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Inside the IGF Student Competition: The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident

In the lead-up to the IGF, GameCareerGuide has been speaking to student developers who have submitted games to the festival’s Student Competition, including the 15-person team that created The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident, a Half-Life 2 mod ma
[In the lead-up to the 2009 IGF, GameCareerGuide has been speaking to student developers who have submitted games to the festival’s Student Competition, including the 15-person team that created The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident at The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University.] Brent Ellison, the associate lead producer on the game (who is now a gameplay designer at Funcom in Oslo, Norway) spoke on behalf of the team. The student title was created as a Half-Life 2 mod, and is free to download. Here's an overview about the game’s artistic and thematic inspiration, largely inspired by Edward Gorey: The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident is a cartoonish, Edward Gorey-inspired platformer with a unique visual style that mimics the look of a silent film. Armed with his trusty animal sack, keeper Edward Mump scours the zoo for bizarre critters to recapture. The player swings his bag at cowardly Oddbobs, mischevious Grummies, and furious Rumpuses throughout the park before coming to a climactic encounter with the terrifying Umbuggler. Tell us how The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident came to be. Where does the game’s title come from? We wanted to make a game that would really stand out and get noticed, and since we knew our team was going to be pretty artist-heavy, we decided to try to go for something with a very distinct and polished visual style. Edward Gorey was a great starting point for our style and mood, and the zoo setting allowed for some fun character design and naturally informed the gameplay. The title is our take on Edward Gorey’s playful naming schemes. In particular, it’s a nod to one of his alphabet books, The Gashlycrumb Tinies. One of characteristics of Gorey’s artwork is that there is something profoundly mundane about it, but another layer of something that’s completely macabre. Lemony Snicket does the same thing in his writing style. Can you talk about how that plays out in game, taking the very ordinary and giving it a dark undercurrent? In terms of art, we actually ended up moving pretty far away from Gorey’s style during pre-production, when we realized the problems inherent in translating his flat pen and ink drawings into 3D: it would take longer to overcome than we had, particularly in an engine designed for realism. Instead, we ended up with something that was more Looney Tunes or Tim Burton-esque. In that way we were able to make very expressive characters that would stand out in our largely colorless world. However, Edward Gorey’s influence can be seen very strongly in the dark tone of the environments, and also where we inject his macabre sense of humor into both the writing and gameplay. The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident is a game about capturing escaped animals in a zoo, something that could easily describe a typical children’s game. However, the main character catches and keeps the animals in the same sack he uses to knock them senseless. The dark twist on a children’s tale is classic Gorey, and we tried to translate that element to the game. I think you can also see a dark take on the ordinary in the character design as well, despite our more cartoonish style. The enemies aren’t particularly fantastical, and in fact look almost like cartoon versions of normal animals. But there’s something off about each of the creatures that makes them a bit sinister. Since making this game (or since graduating), have your opinions or assumptions about game development changed in any way? If so, how and what were they before? Often the idea of making "fun" is drilled into your head as the be-all, end-all goal of game development. Realistically, however, you need to aim for a lot more specific targets to make sure a game even gets the chance it deserves. A team needs to sit down at the start of a project and very explicitly define their goals, including target audience, etc., then work through exactly what it will take to hit those goals. For example, if we had thought a bit more about the audience of IGF voters, we probably would have made our game a bit more mouse-and-keyboard friendly. As it is, people who don’t play The Ghastleybriar Zoo Incident with an analog controller may be somewhat disappointed, and this is something we could have addressed had we thought about it more from the outset. Another thing that game students don’t usually fully grasp is just how team-driven the game industry is. In an academic context, you succeed or fail on your own merits, even in a team project. In the industry, things work a bit differently. [Gamasutra has this abbreviated version of the interview; the extended article is available on sister site GameCareerGuide.com.]

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