Inside A Collective Part Three: Pol Clarissou

This is the third part in a six part series on the French games collective Klondike. This article focuses on one of the ten members of the collective: Pol Clarissou. Find out more about Pol at his website and follow him on twitter

Pol arrives the second day I’m in France. He and Tyu travel together to the central station in Lille, from Valenciennes, where they are days away from finishing a degree at a prestigious video game school. Pol arrives, dressed all in black, brandishing the stump of a baguette. He offers it around before finishing it himself.

Tyu, Gib and Delphine sometimes joke about Pol being the ‘famous’ one in the group (though he’s as quiet and unassuming as the rest of the collective). When we talk about the dynamics of the collective they mention how those of greater prominence can help platform the work of less well known members – and Pol is one of the former. He’s one of the more recent to join Klondike, but (despite being only 23) he’s been experimenting in game design for around 7 years; winning awards, selections and exhibitions since at least 2014.

Pol and I go for a walk the day after he arrives. In South England it’s been raining for weeks – constant rain – and I’m a little weary of it. I get to north France, and unsurprisingly the weather isn’t that different. Our walk is threatened by billowing clouds, we head to a park that I ran in earlier that day, and the sky spits at us.

Funding cuts mean the park is not as well maintained as it used to be, the ground is boggy underfoot, and vast swathes of once carefully cultivated flowerbeds and herbaceous borders, plus a vast structure of ponds and fountains, wallow in reservoirs of rain water.

I begin by talking to Pol about his background, how he came to be making games at the age of 17. He talks about having a very generalist education, enjoying drawing on the side, and then discovering games via an online forum:

‘Forum Dessiné’, in French, which is ‘drawing forum’, an online board where you could communicate only by posting drawings and, like, no text. And the creator of that forum was […] she’s the one who told me about games, introduced me to flash games on Kongregate. [And I thought] ‘Oh, this is actually interesting small-scale stuff in games that is relevant to me.’

One of the people on the forum asked Pol if he would proof-test her ‘learn Flash’ tutorial, so he… learnt Flash. That’s where it started.

I ask Pol: ‘did it feel like a lightning bolt? Like he had suddenly discovered the medium that suited him?’ and he hesitates. What he enjoys, he says, is newness itself – not necessarily the medium.

I always feel like that when I find something new: the realisation that what I did before was maybe not what I was into. And I’m afraid that it’s gonna keep happening over again, like, every time, because when I stopped drawing to do more interactive stuff I was like, ‘That’s much better,’ and then I started doing zines and print and I was like, ‘That’s also interesting,’ and I’m just like-, I don’t know, I guess I’m just kind of exploring.

We take a moment to work out what the French word for ‘puddle’ is. It turns out there are different words depending on the size of the ground-water. We settle on ‘une flaque’ for the path-spanning puddles we stride across, as Pol talks reinventing himself through his work:

I’ve got this tendency also to, like, be very compliant with whatever I’m doing until I find something else, and whoever I am before I immediately find some new way to be myself.

I ask what kind of questions or themes he feels drives his work (if any) and he explains that he tends to explore without intention to begin with:

I usually work on instinct but retrospectively usually what I do is I have an idea that becomes an obsession, and I try to put it down, and if it works out, like, quickly enough that it’s satisfying then I keep working on it, but I’m also someone who really quickly abandons ideas if they don’t work out, which is why most of my stuff is very small […] but also because I feel like I shouldn’t waste people’s time, neither my time in making the game nor players’ time in playing the game.

Does Pol think being a member of Klondike has had an effect on his work? He describes admiring their games for a while before being a part of the collective, settling mostly on the importance of peer support and inspiration.

[…] just the fact that you have people that you can talk to when you’re stuck, or when you have, I don’t know, feelings about games or whatever, just having that space to discuss and whatever, it’s super important.

Pol emphasises how important this is within the context of being in a videogames school (and by extension ‘industry’) that privileges a certain way of thinking about and making games. To not be alone in your critiques and challenges is vital; collective thinking can make greater leaps. He also talks about the importance of visibility for non-North Americanised approaches to games.

Having that big name over all of what we do allows us to have much more visibility, […] especially when the indie scene is dominated with North American stuff, and to a degree British stuff (because of language barriers mostly) it’s good that we have this visibility from France that is like, ‘Hey, we exist also,’

Pol explains that wasn’t an intention in setting up Klondike, but it is a result; visibility for different identities and approaches within experimental games.

Is there an explicit ‘Frenchness’ to his games, then? Pol’s hesitant, at once both agreeing that “there’s something French in, like, doing weird arty experiments.” Plus a difference in games from France compared to the Netherlands, or from Italy: “you can kind of see the backlog of culture that’s behind it”. He says there is a difference there, but also that it’s not an intentional difference, in fact, they (Klondike) often talk about working against ‘general French Culture’.

It’s very toxic in many ways. You know, we’re, like, this huge colonial cultural power clenching at its own roots because it’s feeling like it’s losing cultural power. Which it is, but that’s a good thing. […] So I try very hard to not to be assertive about the value of French culture in what I do, because I feel like that’s just a backlog of colonial heritage I don’t want to play with. But at the same time it’s important to push back the overwhelming presence of, America specifically, and just in general the English-speaking world in games.

Just as we begin to talk about his more recent work we stumble across a large Brutalist hot house in the centre of the park. We test a door, and are surprised to find it open. There is an empty education room with child-sized chairs toppled over to the left of us, we enter the main room and find Palaeolithic-sized plants; air heavy with foreign pollen. We walk past a bed of Desert Roses and unknown succulents into the heart of the giant vivarium, as tinny new-age music plays from unseen speakers. The air thick in odd ways, it begins to feel like we might have wandered into a scene from Pol’s Orchids to Dusk. I begin to sneeze as I ask about his more recent work.

We talk, first, about Wish Fishing. Pol describes the game as a ‘divination experience’, which is as perfect a description as I think you’ll find for it. At once riffing off the ancient tradition of fortune telling, but using Unicode symbols native to the digital and networked space of the game; highlighting how ancient symbols were seen as important enough to encode into our computers’ language in the first place. The experience of playing the game is one of ‘reading’ – of interpretation. You have to explore and know some of the language of computers (readme files), discover a glossary, and then, following in the tradition of things like the I Ching and Tarot, ask questions, and infer answers. The game animates the act of ‘wishing’, and connects us to the human-ness of the desire for control of our fates – as other players’ wishes from all over the world are also recorded in the fishing space. Pol talks about his intentions and influences:

Wish Fishing is […] one of these weird experiments where you ask a question and you can get an answer, and you know the answer is just some random algorithm but you want to believe in it. And the fishing part, that’s an instinct thing […] just, like, waiting to see the answer and not knowing what it is. That was inspired also partly with Sophie Houlden’s Dream Fishing.

Pol describes the game as a “kind of modern take on divination through the mystery of technology”, using game tools to respond to ancient human impulses.

I’m sneezing too much now. So we leave the mystery abandoned hot house.

The connectivity – using the networked space to populate the divination space – of Wish Fishing leads neatly onto Orchids to Dusk. Pol describes Orchids to Dusk, (made with KO_OP) as “a short experience about dying in space alone, except not alone, that’s the interesting bit.”

You crash on an unknown planet, the colours are beautiful but toxic feeling, the plant life pulses and seems to breathe, with only a few minutes of oxygen left, you are invited to find somewhere to, well… die. Unlike how death is largely treated in games (as a mechanic for learning, jeopardy and improvement) in Orchids…, Pol explains:

the game is more about how you tackle the inevitability of dying than just trying to avoid it. And it uses the environment to kind of make the experience stronger when you do the ‘right’ things. […] I don’t want to spoil the game when I talk about it, so I’m always like, ‘There’s actually a plot twist’.

I also won’t spoil the twist, but when you play it, and you find it, I can describe the feeling of that moment – it’s like a reveal. In a tiny gesture, a tiny mechanic, the game opens up a huge question.

I wanted to make a game where the game itself is kind of big but the actual input of one singular player is kind of trivial [it] has a life of its own with all of the players shaping the environment, and the environment changing over time depending on what the players do.

The aesthetics of the game are at once beautiful and also alien, dangerous, switching ‘natural’ colours so that you begin to feel a little like there has been a shift in scale; that up has become down, and you’re no longer somewhere that will sustain you.

I wanted the sky to be blazing and kind of harsh. I wanted the plants to be organic and kind of a mix of, like, animal and digital features. […] the choice of a yellow sky was very important because I wanted it to be welcoming but also kind of [harsh], to evoke the fact that the planet is not welcoming […] like, ‘This is beautiful but also so much bigger than me, and it doesn’t care about me and I’m gonna die.’ I wanted all that, like, nuance in the environment, because the main point of the game to have people appreciate the fact that something that is gonna hurt them is also beautiful. It’s the contradictions that fascinate me always.

One of the things that draws me to Pol’s work, and to many of the other game designers’ work in Klondike, is how in small experimental games they often use tiny mechanics to gesture at huge themes. Games that are short, and often have very little agency for the player, that instead use small gestures to connect to our attempts to find order in chaos. A gesture we’ve made ever since we’ve been… human. In Orchids and Wish Fishing, Pol weaves this gestural un-agency in with networked traces left by other players – as if to underline the vastness as well as the loneliness of the territory. Alone together.

Rather than giving everything to the players and showing as much as I can, I try to trim down every unnecessary bit until I get some kind of, like, mysterious experience that is mysterious because it’s lacking a lot of stuff, to leave the players with enough room to imagine whatever is in the empty spaces.

I sneeze again.

“Bless you.” He says. “Sorry. It’s just like, that’s the season.”

You can read the rest of the Klondike series here. More episodes coming soon.

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15 Comments

  1. LTK says:

    Three more parts of this? Oh boy! Gotta say, I’m enjoying it so far.

    I’ve played Pol’s Offline previously, I think it was part of a train-game roundup here on RPS. A lot of good games feature trains, don’t they?

  2. onionman says:

    It’s very toxic in many ways. You know, we’re, like, this huge colonial cultural power clenching at its own roots because it’s feeling like it’s losing cultural power. Which it is, but that’s a good thing.

    If it weren’t for that “colonial cultural power” France wouldn’t have the resources to support insufferable brats like these people. Talk about biting the hands that feed. Do they even make a profit, or are they actually just parasites on the French taxpayers they disdain so haughtily?

    • hannahnicklin says:

      I think it’s perfectly possible to both value things like the welfare state and a good education system at the same time as admitting and trying to understand how the wealth of your country that provides for these is in many ways built on a shameful colonial history which broke others’ backs to strengthen yours. I think the best gratitude to be shown in this kind of circumstance is complicated. It would be the same useful complication that might develop someone’s worth beyond the terms of ‘profit’ and ‘tax payer contribution’. To ‘humans trying to do better by other humans’. I would encourage it as an outlook.

    • Nahadoth says:

      Yes, the only value of someone’s work is whether they Make a profit or not. It’s your sociopathic worldview which is the insufferable one.

    • Alberto says:

      Why so much hate? The former article about these people also had the same “spoiled privileged brats” comment.

      They’re people doing small games, most of them free or pay-what-you-want. Probably while working on other paid jobs, as maaaaany artists do.

      ¿Are you equally angry at writers, painters, musicians and creators in general? ¿Or only if they do videogames? ¿Or only if they are french? ¿Or young and talented?

      • syndrome says:

        “Why so much hate? The former article about these people also had the same “spoiled privileged brats” comment.”

        It was by me, although this time I had no desire to comment and ruin/distort Hannah’s views of the world. But I’m going to give you an answer.

        Note that there is no hate, I don’t hate those people, I just think they’re undeserving. There are values in this world, and there are experiences that shape them. And although nothing feels like an absolute truth, if there is any, there is always room to feel contempt for those who seem to be extremely shallow but extremely successful as individuals. Whose eyes deem them as important and valuable and why?

        Every art should lean onto these values, before anything else. Every art should deliver a glimpse into a world of realistic values to feel profound, to be truly impressive, and critique-worthy.

        Everyone has their problems. But there are different scales and differently tinted glasses. Some problems are truly problems, the others… Well, Internet learned to call these the “first-world problems” because of the self-entitled presumptuousness of the first-world dwellers to compare a broken nail with a broken soul.

        This is quite similar to the effect of being a US-Vietnam-war veteran and returning back home, amidst decadent youngsters who know nothing about the suffering and the poor welfare of the people and their children who were napalmed simply for having been born in a different culture. This is a chronic injustice, and once you’ve seen it with your own eyes, something snaps inside of you, nothing seems as marry anymore.

        And this is the value that is hard to describe, the value of life, being free, being a true human-class citizen, free to think and explore, and not just a meatbag with a serial number, an insect that works for the hiveminds’ greed and stupidity until death. Only the best of arts find a way to weave in a thread of how this basic need is handled from border to border, from human to human, of how freedom is just an unstable quanta that noone in power actually cares about, but enjoys it every day, this is what gives any good art its weight.

        I know about games more than a typical average western game designer. I happen to live in a part of the world where I’m struggling to have my own free will, let alone some free time. Yet I managed to learn and do things unimaginable for the average western consumer boy, but this alone isn’t enough to become succesful, nor would anyone support this in fears of being overshadowed by those of superior creativity and intellect.

        This experience is what opened my eyes even further, as the most recent idea I had is making a comic with an alternate history about Tesla who never got to America, therefore never got to invent the AC generator, while he’s constantly mocked by his peers and superiors on his lame job for being so introverted, until he commits suicide one day. But the world goes round. Dark ages you say? By nurturing the false values, opposing those that evaluate this lazy hipster culture as negative, you’re the one making it even darker.

        Once you appreciate the world for what it truly is — a vast system of injustice, the one you never believed in, because you have this self-righteous idea that people DESERVE their status in the big picture, which can’t be farther from the truth — the possibilities start to open, and if only I could live a dream like these kids in France, you and everyone would know the difference as well.

        I’m hopeful I don’t sound as bitter this time. I am struggling to be a patient man, but it’s hard sometimes. Sometimes I even cry, like I did last night, for being extremely sad. For the state of my wellbeing, or the rate at which my brain is consumed and depleted, until I turn into a zombie, for being a misunderstood human being, locked away in the chamber for the unworthy, readied for recycling as soon as I stop paying taxes, or for breathing too much air.

        Have you ever seen Cloud Atlas? That story about the clone from the future? This is how I feel. This is how it always felt. You are all just visitors in this magical Disneyland, you have no idea how hard it is to actually live like a slave. In 2016.

        Though I am glad you are giving space to breathe and room for the creative among you to flourish, you are most likely giving too many chances to undeserving people, too young, too ignorant to deliver anything of value. Most of them are simply undermining the system of good will. (Like many Serbs do when they go to i.e. Sweden, I might add. I do not represent my country, and this is why generalizations are bad.)

        • hannahnicklin says:

          Hi syndrome. I’m sorry you’re so sad. I don’t know your situation but I hope you find a way out of that sadness soon. I can understand why you feel the things you say. Honestly, though, a lot of what you’re talking about here is what I feel like the games mentioned – Orchids… and Wish Fishing do address – what it is to be humans connected to others. They’re free games, if you haven’t played them, it might be worth spending some time in their company. But if not, and even if you think I’m wrong, I wish you all the best.

          • syndrome says:

            Thanks for acting as being supportive.

            I will, as I always did find my way out of sadness.
            I am not sad when I write this, I am sad when I reflect on how little I deserve to feel undeserving.

            It’s always the same cycle. First there would be horror, then there would be this illusion I’d create for myself simply to become enthused with something. Illusion of happiness I guess? I play with words and images.

            Years pass. All my past experiences can be summed up as the throbbing sound of my own enthusiasm coming and going. Some clear tones here and there, but a clear choire inside my head. It’s all I have — my own inner harmony against the backdrop of horrendous screeches and ungodly attempts at singing. Trying to present what is actually beautiful to others is what damaged me the most. They are not capable of endorsing what is unfathomable, so they kill the mere messenger of such a concept. Typical human nature, some would argue.

            Perhaps I’m here just to observe. What an interesting race.

            I see the world of games before me, like an isolated magical garden behind the clear glass. Clearly a place of gods. I can imagine being there, not like a god, but as a humble explorer of these pristine lands, but somehow I don’t belong. Noone can enter it, solemn people guard the entrance fervently. Everybody else is happy for the monkeys that come to the big pile of bananas in the middle. I don’t understand why would monkeys inhabit the garden, but someone says “Shh they were born there, it is their rightful place”. Third generation. Never seen a jungle. The monkeys don’t seem to be able to peel bananas. The zookeeper arrives at the scene and peels it for them.

            Journalists swarm the place, the expression on one monkey’s face is incredible — it is tasting banana for the first time. Others find this so emotional. Great success.

            Sigh.
            I just play with words and images.

      • Donjo says:

        You can of course criticise the colonial history of your native country while gaining from the rights and welfare that people fought for and are still fighting for. I come from a country that was colonised and it’s great to see people aware of their countries terrible history.

        Syndrome – it doesn’t make sense to me to feel bitter towards those who have it better, surely the people who create the “vast system of injustice” are a more worthwhile target of criticism?

        • syndrome says:

          Yes and no. Those who passively endorse the system and bathe under the sun of this inequality are prone to criticism just as well.

          Surely you wouldn’t blame celebrities for wanting to become one?

          It’s those who believe in this celebrity status, as if it was a god given perk, who make this possible. They are creating the system of incentives and economy that surround the core values, however false they might be.

          Same goes for the rich, aristocratic, academic, VIP, it’s the tendency for the majority party’s self-devaluation that gives rise to intrinsic inequalities in the system.

          Smart and creative isn’t expected from the poor. Poor is neglected as savagery, animalistic and down-to-earth, and all of this is to hide from their fate, to separate first-world self from the rest of the humanity, to keep self shrouded in the illusion of being civilized, and socially embraced by the first-world emancipation, therefore DESERVING.

          This thought can be expanded to encompass racism and nationalism as well, if you feel like it.

          Everywhere I look, there are people that hinge on this idea of hiding in the crowd, hiding behind the parameters that have nothing in common with who they really are.

          Sadly, we still live in the middle ages.

          Btw, neurological stress causes cancer, but what is stress? Is there a possibility that stress is a stark contrast between what we say we see and what is actually to be seen?

          Is there a possibility that I am understood for what I am truly saying, in how all of you should feel responsible for your own demise? This is not just my opinion, this is not you (westerners) vs me (and my people), but I am already paying up, and it’s costly. Do you?

          Where is the strife in those kids lives I’m asking you? Do you actually believe in a leader who had none?

          “it doesn’t make sense to me to feel bitter towards those who have it better”

          It doesn’t make sense to criticize those who don’t, either. A crumb of sympathy is the least I expected.

        • syndrome says:

          In fact, forget about these rhetorical questions. Tell me this:
          If France was such a great country that helps their taxpayers, why isn’t their invitation truly open to any citizen with an advanced idea that could change the world? Why can’t I be their potential taxpayer, so I can deserve to do my research?

          The last time I wrote on the Hannah’s article, there were a couple of guys who tried to address my issues by pointing me in the right direction (from their perspective), and I’m thankful for the gesture. But this is hardly the solution. How do I exactly persuade anyone in what is ME inside of me, if I haven’t been in a position to actually manifest ME in the product I would deliver?

          All games worth of mentioning require many months, more likely years to become a thing, and that’s only the development — the incubation period. I don’t have the privilege to pursuit a long period of uninterrupted carelessness about things like food. I simply don’t.

          But to solve this issue, I should get the right tools (which aren’t free), make something decent (with the time and calmness I cannot possibly deserve), and brag about it through the channels that aren’t open to me, or travel around (with the passport I don’t have, while spending the money I cannot earn) and show it to people (who dislike foreigners or have a distrust in non-western products).

          Are you all crazy? The only channels for me to get even near your Empire is to outsource for your dumbass companies who sells you shit and gambling and employs a cheap workforce that does things cleverly (and you don’t even know about how much of it exists), or I could write to multiculturalist Wooga to make shit eye candy for a shitty populace, with a huge smile on my face (that’s actually the prerequisite for their open positions, to maintain a happy bubble, something that goes heavily against my ideologies as I simply believe that happy bubbles and agreeableness are the root of everything evil).

          On the other hand, it is you who need people like me. We are the engineers of your goddamn future. It’s your loss, come to your senses already.

          I’m not asking anyone to save me, nor to help me in any way, I am just observing how you should save yourselves from an age of decadence — because I feel the Earth as my homeplace, I fight for its benefits — by opening yourself to this idea that tragic environments create deeply beautiful people, and that on the contrary, beautiful environments create deeply tragic people.

          Are you already so tragic that you’re bound to make us all fail?

          The last time I wrote, there was this guy (someone from Serbia, presumably) who pointed me toward two indie developers I am already personally connected with, and who are much younger than me. I didn’t tell him that at the time — I didn’t have to — but they’re not a part of my solution, they’re a part of my problem. They have simply had much better lives than me, better childhood, better opportunities, and I like them a lot for being so proactive with their time, but they are dancing to the tune you’re playing. I don’t believe in those values, and I cannot compromise the wealth of what I’m capable of, simply to position myself in the limelight of vanity.

          I will yet find my own way, but I’m amazed at how many of you just embrace things based on their face value. You have so much to learn, including this Klondike bunch, but with the attitude you apparently assume, you simply won’t.

          That being said, if I was given such an opportunity I’d make a groundbreaking game. A niche one, granted, but a piece of true gaming art that would shake the core of game design discipline. Big words, yes. And I will do that in time. Because I can, cognitively. Technically, it doesn’t matter if you let me. I can always rob one of your ugly parasitic banks that litter my hometown as if there was a lucrative geopolitical agenda behind our financial situation, to which you are personally ignorant, like proper slavedrivers should be.

          Now, that’s a good “Klondike” story. What a familiar name. I wonder if it has anything to do with the era of gold rush…

          • Donjo says:

            Sorry, you’re right – I sort of lumped your response in with onionman’s. Europe is a fortress intended to keep the poor out, by a chance of fate I was born within the walls. I hope you can make your game so I can play it. I don’t want to be patronising but I reckon RPS would be interesting in a feature on games from parts of the world where people don’t have the opportunities most of us who read it probably do.

          • syndrome says:

            @Donjo
            Thank you. I hope I will as well.
            It’s just that my plans have to incorporate building larger-than-life platforms from which I can reach the other, more human-scaled, goals.

            Welp, perhaps it’s a good thing, who knows.

  3. ROMhack2 says:

    I’ve just got around this. Good work as usual Hannah. It’s a shame I left London when I did because I imagine this’d make a great videobrains series – if you’re still doing that.

    I think I reflect on this last time too but the article presents another point about the strange place national culture/identity plays in games. They’re all too right that everything is filtered through an English-speaking lens, which is odd when you think about it.

    I don’t think there’s really such a thing as French or Danish or German game in the same way there is French or Danish or German movie.

    I wonder if acceptance of that is the next stage in terms of maturity both for the medium and the audience.

    Not sure how subtitles in games would work but hey, we’ll see what happens.

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