This is a part of a series of talks called A Psychogeography of Games. If you like it, you can back it on Patreon.
Psychogeopgrahy is a big chewy word put together by drunk French dudes in 1955 to talk about how the landscape of our lives affects how we feel, think and act. And I’m particularly interested in how the geography of our lives affects how we make games - in the psychogeography of our games, which is why I’m in front of you today. Over the next 6 months I’m going on a series of walks with some of my favourite game designers, in places that have affected how they think about what they make. And I will turn them into talks. Like this one.
The first one, today, is about a walk with Jake Elliott. Of Kentucky Route Zero. Except that because I don’t fly the first walk happened in two different continents. We exchanged emails to begin with, about the places that Jake likes to walk near him, and he spoke to me particularly about a flea market called 'Peddler's Mall' (you can read the emails that the idea came from in detail if you become a patron). So we decided that on the same day, on different continents, we would both of us visit a nearby flea market, and with a small budget, buy small items to send to one another, before talking about our walks on Skype.
There is a text presented a bit more nicely attached as pdf, and there'll be a video of the talk soon. The pdf and video will show the slides - including the stylised drawings of all of the bought items.
This is where it starts.
The 14:03 to Dalston Junction
The 14:03 to Dalston Junction arrives at 14:06.
On the train I half listen to a podcast about Sandhogs - the men and women who dug the Lincoln Tunnel in New York. I read an article where a teacher defends a letter sent to parents threatening to report them to social services if they let their 7-11 year olds play 18 rated video games. One parent thinks ’18’ is the difficulty rating, and is proud that their 10 year old can play Call of Duty. Writing this now, I remember my mum being proud that I could play board games with an older ‘recommended age’ rating, and I think everyone could do better at communicating.
I get off at Shoreditch High Street station. It’s a new build, all high concrete ceilings, bold edges, and vending machines shrunken by the width of the ticket hall. I frown at Boxpark and it’s limited edition shop fronts. Turn right, under the railway lines. Less than 200m on, a Tower Hamlets branded litter bin overflows, two homeless men talk, sat on a discarded mattress. My podcast is long finished, but I leave my headphones in.
I nearly walk past the entrance to the market. It’s thresholded by MAC and Fred Perry stores in subtle navy blue and I worry again that not knowing London well enough I’ve chosen a Disneyland of a market - like Greenwich or Borough, but on entering I find cobbles and stalls covered in sedimentary layers of knick knacks.
I breathe out. It’s ok.
Jake and I talk over email to begin with. He’s eager to be involved and we begin to talk about where he likes to walk where he lives, outside Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Kentucky is a large state - I type this and I think about the banality of that statement. All states are large to me. I come from the second largest county in England, but I can cycle across it in less than half a day. Kentucky, it would take 30 hours, crossing 1 time zone.
Where Jake lives in Kentucky it’s largely flat farmland. There’s not really a way away from his house without using a car, there’s a wood you can walk through, but without a car, you wouldn’t get far.
Jake can’t drive.
Jake’s favourite place to walk, he tells me, is Peddler’s Mall, a flea market on the site of an old Walmart in Elizabethtown. That his wife drives him to.
We decide that the walk we will go on, on the same day, will be through our local flea markets, I choose Spitalfields, and he heads to Peddler’s Mall. On the 2nd of April, on both sides of the Atlantic, we sift through the layers of pre-owned miscellany and choose 8 items between us, posting them to one another in the days following.
My package from Jake is stuck in Chicago.
On April 10 2015, 3:19am the parcel arrived at the USPS Facility in Louisville, KY. 19 hours and 17 minutes later it departed the USPS Facility in Louisville, and arrive on the 11th April 2015, at 8:34am in Chicago Illinois.
There it has remained.
We talk over Skype on the 11th of May, 10pm BST, 5pm Eastern Time.
Jake tells me about his wife driving them to the Peddler’s Mall - about hoping that their 3 year old will fall asleep on the way.
He tells me about the run down car park with weeds growing up between the concrete, the shell of a Walmart in which the Peddler’s Mall now sits. Each booth unmanned and items tagged with a unique serial number.
He talks to me about the landscape that stands strongest in his childhood - the redwoods of Sacramento, where his grandparents bought a place with the intention of making it an off-grid refuge, ready for the collapse of society.
I tell him about sitting at the kitchen table when I was 3 or 4, colouring in the contours of a map of Lincolnshire, Red, yellow and green, depending on where would flood when the ice melted.
He tells me of the 3-hour car journey from Elizabethtown to Nashville Tennessee with his wife and his sister. He says “the landscape here is really amazing for me, there are parts of it when you get away from any of the major cities, some of the more mountainous parts of it are just really intoxicating.”
I think back to the only time I’ve visited America. Sat in the rear left passenger seat with the taste of dust and sugar and heat on the air.
Jake explains that was the germ of the idea for the game was in this passenger journey
“travelling on these highways, being on the road for most of the game […] and then the other part was about this truck, like driving one of these trucks, delivery trucks, and specifically the idea that you could live in the truck, you know, that they’re kind of big enough that you could kind of live in them, so you’re bringing a building around with you”
It’s the sense of being a passenger that’s important to Jake
He says “a lot of the game feels like you’re sort of… a passenger, to me. […] You don’t know where you’re headed exactly, not just you, but the characters don’t know where they’re headed […] also because they accept [it] when people tell them to go places, even kind of strange places”
I can’t drive.
I think of sitting in the passenger seat of a mini. I think of the leather bucket seats and the computer we built together, the touch screen nestled in the central pillar of the dashboard. I think of dark nights in Leicestershire, where I would scroll through Winamp and bring up soft electronic music voiced by Benjamin Gibbard. The sub that replaced the boot hums and I can smell the heat on our skin.
The people who came up with the word ‘psychogeography’ also talked about détournement — a playful reclaiming of the edifices of capitalism, ways of joyfully re-making the world around us on our own terms. Who says this is how you should use a street, or a building, or a chair? Who says we have to move at this speed? Have you ever noticed how streets are designed to drive us into shops? Did you know that Paris has such wide boulevards precisely to stop barricade building from happening again? Who owns this land? Who are the public, exactly?
My friend was once thrown out of the Bullring Shopping Centre, Birmingham, for reading a book.
Another French dude called Baudrillard talked in 1981 about the way the media replaces what is with the way things appear, and that after a while we think about things as the way they appear, and forget what they actually are. A moment becomes a photograph, a moment becomes a moment only if it is photographed.
In 1946 Hannah Arendt talked about the disrupted scale of the modern world - things “torn out of their functional context” - the city evicts us from a human scale, motor travel evicts us from a human pace, our mobile phones and mp3 players today evict us from the need to seek immanent – nearby - human interaction. Contextless, the contemporary citizen passes through “frictionless passageways designed as conduits or simply so vast or alien they have lost contact with human proportion’
In Kentucky Route Zero, Xanadu says “it’s like a real place, they pick up garbage, they deliver mail, they go to work and to church… but it has an awful kind of emptiness”
The characters in Kentucky Route Zero aren’t only missing their functional context, they kind of forgot they were looking for it. They live lives of inbetween; Delivery drivers, artists working desk jobs, boys who have lost their family, scientists tuning televisions in and out of static. All wandering a landscape of pre-used spaces.
Jake says that “a pretty consistent motif in the game [… is] space that used to be something else, […] you’re trying to do some forensics on a space and figure out what it maybe used to have meant, or used to have been, [it’s a bit about the politics of reclaiming it, squatting,] but it’s also […] the mega-corporation side where a company will raze a neighbourhood and build something else […] -- the battle between the human and the superhuman scale, […] those are the political tensions that we have in mind, working with these ideas of reclaiming […] And also debt. … and homelessness, having been displaced from your home […] it’s meant to be something that’s going on in the lives of these characters”
All of them wandering a landscape of pre-owned spaces.
The Museum of Dwelling
The dialogue of Kentucky Route Zero kills me. It’s so delicate, so perfect, so evocative not just in the fact of it, but in the elegance of the choice of it. The art and animation doesn’t allow the player control of the camera, but much more interesting to me, is how the dialogue doesn’t allow the player camera control either.
Dialogue borrowed from the future, wandering a museum as you hear your choices remembered and reported by the people you encounter.
Dialogue shifting between owners, the typical hero fizzes and fades, as you’re retuned to the angle of one of his co-adventurers.
The characterisation is pre-owned, by the writer, Jake describes how it’s important for him not what the player chooses, but that they see the choices, all of the ways of being the character that the player guides.
I buy Jake
A metallic tipper toy truck with genuine tipping motion, the cab is a worn reddish orange colour.
Jake buys me
A beer bottle from a long extinct brewery. It reads ‘Falls City’ on the label.
I buy Jake
A small metal enamel pin, a red image of the UK on a white background and blue border, gold lettering marks the wearer as belonging to the national federation of retail newsagents, booksellers and stationers.
Jake buys me
A book on paranormal psychic travel and past lives, titled Mysteries of the Unknown, Psychic Voyages.
I buy Jake
A tiny clay drake, unfired, painted with poster paint, with an even tinier thumb and finger modelled yellow duckling that fits snug into the drake’s back.
Jake buys me
What at first seemed an old yellowed local newspaper turns out to be a leaflet advertising Hardin, Kentucky, the front page boasts a vibrant theatre scene.
I buy Jake
An 1899 reprint in the original French of Alexander Dumas’ Expressions De Voyage Suisse, green cover, elastic band holding the loose leaves’ broken binding together.
I begin to ask Jake to talk about the Zero, I feel the energy leech out of him, I change tack – I’m not interested in what it means – I explain – you must be pretty bored of that, and I can hear him nod, I ask him where it came from. If there’s a place that he thinks of, when he and Tamas talk about the Zero.
Jake’s answer is with him straight away: a 5 day bus trip from Seattle to New Orleans. Around 2 and a half thousand miles if you take a direct route. Not a place exactly, but, he says “It felt like [one], because people would come and go, you would be on the bus with maybe the same 30 or 40 people for a day and some of them would filter off as they reach their destination and some others would get on board, all these different overlapping trips, no regard for time of day […] you could stop and it would be time to eat lunch or something, […] 3am in the middle of Texas and there’s nothing around but beetles and a gas station, […] no sense of time, getting on and off the bus, and never being off the bus for more than half an hour. There was no going to bed, ever, so it became this very surreal experience […] very supernatural… that’s how I feel about the Zero, you’re kind of half asleep, but very grounded, you’re still eating and going to the bathroom and negotiating other people’s boundaries, but dreamlike.”
I ask him what the taste of the zero would be, and he says “gas station coffee, really poor coffee – it’s been sitting there on a burner for 12 hours”
When we travel we are inbetween. Inbetween home and destination, - in between who we were and who we’re going to be - in a travelling now. In a lot of ways, being able to sit back into the flow of that place, of places like the Zero, not move just for a destination, but wash through and look around you, in a lot of ways that’s a place where you can do new thinking. Reflect, look, see.
The landscape of Kentucky Route Zero is heavy with the scale of the United States. But it’s also heavy with the landscape of our lives. Our generation’s lives. It’s homer’s odyssey for a generation who can’t remember a time before capitalism won. It’s debt, and mouldy whisky, transcendent gigs on sticky floors, computers that break you and are broken. It is the songs your parents and their friends used to sing, lost houses, forgetting that owning a house is a thing that people did. It’s a contemporary homelessness, people you travel with and you feel you might travel with to the ends of the earth, until they are suddenly, gone.
Jake’s favourite thing out of the things I sent him were the ducks, and the truck. The heavy clink of the truck permeates our Skype conversation. He says he has the two little ducks sat on the truck.
My parcel from Jake is still travelling.