Making a game that's genuinely funny is hard work, especially if you try to incorporate jokes and sight gags that rely on perfect comedic timing to be effective. Few developers can pull it off -- Valve, Galactic Cafe, and now Necrophone Games are among the notable exceptions.
But what's really surprising about Necrophone Games' comedy adventure game Jazzpunk isn't how funny it can be, but rather that it's funny at all. To hear Necrophone Games co-founder Luis Hernandez tell it, this surreal and bizarrely charming first-person game -- which took seven years to develop across multiple engines -- wasn't really meant to be a comedy game at all.
But at some point Hernandez and fellow Necrophone co-founder Jess Brouse decided to turn their original idea for a first-person puzzle game into a humorous tribute to their favorite books, music and movies, and the result proved compelling enough to merit a nomination for the IGF 2014 Seumas McNally Grand Prize.
Continuing our Road to the IGF series of interviews with IGF finalists, we catch up with Hernandez to learn more about the evolution of Jazzpunk and the studio's approach to creating comedic games.
How did you get started making games?
I started off making games during the "mod scene", back in the late '90s. I used to make maps in Worldcraft and Radiant, and try and get interesting effects/worlds out of them. I've made a few smaller experimental game projects over the years, but Jazzpunk is by far the largest project I've ever worked on.
Jess Brouse (half of Necrophone Games, and the programmer/animator on Jazzpunk) used to do client-based work for web and mobile games. Full 3d desktop games was always where our real interests were.
What development tools did you use to build Jazzpunk?
Jazzpunk is built on Unity. We haven't really used any special external development tools beyond the typical 2D/3D programs. I prefer to model in Softimage, but unfortunately Unity doesn't jive well with it for things like animation, so we ended up using Blender for that stuff. In terms of audio equipment I use mostly analog hardware synthesizers and effects processors for the music, voice, and sound effects. It was important to me to capture the audio design feeling of the 1960s, where everything was still edited on tape, or when robots were still voiced with vocoders and ring modulators. Lots of tape echo, spring reverb.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
It's been over 5 years of development, on-and-off. I think Jazzpunk was started sometime in 2007, as just a little experiment (pre-Unity).
Had Unity existed properly when we first conceived the project, I think it would've taken a lot less time to develop, but we actually switched engines twice, which was a huge setback. At the same time, had we not taken a break from the project during those two engine shifts, I don't believe it would've ended up the same. We were fortunate to get a lot of perspective during those development gaps.
How did you come up with the concept?
The elements that comprise Jazzpunk didn't come all at once. Jazzpunk is sort of a synthesis of our favorite literature, movies, and music that come from the noir/cyberpunk/spy/jazz genres. Its been a slow evolution, and we've done our best to listen to the needs of the game and to stay flexible, so that it could evolve naturally over time. That's one of the large advantages to being self-funded and independent; the luxury of patience.
The look of the game can be traced back to a series of sketches I did late one night while listening to latin-jazz exotica, and wanting to express a kind of high-saturation modernist-stylized cyberpunk world. The comedy element of the game took a lot longer to make itself known as the defining characteristic of the game, though.
Are you saying that Jazzpunk wasn't originally intended to be a highly comedic game? What did you originally hope to create?
Jazzpunk didn't begin its life as a comedy at all. We don't work from top-down design documents, the way AAA studios do, so the feeling of the game was more of a fluid concept. Jazzpunk started as more of a straightforward puzzle/espionage/hacking game set in a stylized world. Something that looked vibrant and stylized (eg: Jet Set Radio or Katamari Damacy), but with a first-person puzzle-y gameplay mechanic (eg: Portal).
As we worked on the game and started building up this world, we'd occasionally sneak smaller gags or easter eggs into the game, mostly for our own amusement. Eventually, we took a step back, and tried to honestly assess what was working in the game, and what wasn't. We realized the comedy elements were our favorite part, and once we fully acknowledged that, the project really took off. Suddenly we got very excited with prototyping dozens of new things, writing all of these jokes, the game really spoke to us and told us what it wanted to be. But it took a lot of patience to get there.
Many games struggle with comedic timing, but Jazzpunk seems to nail it at just about every opportunity. How did you tackle developing humorous moments in a game, and have you learned anything about comedy in the process?
One thing we've learned for sure, is that comedy in games doesn't really follow the rules of other comedic mediums. We had to kind of put on our lab coats and do a lot of prototyping, lots of experimentation, to figure out what was effective and what wasn't working. Interaction ended up being key to a lot of it, people really get something special out of the participation, and not just being told a joke, like in Portal, for example. I think for every joke you see in Jazzpunk, there are easily 10-20 prototypes that didn't make the cut. Making someone laugh is just as hard as making someone cry, and there are a lot of games right now that try and drive these sweeping emotional/tragic moments home really hard. I think its a misconception that making people laugh is somehow easier, or cheaper of a pursuit, they're both strong emotional responses, in the end.
In terms of comedic timing, basically if the timing is off, and we aren't laughing, we'll go in and adjust it.
So are your jokes better now, or worse?
Our senses of humor have remained constant throughout the project (I am aware that was a very dry sentence :).
I would say the quality of the jokes has been consistent, however because we have a system for creation down, because we have the recipe, its a lot easier to brainstorm new jokes/gags, than it was when we first began.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
We've been pretty buried in work since the summer, trying to wrap the game up. Unfortunately I haven't had much of an opportunity to sit down and play games, outside of what I get to quickly try at conventions. I don't like having to rush though the experience, but am looking forward to playing through everything once I have some leisure time again :).
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
That's a tough one. I think it mirrors the AAA scene in a lot of ways, there's still a lot of conservative attitudes towards design and stylization, but occasionally you find a real gem and it keeps you guessing about the state of things. From a more technical angle, sidescrollers and first-person games are quite common, but I'm really hoping there is a surge of third-person stuff in the future, perhaps as motion capture tools become easier/cheaper for indies to get a hold of. Many of my favorite games exist from a third person perspective, and it would be nice to see that represented in the indie world eventually.