Hangin’ in the Neverhood – A Pencil Test Studios Interview, Pt. 2
Once Ed was finished with his phone call, and Mike made sure everything was alright, we proceeded after swapping random stories about our E3 take-aways this year and print media, among other things. Despite the nature of Ed’s phone call, we decided to turn to markedly lighter fare.
James Bacon: I always try to do this with every interview I take. Is there a question that you’ve not been asked, that you wish you were asked up to this point?
Mike Dietz: Yeah, that question! That’s the question!
James Bacon: That’s so weird!
Mike Dietz: Uuuuuuhhh… wow, that’s a good question. That’s a really good question!
Ed Schofiled: That’s a great question! …When you ask that question, do people…
MD: Do people do exactly what we’re doing right now?
JB: Yes. In fact, I expect this reaction. (Upon stating this I let loose with a big ol’ smile)
MD: I’m going to tell you now, of all of the interviews, and all of the podcasts and everything we’ve done so far, that’s the best question we’ve been asked.
Ed Schofield: Yeah, it is! That’s the stumper, right there.
JB: Oh, wow! Well, I’m honored to take that honor.
MD: Like, if I ever interview people, I’m going to steal that.
JB: Be my guest! The reason I ask the question – funny enough I’ve only ever interviewed independent developers – and the reason that I started asking it was because you’re often times in self-promotion mode, and sometimes you’re not given the opportunity to talk about things you want to, and so this is my way of trying to fill that gap.
MD: Well, I hate self-promotion. (We all share a laugh) If I was left to our own devices, we’d be back in the studio, telling everyone to leave me alone. We don’t go into self-promotion ‘man, I got all these bullet points I’m gonna hit.’ It’s more like, ‘man, gotta do another day of this;’ which, actually, it’s been really fun in that we’ve gotten to meet so many people.
ES: Yeah. That’s been cool.
MD: Meeting guys like you, I mean… back in my corner, back there, I wouldn’t have met you. You know? And everybody’s been so nice… Uh, yeah, let me think about that question.
ES: Yeah, it’s funny, the whole self-promotion thing. Kickstarter is… well, originally we though Kickstarter would be a means to an end, in that, you know, we’ll use it to get funding for a game, and like Mike said, self-promotion is not our number one priority. We’ve worked with enough guys where that’s their A game, and they’re very, very good at it, very, very effective.
MD: Dave Perry comes to mind.
ES: Yeah, Dave is amazing.
MD: And I mean that in a good way. I have great respect for the way he’s able to do that.
ES: But the Kickstarter thing has – and again, we’re still on this side of it, we haven’t finished the campaign, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know where we’re going to go – but, it sort of feels like it’s less about the means to the end, because, like Mike was saying, all these people we’ve met along the way, and all these new relationships that we’ve built, and it sort of feels like the beginning of something, you know? Mike and I talk about this every time, because people want to know ‘what surprised you most about the Kickstarter,’ or ‘what about the Kickstarter experience did you not expect,’ and we keep going back to this whole community. It’s such a cool thing. The backers and the supporters are people who want this game as much as we do, and that’s just been a really cool thing to experience, because it’s not something that we thought was going to happen. We just though ‘oh, you put a Kickstarter out there, and people will contribute, and that’ll be cool, and hopefully you raise enough money.’ It’s so much more than that. That doesn’t really tie in with the question that no one has asked, but it goes back to your self-promotion point. That’s something that Mike and I are learning along the way. We’ve been fortunate with our studio, here, that we haven’t had to do much promotion, because so much of it has been word of mouth. But this is sort of a new experience for us. Outside of our comfort zone.
MD: I think if I had to come up with a question that I wish someone would ask because I want to give the answer, I think the question might be something along the lines of: If you could give anything back to your fans and backers, what would that be? And, for me, if I could give anything back to the people who have supported all of the games that I’ve worked on in my career, it would be for them to be able to experience the joy of creating those things. Because to me, I love the process. The end result when you’re making [something] is that you end up with a game, or a film, or a TV show, and that’s great, and people can enjoy that, but to me, that’s just the byproduct of the process. And there’s nothing happier for me, then to be on a set animating, or to sit at my drawing table and create a drawing. Sometimes I’ll do a drawing and go, ‘oh, that was really fun!’ You know? Or I’ll be out on my set thinking, ‘this is the funnest thing in the world!’ And I wish there was a way I could share that enjoyment with the people who consume the product. I like the idea of creating a product that can give them enjoyment, and that, hopefully, when they play the games, or watch the show, they can sense the enjoyment that the creators were experiencing when we were creating. I think you can tell when someone’s creating something and really digging what they’re doing… I guess I feel sorry for people who don’t ever get to experience that joy, and I wish I could share that with them, somehow. I mean, I want to get this game funded, because I want to bring it to our fans, but also very selfishly, I want to be out there, on that set, animating that stuff.
ES: Another question that nobody ever asks us is: how come we never did a sequel to Boombots?
This was met with raucous laughter. I love Boombots, but I know full well that I’m in the minority, and I know why it’s a minority.
Mike then disappeared to grab a few more puppets and pieces to play with while we spoke. Once he returned, it was time to break out the serious question. The bombshell on which I planned to leave them (but subsequently didn’t leave them, because I just love to overstay my welcome).
JB: Who is your favorite Earth Worm Jim villain? I have one, and it’s a very uncommon choice.
ES: Is it Doc Duodenum?
JB: It is! How did you know that?!
ES: Because he’s really cool.
JB: He is really cool!
ES: He’s definitely one of the cooler ones… well, I have a sentimental favorite. The snowman in Heck. Where Evil the Cat is. I like that one just because I did the animation for it, but it was one of those things where we needed it right away…
MD: Yeah, you actually designed it and did everything on it. Someone said ‘snowman in heck’ and Ed just went away.
ES: Yeah, but it had to be done. I think we only had, like, a day and a half to do it. We were adding it later in production, so it was one of those things where I just went for it, did it quick, and all of a sudden it’s in the game. It was pretty cool, but Doc Duodenum is awesome.
MD: I actually think I would have said Doc Duodenum, too. Here’s what I like about Doc Duodenum – this is a long story, so bear with me – When I was a kid, I loved Bugs Bunny cartoons. There’s one cartoon where they reference Wendell Willkie. He was a presidential candidate early in the middle of last century, and he was famous for how many times he ran for president and lost. So, there’s one point, and I think it’s the episode with the gremlins, where Bugs Bunny says something like, ‘I think that was a gremlin,’ and the gremlin screams, ‘It ain’t Wendell Willkie!’ So, as a kid, I didn’t know who that was, but it was a funny sounding name, so as a kid I’d run around going ‘It ain’t Wendell Willkie!’ But then I was in middle school, and I was taking US history, and the teacher started talking about Wendell Willkie in her lecture, and I actually shouted out, ‘Wendell Willkie! THAT’S who Wendell Willkie is!’ I got so excited, because I had been carrying this name around of this character since I was four years old and I never knew what it was, but that day in school, I found out who Wendell Willkie was!
ES: So it now had context.
MD: Yeah! I got all this enjoyment out of it, years later, and I thought if there’s just one kid in the world who’s sitting in biology class, and the teacher starts talking about the duodenum, and they have that same moment I had, I will have succeeded in life. That’s why he’s my favorite.
JB: That’s awesome! My reason for liking him is because I really like the way the gobbets of acid were animated… I could have watched them spin and splash all day long. Not nearly as sweeping as your explanation…
We had another good laugh together.
At this point Mike and Ed were describing the large expense that stop-motion tends to be, as well as other Earth Worm Jim items, such as how quick art turn around can be, and how pencil tests were an invaluable tool, because it meant you could see things and decide on them before the vast majority of the work was done. In fact, Mike revealed that toward the end of production, Doc Duodenum and his entire level were assembled by Doug, alone, because they needed an additional level. So Doug disappeared, and showed back up with all of the content to craft the level. Finally, referencing a previous interview I had read that Mike gave, and having been made aware that Tommynaut’s armature is crafted from different pieces of previous characters, I asked about Armikrog one final time before leaving their gracious company.
JB: In the most recent interview that I’ve read, you mentioned how Armikrog is a journey of discovery. The fact that you’re reusing armatures from nearly every previous Neverhood project… is it that sort of, story focused, plot element discovery, or is it more meta than that? Kind of discovering who Klaymen is, or what could have been?
MD: It’s similar to the Neverhood in that the journey of playing the game is discovering where you really are. The history of where you are. Why you’re there, and through that discovery, you’re discovering how you can advance in this world.
ES: What your purpose is, in a sense.
MD: Klaymen was an innocent. He was newly created, newly born, he doesn’t know who he is, or why he’s there, or anything about this world; and as a player, you also don’t know. You’re dropped in a room with this character, and you don’t really know how he got there. You find out later in the game, but you don’t know initially. You don’t know why he’s there, or what he needs to do. So you’re going down that journey with Klaymen, trying to solve these puzzles and solve these mysteries while you’re there. Tommynaut is not an innocent. He’s a hero. He’s an astronaut, from a long line of astronauts that have, as you’ll learn from the story, kind of fallen from grace, and the space program that he’s a part of is not what it once was. In fact, one interviewer actually asked us if there were parallels between the story of Tommynaut and NASA which is a funny question, but the answer to that question, amazingly, is ‘yes, there actually are some parallels.’ Though it’s not necessarily intentional. So, Tommynaut ends up being the last hope for this space program, for his planet, and for his family – he has brothers who are failed astronauts. And so you’re dropped into his world at a moment where he basically hits rock bottom. It’s his responsibility to save his family, and save the space program, and you’re dropped into the story just when he crash lands on a planet, which is just about the worst thing that could happen to him. He ends up, through this little story [you see in the Kickstarter video], being chased into what you find out later is a fortress, to get away from the Mongrel and other characters out on this inhospitable planet. From that point on, even though both Tommynaut and the player sort of know the story of, ‘OK, I know why he’s here, and I know he has this history he’s trying to resurrect, and he’s trying to save the space program and his families honor,’ at that point he becomes a lot like Klaymen in that he’s now in this fortress, but he doesn’t know what this fortress is, he doesn’t know how to get out of it, and he doesn’t really know what to do to achieve his goal… and you’re going to find that out together. It’s the specifics of what he has to go through in this fortress and who owns the fortress, and who he’s got to beat that I’ve been reluctant to, very reluctant to answer those questions about.
JB: Well, I won’t ask…
MD: Well, I won’t tell you! Because it’s just a spoiler! On the Neverhood they asked us up front, and we were like, sure, ‘Well, the Neverhood is this place where Hoborg is the ruler, and Klogg has taken it over,’ and if you knew that going through the game, that spoils the fun.
ES: One of the great things about the Neverhood, and it’s our goal in Armikrog, is that we hear about people playing the Neverhood, and within themselves throughout the course of the game they come to this place where they say ‘I think I know what this is all about,’ and it’s at that moment where we really got them, because they think they know, and the fun part is to say ‘yes, it does seem like it’s going this way, but… hold on to your seats, because we’re actually going to go in a very different direction.’ And that’s the fun of discovery, and like Mike said, having that story play out to the player is the joy of that whole experience. You think you’ve got it figured out, and all of a sudden you realize it’s very different than what you thought.
MD: We’re also always looking for that Woody and the match moment, from Toy Story, where they’ve got the rocket, and they’re going to light it to catch up to the moving van, and everything will happen the way they want it to, and watching it you can see they did it! They got the match, they’re gonna light it, and we’re going to have the happy ending, and you think you’ve got it all figured out, then the car drives by and blows the match out and Woody starts to cry. And then you, as the viewer, with Woody and Buzz went from the joy of ‘I got it figured out, I know what’s gonna happen, this is gonna be cool,’ to,’ Crap… what’s gonna happen now?’ It seems like a simple thing, but it’s something that’s really, really hard to craft. In a narrative story, let alone a game.
JB: Well, you’ve managed to be very successful with it, so far.
Ed and Mike appreciated the compliment, but I had then decided it was far past the time I should have let them get back to work. I packed my things, thanked them heartily for inviting me into their space to discover more about them and what they do, and I left with one of the biggest smiles on my face.
Armikrog isn’t just a new video game. It’s a re-visitation of an era that welcomed new, interesting, and often oddball ideas. It’s the herald of things to come, but also a hearkening back to things that were, and things that could have been. Despite all of the information that poured out of E3 last week with regard to the new consoles, this grand hobby of ours will live and die by the independents. I haven’t yet preordered an XBOX One, or PS4. Sony and Microsoft just don’t have anything on the passionate people who craft games like Armikrog. They have nothing on the likes of Ed Schofield, Mike Dietz, and Doug TenNapel. As a result, my money is going toward funding Armikrog. Because I am passionate about this hobby, and I am passionate about passionate people.
Thanks again to Ed Schofield and Mike Dietz. I hope to do this again sometime in the future, after Tommynaut’s had his adventure, and you’ve moved on to your next game.
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