Adventuring with Wallace & Gromit
GameBoomers Talks to Designer Dave Grossman
By Gremlin and Becky
Wallace and Gromit are the endearingly droll clay creations of Nick Park, who -- along with the team at Aardman Animations -- has produced a series of animated films about this quixotic duo. From “A Grand Day Out” to the recent “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” Wallace careers his way into bizarre or terrifying situations, from which his dog Gromit (along with a cast of preposterously British neighbors) attempts to extract him.
Wallace & Gromit aren’t new to the world of gaming, but they are newcomers to the adventure genre. Telltale Games, the makers of the episodic Sam & Max adventure games, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People and the Bone adventures, are working with Aardman Animations to bring us a series of Wallace & Gromit adventure games.
GameBoomers recently had the chance to talk to Telltale’s design director Dave Grossman, to find out more about the upcoming Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures.
GameBoomers: What is it about Wallace & Gromit that appeals to such a wide age group? How do you go about translating this appeal into a game?
Dave: Like many broadly successful comedy duos, Wallace and Gromit make effective use of a number of different types of humor simultaneously. The physical comedy, general looniness, and warm, friendly characters provide a fun experience for a young audience, while plot complexity, underlying drama, clever wordplay and wry references in the backgrounds of the sets make it appealing to adults. And we take pretty much the same approach with the games, trying to include a good mix of all of those elements at all times.
GameBoomers: Whose idea was it to make a Wallace & Gromit game? Has Aardman Animations had any input in the development of the stories for the games? Is the game related in any way to the recent “A Matter of Loaf & Death” short film, or is it entirely separate?
Dave: There are a lot of animation groupies at Telltale, and it was we who thought it would be a good idea to make a Wallace & Gromit series, one done in the usual Telltale style which emphasizes story and characters. We put together a proposal with some good art and a few story ideas and begged Aardman to work with us. They said yes! We began a lengthy story creation process that involved a lot of back and forth, mainly between Telltale’s designers and Tristan Davies, who’s a story editor provided by Aardman. Tristan keeps us wrangled to stay within the stylistic boundaries of the Wallace & Gromit world, and he also edits our dialog for Britishness. The result: Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, a series of entirely new charming tales, with a continuity of character arcs running between that wraps them up together as a complete season.
GameBoomers: How large a development team is working on the Wallace & Gromit games? Can you describe some of the key team members’ backgrounds for us?
Dave: The team size varies up to a maximum of probably about twenty, maybe twenty-five. A few of the key creative players would be:
Dave: Everyone on the team does like Wensleydale - those who didn’t have been sent to work in the sodium mines. Repeated study of the Wallace & Gromit films and shorts was essential, of course. We also watched other Aardman material, as well as some old Ealing comedies like “Passport to Pimlico,” which were recommended by Aardman as having been inspirational in the creation of Wallace & Gromit to begin with. And we listened to voice recordings of people from Yorkshire, Lancashire, and so on, to try to get the styles of speech in our heads, though as I mentioned we had a good British editor as a back-up on that point.
GameBoomers: How challenging is it, as American developers, to write scenarios and dialog for characters who are famously British?
Dave: I’ve often said that mimicry is an essential talent for a professional writer, and there are some good writers at Telltale. However, the difference in cultural background means that no matter how much you study, you won’t always notice the nuances in the same way a British native would, so it’s somewhat as though your humour itself was speaking with an accent. Which is a big reason why we’re working with an editor who has the perspective that we don’t.
GameBoomers: Are there any sinister penguins, hideous transformations, or nights of vegetable carnage in the games? Are you attempting to create the same level of tragicomic mayhem that we’ve come to expect of Wallace & Gromit?
Dave: Tragicomic mayhem is a good way to put it, and we are indeed taking it as our guide. It seems essential if something is going to feel like Wallace & Gromit. Obviously we want to present some new ideas instead of just rehashing what you’ve already seen in the films, but hideous transformation is not out of the question.
Dave: Sometimes they’ve invented contraptions which we get to use, modify, and otherwise fiddle with, other times we’re piecing together various elements to create impromptu Rube Goldberg-like cause-and-effect in the environment. Often these are mechanical, as that seems to lie at the heart of Wallace’s inventive style, but not always. He indulges in a bit of chemistry in the first episode, for example.
Dave: It gives me pause that the mere existence of female characters automatically implies romance, but I suppose real life tends to work that way. As it happens, there will be a bit of heart fluttering in the air during the series, but Wallace’s part in it is not exactly in the same vein that it has been before.
GameBoomers: Will veteran actor Peter Sallis be voicing Wallace?
Dave: Peter Sallis was unfortunately not available to perform the part of Wallace for us. So we’re doing what Aardman does: they have an understudy who does the voice for, say, talking alarm clocks or talking cheese plates or promos that Peter can’t do for one reason or another. Turns out he does a good Wallace! Which I suppose is how he got that job in the first place. Nobody ever imitates another person exactly, but apart from Peter Sallis himself, this guy does the best Wallace I’ve ever heard. (This might also be a good point to mention that all of the voice recording is being done in England for the sake of authenticity.)
GameBoomers: According to Wikipedia, “fire, smoke and floating bunnies” were the most difficult items to animate via “stop-motion” in the Wallace & Gromit films. What was the most difficult item or character to animate in the games? What challenges did you face in animating characters that look like clay figures?
Dave: We did have to turn a few cartwheels in the name of claymation. We added some features to our renderer to make the textures look clay-like, we built thumbprints into the 3D models, we adjusted the frame rate of our engine so that the movement would be more like claymation. It was neat to watch it happen; it seemed like every week somebody would add some feature that would make the game look a little bit more like one of Aardman’s films. And, while making things float in mid-air is no problem for us, apart from that I think our biggest difficulties are similar to Aardman’s. Fire and smoke are hard to do, and water, and usually the first step is to think, “Well, if Aardman did this, what would it look like?” and then go from there. Another thing we hadn’t considered up front has to do with Gromit. Sometimes he’s on all fours, and other times he’s upright and doing things with his paws. That’s actually two different models that have different structures, and it’s jarring to watch the switch from one to the other. Aardman usually cuts around this as cleverly as possible. So do we….
Peter Tsaykel (art director): Effects are generally a little easier to manage in 3D as opposed to stop-motion, but they always present a hurdle. We took it upon ourselves to squarely stare-down challenges like rain, lightning, giant raging whirlpools, etc. and work to make them happen in the game. It was also an elaborate developmental process to bring our characters’ look and movement style as close to the license as we could. A combination of factors came together to create the final result: style-guide consultation from the Aardman team; carefully adding a bit of interpolation-jitter to make the animation feel more handmade; making sure our game engine really emphasized surface textures (fingerprints, etc.). Overall, the biggest challenge was simply trying to make the game feel like an Aardman-style world, rather than a stylized CG knockoff of Wallace and Gromit.
GameBoomers: Who will be composing the music for Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures? Will the music be satiric? Melodramatic? Comedic? Will it have a dark, Hitchcockian flavor?
Dave: Our extremely versatile mainstay composer Jared Emerson-Johnson is doing the scores for the series, thereby assuring that it will be all of those things and more. We also made a deal to use that same piece of composition that Aardman uses for the main theme, because it would just seem wrong to do otherwise.
GameBoomers: Why the episodic format? How many episodes will there be?
Dave: Telltale was founded five years ago with the specific intention of creating games episodically. We think that it’s a better fit for the modern lifestyle (and attention span?) to have regular installments of games that you can play in your spare time, without having to take a vacation from your job, and then just about the time you’re wanting more, another episode comes out. It’s also a great storytelling format, in that it allows you to observe characters over time and see them in a variety of situations as you build a larger story. Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures follows the pair, as well as some supporting characters, through four episodes, each of which covers a different escapade. The episodes take place basically one right after another, and a season-wide story arc develops across the four.
Dave: The overall story-arc is considerably larger than a movie, it’s more like a miniseries. Each episode by itself is probably comparable, in terms of how complicated and “large” the story feels, to a feature length Wallace & Gromit film, though I will note that this says little about the actual running time. To me, The Wrong Trousers is as big a story as The Curse of the Wererabbit, even though it runs a lot quicker, and each Grand Adventures episode feels similar in scope even though their average play time is much longer.
Dave: Since we developed this game for Xbox Live Arcade from the beginning, we decided that, rather than trying to emulate point-and-click without a mouse, we would devise a new interface based on how we would most like to play an adventure game with an Xbox controller. The result is a sort of “direct and select” approach which combines direct control over the player character with a directional point-and-pop method for interacting with objects and other characters. One of the ramifications of this approach that you might not expect is that it allows us to present things in a much more cinematic way than we’ve been able to do with point-and-click games, so the PC controls are a similar hybrid, letting you drive the character with the keyboard but retaining point-and-click for object interactions. This has turned out to be cool enough that even I, a dyed-in-the-wool point-and-click fan, like it. The notoriously hard-nosed Kevin Bruner was heard to say “This combines everything I like about driving the character with everything I like about point-and-click.” (The PC version can also be played with a gamepad, if that's your preference.)
The average puzzle difficulty is what I would call medium, aimed to make you think a bit but not to make you frustrated, and it ramps up, with the beginning of the episode generally being much simpler. Hints are handled similarly to the way that they have been in Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People and the second season of Sam & Max, which is to say that the game pays attention to what you’re doing and tries to head frustration off at the pass by providing you with a bit more information, often out of the mouths of the characters nearby. As with those earlier series, you can control how often this happens, or turn the feature off if you’d rather stay lost than get directions (which is often the case with adventure game fans).
GameBoomers: Nick Park once said that Wallace & Gromit have started to feel real to him, almost as though they are his relatives. Is this true for you and the characters you’ve brought to life previously at Telltale Games -- Sam, Max, Homestar Runner, Fone Bone, etc.? (We assume this is true of Strong Bad, who seems to have moved into the Telltale offices.) Will you be expanding your home or office to accommodate Wallace and Gromit?
Dave: The great thing about fictional friends and relations is that you don’t have to expand your physical space to accommodate them. But you do have to expand your mind. (In the case of Wallace and Gromit this is not so frightening as it is with Strong Bad.)
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