A Psychogeography Of Games #3: Kerry Turner

This is the third of 6 talks I’m doing for Videobrains walking with game designers and thinking about how the landscape of their lives affects their game design. If you enjoy this series, please back me at patreon.com/hannahnicklin. This week, developer Kerry Turner, creator of indie gem Heartwood.

We’re going to Brighton, the long way round.

Around 12,000 years ago the ice left Yorkshire. As the glaciers passed by they scraped away earth and vegetation to reveal the limestone below, a flat bare surface. Limestone is slightly soluble and as rain hit it over and over and over joints and cracks in the limestone wore away into tiny streams, drainage to the earth below. The dialect word for those fissures is ‘grykes’, the paving-slab like regular stone they divide: ‘clints’. In modern terms it’s a limestone pavement. Malham Cove is one of these rare formations, not far from a ravine called Gordale Scar, a few miles or so out of Malham, North Yorkshire.

As we walk from Hove station, past the charity shops and an office that she used to temp in, Kerry Turner tells me she struggled to think of somewhere we could walk, despite living in Brighton and Hove for 16 years. She says that had budget not been a question, she would have taken me to Disneyland Paris, or back home.

“I could think of so many places in Yorkshire I find moving or interesting, but down here, one of the main reasons I chose this walk is that it’s the one I’ve done the most, the ground under my feet every day”

On the 18th of December 1985 Michael Eisner signed a letter of agreement with the French government securing a 20 square km site for the Walt Disney Company. Construction began in August 1988. Disneyland Paris officially opened to the public 12th of April 1992, it was then known as EuroDisney. The park has strict rules that hide ‘backstage Disney’ at all times. As soon as a crew member crosses through a gate they are required to be in character. They have a specific colour that they paint operational buildings called ‘Go Away Green‘.

We walk down to the seafront, turn East, and Hove turns into Brighton, the skeleton of West Pier burnt out ahead of us. Kerry tells me that what’s left of it is now home to hundreds of starlings. In Autumn you can see them gather, flit across the sky in shoals. You can feel the prosperity rise, and the tourist trappings. Kerry prefers Hove, it’s scruffier, less fancy. As we walk the wind blows hard, I have to stop and tie my hair back.

“it took me ages to get used to the wind down here, and the taste of the water. All these years, I still feel like a little bit of a square peg in the south.” Kerry says.

Kerry has been making video games since she was 10 years old.

“I got an Amiga 500 when I was nine, I learned a bit of Basic, and then I learned something called AMOS [that had] graphical and sound capabilities. So I made super simple games, little text adventures”

Kerry made games for her little sister. Between the ages of 10 and 13, 1991-94. She explains that while very close to her sister, she played alone a lot.

“I used to like put on clothes that I thought looked most like the sort of clothes an elf would wear, and go and ride my bike, which was a unicorn, into the woods. But when I got a computer, this sort of habit towards solitary imaginative play came out in creating these little worlds, these little stories”

She didn’t really touch a computer in her later teens — but around 2001, while studying English Literature at Sussex University, she started experimenting again.

“I guess it was my mid-20s that I consciously decided to start creating games again […] I got really inspired, seeing other people that did short works around that time, Stephen LaVelle’s stuff was particularly interesting to me […] Rather than trying to create these very full-fat experiences, I thought ‘why not be inspired by these more minimal pieces?’”

In 2008/2009 she released a series of experimental shorts under the name The Rabbit Club.

Pause.
Look around.

You are surrounded by dead oaks. It is dark. Just past dusk. The sky above you is desiccated burnt skin pink. You see a creature ahead of you, ghost white. You move towards it, it’s magnetic. It leaps. The sky above you is desiccated burnt skin pink. It’s dark, just past dusk. There is an animal ahead of you, it skitters, its animations flicker, shaders code-moulded to jitter, to deal with light in an uncanny way. As you approach it, there is music. If you turn away from it, it quietens. So you follow. So you follow.

We begin to talk about Heartwood, a collaboration between Kerry and musican Dan Bibby, as we reach Brighton Pier. Kerry revels in the incongruity of the amusements, of the badly drawn well-known cartoon characters on the carousel, the penny pushers, haunted house hoardings.

“I’m really into fake environments – there to sort of entertain and delight you, like pleasure gardens […] and theme parks […] with Heartwood in particular, it’s meant to be in a forest, but it’s not in any way a realistic forest, the way the sound works, the way the light works […] I think a haunted house is exactly what I was going for.”

Kerry’s aesthetic language combined with Dan Bibby’s slightly unsettling music connect their games to an English historical mythology that is centuries old. A language of signification that pre-exists Christianity; horses carved into the chalk, hares leaping through fire in burning season. It plugs into the liminal space; in-between space. It’s Lear, on the heath, it’s Mad Max, in the post-Australian wasteland, it’s Ishmael, watching the white whale rise out of the wide wide ocean. The forest and the sea and the moor are not our home, but they are part of us, as animals who grew up on this land. We invent stories and games like we invent homes; lines drawn as a means of domestication, reflection. There are heaths and there are woods, dusk, mist, wave, and flood; they are not places where we are safe, they are places where we find out who we are.

In flimsy dingies. In boats without motors on waves bigger than buildings. Clutching their children. Beaten. Broken. They strike land and we meet them with rifles and epithets. Tear gas and black newsprint claiming ruined holidays. We banish our liminality by creating others’. Pay heed to the edges.

The sound of the pier fades behind us and we weave through Brighton’s gay community. Kerry and Dan are now working on a new piece, she says, set in the Pennines. Gigantic open skies. Pylons. Rain. The drive from Leeds to Manchester: a place Kerry remembers from journeys on a coach to see bands play. The game is called A Good Man.

“Heartwood is very gothic in the sense of European gothic, the sort of closeness, claustrophobia, darkness… I guess the second game is more of an American gothic take, the fear coming from not ancient things and claustrophobia, but being a tiny person under a gigantic sky. The Pennines makes me feel that way.”

The gothic is not just monsters and magic, in gothic literature the landscape is often a character in and of itself, liminal too: ruined, abandoned or remote. The American gothic that pervades A Good Man is fear the cowboy has of being alone. It’s The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the game Deadly Premonition, the music of Father John Misty.

Kerry says of the new game:

“I don’t want to evoke the feeling of being in the countryside, I want to evoke the feeling of pretending you’re in the countryside. […] I’m interested in that uncanny sense of being able to see the seams of something, or the details being correct, but there’s still something wrong. […] Like [Dan] providing the sound quality of being in a small room when the screen shows that you’re in a large open space”

Kerry’s work is imbued with the wildness of the dales, and the place-as-character of places like Disneyland. Both sides of the uncanny valley; the thing that refuses to be anything apart from what it is, and the deliberate construct. We find Kerry in the middle.

As Kerry and I walk back through Brighton towards the station, she explains to me that sometimes she’ll take people close to her to Malham Cove and Gordale Scar.

“it’s not just important to me, […] I feel that it’s so resonant with me that if people can’t chime with it then I’m like, “Maybe there’s something wrong here.”

It’s about the place that grew her. The soil, the wind, the hard water, the limestone, harriers, the hawthorne, the brambles and the moors. Washed by it, clints etched out, fissured limestone under sky.

This article was made possible by the RPS Supporter program. Thanks for your funding! You can find the rest of the series here.

8 Comments

  1. caff says:

    What a wonderful article, and series so far – it’s a sublimely perpendicular view of game producers, their thoughts and emotions. I’ve not heard of Kerry before, but now I’ll be sure to check out her stuff.

  2. Sarfrin says:

    The budget couldn’t run to a trip to the South Downs? They’re pretty close and chalk is as calciumy as limestone.

    • hannahnicklin says:

      I know the South Downs pretty well as a cyclist who lives in SE London, spent hours climbing them :) but obviously the walking is up the the interviewee. About places that are important to them.

    • jarowdowsky says:

      Yeah, I had there same thought – feels like there’s something poignant in a walk that pines for the dales that instead of embracing the beauty nearby stays rooted in wasted shallows of Brighton.

      Is the actual talk available by the way? Sounds like it was an interesting conversation from the little snippets here.

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    Ben King says:

    I am looking forward to “A Good Man” and while I never got much out of her Rabbit Club games Heartwood was really wonderful and I totally recommend it. It nails the disorienting and haunting feeling of walking in the woods at sundown when your eyes are super screwed up from the brightness of the sky blinding you to what’s on the ground right at your feet and the collaboration with Dan Bibby added a lot. I guess this doesn’t add much to the article, but go play heartwood!