By John Walker on July 16th, 2009 at 2:33 pm.
The really very splendid Time Gentlemen, Please!, from indie developers Zombie Cow, has already seen Alec pronounce its glories in beautiful form. An genuinely hilarious game (oh, how woefully that word is applied to any game that isn’t actively about the gruesome death of children – here it’s used correctly), it deserves a lot of attention. So does the creator, one half of Zombie Cow, Dan Marshall. We grabbed him by the knees, pathetically hugging him, and begged him to answer just some of our questions. Find out about how the game came about, joking about Hitler, and what adventures game needs to get right.
RPS: Hello Dan from Ben There, Dan That Exclamation. Who are you exactly?
Dan: I’m Dan from Ben There, Dan That!, both real person and preposterous caricature with an overly-erratic way of walking. I make indie games, and hope enough people buy them to pay for my extravagant golden trinkets.
RPS: How did you get into game making? Did you get all caught up in your own criticism and think, “I’m way better. I could do that!”
Dan: Actually, I was making games before I did any reviewing; I was writing Gibbage and thought ‘this is a pretty interesting process, right? I should see if PC Zone would be interested in a series of articles about one-man bedroom coding’, and the reviewing came about as a result of those articles. So slagging off other peoples’ games was actually my crafty bit on the side, if anything. You get an interesting perspective when you’ve made games yourself – all journos should be forced to write games. See how they like it.
RPS: We’re pretty annoyed that your arrogance has proven appropriate. Time Gentlemen, Please is a really very good game indeed. Were you expecting to be this good at adventure games?
Dan: Hell no, my skills lie mostly in annoying journalists with liberal use of exclamation marks. Actually, writing adventure games turned out to be massively more complex than I’d first anticipated – it’s the damned player’s fault for being able to do things in whatever order they choose – which means you can’t refer to Character A or Location X unless you’ve been there and done Thing Z. It’s a minefield.
RPS: Can you explain a bit about how the game was made? Who does what, and how does the writing process work?
Dan: Ben and I sent an awful lot of emails to each other per week, and met up for a few drinks as much as possible under the pretence of having a ‘meeting’. We’d iron out the design for the next section of the game, and then I’d tootle off and do all the art and all the code, get everything in place and get it working. Once the whole game was ‘done’ and you could play from start to finish, and we’d fixed up as many bugs as we could find, we started writing all the words. That meant going through every possible combination in the game, all the ‘look ats’ and all the ‘use thingy ons’, and writing a suitable response. It’s a relatively exhausting process, but totally worth it.
RPS: You really do seem to have come up with a gag for combining every object with every icon and everything in the game. How long does this take? And do you ever regret deciding to do it?
Dan: There are something like 60 inventory items in the game, of which the player can potentially have up to 40-or-so at any one time. That’s maybe 1600 different combinations before you even start thinking about the rooms. That said, actually writing the dialogue was the quickest part of development – by the end, I could write pretty much every line necessary for a whole room in a single day. One of the things people loved about Ben There, Dan That! was that we’d gone to the trouble of doing a unique response for every click, no matter how obscure, so it seemed sensible to do that for the sequel as well. In reality, it doesn’t really take that much longer to put in a couple of little context-sensitive lines than it does to copy and paste a stock response, and it adds to the overall quality of the game immeasurably, so we went all-out.
RPS: Have you had any angry reactions to any of the content in the game? Arms covered in Hitler’s shit and blood are very funny, but we can imagine some people might take offence. Loudly.
Dan: The humour’s never going to be to everyone’s tastes, that’s quite simply an impossible task. I remember sitting in the cinema stone-faced throughout ‘American Pie’ while all around me were in floods of tears, but I’m not going to tell someone they’re wrong for finding it funny. These things are subjective. The stuff in the game is what made us laugh – it’s not like we set out to deliberately shock, but the games are very much the anti-LucasArts in terms of content, so there are places we can go that skew traditional nicey-nicey adventure game sensibilities, and put wanking jokes in what is a typically clean-cut environment. We took some stuff out that felt a little out of place – originally the text adventure you can play in-game, which was coded by a Victorian-era robot, was going to be this really horribly inappropriately racist/sexist game based on Victorian sensibilities. It didn’t really work though, the cutting satire didn’t come across at all, so it just felt genuinely unpleasant. So we scrapped it. Some people have said the game’s too crude or immature for them, and that’s fine. But no one’s actually gone to the trouble of writing me an angry email yet, thankfully.
RPS: Adventure games are having a bit of a special time just lately. Why do you think they’re suddenly so in vogue?
Dan: I like to think Ben There, Dan That! sparked a little something-something in the loins of proper developers the world over.
RPS: So how come most modern adventure games are so stunningly awful. What are the things they get wrong?
Dan: It’s primarily a matter of taste, but I think the streamlining of the interface has a lot to do with it; one-click-does-all: Examine, Interact, Talk To etc… it feels like I’m not really having any input. For Time Gentlemen, Please! we’ve stuck with the classic Sam and Max: Hit the Road mechanic of having five verbs and right-clicking through them. It means there’s more exploration to be done, more potential combinations of stuff, and you really feel like you’re taking an active part in solving the puzzles, which you lose when all you have to do is click on the right object to activate the solution. That, and 3D’s obviously not as good for adventure games, but if it’s not in 3D these days the kids won’t go near it, will they? Those damned kids, it’s such a shame – all us oldies would kill for a new 2D Day of the Tentacle, right? But you know it’s never going to happen when ‘the kids’ wouldn’t go near it. Let’s hope Monkey Island Special Edition does well enough to send a message to The Man.
RPS: Your games have made many not-too-subtle references to the LucasArts adventures of yestercentury. Do you think Sierra get a hard time of it in people’s memory. Space Quest IV, for instance, is seventy times funnier than most of the earlier Lucas stuff.
Dan: I never really played any Sierra stuff, I think even back in the day they played second fiddle to LucasArts. Sorry. Maybe they’ll release their back catalogue on Steam one day, so you can rub my face in it about how wrong I’m being.
RPS: Remind us of an adventure game we’ve all forgotten about. To help, I remember Legends Of Kyrandia, so you can’t pick that one.
Dan: There was one called ‘The Omnicron Conspiracy’, which had a hooker with green hair giving out ‘free samples’. It was pretty much the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen in EGA, guaranteed.
RPS: You charged money for TGP. It was definitely worth money. I’d suggest worth more than you charged, since it lasts for hours and hours and is funnier than anything else I’ve played in about three years. Have people paid? Have you been able to make any money from it?
Dan: People have paid, and thankfully all seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’m glad you thought it was worth real money, that’s a relief. It’s probably worth more than £2.99, if you look at how many hours of entertainment you’re getting from it. But when all the LucasArts games – which are full professional talkies, remember – are available at a similar price point, and there’s all the stuff on GoodOldGames as well, you have remain relatively competitive… £2.99 is, hopefully, throwaway money for most people – the price of a pint – but it all stacks up, and hopefully funds more games in the future.
RPS: What’s next? More Ben and Dan? Another idea? Being snapped up by LucasArts/Telltale who really should have bloody well hired you about a year ago and I’m a bit embarrassed and confused that they haven’t?
Dan: Presumably Telltale’s email asking us to write ‘Day of the Tentacle Episodes’ is stuck in the post. Until then… I don’t think there’ll be any more Dan and Ben games, unless Time Gentlemen, Please! sells so many copies it’d be silly not to. Whatever’s next, however, will undoubtedly be something typically funny and kooky. I think that’s pretty much where the studio’s going, towards comedy games.
RPS: What do you like best?
Dan: Best out of everything ever? Uhm… sitting in the sunshine with lots of wine and cheese and meat. No wait, ladies’ bras.