The conversation between Olle Essvik (alias JimPalt) and Mathias Jansson took place in October 2011 via email.
Gamescenes: When did you first encounter videogames? What kind of ludic experiences inspire/d you as an artist?
Olle Essvik: Videogames have always been part of my life, and I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. As very young I remember playing games on GameWatch, Nintendo consoles, and later Atari and the Commodore 64. I remember as a kid wishing for an Amiga, but I never got one. My parents owned a Macintosh and the supply of games was limited and expensive.
I am inspired by the simple games that I remember from my childhood. Every now and then I check out the games being made today, primarily indie-games and Game Art.
I don’t consider myself a game designer in the traditional sense of the word. My primary sources of inspiration are literature and art. It is not the traditional elements of the game that interest me, but rather the narratives of games and the new possibilities for telling a story in non-linear and interactive way.
Olle Essvik, Waiting For, digital animation, 2011
GameScene: One of you first games is called “Broken Narratives (207)”, which you described as a "collection of games/narratives. Games without levels, win/lose thinking, games without purpose, just narratives with the structure and navigation of a computer game". It seems to me that you are fascinated by the game medium and by the videogame aesthetics, but at the same time, your artistic performance consists in emulating this ludic aspects rather than using gameplay as an expressive means. In a sense, you've removed the gamesness from the games. This work, in particular, has a tangible/concrete nature: you udeveloped a portable sculpture that can be played with a joystick...
Olle Essvik. Yes. I constructed that game around 2006. It consists of a number of narratives tied together. The game isn’t very conceptual, but rather a visual experience. It can be compared to a dream in which you can walk around, and it contains several references to the games I used to play as a child. Both the sounds and the characters can be found in games or in memories of games that I owned in my childhood.
The title ”Broken narratives” refers to a narrative that has been taken apart, broken up, fragmented, like in memories or dreams. The process of creating that game gave birth to further thoughts and ideas on the possibilities of using video games for constructing non-linear narratives without beginning or end. The game has also been exhibited in a gallery context, installed into a module built from old pieces of furniture from my childhood. A kind of strange, portable arcade game constructed as a suitcase. So, besides being available on the Net, the game was also a sculpture and a physical art-piece.
GameScenes: This Winter you are introducing two new art games inspired by Samuel Beckett's plays, ”Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”. What is your relationship to Beckett? What is the rationale behind this original combination of theatre and videogames?
Olle Essvik: My relationship to Beckett consists in having seen and read some of his plays. I got the idea for the game while watching "Waiting for Godot” and getting inspired by the elements of repetition in the play, where the second act is basically a repetition of the first. (In the plot, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon are sitting around waiting for a man named Godot. The first and second act are essentially the same, in the sense that they both consist of the main characters waiting for Godot, and that in essence nothing happens.) The concept can be seen as a metaphor for our human existence with its every day repetitions, but also for computer games and the loop of computer programming. I saw the possibility for constructing a repeating narrative that was always essentially the same, but with small alterations and new events. Similar to ”Waiting for Godot”, but with an unlimited number of acts. The second game, ”Endgame”, has borrowed its title from another Becket play, but apart from that there are few references to the actual play.
I am an admirer of Beckett and the spirit of the times in which he lived and worked. Waiting for Godot was released in 1952 in postwar Paris. A time characterized by despair and a general loss of faith in society. A time when Existentialism, Pataphysics, the Theater of the Absurd where important artistic and philosophical movements. Themes like boredom, hopelessness, and emptiness dominated theater, literature and art. There was a specific sense of tragedy and comedy that is very much present in Waiting for Godot.
My previous works, like these new ones, have often been dominated by themes like mundanity, despair and emptiness, but always with a sense of humor of absurdity. If that sense of absurdity or tragicomedy were not recognised, my works would be perceived as completely hopeless and tragic. I am interested in the same themes that characterized Beckett's work. Even if the form of this new work resembles that of a computer game I actually think that it has more in common with a theater play. ”Endgame” is violent and dark, but the soundtrack, consisting of 1910s marching music, and the atmosphere is so absurd and exaggerated that only comedy remains. The game will be released later this autumn.
Olle Essvik, 1_0, interactive game, 2009. [link]
GameScenes: What is "Waiting for” about?
Olle Essvik: The game is about mundanity, emptiness and the repetition of every day existence. We wander through the repetitions of our every day life waiting for something else to happen. The programming of my game contains a large archive of objects and events. These objects and events are then selected, partly randomly and partly as a result of conscious or unconscious interaction, which combines to change what the game will look like.
The constants of the game are the beginning and end, which are always the same. Nothing happens, and yet everything happens. The game will never repeat itself completely, even if you might experience it as a repetition, as the same thing. My game consists of an eternal number of acts and has no precise beginning or end, even though they remain the same. The second game is linear and has a more precise meaning, but it becomes a non-meaning since it provides an answer where there actually is none.
GameScenes: Your practices include curatorial work. For instance, in 2008 you curated the seminal exhibition “My Computer” in Gotemborg. The event focused on computer based art and art games. Scandinavia - and Sweden in particular - seems to be a fertile ground for some of the most original and creative examples of Game Art. What is your take about the Swedish Game Art scene? More importantly... Is it a "scene"?
Olle Essvik: I know of very few people working with games. Most of the people I know of from before are not very active today. Perhaps the scene has found different forms with new players. Though I must confess that I am not sure exactly where the concept ends. I have had works, which curators have labelled game-art just because they contain programming, but which I myself have seen as something completely different.
If game-art is defined as art in the form of games or containing references to games, my feeling is that not alot is being made in Sweden today. Some people I know who used to be active have moved in other directions. But since not much is written and since I know so few people who are active, it is obviously very difficult to be aware of everything that is happening, so I might have missed something.
That is why it is extremely important for us who work with game-art that there is someone who writes about it, since the traditional art media show relatively little interest. When an art form is unknown or not trendy it very easily happens that people abandon it for other art forms that get more attention.
Link: Olle Essvik
Interview archives: Contemporary Practitioners; The Early Years
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti
All images courtesy of the artist