Strong Bad’s the Brothers Chaps interview
Most adventure fans have heard of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, the latest episodic series from Telltale Games, but not everyone is aware of the origins of its oddball cast and distinctively retro styling. For the better part of a decade, HomestarRunner.com has been home to one of the most popular web cartoons of all time and shows no signs of slowing down. The site is the creation of Mike and Matt Chapman (or the Brothers Chaps as they’re affectionately known), offering many hundreds of animated shorts over the years, including the particularly popular Strong Bad Emails. As old-school gamers themselves, the Chapmans have also branched into game development under the company name Videlectrix, perhaps most notably in these parts for the early-Sierra-styled Peasant’s Quest.
With the season finale of SBCG4AP just ahead, we wanted to go a bit farther behind the scenes than usual... Well, actually we planned to interview Telltale, but following a badly-spelled threatening email that just happened to come from Strong Bad’s address, suggesting in no uncertain terms that we should interview someone far more cool and attractive, we decided to track down the series creators themselves. We’re pretty sure that’s not what Strong Bad had in mind, but soon he’ll be too busy fighting Trogdor to care. In any case, we were pleased to catch up with Mike and Matt, and are sure you’ll be equally glad we did.
Adventure Gamers: First of all, hello Mike and Matt, and thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions. Your creation has been front and center on Adventure Gamers for the last several months with SBCG4AP, but we wanted to dig past the games and explore the web series itself. Can you give us the lowdown on how HomestarRunner.com came to be?
Brothers Chaps: Summer 1996 - Mike and filmmaker Craig Zobel were bored and decided to make a weird children's book, The Homestar Runner Enters the World's Strongest Man Contest. They did the whole thing in a day and had some copies made at a Kinko's to give to friends.
Christmas 1996 - Mike and Matt and Craig make a short Homestar Runner animation using Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo. They gave it to their brother Donnie for Christmas. Nice gift, guys.
January 2000 - Flash animation starts to go crazy on the web, Mike and Matt have dreams of quitting their day jobs. They dust off the Homestar characters, make a few cartoons, and put them online at HomestarRunner.com.
AG: Mike, I hate to do it to you, but I'm going to ask the unanswerable question: how did you come up with your original ideas?
Mike: Craig and I wanted the original kids' book to feel like it was from another country or poorly translated from Japanese maybe. Our friend Jamey from the band Of Montreal had coined the phrase "Homestar Runner" when trying to think of a baseball term so we decided that should definitely be the hero. Naturally the bad guy had to be a masked wrestler. With boxing gloves. The rest wrote itself.
AG: Were there any major influences that inspired you, either artistically or otherwise?
Mike: We definitely wanted it to NOT seem like the children's books we'd see at the bookstore. Beyond that, it wasn't thought through enough to be inspired or influenced by anything.
AG: What prompted you to go the web cartoon route?
BC: That's what everybody was doing at the time. We just wanted to learn how to use Flash and we needed something to animate. So we used these characters we'd already made up.
L-R: Matt, Strong Bad (easily distracted), Mike
AG: When you began, did you ever imagine the kind of success the series has achieved? Did you have any long-term goals at the time, or were you basically just putting the work out there and seeing what happened?
BC: There were hopes of getting something on TV very early on but after getting a "thanks but no thanks" from Cartoon Network we decided to just keep doing what we were doing since we were having fun. At that point we stopped trying to do anything but make funny and cool stuff.
AG: At what point did you realize "Whoa, we have a hit on our hands!"?
BC: As far as we were concerned, the first time we got an email from someone we didn't know that said they liked our cartoons. We also got the then-status-symbol: Shockwave Site of the Day a few times. We thought our brains were gonna explode.
AG: Was there anything(s) in particular that really established the series in the limelight, or did it just take a while for word of mouth to spread far enough to make it popular?
BC: Once we decided to start updating every week with Strong Bad Emails, it seemed like more and more people started to check it out.
AG: Have there been any surprises or disappointments over the years as to what elements or characters have caught on and what haven't?
BC: No disappointments. We kinda like it when people REALLY don't like something we do. Marshie (terrifying spokes-mallow for Fluffy Puff Marshmallows) has some serious critics. It's cool that you can polarize people like that. To us it's all the same, the thought process is no different for Teen Girl Squad or an Old Timey cartoon so it seems crazy that someone could love one and hate the other. We still don't understand why people love Trogdor so much.
AG: Do you have any personal favourite characters or storylines?
BC: Matt loves the 'Gregs' from Teen Girl Squad (Science Fiction Greg and D&D Greg). They're sorta based on some role-players he knew in high school. Mike digs the old timey stuff. The 1936 version of Homestar Runner is probably his favorite.
AG: I know most of the characters are pretty "out there", but do you relate to any of them or see yourselves in them at all?
Matt: The dynamic between Strong Bad and Strong Sad is sorta like Mike and I growing up. Only I wasn't as depressed as Strong Sad and Mike wasn't as cool as Strong Bad. But the beatings are pretty accurate.
AG: Matt, I've got to applaud you for your fantastic voicework in doing practically all of the characters yourself. Normally I cringe at how blatantly obvious it is when the same actor does multiple roles, but with your characters I'd never guess. Have you had any formal training or are you just naturally gifted at voices?
Matt: Thanks! No formal training. I was the youngest of five kids so I had to do something for attention. Before my voice changed, my 7th grade Algebra teacher Mr. Turnipseed (for real!) would have me do my Marge Simpson for the class. Puberty killed that one real quick. Though it did make my Axl Rose much more convincing.
AG: I get a kick out of Strong Bad's voice in particular, though obviously his personality and dialogue make him extra funny. And given the popularity of the Strong Bad Email cartoons, obviously I'm not the only one. Was it always the plan to have Strong Bad be such a central character, or did that evolve over time?
BC: It was never planned. Strong Bad emails were meant to be a really short thing to occupy the space between our longer cartoons. But they ended up turning Strong Bad into one of the most interesting characters.
AG: What's some of the more ridiculous fan mail you've received? Anything too over-the-top even for Strong Bad to mock?
BC: Most of the emails Strong Bad gets ask him to do something he's already done before (i.e. draw a dragon), ask what his parents are like (boriiiing), or for him to parody some current movie or pop-culture phenomenon. Those definitely get DELETED.
Adventure Gamers: Obviously you have a fondness for vintage video games. When did you decide to branch into making games of your own with Videlectrix?
Brothers Chaps: Some of the first Atari-style games we made were hidden on an old message board we used to host. Then we made the Duck Pond Simulator in a Strong Bad Email. Once we got to Awexome Cross, we decided these games needed a developer. We looked through our collection of Atari, Activision, and Imagic game catalogs for inspiration and Videlectrix was born.
AG: Arguably your most popular game is Peasant's Quest, an old OLD school adventure game that hearkens back to the early days of Sierra. Are you long time fans (or at least players) of the genre? Any particular games you have a soft spot for?
Matt: We grew up playing adventure games. I just found an old disk caddy of 5 1/4" floppies at my Mom's house over Thanksgiving. Gold Rush was in there, Zak McKracken, Leisure Suit Larry 2, Space Quest II and a King's Quest IV save disk. We love point-and-click games but there's something about that text parser we just can't shake. Maybe it's only the illusion of freedom, but for some reason when you ask people to type in commands, it blows the world wide open.
Videlectrix developers on the forefront on cutting-edge technology
AG: When did you start considering the notion of turning Homestar Runner itself into an adventure series?
BC: When Joel Dreskin from Telltale Games emailed us and said they wanted to talk about the notion of turning Homestar Runner itself into an adventure series. Before that, we were content making Awexome Crosses, Peasant's Quests, and Thy Dungeonmans. There wasn't anything we wanted to do that we couldn't do ourselves with Flash (along with programmer Jonathan Howe).
AG: How did the arrangement with Telltale come about for SBCG4AP?
BC: After Telltale contacted us, we eventually went out to San Rafael and met everybody and talked about possibilities. It's amazing how much of what we talked about in that first meeting actually ended up as part of the episodes. Once the paperwork was finished a few months later, full-on production began.
AG: Turning a cartoon into an adventure game doesn't seem like a huge stretch on the surface, but there's still a sizable gap between a short animation viewed passively and a larger, fully-interactive game experience. Did you have doubts going in about how well the series would make the transition?
BC: The length and sheer amount of content in a game was definitely a concern for us. I think our longest cartoon is like 7 minutes long. So making a game with 2-4 hours of gameplay felt like it might be a stretch.
AG: Are you pleased with the way it's turned out? Is there anything you might have reconsidered with the benefit of hindsight?
Matt: We are! I think each episode gets progressively better while each has its own individual style and merit. Maybe we shoulda made the first episode include more of an introduction to the characters and the world for people that are unfamiliar. It sorta did that but you definitely hit the ground running. We also could have tried to make more of a narrative through-line bridging the episodes but that's not really the way we make our cartoons so it's hard to know if that would've worked or not.
AG: Being writers for the games, you obviously have direct input into their creation. How does your collaboration with Telltale work?
BC: After a couple conference calls regarding story and puzzles for each episode, we would get a first-pass script from the writer and go through and add or tweak stuff. Then later, when we'd record the dialog for an episode, we'd sometimes rewrite on the fly to keep the sort of improvisational approach we take with our cartoons.
AG: Does it feel strange at all to entrust your creation to someone else, even if you're overseeing it?
Matt: It was definitely a new and sometimes stressful thing for us. We'd never licensed our stuff before. Thankfully, Telltale was incredibly cool about the collaboration. I could see that sorta thing not going so smoothly at most other development houses. It definitely helped that they have a few Homestar fans over there and that we were Sam & Max fans.
AG: What's been the general response from Homestar Runner fans?
BC: Seems great from what we've seen. They seem to dig each episode more than the last.
AG: The traditional adventure game market probably isn't the same demographic as the stereotypical Homestar Runner fan. Were you concerned at all that those who play such games wouldn't relate to the series, and those that like the series (or at least, enough of them to add up) wouldn't be drawn to adventures? The genre isn't exactly a big seller, as I'm sure you know.
Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People
BC: We didn't really worry about that sorta thing. We approached it like we do our cartoons. We like these kinds of games so that's what we all made. If it's good and fun, hopefully people will dig it regardless of their knowledge of our cartoons or the adventure game genre. This was NOT an attempt to cross into the mainstream though, if that's what you mean.
AG: Has the game series brought even more attention to the website, or are the game fans mainly from the existing series fanbase?
BC: We've definitely heard from people that were unfamiliar with our stuff prior to the game, which is great. There are people that just checked out the WiiWare version out of curiosity and then people that are fans of Telltale that checked it out because of their involvement. Hopefully we've driven some Homestar fans back to Telltale as well.
AG: What other kinds of games appeal to you guys personally these days?
Matt: Games on the DS mostly, because that's all I seem to have time to play. I recently downloaded that homebrew remake of Quest for Glory 2 for the PC and I'm excited to dive into that.
Mike: We've been playing Mega Man 9 and I have a Mario Kart time-trial battle going on with a friend of mine.
AG: I'm sure the last few months have been pretty hectic for you, but outside of the added workload from SBCG4AP, what's a "day in the life of a Brother Chap" like? Is Homestar Runner a full-time career gig now?
BC: Yes, Homestar and Strong Bad have been paying the bills since August of 2002. We write cartoons and work on DVDs and other products for the first part of the week, then animate at the end of the week and try to update the website on Monday. Wash, rinse, repeat.
AG: What's in store for you guys and the series? Any plans to expand into other media, or alternatively, is there an end in sight?
BC: We'll just keep doing what we're doing until we get sick of it or until nobody likes us anymore. We never make any plans. Maybe THAT's been the key to our success.
AG: Well, it's a very entertaining series, and we're happy to help spread the word in giving it the attention it deserves. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us.
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