Building an entire planet out of clay isn’t easy, but point-and-click adventure game Armikrog succeeds in doing just that. The upcoming videogame by Pencil Test Studios sees space explorer Tommynaut and his blind, talking dog Beak-Beak crash-land on a planet, where they wind up locked in a strange fortress called Armikrog. With an A-list voice cast starring Michael J. Nelson (Mystery Science Theater 3000), Rob Paulsen (Pinky and the Brain) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), it’s already one of the year’s most talked-about games.
Armikrog is the brainchild of industry veterans Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield, the founders of Pencil Test Studios, created in 2009. The indie game studio’s office is sandwiched between a plumber and a sandwich shop in Lake Forest, California, where small manpower yields big games. Joined by Earthworm Jim creator Doug TenNapel, cult musician Terry Scott Taylor, several Laguna College of Art and Design interns, and various stop-motion artists, the team created their most comical, challenging and bizarre videogame yet.
Dietz and Schofield’s animation days started over two decades ago. In 1992, Dietz – who worked at Virgin Games at the time – hired Schofield at a college career day event. They went on to work together on Super Nintendo, Genesis and Aladdin games. “It was like the wild west of the industry back then,” jokes Dietz. A few years later, they started designing their own computer games, including 1994’s Earthworm Jim, 1996’s The Neverhood and 1998’s Skullmonkeys. Although considered critical successes, the games suffered during the PC crash of the Nineties, when consoles became more popular. The two peeled off to pursue various opportunities, including work on Pixar games Ratatouille and WALL-E, before regrouping in 2013 specifically to work on Armikrog.
Dietz and Schofield’s work shares a distinctive visual look that draws on everything from Jim Henson to Looney Tunes to Wallace and Gromit. For Armikrog, their methods were more ambitious than ever: Over the course of the last 12 months, they’ve dug through more than 1,500 pounds of oil- and wax-based clay. As soon as fresh shipments come in, they begin building a new set; every package has been scraped clean two hours later. “The FedEx guys hate us,” says Schofield, referring to the packages’ weight. “The Neverhood‘s whole schtick was that it was a world of clay, even if an object was meant to be metal. Armikrog sees us use whatever material is appropriate. We might build something out of a circuit board, a slinky, a paper towel tube and a Starbucks coffee lid. If it looks neat, we’ll use it. That’s our mantra.”
“We’ve been calling Armikrog playable art,” adds Dietz. “Every time you walk into a new room or meet a new character, it’s eye candy. It makes it worth it to sit and watch someone else play.”
When we think of claymation, we often think of Gumby or The Nightmare Before Christmas – animation labeled as a medium for children. While the last decade has seen that assumption shift after innovative work by places like Adult Swim, there’s still unmined territory between children’s animated entertainment and something more adult-oriented. Publishers were originally unwilling to finance Pencil Test Studio’s latest Claymation point-and-click game – so they turned to crowdfunding. The two launched the project on May 29th, 2013 and reached their goal of $900,000 less than a month later, no doubt thanks to exclusive prizes such as your name appearing in a puzzle or creating the backstory for a character. Dietz says crowdfunding “lit a fire under the independent gaming scene. We thought that Kickstarter would be a place for people to buy the game – but it was a group of people who made it their mission to help get the project funded.”
Social media’s growth over the last decade has shown the duo how dedicated their following is. Where The Neverhood’s Facebook page garnered 17,000 likes in six years, Armikrog’s page passed that in under one. “The amount of support and enthusiasm backers showed was really – this term gets thrown around a lot, but I mean it – humbling,” says Schofield. “Fans have written to us saying the game got them through a life-threatening illness or brought them closer to their parents. To think that somehow we brought enjoyment to people that we don’t even know is crazy. We’re just a couple of guys building things out of clay in a garage for fun.”
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Schofield and Dietz have kept their trademark humor at Armikrog‘s heart, relying heavily on their all-star cast. “We’ll send Rob [Paulsen] a script with 10 lines on it and he’ll give us that plus 40 additional takes,” says Schofield. “By the time we get to the 30th, it’s way funnier than anything we could ever write. It’s like those stories of Robin Williams on Aladdin, where they had to re-write the script because he came up with so many good contributions.”
Seeing your 3-D creations come to life without your hands supporting their weight is an exceptional feeling — one they’re thrilled to experience once again. Yet even so, as the game goes through final touches before its release, the hardworking staff can’t help but get sentimental. “It sounds a little crazy, but you become attached to these characters after animating them and thinking from their point of view,” says Dietz. “The other day, I animated my final shot of Tommynaut. It felt like that feeling when you graduate college: You’re moving on, but you’re a little melancholy about it.”