GameCentral talks to the makers of Psychonauts about their new ‘80s-inspired roguelike and the burden of having to be funny.
Despite having been around for almost two decades now, and employing over 50 staff, Double Fine still feels like the quintessential indie developer, making games based purely on their own whims and fancies, with no reference to current trends or what is likely to sell. Frankly, we’re shocked they’re still going but thankfully they managed to hold on long enough to be bought out by Microsoft and as such Psychonauts 2 will end up as their last multiformat game. Before that though there’s Rad…
We had played Rad briefly at E3, back in June, and found it to be an enjoyably odd roguelike action game. The premise is that every ‘80s fear about nuclear annihilation has come true and you’re stuck in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by mutants and dominated by the strange ruins of a second civilisation that grew up immediately after our current one.
The main gimmick of the game though is that you can constantly mutate your main character to give them new powers and abilities. In our hands-on we didn’t play long enough to get anything other than the power to shoot fireballs but speaking to director Lee Petty in a phone interview last week he described more extreme examples, such as power called Warhead where you can launch your head out of your neck and turn it into an explosive grenade, regrowing a new one afterwards.
One of the most extreme is called Death Roe (the names are great) that has you grow a tail and lay eggs which hatch ‘spider-looking babies’ that have your head on them. But mutations combine and if you have Warhead and Death Roe then they’ll have flaming skulls instead and be even more dangerous.
Petty has been responsible for some of Double Fine’s strangest games, from 2011’s Stacking, in which has you playing a Russian matryoshka doll, and 2016’s Headlander – a ‘70s style sci-fi Metroidvania in which you control a flying head that can possess robot bodies. So it seems he’s proceeding in his normal, unusual fashion.
Because Rad is a roguelike you lose everything when you die but anything you’ve done to expand and open-up your base camp is retained, ensuring an advantage in the next procedurally-generated world; especially once you gain the ability to use the cash machines that are dotted around everywhere.
Although we didn’t get far enough in our demo to see any of the more outrageous mutations we were definitely intrigued and happy to talk to Petty about the release of the game – which is somewhat unfortunately set to take place on the first day of Gamescom on 20 August next week.
Hopefully Rad won’t get lost in the news cycle, and we’ll be able to review it before we leave for the event, but either way Petty makes a compelling argument for the game and Double Fine’s continued indie attitude – even if, corporately-speaking, they’re now the furthest thing from independent you can get.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: 20th August 2019
GC: Compared to Stacked and Headlander this almost seems like a sane and normal idea. Were you purposefully trying to do something a little more traditional and accessible?
LP: I guess it sort of depends on where you’re looking in the game. I wouldn’t say that Rad is more traditional than Headlander or Stacking, but on the surface it probably seems a little easier to get your teeth into.
There’s a layer of post-apocalypse and 80s nostalgia which gives players a place to start. But I think the game gets a little more surreal and alien as it progresses. And I think some of the themes that we’re exploring with Rad are pretty unusual in games.
But every game is a little different here and we try and we just kind of allow the game to go where it wants to go and follow the fun and where our aesthetic inspirations lead us, you know?
GC: What came first, the desire to make a roguelike or the 80s nostalgia angle?
LP: I’m a child of the 80s, and for me the initial inspiration came from the nuclear panic of the 80s. And not just that but the weird creativity that sprang out of it; there was this kind of Hollywood take on it which could be very strange. Movies like Solarbabies and Cherry 2000 and some of the European comic books and artists like Moebius and Métal hurlant and 2000 AD.
I’m always interested in this idea of an impermeant player character, the ability to take on someone else’s identity, and I think my feeling on Rad was I was thinking about being in this volatile world and not just having the randomness in the world generation itself, or the items that you find, but also the player character. In Rad, since you kind of randomly mutate, and you’re not going to be picking an archetype or a class, you’re challenged to deal with these mutations as they come at you.
And that’s kind of what I was interested in at the start and a roguelike seemed to serve that well because they naturally have these relatively short loops with lots of randomisation built in and where you have to start over if you die. And what a roguelike has in common with some of these mutation ideas, to me, was the idea of unexpected drama. You’re not necessarily exactly sure what’s going to happen and then you adapt your play session to the events or imperfect tools that you’re given.
GC: It’s interesting that there is actually a thematic link with Stacking and Headlander. In a way it’s like a more literal kind of role-playing, where it’s not just the stats that are changing but the whole character.
LP: I think there’s always an interesting dissonance between the player and the character and who’s experiencing what and how those stories are told. And I think by questioning that identity, or at least exploring that space a little bit – what makes you you in the game world – has always fascinated me.
When you would take control of another character in Stacking people’s dialogue responses to you change and then they were seeing this kind of outer shell, so it had that social interaction layer. And in Rad you’re playing this teen that goes out to solve the problems of your ancestors, or the previous generation.
So you have this underdog character and when you mutate we do visualise it on the character, it’s not just a stat somewhere, and not only does it change your ability and your presence, but we’ve written a lot of dialogue for the characters that will change based on your appearance or your abilities. So even though the game is much more action-based than Stacking those kind of elements, and exploring some of those same themes, is definitely there.
GC: When I played my hands-on demo it was only right at the end of maybe 20 minutes or so play that I actually got a mutation, is that you again trying to slowly ease people into things?
LP: Yeah, that’s something we thought about a lot, because in a more linearly-structured game you can control what they see and when they’re introduced to things a lot more. But in a roguelike people are replaying some of the same segments even though the world is procedurally generated. You have to find the balance between not presenting too much upfront and making sure they don’t see the same thing 500 times.
If we started you with a mutation right away and you maybe didn’t want to play as that one, we don’t want you to think, ‘Oh, I’ll just kill myself and get another one’. Also, the mutations can get more extreme when you start getting multiple ones together. And we want it to get progressively a little more disturbing as it goes on. I like things that are both charming and disturbing at the same time, that’s kind of the tone of the game.
GC: That’s a very 80s thing as well, isn’t it? That was the era with cartoons based on 18-rated movies and where even the kids’ films were scary and weird.
LP: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. I think it was probably a way of processing some of those truly horrific worries about a nuclear holocaust or, nowadays, the complete collapse of our ecosystem. I think these ideas are riding through the culture and people are naturally processing it in different ways.
GC: The writers would’ve been aware of the situation and even if they’re writing a kids show those worries, even if they were subconscious, would have come through.
LP: Right, right. And I want us to kind of channel some of that. I think there were things made at the time that have aged better than others but I kind of like that, because there’s a certain idiosyncratic charm in there. I mean, obviously you want to make things that are relevant now but I don’t know… I like to capture a bit of that.
GC: Well, I think we’re getting a similar sense of existential dread back now.
LP: [laughs] Yeah, I think you’re right.
GC: I do enjoy roguelikes but I also think some developers get too obsessed with making them ultra-difficult or relying too much on procedural generation, how have you handled those aspects?
LP: I mean, for us difficulty means that it serves the function that you’re going to probably die a number of times and in doing so you’re going to get to live that experience of randomly mutating and seeing a lot of different possibilities. That being said, I would say overall Rad is a little easier than some roguelikes. We do actually want people to do successful runs. We do have special story sequences that happen at the end of runs and they progress the meta story that runs through it all.
In terms of the world itself, most roguelikes are done with 2D tiles but we wanted the challenge of making a more complex 3D world. That’s not just interesting for us but hopefully for players too, and it gives you a game that feels fresh even when it’s in a familiar genre.
You don’t want to be exploring and know there’s always going to be a chest there or an enemy here. But I enjoyed the challenge of getting that to work and for me, when making a new game, I like the idea of trying to create a new visual style for each game… or a new way that the world is built. You know? That’s the fun of making a video game.
GC: One thing I always wondered about Double Fine is do you feel the pressure – because of Tim Schafer and his legacy – to always be funny?
GC: I think some people expect all your games to be comedies.
LP: It’s funny because I do feel that pressure sometimes, even though Tim and I have a very different sense of humour. Tim’s a great joke-teller, you know, he’s great at dialogue. And I’m more interested in the sort of theatre of the absurd, where it’s uncomfortable humour and a little dryer. And sometimes when we release games some people like that and some people are like, ‘Well, this isn’t very funny for a Double Fine game’.
But the reality is we’re a group of different creators here and I think the sensibilities that I feel Double Fine games all have in common are more about just an overall sense of personality and making some unusual design choices and pairing that with like a distinct aesthetic. Humour can be a component of some of those unusual choices, but other times it’s not.
It’s funny when you encounter a guard and he’s got a backstory about having irritable bowel syndrome and that’s why he’s uncomfortable standing by this gate. Most developers wouldn’t do that. We would, but it’s not only in terms of comedy, I think it’s in service of personality.
GC: The problem is that even in the rare instances where they attempt it most video games are so terrible at comedy; it almost seems like you have a responsibility to be funny just because you can.
LP: [laughs] I know what you mean. But the problem is humour is very specific. It’s much easier to get a broad group of people to agree that the controls are reactive or the gameplay mechanics are good than it is to agree that a particular joke is funny.
GC: Considering Headlander was set in the 70s and this is inspired by the 80s your next game needs to be a 90s sex comedy. Because sex is the other thing that video games are terrible at.
GC: All you’ve got to do is beat Leisure Suit Larry, so that bar is not high.
LP: [laughs] Yeah, true. That’s very true. Maybe we can put that into a roguelike as well. You know what, I’m going to explore that idea. I like that. [laughs]
GC: I guess I better finish off by asking you about the Microsoft acquisition. Now that you’ve got infinite money at your disposal.
GC: Are you suddenly thinking of all the things you could’ve done with this game, or others, if you’d only had a bigger budget?
LP: It’s an interesting question. I’ve never really wanted to work on any kind of big project. I think if I was a writer I’d tend more towards novellas than writing War and Peace. So to some extent there’s not really anything I’d change. But like every game developer you do have to leave things on the table and it would be nice, with more money, to go deeper into some of the weirder details.
I like to create things that not every player can find easily but those are very hard to do when you’re always facing aggressive budgets or timelines. So if I had infinite money it’d be more to go down these kind of strange tangents, so that people who are interested in living with the game for a bit, instead of just burning through it, get a chance to fine all these little secrets. But that’s all.
GC: You’re technically no longer an indie developer but I imagine Microsoft doesn’t want you to change your approach. They didn’t buy you so you could help make a Call Of Duty killer.
LP: Exactly. We’re not going to be making the next Forza or something. Because if we did it’d have exploding heads in it. [laughs]
My assumption is that that is indeed why they bought us. Like a lot of other bigger players in the market they’re looking for something to make their platforms more distinct. And I think maybe they thought we could help with that.
I can’t imagine any other reason you’d buy Double Fine other than to think that we could make interesting experiences. It’s not like we have world crushing technology or a $1 billion franchise. We haven’t been hiding our Fortnite from everyone.
GC: [laughs] That’s great. Okay, well thanks for your time, that was very interesting.
LP: No problem, it was good talking to you too.
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