Ideas, Influences, and Inspiration for Brownie Cove Express
This is gonna be a long one!!
I want to talk about the ideas and inspirations behind Brownie Cove Express…….
BCE is a game about travelling on a train through the mountains and chatting to the other passengers. It is a mostly text-based adventure game where you click, read, choose, and explore. You meet characters and get to know them and their story, while also trying to uncover your own.
— KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO AND PLAYER AGENCY
KRZ is the number one source of inspiration for me, here and always. It really opened my eyes to the possibility of interactive text. Most of the game is about reading and making small, inconsequential choices. The visual design is subtle and understated, the music is ambient - although there are some strictly visual and sonic moments the focus is drawn to the text first and foremost.
This creates an interesting feeling when playing… almost synaesthesic. You’re reading poetic descriptions of places that you can see and hear only parts of. There’s gaps in each medium, and only combined does the whole picture form. I think the player feels more involved this way, each choice, however small, feels like a little mark the player is making on the game.
And this isn’t done through huge changes in the plot… most adventure games are going down the Telltale (Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us) path of making the player the Plot Master or something. Your choices matter. They will remember that. Kentucky Route Zero pushes against this. Nothing you do really has any affect on the overarching plot or on the characters. You choose the name of your dog, you choose the specific adjective describing a character’s tone, you come up with a poem to unlock a computer… none of it matters, but it all services immersion, expression, and tone.
I’m going to get political for a second. But isn’t it funny how a large majority of gaming communities are toxic alt-right white men? The medium they love encourages them to be the single player who comes in to save the world. This open world is your oyster, you can do anything within it, with no consequences! I’m not getting into the whole violence debate, but I wonder if this “player agency/freedom” that is growing in games is having an affect on the politics of gamers. Here’s a good video about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfngZC6aoWE
Kentucky Route Zero is a game about debt, disempowered people, loneliness. As Jake Elliott (co-creator) says in this fantastic talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mm3Qn7udHI) , they try to actively remove agency from players. They work to stop players feeling like they can strategise. When playing choice-based games like The Walking Dead, there’s a constant feeling of “how do I pick the best choice?”, “how do I win this game?” This isn’t how KRZ works, and this isn’t how I want our games to work. I want players to know their choices have no consequence outside of pure expression. Anyway enough about this.
— HAUNTOLOGY AND THE NON-PLACE
I’m going to touch the surface of these ideas they’re quite heady, but I’ll leave links if y’all are interested.
Hauntology is a term to describe the way the past haunts the present… the way modern culture is constantly surrounded by ghosts of what has come before. I think this is a fascinating idea. You can see it through constant revivals of old fashion trends, nostalgic 80s sci fi movies and shows like Stranger Things and IT, retro music like Amy Whinehouse and Arctic Monkeys and everything Mark Ronson has touched.
“It might seem strange to describe a culture that is so dominated by past forms as being amnesiac, but the kind of nostalgia that is now so pervasive may best be characterised not as a longing for the past so much as an inability to make new memories.” this is from Mark Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life…… it’s a crucial read.
It’s not just that we are surrounded by ghosts of our past, but also that we exist kinda in a non-time. No real cultural identity of our own, no signifier to differentiate the decades. There’s a lot more to say. But I like this idea of a non-time, of being haunted. It is often how I feel personally. I’d like to explore this idea in the game but through stories and memories and dialogues. To make hauntology apply personally rather than culturally.
To expand on the idea of the non-time, there is also this idea of the non-place. A term to describe the hypermodern world in which we exist in these places that are in-betweens… hotels, service stations, shopping centres… the internet? I wanted to set the game on a train to explore this idea. A train is a non-place, a place that has no fixed location, and no fixed identity. You get on, you travel, you get off. A non-place, in an emotional non-time. A transitional space to encourage self-reflection.
Here’s a link to a pdf of Marc Auge’s book, Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity: http://126.96.36.199:8080/jspui/bitstream/1/668/1/Auge,%20Marc%20-%20Non%20Places,%20Introduction%20to%20an%20Anthropology%20of%20Supermodernity.pdf
— THEATRE AND COLLAGE
Ok now I’m gonna talk a bit about the visual design of the game. Obviously the characters and props have the classic Brownie Cove style of low resolution, minimal colour, digital illustration, but for the backgrounds I wanted to go in a different direction.
To mention KRZ again, they often talk about how much set design in theatre influenced the visual style of the game. On paper it makes sense, especially for adventure games. Video games are possibly closest related to theatre, as a form of storytelling that is both passive and active. They both have a fixed viewing angle and distance, and all that needs to be seen by the viewer/player needs to be there in front of them in one space. I’m not sure if this makes sense. This talk by Tamas Kemenzcy is fantastic and far better describes this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh_o8JEmVdw He also brings up things like early structuralist video art and slow cinema, both also influences on BCE.
Setting a game on a train brings up design problems. Trains are very narrow, confined spaces, and the game has to convey partially this sense of claustrophobia. We looked closely at set designs for plays set on trains, and other ways of creating similar spaces for the stage to think about how to set out the game. We also looked at modern adventure games like Machinarium and The Dream Machine, and also some Wes Anderson films like the Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited and their cross-section style of showing small rooms.
Stylistically I thought collage matched this sort of design. This idea of a claustrophobic, cross-section. A small space lived-in by many people, cluttered and busy, constantly changing. We looked closely at Richard Hamilton’s work as a key influence: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=richard+hamilton&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi_iK2grozZAhXJAsAKHTXvAMsQ_AUICigB&biw=1379&bih=752
Unexpected rooms created out of familiar and unfamiliar objects, working together to create one cohesive space. God this post is long.
— OTHER INFLUENCES
Richard Linklater’s film Slacker has a beautiful structure following different people around. There’s no main character, and instead of following one story we follow many, which paints a much more vibrant picture of a place and time.
Roy Andersson’s trilogy about being a human being features theatre-esque sets, a distinct lack of camera movement, black comedy, misery, and a really fascinating vignette-based structure. Some of my fav films definitely watch them!!
Ben Okri’s book The Age of Magic is a story of a team of filmmakers travelling by train in search of a myth. It’s written very lyrically, with short chapters. It jumps around between gorgeous descriptions, philosophical musings, and subtle character interactions. Really influenced my writing style, and was the original inception of the idea years ago. Also everything Thomas Pynchon has ever written - the way stories and side characters jump in and take over constantly. You don’t know what’s coming next.
Murder on the Orient Express (the new film version). I love this thing lol. I love the cold, the claustrophobia. This was also the reason why the characters are almost entirely unnamed. I love the idea of archetypal characters stuck on a train… the countess, the doctor, etc etc.
Early Harry Potter PC games are a weird one to mention, but I love the feeling of place they have. The cohesive school to explore, the NPCs. There’s a crazy feel to them that I don’t think has been replicated since. You really feel like you exist in this world.
Night in the Woods lulls you into a routine. You get up, you go downstairs, you check in with your friends. I love the sense of familiarity it creates. When unexpected things happen, they hit you even harder.
Alan Resnick’s This House Has People In It is a really interesting short film, but more interesting is the huge expanded video database outside of it that you can explore at your own will and pace. You feel like you’re watching into this family’s life. You willingly watch extended boring videos of them doing nothing. It feels scandalous, creepy… like you’re a detective of some kind.
Hauntological music has been playing on repeat for me while writing. Look up: The Caretaker, Philip Jeck, William Basinski, Tim Hecker.
Thanks for reading if you’ve made it all the way through. Bit of a scattershot post. I’m sure there’s things I missed. Please like ask questions and stuff if it doesn’t make sense or you want to know more. Lots of love <3