Tycho Brahe weighs in On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

penny arcade

The unique experiment of Penny Arcade Adventures has already begun in earnest. The long-term question in the making -- "Can game comic-makers make a videogame?" -- is moot. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is now available via Xbox Live and the Greenhouse website (with demos here: Windows, Mac and Linux). The question now becomes: What do the creators think of their spawn? We sat down with Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, Penny Arcade's writer-in-residence, to get some perspective on that very issue.

We had the chance to discuss a number of the game's elements -- from the origins of the Startling Developments Detective Agency to the foul creation of the evil bums. Mr. Holkins also shed a dim light on future episodes in the series as we discussed the music and writing that surround the overarching story. We also clarified that for Penny Arcade, as a creative team, there is no rest. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are not celebrating today, they're not patting themselves on the back. Instead, they're returning to what they do best: working.

Read on to find out why these guys are driven to mine the funny for your benefit.

Joystiq: You've intimated several times in the past that you're unsure you would have made the game if you'd known how much work it was going to be. Now that the game is launching, do you still feel that way?

Tycho Brahe: Yeah, yeah ... I said that because it was true. For me the journey is in no way over. Encapsulated in my answer to those questions is the totality of the project. For me the totality of the project is going to continue on for at least another year. Even from now ... the story is four chapters long, and I'm more than halfway through the second game.

Once that's complete we'll beat the shit out of that game and we'll be jumping into the third episode, and the fourth one immediately thereafter. For me, when I answer this question, it was taking into account the entirety of the experience. Making one game was difficult but it has not destroyed me. What may destroy me is the reality that by the end of these games we'll have been talking about almost three years total.

Do you take any solace at all in the fact that the first game is launching?

No, absolutely not. That's one of the more difficult things about the process. Making the game is difficult enough, now putting it in front of people is additionally difficult. The way that Mike and I see it is that we're now 25% complete. We're thinking about the whole project, and so for us ... no. Our experience on this project is also, obviously, very different from Hothead's. I can guarantee that Hothead is celebrating.

But with us this is just an opportunity for us to think a little bit about how we were able to accomplish this first one, what would we like to do better. What do we think succeeded this time around. Ultimately you have to understand that we don't really celebrate our accomplishments.

That isn't really a part of our thing. Penny Arcade as a project is perpetual. There are three strips a week, and three posts dealing with those strips or other items. Occasionally there is a book released that compiles them, but that's more a convenience than anything else. Our approach to making work is that it's a perpetual cycle. We don't see this as a tremendous opportunity to congratulate ourselves, or some bullshit.

Our response to completing a task is to begin another task. That's the only thing we know how to do. We're always in the process of making something else. We know what to do in that middle part, we know how to manage it when we're actually at work. The extraneous ends of these processes we don't know how to deal with, so we just start another project.

penny arcade

Mike has mentioned reviews for the game a few times on the site, and he pegs it at a solid "8." Do you have any thoughts on how the game has been received?

I only know about two, so past that I'm not sure. I only know about the two reviews I heard about, and ... maybe there are more, I dunno.

We assume one of those is the Edge review? Do you have any particular thoughts on Edge as a magazine, what was your reaction to their score?

Yeah, I think Mike talked about that. I think getting a great review from Edge would have been amazing. As Edge is ... probably the most savage, possibly the most respected games magazine in print right now. So getting a higher score would have brought me more joy. I think that I would like them to score the next game with a higher number. I will be doing what I can on my side, on the writing side, to convince them that we've earned it. There's simply no dialogue to be had on that, right? He was simply not satisfied with the product.

Where's the dialogue to be had? There's no question for me on that point. He's delivered a numerical value that, to him, represents the level of enjoyment that he derived from the game that we made. He clocked it in as a 4 out of 10. That means we need to be doing more. There's nothing mythological about reviewing or scoring, and I certainly don't have any smartass commentary to make. I simply need to work harder.

You've mentioned that you feel the PC version of the game approximated an RTS-like experience, while the Xbox 360's feel was closer to a traditional console RPG. Which of these textures were you folks aiming for when you were developing the game?

For me what we wanted to have was a game that was reminiscent of adventure games, that evoked an adventure game atmosphere. That means specific things, right? Crazy characters, a dialogue system with branching trees, invoking the trappings of that genre. Interesting in-game objects, a storyline, all the things we sort of associate with those.

But we like RPGs, playing RPGs on console is something we really enjoy. That style of RPG is not PC-native. Well ... I guess even that's not true. Very old-school PC RPGs certainly executed their combat in a mode like that, like Bard's Tale, Wasteland, games like that. In the modern genre, though, we think of them as a console thing.

The game itself, on the two platforms, is identical numerically. What tool you use to interface with that experience is defined by the platform. You have that accurate pointing device, and on the other you have more directional control. Interacting with the same system and the same numbers happens to feel differently. It's almost purely to do with the interface.

You've mentioned Final Fantasy as sort of being in the back of your mind while developing the game; were there any other titles in specific that you folks were thinking of?

Not especially. They asked us what kind of game we wanted to be making. It was that elemental. We basically said that we want to make an adventure game where you had these people, and you move around, and you interact with a weird world. It's basically a combat system along with it to have these kinds of interactions. That came through in the design of the world.

Now that the RPG metaphor is in place, instead of going to a magical desert or something now you're going to the slums. What are the denizens of the slums? What are some of the strange characters that are there and can talk to? Somewhere between those genres, they informed each other in sort of strange ways. You fight the creatures that live in a given realm, but because we're doing an urban fantasy our realms are districts of a town.

penny arcade

You've said before that the game is for fans of the comic, and that folks who like the comic will probably like the game. People that don't, probably won't. Was there any sort of effort made to make an outreach to people who may not have ever read Penny Arcade?

Well, hopefully the comic fans will enjoy the writing, at least. We didn't make any outreach in specific, no. Hopefully the game is just interesting, in general. Hopefully people will find the situation, the scenario, the art, and the writing interesting in general terms even if they don't know that these characters are actually archetypes instead of just being repurposed from another context.

They might not know Gabe and Tycho contextually, either as pseudonyms for people writing the comic or as characters that comment on the games industry or popular culture. Maybe they'll get to know this Gabe and Tycho and grow to like them.

Was there any particular place that the detective agency came from as a framework for the story?

Yes. I am a huge fan of Call of Cthulhu. Characters in CoC are called investigators, and invariably whenever I roleplay in that context I always create a company. There have been so many different companies, I can't even remember the first one. At one point my character had to go underground for a while, and he created a company called The Terrible Secret. My characters are always making these companies. We just recently had a campaign where my character created another company ... that's just always how it goes.

In this context Gabe and Tycho exist before the place does in this universe. That is what they do. As investigators of the paranormal. Paranormal investigators, that's not a new concept, I certainly didn't invent that, but it gives everything else something to hang on. When we want to tell stories in that world, the hook is ready made. It's ready for us to play with it.

It's a very solid foundation for telling stories. We needed an anchor, something to catalyze the rest of it. Startling Developments Detective Agency is our toehold. "What are they investigating?" It provides us with all the questions we need to get a base camp to tell stories from.

In future episodes are we going to see you taking that framework and moving to other settings?

I only know about this game, which is told in four episodes, and the process has been extremely grueling as I have just related. I can't actually imagine where it goes from here. It was not our intention to create like an ultra-franchised experience that can be reinterpreted in different ways. Although, now that you've brought up the idea that sounds really exciting. That was not the plan -- I made one story for this and it is told in its entirety in these four episodes. I would love to do that, though, that sounds like a hoot.

Right now I can't imagine what would inspire me to ... because there are definitely other things we could do. As it stands, the year is pretty packed, there's a major project, and then this is always there, lurking.

Are there any particular words you enjoyed using in writing this game?

I had to make a couple up. There is a material called Strengthium, which is very durable as I'm sure you can imagine. There is a couple of other new ones, but for me the scripts are sort of monolithic. There are words that I might have used in the second chapter that I don't want to go into. There is a lot of reading to do in the game? Hopefully people like to read? Maybe that's not true?

Hopefully they want to read the things that are in it. I tried to be as pulp writerly as possible. When you're talking about words, the person that I made up to do this writing, that handles a lot of the narration and item descriptions, is very overwrought. It's possible I went too far on that, we'll see.

I think that for people who like this kind of thing, that sort of "nerd porn,"there's a lot to enjoy here. There's raw, red meat for that constituency.

We assume that at some point, something is cyclopean?

I'm not sure if I actually used the cyclopean in the first game. You have to understand, this is an introduction to the setting. Things begin at a point of relative normalcy. It's not like, hey the second screen over "oh, it's a cyclopean tunnel. It's a warren!" That doesn't happen right away. We're starting off a four chapter event and as per usual no one has a clear idea of the stakes at first blush.

You have a background in music and audio, obviously. Did you touch base with Jeff Tymoshuck, the composer for the game? Did you have any input into that aspect?

Hothead has an audio designer as well, who is friends with the composer. Basically what happened between the audio designer and I (and the audio designer is a composer as well), he and I laid down the major tones. When I got music back I would make comments on it. I've already heard stuff from the second episode and we've already laid down the major themes for the third and fourth episodes in terms of instrumentation, presentation, things like that. Conceptually that's something that I take pretty seriously.

Are there any composers or bands that remind you of what the sound of the series sounds like?

I'm not really the right person to answer that? The music is very orchestral, but it also has some sort of jazzy-type elements. It's in a venue ... I listen to a lot of music, but I don't listen to a lot of music that is in the style presented here. As it progresses, the third episode draws much more from bombastic, hero-type games. With that you've got some fairly obvious inspirations.

To wrap things up, at the beginning of the conversation you mentioned again how challenging this has been for you. Is there anything that you can look back on during the experience and say, "I'm glad I did the game because I got to do this?"

[long pause] Well, I'm not going to take any pride in it until someone enjoys it. If someone, even a single person, hopefully more ... If someone enjoys it, if we were able to impart something that we tried to communicate, I'll be happy taking credit for it at that time.

Thank you very much for your time, sir.

Demo Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode One right now! On your platform of choice: Windows, Mac or Linux.