"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.