Hector: Badge of Carnage - Dean Burke interview
He's rude, he's crude, he's nasty, noisy, and often half-naked... he's Dean Burke from Straandlooper! Wait, no, he's Detective Inspector Hector, the slovenly "fat arse of the law" and star of his own adventure series, Hector: Badge of Carnage! Dean is not like that at all. He's one of the masterminds behind the raunchy comic crime trilogy, and with the third and final episode just released, we finally caught up with the game's (big breath) Creator-Director-Writer-Designer-Lead Artist-Animator-Composer to scrape off the grungy layer of filth and depravity for an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at Clappers Wreake and all-things-Hector.
Adventure Gamers: So, Dean, tell us how the *%^$*@& you came up with a %&^#$ing character like Hector and decided he deserved to star in his own %*#$&ing adventure? (Whoops, sorry, got carried away in the spirit of things there.)
Dean Burke: The original idea for Hector sat in a drawer for almost a decade until I got a chance to pitch it to anyone that was interested, and luckily Straandlooper were. I’d created a handful of characters, a lot of story ideas and a fictitious British town called Clappers Wreake, wrapped up in a 2D art style.
I wanted Hector to be a farcical nod (or head butt to the face?) to the countless tv crime dramas, following on with the tradition of the misanthropic curmudgeonly police detective and the comic convention of his haplessly dim partner.
Initially I thought it had potential as a tv series or dvd feature, and in fact when we went into development early on, the studio was thinking along those lines. I think this ended up a real advantage to us when the idea to create a game came about, as we had already developed well rounded characters to work with, solid storylines and a clear idea of the setting and style as a firm foundation to build the game on.
AG: You’ve pretty much quadrupled the genre’s raunch quotient in one fell swoop. Why the decision to make the series so blatantly crude?
Dean Burke: When you come up with a sleazy fictional town that has the slogan of the ‘Crime Capital of Britain’ then there’s really only one foreseeable way to go. It’s inevitable you’re going to have to tap into the some of the more unsavoury parts of your brain to come up with ideas to fulfill that motto Clappers Wreake wears so proudly!
If it’s just plain crude then there’s a problem, but if that crudeness makes you laugh at the same time, that’s really what our intention is. The games are there purely to entertain and as I’m sure you’re aware, not everyone laughs at the same things.
No denying it does have its moments of base humour, but that’s not the only type of humour we put in there. It’s got elements of parody, jabs of satire, cop show farce, black humour, faux drama, some screwball slapstick, plenty of creative insults and maybe even some genuine wit in there too. Not to forget, the cleverly crafted and at times bewildering puzzles, where the-most-ludicrous-answer-is-usually-the-right-one kind of gameplay also makes up half the experience!
It’s important to shoot for a balance of a broad base of gags and situations, to at least aim for that wider audience. People do tend to fixate on the unsophisticated lowbrow humour, and if that’s what they’re looking for, we’ve got that covered! But it’s all in the name of entertainment.
AG: What kinds of comic influences have inspired you over the years?
Dean Burke: Some British comedies I used to get a kick out of were shows like Blackadder, League of Gentlemen, Red Dwarf; they might throw in a scatological gag right next to a genuinely witty remark about society or something and the characterizations were excellent. I also think Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is a great comedy character and I remember watching a British show called Bottom, which was full of gross-out slapstick fun.
Mustn’t forget American shows like South Park or Family Guy; they’re good for a laugh and similarly, they like to shove the edges of restraint wherever possible.
AG: What would you say to people who call your comedy childish or immature?
Dean Burke: Well I know what Hector would say, but I can’t repeat it here without having this otherwise polite interview spiral into a tongue-lashingly dizzy crossfire of unrefined abusive taunts, or he may even call you names, and nobody wants that. But seriously, when coming up with material we do try not to fully cross the line. We like to think the games just about balance on the right side of offensive, ending up with a humour that’s more often suggestive, rather than totally inappropriate.
AG: We often refer to “British humour” being different than American. (As a Canadian, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds!) What is it that makes comedy distinctly British?
Dean Burke: People might say British humour is more liberal with sarcasm, self-deprecation or irony, but I see it all as essentially the same humour, delivered with different accents!
Comedy is an absolute thing, if you laugh it works and if you don’t, then it doesn’t work. When writing the games, we have Canadian (Kevin Beimers) and British/Irish (me) writers throwing out ideas to each other, seeing how far we can push it. The ones we snicker at most we put in the game. During script time, Kevin and I would often meet up in nearby coffee shops to chat about situations Hector could find himself in – the weird side-glances from some of the other customers told us we were on the right track. Most of the time we’re trying to find stuff that makes us laugh first, and hope/pray that others will be at least half as amused as we were coming up with the stuff.
We occasionally flatten out a joke or two or cut it entirely if we think it’s a little too obtuse for an international or American audience, but at the same time, it’s hard to say no to a really funny gag even if it means only a handful of people will get it, as long as the majority of material works.
AG: Would you say that Hector’s comedy is fairly British, or do its themes have a pretty universal appeal? (At least, among people who aren’t grossed out by it, that is.)
Dean Burke: American sales of the original game actually overtook sales in Britain. Yes, the U.S. is a bigger place as a market, but the bulk of U.S. reviews and commenters proved as a whole they ‘got’ the humour. As long as it makes you laugh I guess it doesn’t matter where it comes from. If comedy is thought of as an international language then in the end drawing an imaginary divide between the two is probably unnecessary; laughter hopefully settles any arguments.
There are certain universal fundamentals of comedy that work often. A character trying to get what he wants when everyone is against him is one, and that partly defines Hector’s plight. Watching his reaction and commentary to those same situations is also part of the fun. Finding himself in odd circumstances where he or you, as a player, have to dig him out. Drop a well-defined character into any situation and essentially you can always find a way to make that scenario funny, since you already know the character so well. The gags come easier when the comic structure calls for them.
AG: Straandlooper’s involved in other projects outside of games, correct?
Dean Burke: Straandlooper began life as a digital animation company, started by two "veterans", Alastair McIlwain and Richard Morss, who are well respected in the animation industry. There’s also a modest founding team who’d been involved with a kid's property about a lovable (i.e. complete opposite of Hector), anthropomorphic rescue boat, Lifeboat Luke. This flagship property had a tv series and various apps released alongside it. We’ve also made shorts, created some ads and worked on a handful of side projects, all animation based. But the idea was to never limit ourselves by working in just one style or to one outlet.
After the series wrapped and I presented the Hector IP to Straandlooper, we secured some development funding for a batch of ideas and Hector ultimately became our follow up project. Our very small team’s wide-ranging experience enabled us to embark on the first Hector game and to create every aspect of it ourselves, from the programming right through to the online marketing.
AG: At what point did you decide to get into gaming, and why a point-and-click adventure to start?
Dean Burke: While brainstorming Hector marketing ideas, I thought an old school Point & Click style adventure would be a great spin off marketing mini-project (and would also fulfill a goal of mine and Kevin’s to one day make a game!) I created a mockup screen shot and pinned it to the studio wall with all the other development art. The more we talked about it the more we liked the thought of a game, the idea stuck and we decided Clappers Wreake would be the perfect setting for an adventure game.
The structure for a Point & Click Adventure meant we could take our writing/design and animation sensibilities and work them into a game genre that fit our skills. Point & click is perfect for engaging the player with a great story, setting up Hector in the world he inhabits and the idiotic characters he has to deal with. It’s ideal to place the focus back on character and humour and have the narrative take more of a front seat.
AG: What kind of background does the team have with the genre, either professionally or just as players?
Dean Burke: Well myself and Kevin have a lot of nostalgic enthusiasm for the classic Point & Click Adventure games that LucasArts produced in the ‘90s. They set the bar really high and firmly established the genre. Those classics came out of a moment in time when the genre just seemed to align with a great bunch of people who could dream up funny situations, intricate puzzles and a tight script, while adding superb visuals to the mix. The games are still really inspiring and never seem to get old.
We still play a real mix of other genres too, but it all comes down to what kind of a gamer you are and what experience you want out of a game. We like to be told a good story and have a laugh while doing so, games that genuinely do that are scarce.
AG: Originally you began designing Hector for iOS platforms. Why go that route, especially since they were fairly untested as viable gaming systems at the time?
Dean Burke: Early on, the appeal of an iOS release partly came out of seeing the rise of the App Store and how relatively simple it seemed to get something out there in front of a global public. This meant as a small indie team of around seven people, we could fund and put together a product ourselves through our own efforts that could be taken directly to the consumer through Apple.
Once we knew a Hector game was on the cards we just had establish which platform. At the time Kevin (sole programmer of episode one iOS) had recently made himself familiar with coding on the iPhone and had created a simple game released prior, for the Lifeboat Luke property. So the opportunity to continue working on an iOS device made sense. The touch & slide interface was also ideal to give a slightly new slant on updating the point & click interface. We even christened the game a ‘Touch & Slide Adventure Game’ but that never really caught on! I guess Point & Click will never die.
AG: How did the partnership with Telltale to release all three games on PC come about?
Dean Burke: Telltale were fans of the Hector game early on when they approached us with the idea of partnering. It was a huge compliment to have one of the most well respected studios in the industry not only tell us they loved our game, but ask us if we’d consider working with them. How could we refuse!
Myself and Kevin got a chance to visit their studio in California and met a lot of the originators of the Point & Click genre. Working with the Telltale guys has been a great experience, having holes poked in our scripts by one of the original writers of Monkey Island was a defining moment for us!
We ran everything by them but Straandlooper still had full control of content, plot, game design, dialogue, art, animation, music and voice. Telltale handles the programming, publishing and porting duties. They adapted their multi-platform game engine to fit the 2D style of our original game and episode 2 and 3 were built directly into it. Plus we had their QA, debug and marketing PR team. Team Straandlooper still remained relatively small but production on Episode 2 & 3 with Telltale took around 6 months back to back.
During production we hooked up remotely, linking up for the occasional Skype call and communicating a lot by email. There was a time difference for us here in Northern Ireland – Telltale would wake up with their morning coffee to start their day's work, right when we’d essentially be finishing our day – not that our days ever actually ended; we’d usually just wake up with a start after being slumped over our keyboard from the night before, ready to keep on clicking away.
AG: Sam & Max may be a bit naughty, but Hector is by far the crudest content Telltale has ever released. Have they tried to rein you in at all, making sure you don’t step a little too far across the boundaries of decency?
Dean Burke: Script-wise we’ve basically got total autonomy. Adventure game deity, Dave Grossman, did cast his all-seeing logical script-editing eye over Episodes 2 and 3; any hallowed thoughts he suggested were unquestionably acted upon, stopping just short of slaughtering a sacred calf in order to appease the deity. What we did the first time around caught their interest, so they knew what they were in for. They wanted the follow up episodes to uphold the same offensive assault on good taste, and we were happy to oblige.
AG: With the third episode just released, what can we expect in the series finale?
Dean Burke: The total annihilation of Clappers Wreake lies in Hector’s chubby, sausage fingered hands. We’ve got Lambert as you might never want to see him again and a few cameos from characters who’ve crossed Hector’s path before. The final installment will wrap up a few key setups and the true intentions of the terrorist will finally become clear.
Hector is back with his usual brand of sullied insults, finding himself halfheartedly clawing out of ever more ridiculous situations, culminating in an event so diabolically unpleasant you’ll possibly be weeping uncontrollably while fleeing from your iDevice/PC/Mac/PS3, etc. in terror.
I’ve always thought of Episodes 1 to 3 as really one entire game – they should be best played back to back to get the full assaulting boot to the groin experience, leaving you shivering with that all over ‘I should have left the soap where it was’, feeling.
AG: What’s next for Straandlooper after Hector is finally laid to rest (presumably still in his dirty underwear)?
Dean Burke: There are a couple of ideas in the works, all early stages and at this point what form they take is still open. The aim with Hector was to eventually do a series or feature; with the positive success of the game, who knows. At least we know there’s an underfed sadistic audience out there for the big man himself.
AG: Well, good luck with the future projects. And now, please excuse us as Clappers Wreake beckons us one more time. Thanks for taking some time to answer our &$%^&%&ing questions!