"I'm betting," says Ron Gilbert, settling into a killer pause with the practiced air of a world-class vacuum cleaner salesman, "that you've never fought a nun before." He laughs, slightly frazzled after a day full of promotional interviews backstage at PAX. "If you've ever wanted to fight a nun, this is the game to do it in."
Well, if we're sharing, Ron, you have no idea how many nuns I've fought over the years. But I'm willing to let that one go: I've never fought a nun in a videogame, and when it comes to Gilbert's latest, I sense that taking on Whoopi Goldberg's crew is one of the milder distractions on offer.
DeathSpank's rolling cardboard world is filled with things to do and people to hit. In fact, it's practically drowning in everything you've come to expect in a videogame: explosive barrels, angry monsters and rattling skeletons. As for treasure? There are treasure chests lying around all over the place. But for once, the designers have earned the rights to their tatty old clichés. DeathSpank is a game about games; it's a title born, it seems, from Gilbert's frustrations with the industry and its endless desire to circumnavigate the same old territory.
It started with a Flash comic strip on Gilbert's website, Grumpy Gamer. "Clayton Kauzlaric, who I worked with on Total Annihilation, and I wanted an avenue for making fun of the games business, and the strip was perfect," he recalls. "For one episode, we needed this videogame character. We wanted him to be as stupid as possible, so we just called him DeathSpank. He appeared in a bunch of the strips, but the more I started to think about him, the more he became an interesting character to me, and his world just started to grow. Eventually, I did a little game design around him, and I kind of liked it."
That was back in 2004. Several years of pitching DeathSpank to publishers ensued; it doesn't sound like it was a great deal of fun. "Publishers say they want funny games, but then you pitch them one and they get scared," sighs Gilbert. "They say they want stuff that's new and original, but they just want stuff that's like everything else." Eventually Gilbert ran into the team at Hothead (makers of Penny Arcade Adventures) and the project clicked. That wasn't the only thing that clicked, by the looks of it: Gilbert's now Hothead's creative director.
As the lineage suggests, DeathSpank's not a particularly seriously-minded game, and Gilbert's willing to admit that there was always a danger that, caught in some infernal feedback loop, the project might simply lapse into the clichés it's trying to send up. "I think it works pretty well in the long run, though, because he's so over the top," he laughs. "He's a wandering hero, and his job is to go out there and hero people who need heroing. He makes a mess out of most of the things that he does, and there's a lot of humour to that. The games we're riffing on take their heroes really seriously, and we just go further. We take him reeeaaallly seriously."
Hothead's certainly taking the art seriously. DeathSpank's adventure unfolds on a curved pasteboard wonderland that gives you an insight into what Paper Mario might have looked like if it had been handled by Hieronymus Bosch rather than the top fairies at Nintendo's sugar factory. It's 2D hand-drawn art in a 3D engine, and the look was very important to Gilbert from the start. "I always wanted to do the art as 2D, because 3D never has that same feeling. It's very good at simulating realism, but it isn't very good at simulating quirky little things, and the humour in this all comes from the lives of the funny little characters." He taps a few controller buttons, moving his tiny, slack-jawed hero through the landscape, and a castle starts to roll into view over the horizon. "I think we got it right. It really feels like a pop-up book."
The story that takes place in this papery world is gleefully stupid. DeathSpank, a stumpy Don Quixote, has achieved his ultimate goal, having tracked down a fabled artefact known as The Artefact. Just as he's revelling in his success - although DeathSpank's so stoical you sense he doesn't actually do a great deal of revelling - it's stolen by the local villain, Lord Von Prong. Seeing the chance to become even more heroic, DeathSpank sets out on a quest to teach Von Prong a lesson, and free a coachload of orphans the rotter has captured in the process. Things are unlikely to go to plan, however, because, as well as being a hero, DeathSpank is also a complete idiot.
It sounds like an ideal setting for a comical adventure game, a genre Gilbert practically invented, but in fact DeathSpank's a little more complex. There's certainly adventuring elements in there - dialogue trees to hack through and puzzles to solve - but the shadow of Diablo, of all things, hangs fairly heavily across the land as well.
"I think the game types actually fit together quite well," says Gilbert, when I suggest that the whole thing sounds, initially, like a bit of a conceptual squeeze. "If you think about it, adventure games are all about stories and characters, and RPGs are also about stories and characters too. And both genres are fundamentally about collecting items: in RPGs you get them by killing monsters, and in adventure games you steal them from people's houses. We've spent a lot of time making the game fit. DeathSpank is very non-linear, very open-ended. If you just want to go out there and spend four hours killing monsters, you can do that, and then the narrative stuff is woven in on top."
The demo Gilbert walks me through starts in fairly safe adventure game territory. It's early on in the story, and DeathSpank's lost all his deadly gear. (Granted, it's hard to tell whether this is a pastiche of a hated structural cliché, or just the employment of one.) Our hero needs to get a weapon, which means travelling to an aging local legend, Eubrick the retired - "formerly Eubrick the bitter, formerly Eubrick the undefeated, formerly Eubrick the Bastard of Hollhaven, formerly Sally the stable girl..." - to borrow one of his old swords. As you might have expected, this results in a lot of wayward chat, with plenty of unlikely jokes, and dozens of dialogue options you'll take just to see what happens. The exchange culminates, naturally, in a quest: Eubrick's happy to hand over the sword, but he'll only do it in exchange for a taco. "And not just any taco," smiles Gilbert, getting ahead of himself. "An extra spicy taco. And that's a problem because the taco vender in the next village can't sell extra spicy tacos any more because of a lawsuit." A bumbling, unlikely mini-narrative stretches out before DeathSpank, then, and at least one part of Gilbert's ambitious design looks to be in safe hands.
Watching Gilbert play through some of the more dungeon-crawler moments suggests this other half of the game isn't looking too bad either. During DeathSpank's crunchy cartoon combat it starts to become apparent that, although the plot is cheerily moronic and the characters are drooling hunchbacked ninnies, Hothead's game is rather serious when it comes to its mechanics. Seconds after DeathSpank crests a hill to find a group of wide-eyed trolls capering about, Gilbert pauses the action and a huge inventory screen pops into view, filled with dozens of item slots. Each face button is configurable to any of your weapons (although platforms have yet to be announced, Gilbert was playing using a 360 controller) and there are decent armour options, too.
As the designer skips haphazardly through the game, we get to see a few of the weapons in use, and they all offer a clever mixture of comedic effect and strategic balance. The Deathstomp is a massive axe variant with a cartoon boot on the end, but it's also an excellent area attack option, capable of stunning groups of idiotic Greems or spiders, allowing you to move in and pick off two or three at a time with the Cleave, a nasty blade that's swung in a smooth arc. Arrows that put enemies into a thick-lipped, blubbery sleep bring a touch of stealth to a sequence in which DeathSpank picks his way through a castle courtyard - although Gilbert reminds us that he could just as easily go in there guns blazing - while special attacks, such as the ability to summon chickens, mix risk with reward: your clucking allies will make short work of any monsters, but if you call forth too many, they may well turn on you as well.
Stats rise up from every blow, and the game's sinister surf guitar soundtrack is submerged beneath the click-clack of DeathSpank's armour and the insistent cash register splash of collected loot. The combat seems brutally satisfying, albeit in a very silly way, and the world matches the variety offered by the weapons, with Orque encampments gloomy and brooding under a blood red sky, dark forests where lanky skeletons pick their way through mountains of bones, and the spooky calm of the convent where that nun we'll get to work over hangs out.
Gilbert ends the demo, rather poignantly, in the pirate town of Scurvyville, where DeathSpank can clothe himself in buccaneer motley, and get on a ship to explore the twinkling blue ocean. It's a sign, perhaps, that the designer's trying to find something familiar to calm the fears of his older fans.
He probably shouldn't worry: interesting and ambitious as this blend of genres is, there's something comforting and welcoming about Gilbert's latest already. DeathSpank may be an eternal wanderer, protecting the weak and dealing out misguided justice, but somewhere in amidst the hacking, the slashing and the quick-fire chatting, this feels just like coming home.
DeathSpank is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.