Fri 25 Nov 2011
HM. Dr. Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos, Grand Commissar of the Soviet Gnomic Monarchy not only writes for his own Gnome’s Lair, he also regularly writes about Gaming on the Go and hunts for Retro Treasures, as well as countless other projects.
He is an unswaying retronaut, an energetic promoter of the obscure, forgotten and remarkable in the world of gaming, and today we are lucky enough to be given a sneaky peek into the lovingly tended attic that is: Konstantinos Dimopoulos’ mind.
Ben304: Welcome to my chat-couch, Konstantinos, and please, try the melonade – it’s got just a hint of cinnamon in it. One thing that has me curious is your dedication to the retro and independent items of the gaming world. What is it about these sorts of games that you find so endearing?
Konstantinos: Tasty stuff. You are too kind good sir. As for the indie and retro scene, well, thing is I’m easily bored. And I can’t really stand cliches. And mainstream gaming is -for the most part at least- incredibly dull and uninspiring, meaning I simply have to get my digital entertainment from some place else. The vibrancy of the indie scene, its sheer amount of wild ideas and varied aesthetics, as well as its dedication to reviving old favourite genres, while simultaneously avoiding those corporate behemoths that can’t help but exploit and bore people, is everything something needs to earn my attention. Devotion even, and indie games have definitely done it. Besides, I do prefer giving my money -what few there is of it- to creative people themselves and not to some sort of manager person.
As for retro games, nostalgia aside, it’s the same variety that does it for me. Take the ZX Spectrum for example. Such a tiny machine, that due to it being a truly popular and open micro gave birth to thousands of unique games, starring everything from trash collectors and miners to ostriches and vampires. Actually, what I guess I want to say is that the early and less commercialized days of computer and video gaming were much more creative. Much more intriguing and it’s the indie scene, where people steel try to express themselves and -of course- make a living, that keeps this tradition alive.
304: Can you tell us about some of your earliest gaming experiences, and what it was exactly that made you so fond of games in those formative years?
K: To be frank I’m not so sure. I do believe that Berzerk on my cousins’ Atari 2600 was the first game I ever played back when I was four or five years old, and I do know that the first computer I (well, my parents really) owned was a Texas Instruments TI 99/4A with an excellent version of Space Invaders, but can’t quite remember why I was interested in such games. Truth be said I don’t believe I was blown away. And though I did play and love quite a few offerings both then and later on the Speccy and at times even on PC, I wasn’t really interested in games till my early teens when I got to discover adventure games like Monkey Island and Space Quest IV. Then again early teens soon turned into proper teens and, though somewhat diminished, my interest in gaming remained strong. And more focused on quality I’d like to believe; must have been one of the few people that weren’t really impressed by Doom. Also, quite a bit of my gaming time was devoted to RPGs and more social forms of gaming, and it’s been the last dozen or so hectic years that I’ve really gone into digital gaming.
304: If you, reaching like a wizened druid through your mystical collection, had to pick out 5 games that would change the way one thinks about games and gaming, which games would you select, and what is so inspiring about them?
K: Hmmm, a tough question this one. Five games, eh? I suppose that Day of the Tentacle has to be one of the five, what with its extravagant toblerone-shaped boxed, brilliant graphics, top quality humour and truly inspired design. Then I guess Civilization II has to be another one. It is one of the very few strategy games that I still regularly play. Also The Hobbit for the ZX Spectrum; a truly magical journey in Tolkien’s world filled with annoying songs about gold, well-known characters and some truly obscure puzzles. It was the first game that showed me how intricate a gaming world can be and the first game to be graphically amazing. Sensible World of Soccer is also something that I have to include in this tiny list, as I’ve spent ages mastering it and it easily remains the best football game ever. Actually, make that the best football game possible. Lastly, and that’s a tough choice indeed as a ton of brilliant favourites get to be ignored, it will have to be Gabriel Knight 3. It cam in a large, rich box and despite a rocky start featured the most impressive, lengthiest and best designed puzzle I have ever encountered: Le Serpent Rouge. Oh, and comparing it to the Da Vinci Code it does prove that games can actually do stories better than film or trashy paperbacks.
304: I believe you have several interactive ideas you nurture and design yourself. Is there something in particular you focus on when you are designing a game, and is this an element you look for in other people’s games when you play them?
K: I wouldn’t say I look for something specific in games when I play them. I simply want to be intrigued/mentally stimulated in a similar way to other art-forms. But that mainly applies to story-driven games, which tend to be among my favourite ones. So, I must admit that a good story is one thing I’m looking for. Even more so a good story that plays on the medium’s strengths. Then again I do tend to appreciate unique and elegant mechanics, well crafted worlds, great graphics, retro elements and frankly anything that is well done and unique in one way or another. Don’t get me wrong tough. Innovation is not a necessity. Something more traditional but excellently crafted is equally important; besides innovation does go beyond mechanics and tech and into the much more demanding realms of writing, music and artwork.
In the games I’ve so far attempted to create so far I’m mainly trying to explore new ideas and come up with games that will primarily amuse me. Being though a realist and as I’ve yet to finish one of my countless projects beyond the odd VVVVVV level, I believe I should focus on actually organizing myself and actually releasing something. And that is why I’m currently working on some smaller and hopefully interesting projects (including one Wikileaks Stories text adventure sort of thing), but mainly focusing on a pretty big iOS game with a group of artists and programmers. As this will indeed be a professional attempt and is already proving to be a money and time sink that is actually based on a design of mine, it only seems proper that more energy is devoted to it.
304: If there was a game designer in particular who you could meet and spend an afternoon chatting to, who would it be, and what sort of things would you like to talk about? What sort of gift would you take to impress them?
K: Having already met Jonas Kyratzes whose work I absolutely adore and having spent an excellent and most interesting afternoon (and night) with the man, his good lady, the lady of the lair and some friends and considering myself rather lucky for the privilege, I suspect I would now love to meet Ron Gilbert, which does sound rather improbable but one never knows. The good Mr Gilbert, you see, does seem like a genuinely interesting guy who would be able to discuss much more than games and obviously discuss games in a more interesting and less technical way than say someone like CliffyB. Obviously, I would mostly like to ask (interrogate?) him about the secret of Monkey Island really. And hopefully my gift of 50 gold bars would be impressive enough to make him speak. Seriously though, I’d love to discuss or at least have game design, innovation, story-driven games, humour and interfaces explained to me. I do believe he is one of the greatest game designers and storytellers around.
304: You’ve often spoken of games with political themes – what makes these relevant in a medium that is regarded, by nature and by name, as a form of entertainment foremost?
K: Actually, this might come as a shock to you, but I’d love to not have to dabble in anything political. I’d rather be creative, serene, content and not think about distressing matters, but sadly this cannot be. Nobody is allowed -or has the luxury- to ignore the simple fact that mankind is poor, starving, dying and going downhill. We sadly don’t have the choice of ignoring everyone else and that’s why I too feel obliged to engage in politics; to engage, that is, in the affairs of humanity, for I truly believe we will either create a better world together or become cannon fodder. Depressing enough? Well, let’s not dwell on this anymore then.
I simply feel that games -a truly wide medium- can and should engage political themes. The mainstream is after all already bombarding the masses with the deeply political themes of imperialist war, militarism and crypto-fascism. Just look at the top shooters. They would make any gung ho pervert so utterly happy… And frankly I do believe that gaming, just like all artistic mediums, isn’t supposed to be anything specific. It can be philosophical, political, mindless, silly, depressing, thought-provoking, stress-relieving, arousing, funny, smart, pointless, boring, ingenious, beautiful, touching, anything at all really. That ridiculous notion of mere “entertainment” means absolutely nothing to me and I do believe it’s part of a conscious attempt to dumb down and de-politicize people while exposing them to the propaganda that suits the ruling classes. Ooops, there I go being depressing all over again. Sorry about that.
304: Do you have some sort of end goal in mind for yourself in regards to writing about games and designing them? Is there something particular you’d like to achieve? A high score you wish to top?
K: I frankly do not know. I think I have. I would like to make good games; great games even. I’d also like to find the time to blog more thoroughly, but I’m also working on quite a few book projects with a small publishing house and trying to not completely ignore the scientific/academic going ons I’ve spent so many years on, while hoping to, uhm, survive actually. Things are sadly too turbulent (and at times dark) to hope for personal solutions, and that’s why I’d really enjoy making a living while simultaneously fighting the good fight. Mind you, this mentality didn’t really help my academic career so far…
304: Can you tell us a little about your academic history, and whether this course of study is reflected in the games you like to play or design?
K: Ah, well, not that anybody would care about such matters, but after finishing my mostly boring 5-year long engineering studies (highlighted only by excellent friends, unhealthy amounts of alcohol and lots of demonstrations) I decided I wanted to study urbanism. After another masters degree, quite a bit of research and a PhD later I think my curiosity is now satisfied. Happily, I’ve also wisened up to the fact that teaching/researching for money in the Greek university is most probably an impossible option and have thus decided to become a rogue academic. It does feel nice.
Truth be said my obsession with cities has led me to playing such offerings as GTA IV and the SimCity series, only to be mildly disappointed by the fact that the vast majority of game designers seem unable to understand urban planning, let alone cities themselves. Can’t really thing of a truly convincing game-city mind… Not a realistic one at least. I would thus like to someday either play or even come up with a game that, like quality noir movies, has a city for its protagonist. And no, LA Noire, has nothing to do with what I’m thinking of. Would also be interested in procedurally generated, socially dynamic, playable cities, though this does sound too complex for non-programmers like myself.
304: One of the sites you’ve written on, Game Cabaret, explores different aspects of games in depth; of porn and mature content in games, of the urges that drive us to play games, the guilty, sensual compulsion that games can be. Do you think these are things that deserve to be discussed more? What compelled you to explore these aspects of gaming?
K: Well, I do tend to write and think about stuff that interests me (quite obviously, one would be forced to admit) and matters such as pr0n and the homo ludens do indeed interest me. Especially after reading the multi-tome Great Eastern porn epic by the greatest Greek surrealist poet ever (the heroic Mr. Empeirikos) I have understood that an arousing work of art can also be of the highest quality. But enough of that. As I do firmly believe that games are shaping up to become a truly important medium with mass appeal, I can’t see how any of their aspects could be ignored. I can’t see why we have to let mediocre designers and the vulgar mainstream usurp another potential source of enlightenment and entertainment.
Now, did I answer your questions? Let’s make sure then: yes / the importance of gaming as a medium itself. Oh, and I would like to someday resurrect the Cabaret too. Sadly, it’s not a top priority right now.
304: Finally, you have been writing about games for some time now – indeed, you recently reached article 1000 on Gnome’s Lair. Do you have any specific journalistic influences that shaped the way you design your sites and the way you write?
K: Not really. There are quite a few game reviewers whose writing I’ve admired for a variety of reasons (Richard Cobbett does indeed stand out), but I can’t say I’ve been influenced by them in some sort of distinct way. Besides I really don’t like my writing. It’s usually rushed and doesn’t seem to do what I want it to. Whereas in Greek the words flow easily and sound lovely, my English isn’t sadly up to the task. As for the design of my sites, I’m making up stuff as I go along. Not always the proper way of doing things but it can work…
304: And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of our meeting with Konstantinos, for it is now obvious that he has many more urgent matters to attend to than merely sitting around here, drink spiced melonade with myself. I would like to thank our lovely Gnome for his time, and also for this enormous toblerone I ‘accidentally’ swiped from his games shelf (why it would be amongst his games is anyone’s guess, really).