Speaking of Bone – A Conversation with Dave Grossman, Heather Logas, and Dave Bogan
By Becky Waxman
First there was Bone Act One: Out from Boneville. Based on the graphic novels by Jeff Smith, Out from Boneville is a short, lively adventure filled with quirky characters in colorful 3D.
Now, just released, comes Bone Act Two: The Great Cow Race -- a longer, deeper game with a still-lively storyline, heading toward a final competition when the bovines meet the Bones.
To find out more about The Great Cow Race, GameBoomers talks to the Bone design team, all of whom are veterans of LucasArts, having created classics such as Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. The team includes Designer Heather Logas, Senior Designer Dave Grossman, and Art Director Dave Bogan.
Does Bone: Act Two – The Great Cow Race contain an introduction that covers the events from Out from Boneville for those gamers who haven’t played the first game?
Dave Grossman: Three. There’s a who’s who accessible from the main menu of the game, a written story-so-far in the manual, and a video recap that will be available online and also included on the CD. Of course the game is also designed so that you can enjoy it without having played the previous one, and I think the references to the events of Out from Boneville take on an intriguing quality of mystery if you do so.
Will the new game have a 3D environment and a point-and-click interface like the first game? Will it have more locations?
Heather Logas: It will be 3D and point and click. I’m not sure that there are more locations than the first game, but almost all the locations will be brand new to the player and they are very richly detailed, with more things to poke and look at than the first time around. We generally focus on having the locations we need to tell the story, rather than creating an expansive world where the player spends most of their time wandering from place to place.
Dave Grossman: The 3D world and the interface are essentially the same. I think the actual NUMBER of locations is only a little larger, but we’ve packed those locations with much, much more to do. There’s a lot of stuff for the player to figure out, more characters to interact with, and plenty of material that’s just there for color and fun without having any direct bearing on the outcome of the game. Also, Out from Boneville was about a journey, so once you had passed a location there was seldom a reason to go back—not so The Great Cow Race, in which the entire environment remains interesting for pretty much the whole length of the game.
In Out from Boneville, I found the setting of the Valley to be very appealing. What does a graphic designer do to give a place personality?
Dave Bogan: What makes the valley so appealing and full of personality to me is the rich color palette used. There is nice contrast going from the cool blues to the very warm and saturated oranges and yellows; they complement each other really well. Such a drastic change in color in this environment provides a nice way to help along the story point of Fone progressing from the cold, dark, jagged, dangerous mountains to the warm, pleasant, lush valley.
Was this harder to do because the Valley is pastoral?
Dave Bogan: Each environment in Bone had its own set of challenges to set the mood and feel, whether it’s in the valley or the interior of the Barrelhaven Tavern, but I wouldn’t say that one is harder than the other, just different. Using a rich color palette definitely helped us set the mood and feel for each environment.
When designing an environment, how much is the design influenced by the type of characters that will populate it?
Dave Bogan: Most of the design for each environment is affected by which characters will be in it and what those characters will be doing. The characters have to move and perform in these environments, and each environment must provide functional space for them to do so.
When working in 3D with cartoon-like characters like the Bones, how much do you focus on realism?
Dave Grossman: Actually, since the Bones and their world are already visually established in Jeff Smith’s comic books, “realism” takes on a different meaning as we try to be faithful to the reality of the comics instead of the one you and I live in.
Dave Bogan: I would have to say that there is a very relevant amount of realism involved in bringing the Bones to life even if they are very cartoonish. People in general have a pretty solid understanding of others’ emotions and actions. In order to have someone understand what exactly the characters in Bone are feeling, we must take reference from what we know and understand in real life. The focus on realism is put more into the characters’ body language and facial expressions and less on the physics of how a character moves in and out of each action or emotion. In short we keep the characters cartoonish in the way they physically move, but very realistic in the thoughts behind the movements.
How important are textures?
Dave Bogan: Each character must feel different and unique. This is where the importance of not only texturing but modeling, lighting, animation, and overall design comes in. So, yes, textures are one of the many important tools that we use to create our characters and worlds.
When Phoney Bone wears a chef’s hat – both Phoney and the hat are white – how do you keep the hat from looking like a bony growth sprouting from the top of his head?
Dave Bogan: I think if the color of the hat was exactly the same color of white as Phoney’s skin then it would most likely confuse people and look like a boney growth. The answer here is simply value and color. If you look closely you will notice that the value of the hat is much darker than Phoney’s skin and the color more khaki than white. These distinctions definitely make it clear, but the main thing is that you can see the separation of where the hat starts and the skin stops on Phoney’s head.
In Out from Boneville, Smiley Bone is so relaxed he scarcely moves. How did you make it believable that he can run a long race in Act Two, and with enough speed to be a contender?
Dave Grossman: Smiley’s got long legs. He’s pretty fast when he wants to be.
Heather Logas: Smiley WAS the fastest kid in his kindergarten class. I think Smiley’s relaxed attitude is what allows him to be a contender. Being too nervous works against people in competition. All of the Bone cousins have a certain tenacity to them that is very admirable.
When a game’s storyline is based on a graphic novel, how much constraint does that place on a development team? Does that make it particularly difficult to balance the story with the various challenges in the game? Do you take a given situation in the story and see what a character can do to make a mess of it? Or do you take a given situation and see what a character can do to fix things?
Dave Grossman: As with any adaptation from one medium to another, the only reliable answer is “it depends.” Sometimes you get lucky and the key elements of the story happen to lend themselves easily to fun gameplay, in which case it’s not so much a constraint as it is a head start. The Great Cow Race was like that—the graphic novel gave us a lot to work with without posing any tremendous problems. But even with this book we did what we always do, which is to try to find the elements of the story that will be interesting to DO, as opposed to being interesting to READ, and you’ll notice in a couple of instances that we’ve elaborated on aspects of the story which Jeff only alluded to, for exactly that reason.
Heather Logas: It can be very difficult at times to make sure the important story points get across while at the same time keeping everything interactive and in the players’ hands. This is a huge challenge. At the same time, working with Jeff Smith has been really great in that he really does encourage us to explore what we can do interactively, without saying, “This has to be like this, that’s not in the book so you can’t show that,” etc. We let characters mess things up and fix things. We put them in situations and make sure they are always true to who they are.
Is there a honey-stealing puzzle? Any sewing or construction puzzles? Any dialog/story puzzles, like those in the first game? Any mini-games? Any multi-step puzzles that require the gamer to visit several locations before solving them?
Dave Grossman: Absolutely. All of the above.
Heather Logas: Some places in the book lend themselves really well to designing activities around them. We try to balance the types of activities you do so that you don’t feel like you are doing the same kind of thing over and over again.
Are there any challenges in The Great Cow Race in which fast reflexes are necessary? If so, can you bypass them?
Dave Grossman: Fast reflexes, no. There is one mini-game that is somewhat arcade-like, but it’s designed to be fairly easy.
Heather Logas: I know some people had problems with the chases in Boneville. We don’t have anything like that this time around (even though I still enjoy the locust chase myself). There are a couple places where reflexes may be necessary, but planning ahead will do you just as well. They aren’t skippable but we tried to think things through and I don’t think they will cause anyone any huge headaches either.
What portion of The Great Cow Race was the most fun to write? To animate?
Dave Grossman: The whole thing was pretty enjoyable, but I tend to have the most fun writing the little side bits that are strictly for flavor. Phoney Bone has an extensive, mostly superfluous dialog with a cow standing behind a fence which I think is the part that made me giggle the most while I was actually composing it.
Heather Logas: This is hard, because so much of it was fun to write. I loved writing the interactions between Phoney and the Barrelhaven Boys. I loved writing just about anything with Smiley, because he is such a fun and fantastic character. I love writing for the possums. I also had a ton of fun writing the back and forth between the two rat creatures that occurs at the very end. (Watch the credits!)
Dave Bogan: To me the mystery cow running with Phoney hanging outside the front of the costume was really fun to animate. I really played up the cartoony style there, lots of squash and stretch and stylized snappy timing. When most people see the Mystery Cow running for the first time they usually say something like, “Whoa...look at that udder go!” followed by a chuckle. I feel Jeff Smith’s intention when designing the cow suit in the first place was to make people laugh, and the animation I think successfully complements this. Another favorite moment of animation is when Fone gives the prize he won for playing the catapult game 20 times to Thorn… it is a very cute little moment for Fone.
Will there be more epic fantasy aspects in this game than in the previous game?
Heather Logas: In this sense we are following the storyline of the book, and things don’t start really ramping up yet. But there is still plenty of creepy and mysterious foreshadowing that clues you in to the fact that something bigger is going on.
Dave Grossman: That’s a tough question to answer as I’m not sure exactly what people would consider “epic fantasy aspects.” As anybody who’s read the comic book series knows, the Bone saga starts small and builds and deepens dramatically over time. The part that we’re covering now is probably the most important in the long run, because it’s where the characters and their relationships to each other are first established. The actual cow race doesn’t have much to do with where the series eventually goes, but it’s where Phoney meets Lucius and we get our first taste of the Barrelhaven locals, who become rather important as things progress.
Who composed the music for The Great Cow Race? What were you hoping to achieve with the music?
Heather Logas: The music was composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson, who has a fantastic sense of the world of Bone and the different characters. We worked really closely with Jared on conveying the mood of a given scene or reflecting the personality of the characters in the scene. Honestly though, by “work very closely” I mean we listened to the music he sent us, said, “Oh wow, this is awesome,” and very occasionally made comments like, “Can this be a little happier?” He did a really fantastic job.
Telltale has placed an emphasis on frequently updating the websites for the Bone games. Every time I look at the site, it seems as though there’s something new. This is unusual and refreshing. Why do you think it is important to commit resources to a game’s website in this way?
Dave Grossman: We like to think that an entertainment company is entertaining all the time, not just the one week when a game comes out. So we update the site a lot, post new blogs and comics and so on, to keep things fresh.
Heather Logas: As you said, this is refreshing. I think it keeps people coming back to the site and keeps them interested in what we are doing. We don’t just want to make games and send them out there. We would like to build and foster a community as well.
How many hours of gameplay do you estimate for The Great Cow Race? Is the game still on track to release this month?
Heather Logas: The Great Cow Race should take your average player four to five hours to play through. There is more to do than in Out from Boneville though, so you can definitely spend more or less time with it depending on your playing style.
Dave Grossman: It’s difficult to estimate hours of play since individuals approach things so differently, some rifling through to get to the end and others poking around and looking at everything on the way. But it’s about twice as much gameplay as Out from Boneville, if that’s helpful. And yes, we’ll be releasing April 12.
*Note: The Great Cow Race released yesterday, April 12, 2006.