“DeathSpank” Brings the Funny to Downloadable Games

“DeathSpank” Brings the Funny to Downloadable Games  (photo)

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Maybe it’s the genetic lineage from “Dungeons and Dragons” and J.R.R. Tolkien, but the role-playing genre in video games tends to take itself way too seriously. The trope of the earnest and plucky young lad who ventures forth from a small village into a world-saving destiny gets recycled several times a year with a completely straight face.

Thankfully, the developers at Hothead Games know how ludicrous RPG clichés can be and are all set to lampoon many of them in their upcoming “DeathSpank.” When I got my hands on the game earlier this week, the goofiness of it all immediately pulled me in. The gameplay rotates around typical features like side quests, incremental storytelling and upgradeable skills and weapons, but killing evil chickens and bantering with sassy witches make it all feel fresher. Hothead developed the game in conjunction with legendary designer Ron Gilbert – who helped birth the beloved “Monkey Island” adventure games of years past – and that working relationship shines through with every line of bombastic narration in the game. Recently, I got a chance to talk with Vlad Ceraldi, Hothead’s director of game development, about working with Gilbert, how digital distribution can be freeing for an indie developer and how Hothead came to work with indie firebrand Jonathan Blow.

You’re a really young indie company. What’s the secret origin of Hothead Games? How’d you get your start in the industry?

Hothead just had its fourth anniversary, which is hard to believe, but in game developer years, we are a fair bit older — it kind of works like dog years but we are still young and fresh enough that our collective tails are still wagging. Our secret origin is not all that mysterious. Most of us worked and had great success together for seven-plus years at Radical Entertainment. A bunch of us started making games before we joined Radical, so we launched Hothead with a very veteran core team. However, when Radical was purchased by Vivendi Games, we saw the fierce independent nature of Radical start to change.

We also saw the gaming landscape starting to go through massive shifts, or at least the early tremors and signs of major hardship, but also opportunity. We instinctively felt that digital distribution, which was emerging from casual games and starting to affect core games, might allow us to make the games we wanted to make, connect with our gaming audience and give us the independence that we craved.

06112010_DeathSpank2.jpgTalk a little bit about the origins of “DeathSpank.” The character first appeared in cartoons on Ron Gilbert’s personal Web site, Grumpy Gamer. Were there plans to turn it into a game from the very start?

“DeathSpank” was born from the very creative brain of Ron Gilbert. As you mention, the character began as a spoof of the game industry in a cartoon on his blog. Very quickly, Ron decided that “DeathSpank” deserved to have his own game, one that would be intentionally over-the-top and filled with ridiculous characters and scenarios. Ron shopped it around to all the big publishers and none of them ‘got it.’ We started working with Ron with our “Penny Arcade” games because we shared the vision that it takes great characters, story and dialogue to make great games.

By the time we finished the first “Penny Arcade” game, Ron gave us the high level design overview for “DeathSpank” and we were sold. It was perfectly aligned with what we wanted to create: a humorous blend of a “Diablo”-like action RPG and “Monkey Island.” We worked with Ron and developed characters, a story and world that would best show what the character DeathSpank was all about: a simple, naïve hero with an unprecedented drive to help anyone and everyone he can, often doing more harm than good. We began the project and it really took on a life of its own with everything falling into place.

Hothead has had some success in the digital download space. What kind of freedom does this method of distribution afford you when compared to traditional disc releases?

For now, digital distribution gives developers the opportunity to bring more creative, innovative and risky game ideas directly to gamers. We believe disc-based media is on its last generation and many of the next generation of gaming systems will eschew disk drives altogether. One day soon, all major game releases will be digital, but until then, there is a bit of a Wild West environment for games that still permits a crazy amount of innovation and creativity to take place. Without digital distribution, there is no way “DeathSpank” would have been made.

06112010_DeathSpank3.jpgOne of Hothead’s big releases was “On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness,” which originated from “Penny Arcade,” and “DeathSpank” also originated from another medium. Even though adaptations are frowned upon by some, do you think you get away with lighter criticism because things are happening on a smaller scale?

“Penny Arcade” was certainly an adaptation — a well-executed, respectful one of a very established and developed IP. For Hothead, it is all about making great games no matter where the IP comes from. We made the “Penny Arcade” games because we knew they would be fun and that the fans wanted these games made.

“DeathSpank” was a natural fit and we felt it had to be made into a game. From our experience, you only get criticized if the game sucks — [if] the effort is not genuine or inspired. With “DeathSpank,” while it is true that the character and concept were born on a blog, “DeathSpank” is not an adaptation but rather a vision fully realized.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.