PAX WEST 2022: ‘High on Life’ and Learning Game Development with Justin Roiland

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High on Life with Justin Roiland - But Why Tho

Squanch Games brought one of my most anticipated games of the year to PAX West 2022, and man was it a ride. High On Life is a weird and hilarious adventure from Justin Roiland, the man behind Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites. In the game, a cartel of aliens invades Earth with the sole intent of enslaving the planet to make an all-new drug. Your role in it is playing the deadliest intergalactic bounty hunter across the cosmos, who just so happens to be a recent high school graduate who picked up a talking gun. And with that absurd plot comes well an absurd game. With Roiland’s signature style in both aesthetic and humor, the alien invaders in High On Life are on a mission to dominate Earth. Only instead for usual water wars or general boredom, the sinister twist is that Garmantuous and his cartel goons are intent on enslaving humanity and using them as a new drug.

We got the chance to sit down with Justin Roiland at PAX West and talk about the game’s development, what fans of his other creations can expect, and the difference between writing comedy for something you watch versus something you play. “TV is sometimes harder and sometimes easier. Harder because you don’t have anything else to lean on. In a game, if you have really sticky, fun gameplay…it’s a little less pressure. But on TV if it’s not good you’re out. But it’s easier in that it’s just one linear thing. And games, what I’ve noticed if you’re a TV writer and a big gamer it’s easier to make the jump to games because you may not know it, but it’s in there, you kind of know a general foundational understanding of narrative design.”

But outside the individual skills it takes, Roiland explained the importance of having a team there too, “I learned right away, working with a team, what my limitations are. Like learning what is out of scope. If someone says ‘This is out of scope,’ we peel back and go ‘This is what I want’ and then let’s find out a way to do that within scope. You have to work with a team. And you don’t have to work with any of that if you’re in TV…From the animated side, I haven’t had to rely on the scope. But in games, you’re reliant on the systems. For TV writers, that’s the hardest thing, not understanding those systems.”

Speaking of scope, High on Life is a balance of multiple comedy styles and different ways the jokes are delivered. There is situational and environmental humor in addition to dialogue coming from NPCs and your sentient guns. Justin Roiland explains how the team aimed to find a balance of comedy and quiet. “You start by just writing the general script and then that informs level design. But sometimes it goes the other way. The guns aren’t constantly blabbing, they’re more like a companion, like a Dragon Age-style character that is with you. They’re your point of entry into understanding the world. But we did look at certain sections [of gameplay] and go ‘oh well this is really dry, let’s walk and time it,’ and then you go ‘let’s write a line that goes in here.'”

Roiland expanded, “Some of the stuff that comes later with environmental comedy, we’re introducing the Magistrate Clug of Blimp City —the equivalent of like the mayor— you can go up and listen to his whole spiel. He’s voiced by Andy Daly and you can listen to it all and it’s great. Or you can go straight past it and go to the slums. It’s not a critical path, but it’s very opt-in. I don’t want to lock players down, when they are locked down, it’s important. I’m a firm believer in whatever we can do to not lock a player down we do. If they don’t want to hear a thing, okay fine, go. So if it isn’t critical A-story stuff, it’s up to the player whether they want to hear a joke or not.”

But when it comes to lock-down moments, the goal is to keep those memorable and critical at the same time. Justin Roiland says, “They guys at the slums, that’s a critical lockdown moment. It’s pretty short and funny too. It’s as funny to me as something in [Solar Oppisites] or this brand new thing called [The Paloni Show] that was just known. That whole section is hilarious and I don’t mind if I’m locked down for this little moment. Then you earn it back in combat. You can’t lock people down for so long that they start to get fidgety. Sprinkling stuff in throughout the world, there is thought that goes into it.”

Don’t let the eccentric style fool you, High on Life also comes with decisions that affect your game. While some choices are small and may trigger jokes, others are larger and affect how your story plays out. This is all a part of making those moments of lockdown feel impactful. Using the example from the demo where players are talking to two turnstiles to gain entry into the slums, Roiland explains how the choice of red versus blue impacts your play, “For example, those guys, whichever you say is hotter will stay with you. Every time you go past them, they have stuff to say and it’s different depending on which one you choose. I know that that’s more of an A/B sort of thing, but it’s fun…There are also more choices that aren’t just A/B.”

Roiland continued, “There are some characters who remember you, stuff that comes back. We’re not inventing the wheel, but the thing we are doing in the game that is special is pushing the narrative design to be as sophisticated as we can, really pushing it. In the opening of the game, it’s really nuts how interactive is. The triggers are just based on what you’re doing. Everything was interactive, the guns know what I’m doing, the NPCs know what I’m doing. Our key pillar is that the guns should feel as alive as possible.”

Gaming was very purposeful but it was never realized. I mean, VR got me here. I’ll never forget that I went to meet the guys at Valve because they’re big Rick & Morty fans and the week before the VIVE was announced it was there. I mean, I kickstarted the first Oculus, I’ve been ready to go, waiting for this baby. I’ve been daydreaming about VR since the 80s with movies like Lawnmower Man and all that kind of stuff and so it’s here. They put me in and I was already designing a game on paper at that moment. It was kind of the start of Trover. But I mean I don’t know how to code. I’m busy, I have a TV show, I don’t know anyone in the game industry, so I just didn’t know where to start. But after playing a room-scale game, it went from flirting with [gaming] to ‘I’m going to do this, whatever it takes.'”

High on Life (1)

Justin Roiland’s story about his venture into gaming continues, “So I tell Chet at Valve, send me a dev kit. Send me one of them and I promise you, you won’t regret doing it. I will make you proud.At the time there were only 12 out in the wild. And so he sent me one and I ended up with Ophir Lupu who was a badass video game agent who believed in me. He said, we got to find you a producer and he got me set up with Tanya Watson and I couldn’t have built [Squanch Games] without her. I partnered with Tanya and we started staffing our core team who are mostly still here to this day.”

And with Squanch Games going strong with the High on Life excitement, Roiland shares his hope for the prospects after the game launches, “What’s cool about what we’ve built in terms of the world, there is a lot more that we can do with this, in terms of IP. We’ve never seen a reaction like this at the studio, so it bodes very well for us. It’s like shit, if we could get a decent revenue stream oh the stuff we could make. It’s a whole different ballgame when you can just go ‘let’s make the theme.'”

Finally, I asked Justin Roiland what he wanted players to take away from the game when they rolled credits or had just put time into High on Life. He responded, “I want people to walk away feeling thoroughly entertained and happy. For me, a lot of the content I make is to give people a reprieve from shit in their life or in the world (it’s all really crazy). I want the to feel absolutely satisfied. I think like a good comedy movie, it would be incredible to hear that people beat this game a second time. So they can hear different guns and different things for a second time. I’m very grateful to be in the position that I’m in and I’m lucky and I think the best I hear is when people tell me that I got them through some stuff in life.”

High On Life is coming to Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S and PC via Steam and Epic Games Store later this year.

This Justin Roiland interview was edited for clarity and length and was conducted on-site at PAX West 2022.

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