Since 2013, Justin Roiland has been busy serving as co-creator, executive producer, writer, and director of absurdist animated comedy “Rick and Morty,” as well as voicing the show’s two main characters. In 2016, he added another title to his resume: game developer. Teaming up with industry vet Tanya Watson, whose previous credits include “Fortnite” and “Gears of War,” the duo founded Squanch Games, a studio dedicated to making people laugh through video games.
With a couple of smaller releases under its belt, Squanch is set to launch its biggest title yet: “Trover Saves the Universe.” Roiland and Watson sat down with Variety at PAX East in Boston this weekend to discuss the studio’s approach to game design, comedy, and how virtual reality inspired it all.
Game design without baggage
This is not Tanya Watson’s first rodeo. She’s been in the gaming industry for 15 years, starting as a tester at Microsoft and working her way over to Epic Games, where she served as a producer on titles like the “Gears of War” series, “Unreal Tournament 3,” “Bulletstorm,” and eventually the battle royale mega-hit “Fortnite.”
On the other hand, Justin Roiland’s experience boils down to getting an NES at age eight and collecting nearly every available console since. It’s clear he has a deep love of gaming; as he puts it, “I have played so many games that if you were to pie chart out my life, a giant chunk would be me playing video games.”
This fresh approach was appealing to Tanya, who said, “when you’ve been in the industry a long time you get ground into these tropes… And then I met Justin and he didn’t have any of that. He didn’t have any of the baggage.” Roiland didn’t have any preconceived notions of what couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be done, and as a result, Squanch Games was able to experiment with mechanics while adding its own particular brand of humor to its titles.
“Trover Saves the Universe” is a glowing example of this no-baggage approach. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre, although the PAX demo did highlight exploration, combat, and hilarious (and extremely NSFW) dialogue. Even the role you play is weird–you’re sort of playing in first-person AND third-person, able to see your hands, legs, and an in-game controller, but you’re actually controlling the foul-mouthed purple monster Trover and following him every step of the way. It takes some getting used to, but somehow it works, particularly with a PlayStation VR headset on.
“VR was the gateway drug”
When asked what made Justin Roiland want to make the jump from video game fanatic to video game developer, his answer was immediate: virtual reality. “VR was sort of the gateway drug for me, it blew my mind… It was the future,” Roiland told us. An opportunity to play the HTC Vive shortly before its 2015 announcement got the wheels turning. “My brain just could not stop generating ideas and thinking about things I wanted to make for it.” Fast forward a bit and he met and teamed up with Watson, opened a studio and filled it with talent, and the rest is video game history.
Though there wasn’t any particular VR app that directly inspired “Trover,” Roiland says he did take note of bits and pieces of virtual reality games he enjoyed, among them “Vanishing Realms,” “Budget Cuts,” and “Floor Plan.” He also tried every piece of virtual reality hardware he could get his hands on. “I kept meticulous notes and filled countless notebooks with both ideas and notes on other games: this mechanic works well, this rotation works well in this game… I knew before we even started working on the vertical slice, all this stuff.”
Because of this research, Roiland says he was able to pick and choose mechanics that worked while adding what some of the other games were lacking: a sense of exploration. According to him, “exploration was one of the biggest things on my list,” as well as mechanics to minimize the motion sickness that sometimes accompanies VR play. Variety can attest that the tutorial level, at least, didn’t cause us any queasiness.
“He brought all these ideas to the table, and storyboarded them on paper, as far as how he imagined it to look and stuff, and when we got it in the game it worked… in my experience, you just don’t see that,” Watson elaborated.
Though VR remains an inspiration, Roiland and Watson are firm that Squanch is not exclusively a VR studio. “We’re thinking about the bigger picture,” Roiland said. That’s why “Trover Saves the Universe” will be available on PS4 and PC as well as PlayStation VR. Realistically, not all gamers are ready to invest in expensive hardware peripheral that’s been referred to as a gimmick or passing fad by some industry analysts.
Someday, Roiland hopes, VR will be way more accessible, both technologically and price-wise. “Eventually it’s just gonna be… the equivalent of the Nintendo DS or the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, it’s just a one-purchase thing that’s got all the horsepower it needs… that’s the dream and that’s where I hope it’s going.” And if “Trover Saves the Universe” does even a little bit to nudge more gamers into the realm of virtual reality, “that’ll be a win for me.”
A vessel for comedy
“Trover Saves the Universe” doesn’t adhere to any particular genre or gameplay style, but there is one thing its creators knew it had to have throughout: humor. The trailer and demo are full of laughs, particularly if you’re a fan of the bizarre humor that’s made “Rick and Morty” such a hit. “We have always felt like this is a game that would be a really good game for the ‘Rick and Morty’ demographic. I think a ‘Rick and Morty’ fan would really love this game and have a really good time with it.”
The voiceover, at least, will sound familiar, as Roiland voices not only Trover, but a slew of other characters as well. While a single playthrough of “Trover” might only take about eight hours, Roiland recorded closer to 20 hours of dialogue, much of which is reactive. “The process for that was just having fun… having a few drinks and just riffing, making it up, making ourselves laugh. I’m doing way more voices than I thought I would be doing in the game, so a lot of that was just talking to myself.” How it works is like this: the player will receive pertinent information right away so they can choose when to move to the next objective. If they stay put, however, they might hear some additional dialogue, such as Trover berating them for their slowness. The player’s actions also dictate how Trover reacts to other characters, so it’s possible to hear new dialogue every playthrough. And yes, Trover does have a foul mouth but don’t worry, parents: you can turn on a censored mode if you don’t want any four-letter words in your home.
Part of making people laugh is having a stern eye for self-editing, Roiland says, an experience he carried over from his work on “Rick and Morty.” “Dan [Harmon, co-creator] and I will, many times, put the episode up and we think it’s great and we sit in the edit bay watching the thumbnails and the animatics and it’s just like oof, we got work to do here.” Knowing that “Trover” would go through the same process, the Squanch team developed a way to quickly iterate changes to keep their game at the expected level of comedy.
“We have one level we redid three times. Three times. Months of work,” Watson lamented. The studio’s willingness to make those kinds of harsh changes is “not the case normally” in the industry, Roiland said, but Squanch was able to make it work.
Roiland also expects players to react differently to “Trover Saves the Universe” depending on whether they’re playing in VR or on a standard screen. “A lot of the people will be playing it on their TVs or their PC screens for the first time, and they might skip some of that stuff. I think that’s the kind of thing that’s kinda fun to just hang out in VR,” he says of the extra dialogue.
As for where his ideas for absurdist comedy come from, “I’m just weird,” he says. “I like weird stuff.” One of “Trover’s” more bizarre ideas is that Trover and other creatures plug animals into their eye sockets: “It’s such an unsettling thing to look at.”
“You get used to it,” Tanya said.
“Trover Saves the Universe” makes its debut on PS4 and PlayStation VR on May 31, followed by Steam and the Epic Game Store on June 4. It retails for $29.99, which Roiland says is “a really good price for what you get.”
“I’m really hopeful that people connect with it, pick it up, and that we sell enough copies to keep making fun games,” Roiland stated at the end of the interview. And if it convinces a few more people to test out VR, that’s just a bonus.