Mon 22 Jun 2009
Ben There, Dan That, so now it’s Time Gentlemen, Please! This is a series not to be missed by lovers of classic adventure gaming seeking journeys to alternate realities of complete insanity. Of course it so happens that they’re filled with a strangly logical logic that makes all the wonderful puzzles so wonderful. Upon the release of Time Gentlemen, Please! (Available since today! Get it while it’s hot!) we managed to get hold of the creators of the games – Ben Ward and Dan Marshall (aka Zombie Cow Studios) who I kept confusing with their namesakes from the game and ask them a bit about… well LucasArts oldies, AGS favorites, game development methods, titles, money, but mostly about Ben & Dan.
Igor Hardy: Would Dan be the player-controlled character if his name did appear before Ben’s in the original game’s title, or was he declared as secondary character material for some less accidental reason? Why didn’t you give the player the option to just switch between both characters? How come Dan seems so completely useless (even with opening doors) and yet he somehow gets at least half of the work done?
Dan Marshall: I can’t really remember how that came about; I think we were fixed on a Sam and Max mechanic from the start, as opposed to Day of the Tentacle-stylee switching.
If you look at the opening sections of Ben There, Dan That!, Dan’s actually a lot more involved; you can look at something, and Dan alone talks. Ben doesn’t say a word. I think that’s how it was originally intended to be, more of a partnership. As the game grew and evolved, it became clearer that the player was playing as Ben, since he did 99% of the interactions, and direct control over the walking, so that’s where their affinity lies, really.
Once Ben There, Dan That! was coded , and we started putting in the dialogue, we suddenly realised that the player only actually uses the Use Dan command twice in the whole game, so we sort of made a feature of that when it came to writing the dialogue. One of my favourite things about BTDT is Dan’s role.
Ben Ward: As you’ll find out through the course of this interview, in real life it’s actually Dan who does most of the talking, with me piping up at the end. See?
IH: Doesn’t putting your alter egos in the main roles in the game wake up too much hidden desires that can destroy the storyline? I mean, aren’t you constantly tempted to do things like give them lots of money, power and other things you dream about, make them do chores for you, or kill them off in horrible death scenes?
DM: By and large it’s not an issue; they’re characters that are loosely based on the two of us, but they’re still very, very fictional. When we’re designing, we refer to them as ‘Dan and Ben’ not ‘you and me’, so they’re definitely different people to us. They bicker and speak their minds an awful lot more than we do, and they’re funnier too.
Obviously at the end of Ben There, Dan That!, we’re rulers of the world, but that was a last-minute decision, really. I’m not sure about chores; I think a game where players clean up our flat and put a wash on might be a bit much even for us. We tend to think about any situations from a ‘what’s fun/ what’s funny’ point of view over a ‘what would I love to do in real life’ point of view.
BW: You do have to stop yourself from letting them do or say anything too cool in case it comes off like a masturbatory private fantasy, while still letting the player do some fun stuff. Getting to wear a Marty McFly costume all day, every day, is enough for me!
IH: Are the Indiana Jones and Marty McFly like garments an attempt at subtle characterization? (btw Marty is a part of our staff nowadays and says Hi) Did you really think anyone would notice those with the simplistic sprites you painted for the characters?
DM: Not really – I’m a big Indy fan and genuinely own the same leather jacket. I swan around in it like I’m looking for a Nazi to punch, so it made sense for me to be wearing it in-game. Ben’s a massive Back to the Future fan, so it made sense to put him in a sissy life preserver, because the dork constantly swans around like he’s gonna drown. That’s about it.
BW: The Eighties are coming back into fashion, you know…
IH: Would you agree to Harrison Ford doing Dan’s voice in a SE of BTDT, or is he too old already?
DM: Only if we could also get Tom Selleck in to play Ben. It’s a deal breaker.
IH: How much time did you devote to making BTDT and how much to TGP in comparison?
DM: Ben There, Dan That! took a solid 3 months full-time work, somehow, and then festered on my Hard Drive for about a year, before I spent three part-time months finishing it off.
Time Gentlemen, Please! Has been 9 months of part-time work in evenings and weekends, and one month full-time slog to get it done-and-dusted.
IH: TGP! – what kind of title is that? Why not BTDT2?
DM: Eugh – I have a phobia about the number 2 after titles. All the best sequels take a different title. Empire Strikes back, Aliens, Shanghai Knights… it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, obviously; Temple of Doom is pretty terrible. But as soon as you slap a 2 on things, I reckon you’re on iffy ground.
Time Gentlemen, Please! is a frightfully-British term – it’s what pub landlords traditionally shout while ringing a bell when it comes to closing time, to get everyone to drink up. Given the game’s theme, it fits perfectly, even if it does alienate and confuse 99% of The Internet. The game’s also pretty stand-alone, you don’t really need to have played BTDT to enjoy TGP, so we’ve dropped Ben There, Dan That! from the title entirely, so as not to put people off.
BW: We also decided not to call it ‘Ben There, Dan That!: Time Gentlemen, Please!’.
Punctuation in titles is generally horrid.
IH: What does TGP! have that BTDT did not? And vice versa.
DM: TGP’s much more complex than BTDT, which was pretty linear. Objects have multiple uses, and locations are used more wisely. The puzzles are smarter and more varied, and there’s more detective work to be done.
After the lightswitch-flipping in BTDT, Dan’s also a lot more keen to take an active role in proceedings, which you’ll need to deal with.
Ben There, Dan That! had rubbishy graphics, which this one does not. Everything’s looking much nicer; there’s more detail in the characters and backdrops, and the interface is now nice and tactile. There are even special visual effects, from trendy scrolling foregrounds to delicious particle bits.
That’s about it. TGP’s an improvement in pretty much every way, I think.
BW: Also, there’s more of a plot with a beginning, middle and end. We wrote BTDT as we went along, to make it more fun for us, and to give it an ad-libbed feel. For this one, we wanted to plan where we were going, as well as have a proper end-game puzzle.
IH: Will all the sub-plots from BTDT be neatly tied-up in the sequel, or will we have to wait for a third game?
DM: Unless TGP sells outstandingly well, I think this is it for Ben and Dan. Everything gets wrapped up neatly.
BW: Sub-plots?! BTDT hardly has a main plot!
IH: You’ve given quite a bit of thought into if you should take money for the sequel – why did you in the end?
DM: I’ve decided to price TGP at less than the cost of a pint of real ale in an overpriced London boozer.
Basically, because it’d be nice to make some money doing this, and use it to make more games. Everyone who donated to BTDT has received a copy of TGP to show my gratitude. We’ll see how it goes.
TGP takes an hour and a half to play through, even if you know what you’re doing and don’t look at anything, so I reckon you’re definitely getting £3 of entertainment.
BW: We wrote BTDT half for ourselves, but TGP was made with the player fully in mind, so it’s a much more satisfying experience. It’s a lot more polished in every way, as Dan has mentioned, and a lot longer, but still with the same huge amount of dialogue that you’ll ever read unless you’re a real, old school adventurer who looks at, uses and talks to absolutely EVERYTHING.
DM: … and then goes back, once the situation has changed, and looks at everything again…
IH: How did the success of BTDT affect your lives, not excluding the fact that it has made you [SPOILER]rulers of the world[/SPOILER] by the time you dealt with the alternate realities crisis.
DM: There’s not much of an adventure to be had if you’re rulers of the world and, bar 6 billion brainwashed minions, everything’s pretty much hunky-dory. So suffice it to say Ben and Dan mess things up pretty badly, and they’ll have to go back in time to fix things up…
IH: The classic question – how does the process of you two designing games together look like? And how do Lemmy & Binky fit into that picture?
DM: When we wrote BTDT, we were flatmates. All the designing was done down the pub with a pint of Lion’s Roar and a scrap of paper. I now live with one of those ‘girls’ and Ben’s on the other side of London, so about a billion emails go back and forth between us each day, doubly so when we were ironing out puzzles. So it’s more futuristic, certainly, but I think it’s actually worked out quite well. Ideas get filtered and refined more this way, when you’re expressing them in full sentences and what-have-you.
I then take what we’ve discussed, and do all the art and code and what-have-you and make magic things happen on the monitor.
BW: It also involves a lot of lists. ‘To do’ lists, bug lists, impossible-to-achieve-but-cool ideas lists…
DM: Lemmy and Binky act as code and art consultants. They’re amazing, incredible people to have on hand when things go wrong or I need a leg up. Between them, they know everything so it’s perpetually exciting to be doing anything that involves them.
IH: Are you fans of some other heroic-comedic duos (and trios) than yourselves, like say… Sam & Max?
DM: Yeah, the mechanic we use is similar to Sam and Max: Hit the Road because that’s the game we both loved as kids. Adventure games are definitely better when there’s someone to ping dialogue off, rather than turning to face camera, which always irks me a bit. We do it occasionally in BTDT/ TGP, but only really as biting, biting satire.
BW: We’re also influenced by Bill and Ted for the cavalier attitude to science and time-travel rules, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for the London-based hetero life-partners element , and Calvin and Hobbes for the interplay between the characters.
IH: What was your reaction to the recent Monkey Island announcements? Do you think the old magic will still be there, or will The Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island be the true Monkey Island sequel in spirit?
DM: I wasn’t a big fan of the new Sam and Max games, so I’m reserving judgement. If they reduce Monkey Island to one-click-does-everything as well, I’ll be bitterly disappointed. Part of the joy for me in adventure games is using your verbs, it makes you feel properly in control, rather than simply clicking your way from one puzzle to the next. Ghost Pirates looks gorgeous, but I don’t know much more about it.
I’m always optimistic about these things. I’m sure they’ll both be completely brillo.
BW: Pah, 3D is SO yesterday.
IH: What are your favorite AGS made games?
DM: Nelly Cootalot! Nelly Cootalot! Nelly Cootalot! It’s outstandingly gorgeous, and amazingly funny. I’d love to see Ali do something that isn’t pirates, because pirates don’t really do it for me. But Nelly Cootalot wins Best AGS game ever as far as I’m concerned. ‘Nelly Cootalot In Space’ please, Ali!
IH: Seconded. It so happens Nelly Cootalot is my favourite AGS game as well. And there’s a sequel coming to be sure. Still pirates though.
DM: Once the heat from TGP has worn off, I’m really keen to relax and take a look at all the Blackwell games; I played the demo of the first one to see if there’s anything that needed a good satiring in TGP, and it’s left me very intrigued…
BW: I’m planning to play a load of AGS games, once the dust has settled on TGP. I really enjoyed Beauties and Beasts, by MashPotato. I think my favourite AGS game, though, is Rise Of The Hidden Sun: A Rattlesnake Jake Adventure!
IH: Thanks very much for the interview guys. I’m looking forward to playing Time Gentlemen, Please! I heard those dinosaur zombies clones can be pretty nasty. Especially in the hands of Hitler.
UPDATE!: You can now read our review of Time Gentlemen, Please!