeen years old when you made the game.
I was way younger. I think I started at fifteen and a half, and it took us about two years to finish the game. So I was between fifteen and seventeen during the development. How did we do it? Well, I ended up being an architect, so I had an interest in schemas, organization, and production pipelines, and by playing a lot of point-and-click adventure games, I had enough patience and could imagine how to work it out. I try to work two to four hours a day maximum every day of the week. I love that; it gives structure to my day. I was like this also as a child. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, I took every evening of my time to work on the game for three to four hours. I didn’t receive any training, of course, because there was no kind of training or material about game development in 1996. The Internet was barely there. And so I worked my way into making this huge game. It’s big: it has around sixty-two locations, if I’m not mistaken, and there’s as much dialogue as The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I know this because the company that bought the game had to pay for translators, and they were really angry when they found out how much they had to pay for voiceover dubbing. It cost almost as much for the voiceovers as it cost to make the game itself.
Yes! As a teenager, I knew how to make a game, but I had no idea about the economics behind it. So, I probably could have kept it a lot shorter and reduced some dialogue. Every dialogue has a kind of different topological structure. There are about fifteen characters with which you can engage in elaborate, evolving dialogue, and each has a different shape. I made shapes for each and every one of them, so each branch out differently: some don’t branch out, some branch out after a certain point, etc. Why did I do it? Because I thought it was funny, I liked variation, and I liked to challenge myself, but I also had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I think I had an idea, but economically and in terms of my time, I had no idea how long it would take. As a fifteen year old, it was quite an adventure. So I didn’t go out in the evenings for two years, and I got to reacquaint myself with my friends two years after the process. That was kind of strange because everybody was starting to drink alcohol, so I came out of my cocoon and everybody was behaving differently. I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re going out at night! Some of them are smoking!” Things change, and I was wrapped up in this endeavor.
Tony Tough ended up being sold all over the world. Sometimes I still meet people who are about my age who still remember the game, especially point-and-click enthusiasts. That fills my heart. It’s like convincing yourself that it mattered somehow, those two years spent doing that. I understand that it was something that I decided to do for its own sake. It was fun, and I wanted to prove that I could make a game that I would have liked to play at that time. In two occasions, I signed an old cardboard box copy of the game, and that was really funny. It was a really long and transformative, hermit-like experience for a teenager. I don’t know if I will ever recover from the damage. [laughs]
I read this interesting interview that you did back in 2004 for a magazine called The Inventory, where you mentioned that Tony Tough was originally supposed to be a secondary character for some sci-fi platform game. What were you referring to there?
[laughs] After the tennis game Mikro Mortal Tennis, we were thinking of using a similar engine for an isometric sci-fi exploration game within a computer. You would play a cartoon representation of a virus that was sent to destroy a mainframe, and the virus had different adaptability possibilities. There was both dialogue and action. During part of the second level, you would meet this kind of know-it-all, annoying person—sort of like a memory unit. This character—who was a robot—represented and looked like my Italian literature teacher, whose name in Italian is the equivalent of Tony Tough. We liked the shape of the big head, and that developed into Tony Tough. We also liked the dialogue with the character so much that we asked ourselves, “Why don’t we just focus on this funny character and forget about this huge science-fiction action-adventure?” It was too much for us anyway. We made a couple of levels, and one full-motion video for the original game. I don’t think it’s around anymore; it was on a very old computer.
Those little stories that fall through the cracks are always quite interesting.
For most of the Tony Tough game, I was building on what I knew, drawing from my life, my friends, and the movies that I liked. For example, the idea that your sidekick is called Pantagruel came from having read Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, the baroque novel with the giants that clean their asses with ducks. I thought it was so funny that high culture could also busy itself with trivial things like satire and jokes, so I tried to do something like that. Dirty jokes can make a point bigger than itself, and if you take Tony Tough as an example, it’s structured in three phases like Dante’s Inferno. You start from a basement underground, and the entire game is a climb up towards the beanstalk that is the ultimate point in the game. It starts at night like The Divine Comedy, and the game goes through Halloween night and eventually finishes at dawn after going through an epiphany and the personal growth that comes with it. It’s one thing to tell a story that is bigger than just silly humor and joke after joke, but Tony Tough has personal meaning to it and could say something about 1990s pop culture. Again, I was trying to borrow from way better authors like Rabelais and Dante. [laughs] Dante tells a lot of jokes, making fun of people through caricatures and allegories. Why can’t I make funny allegories with videogames, or philosophical points and still be funny and accessible? I tried that, and I think you can see it in Tony Tough. It’s irreverent, silly humor, but it all contributes to this idea that we can perhaps explore other possibilities through interactions.
“I thought it was so funny that high culture could also busy itself with trivial things like satire and jokes.”
Maybe I’m not great at explaining the authorial choices, but with fiction through a machine, concepts like “here,” “there,” and “now” are modified and overlap, getting richer and more complicated. I can explain that to you by actually having you go through that confusion in the game, and I think there’s something to this method rather than just telling you about it. I was in Greece two months ago, and I was approached by a couple of philosophy teachers during an event. They said that they were starting to use my games in their classes, and I said, “Well, that’s amazing!” Most people using my games use it for high school or first-year university students, and they were happy that these games were not particularly complicated to play. They were also free and short, to the point where teachers can have students play them in class and have a discussion about the experience afterward. This is an additional bonus in using games academically. During a conference in which we were supposed to deliver a videogame as part of a point being made, one commentator thought that the game I was presenting, Necessary Evil, was particularly good for an academic. In five minutes, you can get to the point and move on, whereas you need to spend like eighty hours in Skyrim just to figure out whether the political point they’re making is in favor of one faction or another, or whatever. You have five minutes in which, through your own choices—like in the games of Molleindustria or Pippin Barr or all these other people—you achieve a level of curiosity or awareness that is sometimes clearer, better, and more efficient than simply being addressed with information.
By allowing players to manipulate things, games stimulate some other cognitive function beyond passively receiving and decoding text. I think we all feel the potential there, and we’re just scraping the surface. We’re just noobs in using games for something that isn’t just about accumulation, entertainment, distraction, and the repetition of societal values such as success being understood as being better than somebody else or being able to enslave or conquer. That is currently the dominant message, with notable exceptions. The first thing we should try to do if we want to move beyond this and make cultural points is to become the owner of the language that we’re using, and not simply repeat what we’ve been passed down and echo whatever culture we’re living in. As long as we make films and games in that way, and representing these dominant values, we’re servicing certain kinds of powers and messages that reinforce the status quo rather than putting these into question.
For me, the difference between high and low culture—provided that we can still make the distinction—is the critical tools that high culture is capable of providing you to reflect on your own situation and cultural condition. Games can trigger critical points and stimulate the possibility to think about alternative possibilities that we should be looking at. If we need to shoot a bullet or two in a game, it can be done in a useful way, provided that it is framed critically, provides an alternative that is possible, and confronts you with your own consequences. We need to become capable of distinguishing what the medium is saying, and understanding what I want to say through it. I don’t think we’re particularly great at it yet, but at least some efforts have been made. Maybe you have a better analogy with cinema, like Jean-Luc Godard as someone in that same line, at least conceptually. I don’t want to put me or Paolo Pedercini or Pippin Barr in that league, but we’re trying to rethink what a game can be and make it our own. Rather than making a game, we make our games. We make our message, and we try to use the expressive tools we are afforded to make something that speaks a new language. Sometimes it’s hard because we’re working in a void. Who do you refer back to? We can look to cinema and literature and what they did to unshackle themselves from the traditional novel, and I think we’re in that phase a bit with independent game development. We’re slowly taking out the little training wheels from the side of our bicycle to figure out what we can do with the medium, and it’s exciting to be at this stage.
“As long as we make films and games in that way, and representing these dominant values, we’re servicing certain kinds of powers and messages that reinforce the status quo rather than putting these into question.”
I like that these disparate literary and philosophical influences that you bring up appear as early as your Tony Tough games, before some of your more recent works like Here and Something Something Soup Something. In Tony Tough 2: A Rake’s Progress, for example, you’ve mentioned that it’s inspired by things that all bear the title “A Rake’s Progress.” There’s a novel by Jonathan Swift, a series of paintings by William Hogarth, etching and aquatint plates by David Hockney, and an opera by Igor Stravinsky. Can you talk us through this strange artistic lineage, and the kinds of things that these intersections are able to produce in the game?
The sequel was a real mess because we were promised certain funding, but the company we were working for went bankrupt. We remained without money, so we had to close the game earlier. Most of us, for the sake of pushing the game out, worked unpaid. Eventually, we had to wrap it like six months before it was meant for release. I think it was unsuccessful because it’s an unfinished game. Tony Tough 2 is very buggy and unpolished, unlike the first Tony Tough, where we had a year to go through everything to create a really solid experience. I really liked the idea of Tony Tough 2, but it came out broken. What’s the idea for Tony Tough 2: A Rake’s Progress? As you said, Tony Tough has literary and cinematic influences that are structural. In the case of Tony Tough 2, I wanted to make another one of those “Rake’s Progress” series, as many other people have iterated on that same idea. This idea of the “Rake’s Progress”—narrated and told into a number of different ways—is that a young person from a small town, with no economic problems, can become corrupted by city living. It’s a cautionary tale on values: you should try to figure out who you are before you’re exposed to something that might corrupt you. You need to get a good head on your shoulders before venturing out and doing something strange. Of course, the moral is not so explicit, but the returning ideas are that money leads to corruption, there is corruption in the city, and values need to be upheld.
I was at the Tate Gallery for a few days, and I saw the series of plates by David Hockney. The exhibition talked bout these previous cultural iterations, and I found it so fascinating that Hockney applied this idea of the young man’s corruption to the Jet Set culture and becoming a rich and famous artist in this very self-reflexive way. So he gets a lot of money for his art, and he ends up squandering it all on drugs and prostitutes, ending up in jail and so forth. I thought the series was amazing, and the titles of the plates were really interesting. I decided to try and adapt Tony Tough’s youth in a similar way. I wanted to tell the tale of a character’s corruption with a bittersweet ending where they lose almost everything but learn something from it and become a better person.
Tony Tough 2: A Rake’s Progress was structured very much around the titles of the plates of David Hockney. Built into fifteen small episodes, each share a title with one of Hockney’s plates and have some reference to what Hockney went through or to previous iterations of the Rake’s Progress. Sadly, the game didn’t make any news. Of course, it was translated in almost all the same languages as the first Tony Tough, so it released in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy—most of Europe, but I’m not sure if it was ever translated into English. The public response was not very exciting, and I agree with them. The game is a pile of hot, buggy rubbish. I had great aspirations, but the socioeconomic conditions under which it was developed didn’t allow me to make something better out of it. But then again, it would have been two wasted years had I not released it. I think the worst thing you can do is to not release a game that you’re working on, especially for many years and with other people, because you cannot show material from the game if it’s never released. Otherwise, you will have a huge gap, not only in your personal life but also in your career. As a consequence, you cannot show that work. You can only say that you’ve worked on an undisclosed title, but anyone can say that. Employers will not hire you, as you’ve essentially been out of the job market for two years. So I was happy that Tony Tough 2 released. I expected that it would not be a stellar game, but I’m happy with my artistic, expressive attempt at making something out of it.
“Rather than making a game, we make our games. We make our message, and we try to use the expressive tools we are afforded to make something that speaks a new language.”
Despite that, I still ended up being quite interested in some of the ideas that you had, regardless of whether or not it ended up showing up in the final game, because in a lot of ways, the ideas that you’re interested in now—wedding philosophy with this kind of art history and videogames—is really apparent in that game.
And architecture too! I made architectural plans for each and every room and building in the game, and they were all accurate for the time that the game took place. I used it as part of an exam in scenography that I was taking at the time, so all the research that I did through the building and city layout were all reasonable. I tried to use other sources of information, but also to treat the game as seriously as any other cultural form. Almost everything, if not everything since the beginning of my adventure with this medium, has been a story of relation, extension, and re-digestion of the past. More recently in the last few games, it’s been a story of non-medium-exclusivity, which is something for which I’m a big advocate. Sometimes you hear designers speak about the fact that some design solution is great because it only requires interaction. Spatial narrative is a huge topic right now, in which by observing and acting in a space, you receive stories. But sometimes that is a limitation. Sometimes I think the designers get too enamored with the idea of doing things without text as an affectation, just to say, “Hey, this is similar to modernist paining, like real paint is flat and real painting is painterly.” But we can do so much more with this medium if we accept all the possibilities that it has to communicate, and I think Here was going in that direction. Here is like three silly lectures surrounded by a JRPG, and that’s it. Being eclectic, mixing things, and taking inspiration from every cultural context is what brings a production together.
You’re getting at this idea about wedding game studies with philosophy, and I noticed that you describe some of your works like Here and Something Something Soup Something as “videogames as philosophical artifacts” or as “playable philosophy.” What does an understanding of videogames teach us about philosophy? And vice-versa? What do these descriptors mean?
I take a practical approach. I think that we have technology, a mediator, and my point here is trying to figure out in what ways it helps us to think and act differently. That’s the bottom line. We are normally instructed by text or by example, but can interaction with a machine do the trick? I hope that I can show that, to a degree, it can. It’s not the greatest machine. You will never hear me say in any presentation or interview that “Finally, we have the ultimate philosophical or social transformation tool.” It comes with a lot of limitations, first and foremost, the idea that we do not know how to operate it yet. We still have to find… (pauses) I’ll call it a language, but I don’t think we should talk about a language, but rather a way to use it. I think we very much like the idea of the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia. We’re given this great tool, and we’re enamored with the magic that we’re given. So we fall asleep at the wheel, and the magic continues to repeat the same patterns of collect, shoot, dominate, enslave, colonize, occupy, succeed, and so I think that it’s time that the sorcerer’s apprentice learn something from the technology and is aware of the dangers of addiction, trivialization, and a number of other things that come with this cultural form. To me, the thing that videogames can teach us is a new way of communicating, learning, and negotiating ideas. Whether we call it a game or not, to me, as you noticed in Something Something Soup Something or Here, is not important. It doesn’t matter. The whole debate about formal game definitions might be interesting from an academic point of view, but for me, whether you call it a playful interactive experience or a computer-supported set of worlds, it’s fine, so I’m not focused on that.
It’s interesting that you mentioned this focus on violence and colonizing, as these themes come up self-reflexively in your game Necessary Evil. You’re positioned as a disposable, non-player character—rather than as the main hero—thus subverting our expectations. Why is this player centricity a “necessary evil,” as you suggest?
[laughs] It was a pun, of course, because from the point-of-view of the player, the way in which we make videogames apparently relies on conflict. That is the reason why most games we play are focused on battle, sport, or so on, as there’s a really intuitively and easily recognizable form of conflict that we can use to stimulate people into forms of action. Part of the title of Necessary Evil came from the idea that currently, the way in which videogames are built technologically requires a player-centric world to save on data calculation time. For example, things irrelevant to gameplay or outside of your view are normally not rendered or kept in the background to save memory in a process called occlusion culling. Most games also work through portals to exclude parts of the world. So, it was a necessary evil in the sense that using technology in this way is almost a linguistic obligation. If you understand this, you realize that there might be other ways to think about computer interactions, only they’re not accessible to us. Games are all about what the player can see. They exemplify subjective idealism; they exist because there’s both an “I” and an “eye” to see it. Those were the reasons for the pun. Is it a necessary evil? I damn well hope not, because otherwise, we would be locked into an expressive form that I believe is currently limiting, inaccurate, and probably damaging. It’s built to show that we are currently under a necessary evil spell.
“Almost everything, if not everything since the beginning of my adventure with this medium, has been a story of relation, extension, and re-digestion of the past.”
Another of your games that was really interesting to me was Gua-Le-Ni; or, The Horrendous Parade. I thought about that game in relation to Something Something Soup Something because both of them are interested in things like taxonomy and categorization. The first game is about combining animals to make fantastic creatures, and the other game is about combining ingredients to make soup. Both involve grotesque creations that are goofy but also deeply philosophical. You cite people like David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Can you talk more about this philosophical background?
It was mostly based on David Hume’s notion of simple and complex ideas. I was taking a shower, [laughs] and I thought it would be cool to make a game based on his ideas. According to David Hume, simple ideas are ideas that are stimulated by something that we experience. For example, we have a simple idea of sand by touching sand, smelling sand, walking on sand, and so on. We can have a simple idea about a number of things, such as your keyboard, your glasses, bread, rice, horses, and all other things that you experience in real life. You can touch a keyboard, eat rice, ride a horse, and so on. But Hume says that you cannot have a simple idea of a Pegasus, because a Pegasus is not something you can encounter experientially. Rather, it’s a set of mental operations that combine properties of elements of things that you already know. The basis of your creativity is what you’ve accumulated experientially, and what you can do with it is to recombine it. The upshot of this idea is that everything you can think of is related to what you’ve experienced. You cannot think of something that you’ve never experienced before. For example, think of a color that you’ve never seen. You might say something like, “Yeah, maybe… pink-grey-metal…” It’s only a combination of properties or colors that you’ve already seen.
You can only visualize things that you’re familiar with and already exist in your mind.
Exactly. David Hume says that mental content is gained by experience and then recombined in a form of creativity. He used that to then think about how we contemplate our day. What’s tomorrow going to look like for you? You don’t know. You’ve never seen tomorrow, but you can think about it. Tomorrow—a Friday for you—might look like other Fridays, and the weather forecast says that it’s going to be rainy. So you start to imagine a classic rainstorm on a Friday. Also, you have nothing in your fridge because you know from having seen your empty fridge, so you probably need to go buy something for breakfast. You can start thinking about those things that you have not experienced—because you have not been alive before on that particular day in 2019 because it hasn’t happened yet—similar to how you can write folklore and tales about a Pegasus which none of us have ever seen. That is true of all the monsters in videogames, so what if I asked you to take apart those monsters into things that you already know? The reverse idea. What you get are very crazy creatures, sometimes with wings, long necks, and tails, and you’re asked to recombine cubes to point out the order and type of the various units that you can recognize. It works as a practical way to engage with the idea that fantasy is actually a combination of things you already know. That was an attempt to make Hume playable, though the fact that I needed to make it commercial may have obscured some of the point, whereas Something Something Soup Something and Here are not commercial. They’re free, so I can be as weird and as un-game-like as I wanted. So Something Something Soup Something and Here are very short, unsatisfying, weird, and bizarre. Are they games even?
“We’re given this great tool, and we’re enamored with the magic that we’re given.”
There’s this similar semiotic interest in language in Something Something Soup Something about how the meaning of soup is relative based on your own experience and knowledge. Aliens have no idea what soup is, as long as it contains some kind of liquid and is served in some kind of vessel. It may not even need to contain a liquid, according to the game—soup can just be rocks, right? And then in your more recent game, Here, there’s another interest in semiotics by foregrounding situational contexts and indexicality in formations of meaning, which you really elegantly explain on the website in two paragraphs. How do videogames and their virtual worlds complicate these questions of meaning, language, semiotics, and indexicality?
Do they complicate it? It complicates indexicality because you take multiple positions at the same time: you are a player and are also empathizing or even projecting yourself onto a character. Then there’s also a mediation happening. The mediator here, the computer, has a “here” of its own. In that sense, it’s complicated. One of the interesting things about Something Something Soup Something is that in terms of this idea of language and complications, we try to not use categories. The game asks you to categorize twenty soups, and the twenty soups are needed because there are a number of families of categories that we want you to sort through. I don’t need to explain exactly the algorithm, but we have a number of categories that the player needs to procedurally sort through. The very categories that you are confronted with in the game include: Is it frothy? Is it liquid? Is it solid? Is it bubbly? Is it served in a traditional cup, or a non-traditional cup? Is it served with a traditional spoon, or a non-traditional utensil? Is it toxic? Is it edible? So on and so forth. We did not decide those categories. One of my masters thesis students, together with me and a few other friends, used a common linguistic experiment to find out what basic categories existed in five different nations. We mostly used people from Europe and Asia, because that was what we could do with the time and money we had. As designers, we tried to exclude ourselves from making decisions about what categories you needed to sort through because we would have inevitably casted our own prejudices on it. For example, we went to Poland and figured out that for them, milk-based soups are called soups in their language, whereas for me as an Italian person, it’s quite hard to relate that as a soup. I would call that something else.
Right, like a chowder or broth.
Right, and at the same time, you start to think, “Is coffee a soup?” It’s ultimately made from a vegetable, so if milk is a correct base, then milk and coffee beans… could that be soup too? If so, then cappuccino is a soup! Poison, if it’s coming from vegetables or animals, might be a form of soup. The Polish have very, very weird relationships with soup. They can have wine-based, or milk-based soups. Then there’s the idea that soup can contain fruit if you think about tomatoes and Spanish gazpacho, which is essentially a fruit-based soup. Some Polish people drink sweet soups or salty soups. Is frozen soup, soup? When it’s in your freezer, is it still soup or is it another thing? Is frozen soup a different category? All of these things emerged during these experiments, and they’re not coming from us. We just decided how to represent it. The categories are not something we decided upon. We just strictly stuck to the sixteen most popular categories so that we could make a game that was quick enough, otherwise we would have over thirty kinds of soups. For a five-minute experience, I thought it was great, the way it went. It was so lucky that it was covered by Kotaku and Waypoint. That was completely unexpected.
And Food & Wine Magazine.
And also you recently, two years later. I’m like, “This is amazing and perfectly on point.” I find your interest very flattering.
“Being capable to generate or evaluate alternatives is something that this technology we call videogames or computer simulations is great at. They can functionalize possibilities to generate and evaluate alternative ways of being.”
Thank you, that too is quite flattering for me to hear.
But I have one more question before we go: What is the place of philosophy in virtual worlds? What does the future of philosophy in videogames look like?
[laughs] You’re gonna get me into trouble. I’m writing a lot about it, and I do not know what the future holds, to be very short. I hope that I will get to see us as a species become able to use this to think better. I’m going to use a Marxist reference here, which is the idea that every part of the world currently works under a very similar logic: the logic of capitalism. It seems like every square meter on Earth has a value. We can define almost everything that surrounds us by value and utility, and we are so involved in this narrative that we often cannot even imagine an alternative to it. What would be an alternative to the current state? I think that the problem with capitalism, apart from sustainability, is that it’s so totalizing that it puts us in a condition of not being capable to generate or evaluate other alternatives. Instead, being capable to generate or evaluate alternatives is something that this technology we call videogames or computer simulations is great at. They can functionalize possibilities to generate and evaluate alternative ways of being.
For example, talking about your breakfast again—because I’m very focused on your breakfast for tomorrow—what would it be like for you to have breakfast tomorrow if we lived in a world without private property? What if I made a game about you making and obtaining the stuff for your breakfast with the condition that things do not have monetary value? I would put in that condition, and you would perhaps become more intuitively aware of what that could mean and maybe make it possible for you to evaluate that idea on a larger scale. Maybe it makes it possible for people to think of this as not something as revolutionary or impossible to imagine. I’m hoping to see that: games as something that gets us to philosophically think better, and shifts us towards possibility rather than what is here. Something that helps us focus on modality—that’s what I think the future is. Once we are able enough to understand the dangers and limit the downsides, it is something that helps us think of possibilities and to develop better intuition. I don’t know if this future will be true; this is mostly a hope that I’m seeing from the onset right now, from a silly bunch of us trying to do different things with the medium.