INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Stephen Barlow (Kelvin and the Infamous Machine)

By Marty Mulrooney

Kelvin and the Infamous Machine - Stephen Barlow Interview

Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed comedy point-and-click adventure game Kelvin and the Infamous Machine, describing it as “a genuinely funny, often hilarious traditional 2D point-and-click adventure game that looks and sounds great.” It’s undeniable that a huge part of the game’s success is due to its strong writing and voice acting. AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Stephen Barlow, the game’s writer and the voice of Kelvin!

Hi Stephen, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online!

Thanks for having me! And thanks even more for playing our game 😀

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?

I’m your standard thirty-something tech person out in San Francisco, with the requisite assortment of creative projects on the side. Chief among those projects are comedy writing and voice-over, which happened to converge beautifully with this project. I’ve done freelance work in both capacities in the past, submitting headlines to the Onion for a couple of years, and booking miscellaneous VO jobs here in the Bay Area. Mostly I like to help make cool stuff.

Kelvin and the Infamous Machine Banner

AMO recently reviewed Kelvin and Infamous Machine, describing it as “a genuinely funny, often hilarious traditional 2D point-and-click adventure game that looks and sounds great.” I really liked it! How did you become involved with writing the project?

Well shucks, thank you! I was referred to the folks at Blyts by a friend (Ste Curran of One Life Left) who was providing freelance consulting for Infamous Machine. From my understanding, the game had no dialogue initially, instead using imagery in speech bubbles to indicate character intent (kind of like Machinarium). While these images had the same delightful charm as the rest of Infamous Machine’s storybook look, Ste suggested that the opportunity for humor would be even higher with full-fledged comedic conversations. He put us in touch, and we ran from there.

What was it like working with Blyts?

Awesome, easy, and probably a little different from the typical process. Leandro (the lead developer on the project) would send me development builds of the game on a regular basis, each featuring newly created environments and characters (drawn by the game’s amazing artist, Hernan Castares). Based on the appearance of each character and their role in the puzzle flow, I’d write out conversation options and send them back for review. A joke would get nixed here and there until everything felt right. Everyone on the project was exceptionally open to feedback, which really helped us make the best game possible.

Oh, and considering Blyts let me cast and direct the voice-over despite my zero previous credits in that capacity, I can’t speak highly enough of their trust in me! 😀

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How do you feel now the game is out there, being enjoyed by gamers around the world?

I’ve been helping out with this project for so long, it feels surreal that it’s done. I’ve been watching loads of Let’s Play videos on YouTube and delighting in the variety of jokes that resonate with various players the most. Also, fun fact: the majority of the Let’s Play videos so far are by German channels. Seems like point-and-clicks are particularly popular in Germany!

Have you read any feedback or do you try to avoid it?

I consume anything and everything I can find about the game. I know that’s dangerous, and can prove demoralizing if someone is particularly critical of your work, but this whole experience is too novel for me not to soak up everything I can. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of what I’ve seen has been really positive! So really it’s been a bunch of warm fuzzies.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process?

As I mentioned, I’d receive new builds from Leandro and start fleshing out the dialogue options largely on a character-by-character basis. My chief goals were:

  • Give each character a distinct personality that was reflected purely in the writing. The game originally wasn’t going to have voice acting (just text), so I wanted as much character to come through in that text as possible. Most of the lines are punctuated in such a way as to indicate pauses and other speaking idiosyncrasies. This punctuation proved very valuable to the cast when Blyts did decide to add voice acting later.
  • Make as much of the humour as localisable as possible. I knew from the start that the game was going to be translated into multiple languages. Consequently, I made a conscious effort to (mostly) avoid wordplay, including rhymes and puns, because it never translates. I also tried to limit obscure pop culture references, and make the ones I did use amusing even if you didn’t get the reference.

As for what all of that actually looks like most of the time? Staring at the wall until I think of a joke that makes me chuckle, then writing it down and repeating that process for as long as I can take it. Also making extensive use of thesaurus.com to help ensure I’m incorporating an interesting variety of words.

Were you already a fan of point-and-click adventure games?

For sure! Let’s see, which ones did I play growing up… Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Fate of Atlantis, Torin’s Passage, Curse of Monkey Island, LOOM, Space Quest 6, Blade Runner… yeah okay I’ll stop there. My signed Broken Age backer poster is hanging above my dresser!

I intentionally didn’t play any point-and-clicks while working on Infamous Machine. I wanted to reduce the likelihood that I stole jokes from an existing game, whether consciously or subconsciously.

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What, in your opinion, makes good comedy?

Oh man, I could go on about this for ages, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind immediately:

  • A joke should be consistent with the behavior of the characters that participate in it. Jokes typically have to be believable before they can be funny.
  • Word choice and word order are the difference between a decent joke and an incredible one.
  • Comedy should strive to punch up, never down. Jokes at the expense of the marginalized are cheap, lazy, and cruel.
  • Pop culture references and fourth-wall jokes aren’t cruel, but they can be cheap and lazy. People love a smattering of these, but if you overdo it, your game doesn’t ever achieve a voice of its own.

You also voiced Kelvin! How did you get the part?

I did! I’m represented by the same talent agency that we used to cast the rest of the actors. I auditioned for Kelvin in exactly the same way that every other actor did. For this particular role, however, I didn’t make a casting recommendation to Blyts. Instead, we asked the Kickstarter backers to vote. Blyts picked their three favorite Kelvins and created a video that (anonymously) demonstrated the three options in the same bit of gameplay footage. Backers chose their favorite, and I happened to win.

I didn’t want to be a voice in the game unless it was beneficial to the game. Lucky for me it was!

How did the recording process work?

We recorded all of the dialogue at Somatone Interactive, a production studio for game audio here in the Bay Area. I took a couple of weeks off work and directed all of the other actors, who dropped by for an hour or two apiece. I think a BIG part of what made the voice-over successful in this game is that I was there to read Kelvin’s part to each actor as they performed their lines. Most of the time, voice actors don’t get to hear their scene partner, which makes sounding believable so much harder.

Most days I’d also record a couple of hours of Kelvin lines while I was there. Mike Winters, the audio engineer on the project, directed me.

How would you describe Kelvin as a character?

Kelvin, like many point-and-click heroes, is a “clever fool.” That personality is dictated largely by the nature of the puzzles. If your character is stupid enough to put a live cobra in his backpack, but clever enough to trick somebody into paying him for free parking, both of those qualities need to come through in his behavior. This is tremendously helpful, because it means Kelvin can play either the “straight man” or the “funny man” in a conversation, depending on who he’s talking to.

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What’s your favourite part of the game?

Probably Kelvin’s conversations with Lise, partly because I suggested we add them. 🙂 It felt like the game needed some sort of “checkpoint” event that let you know you’d made a significant amount of additional progress in the chapter. Plus, there aren’t many female characters in the game, so Lise’s presence provides some needed gender balance. I also love the dynamic between the two characters.

If you had your own time machine and could visit one historical figure, who would you choose and why?

Hmm… Edgar Allan Poe? Entire genres of literature owe at least part of their existence to him. Might be tough to catch him in a good mood though!

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Would you like to see a sequel to Kelvin and the Infamous Machine? I think the premise of fixing history gone wrong has a lot of potential!

Sure! The chapter-based structure of the game, combined with a near-endless list of great historic figures, definitely lends itself to more adventures. Two things I’d love to see in a sequel:

  • Each chapter takes place in a time period after the chapter before it (this game had Kelvin traveling further and further into the past). This would allow little things that Kelvin does in one chapter to show up in fun little references later on.
  • A more diverse assortment of geniuses.

What’s next for you Stephen?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure! This project was a wonderful ride, and I’d love to do more work like it in the future. Nothing specific on the docket quite yet. 🙂

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Thank you for your time! I really enjoyed playing and reviewing Kelvin and the Infamous Machine and I’ll look forward to your future projects.

Thanks so much, Marty!

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