Hangin' in the Neverhood Pt. 3 – A Surprise Doug TenNapel Appears!

Due to the coverage we’ve given it this past week, I’m sure our readers and listeners are acutely aware of just how excited we are for Armikrog. From a chance encounter at E3, to a face-to-face, to our Bonus Round podcast with Ed and Mike, it’s gotten us a lot of traction.

A great deal of that traction comes from Doug TenNapel, co-creator of Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood! When he saw us promoting the game via Twitter, he took it upon himself to open a dialogue, and retweet all of our updates to his throngs of fans (7,694, to be exact). Dozens of tweets later I contacted him, and asked if he’d like to contribute to the coverage here at Double Plus Good Games with an e-mail correspondence interview. What follows is exactly that!

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James Bacon: While interviewing your colleagues at Pencil Test Studios this past week, they had made mention that Armikrog wasn’t necessarily a new idea; that this is something you’ve been holding on to for a while. How long, and why now?

Doug TenNapel: All of my ideas stew for a while. It’s how I help to see if they will stand the test of time. But it’s really hard to say that the final thing like Armikrog existed, since all of the ideas combine at the end, not at the beginning. So I first coined the name Armikrog at least fifteen years ago. That word didn’t have a home. I’d try it as a title on a number of projects or use it as a name for a character and nothing worked. But when Mike Dietz asked me if I wanted to make a new stop motion point and click adventure game I said, “Oh yes. It’s going to be called Armikrog.”

As for Tommynaut, those design principles that make him have been there for twenty years. Those are just the general proportions I use for my lead characters. But the solid black eyes were a thing I tried on a number of previous characters and projects and they just weren’t working. Then I tried them on Tommynaut and Mike Dietz said, “Yes. I’d love to try animating that!” And that’s how my ideas come together.

James Bacon: Where does your inspiration come from? Regarding Earthworm Jim, I think it’s safe to say something like that hadn’t ever been done before you did it, and I dare say nothing like it has come since; however, in certain character designs of yours, I can see flashes of Jeff Smith’s Bone and other tributaries, but when I read material like Nnewts, or Ratfist, I can see you have a brilliant array of unique and original characters and worlds. How much of it is exterior influence, and how much of it is your own creation? Do you ever decide to pay tribute with intent, or is it more a subconscious leaning?

Doug TenNapel: I think some of my work may hint of Bone because not only is Jeff Smith a big influence on me, but we are both drawing from a similar body of other artists that inform our work. The sheer variety of styles I work in comes from my own impatience with anything I happen to be working on. I love to create the new as much I love to execute the current thing I’m working on so there’s always some new crazy project to try. My limitation is never the creative part… that’s very easy to do. It’s the execution of any crazy idea that takes a lot of work, time and patience. But most of my influence from the outside is on a subconscious level. I devour other people’s art and work from a lot of different backgrounds and it all goes into the hopper. I never know when it’s going to come back out in a project. So I’m never deliberately going after some idea that I see out there. In fact, I’m often trying to run away from ideas that I already see existing. I just read Moby Dick and all of that stuff is going to come out some day. I’m also studying Bruce Timm’s fantastic art and that’s going to come out too. I think when I created Ratfist I was reading a lot of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s great work. Anyone who looks at Ratfist wouldn’t tie it to Gabe and Fab, but I don’t know if it all would have shaken out the way it did if I didn’t happen to be looking at their work.

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JB: Why come back to video games? You’re a successful illustrator, and have published several graphic novels (Gear, Cardboard, Bad Island, Ghostopolis, and so many others). What makes Tommynaut, Beak-Beak, and their world and history a better fit for video games? Or is it maybe a personal desire to come back into the fray to revisit older times?

DT: I always say that I didn’t leave games, games left me. I’ve always seen that medium as a legit place to create fun stuff, I just had to wait a while before the players were empowered to fund projects that the contemporary game companies weren’t interested in. So I’ll work in graphic novels, and I’ve got a TV pilot at Disney, and I’ll do contract work for Dreamworks, then make games. The mediums have their own unique limitations so each one presents a problem to solve and just like working in that space. What I DO love about games is that I get to work with my old friends Mike Dietz and Edward Schofied. These guys are like blood to me and it’s one thing that working in games offers that I don’t get when I work alone at my art table on comics.

JB: How involved with Armikrog are you? Beyond designing the characters, do you have any input regarding scenario writing, or plot scripting? I know that you’ve been contracted by Ed and Mike at Pencil Test Studios, but given your long and storied background with those two gents, does this specific creative relationship allow for you to provide more than just crazy creatures and characters?

DT: I do all of the scenario writing and plot scripting too. I also do most of the actual game design, working out puzzles, mechanics and weaving the story in and out of the game. That said, I never have to tell Mike or Ed to be creative when it’s time to make something on the fly. The actual creation work on a game means they have to be able to just decide something. They always run it by me, but it’s more to see if I can come up with something different and not that I need to approve everything. We’ve worked enough together that there has never really been any conflict with who does what job. We each probably end up doing about three man’s worth of work, so there isn’t even time to think too much about anything but the job that’s right in front of us. When the game funds my job is to design the hell out of it. Mike and Ed have a mountain of animation to do that needed to be done yesterday. We’ll work like that for a year.

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JB: In a recent interview you’ve given with Bryan the Intern of Screw-Attack.com, you mentioned that Armikrog is a much darker game than The Neverhood. I played The Neverhood, and I recall that if you were to remove the whimsey of your design, and the situational humor, the meta-plot was particularly dark. How much darker could Armikorg really be?

DT: It’s dark, because there’s a lot more at stake than what was in the Neverhood. The hero Tommynaut is a much more stoic being who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Klaymen was always so innocent and naïve and just kind of loping through the world that I don’t think he knew the threat that he was experiencing. But I’m not trying to make some gothic horror thing. The story is definitely bright and funny and there will be laughs… and there will be sadness. I like giving Tommynaut a fuller range of emotion because I think he’s more “real” being than Klaymen. Klaymen is a mythic fairy tale, so he has a dreamy quality about him. Tommynaut is a fallen astronaut trying to regain his honor.

JB: This is maybe a bit of a preemptive question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Provided Armikrog is finished (and it WILL, I have full faith), are there formative plans to maybe stay within this universe you’re creating? Sort of like how Skullmonkeys and, to a lesser extent, Boombots all took place within the Neverhood universe?

DT: One of the benefits of going to players for funding is that we’ll never have to ask a publisher for permission to make a sequel. That’s what’s really frustrating about Neverhood and Earthworm Jim, we don’t control the sequel rights. When Armikrog funds I’ll be hoping to do at least one more game in that world and we’ll keep it a point and click adventure game, hopefully with some appropriate innovations. 

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JB: Can you reveal anything regarding the gameplay of Armikrog? I realize it’s going to be a point and click adventure game, but even that genre has been evolving (all be it at a slower pace than most other genres). Are there new and fresh mechanics you’ve been working on, or is this strictly a nostalgic game with nostalgic mechanics?

DT: It has those same Neverhood mechanics, but I’ve added a first person mode where you move and manipulate a miniature scale of the fortress Armikrog and it moves the real world around you. So it would be like if you had to move the actual buildings around the Neverhood to solve puzzles. The world is a puzzle.

JB: I asked this same question of Ed and Mike, and they seemed to have quite a bit of fun with it. I hope you get the same amount of enjoyment out of it: is there a question that you haven’t been asked regarding Armikrog that you would really like to answer?

DT: Making this game is going to be torment… but the best kind of torment! It’s a lot of work, but it’s what we’re here to do, and we intend to make something that is going to stand the test of time.

Thank you very much for this opportunity, Doug! The Armikrog Army stands behind you!