Journey to the Savage Planet Interview – Becoming the Fourth-Best
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 02:10pm 04/02/20 | Comments
We sit down with Typhoon Studios’ Alex Hutchinson to talk about the studio’s first game, comedy, co-op, and striving to be the fourth-best.
“There's not enough humour in games,” Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director at Typhoon Studios, tells me. We’re discussing the studio’s first game, the vibrant space adventure Journey to the Savage Planet. A comedic and vibrant look at space travel and exploring the unknown reaches of space – for profit.
Playing the game ahead of our discussion, one of the main takeaways or revelations was that you could describe Journey to the Savage Planet (or, JTTSP for short) as a comedy long before you began thinking about its mechanics. Or how it might fit into a certain mould or type. “The idea of creating a satire was one of our earliest touch points,” Alex continues. “It came out of a desire to make something upbeat and optimistic - to make something earnest and different to what’s out there.”
Check out 45 minutes of gameplay
Typhoon Studios, recently acquired by Google, is a relatively small team with a deep well of industry experience. Creative Director, Alex Hutchinson, led development on both Far Cry 4 and Army of Two: The 40th Day, games he describes as featuring “intimate co-op”. JTTSP, a comedy in the vein of games like The Secret of Monkey Island also features a classical sci-fi setting and focus on adventure and exploration – with support for co-op. ‘How it plays’ though, is more Metroid Prime or a fun Mario 64-style sandbox platformer than the survival of No Man’s Sky.
“It came out of a desire to make something upbeat and optimistic - to make something earnest and different to what’s out there.”
On the subject of co-op Alex shares similarly strong convictions about how that should or could work in a game like JTTSP. “Both those games [Far Cry and Army of Two] and now this, very deliberately have two player co-op,” Alex explains. “I think beyond that, you're not really co-operating. You're just sort of collaborating with four people, and then past that you're just in a shared world. With one other person it’s more intimate and you often stick together. And we see people sticking together, enjoying each other's company, joking with each other, and making plans. Then you have that sort of hilarious chaos of throwing a Molotov cocktail and missing me. Setting a bear on fire that goes on to eat me.”
Playable both alone or with a single co-op partner, Journey to the Savage Planet is a game that rewards and encourages experimentation. “We found ourselves hearkening back to adventure stories of yesteryear,” Alex says. “Where simply going on an adventure was a good thing to pursue, as opposed to something grand like saving the planet. That led back into the comedy aspects and we soon realised that the player should be able to physically explore the landscape. So, 3D exploration was brought to the fore.”
“It put pressure on us to make a game that was about content,” Alex continues, noting that for a small team, using an off-the-shelf engine like Unreal, put additional pressure to make something that stood out. “If you don't have your own base tech, then you don't have a big technical advantage. You have the same tech that everyone else has, so we had to make sure that it was funny and felt different. It pushed us in that direction, which was great - and Unreal Engine 4 is an amazing piece of kit to allow for that.”
As the lead on Far Cry 4, Alex recalls adding mechanics like sliding and rappelling into what was still very much a first-person shooter. “It was like, ‘Oh, this actually works.’ Some people complain about first-person exploration, and might even say that you can't do it, but with Savage Planet I thought it was an area we could mine because not a lot of other first-person games give you that.” In Journey to the Savage Planet you can double and triple jump, use a space grappling hook, throw down green larval and gooey jump pads, and even grind some rails – Tony Hawkbot 5000-style.
“If you don't have your own base tech, then you don't have a big technical advantage. You have the same tech that everyone else has, so we had to make sure that it was funny and felt different.”
The very mechanical nature of exploration and adventure, in addition to the comedic side of the game, all come from the same place. Upbeat, optimistic, funny. “We realised we could never be the absolute biggest and best with only 25 people,” Alex jokes. “So, maybe we could be the fourth-best and make something funny.” A sentiment which echoes JTTSP’s premise, with players joining the ranks of the galaxy’s fourth-best space exploration firm – Kindred Aerospace.
Back to the topic of comedy, for Alex and the team – and perhaps the industry at large – there’s still a sense that it can’t be one of the main focal points. “There are people that say you can't be funny in games,” Alex continues. “I remember John Cleese famously said, comedy is all about timing and with videogames, developers aren’t always in control of timing. I do think that's true in the way that he understood it, where he's thinking of cinematic comedy. But, when we began to think about it in terms of a videogame, specifically with Journey to the Savage Planet, there's things we can do.”
For the live-action video that comprises the majority of Journey to the Savage Planet’s narrative or big story beats – the comedy feels traditional. “Then there’s the physical comedy where the player is in control,” Alex adds. “What you boot a Pufferbird into, was that funny? Watching your co-op partner and what do they do and how they interact. We can tell a joke in the text once, but mechanical jokes can happen over and over and that feels truer to the videogame medium.”
Even with its most traditional elements there’s and absurdist quality to the satire in Journey to the Savage Planet, and in an apt comparison Alex describes the fake commercials for products like Grob and Meat Buddy as ads comedy duo Tim and Eric might have created for Starship Troopers.
“We can tell a joke in the text once, but mechanical jokes can happen over and over and that feels truer to the videogame medium.”
“You really don't leave anything on the table because you're going to get one shot, and if people don't like it, they're not going to turn up for another round,” Alex concludes. “That puts a certain amount of pressure on the first game for a new studio, which in addition to hopefully being good, has to give people an idea of what this team is all about. For us it’s humour, positivity, and player-created stories. Three things we embrace as a group.”
And three elements that make up the delight space-romp that is JTTSP.