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“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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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