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Geeks and mouse arms at the Muziekgebouw. The bar is high for @hollandfestival's new bosses

Then suddenly there is a very different audience in Amsterdam's Muziekgebouw aan het IJ. Gamers. Or rather developers. And hardcore new-music aficionados. 'I only come for Maze,' said my neighbour petulantly. He came for the music ensemble. Not for the games, that is, not for the computer graphics. And maybe not even for Claron McFadden. That famous, hyper-pliable opera singer who sings the role of an investor in computer games in Oikospiel II: Heat Cantate.

But there were also very different people. People who came for the games. And for the design. Who didn't know an ensemble like Maze, and opera only by hearsay.

The Holland Festival is packing quite a punch this year, the last under the direction of new-media expert Ruth MacKenzie. This weekend we could not only enjoy an hour-long sequencer session by Colin Benders during the (also devised by Mackenzie) proms at the Concertgebouw. At the Muziekgebouw on the other side of the centre, everything was about the future. Which, as we all know, is digital and connected, or 3.0 and liquid. And that is why that building was suddenly packed with a very different crowd. Nerds m/f, designers, hipsters with mouse arm and music lovers.

Doom without blood

Two games took centre stage and they could not be further apart. Dear Esther, in the evening programme, is a live played-in version of the famous game Dear Esther which dates back to 2012. Oikospiel is a totally weird project by David Kanaga, flouting all laws of logic and storytelling. All this in hideous graphics performed, which is part of the fun.

Dear Esther cannot actually be called a game. The creator of this dreamlike piece of software is a fan of the archetypal first-person shooter Doom, but was tired of shooting monsters all day. That's why Dear Esther has become a Doom without monsters and weapons. But also a Doom without a storyline. And many times more beautifully designed. The monsters have been replaced by texts, poems, dreams, inscriptions and the vague sense that there is a purpose behind all that wandering. Meaningful and relaxing. The performance, created by the ensemble The Chinese Room, can be seen as one of the possible 'walkthroughs' offered by the plotless play, where the texts were voiced live and the music was partly performed live.


The result was pure aesthetics, which worked compellingly. You could also say the distinction with an evening of gamers watching on video channel Twitch is more exciting, but that does this event an injustice. Still, it would have been a shame to show only this game on this day dedicated to the exchange between games and the arts. The total digital madness of Oikospiel was badly needed to make you realise that we are only at the beginning of the possible development.

Developer and composer David Kanaga is a real nerd. You notice that when he talks about his work. You also notice it in the shape he gave to the live performance. In the follow-up interview, he told us that he prefers to approach his computer's operating system as a work of art, and would also like to work on artificialising the computing experience. Then we would go far beyond Alexa and Siri, the digital assistants that order a pizza when you call out that you are hungry. From behind his laptop, he directed Maze's live musicians, the singers, Claron McFadden and Mattijs van de Woerd, and the audience, which occasionally got into a weird karaoke was allowed to sing along.

Going to the dogs

Oikospiel II was first performed here. But then where is part 1 of Oikospiel? That turns out to be a dog opera that can be experienced mainly online. A game, but not as you would have expected. Based on a totally absurd literary work from the 18th century, Tristram Shandy. That book, or rather that collection of totally loose associations, is seen as a precursor to James Joyce's Ulysses, although the elaboration is a bit more humorous.

In Oikospiel, to add to the absurdity, dogs walk around, locations change by themselves, there is a container ship somewhere and someone also tries to tell you something about climate change. All this while your mouse is chased by a sheepdog. Part 3 is, it seems, scheduled for the end of this century.

What all this day brings? At least the understanding that we are at the beginning of yet another whole new development, but that there is still much work to be done. Game developers have rarely grown up artistically. When developing, they are still more concerned with overcoming technical obstacles in software and hardware than with letting the imagination soar freely. you need the latter to bridge the deep gap between the nerd and the artist.


There is hope that is about to happen. With someone like Colin Benders, the musical genius is already at least as great as his technical eagerness. Oikospiel shows that forms of opera are possible that can also appeal to digital natives, and with Dear Esther, passive audiences can enjoy the sheer aesthetics of computer graphics and plotless storytelling.

Nice that the Holland Festival manages to convey that insight in two compact days. The bar for Ruth MacKenzie's successors is high.

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Seen at the Holland Festival, Sunday 24 June. 

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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