Cosmic Horror in 16-Bits
“It’s a common enough mistake, Mr. Brahe. Thinking that a work has nothing to say, simply because it has nothing to say to you.”
That is a quote from Euripedes Hark, curator of the Museum of Contemporary and Ancient Works. You might not be familiar with that particular museum because it’s from a place called New Arcadia, which is from a video game called On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.
OTRSPOD is an episodic role-playing game that was conceived by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, creators of the webcomic Penny Arcade. The first two episodes were released back in 2008 by Hothead Games. Then the final two episodes were picked up by Zeboyd Games and released over four years later, bringing with them a massive stylistic shift.
While Hothead’s original installments were 3D adventure games with a Paper Mario-esque combat system, Zeboyd’s half of the series is a striking throwback to SNES JRPGs, with a heavy helping of character classes, stat-boosting rings, and pixelated melodrama. To some, the retro stylings might simply seem dated. But Bill Stiernberg and Robert Boyd, who are the creative duo that make up Zeboyd, feel that it’s a style that speaks as strongly to them now as it ever did.
Shortly after the release of OTRSPOD Episode 4, I was able to have a brief chat with Bill Stiernberg, artist and animator at Zeboyd, about the distinct stylings of the Penny Arcade Adventures, and how they introduced the old school to New Arcadia.
“When Penny Arcade decided to revive the series after the years since Rain-Slick 2, they wanted to do things differently. They actually were seeking out a developer to do an 8 or 16-bit retro-style RPG, since they’re fans of those old school games,” said Stiernberg. “At the time, we had Breath of Death VII out and were working on Cthulhu Saves the World. Someone mentioned on a forum that we ought to work with PA to revive Rain-Slick, and we responded that we would love to. Awesomely enough, Robert Khoo saw the thread and contacted us about just that.”
Since Zeboyd had always been making games in this style, they knew how to do it well, and there wasn’t a need for a massive overhauling of the way they did things. The only things Penny Arcade needed to make sure Zeboyd could do was to get the look of the characters right and to get the game world to communicate the right amount of crazy.
“The very first thing I made for RS3 and sent to PA was the first iteration of the Tycho and Gabe sprites, and they liked them, so I kind of built everything visually on that basis going forward,” Stiernberg said. “We were given a ton of freedom in designing monsters, and I was given a ton of freedom in building the environments, especially with Rain-Slick 4. A lot of enemies were based on past PA comics in RS3 as well, [and they] transitioned from there either conceptually or visually or both.”
Along with the graphical similarities between Zeboyd’s original work and Penny Arcade’s vision for Rain-Slick, was a strong similarity in writing and theme, especially when considering Rain-Slick‘s emphasis on Lovecraft-influenced humour, and Zeboyd’s literal use of Lovecraftian concepts in Cthulhu Saves the World. “We had already worked on two of the games in the style they were looking for, and the games happened to be comedies with some Lovecraft mixed in.”
The most obvious difference between Zeboyd’s and Hothead’s games to fans of the series though is of course, the graphical overhaul, which transforms the detailed 3D world into a low-resolution 16-bit landscape. Since they were adapting Episode 3 from a story Jerry Holkins had already written, and were using a much less sophisticated visual toolbox to tell the story than before, I wondered if this presented any problems in portraying scenes the way they were intended.
“To some degree, yes,” says Stiernberg. “With our first games, we would come up with the general game concept, the general story, plot, and locations, and then build the game around those. With RS3 and 4, we got the story together with Jerry Holkins, and then made mostly minor tweaks on certain scenes or occurrences so that we could present them properly in-game. I will say though, that sometimes we’ll have some random idea, and want to use it in the game – as an example, we considered building a map that you flew around on an airship in RS4. It would have been possible with our existing engine, but it might have looked and felt wonky in practice, and since that section wasn’t integral to the story, we decided not to implement it.”