Adventures With Hitler: Zombie Cow Interview

By John Walker on July 16th, 2009 at 2:33 pm.

Typical Hitler, always letting people down.

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.

They're not tiptoeing. They're walking. Sort of.

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.

Oops.

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.

This was exactly what my school discos looked like.

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.

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.

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35 Comments »

  1. Clovus says:

    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.

    Sold!

    Did I somehow miss something on RPS explaining that the game had this mechanic?

    Also, I still don’t believe in any resurgence in adventure games. They are niche games for weirdos. I’ll gladly defend most games I play and try to explain why. I secretly play them and feel embarrassed when caught. AGs will never be cool and popular. At best there is a growing market of housewives playing Agathie Christie and Nancy Drew. bleh. Luckily, there are always a few good AGs out there and I’m glad they get such good coverage here.

  2. James O'Hare says:

    As opposed to mens’ bras? :P

  3. Chippit says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree on this whole verb issue.

    The reduction verbs is streamlining the player experience, it doesn’t really need to result in the loss of any puzzling opportunities or player interaction. Myst — while arguably not exactly an adventure game, it still works well as an example — had a one click interface; you ‘used’ everything, and it still worked perfectly, and, yet, the Myst series is known some of the most devious puzzles ever devised. Modern “room escape” flash games do the same thing. Even good ol’ Beneath a Steel Sky had a similar system, with nothing more than a ‘use’ and ‘look’ option. In fact, modern games might not even need an explicit ‘look’ option anymore, because we’re no longer in the 8-bit era of 20×20 pixels needing to represent an intricate object.

    Indeed, you can argue that your player always knows what he wants to do. When you click on a NPC, the game can be fairly sure the player wants to talk to the person. You wouldn’t want to pick them up, or ‘use’ them. In fact, in 99% of instances, in 99% of adventure games, only one verb ever gets anything done. Why force the player to explicitly choose ‘pick up’ or ‘talk’ when it’s obvious that that is all you could logically do with the object?

    Hell, maybe I’m just lazier than I used to be, or spoiled. Despite really enjoying Ben There, Dan That!, I found that the whole multi-verb system felt like an antiquated interface. Sure, it had some really amusing results on occasion, but it makes interactions more awkward than they should be, and it feels like a really artificial way to make a game ‘difficult’ when the puzzles were already as devious as they needed to be. But honestly, do we really need more than a ‘use’ option?

  4. cullnean says:

    i think……

    er no……….

    AG could become more popular…….again?

    becaues…..hmmmm

    oh yeah the FPS obsseion on pc gaming is fading since Dev’s have run out of things to do for them and also development costs are lower and stuff

    i have no idea what im talking about

  5. cullnean says:

    MMO’s- become stale
    FPS – becoming stale
    adventure games – Storys FTW

    or some such shit……still no idea, just a rumbling of thoughts

    theres an RPS article in there somewhere

  6. Clovus says:

    People can claim they play AGs for the “story” all they want, but really they enjoy clicking on things (especially when the game says funny things when they do) and finding the solutions to the puzzles. A good story is helpful, but must AGs have awful stories.

    Action games are honestly better settings for stories since you can keep the story moving along by putting the difficulty on easy. The “meat” of an AG is figuring stuff out, so you are constantly just completely stopping the action/story and staring at the screen for awhile. I spend most of my time in AGs doing this, and I think of myself as being somewhat good at them (ie, I understand bonkers AG logic).

    Consider the last few AGs you played. How many of the “puzzles” actually involved the story? The story just gets you to a new room and gives you something to do (like get out). You then do a bunch of random stuff to get to the next bit of “story”. You can complete most AGs without even paying attention to the dialogue (unless it is in bold, haha).

  7. Xercies says:

    I don’t know people are hating on the new Monkey Island…I found it very enjoyable…

    And anyway Adventure Games are not in vogue, 1 well known adventure game being released and re-released does not make a vogue..whatever that means…

  8. Dracko says:

    Oh, it’s pretty hate worthy.

  9. Paul Moloney says:

    Where adventure games – even the classics – fall down on is the old “pixel hunt” problem. I just started – again – “Beneath a Steel Sky”, and there’s one such item on the very first screen – a small bar you have to find. According to the “hunt the pixel” Wikipedia page (yes, there is one!) there’s an even worse one later one – a 2×2 lump of putty you’re meant to find. For most people, this is not fun as they understand it.

    P.

  10. Dracko says:

    Funnily enough, Last Crusade has a very early pixel hunt puzzle which is not only completely optional but a total red herring, as its reward is actually useless and can even lead to making the game harder.

  11. Hi!! says:

    Paul Moloney: Many modern adventures have a function where you can hold down a key to see all the hotspots on the screen.

  12. Clovus says:

    Ya, pixel hunts are lame. I really liked searching in Penumbra though. Opening drawers, knocking stuff around, etc. It was the first time in an AG where the searching mechanic was actually similar to how I would, say, search for my keys in real life.

    I often leave my keys inside a bucket that I have placed behind a set of books on shelf, BTW.

  13. Clovus says:

    @Hi!!: I prefer having that available, but it sort of highlights how bad the system is. It would be like an FPS having a button that makes all your shots hit the enemy in the head. Some console FPS games actually have this button….

  14. Paul Moloney says:

    “Paul Moloney: Many modern adventures have a function where you can hold down a key to see all the hotspots on the screen.”

    Oh I realise that; they’re a huge improvement. RPGs like Neverwinter Nights had something similar. Sparse 3D games like Penumbra (must go and finish those) can get away with it though.

    P.

  15. Aubrey says:

    Just a point on interface:

    I definitely think Dan has a point about how “streamlined” the experience becomes when you can only pick the “right” interaction on any given object – you’re giving up opportunities for comedy if you don’t allow people to try to put square pegs in round holes. However, I can think of a number of ways to select through all the interact verbs than the mouse wheel/right mouse button toggling. A right click drop down, or a right click into radial… don’t think it would have reduced the number of gags on offer but could definitely improve the moment to moment feel.

    But I’m an interface nazi, so I tend to care disproportionately about this sort of thing.

    Still loving the game.

  16. Ergates says:

    Was Legends of Kyrandia the one where the bad guy was a Jester? (and you had to collect gems for some reason?)

  17. Dominic White says:

    While I loved Time Gentlemen, Please, as others have said, it could have done with two interface tweaks – one being a faster way of selecting actions than right-click cycling. Popping up a radial menu to pick actions from would be quicker without affecting gameplay any.

    That, and a ‘highlight interactible objects’ button, just to drive the stake into the heart of pixel-hunting once and for all.

  18. Nafe says:

    @Dominic White: I don’t think I used the right click more than once or twice – you can use keyboard shortcuts for all of the options, T for talk U for use etc.

  19. airtekh says:

    Just finished Ben There Dan That. Bought Time Gentlemen, Please on the strength of the writing in BTDT and Alec’s review. Looking forward to it.

    I agree with what’s being said about the interface. While I love Sam and Max, a radial menu a la Curse of Monkey Island would’ve been perfect.

  20. Alaric says:

    I read this post and got interested in the original game. So I downloaded and installed it. You know… it looks so lonely and helpless in the middle of a big, dark screen at 2560×1600.

    I take it this is a limitation of the software used to make it? If so, how come nobody wrote a modern version of it? Next to some of the things people post on sourceforge it can’t be that complicated. Or can it?

  21. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Ergates: That’s correct. His name was Malcolm.

  22. Dominic White says:

    @Alaric – run the Setup app. You can choose window size, scaling effects, fullscreen mode, etc.

  23. drygear says:

    With the streamlining of interfaces, I think the actual problem is a lack of imagination. It’s reduced to one-click because there’s only one way to interact to make sense– well, there should be more ways to interact with the environment, and they should be interesting. Adventure designers should allow for more unpredictable actions, and not obscure item combinations but things like being able to PUSH a person or OPEN a television or TALK TO a door.

    I guess in a way, a lot of adventures are more limited in interactivity than the average FPS. Only being able to do MacGyverish puzzles in a limited way on certain things isn’t more free than only being able to shoot things.

    It’s nice to at least have descriptions for different actions even if they aren’t always implemented, like the Ben & Dan games. I liked how it acknowledged what I was trying to do when I USED every person, and the running joke of talking to inanimate objects and having Ben say “please help me out, object” and how that never works.

  24. Owen says:

    Although I will be buying this in the next few days, I figured I’d play through ‘Ben there, Dan that’ first and I’m really loving it! The humour is absolutely spot on.

    My only gripe is a technical one, in that the text is a little hard to read. Is there any way of altering the resolution/size etc?
    (I noticed this was possible for ‘Time Fentlemen, Please!’ but couldn’t find the same settings in ‘BtDt’)

  25. Bear says:

    I haven’t played a good and satisfying asventure game since Broken Sword 2 (though I did enjoy 3 and failed to ever pick up 4).

    Man, that game won me over the moment he took a lucky piece of coal.

    Remind me to pick up this sometime.

  26. mihor_fego says:

    Being a fan of adventures and playing them for more than 18 years, I’ve seen what was once believed to be the peak of PC gaming turn to a marginal genre, with games released split between horrible hidden object type murder mysteries and indies held back by the lack of a decent development budget.

    While I got excited that LucasArts would re-release its old titles, the truth is this move won’t do anything to promote the genre. Most will buy them out of nostalgia and maybe show them to their kids, but I can’t imagine many 12 year-olds will actually play them. Same goes with most of the indies such as BTDT and TGP!, which I adore, but their target audience definitely isn’t a new gen of adventure gamers.

    Back in the early 90′s, adventure games succeeded by being on the forefront of graphic and design technology. Now this only applies to FPS and action games. A new generation of gamers accustomed to the technical quality of such games will frown upon the poor adventures which, even if supposedly story-driven, have poorly rendered scenes, terrible dialogues and even worse voice-overs.

    When the stories are a series of cliches or poor excuses for puzzle connection, what’s left to the game? I’d rather play an action-adventure if I like to search around for doors to unlock (or just move to a new area, for that’s what most puzzles have become) or play Cogs if I want slider puzzles (I love that game).

    As for the most horrid aspect, item-based puzzles, please come to your senses, game designers! If the game is set in a surreal wtf world, I won’t mind much having to come to terms with the silly combos I’ll have make up as solutions. When you set the game on the real world though, giving us “realistic” characters and settings, for god’s sake make the puzzles rational.

    Let the character carry what’s possible for a human and interact with as many as possible items in the surroundings. For example, no character should run around with no cash, a credit card, id and possibly a cell phone. If the main character needs to ask a simple question someone in the game, let him/her use a phone! I won’t make an hour drive to a colleague’s house to make a 3-min conversation! Or search across the town to gather components to make a fishing-pole-gizmo to grab at something that’s in knee-deep water (perhaps the character has some rare and lethal allergy?).

    I’ll myself point out that older adventure games weren’t any better at the above points, but the issue is how no-one cared to move things forward. Doom didn’t have realistic physics or a great targeting system, but these got perfected over the years. When your system only relies on puzzles, there should be progress in their design.

    Since games like System Shock 2 or the Fallout series, it seems other genres have invested in the story and atmosphere so much as to make adventures seem bad in what was their supposed main selling point. Coupled with downright silly puzzles and a slow pace, there’s no way a young gamer would give adventures a chance anymore.

    Perhaps the only way for them to return to a mainstream audience (and not making me feel an idiot for still trying to find excitement by playing new ones) is to go for what no other genre can integrate so well: comedy. And by comedy I definitely don’t mean “Scary Movie” crap, but “Spaced”-quality contemporary comedy (you lucky Brits, it never got shown on TV here). Since there seems to be a lack of good comedies in cinema, it’ll be even harder for game developers to find good writers. The Zombie cows guys are a hope though… (some big studio please hire them?)

  27. Bhazor says:

    I’d argue their two adventure games wouldn’t have been as good if made for a larger budget. The assumed need for voice over for every line would have almost certainly forced them to make dramatic cuts to fit in to the limited studio time and the sound editing would have added 4-6 months or so to the development time. I think the same has happened with RPGs where the depth and amount of dialog has plummeted in favour of often terrible voice work. Though KOTOR got away with it somewhat by using silly alien languages although that sodding fish language can sod off to hell.

  28. Alaric says:

    Bhazor, I disagree. Vocalizing every line of dialogue is a good idea. While it may not be economically feasible when it comes to indie titles, it is nevertheless a feature that adds a lot to the enjoyment of the game.

    For example, yesterday, when I was trying out BTDT, it felt weird having to read every word of dialogue. Especially in that silly font. Especially in the super-tiny resolution. Then, someone came into the room and asked me something, I turned my head for a moment and missed something that could have been important.

    Overall, I hate badly done voice overs, but as a concept I think it is a feature that must be present in all modern games.

  29. M.P. says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Sierra stuff, I always thought they were unfairly looked down on. I’m actually very impressed that Zombie Cow could’ve made their own funny games without having known Sierra’s games. The 3rd Space Quest and 2nd Larry game in particular were fantastic games pretty much in the same league as Lucasarts’s best, not just in terms of humour but in terms of design, puzzles, variety of locations.

  30. Chippit says:

    @drygear:
    While I understand your point, things are usually ‘regular’ like that because solutions usually should make some sense, even if it’s in a crazy, roundabout, lateral sort of way, which is usually what makes them funny.

    Advocating potentially ‘non-sensical’ actions is basically going to result in a veritable storm of Guide Dang It moments (to borrow TV-Tropes’ wonderful phrase), that usually do nothing more than frustrate players. And if all the player is doing is trying every action on every object then you might as well just write a script to search all the permutations for you until you find the answer. Isn’t the point of a puzzle to solve it, not try every possible combination until you get it right? Brains versus brute force.

    The way I see it, every challenge in any game — and this isn’t limited to adventures — should have a reasonable chance that the player would overcome it on the first encounter. I think this is why everyone hates QTEs so much. But I digress. I think your idea bears merit, but it would take some very clever implementation to not fall into the same pit to which adventure games with lots of verbs often succumb: having verbs that you only ever use once.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly on the witty response front. Often the most hilarious moments in adventure games is where the game makes fun of you for trying to do something stupid — unless it’s a Sierra game, of course, in which case it would probably just kill you out of the blue.

  31. malkav11 says:

    Count me squarely in the “don’t voice dialogue unless you absolutely have to” camp (i.e., I’d hate to have to read dialogue in the middle of a mission in Call of Duty). The “turn your head and miss it” bit can be avoided by having the text pause and wait for you to acknowledge you’ve read it.

  32. bill says:

    I always hated the multi-verb system. Often there WERE logical actions, but as someone said they were never implemented. Sometimes pushing a person or talking to a machine might make sense.. but it wasn’t allowed and it just became a case of “guess which verb i need for this particular puzzle”.

    I’m really happy about this little AG resurgence, but i think modern AGs need to not be limited by the past. There is no reason AGs can’t be 1st/3rd person, or use physics puzzles, or incorporate other ideas from other genres (or new ideas).
    Some of the best AG moments i’ve had recently have been in non-AG games..

    and making everything about combining OBJECTS is dumb… Discworld Noir had the right idea in making it about finding information or clues. Though you could do both of course…

  33. PHeMoX says:

    “theres an RPS article in there somewhere”

    Lol, if you put it like that… :P

  34. Rosa says:

    No way… Kein Spiel für mich!

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