GZ Interview: Voodoo Vinces lead designer takes GameZone behind the scenes of this unique title

Voodoo Vince’s lead designer takes
GameZone behind the scenes of this unique title

By Michael Lafferty

"If a joke or plot twist got a laugh in a meeting, I figured
I was on the right track."

Every once in a while something comes along that makes one
wonder about the sanity of its creators. You know … not so much ‘how did they
do that?’ but rather ‘what warped, twisted mind came up with that idea?’

In the case of a 10-inch Voodoo doll named Vince, it appears
sanity had little to do with it. One might say that talent behind the game is
certifiable. But certifiable what? Genius or nut-case? The jury is still out on
that one.

For the uninitiated, Voodoo Vince is an Xbox adventure game that
combines a few arcade effects, but a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor. It follows
the adventures of a 10-inch Voodoo doll brought to life by magical dust stolen
by the henchmen of the evil and dastardly Kosmo. Seems that when they were
pilfering the dust, they were caught by the curator of the charms shop, Madame
Charmaine.

The game is from Microsoft Game Studios and Beep Entertainment
and is a fun-filled romp through Bayou country, beginning in New Orleans.
Featuring an amazing three-dimensional look, dynamic musical score and a whole
lotta fun, Vince seems bent on making even the most serious gamers crack a
smile.

Hmm … bent? Now that is an appropriate word. Twisted would be
another. Entertaining would underscore them both.

(For a full review of the game, please see


http://xbox.gamezone.com/gzreviews/r22107.htm)

Clayton Kauzlaric, lead designer on Voodoo Vince, had his
medication reduced enough to be coherent, and talk with GameZone about the
project.

Question: So how DID it come about that a 10-inch third-rate
voodoo doll was asked to save the world? What was the inspiration for this
title?

CK: I think a mixture of things collided to create Vince.
Ideas always seem to spring from a combination of things which have been
percolating for years, and a handful of "AHA!" things which just jump out of
nowhere. For the setting, it’s appropriate that the game industry brought me in
touch with New Orleans for the first time. It was a SIGGRAPH some years back. I
remember thinking then how amazing that place is visually. It has just the right
amount of charm, danger and stench to make a terrific setting. For Vince
himself, you can thank the therapeutic magic of making random drawings in a
notepad. I was doing my second-most favorite thing: wallowing in self pity.
Thanks to some workplace strangeness at my previous job, I felt like I had just
"taken one for the team." Anyway, I ended up drawing an ugly little picture of a
doll with pins in his head. After looking him over I wrote: Vince The Voodoo
Doll – A game where getting hurt = good. That’s about it. Three years later,
it’s getting churned out in a factory somewhere as I write this. Go figure.

Q: Voodoo Vince is very cleverly written. Tongue has been
placed firmly in cheek, there are quick glances at the camera as if to say "do
you believe this," a host of little asides – all of which make up a delight
experience. What goes into scripting a game like this? How do you determine what
works and what doesn’t from a comedic standpoint? And now that the game is more
or less in the bag, have you re-institutionalized the writing team?

CK: Thanks! The writing team consisted of me, but we’re
all under heavy sedation and medication once again.

Here’s something amazing I learned about writing on Voodoo
Vince: The first thing a good script needs is a lot of writing. I started
writing the script immediately after I finished the first complete draft of the
design doc. I knew where Vince had to go, and roughly who he would meet along
the way. The sequence of events in the game design served as an outline, so I
just fleshed it out with a lot of words – mostly verbs, adjectives and nouns. I
completed the first draft over the course of about eight months.

As far as what works comedy-wise and what doesn’t… If a joke or
plot twist got a laugh in a meeting, I figured I was on the right track. After I
finished the first draft of the script I got plenty of feedback as revisions got
underway. There were a number of people at Beep and at Microsoft who reviewed
the script. On our side, it was usually our producer, Barb Hanna, our art
director Gary Hanna and anyone else who wanted to take a gander. Most of the
feedback from Microsoft came from Eric Nylund, a great writer in his own right,
who gave me some great pointers and pointed out my atrocious grammatical
mistakes.

Whether a joke worked was partly a gut feeling, partly
consensus. Sometimes, there were scenes which just didn’t work. The jokes fell
flat, or I just couldn’t get the interaction between character right. This
situation usually resulted in a lunch with our art director Gary and a small
group from the art crew. And beer. For some reason, we became more brilliant and
funny when we had beer. Two of my favorite parts of the story were the result of
these lunch meetings: the Dolly character from Brusque manor and her bizarre
transformation, and the sequence of events leading to the boss battle in
Roachfort, where Professor Ethel does some, um… mean things to Vince.

Dave Grossman (of Monkey Island fame) also deserves a nod. He
did an edit pass shortly after I completed the first draft. He improved some
lines and added some good ones of his own. Dave also emphasized some key plot
points which I would neglect for pages on end, so the story would feel more
cohesive. He was great to work with, and talented to boot.

Our storyboards and animation went a long way toward making all
the narrative elements come together. Doug Williams did a great job charting out
the visual flow of the scenes. The animators, Scott, Becky, Trevor, Rebecca and
Mary Ann all did a superb job with some truly fine character animation. Everyone
kept adding those little flourishes and details which make a scene come alive.

Q: This game has an excellent graphical look. Even having
Vince run back and forth in front of a mirror (you know it had to be done) keeps
real-world physics in line with the fantasy world you have created. What game
engine allowed you to do this? How important was it to have a world with depth,
both graphically and in the audio department, rather than go with a quick
rendering arcade world with pop-up spawns?

CK: Depth is the right word. We wanted a world which was
richly detailed and heavily textured – both for the eyes and ears. We built the
engine from scratch. It’s unofficially known as the Swamp Engine. This was the
work of some very big-brained programmers headed up by our director of
technology, Matt Setzer. Since we can get away with it on the Xbox, we made sure
the engine would support plenty of visual frosting. Matt and his crew really
piled on capabilities for nice rendering effects, more particles than you can
shake a sparkly stick at and a terrific set of tools. Having Vince prance around
in front of a few mirrors was just our way of showing off. I think the Xbox gets
a pretty good workout with Voodoo Vince

Besides the engine, we had artists who really knew what to do
with it. Gary and his team set out to build a world with of fanciful, fantastic
shapes, yet believable textures. The idea was to create a world where you might
want to hang out, if you weren’t busy killing monsters. They put all that
technology to work, and combined it with some phenomenal artwork.

Q: The music is this game kicks. It is totally in line with
the mood and theme. Who is responsible for that portion of the game?

CK: Glad you noticed. I’m really proud of the music. If
nothing else, Voodoo Vince sounds like no other game. Since the game is set in
New Orleans, the tunes couldn’t just sound like more cookie cutter,
quasi-industrial rave wannabe crap so favored by many games these days. It had
to have real musicians, and it had to combine jazz, classical and various pop
influences seamlessly – with jazz as the common thread throughout.

I made a short list of composers and styles I liked. I found the
perfect person after a short while on Google. Our score is by an incredibly
talented guy named Steve Kirk. He wrote over three hours of original music and
hired some truly gifted musicians to play it for him. Steve is also a phenomenal
guitarist. He plays on virtually every track. Steve also mixed our soundtracks
and did some key sound design work on the rest of the game, which is why
everything works together so beautifully. There is actually a soundtrack CD
being released through Microsoft and Sumthing records.

Q: While on the subject of the audio track – you have a nice
blend of over-the-top vocal characterizations and understated voice acting that
blend so well together. When you put together audio tracks like this, how much
of the mood is set by the voice actions interpretations and how much is
determined by the producer of the game?

CK: Well, you need to contrast the sarcasm and wacky bits
with something pretty straight for the humor to work. I gave the voice actors a
lot of feedback in the studio. Some needed a lot of direction to get what I
wanted. I think I spent the most time with David White (Kosmo) and Ken Boynton
(Vince). Others just walked in an nailed it. Cynthia Jones, who did the part of
Madam Charmaine pretty much was the character. I started yapping about
how I saw the character, she just listened politely, then redefined her. What’s
amazing is that the actors never met, or did their dialogue together – Cynthia
did half of her sessions via satellite remote since she was out with a touring
theater production for about a year. But everything hangs together really well
in the finished product.

Q: Voodoo Vince is has some very linear elements to it. What
do you think will add to its replay value?

CK: Since storytelling was a big part of the experience,
we ended up going with a pretty stock A to Z approach to how things unfold. But
I know lots of people just want to blaze through a game and maybe pick up the
last items and collectibles later. In Voodoo Vince, players can always hop a
trolley and go back and forth between any place they’ve already been.

There are some things that might entertain gamers after
they’ve crushed the final boss. I think some of the mini-games are well worth
another spin. At Beep we had a lot of competitions to see who could get the best
time in the fanboat race, or clear a level the fastest. After a level is
complete, it goes into a chapter book with all the puzzles and monster reset, so
players can try different strategies on their favorite levels or just show them
off to a friend.

Q: Were there any aspects of this game that drew the most
attention, either because it was the most difficult aspect or because special
care had to be taken to affect the right mood?

CK: I guess the voodoo powers have to take that prize. It
was always the calling card, or the game’s "distinguishing feature," to use a
marketing term. Saying it’s "a game where getting hurt = good" is one thing.
Making it fun is another. We tried two other combat systems before settling on
the final incarnation. At first, Vince did nothing but wail on himself. He could
pick up a mallet and run around smacking his head to kill monsters. Guess what?
That’s not as fun as it sounds. It lacked that essential contact between Vince
and his opponents. Plus you’d start feeling sorry for him after about ten
minutes. We eventually went for a balance between traditional combat and the
"smart bomb" approach to the voodoo powers. I also decided that using the
environment to focus even more damage on monsters would be the cornerstone to
any boss, or mini-boss confrontation. That kept a nice mix of gameplay styles
throughout the course of the game – it also makes the player "think voodoo" now
and then.

Getting the humor of the voodoo powers just right was another
interesting balancing act. I was careful to keep them as exaggerated and
outlandish as possible. I really tried to avoid using guns or everyday household
objects on Vince. I wanted to keep things in a tone similar to a classic Bugs
Bunny or Tex Avery cartoon. This style means we had to make countless animations
and sounds for Vince and the monsters in order to account for every way he/they
get destroyed via the voodoo powers.

Q: What do you consider are the essential ingredients in
making this title work?

CK: A great team. A fun idea. A publisher who supported
us, and let us make the game we wanted to make. Focus. We always knew what we
wanted to build and didn’t lose sight of that. Last, I think a little humor goes
a long way in this world. I’m amazed at how much people are responding to that.