Seizing the means of production (and a lot of Unity assets), the composer takes on labor, climate change, and the political moment.
The dogs are revolting. I mean, they're not actually revolting—some of them are super cute. But they're revolting, they're forming a picket line. There's some elephants there, too, and rabbits and crocodiles—they've had enough of this shit. A few scenes down the line and I'm at the North Pole with my dog co-workers. The jet we arrived in is behind some buildings and at the center of town is a Deku-esque tree with a centaur sat beside it. There's water everywhere, the ice caps are melting. I start to run and the music speeds up, everything speeds up. The screen starts to tear, the earth starts to bleed.
Oikospiel is full of incongruous moments like this but it hangs together through David Kanaga's commitment to his work. Billed as a dog opera, it's Kanaga's first solo project, and is about, amongst other things, climate change and labor rights. Divided into five acts and again into scenes, the game asks you to control various protagonists as you explore the game's environments—you might call it a third person exploration game, but it's unlike anything you've ever played before.
Kanaga's previous games touched loosely upon the environmental issues depicted in Oikospiel. One of the first, Proteus—a collaboration with Ed Key—had the player exploring a procedurally generated island, Kanaga's lilting soundtrack bending naturally to the seasons, weather and landscape. Panoramical, meanwhile, designed with Fernando Ramallo, asked the player to create their own landscapes and music, capable of generating moments of such fractious beauty that the game's terra firma ripped apart. But where those games left the player some wiggle room on their interpretative stance, Oikospiel is forcefully urgent, albeit colored by Kanaga's surreal imagination.
Kanaga tells me it was Naomi Klein's 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate that set in motion the ideas behind the game, a book which married the twin themes of climate change and labor rights. "The climate change stuff struck home and it was just horrifying and sad and that got me really amped up. She's very persuasive about this idea that climate change requires this incredible centralization of efforts and it's really scary to not see that happening at all.
And at some point, I was like, oh yeah, I wanna make a propaganda game that makes everyone want to fight back at fucking climate change. I don't think it's very tidy propaganda, though I do think the one possible thing that could be good about it is that climate change is such a big, huge, massive problem and we need to think about all these different things. I think the game is a bit of a feverish mirror to these kinds of entanglements that need to be considered."
Like all good propaganda, Kanaga works with icons, potent signifiers smashed against one another, the connective tissue and meaning splattered against the screen. The first thing you'll see in the game is a wind turbine powered by your mouse while one of the last things is the thick sludge of oil dripping across your screen.
"There's this sort of literary aspect of the game just thinking about all these things in terms of the signs or the semiotic pointers. I'd have this image of global warming and then think, OK, what represents global warming? We need all the energy things—we need the oil, we need the energy against it like wind turbines, we need the global capitalism like the shipping containers, we need these different things. So I start with a cloudy idea and then turn it into crystallized signifiers. And then once I have those I turn them into a word that I can search for and then I buy it." Kanaga laughs, struck by the irony inherent to his working process on Oikospiel and the labor themes he's depicting.
Rather than creating his own assets, wasting hours modelling the shipping containers, the wind turbines and the dogs, Kanaga bought it all from the Unity store and a website called Turbo Squid, referring to the process as "playing house".
"This phase of the game very much felt like The Sims or something, you know. I'm just going out to Ikea and buying truckloads of furniture and then I come back home and I'm like, OK, where can we set up the furniture so we can walk nicely and get to the back door and so the dog doesn't create a mess or whatever."
Kanaga wasn't just working within the confines of white picket fences and cosy idylls of suburbia, though. He admits to having enjoyed his own sense of tyranny during the creation of Oikospiel, unfettered by the responsibilities of collaboration and compromise."I just had so much built-up desire and energy from collaborations where I'd have all these ideas that wouldn't get implemented. It's just this sort of grotesque power fantasy of mine, this game, but it felt really good and healthy."
That power fantasy played out in the Unity game engine. It also provided another link to the themes of labor at the heart of the game. "If you use Unity it really is like a new factory model, like if you think about old Fordist production models for cars. Unity brings together these different modes of working that are familiar from Ableton or Photoshop or whatever. And all these different assets I would get, they're like the employees. So I would go in and check on the employees and there was a very real sense of, like, Unity bringing all these things together. And maybe I was trying to help them unionize, or maybe I was like the tyrant boss that was preventing them from unionizing."
Kanaga explains that the game's labor themes also found expression in Oikospiel's aural element. "I liked this idea of thinking that I was working with the Romantic orchestra. In the nineteenth century there was the Romantic orchestra that had, like, a hundred people in it, this huge army of laborers, kind of a symbol of this power fantasy, too. So I thought, well here we are, this is the new kind of Romantic orchestra of the twenty-first century, all the things that Ableton can do and all the things that Unity can do. I wanted to use those things freely." If there's a musical tone to Oikospiel, it's pluralism. The digital sheen of MIDI harps bleed into delicate, restrained piano before dissolving in a well of clipped animal and human vocals.
It's a sonic tone that sits embedded in a game in which Kanaga is willing to try anything. He's conceived of his own game theory, "ludic ecologonomy", essentially enabling a creative expression within video games unhampered by the confines of convention. Kanaga asserts this is more important than ever in combating the corrosive elements at play in current American politics.
"It feels almost like these avant-garde tactics are being used to push through reactionary stuff. But to me now, it feels like progressive expression is crucial. Because people are gonna be using that. And I dunno if it's gonna be the progressive politics or reactionary stuff, but these devices are being used and I think it's more important than ever to be comfortable engaging with them," Kanaga says.
If the game is a means of stimulating conversation around climate change and labor rights, Kanaga ultimately wants to see that conversation put into action. He's already been using the platform generated from Oikospiel to call for change, pitching a union for independent game developers during his acceptance speech for the game's Nuovo Award at this year's Indie Games Festival. "You know, climate change needs centralized efforts and centralized efforts require labor movements. The game is studying how multiple things come together into a unity, and labor unions or unions [in general] are an important way. Even if the whole globe isn't ready to coalesce around a single problem we can practice coming together in different ways."
Follow the author on twitter at @lewis_gordon.