Friday, November 12, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 3

Early last week, I had a chance to head down to Double Fine's offices in San Francisco and chat with Costume Quest project lead Tasha Harris. We covered a wide range of topics, and I've run our interview in three parts—in part one, we discussed the basic concept and development of the game, and in part two we talked about her time as an animator at Pixar, as well as the process of making the leap from movies to games.

In this, the third and final part of our interview, we'll cover a grab-bag of topics, from Costume Quest's many (occasionally imagined) pop-culture references to Tasha's artistic influences, the pros and cons of motion capture, and her thoughts on games and inclusiveness.

Before we get started, I want to give huge thanks to Tasha for taking the time to talk with me, and for being so cool and helpful. Transcribing and editing an hour-long interview isn't exactly a piece of cake, but it was plenty fun and informative, and a kick to get the chance to share something like this with you guys. I hope y'all have enjoyed it!

And now, onward to part 3. Which is totally the best part.



Tasha.
Did you see Gus Mastrapa's column at Joystiq Division about the 3 RPGs of October? He talked about how in his opinion, Costume Quest bested both Fable III and Fallout: New Vegas.

Yeah! Oh my god, that was the biggest compliment.

Have you played the other two games?

No, I haven't. I only played Fable 1, and then my boyfriend got really into Fallout 3. I tried playing it, but I couldn't… there's something about the world, I think, that just doesn't interest me. It's kind of ugly? I don't wanna insult them, because obviously, my boyfriend loves it... I think it's just maybe not my type of thing. In general, I tend to like games that are more stylized and kind of cartoon and cute, not so much realistic.

I think that's actually something that Double Fine has in common with Pixar. Like how the human characters in both Brutal Legend and The Incredibles are stylized, but still very expressive. Sometimes I get the sense that games overlook how much animators can do—like with Uncharted 2, have you played that game?

I've seen it - I haven't played it, but we brought it into work just to kind of look at it as a reference.

It's got these unbelievable motion capture cutscenes, and they're seriously impressive. It seems like much of the industry is heading in that direction, towards mo-cap and realism.

I know. I don't really like that. (Laughs) I mean, for certain games, I think it works, if that's the style that you're going for. Especially for sports games, for instance, their goal is to look as close as possible to a real sports game. So, it makes sense.

But on the other hand, realism can also be pretty limiting.

I don't feel like most games get a good enough range of facial expressions—I don't know if it's because they don't put enough animators on the project, or… I think that a lot of studios maybe don't value art as highly as gameplay.

I think that's probably true.

And you know, maybe they shouldn't! Maybe they're right about that. But I think that is one thing about Double Fine—we value art just as highly as gameplay. They're probably equal. We want to make a game that plays well, but also looks good, sounds good, the music's good—we want high quality for all of these different things.

The aesthetic experience really matters.

The asthetics, yeah. And Tim, he's always said that he doesn't want to do motion capture.

You guys certainly didn't do any for Costume Quest...

No, and not for Brutal Legend either. He hires animators who are traditional animators. Not, like, pen and paper animators necessarily, but not motion capture, realistic-style animators, either.

Is that cheaper than doing motion capture, since you don't have to buy the equipment and hire actors?

I don't really know. I think motion capture still requires an animator to clean it up, because a lot of times it'll look weird. That's the other thing, I feel like there're a lot of things that you can do in motion capture, but there're also a lot of things you can't do with motion capture. I guess it depends on what style you're going for in your game. Personally, that's not really what I'm into.

Nathan Drake is really expressive in Uncharted 2, but it's a different kind of expressiveness than that of Eddie Riggs in Brutal Legend. Eddie looks like Jack Black, he does these Jack Black-ish things, but he doesn't REALLY look like Jack Black. He still looks a bit like a cartoon character.

Right. It's just kind of pushed a little bit more. I think traditional style allows the animation to be pushed a little bit more, because the characters don't quite look like real people.

So then, when they're growing wings and flying around, or waving a huge axe and killing people...

More plausable, yeah.

So, Costume Quest has some great writing. Who wrote the game? Did you do any of the writing?

I did a little bit of writing, but most of it was Tim and an animator on our team named Elliott Roberts. He really enjoys writing as well, so he did a lot of writing on the game. He would have meetings with Tim about the characters and the story—I was involved also, but more as an approval process.

It has that quality that it also shares with Pixar, in that it has humor that's funny for everyone, and it has a bit of subversive streak but never goes too far into the winking humor for adults, making double-entendres and sex jokes and stuff.

For sure, that's definitely one of the things I think Pixar does really well, is making their movies appeal to everyone. But like you're saying, not super obvious jokes.

Which I would say is the Dreamworks thing, overt adult jokes or pop culture references.

Right, right, I like making jokes that are character based, rather than pop culture references or, I dunno… I call those easy laughs. Or like fart jokes or things like that.

Speaking of references, there're a lot of references in the game.

Mm-hmm.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the excellent Arrested Development reference. Who came up with that?

Our producer, Gabe [Miller] put that in there kind of as a temp line.  Tim was always meaning to take it out, because he usually doesn’t like using pop culture references as jokes, but he ended up leaving it in there. It’s good that he did because that’s probably the line that’s gotten the most attention from the fans.  We all love that show, and I think it works as a pop culture reference because it also makes sense in context.

That's true, it's funny even if you've never seen the show. Okay, Lady Liberty's special attack: directly inspired by The Colbert Report?

Well, I have watched a lot of the Colbert Report, but I wouldn't say it's directly inspired by it. Like, it wasn't a purposeful reference to his show or anything. It was really our visual effects artist, Lydia Choy; I should give her props for the special attack there.

It totally killed me the first time. But: the Statue of Liberty the only explicitly female costume, and she's the healer. Do you think the healer always has to be the female character in an RPG?

(Laughs) Hey, you can dress up your boy as the Statue of Liberty!

That's true! Everett is actually my Lady Liberty... well played! Okay, so you call one of the monsters a "Trowbog." Was that a subtle reference to "Nilbog" from Troll II?

(Here I quickly realize that Tasha has not seen Troll II and I am a huge loser, but I try to explain about how "Nilbog" is "Goblin" spelled backwards, and how she should really see Troll II because it is legendarily awesome, and the whole digression isn't quite as mortifying as the one in part one with Earnest Scared Stupid, but it certainly is not worth transcribing for all you nice people.

So anyway, who came up with the name Trowbog?

I did. I was trying to come up with names for the different monsters, so I was looking at classic goblin and fairy tale names. Trow is a word for "Troll" in, I think it's Celtic? One of those languages, or Irish, or Scottish… one of those. And Ireland and Scotland are where Halloween originated, so I was looking at a lot of their classic fairy tales and stories.

So you're saying you did *actual research* for this game?

(laughs). (sort of jokingly) This was a very important aspect of the game!

Seriously though, it's hard to come up with new names.

It is! I know, it's really hard, because then you come up with one you think is good and then you google it and it's something else. And you're like "Crap, I can't use that." So, I was kind of picking out different words that I liked and then combining them in different ways. And so it was like, "Trowbog, hey, that sounds like a good monster." I googled it, "Oh, it's not used yet, perfect!"

And, it's "Gobwort" backwards.

(Yes, I was still on the Troll II thing. I am ridiculous.)

Okay, so another reference: You, Tasha, are actually in the game. There's a girl named "Tasha" standing in the carnival, saying "So far, so good." 

Yes.

So... is that something that you say?

(Laughter.)

Like, is that an actual joke about you?

No, no… I don't think so? Do I say that a lot?

I haven't noticed. Maybe when I listen back...

I think… I think Elliott just thought that would be a funny thing for that character to say.

I was picturing you, like, as the project goes along, you were always saying, "Alright guys, so far, so good!"

Maybe I should say that more!

Changing tacks: Can you talk about any planned DLC?

I don't think I can.

Let's make that sort of a more general question: What now?

I can say, I do think that for the idea of Costume Quest, we, as a team, we have so many more ideas. You could think of like a hundred different costumes to put in, different settings where they could trick-or-treat… people have even suggested different holidays we could do. I think it's a good springboard for ideas. There're just so many things we could do with it. A lot of it just comes down to, "Will someone pay us to make this?"

I'd think the downloadable thing makes that a lot easier. This year… I mean, this has been the year of the download for me. I've been blown away.

I agree.

So many great games… DeathSpank, Lara Croft, Limbo, Meat Boy… deep, big games, too.

Shadow Complex was super fun, and long!

Yeah! That was sort where it started for me, when that game came out. I remember being like, wow, this is more fun that most of the big-budget games out there.

I love it, because I might not have as much time to play games nowadays, so it's like, "Perfect, I don't have to go anywhere to buy this!"

And they're shorter, and they're more to-the-point… there's just straight gameplay, fewer menus and cutscenes.

Or, like, padding. I think a lot of that is the time and budgetary constraints, it almost forces you to kind of boil down your gameplay to, "What is the essence of this game?" and prioritize. "Okay, we need to get this working, this working and this working. This other thing, you know, it would be nice to have, but it might just be fluff. Or it might not fit within the core theme of halloween, so I don't think we should have this.

The adversity of the situation actually makes it better.

Yeah, in a way.

So, who are your main artistic influences?

The Simpsons, Matt Groenig's Life in Hell comics, Calvin and Hobbes was a huge influence, and The Far Side, I really liked. I was always really into comics; I was more into comics than I was into animated shows. Just the style of drawing. I guess I really got into Ren and Stimpy, but that was later.

One of my influences was definitely the Peanuts specials; one thing I really like about those is that the kids seem like real kids. They're not dumbed-down, and they don't seem actor-y. They get real kids to do the voices, and even though we didn't have voice acting in Costume Quest, that was kind of my influence for how I wanted the kids. I wanted them to feel very natural, like real kids.

There's also a divide I noticed between the kids and the adults. In peanuts, you have the adults with the trombone voices, and they're never seen… and in Costume Quest, the adults all have these little eyes...

(laughs)

...they do! They all have little dots for eyes and no visible irises. Was that a conscious attempt to make the adults seem separate from the kids?

I wouldn't say that was a conscious decision. I guess it's just that when I designed the child characters, they have big heads and big eyes, that kind of makes them cute. Dorsilla has big eyes, though.

That's true. Though I think of Dorsilla as kind of an angry teenager than an adult.

And Wren's parents.

Okay, okay, my small-eyed-adult theory is kaput. But I like how the kids are in their own little world, and the adults are all, "Oh, those aren't monsters…"

Yeah, they think they're just teenagers dressed up.

Costume Quest is really a broad game, it feels very inclusive. I'm sure that was conscious—what do you think about the general diversity of the gaming scene?

I think it's getting more diverse. I know now, when I go into a Gamestop, I see more girls in there that are buying games than I used to, so I think that's a postitive thing…

Wow, you still go to Gamestop?

Yeah, sometimes I'll go, you know... I like looking around? (laughs)

In terms of Game Design, do you see room there for more inclusiveness?

In terms of game design, hmm. It's hard, because the main audience for games is still seen as male, so a lot of times they'll want to make the main character a male. For example, we have Wren and Reynold in the game, and they're pretty much the same, they're equally stars of the game… and it was something that I wanted to put in because I think it's a cool choice to give to kids, and it makes it more accessable to girls and boys to be able to choose.

Right.

But then, when we're marketing the game, we wanted to feature both characters equally, because we didn't want to say "This is a girl's game" or "This is a boy's game."

That can be tricky in marketing, like in Mass Effect and Fable, where you can play a man or a women but the marketing materials only show men.

Yeah, see, I don't understand that. Because I mean, I know a lot of girls who like RPGS and the designers put that option in there for a reason, so why don't you show that "Hey! This is a possibility."

It's a feature of your game, don't hide it!

It's a feature, yeah.

But it's cool that people are designing games where it's no big deal if you're male or female.

Yeah, and that was one of the things I really wanted to make sure to get across. It's not a big deal, it doesn't affect your stats, or what costumes you can wear. You can wear the unicorn costume if you're a boy, it's no big deal. 

When I was a kid, I was kind of a Tomboy, sometimes I would get made fun of if I was wearing boys shoes or something, so I really like to get that message out there, that "Here, it's okay, you can dress like this, people won't make fun of you."

Yeah, no one makes fun of Emmerett and he's been Lady Liberty the whole game… and he seems to really like his costume, too.

It is interesting, though, I think there are a lot of women game developers, at least at Double Fine, but it is true that there aren't a lot of women in charge of projects. Hopefully that'll change.

I played Tasha's Game, which is really interesting. Also, hilariously random. What's the story there? 

Well, I did art for it, but I didn't actually design that. Clint Honeychurch, who was our former web guy, he did all the flash games on the site. He did Tasha's Game, and there's a couple others that are based on the comics.

(At this point in the tape, we debate the merits of ordering desert. Tasha points out that she has a Kit-Kat in her purse, which she snagged earlier from a pail of candy at Double Fine. I realize that I totally should've grabbed a Kit-Kat too, and am sad that I did not. I am, however, a consummate professional and do not let my sadness show.)

So let's talk about your comic strip, "Tasha's Comic." Have you been doing that since you started at Double Fine?

The comic, I haven't been doing that the whole time that I've been at Double Fine, but I guess I've been doing that for two or three years now. It's been going on for a while.

And you publish every week, right?

Yeah, I mean, it's slowed down since I started working on Costume Quest… it's hard to really keep up with doing it all the time, but I try to update at least once a week or so. And I really enjoy going to comic conventions also, I sell little mini-comics there, so yeah, a couple other guys at Double Fine also have comics on the website. We'll share a table at a comic convention.

You guys have a Double Fine "label."

"Double Fine Action Comics."

Do any other studios do that?

I don't know… Telltale might have some on their site.

That wouldn't surprise me.

So yeah, the comic, it kind of goes back to when I was growing up, I always loved comics, that was originally what I thought I wanted to do. Comic strips or comic books, either one. And then I just kind of got into animation. So it's cool, now I'm doing games and comics, which is kind of what I wanted to do originally!

Final question: What is your favorite videogame?

I'd say, let's see…. favorite videogame of all time… gosh.

Putting you on the spot.

Earthbound is one of my favorite games of all time. Also, I just had to do this thing for the Playstation Blog where I was talking about my favorite PS2 games, and Okami, that was the one that came to mind first, right off the bat, no questions asked, no argument. I love that game. The art style, the characters... and I love how the main character is a wolf and female!

Thanks so much for taking the time, Tasha.

Happy to do it.



Seriously though, Tasha; thanks. And thanks to y'all for reading! In case you missed them, Part 1 and Part 2 are good times, too. And if you're not already convinced: go buy Costume Quest!
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