PAX 2010: Poker Night at the Inventory
- September 06, 2010 16:00 PM PT
"So what happens when video game characters aren't, you know, video gaming?" It's an inquiry posed more often by the fans of such games than the developers responsible for making them, and while opinions concerning what gaming icons get up to in their down time may wildly vary, a relaxing banter-based game of cards is certainly one of the more plausible suggestions.
Telltale's newly announced Poker Night at the Inventory looks to explore such a scenario, posing a friendly, dialogue-driven game of no-limit Texas Hold'em between such recognizable faces as boxing-gloved braggart Strong Bad (Homestar Runner, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People), sardonic wordsmith Tycho Brahe (Penny Arcade, Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness), the sandvich-obsessed hulking Heavy (Valve's Team Fortress 2), hyper-kinetic freelance policeman Max (Sam & Max Hit the Road, Telltale's episodic Sam & Max seasons), and, well, you -- the player, and silent observer to this spread of mixed-media madness.
"It's an excuse for us to get a bunch of characters from the industry together and let them interact as themselves in kind of a 'behind the scenes', 'back room' environment," explains Sean Vanaman, writer and designer at Telltale Games. "It's a poker game, but it's a dialogue-centric, character interaction-based poker game."
No game-changing power-ups, no crossover brawling, no ridiculous or unnecessary gimmicks -- just four friendly faces, one stylish speakeasy, a ton of dialogue, and a deck of cards. Everyone starts with $10,000, with the last man standing earning the ultimate prize: bragging rights over a spread of video game vets.
"Our CEO, Dan Connors, pitched this game idea to us, and then we went out and pitched it to the four license holders," adds Jake Rodkin, graphic designer and community coordinator at Telltale. "We contacted these creative people that we all really respect, and fortunately they like us back. But now the onus is on us to not ruin four other people's very personal creations."
"We're fans of all these franchises," notes Vanaman, citing the difficulties inherent to breathing life into such established characters. "We ran into Valve's Robin Walker here at PAX, and we were like 'Robin! Oh man, we won't mess it up!' He's really excited, but it's daunting -- when I'm sitting there writing dialogue for the Heavy, I have hundreds upon hundreds of chances to sell this character out, if I take it the amount of in-game dialogue into consideration."
"There's more speech among these four characters than the entire cast of a typical Sam & Max episode," explains Rodkin. "But all of the characters' creators have taken a pass at the script and signed off on things every step of the way."
While Poker Night's extensive script was written in-house at Telltale, the designers are quick to note the brand of back-and-forth required with the creators of the game's cast.
"It's all about trust -- there's a lot of trust," explains Vanaman about the game's production process. "The most hands-on the license holders have gotten, though, has been two very different experiences. One is Matt Chapman, who's the voice and co-creator of Strong Bad, and with him, you write the script -- and we knew this working with him on Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People -- you write the script, and then he goes into the studio and becomes Strong Bad, and it comes out different... but still the same."
"Funnier, maybe," quips Rodkin.
"Funnier, and you learn words," says Vanaman. "I didn't know that 'ample hind-bosom' was a funny thing to say, but it is, and Strong Bad knows it's a funny thing to say."
"And working with Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, we just really hit it off," he continues. "We just talked a lot about who Tycho is and what he's about. I've been an enthusiast of the Penny Arcade web-comic for a long time, so we had really good conversations about 'Tycho is this, but not that'. So I finish the script, I send all the Tycho stuff to Jerry, and three days later, he sends me back edits -- and it would all really be just tweaks, like 'This word is really something more that Tycho would say,' or he might kind of spin the conversation in a different direction."
"Sometimes you'll write a character as the butt of a joke, but then the creator goes, 'Well, maybe my character was the one making the joke at someone else's expense!'" notes Rodkin. "Like, 'What if instead of Tycho getting picked on by the Heavy, Tycho outsmarts him?'"
Telltale hopes to dynamically build on such inter-character relationships by exploring opportunities for interaction that wouldn't be readily available considering the cast's range of mixed-media backgrounds. One of Poker Night's key challenges, however, is making sure that said relationships don't come across obvious or forced.
"It's easy to make the Heavy just say, 'I will murder!' at every turn, and for Tycho to freak out," explains Vanaman.
Rodkin continues, "Right, but then we have Tycho threaten to mail-order in the Heavy's sister as his wife."
"It was important to build those dynamics to make them feel natural," notes Vanaman. "Strong Bad and Tycho, for instance, hate each other -- I don't think they ever agree -- but Tycho and Max get along really well, where the Heavy is wary of Tycho, loves Max, and thinks Strongbad is a tiny Heavy."
Telltale hopes to make such dynamics believable and entertaining, but also authentic: Strong Bad, the Heavy, and Max will all be voiced by their original actors, with Tycho's debut speaking role coming courtesy of Bay Area beatboxer, vocalist, and Telltale VA vet Andrew "Kid Beyond" Chaikin.
"We want to develop this place, The Inventory, as just a cool hang-out spot for video game characters to go," says Vanaman . "We're hoping that 'At the Inventory' will start to mean something if the space is cool and the game is good."
Poker Night at the Inventory is set for a Fall 2010 release on the official Telltale site, Valve's Steam service, and on Penny Arcade's Greenhouse for $4.99.