The Odd World of Vasily Zotov | Uncommon Assembly

The Odd World of Vasily Zotov


The games of Vasily Zotov are in the puzzle adventure genre, with fantastical overtones and somewhat autobiographical narrative themes… or, as Zotov calls it: “a little bit of truth reflecting through the fiction.” Zotov, a Russian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles, has been involved in a deportation struggle with US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, and his real-life struggles have proven very influential to his games. The series, consisting of the games SpaceSpy, Refugee, and Refugee: The Second Hearing, tells the story of a homeless “alien” character who emerges from the sewers in Hollywood, is admitted to a psych ward and escapes, and eventually appears before and escapes an extradition court, all under the gaze of the ominous “Director Canavati”.

Zotov’s games are awkward, dark, and confusing.. The art is seemingly unplanned and wildly inconsistent, and it is an amazing collage of colorful, disparate imagery. His games have been called “either insanity or genius”. A ten minute video of SpaceSpy, in its entirety, followed by Refugee: the Second Hearing:

The raw, unpolished feel of Zotov’s games recalls a stream-of-consciousness aesthetic often found in art brut and outsider art (also see: vernacular art, naïve art). These types of art are generally created outside the boundaries of the official culture of the medium. The value of art brut as contemporary art was first recognized and cataloged by French artist Jean Debuffet in the late 1940s. Debuffet believed that mainstream culture tends to consume and incorporate all new developments in art, therefore removing from them their genuine power and expression. He believed that art brut was resistant to the influences of mainstream culture, since the artists were unable or unwilling to be assimilated.

Page from The Story of the Vivian Girls by Henry Darger Grotto of Redemption by Paul Dobberstein, photo by Ben Franske

One would certainly feel less likely to find such pure expression in a medium as complex as game development. But Zotov’s games seem to exhibit a design sense of such raw execution, while still completing the tedious, even if imperfect, production role of programmer. I can’t say that I fully understand what goes on in the man’s mind, but the results are intriguing.

I interviewed Zotov back in February about SpaceSpy. We spoke a day before a court proceeding that, according to Zotov, threatened to extricate him back to Russia… a situation reflected in the climactic final scene of the SpaceSpy (sometimes to startling accuracy… including dates, names of participants, and addresses). I asked him about the game’s peculiar appearance, and his process constructing it:

Uncommon Assembly: Thanks for taking some time to talk with me, Vasily. Let’s start with a little background. Can you tell me a little about yourself, and how you began developing these games?

Vasily Zotov: Well, I auditioned / was interviewed for a decent number of game companies… Did not make it – was turned away always on the first interview. Oh, I participated in the student game competition, and turned out to be the 7th, got the prize. It was 1999, before the psychward (a couple of months before). I am the mental patient for 10 years with the most recent diagnosis of schizophrenia. I am not mentally sick and I am currently the asylum applicant in the United States, as a misdiagnosed paper. Basically like many other mental patients I allege that doctors are crazy I am not. You know if you would consider mental ward for opinion, I would say 95-99% of mental patients would say that they are OK, doctors are crazy. This is the truth. I am In the town of Hollywood, 20 min from downtown, trying to put together papers against the deportation. Originally is a secret – it is they who are to depart should prove it, I will not help them.

I found myself in the process of filling application for asylum in the United States because of the police incident which started in early April 2008 and it was developed to most likely the court warrant of mental matter in December 2008. Then DOJ did not grant my asylum, I was thinking like how I could influence their decision by my art.

So tell me about SpaceSpy.

This is the story about the flight of the human spirit ( flight from mental doctors to freedom). And this story was not interesting till the very moment all of sudden on the chapter I made this turn in the screenplay – Space Spy (who is a mental patient) was looking for a love. It was a great piece found, I had much more integrity (with the story) from this point. It was chapter 2. As any story about the flight of the human spirit it is something big and inspirational. The Hollywood piece of story is also important. It’s almost a religion this way – Oscar ceremony of chapter 2, crazy director of chapter 1, the development of culture above the culture

The art and level design in SpaceSpy seem very unfiltered… as if it all came right out of someone’s mind and appeared in a game. Its imperfection is one of the more compelling things about the game. Do you have anything to add to that?

The search for perfect in arts has the eternal history. This reminds me of the time I had this white paper psychological issue – when you are sitting for hours with the white paper and don’t know what to do with it. What would be the next step – in entertainment like that – Alone in the dark / Myst type of entertainment based on stills – to figure out the role of dynamics – like it is done now it is much more picture gallery than a motion picture.

Can you tell me a little about how the art was created and/or acquired for this game?

I did it almost all on my own occasionally for period of 10 years, except of a couple of models I bought for very cheap.

You use a combination of collaged 3D and 2D elements… the point where one stops and the other starts is sometimes hard to distinguish. Can you tell me anything about your technique of building these levels?

Well, I was underequipped and still had to proceed with ‘field’ equipment because there was no desktop computers at home (as sometimes there was no home). I mean if 5 people came out of the bus in the Level 5 of the game, and those were the figurines developed by me in 2003 when I had no idea at all of modeling (I mean each figurine is of 15000 polygons), of course you need to substitute each figurine by the still image, or it will make your cheap old Compaq laptop freaked out right away.

The different art elements in the game (characters, props, backgrounds) appear very different to me. Some are 3d models, some are 2d art. Some of the models are robotic, some are very organic. Some of the 2D art is photography, some of it is graphic design. Was it intentional for the pieces to appear so different from each other?

I thought I would be capable to keep audience interested if I would change styles. And the character is a schizophrenic. I met a lot of people like him in the ward. He lives in the permanent break. Things around him are being changed permanently by the power of his own fantasy.

Vasily, thanks for speaking with me about SpaceSpy.


If you wish to learn more about Vasily Zotov and his games, there is a fantastic interview on TIGSource by Jim Rossignol, and there are mounds of various entries on Zotov’s own site, Some of the site is difficult to navigate, so here are some links:

SpaceSpy official site
Feedback on SpaceSpy from IGF judges in 2009
Refugee official site
The Making of Refugee: The Second Hearing
Various Documents

2 Responses to “The Odd World of Vasily Zotov”

  1. Uncommon Assembly Says:

    And in fairness, I should mention that Anna Anthropy, American video game designer and critic, brought up the topic of outsider videogame development at the Indie Game Maker Rant at the 2010 Game Developer Conference in March of 2010, predating this article. An excerpt from that talk:

    “There’s a concept in visual art called “outsider art,” a concept in music called “outsider music.” It refers to people who aren’t connected to an artistic field or its body of criticism but who create art anyway… An art that some consider to be more honest, more pure… I think games will come into their own when anyone can make a game as easily as one can type a short story or sing a song.”

    Those with access can watch that discussion on the GDC Vault site.


  2. goalie™ Says:

    “There no other passengers and it looks like the secret DEPORTATION”

    Yes. You are indeed ready, Mr. Zotov.
    And no, we DO NOT underestimate you.


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