Comic Jumper is the third original IP console title from the award-winning independent
studio Twisted Pixel, the creators of Splosion Man and The Maw. In Comic Jumper,
a comedy action game that draws inspiration from games like Gunstar Heroes, you
play as the loudmouth Captain, a half-witted comic book superhero who discovers
that his fans are losing interest in his comic books. Along with Star, the Captain's
back-talking and foul-mouthed chest symbol, he obtains the assistance from his creator,
Twisted Pixel, in order to "jump" into other comic books franchises and earn the
love and respect he needs to re-launch his own series. Star and the Captain battle
villains and help other heroes across four different comic books, each with varying
takes on gameplay and their own distinct art style inspired by recognizable real-world
comic genres. The first comic book is revealed here:
The concept was originally conceived by the game's director, and Twisted Pixel's Chief Creative Officer, Josh Bear. First, he answers some basic questions about this comic book that is being revealed:
How would you describe this comic?
JB: This comic style represents the world the Captain, Star, Gerda and the rest of the supporting characters inhabit. The look and tone of the comic is supposed to be similar to the early 90's Image Comics, where everything was really in your face as far as art and splash pages were concerned. The Captain's comic is of today's era of comic history, but still trying to run with the "in your face" art style and putting story aside for the most part.
What's the reasoning behind going with this type of comic for the Captain? It's probably the most important comic style decision you had to make since it's for the main character of the game, no?
JB: We had messed around with making the Captain a character based in a future comic book, and in the future no one cared about story or character development at all, with the world being presented more like the one in the movie "Idiocracy". Another idea was to have him come from the past, somewhere around the Golden Age of comics, and play it like a fish out of water story. But ultimately that didn't sync with what we wanted to do with Star, which was make him an angry and bitter character. So going with the "modern but out of date" to everyone but the Captain look seemed like a cool way to go about telling our story and designing the character properly for his main look.
What makes this comic style so cool to look at and to play in?
JB: There are several different art styles in the game that we will reveal as time goes on, and every one of them has a different feel and unique look. I think the thing that makes the Captain's comic fun is that the world around him fits into the design of his initial character design, so he is really in his element with this art style. Since we are going for a more modern approach, we have some shiny, glossy graphics stuff going on that looks pretty cool. Also, when creating a typical modern, moody comic environment, you have to go with the "city rooftops at night with big moon in the background" look, so that is really fun as well.
As the first revealed comic, there are a lot of characters being introduced, most notably the main characters. Josh talks about how these characters came to be:
How long has the character been around in your life?
JB: I created the Captain when I was in 7th grade. I was sitting in geography class, bored and wanting to go home. Since I couldn't talk to my friends in the class without getting in trouble, I drew a picture of a muscled, smile-faced superhero and had him saying some lewd things about the teacher, whom none of us liked. My friends laughed at the things the Captain said so I just started drawing more sketches. Everybody liked him except for the teacher when he finally found one of the skits I made talking about him. He was less than thrilled. I'm pretty sure he won't be buying this game.
When you originally created him, what were you going for?
JB: I wasn't really going for much, only that I wanted him to be funny. I wanted to make my own comic book with the Captain as the main character, because it was easy to draw the smile-face over and over without having to get too detailed. I knew if I had to draw a dude's face it would suck (since I wasn't a good artist) and I would end up not finishing the comic because I would be frustrated with how terrible I was at illustrating. I also didn't really want to give him a backstory or anything, it was all supposed to be about going for the laughs. So instead of digging deep into story stuff, I just pretended that people would assume who he was and I could get right into the weird villains and things like that.
Has his design changed much since back then?
JB: His basic personality is really similar to the original idea. Kind of pompous and really into himself. And he is a little bit "Inspector Gadget" since he is kind of a moron, and most of the time it is up to other people to solve his problems for him, but he still thinks he did all the work. Star has also evolved over time. Originally he was just a silent symbol that changed facial expressions every once in awhile. Now he is fully animated, speaking sidekick attached to the Captain's chest.
How did you come up with the idea of a talking chest symbol?
JB: We wanted voice to be a big part of this game, but we didn't want the Captain breaking the fourth wall all the time just talking to players. And since he doesn't have a sidekick that is always playing the level with him (Gerda remains at a base and communicates to him through his belt) it felt like he needed someone to communicate with. One night while some of us were visiting Austin, TX to find office space, I woke up and had the idea that the star symbol should be alive, and that they bicker like an old married couple. And that was pretty much it. I wish I had thought of it when I originally came up with the idea in grade school, I think my original comics would have been a lot better.
Another recurring and important role in Comic Jumper is the character of Gerda.
Who is Gerda and why is she such an important central character?
JB: Gerda is the Captain's sidekick, but he treats her like crap and always makes sure the writer's write her in as a damsel in distress, because he and Star think it's funny. They kind of treat her like a younger sister. Gerda on the other hand is a highly intelligent superhero of her own accord, but since the sidekick business had been slow, she chose to work with the Captain since his comic was the only one hiring. She can barely stand to put up with him, but she is just kind of biding her time until she can find a better gig.
Has Gerda always been a part of the mythos, or was she created just for the game?
JB: Gerda was a part of the original idea for the comic, way back when. She was based off of a girl I had a huge crush on in junior high, so I thought I would impress her by making her a character in the comic. Not only would she be pretty, but she would also be the smartest one in the story, lol. I named her Gerda because it sounded like a name someone pretty wouldn't have for some reason...sounds more like an old witch or hag or something. (Sorry to everyone who is hot and named Gerda, or if your grandma isn't hot but really nice, and named Gerda.) She loved that I put her in the comic, but I was too scared to tell her I liked her and nothing ever came of it. But, the character of Gerda lives on, so that is pretty cool.
Has her design changed much since you originally conceived her?
JB: Yeah it has changed quite a bit. Originally she just looked like the girl that I had a crush on, and she never really had much of a costume, she was just like, in street clothes. Brandon Ford ran with the direction for who Gerda was supposed to be, and came up with a great superhero costume for her (that the Captain designed and makes her wear...he has his face on her chest) and then a smart, business look that fits Gerda's personality more, when she isn't in the Captain's comic book anymore.
When Twisted Pixel began pre-production on Comic Jumper, the first order of business was to take what Josh has had in his head for the past 18 years and turn it into something we could use to make a game. This job fell on our lead concept artist, Brandon Ford, who answers some questions about designing the Captain:
How many iterations did it take before you landed on the final character design above for the Captain?
BF: It actually didn't take too many tries, when Josh showed me his old drawings I laughed, they were awesome! I think we tried a couple things with the costume and heads, but the original idea was so good we stayed pretty true to its design.
What references did you use when you were doing early concepts for what the Captain would look like?
BF: I was in a real Simon Bisley mood around the time of his design, I knew the Captain wouldn't be that dark, but I liked those Lobo-like proportions: huge upper body, skinny waist, big feet.
What were some choices you made in the art design? Was there anything you talked about doing but chose not to for the Captain?
BF: We decided pretty early that the Captain's comic would be sort of an early Image Comics kind of place - airbrushed and shiny - so I looked to comics like Spawn. We talked about doing all sorts of things to him, we even did a few of them, but we aren't talking about that yet.
How many iterations did it take before you landed on the final character design above for Gerda?
BF: Gerda's final design took a half dozen or so sketches. We have a fun process between Josh and I where I send him a sheet of drawings, as many things as I can think of on whatever topic we talked about, and he then uses his mad Photoshop skills to frankenstein the parts from each drawing he likes into one ultimate design. Picture Voltron, but instead of being made out of robot tigers or cars he would be made of my ridiculous scribbles. Then I take the frankenstoltron beast and redraw it to be Gerda. It's like magic!
What references did you use when you were doing early concepts for what Gerda would look like?
BF: I looked at things like Danger Girl and Super Girl - you know, girl stuff. Haha, seriously though, J. Scott Campbell draws some mean girls. Again, we wanted that sort of iconic super heroine costume, so I looked to guys like Michael Turner who draws an amazing Super Girl. The color of her costume was chosen by the Captain, and Gerda hates it.
Can you explain what you were trying to do with some of these character designs?
BF: At the beginning of the character design process I try to take whatever information I've been given about that character and put down as many ideas on it as I can, ranging from what I think might be what someone actually wanted, to 'this has nothing to do with anything but I had this idea'. Mostly I am looking for interesting shapes, working out the lame ideas and just having fun at this point. Sometimes I have a pretty clear idea about something and it only takes a sketch or two, sometimes it takes...more. I try not to limit myself to a particular drawing style when putting down ideas, rather I draw or paint however it happens to be coming out that day.
After Brandon designs the characters and worlds, it's up to Art Director, Dave Leung, to take those amazing illustrations and turn them into 3D playable assets. He answers some questions about doing this with the Captain and the other characters:
Are there more or less challenges when you are animating and emoting a character that is basically a smile-face?
DL: Even though he is essentially a smile-face, I was sure to set up his facial rig to include all the tools I need to create whatever emotions the moment calls for: eye lids, eyebrows, a tongue, squash and stretch abilities that drove a lot of the Maw's animation, and most of the use of morph targets enabling me to form his head and mouth into any shape I need.
Compared with The Maw and Splosion Man, Comic Jumper appears to have a lot more characters and content, but you're still the team's only animator, so how do you do it all?
DL: I'm like Samara in The Ring. I never sleep. And I don't waste time on silly things like showering or exercising. Yes, Comic Jumper has more characters than both Splosion Man and Maw combined...that is something Josh Bear and I have to have a little "talk" about for the next game.
Voice acting is a big feature of Comic Jumper that is new to Twisted Pixel Games, will the characters' animations be lip-synced?
DL: Yes, I will be creating as many fully synced-with-VO animations as one man can humanly handle, which includes body acting like the early trailer we released. We've set up a system that allows me to quickly lip sync just the faces with the VO, in combination with some more general talking body motions. The results are awesome and enable us to cram a ton of animation content into the game.
A major first for the Twisted Pixel team this time around is the inclusion of voices in the game. This involves casting voice actors, directing their performances, syncing characters performances with their voices, and much more. You may know Chris Sabat better as the voice of Picollo on Dragon Ball Z, but we know him as the voice of Maw, Dr. Meatenstein, and now the director of voice acting in Comic Jumper. He answers some questions about his role on Comic Jumper:
What kind of voice were you and Josh looking to create for each character?
CS: When Josh first came to me about Comic Jumper, it was before we had even started the voice work for Splosion Man. At that point he was just making a pitch video to sell the concept. He came in with a pretty loose script, but a great idea. I'm not sure if Josh suggested I play both the Captain and Star or I heard the concept and begged him to do it, but we did about a two hour session's worth of interactions between the Captain and Star and it was ridiculously fun. And when the final animation came back for the trailer, my jaw dropped. I'd never seen my voice so perfectly animated. Once the game was green lit, we had a few meetings and discussed the different roles that had to be cast. The fun part about finding the voices for this game is that Josh has been dreaming of these characters since he was a teenager and can describe in great detail what he's looking for. What's even cooler is that he's trusted me entirely to cast whoever I want. So, all of my favorite voice actors are really making me look like a badass. Since Comic Jumper is a zany comic-based game, we're going fairly big and broad with the voice acting, getting really creative with characterizations.
How closely do you work with the writers? What kind of influence does that have?
CS: I haven't been involved with the writing of Comic Jumper specifically, but they've given us freedom to rewrite anything we want. But I've found that the script is so freaking good that I don't have to do very much. We've let the actors have a lot of freedom, so all sorts of happy accidents have been happening along the way.
Were there any challenges in directing or performing these roles?
CS: The only time it was tough were the times when Josh felt the need to "power dump" during the middle of the session. There simply wasn't enough air freshener on hand to prevent the havoc wreaked on the studio those days.
How did you get to be so awesome?
CS: I have no idea.
Has your deep voice ever gotten a woman pregnant?
CS: It's hard to say. Let me just say that there's no proof of the contrary.
With voice acting comes writing, another big first for Twisted Pixel. We used the help of professional writers Matt Entin and Ed Kuehnel, who we asked some questions:
How difficult is it to write for Comic Jumper?
EK: Challenging, but a great time. There are a lot of colorful characters from different comic book genres and even eras. There was a lot to research and a lot to write! Thankfully the guys at Twisted Pixel were patient.
What kind of relationships do some of the characters have?
ME: "Dysfunctional" doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the relationships between Comic Jumper's characters. The Captain can't really see past his own bloated ego to make a genuine connection with another human being. The long-suffering Gerda merely tolerates all with an air of co-dependency. Star hates just about everything and everybody (particularly the Captain) - although curiously, he has a "man crush" on the narcissistic golden boy super-villain, Brad. Of course, within all this dysfunction there's a lot of great opportunity for humor.
What kinds of writing projects have you been involved with in the past?
EK: We worked together on Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, where we did a ton
of writing and directed most of the voice over. For each of us it was our first
major foray into the world of game writing. We had an enormous amount of creative
freedom, had a great time and made a lot of mistakes. Some of it makes us proud;
some of it makes us cringe. All told it was good enough to earn a 2005 Game Developer's
Choice nomination for Best Writing and we earned a lot of kudos for our efforts
from critics and fans. We did a great deal of writing for a sequel to that game
which was canceled which is a shame; there was some great stuff there.
Since then we've written few screenplays together and have done a lot of writing for games separately, but Comic Jumper is the first project we've collaborated on since our Leisure Suit Larry days.
What attracted you to this project?
EK: Matt and I worked with several of the Twisted Pixel crew before and they're
some of my favorite peeps ever. They're all amazing talented; I don't think the
game industry at large realizes that yet but they will. I jumped at the opportunity
to work with them and with Matt Entin again. Plus, games like Comic Jumper don't
come along every day. I love what I do but it's not always that you have this much
fun putting words to paper. I hope gamers enjoy it as much as we do.
ME: Having previously worked with a lot of the Twisted Pixel guys before - waaaay back in our High Voltage Software days - I didn't have to be asked twice to collaborate again. Knowing we shared a certain comedic sensibility and slightly askew world view, it was guaranteed to be a fun experience working on Comic Jumper. Plus, I missed the madness that is Josh Bear.
Since each comic book needs to have its own distinct style, Josh decided to use a different composer for each comic book to increase that feeling that they're each made by different creators in different eras. For the Captain's comic, the composer is Matt "Chainsaw" Chaney, the bearded brilliance behind The Donut Song in Splosion Man.
What were some choices you made in the music design in this comic?
MC: Josh Bear and I talked about wanting to blend some of the big orchestral elements normally associated with super hero themes with more rock and roll elements, so that was one of the driving thoughts behind the creation of the music for this comic. I want this first level to feel like the most awesome sequence from an action movie ever, so I really tried to amp up the energy in the music throughout. I created separate stems of guitar/bass/drum elements and the orchestral elements so that I can solo or combine them at any point in the gameplay to help match the dynamic on screen. So when the Captain does something particularly heroic, you'll hear a big horn and string fanfare accompany him musically. And then as you're just running around and exploring you're accompanied by a more simplified track of drums and bass guitar.
Are there any themes for the characters or environments?
MC: The Captain definitely has a heroic theme that pops a few times throughout the level. And one of the main villians in the level provides his own soundtrack for his scenes. But I won't say much about that. It'll be a surprise. Other than that, the music is broken up according to the different types of gameplay throughout the level. I tried to write tracks that would highlight the varying gameplay experiences that you get in this game.
What references did you use?
MC: I always try to listen to a bunch of references when starting work on a project. I of course listened to Danny Elfman's super hero themes, particularly the first Batman movie he did with Burton. I loved that when I was a kid. And Josh sent me a ton of references from old games ranging from Johnny Bazookatone on the Sega Saturn, to Sonic CD, to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And early in production I watched "The French Connection", and the music during the opening sequence really grabbed me, so I incorporated a bit of an homage to it during a chase sequence in the game.
What instruments did you use?
MC: For the Captain's comic, the main instruments are guitar, bass and drums for the rock elements, and we've recorded a small ensemble of horn and string players to provide the heroic orchestral accompaniment that really helps the music stand out and compliment the action on screen.
Chainsaw is a man of many talents, because he has also handled all of the sound work in all of Twisted Pixel's games, including Comic Jumper. He answers some questions about his sound duties:
So in addition to the music in this comic, you make all the sound effects in the game?
MC: Yep. It's a lot of work, but I also create and implement all the sound effects you hear in game. I love taking the blank canvas of a Twisted Pixel game and filling it up with as much audio zaniness as it can hold. I get some much needed assistance from my pals at GL33K Game Audio, who are all top notch at what they do. And all our voice work is done at the Okratron5000 studios in Dallas, Tx. But other than that, it's all on me.
How does this comic style impact your sound design choices?
MC: Like I mentioned earlier, I think this comic's style is really representative of the Twisted Pixel style. So the sound design in this level is indicative of what you'll hear in our previous games. I guess that means that there's just a lot of mayhem going on. Things exploding left and right, robots going haywire, and overall craziness. I try to provide a lot of detail and variation in the sound effects, to help fill out the world and make it feel more real. For this comic I take real world sounds and then skewer them to create distinct, humorous, and satisfying sound effects to match the brilliant gameplay and graphics.
What sounds are specific to this comic style and how did you create them?
MC: Actually, so far I haven't re-used any sounds between the different comic styles in game. So each comic will present you with a fresh and unique audio experience. As far as creating the sounds, it usually starts out with me or someone up at GL33K making a field recording of the sound that we need. Then I digitally edit/effect/manipulate the sounds and combine them with synthesized elements until it sounds just right and then figure out the best way to trigger it in game. Every sound requires its own approach, though, and sometimes the implementation of the sound can be just as creative as actually making the sound.
Once the 3D assets are made by Dave, it's up to our graphics programmer Lynn Duke to make them look awesome in the game.
What were your challenges in achieving the unique look for this comic?
LD: There were a lot of subtle challenges to make this comic look just right. Most of the time during graphics development, we spend our time trying to simulate the real world's visual properties - lighting, shadowing and other physical interactions of light and surface and material properties. With Comic Jumper, though, we want to do the opposite. A lot of time was spent developing shaders that "broke" the traditional rules of lighting to try and achieve something that seemed more like it was a painting by an artist who didn't respect lighting rules in the real world. From the way that light reflects off of the Captain to the harsh highlights and saturated color tones, most of our time was spent breaking the rules.
What are the different effects we're seeing in these screenshots?
LD: Traditional lighting models and effects have been completely abandoned in these screenshots. Instead we are using shaders that create hard shading instead of smooth shading. We're combining these artificial lighting models with heavy post effects such as color ramping to provide complex saturation curves to the final image. We're also using edge-detection effects that help give it a hand-drawn look.
What were some decisions that were made to come up with these effects?
LD: Run-time performance is a consideration we look at before choosing any particular effect. One of the nice things about straying from traditional lighting techniques is that we are free to change the rules and do things in such a way that benefit us at runtime. For, example, a lot of the post effects run in constant time no matter what's happening in the game. That's because they are performed in screen space. That's not to say we don't have some costly effects however, we definitely have some beefy shaders running on the Captain and his comic books. Most of the heavier shaders deal with artificial lighting and in those cases we've custom tailored these effects for each comic book. They take the majority of the GPU's rendering time but give us incredibly different looks for each of the comic books.
The game's Lead Designer, Sean Riley, must then make a fun game out of all the content that is being thrown in at a blistering pace:
A lot of the game appears to involve shooting, did you have any influences for that gameplay?
SR: Of course! At the beginning of the project, we looked at a ton of old-school shooters like Gunstar Heroes, Contra, and Metal Slug, really trying to dig in to what made them work. I always find it really useful to look at the well-established games not only for inspiration but as guides. A lot of times when you are faced with a problem in your gameplay, it can help a lot to refer to past games and see how they addressed the issues. Usually everyone has taken a slightly different tack, but playing them lets you craft a better solution to the specific issues in your own project.
What is it about these types of gameplay that attracts you?
SR: Comic Jumper, like all of our games, really tries to focus on characters and
accessibility. There's something really satisfying about the simplicity of blowing
away everything in your way, and I think not over-complicating the base gameplay
lets us work with the personality of the characters without having it get lost in
a mass of buttons and UI. I think sometimes it can be tempting to add depth by shoving
in more controls, but we'd always tried to create our depth through other factors.
As far as accessibility, I really like having scoring-based games because it lets us tune things so that everybody can get through a level, but those people who really want to push it have a lot of room to grow and really improve their play.
What were some of the challenges you faced with the gameplay in this first comic that the Captain jumps into?
SR: One thing that was really tricky that I didn't even think about initially was
the assortment of problems in handling 2d gameplay in 3d space. In those old-time
games, since everything was sprite-based, you could jump up onto a platform right
above you and think nothing of it. Once you are dealing with actual models in a
2d world, though, then to do that same thing you would have to physically pass straight
through that platform in order to land on it. That obviously would look terrible
so we went through several iterations trying to figure out the best solution. Little
Big Planet has an interesting approach to that where they use several layers and
sort of push you into the background as you jump up, but when you are doing as much
shooting as we are that doesn't really work.
We ended up solving the issue by giving the Captain the ability to sort of push himself very slightly forward out of the layer if he encounters the right type of platform while jumping, and then he slides back once he clears it. When you are playing you don't even notice that it is happening, which is great. It is weird how just as much gameplay design goes into trying to get players not to notice something as we spend trying to get them to see something else!
Are there other kinds of gameplay in Comic Jumper?
SR: Absolutely. There are actually a bunch of different types of gameplay in Comic
Jumper, but we're not revealing all of them just yet. One of the modes I can talk
about a little bit, though, is our melee sections. These parts have that big bruising
feel: enemies flying everywhere, really over the top.
I think when you are reading a comic, you see so many different types of fights and situations going on - we really wanted to try and capture those differences in our game. On the team, we talk a lot about the player experience and creating memorable sequences of gameplay, and I think our attention to that is really going to show through once we finish everything up.
That's it for today's episode kiddies, but be sure to tune in next month for another exciting look behind the scenes of the epic development for Twisted Pixel's biggest and most amazing XBLA action title ever...