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[Interview] Bryan the intern speaks with Doug TenNapel about his upcoming game, Armikrog

6/19/13 8:10pm

Just before we hit the big week of E3, I was given the chance to speak with acclaimed cartoonist and game designer Doug TenNapel.  In addition to his more well-known property, Earthworm Jim, he has penned several comics along with the claymation point and click adventure game The Neverhood, and its platformer sequel, Skullmonkeys.

Currently, TenNapel is working on something of a spiritual successor to The Neverhood titled Armikrog, another claymation point and click adventure game about a space traveler that crashlands on a mysterious alien fortress with his blind talking dog(?).

To fund this ambitious project, he has established a Kickstarter, found here.  With only a week left, the campaign still has to make over $300,000 to reach its goal.  Various prizes are given to those who donate, including the full game (once completed) for donating $20.

While the Kickstarter page gives us the overall premise, we were able to learn more details about what is in planning for Armikrog.

Let me make sure I get some background out of the way.  Earthworm Jim, Skullmonkeys, and The Neverhood are probably the most prominent games you’ve worked on, but what other projects have you been involved with over the years?

Oh wow.  That’s a long list.  I started doing Shadowrun for the Genesis, one was called Technoclash, an obscure game.  I was the project lead on the Genesis Jurassic Park game, and probably my next notable one would be at Virgin Games; I worked on the Super Nintendo version of Jungle Book.  I did Cool Spot 3D.

There’s so much contract work full of freelance work where they just kind of have me do one or two animations on some obscure project.

So you’ve done some work here and there?

Yeah, what would happen is if you were at a big game company like Virgin or Blue Sky Software, where I started… At the end of a project, they were in a panic and they had to hit their thousand data deadline, they’d just throw every animator in the company on it, so I probably did some John Elway Football in there too.

How did the idea to make another game like The Neverhood come to be?  What made you decide to make it into an adventure game rather than a game like Skullmonkeys or Earthworm Jim?

First of all, it depends on what the team wants to do, and in this case, it was Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield who were actually the ones responsible in running this project.  They’re Pencil Test Studios.  They’re contracting me to create and design the game.  They’re in charge of really all the execution.  I might do some animation here and there, but really, Mike’s animation is a lot better than mine, so any frame that I shoot I’d rather have them do it.

It did seem like that point and click adventure game, The Neverhood, was a really magical time for us.  It was very creatively free.  It’s the reason we wanted others to buy the game, and the point and click adventure genre, which the industry considered dead, is really the best place to showcase animation and exploring art.  This is a lot friendlier.  It’s always been a more creative genre than other genres were.

Like, even when you play Earhworm Jim, as funky and as fun as that is, while you’re playing the game, you’re rarely actually looking at the character, because you’re always using your periphery to look for enemies coming and what’s going to hit you and what platform to jump to, whereas Neverhood is different.  You click on the character, and you can look at it for a while and not get killed.

It’s also a fun genre to design puzzles for.  Puzzles are very different from the twitchy games, and I love twitchy games.  You’re really just spending all your time [designing platformers]  jimmying physics, going for physics and playability against game balance more than kind of the raw creation of the game.  It’s almost like once you get that tool set done for the first level of your platformer, you’re kind of done for the whole game.

So does that mean Armikrog will be very much like the old similar adventure games, or will there be some changes in the gameplay?

There’s changes in the gameplay, but they all fit within the point and click adventure puzzles genre.  But yeah, I’ve got a new game mechanic I’m working on that fits well within the genre.  Just kind of a world manipulation thing that I’m working on.  It’s a major part of the game, actually.

Speaking of which, the Neverhood had some very bizarre and obtuse puzzles.  Can we expect more of that in Armikrog?

Oh yeah.  I’m 10 times the puzzle maker I was on Neverhood.  I’ve consulted on television and I did the Push Nevada, the puzzle for the Push Nevada television show, and Ben Affleck.  We gave away a million dollars to someone who solved the puzzle within each episode.  So I’ve got a lot of practice just doing other things with puzzles, and I feel a lot more comfortable designing those obtuse puzzles…. Still, you can’t underestimate your audience, but you also can’t just throw hard stuff at them for the sake of making something hard.  That’s really mean to do in puzzle games, so they still have to be really high-quality puzzles.  A low quality puzzle would be like The Neverhood, the sliding… Y’know… The sliding tile puzzles.  It was pretty dumb, or the concentration game puzzles.  There won’t be any of that in this.  I’m not gonna put dumb puzzles in there.

So are you saying that you think there are things like that which will be done better in this game than in The Neverhood from a design perspective?

Absolutely.  I’m guessing most of it ought to be better on every level, and I mean quality of the puzzles will be better on every level.  There’s some great quality puzzles on Neverhood, but we set ourselves a really high bar to aim for, and we really have to beat it in every way.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the game will be as cohesive of a design as Neverhood, as one of the great things that works with The Neverhood is that everything felt appropriately sculpted in that world, and that’s kind of the design trick.  You have to make something out of a lot of different kinds of puzzles with different worlds and characters, but they have to still make one cohesive design statement.  That’s where a lot of the visual work comes in.

Speaking of the visual work, you did say that technology makes things easier than it was when you were making The Neverhood.  Can you detail that a little?

In Neverhood, just the green screening technologies were so difficult to figure out, and now that’s all just a given.  I mean, it’s so much easier to do.  Green screening and ROM removal and working on smaller scale sets.  In Neverhood we tried to build things as big as possible, and for Armikrog, the background you see already are, like, half the scale of what we did on The Neverhood, so it requires less tabletop space to actually build.  We’re still actually building the set, but we’re building on a smaller scale.

We can do so much of our own sound design now, and color correcting and anti-aliasing.  All the kinds of data manipulation is so much easier.  Even sprite handling.  Mike, he actually does the animation in the games because he programmed the packet that gets handed off for Unity [Armikrog’s engine], and we used to just stand over a programmer’s shoulder and really tell him about the timing of the animations and stuff like that.  Now you just prepare your own package.  It just goes in.

So on that side, we’re using the Unity engine rather than building an engine from scratch.  Just that heavy lifting alone puts us 75% along from where we were starting at 0 from Neverhood.

Was it difficult getting Terry Taylor back?  What was that like?

No no.  That was a phone call.  Terry’s one of my very close friends, and he was my first friend before Neverhood.  He’d been wanting to get back with us.  We use him in all kinds of stuff, just no one’s ever heard of it, like a little phone app game, or one of our shorts or something.  To really have him do major work is just something we’re really looking forward to.

So I just called him and said “Hey, you want to do this?”  He said “yeah,” then “do you mind cranking out a demo song?”  And he sat down in front of that camera and danged out that little song we released.

It’s very easy for him to write [for] The Neverhood.  It’s the execution that’s the hard part.  Setting up a recording studio, working with big musicians and staff we have to hire from time to time, honest work, ect.

The Neverhood had the theme of the creation of the Neverhood, forming a new world the main character doesn’t know.  Now with Tommynaut crash landing on the planet, he’ll be exploring a new world he doesn’t know.  Is that what you had in mind when conceptualizing it?

Oh yeah.  I mean, story-wise, Neverhood was very much a creation account and a morality tale and a very stark universe that was, y’know, kind of just created.  That’s that kind of sci-fi that is.  And Armikrog is very much a space adventure, trying to get his [Tommynaut’s] honor back, and he’s part of a failed space program, and he has to kind of regain it, his credibility on his home planet and the recognition to succeed, and the first thing he does is crash lands.  So he’s surrounded by these wall lines.  From the very start of the game, there’s kind of this impetus that he has to, y’know, look after himself in this fortress, Armikrog.  He has to get out and save his people.  There’s a lot more action in this game.  Not the gameplay, but the cutscenes.  It’s slightly darker than The Neverhood.

What you see in the trailer is this stark, bizarre world.  You want to feel very alien, but outside of the genre, using clay animation and the same team, we’re not out to copy or ape The Neverhood.  This is just a standalone.  It has to work on its own merits.  That’s true for all the projects.  When we made Earthworm Jim, it had to stand on its own merits; it was its own thing, then when I had to create The Neverhood, we had a lot of Earthworm Jim fans expecting us to make a platform game, and we just said “It’s not really what we do.  We’re not here to copy ourselves.  We will try that same entertainment value and perspective on Neverhood.”  And now we keep getting Neverhood fans going “we just want to see Neverhood,” and we’re like “well let’s give Armikrog a shot first, because you made us love this also, and might just create a whole new audience.”  The highest kind of overlap of all the games we’ve made is Neverhood, and that’s why we’re always trying to appeal to The Neverhood fans to really give this thing a shot.

I was very intrigued that Mike J. Nelson is in the game.  It sounded like he was voicing Tommynaut, is that right?

Yeah he did.  He’s voicing the main character.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him voicing any kind of animated character before.  Is there a way you got him?  Is he a fan of yours or are you a fan of his?

We’re fans of each other and we’re very close friends.  We’re in a G.K. Chesterton reading group.  We meet at our house every week and read Chesterton together, smoke cigars and drink whiskey.  We’re good friends, but just because we’re good friends doesn’t mean he gets the role.  I had to see if his voice was a match.  His voice is just so… kinda… Midwest, and very… authoritative, and it just fit really well with the astronauts.  He gave us a couple lines and we just dropped it over our Tommynaut animatic, and Mike and Ed were sure; “Oh yeah.  That’s going to work.”  It’s nice when it works with your friends.  And he has an amazing talent; he’s not, like, putting on this voice.  It’s more like he and the character have a lot in common.

One of the Kickstarter rewards listed is the honor of naming a world.  Does that mean there’s going to be more than one?

Well, there is in the history, but not in the game.  We’re not going to be going to distant worlds in the game, it’s all going to take place on that planet, pretty much.  It does reference two other worlds, but it’s all in that one world.  They’re just kind of referenced in a unique telling of flashbacks and stuff like that.

Finally, how would you say the Kickstarter is going so far?

I’d say it’s going great.  We’re right on track.  We’re not so far along that we have a false sense of security, but we’re not so far behind that we’re in a panic.  The Kickstarter not working isn’t an option, because then the game can’t get made, and it’s just one of the most important things in our lives as far as creativity goes, and our professional work is… We’re throwing everything into this game.  I’m not taking payment, I’ve invested my own in the preproduction that you see on the video, and Mike and Ed have put in their time collectively.  All of the artisans have chipped in about $100,000 worth of work; about 3 months of full-time work, so it’s a big risk.  But so far it’s going good.  We’re thrilled by, we’re astonished by, the over 10,000 donors, and they act like a part of the team because they are a part of the team.  They give us suggestions, they talk.  We answer every e-mail, every post.  I have enthusiastic fans.  These are very generous, selfless kinds of people, and they’re the kind of people you don’t want to disappoint.  They put a lot of trust in us, and we’re not going to betray that trust.  We’re under promise to deliver.

With Kickstarter, people donate their dollars first.  They put real money in, and all we do is promise to make a game in the hope your reputation or your past work makes that go.  It bugs me that we might let our donors down, that it might not find the stability to do that.  We’re excited about creating a game, but also we’re kind of excited about the bigger message that it means to the world of creative people taking control of their… What kind of game they want.  They cast a vote of trust instead of a publisher telling them “this is what we made for you.”  Now you pay for it.  Now we go to them and say “how do you like this idea?”  So it won’t even exist unless we get enough donors.  I’d be bothered personally by them not being able to play the game if it doesn’t go, but also really impeached if kind of the donors’ capitalist democracy of Kickstarter decides against it.  Then I have nothing more to say, it’s just the way it goes, and I’m at peace with that.  I just think there’s more people that want to see it.  They’re rabid about it.  I mean the fans are rabid, and I love that.  I’m rabid about it too.

Pictured: Rabidity; awesome art here done by Mike Koelsch.

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