Jake Elliot is an independent video game developer who releases his games through an experimental studio he calls Cardboard Computer. His game “A House in California” was nominated for the IGF‘s Nuovo Award, and the source code for each of his games is released to the public.

From Balloon Diaspora

Cardboard Computer‘s most recent game, Balloon Diaspora, was released in February. It’s a calm, subtle and slow-moving game through which the player navigates a hot air balloon and converses with a cast of displaced characters.

The game is free to download and play, along with which the site provides several peripheral editions ($5-50) which support their development of future games. I had the chance to test this game before its release, and have since conducted the following  interview with its author.


Richard Hofmeier: Why did you want to make this game, and how does the finished version compare with your initial conceptions?

Jake Elliot: Last year I met an artist named Erik Peterson who is working on a game called Qeej Hero, which is inspired by the culture of the Hmong-American community.  He described his process researching and creating the game, interacting with Hmong-Americans and his story about interacting with this community as a sort-of-outsider was very compelling to me — and so was the story of the Hmong people themselves, the story of a culture and community living in diaspora.

Originally I imagined the game being a bit more strategic and structured around the player working with some diaspora culture to push it in different directions (toward reunification or some other change), but I’m very glad that it  ended up as a more personal & intimate story instead.  That shift came just from working on the game, writing and following what seemed compelling to do at the time; it was pretty intuitive.

Jake Elliot

Balloon Diaspora creator Jake Elliot at work. [Photo Credit: Jon Cates]

Hofmeier: Your promotional materials for BD are very terse. There’s one sentence (“Explore a foreign culture, make new friends and ride through the clouds in a hot air balloon.”) and a slow trailer composed of stills from the game, without text, and a piece of Oliver Blank‘s music behind it. Did you feel that showing too much would put the rewards of the game at risk?

Elliot:  Yeah that’s a good way to put it — I want the player to enter the game feeling that they know nothing about the characters they’ll encounter or the world they live in.  I also think this kind of slow, text-heavy gameplay is pretty hard to turn into a compelling video, so I decided to focus on reproducing the atmosphere instead.

Hofmeier: Balloon Diaspora is a very easy game to play. The interface consists of only the navigating cursor and dialog options, and the game’s main obstacle isn’t so much an overt puzzle needing to be solved, but an excuse to meet the inhabitants and a reason to strike up conversations. What are your thoughts on difficulty in games, and how do you feel about the player experience of Balloon Diaspora?

Elliot: I saw a great talk at GDC this year by Naomi Clark & Eric Zimmerman called “The Fantasy of Labor.”  Part of their message in that talk was that there are different kinds of fantasies wrapped up in a player’s experience of being successful at a game. Some games are about “skill” — these are the games we’d probably call “difficult” — some are about “chance” and some are about “labor” (these games, like Farmville and its ilk, were the focus of their talk).

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to connect Clark + Zimmerman‘s theories with the games I’m making. I’m not really interested in exploring fantasies of chance or skill.  I am interested in labor but probably not in the same way Zynga is interested in it.  I guess really I’m just more interested in storytelling.  Maybe the fantasy of Balloon Diaspora is that the player is telling the story 🙂

The Indie Game Festival 2011 finalist – A House in California.

Hofmeier: Describe your relationship with Oliver Blank, who composed the game’s  soundtrack. Did he compose the music after having seen the game, or vice versa?

Elliot: Oliver & I worked together once before, on a game last year called Interlude.  In that case, I just made a (very) short game to accompany a piece of music he’d already written.  For Balloon Diaspora, we talked about it as a collaboration from the beginning of the project.  Oliver wrote the main theme after I sent him some early gameplay footage, and then composed the rest of the music once the game was finished.  I was inspired by the score he was writing to make some adjustments to the game, especially in its visual treatment, so it was pretty back-and-forth I’d say.

Hofmeier: For me, the most compelling aspect of this game is the fleeting, intangible sense that it’s more serious than it seems, and that something unspoken and important looms just beyond the gestures in the dialog or the symbols in the landscapes. Did this need to be fine-tuned after the game was assembled, or were you confidant in these elements in just writing the outlines?

Elliot: I’m really glad to hear that!  I did a lot of research into different cultures living in diaspora, from both historical and sociological sources, and the situation of those cultures has been at many times very precarious and painful. Some cultures leave or spread out from their homeland for economic advantage but a lot of them are driven out violently, particularly in modern history.  I wrote the game from the start knowing that parts of its subject matter were complicated and serious, but I did go back through the dialogue a few times to shift the tone in places.  There are actually still some spots that I think could be refined to underscore some of that.  Some of the answers to the questions the balloon people ask you are maybe a little glib where they could be more probing.

Kentucky Route Zero – the upcoming Cardboard Computer release.

Hofmeier: Is this a world that you’d like to come back to, in a later game? Or are you more interested in exploring new territory?

Elliot: I enjoyed writing these characters and I like the idea of making more games in this setting on a personal level, but I also really value the economy of making a game that’s just barely enough to communicate an idea, and then moving on to the next one.  I guess that’s why I make so many short games.  The game I’m working on now, Kentucky Route Zero, is much longer than Balloon Diaspora but that’s really only because it’s telling a specific story that happens to be longer.

Hofmeier: Thanks again, Jake – That’s all I’ve got for you.

Elliot: Thanks Richard!

Note: You can download Balloon Diaspora at Cardboard Computer‘s website.

About The Interviewer: Richard Hofmeier isn’t so much a puzzle needing to be solved, but an excuse to meet the inhabitants and a reason to strike up conversations. You can see his work and contact him at his website: richardhofmeier.com