Journey to the Savage Planet was one of the more surprising games of E3 2019 due to its wonderful blend of quirky humor and modestly sized amount of exploration. Creative Director Alex Hutchinson still wanted that sense of discovery that the genre brings but in a way that people with other responsibilities could enjoy.
His love for uncovering things got him an archaeology degree from the University of Melbourne and even influenced how he makes video games. He recently sat down with us to talk about how this passion fuels his creative process as well as other topics like Jeff Goldblum, Assassin’s Creed 3, and fart jokes.
GameRevolution: How would you categorize Journey to the Savage Planet?
Alex Hutchinson: We like to call it an earnest comedy. So we were harkening back to the adventure serials of yesteryear and the idea that you would go on adventure for the sake of adventure. You’re not escaping from a nuclear holocaust. You’re not saving the world. You’re exploring the universe because it is there to be explored and this is the right thing to do. But at the same time, it’s a comedy so you work for the fourth-best space exploration company, Kindred Aerospace.
They haven’t sent you with any gear or any real instruction so you’re on this alien world ill-prepared and it’s your job as the player to explore it, catalog its flora and fauna, craft new gear when appropriate to overcome Metroidvania-esque challenges or lock and key challenges, and then eventually decide whether or not this is a fit location for human habitation in the future. But you also have to get to the bottom of this mystery that becomes immediately apparent which is this enormous tower that is at the bottom of the valley that shouldn’t be there because there wasn’t supposed to be any intelligent life here at all.
GR: It seems pretty open. How open is it?
AH: I did a lot of open-world games over the years and it’s not true open world. It’s more wide linear. We would have liked to make it wider but there are only 24 of us at Typhoon Studios so it’s still very much a B-indie game or a small AAA game. So you have options on how to tackle all the problems and you’ll usually have three to five quests that are active at any one time. But there are specific choke points to give it that Metroidvania quality. Like you can’t climb this cliff until you craft the grappling hook, for example. There are some options but it is still very structured.
GR: You talked about not wanting to make a million-hour game. Can you elaborate on why?
AH: Games for old people? [laughs] I think it’s the older I get. There are more games than ever before and more platforms and games as services and great multiplayer games. All of them are trying to devour your time and sort of have you sink into them for a million years. I have two little kids. I have friends I want to see. I have a business I’m trying to run and I love [playing] games. And I don’t want to feel like I’m not doing it right or I’m not investing enough time in this to make it worthwhile.
I wanted to make a game that is harkening back to those games of yesteryear. Something that has a unique, strong flavor and is very different and colorful and optimistic and funny and also very finishable. So you can get to the end of it and say “That was absolutely fabulous but I’m done with it and I can move onto the next game.” We’ll probably do some DLC. So hopefully you’ll come back and say, “I really liked it. I’d like a little bit more.” Or we do a sequel one day maybe. But it’s there to be finished. It’s not there for you to live with for years.
AH: It’s very much the same idea for us. It’s funny you bring up Resident Evil 2 because it’s brilliant but it’s also the fact that it is a remake or redo so it was like those old games that were designed to be finished. I think it’s great.
Especially with a new studio and a new IP, you can’t compete with World of Warcraft or Overwatch or any of these sorts of games. Once you pick one in that stream, that’s the one you’re gonna play. You’re playing Fortnite or Apex Legends. There’s no real point in playing both of them. What are you sinking all of your time into? We want to make sort of the side snack that goes with those epic meals.
GR: Was that hard to pitch? It feels like a lot of other teams wouldn’t get to say they wanted to make finite experiences.
AH: It was very tricky to make. We’ve got great partners in 505 Games. And we didn’t have the money to do it all on our own so we were very happy to find a publisher to support us. But there was definitely some pushback in the sense that everyone is trying to get a seat at that [games as a service] table, but I think they understood that our first step should be what we wanted to do and hopefully it’s a unique vision and a fresh game.
GR: You worked on Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed 3, the latter of which is pretty underrated. Its recent remaster showed that it held up pretty well, especially in terms of its story.
AH: Cool. Cheers. I feel like it’s the last game of that type. We made a lot of Assassin’s Creed games that were action adventures and then they pivoted to RPGs. But AC3 was the end of the action adventures. Well, maybe aside from Black Flag.
But it’s the same thing in that game and in [Journey to the Savage Planet]. The idea of discovering content was really important to me. Like you’ll see the naval missions [in AC3]. But there are lots more if you go looking for them. Like there are homestead missions. You can build out your whole little homestead missions if you want to. But you don’t have to. It’s always a tricky thing to say that some people didn’t see that content and I’m like, “Yeah, well the people that did found it themselves and they felt rewarded by it.”
So it’s a very tricky balance and we’re struggling with the same challenge at the moment about how to have enough content that people discover without being breadcrumbed too much. Because if it is too breadcrumbed and it’s too linear then it’s too boring, in my opinion. If it’s too open, then people just go, “Well, I don’t know what you want me to do” and they just leave. So we’re trying to make sure people engage with the area scan and the pinging system. Like we put a marker far away on a point and you’re like, “How do I get there?” And you have to make a plan but it’s up to you to figure it out.
GR: Did your archaeology degree have anything to do with how you uncover the flora and fauna in the Journey to the Savage Planet?
AH: Yeah. It’s two things. I think, at the time, when I decided to do it, everything thinks of Indiana Jones and the adventure serials and the idea of discovering things and exploring was always really powerful. So I’ve always found that idea of finding something really attractive. All little kids think of buried treasure and archaeology is a form of buried treasure that is real. I’ve always had a soft spot for that.
GR: True. I wanted to be an archaeologist too because of Jurassic Park.
AH: I just showed it to my [six-year-old] son the other day. It’s a good movie.
GR: That movie still holds up.
AH: Yes! Except for the short shorts. Everyone is wearing short shorts! And what’s his name with his shirt off… Jeff Goldblum! You’re like, “Whoa, this is pointless! Why is this in the movie? Jeff, put a shirt on!”
GR: He’s an oddly sexual man, which is great.
AH: He is! And I agree! He’s like a whisperer; a close talker.
GR: Yes, yes. But anyway, this is a comedy game. Why do that?
AH: It was kind of a relief. We were so tired of gray and brown, super serious games and it’s already stressful enough to start a company so we wanted to have some fun with it. [Because] the stories you’re telling do infect you a little bit. Like if you’re telling stories about death and murder and darkness, then that sort of creeps in. So I wanted to do something bright, happy, and upbeat. And also we’re never going to be able to compete as a small team with these enormous teams.
So saying we were going to do refinement and the best, most perfect gun ever was an impossible task. We’re saying you have the fourth-best gun and the fourth-best jetpack and you’re stuck here doing your best. It felt earnest. And I think the team is a funny team. So if we’re making ourselves laugh, then we’re hopefully that we’re making someone else laugh.
GR: Comedy is hard in video games since it’s about timing and interaction can make it hard to craft a well-timed joke. So how do you make a funny game?
AH: I think good comedy is always earnest. So putting something in there that makes you laugh is the key. If you don’t laugh, no one is going to laugh. But I also think there’s an opportunity [for other types of comedy]. When I was on Far Cry, seeing a bear on fire murder your buddy — because you threw a Molotov cocktail 30 seconds ago and forgotten about it — was hilarious. And you watch it and everybody just bursts out laughing.
There is this video game comedy that is an untapped market which is a form of slapstick but also an intentional comedy where you’re telling the jokes to yourself. Like you’re performing an action, which causes a reaction which makes you or your co-op buddy laugh. And I think that’s key to a new type of humor so I was interested in the challenge. Like could the creatures make you laugh from the way you responded to your inputs?
GR: Yeah, I remember throwing a bomb and it had a chain reaction and killed everything on the little island I was on.
AH: Yeah, exactly. Someone once told me that fear and laughter are the opposite response to the same input, which is surprise. So if someone surprises you and it’s bad, you’re afraid. If someone surprises and it’s good, you laugh. So it’s the same in the game. We try to push the player and have unintended consequences and hopefully get some humor.
GR: What about the fart jokes?
AH: You gotta keep a balance. But the odd fart joke is always good too.