By Marty Mulrooney
The Adventures of Nick & Willikins is a FREE point-and-click adventure game recently released by Pinhead Games (Nick Bounty). Following a fruitful chat with Pinhead Games founder and all-round nice guy Mark Darin (Telltale Games), Alternative Magazine Online is delighted to present an exclusive online interview with the project’s Lead Writer and Puzzle Designer, Ron Watt (pictured above), and its Programmer and Content Designer, Dave Scotch (who prefers to keep his face off the internet)!
Hi, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online! Can you tell AMO’s readers a little bit about yourselves please?
Ron: My name is Ron “AAlgar” Watt – I actually prefer “AAlgar”, which is a nickname I’ve had since high school. I’m 43 years old, I live in the Seattle metro area and I’ve been regularly producing comedy (podcasts, YouTube videos, live performances and now, an adventure game) here for about ten years.
Dave: My name is David Scotch. I’ve loved adventure games for ever and loved what Pinhead Games was doing. When they made a recent decision to get back into the game, I was able to give them a way to reach new audiences by being able to build their games in Unity instead of the Flash-based engine they built back in the early 2000s.
The adventures of Nick & Willikins, a comedic point-and-click adventure game, was recently released – for free! – on PC. What’s the game all about?
Ron: The Adventures of Nick and Willikins is ostensibly a murder mystery, but really it’s an excuse to explore the world of Nick and Willikins, which is a sort of off-kilter imagining of what we (an American and a Canadian) imagine England must be like.
Ron, the Nick & Willikins characters are part of your long-running podcast ‘Sarcastic Voyage’ which is described as ‘an interconnected world of comedy sketches, serials and radio plays’ on the official website. Where did the idea for these characters originally come from?
Ron: The original idea for Nick and Willikins came as a sort of extended riff session between me and co-creator Matt Rowbotham. Matt is one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever met, and our abilities compliment one another extremely well. My writing style tends to be logical, analytical and a bit wordy. Matt writes straight from the gut. His stuff is raw, powerful and not entirely unlike some kind of beautiful fever dream at its absolute best. I think our two approaches fit together quite well, and we’ve been regularly collaborating since 2007. (To put it in British terms, I’ve always felt like Matt is the Robert Webb to my David Mitchell.)
Matt and I often do silly voices around each other, like a lot of friends probably do, but maybe a little more since we also fancy ourselves comedy writers and that sort of playing around is an excellent way of generating new material. We’d started doing these dumb British accents – a rich, entitled little twerp and his long-suffering man-servant. That original genesis came during an extended weekend with friends, and those friends got tired of hearing those voices long before we got tired of doing them. (When Matt and I really get our teeth into an idea, it can be a really long time before we let it go.) To spare our friends further torment, we decided to take the act to our then-new podcast, Sarcastic Voyage, where it turned into a weekly series of serialized adventures that also gave me an excuse to test my burgeoning audio engineering skills.
In those early days, Matt and I would switch off performing the voices of Nick and Willikins – whoever wrote that particular instalment got to play Nick. Eventually we realized that he was much better suited to the high-energy antics of Nick, and that I, with my rather limited vocal range, would be more comfortable playing the grumbly and sarcastic one. Our listeners weren’t entirely on board with the idea at first to be honest, but over time, it became one of the most popular segments on our show. We were both certain that the idea had a pretty short shelf life, and I try very hard not to be the sort of comedy writer who refuses to let go of an idea that’s obviously run out of steam. So we promised each other that we’d only do more Nick and Willikins adventures if we had a good enough idea to work with… but as of this writing, that still equates to over six hours of recorded material (not to mention this game, which features many additional hours of dialogue). Every time I think we’re done with these characters, I get stricken with some new angle we hadn’t covered before – one entire “series” of the Nick and Willikins serial was my reaction to Downton Abbey (for my money, the finest comedy England has ever produced), for instance. And our most recent radio play, just before we started developing this game, was a love letter to the old Carry On films.
Was there ever any concern that British people would be a bit offended? I’m British and I’m finding it hilarious so far!
Dave: Gosh, I hope so! LOL
Ron: Nick and Willikins have always, from day one, come from a place of pure love and admiration for British culture. Matt and I both grew up on Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Danger Mouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett… I could literally go on all day with this list. We’re both serious Anglophiles, is what I’m trying to say – which is not particularly uncommon in the nerd subculture. We’ve never seriously considered that we might offend any British people with this game, or with any other iteration of these characters. This is for two important reasons. First, one thing I’ve definitely gleaned from the aforementioned content is that the British have an extremely good sense of humor (or humour, I suppose) about themselves.
Second, if I may get a little more serious for a moment… I have become legitimately concerned in recent years about not being “part of the problem” when it comes to cultural insensitivity and/or cultural appropriation. As straight white dudes, it’s easy for us to be blind to our own privilege when we’re making jokes about how funny those people in that other place are (which, right or wrong, is a rich comedic tradition). If I’m going to make jokes like that, I think they should be about the colonial oppressors (fellow white people), rather than the colonially oppressed (typically not-white people). Good comedy punches up, not down, the prevailing wisdom says. Sorry to get so heavy with this answer, but this is something that I’ve really challenged myself to think about more in the last few years and it’s never very far from my mind.
Beyond all of that, though, I think we make a lot more jokes about our own ignorance of British culture than we do at the expense of British culture itself. Sometimes we say “beans on toast is kind of a strange thing to have for breakfast” or “they call it a garden instead of a yard – isn’t that odd?” But my favourite jokes tend to be things like when we have a character say “Great Britain, the UK and England are definitely all exactly the same thing and are completely interchangeable terms,” which just completely hangs a lantern on our stupidity.
We really don’t judge. We mock out of love, and we have nothing but respect for British culture.
Marmite is objectively disgusting, though. For the record. If you ignore literally everything else I’ve written here, please print that.
Agreed! So, how did these characters end up making the transition from the digital airwaves to a full-blown adventure game?
Ron: About a year ago, I was toying with visual representations of the characters, using a 3D modelling program (Poser) with which I have a passing familiarity. I’d begun making short comics, as well as some promotional images for the podcast. One day, pretty much just as a joke, I threw together a sort of “what if there was a Nick and Willikins adventure game?” image in the style of a peak LucasArts game like Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island 2, and posted it to Facebook.
I guess this idea stuck in Dave’s head because, not long after that, he approached me to see if I was actually interested in collaborating on such a project. This was in no way a serious idea when I made the image, but it was too good an offer to turn down!
What engine is the game built with?
Dave: Unity! Early versions of the game were being built with the AGS engine, but ultimately we moved to Unity for its versatility both in development and distribution.
How long did the game take to develop?
Dave: A solid 10 months of development… which is actually pretty fast! But we had a solid production plan from the start and were able to stick to it with only minor setbacks along the way.
Were the voices recorded before or after the main game was created?
Dave: Mostly after. But Ron did some early recording for Willikins as we went along, mostly because it helped keep momentum in development. It’s exciting to see the characters finally come to life with their voices!
Is it true that all of the voice actors worked for free?
Dave: They wouldn’t be called the “Unpaid Voice Actors” if they didn’t! 😛
Ron: The voice actors did work for nothing. However, pretty much the entire creative team on this project worked for nothing, as it was more of a not-for-profit passion project. We did pay the amazing visual artists who contributed – Fred Stresing and Meg Casey, who did all of our backgrounds, the inventory and some assorted UI elements; Vishal Bharadwaj, who did additional UI elements and the title screen; Gregory Dickens, who did one of the more complex inventory items – because that work was a bit more labor-intensive. But all of those artists are personal friends and they knew we didn’t have much of a budget to work with, so they all gave us extremely generous deals on their rates. I am seriously indebted to them all for not seriously indebting me to creditors to get this thing finished.
I would actually like to call special attention to the absolutely breathtaking artwork that Fred and Meg (a married couple who both have very successful full-time careers in the mainstream comics industry) gave us. I’ve heard a lot of extremely kind words about the writing and voice acting in this game, but so much of that is propped up by the amazing world that those two created from our words. So many of the little background gags – the paintings on the wall, all the extremely British items in the refrigerator and countless small touches in literally every location in the game – came from the artists. We may have created this environment on paper, but they really made it feel like a real place in a way that our voice performances alone never could. Dave and I often remarked to one another, only slightly jokingly, that we really needed to step up our efforts so they wouldn’t look bad next to that artwork.
The performers we used on this project belong to a troupe that I’ve been curating for years – most of them are part of the local (Seattle) comedy scene in some capacity, and a couple of them work remotely. We call them the Sarcastic Voyage Unpaid Voice Acting Players, mostly as a sort of self-aware joke. But I want more than anything to one day be in a position to pay them. I consider every one of them to be as talented as any professionally-working voice actor. (And, in fact, several of the Players actually have gotten paid acting work before, in projects much more high-profile than this one.)
Recording for the voice actors happened in a few short sessions of probably an hour each. The way we developed this game was, I think, a little unconventional – Dave basically made each new test build as complete as possible, using all of the resources we had available on-hand at that time. So even when we were at about the halfway mark, we already had some of those gorgeous backgrounds completely in place and certain characters fully voiced. I don’t have a lot of experience with projects on this long of a timeline (it took us about 10 months from start to finish) so this was Dave’s way of keeping me engaged as we went. And it totally worked!
Are you both fans of the adventure genre?
Dave: Oh yes! From all the way back to the original Maniac Mansion! I’ve always been a sucker for story based games.
Ron: I am an extremely big fan of the adventure game genre – when I was growing up, I played every Infocom and Sierra game I could get my hands on, which was basically all of them. LucasArts (originally LucasFilm) jumping into the fray was a huge cultural milestone for me. But I did wander away from adventure gaming around the same time most everyone else did, in the mid-to-late 90s. I’m aware that they’re still being made, and I do occasionally poke at the latest Telltale game or a throwback like last year’s Thimbleweed Park, but I honestly don’t have the time I used to have to invest in that experience. I’m too busy making things! I did try to familiarize myself with the current state of the art when we began this project – mostly so we wouldn’t just be making another LucasArts throwback/homage – but that was a quick crash course and I’m not confident that we completely avoided doing that. On the other hand, I’m extremely happy with what we did end up making, so I can forgive myself for that, I suppose.
How long on average will the game take to complete?
Dave: Our average playtest completion time was between 3-4 hours.
What’s next for you both?
Dave: Pinhead Games has more games in the works, but nothing that can be announced just yet.
Ron: I’m a guy who likes to stay busy. Matt and I have been co-hosting a comedic Star Trek review podcast, The Post Atomic Horror, since 2010, and in September of this year we will have reviewed every episode of Star Trek ever produced. We’re throwing a huge party/live show here in Seattle in June, when we finally start reviewing the most recent series (Discovery) and close in on that final target.
One of my big goals this year is to do more live performing. A number of the Unpaid Voice Acting Players (all successful local sketch comedians in their own right) will be collaborating with me on live performances of our radio plays and serials, much in the style of the recently-defunct Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast. I’m very excited to get that off the ground in the next few months.
And I believe I may have some further involvement with Pinhead Games – Dave has approached me to do some script punch-up for one of his upcoming comedy projects. I also have another pitch or two in my back pocket, should our schedules ever line up again. But even if they don’t, this was easily the most rewarding project I have ever worked on and I could not be prouder of the results.
Thank you for your time and congratulations on the successful launch of The Adventures of Nick & Willikins!