The PC demo of Gesundheit! from 2006 is to this date one of the most professional looking work done with the Adventure Game Studio engine. Also the most fun piece of snot-shoot puzzling around tear-eyed monsters ever created! Not surprisingly, Matt Hammill – the creator – was later approached by Revolutionary Concepts & Konami and they developed the WIP version into a full length game – sadly atm available only for iOS and MacOS. Having been interested in green pigs since my childhood (no joke!), being curious about the AGS connection, and loving Gesundheit! itself, I approached Mr Hammill for a little Q & A. Here’s what happened:
Igor Hardy: You’re a professional graphic artist, illustrator and animator. Can you tell us a bit about the process of designing the visual style of Gesundheit! and then making it actually work in practice?

Matt Hammill: When I started the first version of Gesundheit! in AGS, I was working in a quasi-pixel art style, for the simple reason that all the indie games I was looking at used pixel art. It was Harvey Chan, one of my illustration teachers at Sheridan College, who asked why I didn’t try to bring more of my illustration work into the game. At the time I was doing a lot of rough scratchy ink drawings, so I assembled a fake mockup screenshot of Gesundheit! where I replaced all the assets with new art, and I was pretty blown away by the difference (thanks Harvey!).

Once I had decided on the look, it was still quite a process to generate the assets. I would draw objects and characters using a brush and black ink on sheets of white plastic, and then scratch away at the drawings with a knife in a kind of home-made scratchboard technique. When the art dried, I’d scan it, colour it digitally, and get it all game ready. For characters, I’d separate their body parts, rig them as puppets in Anim8or (and later After Effects), and animate them. By the end of production I had a big enough library of scans and textures that I could usually generate assets completely on the computer, but it was still a slow process making sure everything looked as hand drawn as possible while still meeting the requirements of clear, usable game art.

IH: Initially working on Gesundheit! completely solo you’ve decided to build it using the freeware AGS Editor tool. It’s a piece of software created mostly with the adventure games genre in mind, so what led you to this choice?

MH: Mostly because AGS was what I knew. I had started learning it to make indie adventure games (without much luck finishing them), so it was an easy choice to go with something I had experience with. Also the AGS pathfinder is WONDERFUL for having evil monsters navigate around walls to eat you.

IH: Are there any AGS-made games that particularly appeal to you?

MH: For sure. Yahtzee’s 5 Days A Stranger series was what got me into AGS in the first place, that’s some great horror storytelling. Duty & Beyond felt like classic adventuring to me. I’ve also been following the Ben Jordan series for years and can’t wait for the final installment. And Dave Gilbert’s games (not to mention his amazing blog) are really inspiring.

As for non-adventure games, Saturday School is a really great little puzzle game that makes interesting use of the engine, and outside of AGS, but still in the indie adventure scene, I really enjoyed Enclosure. I’m a sucker for mystery games!

IH:Any interesting war stories from the game’s development? I heard you struggled quite a bit to create in AGS an engine for the kind of game Gesundheit is.

MH: It was mostly a struggle because I was learning scripting as I was making the game (not to mention learning animation, game design and music recording too). Getting the engine to do what I wanted was a pretty slow process, and work on it was sporadic as I was also finishing college and working at an animation studio. Reading the old Gesundheit! code is like looking at a history of my learning–there are ridiculous chunks of the game written before I knew what a loop was, it’s kind of hilarious. But through it all I was surprised at how flexible AGS actually is.

IH: Stopmotion, CGI, handdrawn – you’ve created some really impressive animated shorts in all of those techniques. Which technique do you like the most as far as its “feel” goes and what are the main advantages of each?

MH: I go back and forth all the time–I’ll be playing Mass Effect or something and suddenly all I want to do is model sweet 3D aliens. Then I’ll watch an animation like Story from North America and I’ll just want to do stuff like that. I never seem to land on a favourite technique for long. I do have a fondness for handmade stuff, like the textures and quirks and mistakes of physical artwork, although for me doing stuff in real life is usually a much slower process. That’s why I often use a combination of digital and traditional techniques–there’s a lot of interesting things going on these days at the intersections between different media. That’s partly why I love being in indie games so

IH:Which animated film of yours are you the most proud of?

MH: That’s a tough one, as they were all coming from different places and they all had their own little challenges along the way. If I had to choose, I’d probably say Hazed, because that was my first real short, and it was just an incredible learning experience. I made that at Sheridan College and at Guru Studio in Toronto, and every step of the way I was learning so much about animation and filmmaking and the production process. Lots of late nights but it was an awesome time.

IH:Can you tell us anything about your next game project? What? When? Who? (And Why?)

MH: We’re just putting the finishing touches on an expansion pack for Gesundheit!, so that should be out very soon (that’s in collaboration with Revolutionary Concepts, who I worked with on the iOS version). There are a couple other projects in the oven too, but unfortunately I can’t talk about them yet. I’m really loving making games–they’re an amazing convergence of so much great stuff (art, music, storytelling, play, exploration, etc., etc.). It’s the ultimate spot on a Venn diagram.

IH: In your work you seem to specialize in cute creatures sucking out brains and eye-balls when provoked, and in general in the dichotomy between the loveable exterior and the deadly fumes inside and vice versa. How much is that conscious and what makes (or breaks) a good creature/cartoon-character concept?

MH: Haha, yeah, I’ve definitely noticed that recurring cute/gross pattern in my work–maybe I played too much Lemmings as a kid. It’s never something I deliberately set out to do, but it often ends up creeping into my projects anyway. Making work with a really serious tone has never felt natural for me; I usually want to throw in some humour or cuteness (or grossness). I guess that’s just my personality.

For me, when I’m coming up with a concept for a character, I’m usually thinking a lot about their function in the story or game. For example, the player character in Gesundheit! is a pig because I already had the sneezing mechanic, and pigs have these wonderfully large nostrils that are perfect for shooting out globs of snot–when I first drew the character in my sketchbook, I was like, “Sure, I could buy that.” And then he’s green because he’s full of green boogers. Even when there’s weird stuff going on, it’s nice when it has some internal cohesion and purpose.

If I’m making a cartoon project based around a joke or punchline (e.g. this one) then the goal is to figure out an ending that’s unexpected, but still fits the piece. Humour’s tough, and everyone’s got their own sense of where the sweet spot is, so it’s a challenge.

IH:What was the most interesting aspect of designing the puzzle and strategy elements of Gesundheit!? How did creating the challenges differ between the PC prototype and the final iOS version?

MH: For me, the most interesting part was trying to structure the game so that the player learns all the mechanics at a steady pace, without it becoming too boring and didactic. At the start of the dev process it’s all nice and easy, where you just make some different mechanics, drop them into some test levels and pat yourself on the back. Assembling them into a full game is a whole different challenge, and that was one of the biggest changes between the prototype and the final iOS version. We went through quite a few tutorial methods and level designs along the way.

IH: Do you play games by Amanita (Samorost, Machinarium, Botanicula)? Would you recommend any lesser known games with “hand-crafted” visuals that impressed you personally?

MH: Yeah, I love Amanita’s games–I remember the first time I played Samorost, I flipped out. They do amazing art. As for other hand-crafted type games, Nils Deneken’s Rückblende is a beautiful blend of stop-motion and drawn animation. I also loved Wonderputt’s look; for such a simple game it’s incredibly inventive. And Vectorpark’s games/toys (e.g. Windosill) aren’t done in “real media”, but they’ve all got a really amazing personal aesthetic. Plus there’s always the stop motion classic Primal Rage! And I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting right now.

IH: Oh, I completely forgot to add a question about you experience at the recent TGGJ!

MH: The Toronto Global Game Jam was great! I worked with Jamie Tucker and Adam Winkels on a game called “Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime”, where two players need to co-pilot a pink Death Star and man all the turrets and shields and controls. I love game jams–it’s so energizing when you realize what you can accomplish in just a weekend, and then you get to see people playing (and breaking) it right away. The indie game scene in Toronto is really amazing right now, thanks to great people organizing killer events like that (and TOJam, Gamercamp, the Hand Eye Society events, and more). It’s a really awesome community.

IH: Thank you for your time, Matt. And best of luck with future projects!