The Road to Underhome

(to be read once the journey is over; written at the time of standalone publication)

I used to think I hated living there, but throughout all my years of rebellion, ostracism and madness I always carried a photograph of the house with me: I have it still, tattered and torn, but the only copy left in the world […] I wouldn’t have kept this picture all those years if the house didn’t mean something to me, and I wouldn’t be gulping down tears now, looking at it, if the memories it invoked were impotent and incapable of touching me deeply.

It is the house where I grew up.

– Stephen Fry, Moab is my Washpot

Crooked Roads

If there is something that almost all my games have in common, it is that I never expected to make them. The games that I plan, that I think about and eventually announce, tend to take ages to actually happen. Meanwhile the games that I never saw coming explode into my life and do all kinds of unexpected things to my mind.

When Kyttaro Games came to me and asked me whether I wanted to make a game for the Bundle in a Box, I said yes because I needed the money. Even with Verena working two jobs, we barely make it from month to month (and then there’s student debt to think about). The bundle sounded like a good idea, and it was certainly going to be a great offer – a whole bunch of really excellent games for very little money, and the chance to support a great charity on top of that. Later the idea of the Indie Dev Grant was added, which made the package even more attractive. Bundles with a lot less to offer were regularly selling more than 10,000 copies – would this one not sell at least as many? I doubted we could reach anything like the insane numbers of the Humble Indie Bundle, but even a fraction could make a huge difference for us. Imagine not having to worry about food for a few months, or even being able to put a bit of money aside! My last few games had been Flash games, and their sponsorships had gotten progressively smaller, even though I was reaching a bigger and bigger audience.

So I said yes. But I had no idea what the game would be about.

I knew it was going to be a Lands of Dream game, because Verena and I had gotten relatively proficient at making those, and because I thought it would be useful as preparation for the bigger Lands of Dream game we were planning, Ithaka of the Clouds. Besides, I hadn’t made a standalone Lands of Dream since The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, and it would feel good to work without the strict limitations of Flash.

I started by thinking about all the elements I wanted to include. I wanted it to be bigger than the previous games. I knew I wanted to bring back the idea of the interface as a window. I knew I wanted to make the game more full of silly details and fun things to play with than the last two had been. And I knew I wanted to have a variety of environments.

I very quickly decided that the game should be set on several islands. One reason was that the sea had been on my mind a lot, as it is in the winter when I am far away from Greece, but another (perhaps more practical) was that it was an environment we hadn’t done before. We’d had a desert and mountains and heaven and hell, so this seemed like a logical choice. It fitted perfectly with my desire to make a game with a variety of environments, and with my ambition to make something that was bigger than people expected.

But I still had no idea what the game was going to be about, and in the beginning I struggled terribly. Three islands. Hmmm. Coming up with environments wasn’t too difficult: one quasi-Irish-Welsh-Celtic-Manx-Northern-Something, one quasi-Greek, one quasi-Arabic. If that sounds somewhat cynical, it’s not: I was thinking of the types of “fantasy” world one often sees, and how to give them the grace they too often lack. To put it in other words: what were these places truly like, in the Lands of Dream?

We were now working on the game, but still I felt disconnected, like I hadn’t found my own window to the Lands of Dream yet. There were clear similarities to Desert Bridge in what we were making, but I didn’t know where any of this was leading. As I’ve said many times before (hah), I hate repetition. Every story from the Lands of Dream has to be unique, or I betray everything that matters to me as an artist – this is not a franchise. Still, here I had all these great elements, and Verena was producing some lovely pictures, but there was no life in any of it.

Then it hit me. It really did. It wasn’t a gradual process of discovery, but a sudden realization. It had to be a story about austerity and debt. It couldn’t not be. I’d already mentioned the sad fate of Manannan mac Lir in Desert Bridge, so it was clear that this sort of thing had happened all across the Lands of Dream, and it was happening in my own home country at that very moment. The Fortunate Isles instantly became clear to me.

You see, the Lands of Dream are connected to our world. They are rooted in our soil as we are rooted in theirs. You can’t understand the one without understanding the other.

I remember laughing when I realized what I had to do. On some level I had been hoping to make something less political, something easier to sell. I believe that you cannot separate politics from art, because you cannot separate yourself from the polis, but I am all too aware that my political outspokenness has not helped me over the years. My work makes people nervous. But when you see the truth, it takes a lot of dedication to avoid it – so, knowing that the game simply had to be about these things, I laughed. I laughed even harder when I realized it would also have to be about the Egyptian Revolution.

There was simply no way around it. Not because I wanted to make a political game (I really didn’t), but because clearly these were the things that were happening in the Fortunate Isles at that time. I knew Urizen would one day march on Oneiropolis, I knew his empire would grow, so it was simply unavoidable. It was the truth, damn it.

After I had giggled long enough and told Verena that I knew what the story would be and that I was going to keep ruining our financial future by not shutting up about politics, I got to work.

And you know what? I was still stuck. Oh, it was better now, characters were coming into focus, I was starting to understand the issues of each island, but I was still lacking something. Like a title.

I’m funny about titles. Some people only come up with titles at the very end of a project, but I rarely start working on anything without a title. Sometimes I start with nothing but a title. A title defines something about the soul of a story that I need in order to work.

And once again, it just popped into my head, along with the final sentence. It was just there. The Sea Will Claim Everything. The imagery, the words, the meaning. Of course it would be about the sea. What else? The sea has always meant so much to me – as a place, as a memory, as a symbol.

There was one final step to take. Urizen, in these stories, is the god of False Reason, and I had some false reason of my own to let go of. I’d been trying to be a good game designer. The development of the previous games had been chaotic, with Verena drawing images that I only much later decided what to do with, with late additions and peculiar changes. This time, I’d told myself, I’ll do it properly. I’ll design all the puzzles and quests from the start. We’ll know exactly where we’re going from the first moment. It will be smooth and precise.

That choice seemed rational on the surface, but I should have looked at the empirical evidence instead. The previous games had worked out wonderfully, and their meandering strangeness was a defining feature of what made them work. Efficiency is the kind of term Urizen is in love with, but efficiency doesn’t always create beauty. The most efficient path to take isn’t always the one with the memorable scenery. “Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.” wrote William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and while the Proverbs of Hell shouldn’t always be taken at face value, there is something valuable to this idea.

Speaking of marriage, it was precisely the lack of a detailed design that allowed these games to be “designed by Jonas and Verena Kyratzes” – Verena’s images created a world on their own terms, and the result was something with a dignity of its own, something that wasn’t really designed but grown. When I gave up on having a detailed plan, I suddenly realized that I knew what I was doing.

And so the same thing happened with this game that happened with the previous Lands of Dream games. I experienced the story as I made the game, almost like the player does. I knew the general direction I was going in, but there were surprises along the way – and despite the fact that I was hopelessly overworked, frustrated and depressed by the end, it felt like I had really gone on that journey. I talked to those characters, I experienced their struggles, I triumphed with them and I said goodbye to them. I cried at the end, though thankfully not as much as when I wrote The Fabulous Screech.

Homes and Underhomes

I never believed in countries, and in a way I still don’t. I don’t believe in identity politics or nation states. Nationalism can kiss my hairy Greek ass (by which I mean a donkey, of course).

But wait, did I just call myself Greek? I did, didn’t I? Now isn’t that weird? Surely that doesn’t fit into my humanist cosmopolitan worldview?

You’re right, it is weird. And I’m sure what exactly it’s supposed to mean. I have no allegiance to the flag. The national anthem doesn’t move me. I love some of the poetry but I know none of the slang. My mother is German and I write most my stories in English. So what is Greece to me?

Well, it took me a while to realize this, but it is home.

I was born in Germany, but my parents left for Greece after no more than three months. It must have been quite the decision for my mother, to move to a pretty much Third-World country that been a dictatorship just a decade before. But my father really wanted to go back. He’d lived in Germany for several years (he’d taught himself German from a dictionary and a grammar book so he could be with my mother, and he spoke German better than most Germans living in Greece speak Greek), but the weather and the racism in Germany got to him after a while. He is a pharmacist and very good at his job, so being treated like an idiot for being from another country was extremely frustrating to him, especially when some of his co-workers knew shockingly little about their chosen profession.

I’m glad they decided to go.

My childhood was peculiar. I was shy and did not leave the house much; I had almost no friends. I didn’t watch much TV, and what I watched (Star Trek and MacGyver, mostly – later Babylon 5, which remains my favourite show of all time) was not Greek. I read a great deal, and in all kinds of genres. When I was young I read in both German and Greek, but once I started reading in English everything else went out the window. There were exceptions (my favourite being To Kivotio by Aris Alexandrou), but I’d found my primary language of choice.

I attended the German School of Thessaloniki, so most of my friends had a background similar to mine. We were all transcultural, we all existed in the spaces in-between.

Maybe that’s a lie. Others were much more a part of everyday Greek society than I was. But we all had that slightly different perspective. We all knew culture is a relative concept. The walls of difference and prejudice we build between each other are mostly made of bullshit.

One thing I’ll never forget, though. Everyone always asked me whether I was Greek or German. To the Germans, because my father was Greek, I was Greek. You couldn’t be German if you weren’t pure. But to the Greeks, because my father was Greek, I was Greek. If it had been my mother, they would’ve said the same. Both perspectives may be wrong, but I know which one I find the more humane.

I did get out of the house and into the reality of Greece in one way, though. We went camping. Out there, on the beach, in the wild, before hotels took over the world. And that’s where I really grew up. On the beach, under the sun and the stars, looking out at the Mediterranean. My childhood consists of the sea, more than anything else. I almost became a marine biologist. Sometimes I wonder whether that wouldn’t have been a better idea.

I’ve spent countless evenings gazing out at the sea and talking about the world and its meanings. I’ve seen the amazingly beautiful creatures and landscapes of the underwater world, as well as some of its uglier inhabitants. I’ve seen huge waves batter the beach. I’ve seen how, given enough time, the sea can eat away at anything. So of course the sea is a powerful symbol to me. Of course I wrote The Infinite Ocean. Of course I wrote The Sea Will Claim Everything. I love the sea and it terrifies me.

For me, the idea of home is inextricably bound up with the sea, and so it was inevitable that both would end up in the game. But there’s more to it than that. It is not only the sea that is my home. Because despite my shyness, something of the country seeped into me. The dry, ancient landscapes of Northern Greece. The streets with their little shops. And of course my more literal home, the places where we lived.

All of that is under threat at the moment. To repay the debts of the rich, who gambled away what they stole from the poor, the country has been plunged into austerity. The little shops are closing. The ancient landscape is being sold. And the home my parents built may not remain theirs.

I’m not going to go through the whole argument here; those who are stupid and racist enough to buy into the myth of lazy Greeks can go elsewhere if they want to be reminded of the actual facts of the situation. But I’ll tell you something more personal.

My parents worked all their lives. My mother is a doctor and my father is a pharmacist, both extremely badly-paid jobs in Greece. Their lives have been hard. In all those years, they never took a bribe, never broke any laws. They were very good at what they did, which is to help people. They did everything as it is supposed to be done.

And slowly, very slowly, they built themselves a little house. Nothing extravagant. It took them more than a decade, and a great deal of it they built themselves. It’s pretty much on a hill in the middle of nowhere (it didn’t even have running water until a few years ago), but it has a view of the sea. I think I feel more at home there than anywhere else in the world.

But even though my parents did everything right, they are called lazy, irresponsible Greeks. The state refuses to pay the pharmacists the money it owes them, so my parents are forced to use up their life savings to keep the pharmacy open. My mother is retired (no, she did not retire at 50) and still isn’t getting her minuscule pension. She does get to pay for her extremely costly osteoporosis treatments, though.

And that’s just one family. My family. There are millions more going through this sort of thing. In some cases, the story ends with people killing themselves, because that is more dignified than living on the street and spending your days looking for something to eat in the trash.

Meanwhile, rich politicians tell us that we are all responsible.

My home is not Underhome, and the place I grew up is not the Isle of the Sun. But what The and Niamh and EDDIE and the others are going through is not fantasy. If these forces can invade and defile the lands of my memory, they can invade the Lands of Dream. And despite whatever theories and ideologies and dogmas may claim, these places, our homes and our underhomes – they are real, and they matter.


The Sea Rises

In the end, the Bundle in a Box was not a success. The people who bought it loved it, and an impressive number of smaller sites wrote glowing reviews. But it was studiously ignored by almost every single major gaming site, despite everyone’s best efforts to at least get them to mention it. The Bundle in a Box sold 5,103 copies. A short while later the fifth Humble Indie Bundle came out, and it sold more than 500,000.

I had little time to ponder why the gaming media would be so reluctant to at least mention the Bundle in a Box. Was it that it included only adventure games? Was it that it supported a charity that didn’t appeal to their geek demographics? Was it that even in the age of the internet, it all comes down to knowing the right people? I barely managed to think about any of that, because every single day after the release of the game was a disaster. Our cat turned out to have a bladder stone. Then I had a blocked salivary gland. Then my wife got hit by a taxi while cycling. Then she was blamed for driving in the red when she clearly wasn’t. I spent my days in hospitals and waiting rooms, taking care of my injured and depressed family.

But here, and in Greece, and in Egypt, the story isn’t over. When people work together, they can accomplish things. When people are down, others can help them – and contrary to what we are constantly told about human nature, they do. I don’t need any kind of utopian ideology to know that. I know it because we’re here, and we wouldn’t be here without the help of our friends and families, biological and otherwise. And we wouldn’t be here without the struggles of millions across the aeons – not just in this or that country, but on this planet. I can’t deny that some part of me is Greek, but all of me is human.

If there is any hope for our homes, it is because we were all born on the same shores of this cosmic ocean. The capital that we must swear allegiance to is not Athens or Berlin, but Oneiropolis.

See you on the road,


  • Monkeys