The title of this article looks a bit odd. Ron Gilbert isn't best known for his connection with Hothead. He's famous for creating Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series. But "Ron Gilbert, You Know, He Did Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island Series" would mess up the homepage, so here we are.
Besides, the title is accurate. Gilbert is currently creative director at Hothead Games. He's working on two projects, the first of which is being shown to us at GDC with Gilbert in attendance. It's called Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and it's based around characters from the Penny Arcade Internet comic strip created by Mike Krauhulik and Jerry Holkins - a.k.a. Gabe and Tycho.
You either love or hate Penny Arcade. Or you mostly hate it but occasionally find yourself laughing at one of the better strips someone's sent you a link to. If you love it, you're going to love the game - at least that's what producer Joel DeYoung reckons.
"Through and through, this is going to be an authentic Penny Arcade experience," he says. "It's going to feel like playing the comic. So it's something we think fans are really going to love."
Penny Arcade Adventures combines RPG gameplay with classic adventure game elements. Set in an alternative 1920s USA, it sees Gabe and Tycho running their own detective agency. They specialise in investigating the occult and strange goings-on.
However, you don't play as either of the PA stars - you create your own character, using a simple range of options which allows you to pick things like hairstyle and clothing. "The cool thing about this is the character will appear in 3D in-game, but also in the 2D cut-scenes," DeYoung says.
He's not wrong. Having created a female character with brown curly hair, he shows how she interacts with Gabe and Tycho both in the levels and in the superb-looking cut-scenes. They do indeed look just like the comic; scenes are even broken up into frames which the camera skips between as if you were reading them on a page. There are simple animations - flashing lightning, falling raindrops and so on - which serve to enhance rather than overwhelm the comic book style.
The in-game visuals are less immediately impressive but they still have a unique and highly polished look. Character animations are basic but fluid and there are plenty of small details to enjoy. Penny Arcade Adventures isn't likely to disappoint fans of the comic strip's artwork.
DeYoung shows off the combat system next. Our character is wandering down a dark alley with Gabe and Tycho, who are present throughout the game to offer hints and deliver one-liners. Our mission is to murder a load of tramps using a turn-based system. You and the enemy begin by rolling a D&D-style virtual dice to see who has the initiative, then it's a matter of pointing and clicking to attack.
Pulling off successful blocks gives you extra counter-attacks, and you can team up with other characters in your party to pull off combos. There are special attacks which involve playing a brief mini-game - you must press a sequence of buttons with just the right timing, and the better you do the more effective your attack will be. There are also summonable characters to be unlocked as you progress, such as Tycho's niece.
The combat moves at a healthy pace. In fact, it's not always easy to discern what's going on when you're just observing, though the amount of blood spurting out of the tramps would suggest victory. It's really rather gory, if in an Itchy and Scratchy way.
At the end of each combat round the screen displays how much experience you gained and, if you levelled up, any new attacks you've learned. You're also shown the items you picked up from enemies. These could be weapons for use in future battles, such as a tramp's hot toddy that doubles as a Molotov cocktail, or items needed to complete quests.
This is an adventure game, after all. And who knows more about adventure games than Ron Gilbert, You Know Who Did Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island?
Stick to the script
"I came in to consult on the adventure aspects," he confirms. "It's kind of a light adventure game; there aren't going to be these really intricate, mind-boggling puzzles you would find in Monkey Island."
Instead the focus is on dialogue, every word of which has been written by Penny Arcade comic strip author Jerry Holkins. "Jerry is a fabulous writer and we wanted to showcase that, so we focused on the way the story is told through Monkey Island-style dialogues," Gilbert explains.
With his name attached, Penny Arcade Adventures is likely to attract fans of Gilbert's previous games. But without the mind-boggling puzzles, are they going to be disappointed? "I think what they'll get out of this is the humour," says Gilbert. "A lot of people love Monkey Island because it is a laugh-out-loud game. I think this game absolutely has that. Jerry is probably one of the top five writers I've ever worked with. So I think Monkey Island fans are going to like the humour in this game, definitely."
Is Penny Arcade Adventures funnier than Monkey Island? Laughing, Gilbert replies, "I'm not going to answer that question."
There is good news for those who like their Ron Gilbert games a little more meaty. He's also working on a title called Deathspank. Like Penny Arcade Adventures it blends adventure and RPG gameplay, but according to Gilbert there are some key differences.
"The adventure game aspects in Deathspank are a lot more traditional and hardcore," he begins. "You are going to get a lot of really intricate puzzles. The RPG is more like Diablo or Zelda as opposed to the turn-based Final Fantasy gameplay in the Penny Arcade game.
"It's more action-based; you're doing a lot more running around fighting things, monsters drop stuff, you get those in your inventory and use them to equip your character... But it is melded with what I would term classic Monkey Island-style puzzles."
Deathspank is the name of the game's main character. He's a parody, Gilbert explains, "of the game heroes everybody takes far too seriously... He tries to help people out but he's misguided and naive, and he ends up doing more damage than good".
"Everybody from Duke Nukem to all of these characters, they're over-the-top and ridiculous and I wanted to make fun of that," he continues. "That's why he has the name Deathspank. It's just such a stupid name, right?"
Right. However, the game is more than just a satire of videogame heroes. According to Gilbert, it discusses themes of moral ambiguity and continually presents players with grey areas to explore. "Deathspank comes into situations and causes trouble and kills a lot of people you thought were good. But maybe they weren't. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? You never really know. There's a lot of ambiguity in games and what people do in them, and I wanted to play with that."
That doesn't mean you're asked to make moral choices along the lines of, as Gilbert puts it, "Do I help the beggar on the corner?", unlike in other games. "You know, in Fable there were these very hard, binary choices, and they branched down into trees. Deathspank is a lot more fluid. As you play the game you're going to do things, and they maybe seem a little bit weird and wrong as you're doing them.
"But in the end... I want to leave the player, when they end a Deathspank episode, a little bit confused about whether this was right or wrong and what's really going on."
As Gilbert's just mentioned, Deathspank is being released episodically, though there are no details yet on when or for which platforms. Penny Arcade Adventures, however, has been confirmed for episodic release on PC, Mac, Linux and Xbox Live Arcade this spring.
Versions for other platforms "may follow in the future", according to the Hothead rep. Apparently each PAA episode will feature between eight and 10 hours of gameplay. They will be released "more frequently than Half-Life 2 episodes, but less frequently than Sam & Max".
Speaking of which, Gilbert is supportive of Telltale's attempt to boost the adventure genre and episodic gaming with S&M. "That's driven a lot of interest. A lot of people are talking about adventure games again," he says.
"Episodic is a new genre and I think a lot of publishers don't really understand it. Financially there are a lot of good signs but it's not really proven, so you get a lot of big publishers - your EAs, Activisions, Ubisofts - they're just not ready to pour money into it yet.
"But I think with the success of Hothead and Telltale, you're going to see people paying a lot more attention. Gamers don't quite understand it yet so there's a little bit of scepticism, but this will change and it's going to be a very popular genre in the future."
The advantage of creating an episodic game, Gilbert observes, is that you can take more chances. "The game industry is very risk-averse right now, because you're spending 10 or 20 million dollars to market a game... With episodic games, you can spend a lot less money so you can try a whole bunch of different things. I think you're going to see a lot more creativity, a lot more different types of games coming out."
He's also keen on the way episodic gaming allows designers to tell a story from start to finish. "A lot of games being played today, nobody even finishes. 15 per cent of people see the ending. Episodic gives me the chance to tell a nice, compact story, and I know almost every single person is going to see the end. That's really appealing to me."
The plot thickens
But do gamers want to be told stories? After all, the adventure genre is not as popular as it once was. At this year's GDC, Dave Jones of Realtime Worlds spoke of his belief that storytelling should be left to books and movies. Unsurprisingly, Gilbert disagrees.
"I think that's completely unfair. The main reason games don't do stories well is we don't have good storytellers. That gets lumped in, 'Well, games don't know how to tell good stories.' Well, no, games can tell stories, but you have to tell good ones.
"And you can't just tell a straight, linear story like you can in a movie," he continues. "If you do that in a game, you end up with a bunch of action sequences with a bunch of cut-scenes breaking them up. That's the wrong way to go."
Instead, Gilbert argues, game designers should look back at the adventure games of old and understand how they told stories. "The way adventure games work with puzzles, it's just a wonderful skeleton to hang a story on. I think a lot of designers today don't understand it or they forgot it. Deathspank and Penny Arcade Adventures are going back to those roots."
If people liked those old adventure games so much, why isn't the genre as strong today? "It's not stories that people don't want. We as human beings crave stories," says Gilbert. "Adventure games did a really good job of telling them, but as graphics got better, the games industry became more action-oriented." The solution, he believes, is to blend core adventure game elements with other genres, such as RPG. "When you start to see the melding of that in a lot more genres, the story really can work."
If anyone can kickstart the adventure game genre, it ought to be the man who made some of its most popular titles. You know, Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series. At this stage, it looks like Penny Arcade Adventures will satisfy the demands of Gabe and Tycho fans, if not hardcore adventure gamers. For them there's Deathspank - but we'll need to see the game in action before judging whether Gilbert has still got it.