DrinkBox Studios Co-Founder on the Vita, Trump, Guacamelee 2, and Memes [Interview]

DrinkBox Studios has been quite a popular indie developer over the past few years. From 2011’s Tales from Space: About a Blob to the recently released Guacamelee 2 (which we liked), the Toronto-based team made its name through its sense of humor, lovely art, and responsive gameplay mechanics. DrinkBox Co-Founder Graham Smith has been a pivotal part of their success, as he has multiple roles within the studio. He sat down with us a few days before Guacamelee 2‘s launch to discuss the team’s newest game, memes, its “Bad Hombre” reference, the PlayStation exclusivity period, and more.

This interview contains light spoilers for jokes and scenes in Guacamelee 2.

Game Revolution: Your studio has always shown a lot of love to the Vita. Why isn’t Guacamelee 2 on the Vita?

Graham Smith: Tough hitting questions right away [laughs]. We largely ignore this question when it’s posed on Twitter and elsewhere because whenever we try to answer it, people don’t accept our answers. They think we aren’t doing it because we’re lazy. The truth is that we do love the Vita. We were on Vita on day one. The problem is now with Guacamelee 2, we decided that we wanted to try to improve our rendering engine and add a whole bunch of support for more advanced rendering techniques. So we made the base level platform, like the lowest level platform, of this game PS4. So that left the Vita behind.

It wasn’t just the rendering stuff though. Our levels are much bigger now. We struggled a bit making the original game to get everything to fit onto memory on Vita. But now our levels are about 50 percent bigger and not only that, we also have another two sets of art on top of that because we have normal mapping on all of our environments for both the living and the dead worlds. So you took something we barely fit into memory before, you increase it in size by 50 percent, and you double that because of all the additional textures and it just wouldn’t fit into memory.

At the start of the project we kind of asked ‘Are we going to try to do this on Vita? Because if we are, we’re gonna have to hold back parts of the game to make it fit on Vita. Or we’re going to have to release a significantly downgraded version of the game.’ Something like ‘We’ll turn off all normal maps. We’ll turn off all the new lighting stuff. We’ll turn off all effects. We’ll do lower resolution textures and get it to fit into memory.’ But we didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the game to put it on Vita.

I still love my Vita and use it almost every day, believe it or not. I have a Switch too but when I go to bed every night, I bring my Vita with me. Maybe that’s weird [laughs]. That’s still my device of choices in the evenings. But sadly, it does seem like there is a sunset happening on the Vita and we’re sad to leave it behind.

GR: Guacamelee 2 has almost the exact same moveset from the first game. Why keep it so similar?

GS: We started with just a few people on the team. Everybody else was working on Severed. A few of us started just prototyping ideas for Guacamelee 2. At that time, we decided ‘OK if we wanted to do a completely new moveset for Juan, what would that be? So let’s just take his current moveset and pretend it doesn’t exist and throw it away and come up with something different.’

We did a lot of experimentation and we kept finding that everything we were coming up with just wasn’t as intuitive as the moveset from the original game. Just the way the basic moves mapped felt like nothing we were coming up with was close to that level of intuitiveness. And also, once you get those moves, it’s like ‘Well what else can you add on top of that?’ You have all the directions. If you try to squeeze more directions in on the diagonals, it doesn’t really work because then you’re going to be doing the wrong move accidentally. Largely Juan is not changed.

But instead of focusing on Juan, we looked at the other player character you play as: the chicken, which was completely underdeveloped in the first game. We basically just used it to squeeze through tunnels. This time around we had more time and we wanted to try to develop the chicken. Now in Guacamelee 2, we find reasons to push the players to become a chicken in certain sections. So it made the chicken more integrated into the whole experience, which I think is a good thing because playing as the chicken is really fun and we get a lot of positive feedback about the chicken stuff.

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GR: Since you guys feel like you nailed it on the first game, was there an aura of feeling maybe too close to the first game? Did that come up at all?

GS: Yeah, I was constantly keeping that in mind. We were very careful when making the first game that any combat encounter and any platforming challenge wasn’t repeating itself. I feel like that is a really good video game design philosophy. Certain games really nail it like the original Portal. Within the first game we didn’t want to repeat ourselves and in the sequel, we didn’t want to repeat anything the first game did which is pretty challenging because we covered a lot of ground in the first game.

So we were trying to constantly keep it in mind so that every new challenge in the sequel felt fresh compared to the first game. The way we don’t repeat ourselves often is that we use new environmental mechanics that are being introduced in the game. Like in the Jade Temple level, you have the pressure plates that pop out, the dimension waves, and you have the Eagle Boost at that point. So we have a whole bunch of new elements we can explore that weren’t part of the first game. We largely try to avoid repetition by use of the new moves and through use of environmental mechanics.

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GR: The chicken Illuminati stuff is pretty funny. How did that come about?

GS: Our concept lead Augusto [Quijano] drew a concept art of a chicken standing in front of a door with a neon sign in front of the door with flashing lights that said “Super Secret Chicken Society.” And it was just like a black and white concept art that made us laugh. Then when we were talking about the story ideas for this B story, the super secret chicken society kept coming back up. And then somehow we started calling it the chicken Illuminati and the leader of the chicken Illuminati was the chicken pope. I don’t remember exactly when the different names started to come in, but [it grew into] this idea of having a whole B story where there’s a society of chickens who see Juan as the chosen chicken and they’re following him around.

GR: The first game’s story was another take on the “save the princess” trope. What was the inspiration of making this story feel more like a cartoon-like “save the universes” narrative?

GS: When were first talking about story ideas, Augusto came to me before we started working on it asking that if we made a sequel, what ending is going to be canon for the game? Because the first game has two endings.. I think both endings are strong. So I didn’t want to choose and thought ‘What if both endings happened?’ What if there’s multiple timelines? This was before I ever saw Rick and Morty.

GR: Mentioning Rick and Morty made me think about the Darkest Timeline in the game. Is that a Community [another show created by Dan Harmon] reference?

GS: No [laughs]. But now that you mention it, they did do a Darkest Timeline episode. Not intentionally, I don’t think. It’s possible because I wasn’t involved in all the story meetings.

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GR: Speaking of the Darkest Timeline, can you talk about the “Dankest” Timeline? Were those real quotes from NeoGaf?

GS: [laughs] No, they’re from all over. We got some from NeoGaf, some from Twitter, some from IGN comment streams, some from YouTube. We searched high and low for the best quotes. They’re all quotes from real people.

We talked about how we should handle memes because it’s so controversial [laughs]. Some of the team loves the memes. I’m one of the people who loves having the memes in the games. I don’t care if they become dated. That makes me laugh more at them but other people hate the memes and there were a lot of vocal people. The people who don’t like memes, they really hate memes and they are not afraid to shout to high heavens that they hate meme. And they have a right to hate memes.

I felt like we would be quitters if we didn’t do something with memes. And I don’t remember where the exact idea came from. I don’t know if there would have been a better way to do it. It’s kind of making fun of ourselves and making fun of the meme outrage a little bit. It’s similar in style to Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segments. I think it turned out pretty funny.

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GR: Speaking of controversial, there is only one Trump reference in the game and it’s right in the beginning. And since it is right in the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it was a sign of more coming throughout the game. But that was the only one. How did you all talk about including that?

GS: We also discussed that: ‘Should we talk about U.S. politics at all?’ There are a couple pretty good reasons to not do that. I think one is that you don’t want to alienate any potential part of your audience and we don’t want to be known as a Trump-bashing studio or anything like that. And also we feel like ignoring Trump is one of the best ways to fight Trumpism. We just decided that we were not going to talk about it all. The “Bad Hombres” thing is like the closest we got to that

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