What do you get when you cross point-and-click adventure gaming with pulp sci-fi and stop-motion animation? The answer is Jack Houston and the Necronauts, a Kickstarter-funded masterpiece.
With just a few days left of its Kickstarter campaign, Jack Houston and the Necronauts by Warbird Games looks like something genuinely new and fresh, made out of all the elements of yesteryear. We talk to designer Stacy Davidson about his inspirations, his hopes and the stop-motion process.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Who are you and how did you get into gaming development?
I've been a filmmaker in the realm of horror for the last ten years or so, but games have been a passion of mine since I first laid eyes on the TI99/4A computer that landed in my living room at the age of 8. I played all the games I could get and eventually learned Basic, making a dozen or so game demos on the TI, Commodore 64 and PC over the next few years.
Why did you choose Kickstarter for this project?
I put together the concept for Jack Houston a couple of years ago, but I had no way to fund the project. When Tim Schafer found such an enormous audience on kickstarter [who were] hungry for new adventure games, I began to pay close attention. I jumped in with both feet to support the guys behind the Space Quest series in their new project, and once I launched the Jack Houston project, the backers of all these other adventure games jumped in too, and were so incredibly supportive, right off the bat.
Where did the idea for Jack Houston come from? Who is the character and how did he come to pass?
The first movie I recall seeing in the theatre was Star Wars. The sheer scope and imagination of George Lucas has always been an enormous influence on me. I'm also quite the fan of the original Star Trek. What I've noticed, however, is that, almost without fail, most space opera fiction is highly derivative of either Star Wars or Star Trek. What baffles me is that so few creators in this day and age bother to dig back into the fiction and worlds that influenced Lucas and Roddenberry. What about Buck Rogers? Flash Gordon? Tom Corbett? Perry Rhodan? Where are the bubble helmets, rockets and ray guns? I wanted to have an adventure in that outlandish, art deco sci-fi universe of yesteryear, and I wanted to take adventure gamers with me.
Jack himself is an amalgam of these characters in some ways. Other influences include Chuck Yeager as portrayed in The Right Stuff, and Ben from the Tim Schafer adventure game Full Throttle.
What is the game's story?
It's the year 1999 as imagined by 1950's sci-fi authors and artists. Retired Jack Houston has had a rough several years, but the executives of the Venture Air and Space Transportation Corporation have convinced the reluctant rocket test pilot to take on one last mission: to pilot the first manned rocket to the planet Venus. After an engine failure on the rocket, Jack crash lands in a Venusian ocean and awakens from cryogenic sleep one thousand years later, to find himself trapped on a savage world the likes of which he could never have imagined.
Obviously you're influenced by the pulp sci-fi books and films of the 50s and 60s. Are there any particular titles that you can point to that made a huge impact? What do they mean to you personally?
I'm a big fan of old time radio sci-fi, in particular. Tom Corbett: Space Cadet is a blast, X Minus One and Flash Gordon, of course. I'm also a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and all his adventure stories. He didn't write the deep, allegorical tales like most of the notable sci-fi authors who came after him. ERB had fun. He painted rich, passionate characters and put them through harrowing adventure. His John Carter stories were particularly fun, but I think some of his tightest, most enjoyable writing came from the later Tarzan stories. Jack Houston is in that tradition, it's a story of a man swallowed by the savagery of nature, far from civilization, where survival is all that matters.
Why did you choose stop-motion as your medium?
Most adventure games have featured painted and/or cel animated imagery. I wanted something different for Jack Houston. This game is in the tradition of early sci-fi films, so I wanted it to actually look like them. I wanted carefully constructed miniature environments, like the jungles of King Kong, and stop-motion animated creatures, like the beasts of Ray Harryhausen. I want players to feel as though they are embedded in a classic sci-fi adventure movie where they play the star.
Does shooting a game in stop-motion require a lot more footage than a film?
Actually, it's quite the opposite. In a film, every frame of the movie must be original animation. When you're making a game, you create loop sequences for all the characters' various actions, like walking, talking, firing a ray gun, opening a door and all the special case actions that will be required, and the engine simply plays those animations depending on the actions of the player. When you add up the frames, a game is far less animation intensive, because of the automated nature of the play mechanics.
(Credit: Warbird Games)
What sort of equipment do you use to film the animation? Can you explain the process of filming a scene?
The first step is to create the puppets. This means sculpting a neutral-pose statue in a dense, oil based clay, like Roma Plastilia (my favorite) or Sculpey. This statue is then carefully moulded, and a foam latex version is cast with a posable metal armature inside. This allows you to screw the character down to a base, and place it in finely articulated poses.
I use a Canon 7D to film the stills, which is capable of breathtaking resolutions that put HD to shame. There are also software packages that aid the process greatly, like DragonFrame, which was used to film movies like the upcoming ParaNorman. Software like this allows you to control the camera, set up multiple angles and lighting set-ups for the same frame, and even get an onion skin preview of your animation, just like on a pencil and paper light table.
How did you build the puppets?
Stop motion puppets are expensive to make, and it's for this reason that I haven't actually been able to create them yet. This is actually a large part of the planned budget. My experimental puppets, however, are all created by hand and will be manipulated by hand through stop motion. There won't be any rod puppets or animatronics necessary. Some mini-movie creatures have been created with some automation, however, such as the motorised legs on the Tauntauns that Luke and Han rode in The Empire Strikes Back. This was part of Phil Tippet's "go motion" technique, which created a more photorealistic look with motion blur by actually moving the model while the camera shutter was open.
This looks to be a very well-rounded offering, with a soundtrack, a radio show and a book of the process — if the game takes off, do you hope to expand into other media, such as comics or an animated mini-series?
Anything is possible. The radio show, which is actually on hold until I find the proper voice for Jack Houston (fingers crossed this happens soon) will actually be tied tightly to the game. The storyline that will slowly develop in the short radio drama episodes will introduce characters and weave a story that will build right up to the opening video of the game. As for other stories and mediums, right now, I'm just concentrating on making a great game with a great story for players to sink their teeth into. But who knows what the future will bring?
Visit the Jack Houston and the Necronauts Kickstarter page for more art and information.