Philip K. Dick Meets Noah Baumbach: Cameron Kunzelman Talks Epanalepsis

Epanalepsis

Epanalepsis is coming; prepare for Epanalepsis. That sentence is an example of the figure of speech known as an epanalepsis, in which a sentence’s opening word or phrase is repeated at the end of the sentence for effect. As the title of Cameron Kunzelman’s forthcoming adventure game, the term is most likely used in a metaphorical manner.

Epanalepsis spans six decades and involves a trio of main characters who each reside in the same city, in the same apartment at different points on the timeline. On the Kickstarter page, Kunzelman describes Epanalepsis as “a point-and-click adventure game about the 1990s, computer gaming and cyberpunk” and cites the mind-bending science fiction of Philip K. Dick as a major influence on the project.

Kunzelman is no stranger to adventure games, having already proved his mettle with the funny, scary Catachresis. You may also be familiar with some of his other work, such as the sunny, jumpy Alpaca Run (included in this mixtape) or the excellent critical writing and insightful musings found at thiscageisworms.com. Still, Epanalepsis is undoubtedly Kunzelman’s most ambitious game yet. I was eager to ask him all about it, and I was thrilled to get the chance. I Skyped with Cameron over a couple of days while he worked on spriting and nailing down details for the later parts of the game (and running the dishwasher).

Indie Statik: Thanks for speaking with me, Cameron.

Kunzelman: No problem! Super excited.

Indie Statik: So, I just finished replaying Catachresis (which is chilling and funny and quite well done, by the way), and it seems that some of its DNA may have gone into Epanalepsis. Is that so? And how did making that game prepare you for this newer, bigger project?

Kunzelman: A lot of that same DNA is there. I’ve been referring to Epanalepsis as a “thematic sequel” to Catachresis, which is to say that I’m working through a lot of the same themes and issues that seem to work their way into a lot of my games. I’m really concerned with time and decay, with what happens to things when they’re brutalized by time. Catachresis was a game about the end of some kind of cosmic, Lovecraftian cycle, and Epanalepsis is my attempt to work out some of those same anxieties about cycles in a more specific way. I’m showing more of the cycle, of what happens over time. Epanalepsis isn’t going to be quite as apocalyptic as Catachresis, but it will have lots of small loops and ritournelles that try to bring that theme home.

Indie Statik: Is the game grounded in a kind of realism? Are there supernatural or science-fictional elements in the story?

Kunzelman: There are elements of both. On the Kickstarter page, I emphasize that there’s a strong influence from Philip K. Dick on the game, and by that, I partially mean that there’s a weird criss-crossing of supernatural strangeness and standard realism. Characters live their lives in a setting grounded by realism, but also deal with strange encounters and ripples in the cloth of reality. Something like PKD’s writing, combined with the “supernatural” experiences that Rust Cohle has in True Detective. They happen, the characters know they happen, but they might not appear to everyone.

And of course, there’s a heavy science fictional/cyberpunk aesthetic in the third section of the game that takes place in the 2030s. It is William Gibson, but turned up a notch – not a lot of heroes, a world run on privatized services and a huge gap between your average person and the wealthy.

Indie Statik: Please excuse me; referencing PKD, Gibson and True Detective in the same answer has left me drooling a bit. The Philip K. Dick influence is what piqued my interest initially. Now, are you talking early am-I-a-robot Dick, or later, Exegesis-scribbling Dick? I adore both.

Epanalepsis

Kunzelman: I think there’s a strong line between both of those phases for PKD, all based around the questions, “What is real?” and “How do I know?”. I’ve spent the past couple years reading a lot of his work and some secondary literature like I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Divine Invasions and the edited volume of the Exegesis that came out recently.

So I like those throughline existential questions, and Dick really factors in for me when we take one more step: if you don’t know what the world really is, and you don’t know your position in it, how do you live? What is a good life under those conditions?

That’s a little philosophical, but that’s fundamental to Epanalepsis: three time periods, three different ways of questioning, “How do I live in this world?” I don’t want to say anything more specific than that (because it is central to the game’s plot), but that’s the core.

Indie Statik: Let’s talk about the three time periods. What are they?

Kunzelman: The 1990s, the 2010s and the 2030s – three time periods with twenty years between them.

Indie Statik: And each one features a different viewpoint character? With separate narratives… that intertwine in some way?

Kunzelman: Exactly that. Three stories, all separate, but also all taking place on the same city block, with the characters living in the same apartment. There will be plot threads that extend throughout, and those will mostly be more about the location and how it changes than the characters themselves. In some ways, tracking time and its effect on the material of the city is more difficult than showing what time does to people.

Indie Statik: So the city itself seems to be a fourth major character. And the only one we physically follow through the generations?

Kunzelman: Yep!

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Indie Statik: Does the tight focus on a single city block allow you more freedom to develop the characters?

Kunzelman: I think that it gives me the ability to create the characters in relationship with their environment. So for example, when the time period changes and the player is able to trace the differences in the time periods, there’s a kind of double characterization: what is this new character like and how does it fit into this new same-but-different setting?

Indie Statik: Was the unity of location part of the original concept?

Kunzelman: The unity of location actually goes back to a project that I started working on and never quite got off the ground (I will get to it one day). I’m fascinated with Warren Spector’s idea of a “one city block RPG” (there’s a great Jim Rossignol article where he explores that concept). The basic idea is a very traditional JRPG that takes place in one apartment block and follows a few days in the life of an up-and-coming rapper.

In any case, I was working on that, and I hit a wall with it, but the idea of the single location that needs to be navigated stuck around. When I got to the point of thinking about another adventure game, the idea was still there, and I combined them.

Indie Statik: How large a space is it? Multiple indoor and outdoor environments?

Kunzelman: It really depends on whether we his stretch goals or not. Right now, we’re working on creating the minimum number of environments possible to tell the story that I want to tell. With more funding, I’m going to be able to fill in those gaps a little bit. There’s a storyline I really want to do about a neighbor that gets sustained throughout the three narratives, but it would take a lot of time to make it work (time time time always time).

But yes, currently, multiple indoor and outdoor areas.

Indie Statik: Among the game’s influences listed on your Kickstarter page is Noah Baumbach’s early film, Kicking and Screaming. How does that inform the project?

Kunzelman: I have a deep, deep love for Baumbach’s films. I really think he does a great job of writing these upper-class characters who always seem to be out of their depth and just sort of floundering in that social class. I don’t really know why I’m so fascinated with that as that isn’t my background at all, but I imagine it is something similar to what got people hooked into Fitzgerald when he was alive. I’m fascinated by this life I don’t live.

Anyway, I think he really excels at writing realistic characters living in a time and place. Kicking and Screaming is of a very, very specific time and place, but you really get to see what that time and place is like through those characters.

Indie Statik: How does the story, or stories, develop? Is there a clear arc that unfolds, or are players meant to discover the narrative for themselves?

Kunzelman: I really admire creators who make it seem like narratives get away from them. John Dos Passos is a forgotten master at doing that. His books just seemed to run around and around and never really go anywhere, and then, bam – you have the last quarter of pure knit-tight brilliance. They’re so clearly designed to feel expansive (and meander a little in that expanse).

I’m a little more of a narrative designer than that, I think. Catachresis had some problems (and turned some people off) because there is a lot of walking, a lot of getting in the “space” of the game; I thought it was cool, but I see where people who didn’t are coming from.

That’s a long way of saying that there is a clear narrative that unfolds in front of the player, but there are also lots of strange ends, intrusions and weird things that appear and disappear. David Lynch’s films are a keystone in my thinking about games and narrative. When you watch (most) of his films, you can track what is going on in a strict causal “Event A caused Event B caused C” sense. But there’s also all of this depth, this unexplored puzzle, that is both on the surface and deep, deep below it. Lost Highway is a film that does not have A Meaning in the sense that we can constantly mine it for new insight.

This is a divisive way of making art. There’s a discomfort in knowing that there’s not a single, solitary meaning to what you experienced. There have been some good examples of this indeterminacy in games (the ending of The Last of Us is very, very successful at it), but it is still relatively unexplored in games (versus novels, where indeterminacy reigned in the literary fiction of the 1980s or the art cinema of the past seven years or so). And in Epanalepsis, I’m chasing that feeling.

Epanalepsis

Indie Statik: I’d love to see more of that done in video games. Lynch’s movies are like meta-puzzles to solve, and I think they would have worked well as interactive experiences (they almost are). I enjoy the need to participate in order to extract deeper meaning. More games need to let the players do more of the work, by which I mean not just performing actions and solving in-game puzzles, but interpreting the events and the story without being spoonfed. Speaking of puzzles, what are they like in Epanalepsis?

Kunzelman: I absolutely agree with you; interaction and participation is not solely delivered through looking and clicking, and if I can get a player to keep thinking about a game long after they stopped playing it, then I will have been successful.

The puzzles in Epanalepsis, or at least the ones I have designed specifically so far, are about exploring the environment. I’m not a fan of adventure games where you have to get strange item X, combine it with other item Y, and then use it on a pixel-perfect oil leak on screen Z. I would much rather integrate them into the main narrative.

There’s a way that contemporary adventure games have used these really difficult (or difficult to me) puzzles to stretch out the length of their games, and despite having realistically grounded characters and stories, the puzzles make no sense. Sure, they could exist in the real world, but no person in the real world would choose to interact with the world in the way that some puzzles force them to.

In contrast, with Epanalepsis, I want there to be puzzles that don’t feel like puzzles. I don’t want the narrative to come to a screeching halt because the player doesn’t know where a specific item is. I’m partially experimenting with soft fail states – something like the scenes in Heavy Rain where success and failure are different in the moment, but it doesn’t end the game (although success and failure in Epanalepsis would have more impact on the story at large than they did in Heavy Rain).

That’s a long, non-specific answer, but that’s where I am right now. I really want to explore puzzles in dialogue in the same way that Planescape: Torment enabled the player to lead another character down a specific dialogue path in order to manipulate a situation, but I haven’t been able to quite figure out how to get those kinds of puzzles in the game yet.

Indie Statik: Tell me about the role of music in the game. I understand you’ve had someone working on the soundtrack for a while already.

Kunzelman: I think I’m passable at a lot of things, but music is not one of them, so I knew I would have to contract out for that. I put it out on Twitter (this is how 90% of my collaborations happen), and I got some portfolios and John’s (John Fio, aka audiosprite) was really, really strong. I knew that this game would have to have a composer with a wide array of capabilities and styles because of the three time periods, and John just had this incredible set of sounds and interests and capabilities that really wowed me. He was also super professional and prompt and generally just a great person.

In any case, we’ve been working on the soundtrack since I came up with the idea for the game earlier in the year, and it is really coming along nicely. Each era has its own “soundtrack” in the sense that they all have a different feel in order to really drive the visual and written content home.

Indie Statik: I’m interested to see what the music’s like in 2033. So, you’ve got a Kickstarter campaign underway, and it’s quite successful so far, having blown past its $4,000 goal in the first 24 hours, wasn’t it? You’ve got some pretty cool rewards for backers, too. I love the idea of immortalizing some folks in the game. And the postcards are lovely.

Epanalepsis

(Postcard art from one of the backer rewards)

Kunzelman: I’m incredibly happy with the postcards especially. They’re definitely in the “frameable art” category of stuff, and I would super encourage people to back just to get those.

I actually think that the $100 goal, which is being an NPC in the game at a party, is probably going to be part of a really cool puzzle, so people should jump on that if they have the cash!

Indie Statik: You heard it here first! Be a part of a really cool puzzle! Did it surprise you to hit the initial goal so quickly? Where will the stretch goals take us?

Kunzelman: I was floored to to hit the goal so quickly. I thought that I was in in for the long haul, really working super hard to get to $4,000 over thirty days, but the people who like my work and support it are both incredibly fast and incredibly generous. I’m still reeling, and I’m incredibly grateful.

The stretch goals sort of work like this: I can make a game I am happy with for $4,000. I can make a game that I want to make, with lots of small, time-intensive details with music to match, for $8,000. There is no limit to what I can do with $10,000. I’m being a little jokey, but it is sort of true: the more stretch goals we reach, the more I can afford to put time into Epanalepsis. Because I’m not some giant team, and because I’m not working with many contractors, it is literally just about the amount of time I can afford to use in order to solely focus on Epanalepsis. The more I raise from Kickstarter, the better I can make the game.

Indie Statik: How do you plan to distribute it?

Kunzelman: Hopefully, Humble and Steam, although none of that is set in stone at this point.

Indie Statik: Well, I guess I really only have one question left to ask you: is there an alpaca in the game?

Kunzelman: I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an alpaca in the game. Also, I haven’t said this anywhere publicly, but there’s an Alpaca Run sequel in the works. Get hype.

Indie Statik: Hyped I will get! Thanks so much, Cameron, and I wish you success with the campaign.

(Full disclosure: I’m a backer)

Kunzelman: Thanks for doing the interview! This was really great.

Support Epanalepsis on Kickstarter.

You can also support Cameron Kunzelman on Patreon.

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