Hopping down the bunny trail with Camille Guermonprez
The family is about to sit down for dinner and we’ve just wished each other Happy Easter — over the phone. Instead of sitting down at the dining room table with the rest of the family, I’m hours away in Boston for PAX East. A little white bunny is on a screen in front of me, but he’s not that bunny. No, this little rabbit hops down an entirely different trail than Peter Cottontail. The rabbit in question on the show floor, Ash, is the star of Arkedo Studio’s Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit and the Prince of Hell. The independent French studio has previously developed handheld, mobile and XBLIG games, so most Xbox gamers aren’t terribly familiar with it. Well, that’s all going to change this summer when Arkedo releases what studio co-founder Camille Guermonprez would later describe to me as “a [fluffing] video game.”
Easter Sunday was the final day of the 2012 convention hosted by Penny Arcade, and an appointment with Guermonprez to discuss Hell Yeah! was the last one on the XBLA Fans schedule for the weekend. I had passed by the game’s booth many times over the weekend and caught glimpses of what appeared to be a wonderfully insane and gorgeous action title that proudly channels early ’90s Genesis and SNES side-scrollers. Several other members of the team had gotten their hands on it during the first two days of the con and word was that this was not a demo to be missed.
But my schedule was jam-packed with appointments to play other promising games and talk to other developers all weekend. Hell Yeah! would have to wait. When XBLA Fans EiC John Laster, reporter Nick DePetris, photographer Scratch Pratt and I finally arrive to speak with Guermonprez, though, it turns out that we are doomed to wait just a little longer. Guermonprez, surely having spent even more time on his feet and in interviews than I had during the weekend, had given in to exhaustion and headed to lunch. And so we waited.
“This is…this is calm,” Guermonprez would later say of the frenzied action we witnessed in his game’s PAX demo. “This is laid back. This is exactly the trial that you’re gonna get on XBLA. For instance, this is the tutorial, and then we go a little bit ‘wow.'” Continuing, he added that things will “be a little bit crazy,” in later levels. If rolling around flaming, smoke-filled regions of Hell inside a large circular saw that can turns enemies into a mess of blood and meat is your definition of calm, then, yes, what we witnessed during this stretch of gameplay was quite tame. Suffice to say, we departed the Boston Convention Center later that day eager to discover what other fantastic absurdities had been thrown into the game during its recently concluded development cycle.
I’m getting ahead of myself. As mentioned, our little group was made to wait, and so we did. This made for a brief stretch of calm — the traditional definition of the word, not Guermonprez’s. Sitting on the floor watching thousands of convention-goers wandering between booths and panels was a nice change of pace. Our foursome reminisced about some of the unique experiences that set PAX apart from other cons. We exchanged stories about some of the more impressive cos-players; the most (and least) interesting developers we had spoken to; and the melding of tabletop, card, PC, console and board game players. Penny Arcade Expo opens its doors to seemingly every sect of gamer imaginable. It is unique and wonderful in that aspect.
Around the time my wandering mind was recalling several dozen angry sets of eyes doing their best to burn a hole in the back of my head after another presenter had moved me to the front of a very long line (sorry, guys), I snapped back into the present and realized that DePetris, sneaky little devil that he is, had grown tired of waiting and wandered over to play Hell Yeah! Watching him enjoying the game makes me desire even further to get my own hands on the controller. Yet before my turn arrives, Guermonprez is standing behind us with a big smile painted on his face. Looking at us through a most curious set of glasses (rectangular lenses inside of circular frames, one side white, the other black) he shows no signs of weariness from the convention. It’s clear he’s eager to spill his guts about his game, and so he does, with little prodding from the two of us.
Arkedo had decided years ago that Hell Yeah! would be something starkly different than the largely tamer titles it was becoming known for. “We were promising each other,” begins Guermonprez, “‘OK, next game we gotta go like: OK we gotta kill monster[s], and there’s gotta be blood everywhere — oh yeah! — and it’s gotta be ridiculous — oh yeah!’ You know? And the more serious our current project was, the more we wanted to lash out.” I don’t know if he hit the 5-hour Energy booth in the lobby during lunch or if he’s like this all the time, but his excitement is palpable. It’s wonderful seeing how enthusiastic he is, and it’s immediately clear that this will be an interview to remember.
Rolling right on ahead without a word from his interviewers, he says that “we thought maybe other people would be having a bad day or just having a day that was sucking generally, so [let’s make] a silly game for cheap and have fun with it. That’s public service! It’s public service.”
The team had a vision, but it didn’t exactly have the means to fulfill it on its own. That’s where Arkedo hoped Sega, which the designer would go on to describe as “awesome,” would step in. While it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, the publisher would eventually get on board and allow Arkedo to do its thing. It seems fitting that Sega became Arkedo’s publishing partner. After all, it’s the company that manufactured the Genesis, one of the two platforms that dominated the era from which the Hell Yeah! team has clearly drawn inspiration.
“I mean they didn’t give a phone call for a year and a half,” the studio head says of Sega’s willingness to leave his team to its own devices once a publishing agreement was reached. “I mean, we came and we showed the game and they [said], ‘OK, we want it to be exactly like that and we don’t want to add stuff. Be crazy. Do your stuff.’ Because we had been talking to them for the last six years — every year I was coming and saying, ‘OK, this is my game this year. You will probably not buy it, but I’m going to show you anyway.’ And Sega says, ‘You’re right.'” A purposeful sigh escapes his lips, and he gives us a look of exasperation as he recalls his early fruitless attempts to woo the publisher. Immediately the man with the peculiar eyewear regains his cheery demeanor and explains that the situation “changed last year.” Sega was finally convinced, and so the world will get Arkedo’s first XBLA/PSN release this summer.
From the look of what’s happening in the game’s intro, Sega’s hands-off approach has resulted in a game that is precisely what its developer envisioned it would be. “We really try not to be rude, you know?” says Guermonprez of the action game’s style. “Irreverent, but not rude. It’s a fine balance. Hopefully we managed to have it.” None who were present would have accused what was happening on the screen as serious or respectful, that’s for sure.
But nothing could have prepared me for the explanation of the game’s plot. “We wanted to have — you know what’s awesome with the Pixar movies?” he muses. “It’s like when you see the same scene, the dad and the parents are laughing at something completely different [than] what the children are laughing at at the same scene. You have two completely levels of — the rubber ducky! [Ash is] wanking in the Fleshlight! Period. OK? But my daughter plays it and says, ‘Oh it’s cute! And yeah, yeah he’s supposed to be bad, and yeah, don’t play with rubber ducks.’ And yes, yes, yes [she’s] right. Always have two levels of stuff.” DePetris, Pratt and I are laughing along with him at this point. It can’t be helped. The guy has just made a connection between Pixar and a, uh, personal stimulus apparatus. Yeah, let’s go with that.
The gross-outs don’t stop there. “Madame Fontaine is really gross,” says Guermonprez,” but it’s a flowing fountain of blood, OK? OK. It’s OK.” He himself is convinced that this direction works and works well, and I get the sense he doesn’t give a damn whether or not some might feel offended by such elements. “We try to always make another level of stuff. When you think about it it’s really gross, but I mean, hey you thought about it. It’s your problem, not mine.” He laughs at this, but he’s also laughing at something over our heads. Madame Fontaine is a French joke, we’re told, and that’s all the background info we’re given before Guermonprez blazes onward without any need for us to ask anything of him.
“It’s going to be a little bit crazy,” says Guermonprez of the parts of the game not beign shown at PAX. “The thing is, [the demo level] is in Hell. The next one is like a blue sky. The next one is in space. The next one is — it’s a video game, for [fluff’s] sake!” Now he really starts to hit his stride. F-bombs — not-so-cleverly edited here as bunny-friendly “fluff” — are dropped freely as Guermonprez’s unbridled enthusiasm for the project comes beaming out of him.
“So you have a red world, a blue world — I mean you have some ride session, some silly stuff… We have designed the game — we want the player to have certain feelings at certain times. Even though it’s a Metroidvania [type of game] and there’s loads of backtracking, we kind of basically know where you are in the story, and it allows us to say ‘OK, we want here you [sic] to feel frustrated.’
“For instance, when you start the game, you’re just gonna want to go Mario on any kind of bug, and no you can’t! You’re just a small little rabbit! You’re useless, and it’s like, ‘What the [fluff]?!’ And the single thorn hurts you [and you’re] like, ‘For [fluff’s] sake! I’m the Prince of Hell, and a thorn is hurting me?!’ But we do that because we want you to be so happy when you get to later and you’re like, ‘OK, you and you — you hurt me.’ OK? You know that’s the kind of general feeling we want to do — building up some kind of tension and then releasing it. We want you to feel lost one day; we want you to say, ‘What the [fluff] is this world?! This is a world-of-[fluff] world!’ I mean, this is really fun. With the song that goes with it, we really had some fun [laughs] doing that.”
More craziness than my brain can process is happening on-screen as he says this. Blood is splattering all over the game’s camera as enemies are torn to shreds by Ash’s wheel of death. Guermonprez seems amused by what his team has accomplished and it’s not clear what exactly the “this” he mentions above is in reference to. But I fancy he’s speaking of the journey, so to speak, his team has taken over the years to get to this point.
His tone calms a bit now, and he looks at the screen like a proud father seeing his rambunctious little hell-raiser of a boy reaching young adulthood. He’s a wild one, and the old folks next door might complain about his loud music, acts of violence and foul language, but he is Camille’s boy, and he loves him. He’s probably not alone in that feeling. Guermonprez didn’t raise him alone, though. It takes a village, as they say. But he has brought his boy and his toy of choice (the saw-wheel) to show and tell by his lonesome today, so he speaks for the rest of the family. “We’ve been far. We’ve been quite far. I’m not sure where we’ve been, but that was quite fun. That was really fun to do. I mean that was really fun to do,” he reflects.
He now appears to be thinking back fondly on some memory. Perhaps a certain milestone in development? A challenge that had to be overcome? Or maybe something lighter, perhaps a funny joke shared among team members? I don’t know. I can’t see into his mind to read his memories, much as I desire to do so, as his every word fascinates me. I’m not alone in feeling that, either: DePetris is hanging on every word too. Before we get a chance to inquire about his reflections, Guermonprez quickly — and I mean quickly — snaps back into the present and his enthusiasm and swearing return. “It’s a bloody video game! That’s what you live for. I mean, it’s really like…” He doesn’t bother finishing the thought, and he doesn’t have to.
The man whose business cards read “Final Boss” has labored tirelessly for years to get Hell Yeah! to this point. Seeing the smiles on players’ faces confirms his suspicions that it was well worth the effort. Now Guermonprez lays out his 2012 launch strategy: “Yeah, my pitch to Sega was: 2012 will probably suck up big time for everyone. People [will want] a cheap way to have fun. Period. And that’s Hell Yeah! Go. And thank god 2012 sucks! Yay!”
Lately, many games have either required audiences to invest huge amounts of time into play sessions in order to experience rich rewards or gone in the exact opposite direction and offered immediate gratification. Wrath of the Dead Rabbit will be at its best when players discover a happy medium between the two, explains the final boss. Gamers can pop in and out quickly if they so choose, “but we wanted to have some kind of a story. You have many different environments [and] vehicles — stuff that happens. You might want to have more like 30-minutes sessions to have fun and in order to go from one boss to another. We have bosses! Five big ones and a hundred little monsters, some of which you saw, and a few of them are mini-bosses.
“It saves after each stage, but you can also see Madame Fontaine — you know, the floating girl and the bloodbath. It’s a very good french joke by the way, just so you know.” In addition to the health-giving madame, there will also be designated save points. We’re told that it’s possible to save after every time the player does “cool stuff.” Sounds good to us.
Guermonprez goes on to explain that the team went out of its way to avoid situations in which players would have to revert to previous save files. All but the most masochistic of gamers can likely attest to what a major aggravation such occurrences can be. When playing, you won’t have to think about saves the way you would in some games. If you “[fluff] up, you just stopped two minutes ago and it’s good,” explains Guermonprez. “It’s not a skills game, even though it gets a little more trickier afterwards.”
Rather, we’re told that it’s “a game about having fun and a little bit of, you know, Warioware-esque feel to the mini-games. I mean, we love Warioware. It’s the best thing Nintendo does to explain to the whole other studios what to do with the new console. I mean each time Nintendo has a new console, they come with a new Warioware game. ‘These are the 257 game ideas you can make. Just pick one and make a whole game.’ It’s amazing. And we tried to make the same kind of silliness, because when you only have three seconds, you must have two seconds to understand the game and one second to do it. And we love that. We love that.” Judging by the many millions of copies of Warioware games that Nintendo has sold, I’d say there are a great many other individuals who share that feeling with him.
DePetris actually manages to get a question in now. He asks what other power-ups/vehicles we can expect aside from the wheel and gun in the demo. We’re informed that the specifics are a “surprise,” but there are other vehicles in addition to plenty of time spent on foot and in the wheel. The death-dealing means of conveyance will get upgrades after bosses are bested, in typical video-game fashion. Since this is a Metroidvania game, Arkedo also incorporated plenty of hidden goodies that can be seen early in the game but must be returned to later when players are better equipped in order to be ascertained. “We are Arkedo. We love putting Easter eggs everywhere and stupid jokes everywhere.”
It now seems he’s racking his brain for something (perhaps an example?), but whatever thought was there escapes him. “And what did I say? I forgot! That was crap, I guess.” Everyone laughs and both interviewers and designer silently realize this loss of words is the final symptom of convention-itis.
Before Guermonprez can be rid of us, though, I just have to ask his thoughts on the convention. He speaks slowly and deliberately now, informing us that it’s his first time at PAX and it’s “awesome.” The man with the harlequin specs has been in the industry for some 15 years, but being based in France had previously prevented him from making an appearance at a Penny Arcade Expo. Suddenly, the passion, volume and obscenities return. “For [fluff’s] sake, this is exactly why I’m doing games! I mean, I spend my time in professional stuff, and it’s quite hard; it’s a hard business. And you may have tendencies even when you are indie — you know it’s quite difficult to be indie — you may have tendencies to forget what you are fighting for. And when you come back here — OK, I’m cooped up for five years now — even if I have bad things coming out, I know exactly why I’m doing that: it’s for the smiles, and I love that. It’s great; we finished the game four days ago and now we are here and just looking at the smiles. How cool can it be?”
I ask if it’s rewarding. Guermonprez says it is so, and that he loves it here. “I mean, babies are here and enjoying themselves.” Now he looks around at nothing and everything at once and waves his arms about to imply we should do the same in order to take in just how diverse the crowd is.
It’s true; there are so many different types of people here, and that fact has not been lost on me. It has been evident since first walking through the doors to the Boston Convention Center the previous Friday morning, but it’s great to see that it’s not lost on Guermonprez. He has been putting on no PR song and dance. He is genuinely excited to be here on the show floor, surrounded by gamers from all walks of life.
“And it’s great,” the Arkedo co-founder continues. “It’s great. I really love it. It’s a great ambiance and everyone is just here to have fun and very respectful and the costumes are…” He is momentarily unsure how to put his cos-playing thoughts into words. It’s plain to see that he is impressed, but he has been answering questions from gamers, journalists and his fellows in the industry all weekend. The excitement and cheerfulness has not left his voice, but this con, great as it has been, has taken its toll.
I’m in a position to sympathize. DePetris, Laster, and Pratt have the same weary look in their eyes that mine must surely bear at this point. Yet I’m thrilled we mustered up the energy to speak with Camille Guermonprez before stumbling out the doors a few hours later, and even more elated that he still had enough life in him to be such a wonderful interview in the waning hours of the show. I’ve talked to many interesting and intelligent developers throughout the weekend, but Guermonprez has topped them all. His passion and candor blew the four of us away.
Now he has regained the power of speech. “I mean, I used to laugh a bit about that, [but] I saw them and was like, ‘That’s awesome. They are having great fun.’ And, yeah, cool, really cool. I want to be back. I’m gonna be back every year now. It’s done.” I’m half-expecting one last profanity to come out, perhaps again as an adjective for Hell Yeah! It doesn’t come. There is only a smile and a final laugh before we shake and go our separate ways.
At some later point during the trip home, it occurs to me that I never actually played Arkedo’s game. I am fool, but an enlightened one. And this fool can’t [fluffing] wait to unleash dead-bunny-rabbit revenge.