Necrophone Games on the making of Jazzpunk

Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse discuss their surreal and stylish cult hit

Released in February, Necrophone Games’ Jazzpunk is a first-person adventure game with striking looks, a distinctive soundtrack, and a penchant for the bizarre. It also happens to be the funniest videogame we’ve played in ages. We caught up with the Toronto-based team of Luis Hernandez (artist) and Jess Brouse (programmer) to discuss the art of videogame comedy, and what the future holds for interactive humour.

You didn’t set out to make a comedy game, did you?

Luis Hernandez: It’s a bit of misconception that it was initially designed to be a comedy game. It started off more as a straightforward adventure-puzzle game in first-person, a noir[-themed] cyberpunk thing. We’d been working on it for quite a long time in that state. As you work on something, you become more attuned to what’s working and what’s not working and the things you want from the experience that you’re not quite seeing. We’re funny guys, so every now and again we’d add these weird little jokes and Easter eggs, mostly for our own amusement because they’re fun to make. Game development is a long, drudging process so working on that stuff is definitely good for your mental health. Over time, those became some of our favourite parts of the game, and definitely the most fun things to brainstorm and work on. So we made the decision to focus more on those and figure out ways of getting what I guess you’d call comedy elements into the game.

Was there a specific point where you realised this was turning into something different from what you originally planned?

Jess Brouse: It was an evolution rather than a revolution. We did become more aware of it, but it was an unconscious thing initially. That whole ‘comedy is our resistance’ epiphany that we had was more like putting into words what was already happening.

LH: Jess and I are both from an engineering background, so we were trying to think of it in terms of electronics analogies. So we looked at how [developers] impede the player so they don’t just walk to the end of the game, this is how I realised there were two base types of resistance: shooting and puzzles. I guess I was unhappy or bored with them, and couldn’t thing of too many alternatives. They seem to be the two classic [ideas], even dating back to the arcade era of structuring a game.

JB: We have puzzles, but tried to keep them simple. A plus B equals you solve the puzzle.

LH: Yeah, instead of a Portal puzzle or something like that. Comedy was our way of keeping people engaged in the world. That was kind of our alternative approach.

Jazzpunk features a first-person take on Street Fighter II’s car-punching minigame, and there’s an inspired riff on classic shooter Quake.

It’s interesting that Jazzpunk has an open world; that you’re happy to have jokes that players will miss, and that they’re not necessarily guided towards them.

JB: What I like about a system where you will miss a bunch of stuff is the illusion that you’re in a convincing world. Like our world - you will miss stuff if you just… LH: …Sit inside all day.

JB: It becomes more of a smaller world if you discover everything. You only get the illusion of endless interactions by having the possibility of [players] missing stuff in the world.

LH: A lot of the levels were designed that way a long time ago, or at least rough versions of them. I know people will miss things, and very few will play the entire game and see every joke. And I’m 100% fine with that. We’re not a triple-A studio, we didn’t have a whole floor working on some of those interactions for months at the cost of millions of dollars. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t see every single piece of content. I’ve had interactions with AAA people who play our game, and they can’t conceive how we structured a game so that people aren’t drip-fed every single piece of content. A non- linear progression to them is so inefficient. They can’t take the chance of something like that not being seen. As indies, that’s almost something for us to exploit for ourselves, because we’re in a position where we can actually structure a game around the concept of a possibility space of interactions. That’s something I love in other games but see so rarely, because no one is crazy enough to let a AAA studio do that. Shenmue is one of the few – it’s so full of weird interactions, but they couldn’t even finish that series because it was so inefficient for a triple-A studio to work on. That’s something I’ve been championing more and more over time. A lot of open world games like Skyrim have these giant sprawling worlds where everything is more spread out. To me that creates a less convincing world than creating a smaller space but packing it very tightly.

JB: In Skyrim there’s maybe five main things you’re doing - hacking and slashing, casting spells, talking to people, stealing things. We wanted to keep things fresh by having a whole bunch of different types of interactions, rather than settling on somewhere between one and five core gameplay mechanics.

Though most of the game’s comedy comes from the element of surprise, you’ve got gags where anticipation is everything. Like the Whoopee cushion in the opening scene where you know what’s going to happen when you sit down. Was it difficult to make that kind of joke work?

LH: I’ll answer the Whoopee cushion part. I think that’s actually a meta-joke in that a Whoopee cushion is such a cheap joke-store gag. I mean, they’re like a dollar, but the real joke there is that it’s more work to digitally make a fake synthetic Whoopee cushion and place it within a virtual space than it is to purchase one and put it on someone’s chair in reality.

JB: We wouldn’t have just used it in isolation, it was about building this relationship between you and the director who is your boss, framing from the get-go that this is the shape of things to come.

LH: It’s like that Old Man Murray thing, where they talked about the amount of time [before you] see a crate in a first-person game. Our version of that is the time it takes to get to the Whoopee cushion in a comedy game, so we threw it in at the very beginning to get it out of the way. Cut the foreplay, put the Whoopee cushion on the chair, they can turn the game off now! It’s only getting worse from here!

There seems to have been something of a resurgence in comedy games, particularly with slapstick fare like Goat Simulator and Octodad. Perhaps indie developers are in the best position to make interactive comedy, because they can put their ideas out there, without having to worry about it being particularly polished, or appealing to certain demographics.

LH: Every day there are more indie games and developers than there were before. I don’t know if I would quite say comedy games are on a resurgence, so much as all genres - particularly ones that weren’t having particular attention being paid to them by publishers.

JB: Even adventure games, in quite a big way.

LH: Basically, you name it and there’s more of them now than there were two years ago.

Timing in comedy is everything, but obviously player agency makes that quite tricky in an interactive medium. Is it difficult to resolve that issue without making a game feel very guided or controlled?

LH: I don’t know, a lot of our solutions to that obviously are things that do require hard timing, Jess and I would look a lot at where and how something would happen in time. I feel that changes the dynamic of what people are used to, or have seen with comedy in games before. I think the assumption is that if you give people control it won’t work. It almost seems that the opportune time for jokes to work is if people instigate them.

J: There’s a bit of a jack-in-the-box feel to it, the user of the jack-in-the-box is the one who instigates [the punchline]. We also have a bunch of simple tricks behind the scenes, where we do things like spawning things just outside of the view of the camera for comedic timing.

LH: There are a lot of approaches, but the typical hard timing of a joke doesn’t really work unless the comedy of your game is soliloquy comedy. There are a lot of those out there, you’re wandering through 3D space, there’s a voice offscreen talking at you, they hired a fancy voice actor, like GlaDOS or something – a lot of the time it’s British voice actors, actually - and they’re in a studio somewhere doing multiple takes. But it doesn’t really take into account what the player’s doing. It just feels like an audio track playing over [the action]. That’s a very common approach.

Whereas with Jazzpunk it’s more often a collaboration between author and player – the dev sets it up and then the player delivers the punchline, although it has to already be there to be delivered. So really the player decides on the timing.

LH: Yeah. Sometimes the player has no idea what the punchline’s going to be, while at other times they have an inkling, and their curiosity will instigate it. Other times they know exactly what’s going to happen, but that expectation works in their favour. For example, sitting on the Whoopee cushion.

JB: The [key] thing for us was the space between the different jokes, which is part of the timing factor. It was important to not have a joke and then another joke too soon, because it [detracts] from last one, which you might still be laughing at. We spent a lot of time getting the right amount of saturation, a lot of editing, and going back and forth to massage it into something that worked. We even had systems behind the scenes removing certain jokes to affect the timing, that kind of thing. One of our main comedic inspirations was [Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker movies] which is as much about the spacing between the jokes as the jokes themselves.

Did you study films more than other games, then, once you’d decided to make Jazzpunk into a comedy?

LH: Yeah it was a lot of movies, but also TV, cartoon stuff and things we remembered from our childhoods - some Looney Tunes shorts, Golden Age comedy animations, the satire and parody of Mad magazine, that sort of stuff. And there are a lot of hi-tech jokes in the game that most people aren’t really privy to. A lot of engineers email us because they’ve noticed some weird engineering joke that we threw in, but that typically doesn’t get noticed.

A lot of other attempts at interactive comedy tend to parody established game tropes, riffing on certain mechanics or systems. We’re seeing that more and more lately – is that because these ideas a more ingrained? Is there a wider audience awareness than perhaps there used to be?

LH: It’s a bit of a shared experience with a lot of these different games over the past ten or 20 years. They do this in many other mediums, people will cite and reference and do reprises and callbacks of stuff from that medium. There are homages in film all the time, callbacks to certain styles in music, so I guess it’s natural for a generation - probably the first generation - who grew up playing games. Anyone from the late ‘70s onward would have had a controller in their hand probably their entire life. So it’s natural that we’ll see more parodies or just recontextualised ideas, people spoofing and subverting aspects of games that they remember. Like there was this whole art-game [movement] a couple of years ago – “here’s my version of Super Mario Bros but the mushrooms cry blood”, or whatever, and “ooh, it’s subversive because Mario is a murderer”. But there are other ways of doing that kind of stuff and I definitely think we’ll see more of it as people keep growing up with the medium.

“Players want an endorphin release in the brain, and comedy is one of the ways to provide that.”

Are you surprised there aren’t more out-and-out comedy games? Portal is often cited as a good example of interactive comedy, and it had a strong comedic thread running through it, but it’s not trying to make you laugh all the time.

LH: I think Portal had a lot of wit to it. A lot of indie games pretty plainly use it as a model for the games they want to make, but most [developers] paid more attention to the first-person puzzle aspect rather than the dry wit of Portal. I think that was more our takeaway from Portal. But I don’t want to play a Portal level [outside that context]. Valve released a lot of ancillary map packs, and I’m sure the puzzles are awesome, but I have no interest in playing them - because I know they would be lacking the wit of a well-written GlaDOS joke.

Do you think after Jazzpunk people might develop a taste for interactive comedy, and seek out games that offer that kind of experience?

LH: If more and more games come out that are able to provide comedy to people, maybe it’ll be one of the things they start to browse for, but I think it’ll take a while for people to develop that taste. People want an endorphin release in the brain, essentially, and comedy is one of the ways to provide that.

JB: I think if it does happen, it will take time to manifest.

LH: I know that when I sign into Steam I’m distraught that [puzzlers and shooters] are still the two main flavours that are available. It’s not Neapolitan yet! I mean, there’s a spread of genres, but almost everything I play I can relate back to something I played 20 years ago, and only rarely will I see something like a Katamari Damacy, where you’ve got a game that’s really difficult to describe.

Well, Katamari Damacy is a pretty funny game.

LH: It definitely had an influence on Jazzpunk in some way.

There’s a strong hint of Monty Python in the game’s more surreal elements, too.

LH: Oh, absolutely. I love Terry Gilliam, Monty Python – there’s definitely a streak of Brazil in the game, that idea of building an overwrought cyberpunk technocracy. I grew up watching a lot of Alexei Sayle, Rowan Atkinson.

JB: Part of it is that deadpan comedy, that’s something we really wanted to [have] in Jazzpunk.

LH: I really love that stream-of-consciousness Monty Python style. A lot of people are unaccustomed to that, though – they’ll classify Jazzpunk as ‘zany’ or ‘wacky’.

JB: ‘Random’ is a word that comes up a lot.

LH: It does seem to appeal to British publications and British reviewers, maybe they’re more accustomed to that dry delivery or heavy satire or surrealist comedy, and maybe that’s less popular in America.

JB: It tends to be a quite polarising approach.

The critical reaction seemed to be quite positive. Did you get some bad reviews?

JB: Oh, yeah! [laughs]

LH: It’s very easy to see people who perhaps don’t have absurdist humour in their mental vocabulary. And that’s not to say that they should - I mean, they’re game reviewers, there’s nothing in their job description that says they have to know anything about comedy. But it does make it a little difficult for us, because it is a comedy game. We didn’t want to cross our arms and be pretentious about the humour we put in. Particularly if you’ve become accustomed to the more sophisticated humour in the game, one way to counteract that is to surprise you with a lowbrow joke. It’s a way of providing you with that point of difference – and had we only stuck to maybe one type of humour throughout the game that would have become quite dull.

t’s the same kind of thing as repeating mechanics – the unexpected would become the expected.

LH: Yeah, people would definitely see it coming.

JB: At the same time, I think we get misrepresented as a lowbrow comedy game, like some of the articles will say ‘Jazzpunk is a game about fart jokes’ or something, and we were very conscious about not wanting to do stuff that was overly gross. We wanted the game to be stylish.

LH: It’s kind of sexy!

JB: Yeah, [it has] this early ‘60s/late ‘50s sexiness to it.

LH: There are no fart jokes in the game. Okay, there’s the Whoopee cushion joke but that’s a very different type of joke. We have gotten reviews [that have said] ‘it’s all fart jokes,’ [but] it really isn’t! It kind of hurts to see it. You either didn’t play it or you imagined it. Or you have an intestinal problem and you should go to the doctor, because those sound effects weren’t emitting from the game.

“It was weird testing the game, because some people did not know how to use a rotary phone.”

Were you aiming for a timeless feel for Jazzpunk? It’s interesting that there are no references to internet memes or contemporary pop culture gags. Was that something you specifically wanted to avoid?

JB: It’s more about the classiness level, than about specifically trying to make it futureproof. It would compromise our setting, I think.

LH: That’s definitely part of it. A LOLcats joke isn’t going to fit in with a sexy, 1950s Cold War feeling. Also if I were to put in an internet meme, that component might only work for people in North America and perhaps it wouldn’t cross to Britain or Australia. So I think that’s a poor approach to take when dealing with very topical humour.

JB: It’s certainly not in line with what our inspirational sources were, like ZAZ or Ren and Stimpy.

LH: [Our main inspirations] all reference a timeless fictional ideal - not necessarily Americana, but in these worlds a phone is always a rotary phone, a payphone always takes 25c quarters, lunch is always at 12 o’clock. There’s that cartoon logic where rubbing a feather on somebody causes them to laugh, breathing in pepper causes them to sneeze. There’s an internal logic to that world which is actually rather locked down at this point. You can see a short wave radio in a Spy vs Spy cartoon and it’s immediately recognisable as a radio, despite the fact that no one has touched a short wave radio in 20-30 years. Actually, it was kind of weird testing the game, because some people did not know how to use a rotary phone. That became a puzzle in and of itself to a lot of people, in a way that was actually rather horrifying. You present them with a rotary phone and they’re tapping it as though it’s a touch-tone phone and then [say] ‘your game is broken, it doesn’t work’. We encountered a lot of things like that.

J: It had never occurred to us. The new generation has never interacted with some of the technology in the game.

L: Yeah, if it’s not an iPad, they don’t know how to use it. Actually, my favourite joke in the game is that [some players] don’t know how to use a rotary phone. That maybe became my top one. So there’s a timeless cartoon logic that appeals to me, but then there’s the stylisation of the game. Rather than go for photorealism, we aimed for a kind of 1930s pictographical version of the world, which I think will allow the game to stand the test of time a bit more. If I think of, say, Jet Set Radio or Katamari Damacy or even Zelda: Wind Waker, those games all still look incredibly beautiful. Over a decade old, and they still look amazing. And then you go back to games of that era that were trying to be photorealistic and they all have aged way, way more than something like Jet Set Radio has. So in making Jazzpunk stylised I hope the visual sexiness continues to resonate a lot longer than if we had gone with a more traditional style.

“PuzzleScript lets me make interesting games that only take about a week to create.”

Jazzpunk feels like the right sort of length for a comedy game, but it must have taken some discipline on your part to self-edit. At what point do you decide where to stop?

JB: Part of that [problem] is solved by the nature of it being interactive comedy, because the player is the best person to determine when enough is enough, so they can kind of throttle how much they’re getting based on how much they want to poke around versus how much they want to follow the main thread of the game. Some people just want to go through the entire game in an hour and a half, and they might look at some stuff, but they want to keep the main thread of the game flowing, and that’s totally fine. And then some people might want to play it in three sittings, so they can poke around if they like. So yeah, the player is the best person to determine that.

LH: If we were to linearly structure how [players] would progress and exactly what the game time would have been, I think we would have ended up with a lot more complaints about the game not being the right length. I mean, we literally do ask them “how much comedy do you want?” You can go walk around all day if you want and see all of it, or you can run through the game. In our own minds, the game is roughly two hours long, maybe three and a half if you do everything, maybe one and a half if you run through it. I think in the median range it’s around two hours, which is roughly the length of a Naked Gun film or something. But we wouldn’t dare make a comedy that was eight hours long because - ugh, that’s gross to even imagine. I don’t want to watch an eight-hour comedy film.

JB: You’d be better off just making a couple of films.

LH: Exactly. Which is what they do, right? There’s multiple Naked Gun films rather than just one sprawling Peter Jackson epic where it’s an eight-hour, three-part comedy film where every single joke is happening all at once, and it’s all CGI. That’s terrifying.