Joe Richardson : Cutting Art

NOTE: the following text is adapted from an e-mail interview with Joe Richardson, independent developer. While the vast majority of this article is fictionalized, the italicized sentences are a copy/paste of Richardson’s responses, as sent during the interview. Warning: this article reveals certain key elements of The Procession to Calvary. Enjoy your reading.

You’ve been driving along this road for months, perhaps years, and yet you’ve never noticed the strange building that now stands in front of you. But reality is impossible to deny. You place your hand on the brick wall that climbs far above your head, and feel every rough, old texture. The shutters rattling in the breeze one floor up evoke a heartbeat, as if the whole building were alive. And that wooden door wide open in front of you, you’d swear it was closed just a few seconds ago. On the sidewalk just in front of it, a stunted sign proudly displays two nonchalantly hand-painted words: FREE ENTRY. A mixture of curiosity and suspicion battles in your mind, but it’s the first drops released by a cloudy sky that tip the balance in favor of boldness: you decide to rush into the mysterious building.

You close the heavy door behind you as the first roar of thunder rumbles in, quickly followed by the clatter of raindrops crashing on the glass roof above you. You find yourself at the entrance to a vast, luminous room, covered in gleaming parquet and cut by multiple white partitions on which various paintings are displayed. A museum, what a pleasant surprise! Hypnotized by the ambient calm, it takes you a few seconds to notice strange cracks in reality. The huge room, in fact a kind of oversized hangar, is unusually empty of people, which could be explained by the recent opening of the museum, which doesn’t even have a proper reception hall, but that’s not the only thing that’s wrong. The paintings presented here should, logically, not be on these walls. The first wall, for example, displays The Girl with the Pearl, which would normally be in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, while Picasso’s Guernica should be in Madrid. And what about this Mona Lisa, carelessly placed in a shady corner at the back of the room, flush with the floor! They can only be copies or forgeries, yes, that’s obvious.

Your amazement grows when you come across the only human presence in this dreamlike museum: a young man consumed by creative effervescence, busy at a work table. As you approach, you notice that he’s cutting up masterpieces and rearranging them in a whole new way! Taken aback, you call out to him and ask what he’s doing. After a few seconds, which seem like an eternity, the man slowly raises his head in your direction and looks into your eyes. He smiles and welcomes you, before introducing himself.

Joe: Hello! My name is Joe. I’m an independent game developer from Scotland, making ridiculous point’n click games about Renaissance art.

The situation is more than a little incongruous. But you’ll remember playing the author’s last game, the delightful The Procession to Calvary (2020), an adventure game based on Renaissance paintings. In this cross between absurdist humor and improbable assassinations, the player is invited to embody Rembrandt’s Bellona, as the Holy War draws to a close. But Bellona loves murder. Her bloodthirsty impulses will be put to the test as she embarks on a solitary crusade to bring down Peter the Divine. The Procession to Calvary is an atypical work within contemporary point’n click production, and not only thanks to its artistic direction, for not only do the tone, the soundscape and the writing form an ensemble with a strong, unforgettable personality. Crossing paths with the game’s creator is too incredible an opportunity to pass up. So tell us, Joe, why, of all the works in existence, did you choose the painting by Bruegel the Elder as the title for this adventure, and why did you choose the Renaissance period?

NOTE: The Procession to Calvary is a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a famous painter and engraver, a leading representative of the Flemish Renaissance, a period running from 1500 to 1584. Often considered a spiritual successor to Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel’s work focuses on depicting popular, everyday rural life. The painting depicts the Ascent to Calvary, the episode in Jesus Christ’s life when he himself had to carry his cross to Golgotha to be crucified. More than five hundred figures from all walks of life can be seen, organized in a chaotic procession scattered across an unreal landscape (see the improbable mill perched atop a rock). The painting is considered the artist’s second greatest work, after Le Vin de la Saint-Martin.

The Procession to Calvary
The Procession to Calvary, 1564
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder 

Joe: Choosing the title came relatively late in the creative process. I always start with the graphics. For Four Last Things (NOTE: Joe Richardson’s previous game), I ended up using mainly Nordic Renaissance works (NOTE: works from Northern European countries), so this time I wanted to use a lot of Italian paintings. I liked the idea that the slightly different style of the paintings would represent a new and distinct place, hence the decision to introduce the idea of “North” and “South”. With the idea of traveling from one place to another, the word “procession” already made sense. Then, as I was building the southern scenes, I had the idea of putting together pieces of the many crucifixion scenes I found to make one big chaotic scene. It was only much later that I put it all together and chose the title, but when I was looking for paint names to use, this one immediately made sense to me.

And why Renaissance paintings? Because I love them! 😛

The whole decision comes first and foremost from the paintings themselves, I’m lucky enough to be stupid, so when I look at these paintings, I don’t see the deep messages they contain, or the technique behind them, or what the illustration says about the artist and the time he lived in. I see tushies and peckers, and people doing funny dances. These paintings are intrinsically fun for me, so I just make them move and talk.

Code Red !!!
Code Red !!!

PnT: How do you choose which paintings will appear in the games? Do you define a period, a theme, or do you look for specific elements within the paintings?

Joe: It’s mainly a choice based on what I like or what I find amusing. Sometimes, when I’m writing the puzzles, I realize that I need to add a new element to make the puzzle work, so I look for a painting that contains that element. But I try to do this as little as possible, because I prefer to concentrate first and foremost on rendering the world, making it aesthetically pleasing, and only then making sense of that world and making puzzles with the concepts I have. So for me, it’s the paintings that create the story!

PnT: What do you think is the fundamental difference between classical and contemporary art?

Joe: You’ll have to ask an intelligent person that kind of question!

PnT: Mona Lisa, posed in the corner of the room, seems to be smiling. What was the first point’n click you played, and how do you think it influenced you?

Joe: Probably the Monkey Island series, and they’ve done more than just influence me, they’re the reason I make point’n click. They obviously have a huge influence on the mechanics of my games, but I don’t think it goes deeper than that. The game that really had an influence on me is called The Sea Will Claim Everything. Before I played that game, I didn’t realize that people could create such personal works of art in the form of a video game, and that’s what drove me to create my own work (NOTE: The Sea Will Claim Everything is an atmospheric, dreamlike point’n click released in 2012, the fourth instalment in the Lands of Dreams saga, developed by Jonas and Verena Kyratzes).

PnT: When you’re working on a game, do you have the time and/or inclination to play other things? Do you have a recent game to recommend?

Joe: Since I’ve had children, I find it very difficult to find time to play. But I try. I feel it’s important to see what other people can achieve, but I usually only play a game for an hour or two before moving on to something else, even if I’m enjoying it. However, I really enjoyed Sludge Life, Paradise Killer and The Beginners Guide. More recently, I’ve really enjoyed Felvidek.

PnT: Depending on our choices, we can reach one of the game’s three endings. Why did you decide to offer more than one conclusion? And now that this adventure has come to an end, have you considered working with other artistic periods?

Joe: Well, I wrote three different endings and liked them all, so I didn’t want to spoil anything! As for exploring other artistic periods, not really. I think it might be fun to work with paintings from earlier periods, but this has already been covered to some extent with games like, for example, Pentiment. And the later periods are far too stylized for me to link several works into a harmonized whole.

PnT: Can you explain how you work a scene?

Joe: I spend many hours scouring Wikipedia pages and museum collections for paintings I like. I list all these finds in different folders – landscapes, figures, interiors, etc. I have a folder called “hands” to file the hands I like, and another called “cows” for example, then within these folders I create groups of paintings that share a similar aesthetic, the elements that look like they might work together. Then I tinker for hours on Photoshop, trying to build these different pieces into consistent playing spaces, provided with an adequate moving surface and clearly defined entry and exit points. Finally, I add to this space any characters or objects I find amusing or interesting. Determining what’s going to happen in each scene really only comes later.

PnT: It must be just an impression, but you feel as if the faces of the countless paintings invading the museum have turned towards you. You can almost feel the weight of their gaze. So Joe, how do you approach music in your creations?

Joe: In my first two games, all the music was composed of classical pieces in the public domain, and I was able to find everything I needed on the Internet. But I also had the idea of adding, in each scene, character musicians playing the game’s soundtrack. So, not only did I have to find music from the public domain, but also paintings with artists playing the appropriate instrument.

PnT: And finally, did you see his massive key?

Joe: How could I have missed it?

All the absurd genius of a game and its creator summed up in a single image.
All the absurd genius of a game and its creator summed up in a single image.

With that, Joe lifts a lapel on his long coat to reveal a huge, jewel-encrusted golden key. Against all expectations, the musical figures in the surrounding paintings come to life, busily playing their respective instruments. A frenzied music resonates through the museum, a sort of indescribable symphonic funk, as the scenes in the various paintings come to life. Dali’s elephants cross a twilight savannah paved with melted clocks, the paupers of Le Radeau de la Méduse engage in frenzied dance steps, while their makeshift boat drifts along Hokusai’s wave. The Girl with the Pearl feasts on Warhol’s Campbell’s canned soup, while an ear-less Van Gogh enjoys a pipe that doesn’t exist. At the center of this pandemonium of color and sound, Joe plays his key like an electric guitar, directing this chaos like the conductor of a world in which anything is possible. A world where laughter and blood mingle, along with art and eternity. His world. And now a little bit of yours.

Before concluding, when we asked Joe what his favorite painting was, here’s his answer: 

interview joe richardson
Hercules and Antaeus
By Lucas Cranach

Finally, our thanks once again to Joe Richardson for agreeing to take part in this exercise, for his availability and kindness, and to our readers for their exemplary loyalty and their desire to discover a new facet of the videogame landscape.

Games in this interview

NOTE: these links are not affiliated, and these games are available on several online sales platforms.


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