PAX 2009: Ron Gilbert gives us a tour of DeathSpank

Just a few scant hours after delivering the keynote address to a very pax'd audience at PAX 2009 (more on that later), legendary game designer Ron Gilbert gave me a tour of his latest creation, DeathSpank, best described as equal parts comic adventure game and Diablo-esque RPG. Yeah, it sounded crazy to me too.

I met Gilbert in a small meeting room in the PAX expo hall – inconveniently located adjacent to the cacophonous Rock Band stage – and he explained the pairing this way: "I really wanted to marry those things because obviously I like adventure games a lot – I really like the way adventure games tell stories; I like the way they tell it through dialog, through puzzles – but also I'm a big fan of Diablo and having this kind of action RPG stuff in there, I just wanted to meld those two things together. And DeathSpank is the result of that."

Initially billed as an episodic series in the vein of the Hothead-developed Penny Arcade Adventures, DeathSpank has outgrown that distribution model. "With DeathSpank, he's such an epic, over-the-top character that as we were working all the stories together for him – it sounds silly – but it was hard to contain him," Gilbert said. "And then once we stopped making it episodic, it was really interesting how the design blossomed at that point."
Though DeathSpank was developed as an episodic title "for about a year or so" Gilbert told me, there wasn't much wasted effort when development morphed into a full game. "We took a lot of those little stories and just told them all at the same time," Gilbert said. "We really just melded the whole thing back together." And with that introduction, Gilbert loaded up the DeathSpank demo to show me just what this "weird little game" looked like.

And sure enough, it didn't look anything like what I thought it would. The video does a good job of illustrating the game's ... uh, illustrative style. Unlike something like Shadow Complex – a 2D game with 3D graphics – you can perhaps think of DeathSpank as a 3D game with 2D graphics. While not as flamboyantly 2D as Parappa the Rapper's paper cutouts, the architecture and landscaping of DeathSpank are notably flat. Not flat, as in boring; rather, flat as in light on the Z-axis. Gilbert says the 2D art "has a certain charm to it" that 3D art "doesn't really have."

To prevent completely breaking the game's illusion, the player has "limited camera control." You can zoom in and out, and have some lateral movement, but you can't circle around DeathSpank as he traverses the map. If you could, "the whole thing falls apart, " Gilbert laughed. To compensate for the game's fixed perspective, they've created what appears to be a constantly rolling horizon. So, much like navigating the spherical world's in Super Mario Galaxy, you feel like DeathSpank's planet has a observably limited circumference; however, one glance at the world map ought to dash that concern. It's an RPG and, as you might expect, it's got an RPG-sized map. There are different regions (snowy! mountainous!) connected by water. Figure out how to get the ship, and your adventuring goes global.

So, the game! DeathSpank is a wandering hero, in search of "The Artifact." He finds the fabled item early on in the title, only to have it stolen from him by Lord Von Prong (who, by virtue of his nobility is obviously totally evil!). Now, stripped of his prize – and his weapons! – DeathSpank continues his journey anew. In the town of Pluckmuckle, DeathSpank's hero gene is triggered by some missing orphans; however, the mayor doesn't want DeathSpank to venture out in search of them without a weapon, so he's sent to talk with ... well, we'll just let him introduce himself: "They call me Eubrick the Retired. Formerly Eubrick the Bitter. Formerly Eubrick the Undefeated. Formerly Eubrick the Bastard of Hillhaven. Formerly Sally the Stable Girl. And formerly Eubrick the Bedwetter."

And there you have it – a smattering of the type of humor and storytelling you'll find on display in DeathSpank. While the game visually doesn't look like an adventure game – the camera is too far away, it looks like an action game – the dialogue certainly sounds like an adventure game. Gilbert tells me what he liked about how adventure games handled dialog: "The dialogues felt like dialogues, they didn't feel like menu choices. You aren't choosing this because you want to be good or that because you want to be bad."

So, in your discussion with Eubrich, you realize he has an old sword, from his days as an adventurer. But if you want the sword, you'll need to do something for him. And that is: find him a taco. "What he really wants is tacos," Gilbert says. "You need a taco, but you've got to find the right one. And he wants it extra spicy. But they don't make spicy tacos. So how do you make it extra spicy?" And you can see the outline of an adventure game puzzle there; except the puzzle, just like killing enemies and finishing quests, will earn you XP, and progress the story.

Better at slash-slash-slashing enemies but not so good at puzzles? "DeathSpank does have an in-game hint system you can use, but it's a little bit like resource space. You can't just get hints," Gilbert explains. "You actually have to earn the hints, sort of like a currency. You earn the currency and then you can spend that currency on hints." So you'll have to be discerning about how you use those hints, if you don't want to find yourself with a taco and no way to make said taco "extra spicy."

Gilbert showed off some basic combat: much like Diablo, you swing-swing-swing your sword at enemies until they die, leaving behind a legacy of loot. You can easily remap various weapons to the face buttons, and map spells and potions to the D-pad. With a smattering of weapons, ranging from tranquilizer arrows to multi-enemy hitting cleavers, there should be a decent amount of strategy hidden away in the game's humble button mash-mash-mashing.

If you're wondering how one could purchase the now not-episodic DeathSpank, you're not alone. "I think that's all up in the air at this point," Gilbert admits. "I don't think we've really decided all the distribution for it." Regardless of whether it's digitally distributed or sold at retail – and despite being built on an entirely new engine – DeathSpank will work much like Hothead's Penny Arcade Adventure titles: "It runs on everything, but we've not yet decided on official platforms." With no official platform and no clear distribution model, there's a lot we're left wondering about how DeathSpank will find its audience. This "weird little game" may not sell itself ("It's like Diablo meets Monkey Island!") but we think that – like the proven combinations of "phat" and "lootz" or "chicken" and "pulley" – DeathSpank's RPG slash adventure combo just may click.

... click-click.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.