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A Video Game Immerses You in an Opera Composed by Dogs

In David Kanaga’s latest game, Oiκοςpiel, an immortal Donkey Koch (of the Koch brothers) commissions a group of dogs to produce a digital opera for an arts festival scheduled for 2100.

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017) (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Oiκοςpiel (or alternatively Oik Ospielen, OIK OS, and sometimes just The Dog Opera) is the newest project from David Kanaga, a composer and game developer based in Oakland, California. Kanaga is perhaps best known for his sound work on the video games Proteus (2013) and Panoramical (2015). He also runs a game and music theory blog called Wombflash Forest.

The general premise of Oiκοςpiel is that an immortal Donkey Koch (of the Koch brothers) has commissioned a group of dogs to produce a digital opera for THE GEOSPIEL, a global arts festival scheduled for 2100. A union of other animal employees is attempting to establish universal basic income, but the dog developers won’t join, and eventually serve as strikebreakers. The game more or less follows the opera’s development in a series of acts over several dog generations, with settings that range from a yoga studio in LA (for dogs) to a gated community called Emeryville North, located at the North Pole, where one of the dog protagonists pursues an artist residency.

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017)

Oiκοςpiel is the first game Kanaga has produced independently, as well as his first major project with a focus on code, visual artwork, in-game text, and interactivity. (It would be hard to imagine a more demanding first subject than a full-length opera, but here it is.) This note about firsts is important, as Kanaga’s newness to development tools seems to directly influence the content of the game. Oiκοςpiel is an asset store, exploded. Rather than build each element by hand, Kanaga has almost entirely used prefabricated components, including camera movement, animal models, crystal-shaders, and transition effects, each purchased for a small sum and sewn together with a deft hand. In interviews, Kanaga has said that these scripts and models are what made it possible for him to put Oikospiel together on his own, but the asset store aesthetic is also immediately, unassailably political.

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017)

These purchased objects, models, and scripted behaviors are bought for pennies on the dollar, and each has bundled into it a history of labor. Kanaga draws on such a past, listing each asset’s creators in the opening credits of the game. NOT_Lonely (acoustic guitar) and Sunny Sunshine (flags) are listed as players, among others, as well as Donkey Koch and Kanaga himself. The credits state: “In addition to all of these players, there are many more whom have been forgotten, and are being researched, noted, and collated, and many more still. This is the work force of the Oikospielen Opera.”

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017)

Kanaga not only reappropriates paid components from the asset store, but also adopts from popular culture at large, borrowing characters, logos, songs, and names from the corporate world. The Koch brothers become flattened into a Disney-font rendition of the Donkey Kong logo. Protagonists of Zelda mingle with centaurs and bears. A time-stretched midi version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” opens the game. Nothing is made, but everything is reconstructed. This is a world where there is no more elemental matter, where creation can no longer start from clay or the atom, but has to begin with model purchases and cultural icons. For Kanaga, the smallest divisible object here is a sunset effect or a 3D-modeled rock labeled for creative reuse.

It is no accident that the protagonists of the game are a pack of dogs. They are the first domesticates and an easy stand-in for humans. Despite their involvement in artistic labor, they are tamed and loyal animals. At one point they are described as “copyrighted”; they are cast as union busters.

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017)

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Oiκοςpiel is that it is, in fact, an opera. The game follows a strict series of acts, presented linearly, with a table of contents. The scale of the work is certainly monumental, in a Wagnerian sort of way — I spent some 20-plus hours playing and exploring, and I’m unconvinced that I saw everything. And, unlike much of the game, the sound of Oiκοςpiel is mostly original. Such a choice reminds us that Kanaga is a musician at heart, and despite his remarkable skills in visual and textual assemblage, this opera is a fundamentally musical work.

At the very beginning of the game is a conversational introduction by the dogs, which describe the task ahead. We receive a few references to Kanaga’s influences (Tristram Shandy comes up), as well as hints to the dense ecosystem of puns that form a backbone of the work (“oikos” is the root of eco, as in “ecology” and “economy”; “opera” means “works,” as in labor; OIK OS is an ‘opera’ting system; and “spiel” means “play”). The dogs preface that they, short-lived, will not see the conclusion of their masterwork. Instead, they must encode the future of the work in instructions to their offspring. These instructions are to take the form of eternal objects, artworks unassailable by time.

Still from David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel (2017)

Playing Oiκοςpiel, I can’t help but wonder: Have they succeeded? Have the dogs managed to make an eternal work out of stolen logos and characters and scenarios? Is there, somewhere in the combination of midi samples and camera packs and modeled animals and song, a transcendent thing?

The dogs don’t say. But speaking for myself, Oiκοςpiel is impossible to unplay; it recontextualizes everything it touches. Tristram Shandy becomes an aesthetic object at the same scale as Kanaga’s purchased assets. Zelda and Celine Dion and the Koch brothers are all mixed up in labor and ecology. And the dogs do all the things that dogs always do — run, love, labor, work, and play — but they also do something more, something complicated and believably human, which is that they make art.

David Kanaga’s Oiκοςpiel is available for purchase on a PC and Mac here

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