Matt Chapman, Mike Chapman, Mark Darin

Homestarrunner, Telltale Games

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 23 December 2008. Last updated on 23 December 2008.
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Matt Chapman, Mike Chapman, Mark Darin
Matt Chapman and Mike Chapman (left to right), or Brothers Chaps, are the creators of Homestarrunner.
Matt Chapman, Mike Chapman, Mark Darin
Matt Darin is the lead designer of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People at Telltale Games.

All images are courtesy of Brothers Chaps and Telltale Games © 2008.

It can be said that the Brothers Chaps, creators of Homestarrunner, have been making video games for years. On their Homestarrunner website, they have created simple interactive Flash mini-games and even a number of games in the style of the Atari 2600. Not content with indulging their own nostalgia for the arcade classics, they have also added side-scrollers, text adventures, and even a full playable parody of a Sierra graphic adventure. Most recently, the Brothers Chaps have decided to collaborate with Telltale Games, developer of the popular Sam & Max episodic game series, to bring the characters and cartoons of their website to life, in an episodic adventure game series of their own, for the PC and the Nintendo Wii.

Beyond its gaming diversions, the Homestarrunner website also hosts a weekly cartoon, starring an ever-expanding cast of oddball characters. There, visitors will find an impressive backlog of entertainment and encounter many of the online fads that the website has helped to launch over its 8 years of history.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview the multitalented Brothers Chaps (Matt Chapman and Mike Chapman) as well as Mark Darin, lead designer of the Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP) at Telltale Games. In the interview, the Chapmans speak of the secrets behind their success with Homestarrunner and their passion for classic adventure games, while Darin speaks of the challenges of adapting the Homestarrunner cartoons as an adventure game series and the future of SBCG4AP after its first season.

Home*runner (as your fans affectionately refer to it) has been an online cultural phenomenon for nearly 8 years, in a medium where fads tend to have a short shelf life. To what do you credit the long-running success of your work?

Brothers Chaps: If we achieved any success, then the reason has to be similar to how we've been able to do this for 8 years without getting bored. That being that we can pretty much do whatever we want, when we want. Burnt out on Strong Bad Emails? Make a Teen Girl Squad this week. Sick of animating? Make a heavy metal song instead. That's definitely what's kept it fresh for us, so maybe it's done the same for people who watch our stuff. Or maybe it's made our appeal diverse enough so there's a little something for everyone. Whatever the reason, you can guarantee it was done entirely by accident.

You have previously made an adventure game parody called Peasant's Quest, in the style of the classic Sierra adventure games. Have there been any particular adventure games that have provoked your interest in the genre? Are there any adventure games that you credit as influences on SBCG4AP?

Brothers Chaps: We grew up playing and loving adventure games. First text adventures, then the classic Sierra style, then point-and-click. I (Matt) have a particular fondness for Space Quest II and the first two Monkey Islands. Though graphically, I loved what Space Quest III did with perspective and color and stuff. That's a gorgeous game. Mike credits Hero's Quest (we refuse to call it Q4G) as coming closest to making him actually enjoy RPG elements of a game. I think all the adventure games we've played and enjoyed over the years influenced what we wanted to see in SBCG4AP.

So far, you have used the episodic games as an extension of your website's content, playing off existing characters without introducing any new elements yet. What plans do you have in using these games to further expand the Home*runner universe? What role do you see these games playing in extending the Home*runner brand in the long term?

Brothers Chaps: We never planned to introduce anything drastically new with the games. We just wanted the adventures to fit into the established Homestar world and let the player mess around in it. We're glad that these games have introduced new people to our stuff and introduced Homestar fans to Telltale's stuff.

What was it about Home*runner's content that made you think it would be a good fit to be adapted as an episodic adventure game series?

Mark Darin: Characters, humor, and episodic content. These were the main draws for me. I was already familiar with the oddball characters and their unique sense of reality. I'd been laughing along with these guys for years so I was very excited to be working with these characters and expanding their universe. Humor is something we like to think we do well, and the Chapman brothers have their surreal, nostalgic, sarcastic humor down to a science! It seemed perfectly natural for us to partner with them and create something really special. The fact that they have essentially been putting out episodic content since 2000 was also appealing. Their fans were already familiar with the idea of coming back to the website on a regular basis to experience new content and this was a great to transition into getting people used to the idea of doing the same for downloadable game episodes.

So far, the episodes have relied mostly on straightforward inventory based puzzles, with a few more complicated interaction puzzles included as an extra challenge. From your perspective, what makes for a good challenging but rewarding adventure game puzzle? How is the choice of puzzles affected by the smaller scope of an episodic game?

Mark Darin: As a designer and writer, I really want the puzzles to stem from the story itself. In every good story there are a series of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. In our games, these conflicts become opportunities for us to devise interesting and entertaining puzzles. We do put some thought into the puzzle types that we can adapt for the situation at hand though. We don't want to overload the same kind of puzzle throughout the game or it will quickly become boring. We like to vary it a bit... sometimes it'll be an inventory based puzzle, other times it may be a dialog puzzle, environment manipulation puzzle or even, if the story calls for it, a timed or action sequence. The key is letting the story influence the puzzle design.

In an action game it is easy to subtly tone down the game's difficulty when a player is having trouble completing a goal, whereas in an adventure game a player who is having trouble solving a puzzle is simply stuck without recourse. How do you deal with the problem of a player not knowing what to do next and getting stuck in a game?

Mark Darin: We are constantly working to improve our built-in hint system to work in a similar way. Eventually we want the hint system to be invisible to the player, allowing it to detect when players are stuck and offering subtle hints accordingly. And we're not just talking about characters talking and giving direct hints, we are also doing some more subtle things like introducing audio cues and altering the lighting or camera angles to seamlessly focus the player's attention on certain details.

A good deal of the content on the Home*runner website is enhanced by Easter eggs, optional contents, and interactive cartoons. How do these aspects of the source material affect your approach to designing optional content into the games?

Mark Darin: We put all kinds of Easter eggs in the game episodes. Every episode has secret content to find by experimenting with inventory items or just poking around in the scenes. For example, in Episode 4: Dangeresque3, if you click in a certain spot in Marzipan's garden, you can dig up a hidden onion with Bubs' face on it and watch Strong Bad scream in response! Easter eggs make the website special and we thought we wouldn't be doing the series justice if we didn't include them.

The Brothers Chaps have developed a few mini-games of their own, including the arcade game Videlectrix, a text adventure game, and even a parody adventure called Peasant's Quest. How have these games influenced, if any, the mini-games in the episodes?

Mark Darin: The one constant about the mini-games you referenced is that they all pay a nostalgic homage to the games of past generations: the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, and PC games from the 80s & early 90s. We wanted to acknowledge this by including a video game console within out game that would allow Strong Bad/the Player to play some games inspired by this era. Every episode has a unique 8-bit style mini game that can be accessed by using Strong Bad's Videlectrix "Fun Machine." Perhaps in a nod to the development of these old games, the lead designer of each episode designed, programmed, and even illustrated the mini-game featured in that episode!

The Home*runner universe has a huge cast of characters, from the somewhat diminished title character Homestar to the fanciful variations on Strong Bad like Stinkoman. What are the particular challenges in adapting the 2D look of these characters into 3D for the games? Which characters have made this transition particularly well? Which characters have been most troublesome to recreate?

Mark Darin: I am amazed at the great job our art team did when converting these oddly shaped characters to 3D. Our programmers even wrote a special shader system to exactly mimic the outline and shading of the cartoons!

Even though these characters look simple, some proved quite challenging to recreate. They were never designed to be seen in 3D. This was especially evident in characters like Homestar and The Cheat. If you pay close attention to the cartoons on the website, you only ever see these characters from a couple of different angles, and from these angles it seems perfectly natural that their eyes are actually on the side of their head! But put that in 3D and everything starts to fall apart really quickly. To deal with this, we developed special technology that made sure that those characters could only be seen from certain angles no matter where the camera was positioned.

Luckily, Strong Bad himself proved to be fairly straightforward. Good thing, too, since he ended up being the star of the game!

You have brought over a number of signature gags from the Home*runner website into the games, such as the prank calls on Marzipan's answering machine, the teen girl squad comics, the e-mail answering, the songs, and the simple arcade mini-games. How do you make the decision on what to bring over from the website into the games? What other gags from the website are you planning to bring over in future episodes?

Mark Darin: In this case a lot of those gags get decided when we decide what environments we are going to feature. Marzipan's answering machine is a good example. When we knew that we were going to feature Cool Tapes in an episode, it seemed natural to include the wall in Marzipan's house where Homestar had originally written the words "Cool Tapes" in the first place. That meant that we'd be building in the inside of Marzipan's house and, of course, that's where she keeps the answering machine we've seen in the web cartoons. The Homestar universe has a lot of material to reference and we can't cram it all into five episodes, so there are plenty of surprises to look forward to in the future!

You have obviously recruited Matt Chapman's tireless talents to voice almost every character in the games, but what is the extent of the involvement of the Brothers Chaps in the production process? How much do they contribute to the writing, art, and game design choices?

Mark Darin: They are both involved quite a bit in all of the areas you mentioned. In the design phase, we have brainstorming sessions with them where they contribute to the ideas that will eventually become the plot of the episodes. Then one of our designers will write the episode script and pass that along to the brothers where they review, edit and rewrite whatever feels necessary to make the whole thing feel more "Strong Bad-y." They come up with ideas for puzzles and don't hesitate to let us know when a puzzle isn't working and help us to revise it and make it better. We have a weekly meeting with them where we go over the production progress and get their feedback on every detail. They even go as far as providing art and music from their website when we need it. You'll see a lot of this in episode 5!

How do you describe the style of humor in Home*runner, as exemplified by Strong Bad? How well do you think it fits with the adventure game motif of having the protagonist provide running commentary?

Mark Darin: Strong Bad's humor is a strange mix of innocence, mischief and nostalgia with a pinch of surrealism. It reminds me of the bizarre things I did as a child, but looking back with the sensibilities of an adult. It's a bit like watching a child walk into a glass door. It's funny, it's a bit mean, but we all remember doing it at some point. Having Strong Bad as the protagonist lets us relive some of these moments and acts as a bridge between memories and imagination.

Developing games in episodic format allows you to get rapid feedback from your fans as you release each episode. What has been some of the feedback (both positive and negative) you have received from fans with the initial episodes? What have you learned from the process so far?

Mark Darin: One of the things we learned is not to panic when the initial reviews start clamoring about the games being too short. This is just a surprise reaction experienced by people not used to the episodic formant. At the end of the first episode, it's common to say, "That's it?" because you don't quite get yet that there is more to come! By the time the third episode is released we don't hear that complaint at all. People are beginning to understand that they are getting a full and satisfying gaming experience, and they don't have to do it in a marathon session anymore!

The series is currently scheduled for 5 episodes. How do you deal with the challenge of keeping each episode fresh so that it feels distinct from the other episodes, yet still fits within the overarching Home*runner universe?

Mark Darin: One of the nice things about the Homestar universe is that it is constantly expanding. Even the main set of characters have several counterparts: there's the old-timey versions, the anime versions, even puppet versions! And while we are not tackling all of these, it exemplifies that there are many different ways we can experiment to keep things fresh. One of the big changes we made for Dangeresque 3 was to present the entire game within the framework of a poorly produced action movie that the characters made themselves. This allowed us to essentially use a whole new cast of characters and present the usual locations in a manner that felt completely different.

What is the plan for the series beyond the initial 5 episodes? Is there any plan for a "Season Two"? Is there any chance that future games may feature a character other than Strong Bad as the main protagonist?

Mark Darin: Right now, all of those questions are still up in the air. For the moment, we want to give Matt Chapman a chance to thoroughly rest his extremely talented vocal chords. As soon as we know what the future holds, we'll be sure to let you know!

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