By Nathan Grayson on November 17th, 2013 at 1:00 am.
Beeswing is a peculiar game. It’s a Zelda and Earthbound-inspired RPG without combat, a personal game that’s absolutely not about its creator, and a rumination on the nature of death that’s not swollen with tearful woe. Also, it’s made out of paint and clay and stuff. The successfully funded (though still on Kickstarter for about five more seconds) project from Sluggish Morss, Blues For Mittavinda, and Will You Ever Return creator Jack King-Spooner aims to tell the hundreds of intertwining stories that make up King-Spooner’s hometown of Beeswing, Scotland. Some stories will raise questions. Some will answer them. Others won’t, preferring instead that you fill in the blanks. I spoke with King-Spooner about his love of death, the need for sincerity in an era of cynical irony, and how he’s, er, “money-shotting” his grandmother’s death in Beeswing.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a professional Guy Who Talks To People About Videogames Sometimes, it’s that you never know where an interview is going to end up.
Jack King-Spooner went from chattering frantically about his tightly wound nerves (this was one of his first interviews ever) to literally laughing in the face of death in, oh, a few sentences.
It’s worth trying to do something sincere instead of hiding behind shields of irony and post-modernism and pixel art.
“I think all of my games are truly, deeply personal,” he explained, a bit of a quaver still present in his voice. “I don’t think I really hold back on just trying to say what I want. I’m not sure if anyone really picks up on the overlying theme of all my games – which is the death of loved ones.”
And then he laughed. Not an awkward chuckle, either. A full-on mirthful giggle. From the belly. From the heart. I laughed along, because what else do you do when people greet personal tragedies with a warm smile and a tray of cookies?
“As you might be able to hear, I talk about this in a kind of joyful way,” he added, acknowledging the oddness of the moment. “It might be weird, but sometimes I just wonder why people don’t like the topic.”
But come on, that’s an easy question to answer, right? It’s because death – of loved ones, of random innocents, of anyone, really – is kind of the absolute worst. And by kind of, I mean literally. You could most certainly argue that there is nothing worse in this world than death.
But King-Spooner doesn’t see it that way at all. To him, death is simply reality, as much a part of our day-to-day existences as the air we breathe. It surrounds us, it informs us, it creates us. It weighs on our minds and rots in our guts. So why avoid it? Why not embrace and understand it – appreciate its ability to teach?
“I think anyone who’s born alive will have some kind of experience of death,” he chuckled. “Kinda goes with the package.”
“[My games' focus on death] is literally morbid, but I don’t really see it as a negative morbidity. I’ve always had a weird fascination with death, and I’m exploring that through different kinds of things. My other games aren’t really in the realm of reality at all, but they’re all just kind of entertaining ideas. But I don’t think for a second that Beeswing is any more or any less removed from reality than the other ones. It’s just more explicitly based on real people.”
So how does it manifest in his game? Well, he offered the following rather poignant example:
“For instance, there’s a little old lady you can – or might not – come across, who goes across a dirt field and lies down and dies. And you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, she’s dying!’ That’s based on a true story.”
“My good friend Ben was traveling in North Africa, and he’s Scottish. He bumped into another traveler who was German, and it was really quite a culture shock for both of them. They were invited to a dinner with some important people in one village. So they were there sitting down, and then the German guy was like, ‘Oh gosh, over there! There’s a lady! She’s dying!’ And he immediately jumped up to help, but he was quite physically told to stop. They were like, ‘What are you doing? She’s dying. Let her die.’”
“Respecting the process of death, that’s the fascinating thing. I think it’s common for people to go into a meditation upon dying.”
Even viewed through that sort of lens, however, it’s hardly a bright, sunny candy-canes-and-lolly-pops sort of topic. But King-Spooner insisted that his intention with Beeswing is not to send players into spirals of existential depression. Rather, he wants to well and truly tell the story of a place, and that requires painting the full picture: death, change, attachment, growing old, truth, lies, people, time. He loves his home – its people, its folktales, and its culture – and he wants other people to understand why. More importantly, he wants them to feel it too.
“Beeswing is about paying homage to a bunch of these amazing things,” he said. “It’s about things that maybe aren’t there anymore, but they’ll always be there in my memory. That’s a much nicer thing to dwell on than them going away, I think.”
He offered the example of his former (now sadly deceased) neighbor, a woman by the name of Edith Sterling. She helped take care of him when he was young. She’s gone now, but King-Spooner’s memories of her live on in Beeswing. She’s not a tombstone in the game. She’s a human being – one of hundreds you’ll meet along the way. “But a hundred plus stories isn’t really much when you’re trying to describe a place and a circumstance in an honest way,” King-Spooner pointed out, soberly.
King-Spooner has been taking notes for these stories since he was 16. They’re not just about people either. Places – some of which were once full of youth and happiness, but have flinched and atrophied at time’s withering touch – Scottish folktales and songs, and even objects will all get various portions of the spotlight. Examples run the gamut from King-Spooner’s childhood bus driver (hardly a common game hero archetype) to, er, a dinner table.
No one ever accused King-Spooner of shying away from gleeful strangeness.
“Stories aren’t really restricted to people,” he explained. “There was a table we had in the house when I was growing up, and that’s got an incredible story to it. So I started looking into spatial psychology and relational psychology to kind of fill out the stories of objects and how things work like that.”
But some stories hit a little closer to home than others. Among, again, hundreds of other things, Beeswing chronicles the death of King-Spooner’s grandmother. And yet, despite all that, he insists that the game isn’t really about him. He absolutely wants to avoid creating a cathartic story – a tale he’d tell largely for his own benefit. He specifically cited two approaches – the mournful, piano-scored tact taken by many other indie games and works dripping with righteous fury along the lines of, say, a Quentin Tarantino film – as paths he’s steering entirely clear of. Beeswing isn’t his outlet. Beeswing is, first and foremost, for other people and, well, the town of Beeswing.
So, that in mind, how does one chronicle the passing of their own grandmother? Why, by money-shotting it, of course.
“I’ve tried to money shot it,” he laughed, wracked with equal parts embarrassment and a strange sort of glee. “I’ve tried to turn… I can’t even say it out loud. I’m trying to turn my grandmother’s death into a money shot. Oh gosh, I’ve gone red. How embarrassing that is. But instead of being like, ‘Oh my grandmother died, listen to me be all empathetic,’ I’m not doing that. I’m putting it in terms that are more universal. Where people will be able to relate to it not because it’s an experience that I had, but because they might have gone through something similar.”
“When Nana died, I was really quite young. It didn’t really register. Mom was crying. We went around and visited relatives, and they were all crying. I didn’t go to the funeral because I was quite young. But then a situation that’s depicted in Beeswing – I’m not going to spoil it here – made me really realize the quality of death. It’s a process. It just goes on forever. ‘Oh shit, grandma’s not coming back.’”
“It’s not really a bunch of ‘woe is me,’ though. It’s just stories that I liked. It goes back to expressing reality as I’ve experienced it and hoping someone will be able to relate to it. Maybe I’m wrong about this and someone will interpret it as something else, but that’s also great.”
But there is one interpretation King-Spooner desperately wants to avoid, and its potential to overwhelm the sentiment driving his hard work legitimately frightens him. In short, he knows he’s making an art game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soulless exercise in flighty intellectual “expression.” Beeswing comes from a very real place, and King-Spooner is doing everything in his power to get that point across.
“A great fear of mine is that it’ll either come across as boring or pretentious,” he admitted. “I think it’s anything but pretentious. But I’m definitely scared, especially when I tell you there’s a whole section about truth and lies. There’s no way that couldn’t sound pretentious. But there’s a great value of telling the truth, and how does that relate to utilitarianism.”
“Someone was asking me, ‘How can it be an RPG if there’s no fighting in it?’ And I don’t know, I’m worried that I maybe got the labels all mixed up. Labels are such a terrible thing, aren’t they? What is a label? It’s just someone going, ‘Oh, I know what that is.’ It immediately negates other possibilities.”
It’s true. But in a medium that loves its labels, King-Spooner has something of an uphill battle ahead of him. His hope, however, is that people will at least consider coming along for the ride. That they’ll give Beeswing a try before writing it off because it’s different from the games they’re used to playing.
“I don’t think I’ve made something pathetically cathartic,” he re-emphasized. “I hope people have faith in me to deliver that. And if it turns out to be like that anyway, well, at least I tried. I think it’s worth trying to do something sincere instead of hiding behind shields of irony and post-modernism and pixel art.”