Justin Roiland made an entire career out of being the weird, absurdist comedy guy, and that's translated over into games.
Roiland's newest project is Trover Saves the Universe, a very funny VR platformer that turns players into a chair. They're partnered with an adorable alien creature who gets sucked into this cosmic adventure because of a villain named John, who is using a pair of dogs as a way to generate his unbelievable powers. All your player really wants to do is track down these dogs that have become a big part of your life, and just so happen to be an animal that's banned in this specific universe. Trover gets hired to track down these dogs and return them to their original owner. You and Trover team up and, as Roiland described it, go on this Alice in Wonderland-type of adventure throughout the cosmic universe.
It's bizarre, but it's also inherently Roiland. Trover Saves the Universe looks like it will appeal to Rick and Morty fans or anyone looking for a very funny gaming experience. The demo I got to play felt like a tangible version of the game Joaquin Phoenix plays in Her. Trover Saves the Universe seems like it's designed around comedy more than anything else, and that's exactly what Roiland said he was going for in developing the game.
"My approach for this game is, like, let's make ourselves laugh," Roiland said. "Let's have a lot of fun. I'm going to have a few drinks and go in the booth and let's just see what weird shit I say, and in some cases, really funny, crazy stuff ends up in the game because of that. All of the other actors that are coming in are amazing people, and I can't say who yet, but amazing, amazing, talented people, and it's the same process. Like let's have fun. Let's just go nuts and have fun with it, go off-book and improv as much as you want."
Octodad and South Park: The Fractured But Whole are two games Roiland cites that continuously make him laugh. He wants to see more comedic games span the AAA sphere and, perhaps most importantly, see these games incorporate traditional comedic cues into the actual gameplay.
In Trover Saves the Universe, for example, players have the option to walk away from new characters if they don't want to listen to a long ramble. The demo I played featured an annoying, buzzing creature who just wanted to complain about building zone violations while I was trying to move on in my mission.
The demo gave me two options: I could either walk away from the annoying buzzing creature and continue on with my quest, or I could listen to his inane ramblings, which turned out to be pretty funny. Roiland said comedy is designed into almost every core mechanic and choice that players make. Another example appears a little later in the demo: I was confronted with a puzzle to which there is no solution, but the more I tried to solve it, the more frustrated Trover became.
"A big thing for us is like integrating comedy into the actual gameplay," Roiland said. "There's a section later on in that level where it's pretty tricky. It's optional, but it's really fucking funny because the longer it takes you to do it, the more times you miss, Trover just starts to comment on it. He's saying the things that if you were playing a game by yourself, you would be saying out loud … And it's really, really weird — in a good way. It almost really kind of makes it connect you to him in a strange way as a character."
Combining voice acting, game mechanics and absurd storylines is easier dreamt up in a writer's room than actually executing. Roiland understands why there aren't more AAA games strictly designed to make people laugh. A big concern he faces is knowing how to toe the line between funny and offensive — what's something that will make people laugh without really ticking someone off. Roiland and his team encountered this issue designing Trover Saves the Universe when they decided to implement the word "retard."
"We tend to be really good about building frames around anything that might be a line-crossing moment, like using the word retard for example," Roiland said. "We built a big fucking beautiful oak frame around that as a commentary, you know? But it's tough. You don't want to worry too much because you don't want to get in the way of the creative process. For me, it's like, 'Hey, let's just go with what makes us laugh the hardest.' Obviously there's stuff that I'll pitch in the room and I'm like, 'We can't do that. We can't do that.' But usually we'll know when we get into. Like, we get all this stuff hooked up in game and we're playing it and if it works in context with everything else and it's really funny and it's making people laugh, then let's just do it."
Developer Sqaunch Games came up with two different versions of the game to really give Trover Saves the Universe players the comedic experience they designed: a VR version and a non-VR version. Designing different experiences for both VR and non-VR players led to a different style of jokes and comedic gameplay being integrated into both.
"It's so much fucking funnier in non-VR," Roiland said. "It's seriously the funniest thing. The idea that we came up with makes me laugh so fucking hard, and it's one of those things where I was like, 'OK, yeah, this is great.' We might even get to a point where fans of the game will want to play it both in VR and traditionally just to see the differences and sort of and find those other jokes."
Trover Saves the World is funny — or at least, the demo I played is funny. It's also very Justin Roiland. Anyone who's seen Rick and Morty enough times knows what Roiland's style of comedy is, and that comes through every few seconds in Trover Saves the Universe. When I asked Roiland if he ever thinks about the style of comedy he created, which many people simply refer to as "Roilandy," he gets a little flustered.
"I try not to because I think I try to stay outside of that because that can be a bad thing too, you know what I mean," Roiland said. "After a while it's like, 'OK, we get it. It's the same thing.' I can't say too much about it, but like the next project we're going to be doing is a very loose, fun, comedy, adventure game. The next thing we're doing is a bit more grounded narratively and it's still going to have all the fun comedy, but it's going to be not nearly as fourth wall-breaking and loose and bizzaro as this game. I want to make sure that we're not just doing the same thing over and over again as a studio, and we're evolving or at least trying different things.
"But at the same time I'm like, 'Yeah man, I want to make a bunch of fun, smaller in scope games to like gain experience so we can just release stuff on steam that's just crazy awesome.'"
"It's so much fucking funnier in non-VR"
Roiland doesn't read the comments. He doesn't really read replies on Twitter or go digging for every single write-up on his different projects. He said he doesn't need to know everyone's opinion, realizing early on that diving into toxic responses from people who he doesn't personally know doesn't help him. There are people, he's aware, who won't like Trover Saves the Universe, and that's OK. He just wants to make games for people who like his particular brand of comedy, he said. Doing that, and knowing there are people who enjoy it, helps to keep him going.
"Let's have a good quality of life and make something that we believe in, and if it's making us laugh really hard, then let's put it out in the world and see how it does," Roiland said. "And then you know, the people who are are our fans will love it and the people who don't like it won't like it and you can't please everybody. I know that, and that's OK."
Trover Saves the Universe will be available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR in 2019.