Justin Roiland, co-creator, writer and voice actor on Adult Swim's Rick & Morty, is absolutely positive that there's a ton of potential for making people laugh in virtual reality. To prove his point, he's teamed up with former Epic Games executive producer Tanya Watson to form Squanchtendo, a studio focused exclusively on making funny VR games. His first project, the intentionally serious-sounding Accounting, is a series of shouty, surreal point-and-click adventure vignettes produced in partnership with award-winning indie darling Crows Crows Crows, the team behind The Stanley Parable.
The best way to get the feel for the game's unique sense of humor is to simply watch the trailer. It has an anarchic sensibility that should be familiar to anyone familiar with Roiland's work, but it's fundamentally a sequence of weird environmental puzzles set in a series of increasingly bizarre rooms occupied by characters intent on harassing you at every possible opportunity.
Structurally, it shares some of the same ideas as Rick & Morty's interdimensional plotlines, but instead of hopping from one universe to another, in Accounting you're experiencing a kind of virtual reality version of Inception. The objective of each room is to find a hidden VR headset that transports you to the next location.
Glixel visited Roiland and Watson in a small hotel suite during the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle earlier this month, where they were giving short private demos of the game ahead of its announcement. Part of the room had been cleared to make way for an HTC Vive VR setup, and in the corner, perched on top of a pile of boxes on a couch was a laptop wrapped in a black hoodie and a crumpled pair of jeans. "That's William, who can't be here right now," said Roiland, gesturing to Crows Crows Crows founder William Pugh, who had appeared in a Skype window.
The original purpose of the meeting was simply to see the game in action, but what followed was an opportunity to listen in on Roiland, Pugh and Watson discuss the genesis of their passion project.
Justin Roiland: The genesis of this whole thing was William and I befriending each other over the Internet back in August of last year.
William Pugh: I'd obviously watched Rick & Morty and loved it. I was following Justin on Twitter and I saw that he posted, "Hey is anyone from Respawn a fan of Rick & Morty? I'd like a tour of the office," or whatever. So I, being a horrific liar, tweeted at him immediately saying, "I work at Respawn! Follow me! I work at Respawn!"
Then he actually followed me, which I really didn't expect. I thought I was probably just shouting into the void. And then he immediately DMs me, and I'm like, "Er, look... Please don't hate me for this. I like your work, and I'm sorry to inconvenience your day but I don't actually work for Respawn at all." I was certain that I'd really fucked this up, but then it turns out he'd played my game The Stanley Parable.
Roiland: And loved it. Loved it!
Tanya Watson: When you told me you were working with William, I was like, "Oh my god! He's awesome!"
Pugh: So, from completely lying about who I was, about 10 tweets later we were talking about working together. It was a fast turnaround. The moral of that story is: lie about what you do.
Roiland: We were Skyping a bunch all last summer and into the fall, talking about what all the devs are doing right now in the VR space. So anyway, we planned this game jam for March of this year just before GDC with William and Dominik (Johann, from Crows Crows Crows). What's Dom's title? Is he a concept artist or something?
Pugh: He's my art director. So he's the person I work with most closely.
Roiland: He's fantastic. He's also the voice in the background of the game that's just repeating everything and shouting. It's such a funny approach. We were designing out of the Rick & Morty office and at the time we had this huge office to work in and I'd come in the room and William would be like, "Here, try this real quick." And he'd got the whole thing where you talk on the phone in the game, but it wasn't real dialog when you held the controller up to your ear. It was just William going "blah blah blah, blah blah" and then in the background Dom shouting, "Bluh, bluh, bluhhhhh!"
So, Dom and William had flown out for the jam. By day I'm working on Rick & Morty and then at night, as soon as I was free, I'd join them and we'd burn the midnight oil. We did that for four solid days, and we got maybe 30 percent into the game.
Pugh: It was all super rushed because we were making it at 4 a.m., but it was representative of how the game was going to end up, and we were moving really quickly. The game was actually supposed to come out a bit earlier than it is, but then I broke my leg in April.
Roiland: On April 1st! Can you believe that? On April, first I see a tweet, where somebody said that William got hit by a car and shattered his leg. I'm like – no he didn't, it's April 1st, you fucking idiots. This is the guy that lied to me and said he worked at Respawn. He didn't break his leg. And then a couple of days go by, and it turns out he's seriously hurt.
Pugh: That's why I'm stuck here in the middle of fucking nowhere instead of being at PAX.
Roiland: Anyway, what was cool was that in the middle of that initial game jam we broke the story, we figured out all the rooms. Well, more or less. And then I did a spit draft of the whole thing. We went in and we recorded pretty much the entire game as very loose improv based on the spit draft. I really love the improvisational stuff. There's not enough of that in video games.
Watson: Oh, we don't do it at all in game development. When he and I got together and talked about that process, I mean...wow. The world I come from is very scripted because of all the interaction stuff.
Roiland: If you cast really funny, talented people and let them do what they need to do, they're going to hit a home run for you without a script. William and I will go through a scene and we'll be on the same page about what drops we need. So it's like if the player does this, then the characters need to start saying this. We'll record so much more than what we need. It's a tragedy really, because most players will never get to hear most of it.
Pugh: The tragedy of working in VR in general is that you do so much work for stuff that the players just never experience.
Roiland: I love the joy in the improvisational creative process. Often times there's no filter. I go in and edit audio, and I usually use all of it. Stuttering and trying to find your thoughts, the imperfections make the performances better.
I'm a huge fan of British comedy that does that. I have been since I was a little kid. Monty Python, Peter Serafinowicz, The IT Crowd, Matt Berry's stuff, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh – dude, just all that stuff. What's the one with Peter Serafinowicz, the fake science show? Look Around You. Oh my god. To me, that's some of the best comedy.
Pugh: Working with Justin specifically on this was really interesting because he comes from a different creative landscape. Working with someone who understands performance to the degree that he does is really freeing and exciting to be around. Improvisation and performance is so important. Even with The Stanley Parable, which most people thought had great voice work – well, that was just the process of writing a script, sending it off and getting it back and just doing iterations. It's a really mechanical and time-consuming process.
Working and recording all the dialog in L.A. and playing through the game – that kind of feedback loop, that really helped the vibe of this game.
Roiland: It's how I do my cartoons too. I'm literally running down the hall recording a scene and then I run back, cut the audio, give it to William, he plugs it in – the iteration time from recording to being in the scene was really fast. This is my first real VR thing. I took it for granted that the process always works like this.
Watson: No, that isn't typically how game development works.
Roiland: We just kinda followed our bliss with this whole thing. "First thought, best thought" was really the approach.
Watson: I really wanted to work with Justin because I wanted to take some of that process from the TV world and animation world, take those best practices and see how they work in games. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel – we're trying to make things better. There's certainly a way that we did this kind of stuff at Epic for years and years, but I'd love to blow all that up and do something different.
Roiland: And this is just a demo too, right? So who knows, people may play it over and over. It's a glimpse into the tone I want to go for. Is it a demo? Let's put it this way, this game is "complimentary." We don't want to say, "Free."
Pugh: Yeah, language is really important.
Roiland: The word "free" makes it feel cheap. We've been flip-flopping on whether to charge for it since GDC back in March. We'd never charge more than a few bucks for it regardless, so it's not like we were going to make much money anyway.
Pugh: With a new studio, you've got to try and win people over. The best way to build the energy in what you're trying to do is to give people a taste. If we're talking about the whole "why make it free?" shit, it's a lot to do with the expectations that people have. When you put money down, you're forced to reveal more about what your product is going to be. Especially if it's new and experimental. Do you explain what this thing is before people play it and lose a lot of the surprise and the joy? Do you want to do that? We were like, no fuck that. We're not going to make any money off VR anyway.
Roiland: With the low install base of Vive and a price that low, all it really did was over-complicate things. I love that it's free because people may be a little gentler. Their expectations will be shifted a bit. When they play it, they won't be aggressive about the length or whatever.
Pugh: You can't invest a large amount of time in a VR product right now. A problem with VR at the moment is that all the software needs to be a showcase for the hardware as well. And every game that's put out on VR needs to be a shining example, pushing the platform forward in the most open and accessible way. What's exciting about this is the ability to go to VR and take a really interesting and specific type of creative voice that can be what it wants to be rather than a technical showcase.