Igor Simic is a dynamic and accomplished artist who moves across multiple forms with ease. Born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia, he received his higher education in New York City at Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and film. His earliest professional steps were in moving images and his first work, Shelter (2009), was awarded at Alternative Film Video in Belgrade. Cut to a number of years later and Simic has a multidisciplinary practice and is represented by Galerie Anita Beckers in Frankfurt.

For his biggest professional challenge and maybe greatest artistic leap, Simic decided to create a video game production company in Belgrade: Demagog Studio. The first release for the studio was Golf Club: Nostalgia (formerly Wasteland) in 2021, which is a satirical take that asks players to inhabit the roles of the ultra-rich who descend from their colony on Mars to play golf on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The company’s second release is The Cub, which was first presented at Tribeca Festival in 2022 and became available across platforms in early 2024. We spoke to Simic about The Cub, his visual arts practice and the concept of constellation storytelling. 

You come from film art and video art, originally. You also maintain a visual arts practice and have a gallery representing your work. How did you come to video games?

Even early on, when I was making my first videos like The Thinker in the Supermarket (2013), I was interested in experimenting with interactive digital works. The reason was, at least partly, Paul Schrader, who told us, back at Columbia University, that we were wasting our time on film and that we should look into games since art, he claimed, will move in the direction of interactivity. It was more of an off-the-cuff discussion, which I won’t go into here, but Schrader’s openness for new media and a kind of realism about the waning cultural relevance of film was refreshing.

So early on, I asked my high school friends from Belgrade, all engineers, to make a small infinite runner game titled Crisis Expert, with a shopping cart driving on an economic graph. It was fun, but in these artistic experiments there isn’t really much economic potential, and my friends hoped to leave their day jobs and work on our games. And that’s how the concept for Golf Club: Wasteland (now titled Golf Club: Nostalgia on digital storefronts) came about. It was again a tongue-in-cheek artistic concept: the elites evacuated to Mars amid the Great Ecological Catastrophe and years later they came back to Earth to play golf in the ruins. But the way it was made in terms of the Beckettian golf mechanic amid the urban rubble, the world-building, the animation, and the soundtrack placed it in a more commercial realm, so it was supported early on by Apple and eventually found its way to PC and consoles.

The Cub, courtesy of Untold Tales x Demagog Studio

Your newest video game The Cub is available now across all platforms. What is the story of the game, and how does it fit into your larger world-building project?

The Cub is available on PC, where it still has a 9/10 score, Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation. In Golf Club: Wasteland, the main character, Charlie, returns from Mars and at the end of the game meets a mutant boy. The meeting makes him stay on Earth in spite of the inhospitality of the new, mutant environment to humans. The Cub tells the boy’s story across eight levels: at the beginning he’s alone chasing a tasty bug in a natural environment, until he’s spotted by a group of Martian researchers, whose mission turns into a kind of safari hunt. Across most levels he’s running away from them, only for the Martians to realize that he’s luring them into a trap. This game also covers the cub’s friendship with Charlie, and the aftermath. In terms of gameplay, it loosely refers to nineties Sega games such as The Jungle Book and Aladdin, and cinematic platformer titles such as Another World and Heart of Darkness. Of course, these titles are considered masterpieces. The Cub is simply a short story with light platforming, but it works within the larger picture of our interconnected games.

Your company Demagog Studio describes your approach to game-making as “constellation storytelling”. Tell us more about this concept.

I lifted the “constellation” bit from Olga Tokarczuk, who described her novel Flights as a constellation novel. That said, the idea appears in Walter Benjamin and later in Deleuze and Gatarri as assemblage. I’ve also seen drawings of Mark Lombardi and spiderwebs by Tomas Saraceno as inspiration for the constellation approach. It simply means that in the “content” era, when all media seem to belong to the same plane of the screen, the approach of being medium-agnostic seems both practical and fruitful. Aside from playing the game of “attention attracting” in the Content Ocean through individual punchy works, images or personas, the constellation approach ensures that you can dive deep into a topic and have many projects that examine the topic from multiple angles that have no hierarchy. 

Practically, this meant that our studio created three games with three gameplay mechanics, and three overlapping stories within one world. The world is based on a simple premise: Elon Musk wants to move to Mars, while Donald Trump wants to make golf courses in pristine Scottish lands. Besides the three games we also created three in-game radio programs, titled Radio Nostalgia from Mars, with audio stories from Martian citizens about their former lives on Earth. It’s nostalgia turned on its head: from a future vantage point these radio callers reminisce about our present moment. All of the music in the game is original and co-created by myself and music producer Shane Berry with the help of vocalists and musicians. In the streaming era this also means the games are available on Steam while the soundtracks are available on Spotify. Finally, the fictional virtual world we’ve created is conceptually an assemblage of Central European 20th century Modernist ruins with a focus on Yugoslavia and Silicon Valley 21st century AI-space late-stage capitalism. One way we accomplish this is by juxtaposing millennial pink neons that refer to current memes and Modernist monuments. With a neon atelier in Belgrade, I’ve created the physical neons and have exhibited the game, soundtrack and neons together, as one atmospheric constellation in Florence, Frankfurt, Berlin, etc. It’s an approach that embraces the sprawling narratives of something like One Piece, and the ideas of evolving ecologies by Pierre Huyghe. 

Is this an eco-critical video game? What are some other games or works of art that influenced you to work in this genre?

I’m not sure I’d use that label. We explicitly don’t make games that are “engaged.” We even turned down some funding that was meant for climate change awareness. These labels muddy the waters and turn something that is supposed to stand on its own as a work into a preachy, NGO project. I don’t think the job of art or entertainment is to teach. That might be a side effect, but not the motivation. That said, we’re not making purely escapist projects, but we do engage with reality. The recent GTA trailer is full of references to current events. Kentucky Route Zero is an example of a small, indie title that directly engages with themes of the American economy. Papers, Please is another example. In the more terrestrial realm, I’d say Everything by David O'Reilly is a great example.

What are the connections between moving image art and video games? Are video games evolving into 21st century cinema? And what do you think cinema is evolving into?

Well, I remember seeing Jia Zhangke’s The World with its animated sequences, and somehow thinking that there are hints of future cinema in that. I was also excited by Holy Motors and saw it as an interplay of the virtual and real with the lead actor changing “skins” like a playable character. Recently Kojima announced a partnership with A24 on a Death Stranding film. I met Kojima last year and understand his motivation: to some extent he’s a frustrated filmmaker. But his sincere cinephilia with a gaming background is also an advantage in creating something new. We’ll see where the collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive had tinges of the game Hotline Miami, which in turn was inspired by Miami Vice), Guillermo del Toro or Jordan Peele go. 

What are some of the upcoming projects you are working on? 

I’m in the early stage of my first feature film project The Thinker in the Bathroom. In the spring I’ll also have some live performances of electronic music from the game soundtracks. Demagog Studio will have one more release this year: Highwater is coming to PC and consoles. 

Thank you!

The link has been copied!