When you first approached DreamWorks with your idea to create a handmade claymation game, did you get some strange looks?
Initially, as a matter of fact, yes. I just went in and started telling them the story: This is a story about a clay man in a clay world, and you start off just as ignorant as he is in the beginning. At first they said "Wait a minute, all clay?" We ended up kind of losing ourselves in the word clay, and the medium of it, we surrounded ourselves with it. I came home everyday with clay under my fingernails, and it felt funny if I didn't work with it every day. I'd never been so intimate with a medium, and I tried to express that to DreamWorks.
What do you think persuaded them to give you the chance to do this title?
We were able to express our passion, and to give a valid argument that every other game out there is a 3-D rip-off, or they're all like Doom or Myst or whatever, and at least from a visual standpoint, this game would look like no other. It took maybe one meeting to sell them on that idea, to convince them to take that risk.
How long did The Neverhood take to create?
A year. That was the weirdest thing about it: it was one year; we'd never done a PC game before; we'd never done a puzzle game before; it was tough animation, and we had this team that had never worked together before. We built a company, we built an engine, we built a brand-new technique... we built a game in one year. We budgeted our time. It was a really hard year. Personal tragedies galore. It took its toll on the families, and the clear message we got at the end of the game was "We're not going to do that again."
I've heard that you used three tons of clay to make The Neverhood. Do you plan to use any of it in another game?
Our next game is not going to be clay animation. Our third game might be - we have a three-game deal with DreamWorks. We're working towards our second, we just got it approved by the big boys. We were going to do our first game in the most aggressive design we could think of - stylistically and gameplay-wise, and we pitched it. And they went for it. If they hadn't, we wouldn't be here today. Come and see the sets, or what's left. We've been tearing them down, actually, and throwing a lot of it away. We had to throw more than half of it away halfway through the project 'cause there was no room. The remaining sections are right in here.
[TenNapel leads us through a door and into a huge workspace containing several wooden sets, each over twelve feet across, filled with clay and surrounded by scaffolding.]
This is the Second World. All of us being artists, we all knew how to swing a hammer. We've all done carpentry to make it, so when the design for this came up we drew up the blueprints and came up with a technique - this is how we avoided doing the million-dollar motion-control camera, and instead did the thirty-two-dollar motion-control camera - taking these 2-bys of particle board that were routered out, on a groove running through the sets. The camera drops down onto these 2-bys, and there's two pegs which fit the camera down into the slot. We just move it along through the sets on this slot-rail system. We call it the Amish Motion Animation System, because the Amish have very primitive tools also. We move the camera along these little notches which show where the camera has to be for each frame of animation. The result is that, in the cinematic sequences, you're walking through this world. We could do it on a budget. We had a bunch of gangs from LA that started welding to get jobs and try to work their way out of the city, and we had them come in and build us this light rack, by our specifications.
And how many hands did it take to create this clay world?
I would say between eight and twelve. We had contractors that came in, like the wood specialist who actually built the wood frame, and we assisted them. At any given time, there were probably five people working here at one time. We'd even have programmers come in and apply clay.
Can you tell us about the technical design process?
Design and scheduling problems have affected the design of the world from the first day. On our workstations, the camera is normally plugged right in and the image dumps straight on the SCSI cables into the Mac - there's no film involved with our shooting. The camera captures digital images, drops them right into the computer. They're megs and megs each, these huge PICT files, and then we convert the PICT files using DeBabelizer; we crunch 'em down to JPEGs, and make movies out of 'em. Most of the design is PC; the initial process of capturing the frame is done on the Mac, and then we get it to the PC as soon as possible so we have a little more firepower in handling the files.
How many frames of animation were used in the game?
Over 50,000 original frames of animation.
How did the concept for The Neverhood come to be? Did you create the Klayman character before you developed the game's cosmology?
The cosmology actually came before Klayman. Klayman was just a character that embodied the long history of the stories that I've written since 1988. I've been building little clay sets and clay worlds, but there was no medium to express them. When the interactive opportunity came up, we pitched it, and had to come up with a character that kind of expressed the innocence and naivete, yet had a history himself. Most of my characters I design in about five minutes
Really? Like Earthworm Jim?
Yep, like Earthworm Jim. Well... more like 'five minutes and twenty years.' They kind of snowball into the future, and I build off my previous things, to inspire myself in different directions.
You can play The Neverhood without needing to know the back story, or you can explore the 'Hall of Records' which has over thirty screens of handwritten lore. Did you purposely segment the two approaches?
Absolutely. You don't have to read the entire Hall of Records to finish the game. For those people who have finished the game, or who really want to submerge themselves, all of the explanations are in the Hall, and actually, it's thirty-two rooms wide. I hope there's a lot of payoff there, you know? There's humor, there are epics - a lot of my journalings are on those walls. This world represents one of seven worlds. All the others aren't necessarily made out of clay.
So, might we see future games set in other worlds and part of the same cosmology?
Possibly. We're talking about spin-offs that document the Skull Monkey/Ynt Wars.
Now that you've created a game using clay, do you think you might do a game using another radical medium? Today clay, tomorrow Rice Krispies?
We'll almost certainly never do clay again. We're going to continue to do very aggressive mediums. Our next game, even though it's done with 2-D animation, is very different looking. Votive is our working title for it. All I can say at this point is that it's very different from anything else we've done before. It's not part of this cosmology. It's a different world, different characters, different gameplay. Our third game, we've been talking about going back to puppet animation, but it won't be clay. Like you said, Rice Krispies or something. We don't want to repeat ourselves.
Finally, is there anybody you'd like to mention by name who said you were out of your mind when you started this project?
Ahh, let's just say... 'previous employers.' We've brought very aggressive designs to them and, well... this, The Neverhood, is what happens when you just let the creative people be creative. We would have done this for previous employers, had they let us. They didn't, so we created our own company to do it. And I urge other creative people: If you want to do something and your boss won't let you, start your own company - then you're the boss.