Trover Saves the Universe feels more like an Adult Swim series than a PS4 title. But it could signal an interactive gaming revolution.
What makes a video game funny? Is it a combination of great dialogue and irreverent cultural references, a la Family Guy? Or does it all come down to how you, the player, interact with the game itself? To hear Squanch Games co-founder and Trover Saves the Universe creator Justin Roiland tell it, it’s a combination of a few very important factors. But a virtual reality setting certainly helps.
Trover Saves the Universe, in stores today, is a VR-optional adventure ripped straight from Rick and Morty, the irreverent Adult Swim series that Roiland co-created. His immediately recognizable voice, handwriting, and character designs are all over Trover, helping to craft an exuberant, dangerously funny experience.
The hilarious game invites players to come along on an intergalactic quest to steal a couple of adorable dogs back from the eyeholes of a creature named Glorkon. Oh, and you’re playing as a chair-bound alien called a Chairorpian while controlling an “eyehole monster” who uses “power babies” to earn new powers.
Trust us: It makes sense once you play.
This is Roiland’s first official VR outing as part of Squanch, working in tandem with co-founder Tanya Watson. In an industry seemingly obsessed with grimdark power fantasies and cookie-cutter narratives, Trover dares to buck the trend and explore the comedic realm in ways other developers simply aren’t.
We spoke with Roiland about the challenges of imbuing a virtual reality title with his unique brand of humor, the challenges that go with it, and the long-term future of comedy and VR.
Popular Mechanics: How did you approach injecting Trover Saves the Universe, as a virtual reality title, with so much humor?
Justin Roiland: It’s sort of in my DNA to steer in the direction of comedy. The initial impetus for starting a studio was me just becoming absolutely entrenched in VR, obsessed with VR, and noticing that there really wasn’t much character or personality in a lot of the games. There were really cool tech, mechanics and systems in the games, and really fun experiences like Unseen Diplomacy, Budget Cuts, and Space Pirate Trainer, but at the time, there was almost nothing outside of Job Simulator and even that game was sort of robotic.
I wanted to make games with more character, personality, and a bunch of interesting, bizarre characters that you could meet across your journey in VR. That was the genesis of the studio. I knew I wanted to do this with a team of my own and build something so that we could continue to make more crazy things, not just go pitch this and make it somewhere else.
PM: How difficult was it to write for a VR game and make it consistently funny when you’re almost entirely dependent on how the player will react?
JR: We went to great lengths to make sure that a lot of the stuff in the game is opt-in. We wanted to make sure that people weren’t having to listen to a long, drawn-out thing. If you want to, you can. If you’re finding something funny, you can hang out. There’s so much content in the game like that. You can also just keep going, keep shuffling through, and playing through the game.
Once we got deep into development, we started to realize just how well the game played on TV, not even in VR. That’s when a magical moment happened when we prototyped controls for the PC version to play on the computer monitor and we discover we had this really, super unique, bizarre-ass game. If you imagined this wasn’t a VR game at all and you just played it on your TV, which you can do, it’s almost like the weirdest thing in the world.
There’s first-person controls and a third-person character you’re controlling. You’re upgrading yourself. You’re getting telekinesis and first-person abilities, Trover’s getting third-person ability upgrades, and you’re going on this weird co-op adventure with yourself through the cosmos. The control scheme is so unique and weird. I’ve never seen anything like it.
PM: It’s rare to find games that react to player input in the same way Trover Saves the Universe does. You focus on the player interactions we all wish were in games but aren’t, like Trover berating the player while waiting for their input. Did you script all of those moments ahead of time, or was any of it ad libbed?
JR: A lot of the stuff in the game is ad-libbed, and a lot of the things you’ve described specifically were very iterative. I broke the story. That was the first thing. I really spent a lot of time thinking about the larger story ahead of time. I had Jay Pinkerton and Erik Wolpaw help me bounce ideas off of them. I love working with those guys. Once they figured out the larger story beats and we got into the more granular stuff, there’s a lot of improv. We would go through and hang out as friends and record, have fun, maybe sip a little wine and get a little loose, and then we’d get that stuff in the game.
We’d play-test it and watch people do stuff, and we’d see them do stuff that we didn’t think anyone would ever do. We’d write that down, then once we had a decent list, we’d go back and record all kinds of dialogue for those little moments. How many different ways can a player experience this moment? To me, that’s surprising the player.
I love that in video games, where I do a thing that the developer doesn’t intend for me to do. But they know, and it’s like a little wink: "We anticipated you might do that, so we threw this in to surprise you." There’s a lot of that going on.
PM: What do you think is the key to landing jokes in an interactive medium like gaming and VR as opposed to a passive one, television, like with Rick and Morty?
JR: In gaming, people are essentially "reaching in" and poking around. All the same traditional rules apply: comedic timing, etc., down to the nitty gritty like, "Have the character interrupt this character earlier." The pacing and the rhythm of the dialogue is always important across all mediums.
In the video game space, you have that added element of people being able to poke around, and that’s what made it really different. You also have the luxury of really solid play mechanics. So if something’s fun, you can get away with a lot more, narratively.
I found that almost freeing in a way, and it made the game better because I wasn’t getting caught up and freaking out about the story being perfect and fast-paced. It definitely made me feel safer, but in a weird way it allowed me to push the comedy. I’m kind of shocked at how good it turned out. We definitely really, really pushed it comedically, and part of that was that feeling of being free and exploring and having fun, not having any pressure behind it. It’s really exciting.
PM: There are only a small amount of games that are legitimately funny in the same way a TV show or movie might be. What are some previously successful attempts at comedy in gaming that influenced Trover?
JR: I wasn’t propelled so much by other games. It was this weird other motivation that pushed me to make the game. I think if I had been thinking about some of the other games that I find really funny, it would have almost been a bad thing. It was actually really good that I was in my own little world on this game. I felt like "no one’s ever made a video game before." That kind of energy is so freeing.
But, to answer your question, I think the South Park games are brilliant. I think Octodad is one of those games that makes me laugh out loud, just the absurdity of it. It’s just so funny to me that the family doesn’t understand [the father is an octopus]. Portal 2 as well, just brilliant. There’s not a ton, but the ones that are out there are really f**king good, and I would love to see more, definitely. I love games, and I would love more games that are hitting my comedic sensibilities in just the right way like that. It’s such a delight when those come around.
Dan Harmon, left, and Justin Roiland, co-creators of Rick & Morty, May 2018.
TAYLOR HILLGETTY IMAGES
PM: With devices like the Oculus Quest that help others to get into VR without having to use a computer, do you think games with characters controlling other characters like Trover might become something of a trend?
JR: Yeah, I think so. I love it. Moss is one of my favorites. Astro-Bot: Rescue Mission is another one. We got that [PlayStation VR] demo disc when we were already well into prototyping Trover. We were playing it and it was trippy. It was so different than what we were doing, but it had a lot of similarities.
PM: Did you learn anything from Owlchemy Labs while working on Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality that you brought with you to Trover?
JR: I think the biggest thing I learned was to make sure you’re having fun. If you’re laughing and having a good time, then you’re doing the right thing. It’ll show in the final product. That was a very fun, happy team of people that made that game. Even while making Accounting, I learned that, "Holy sh-, video games are a really amazing medium that I never ever thought I’d be able to participate in.”
Now, looking back, it’s just amazing. I’ve got a studio with incredibly talented awesome people that I like a lot and like to be around, and we’re now able to continue making amazing video game experiences. It’s kind of surreal, because four years ago, that was just such a foreign concept that I didn’t even think about game design. It was all just buried in my brain from all the years of making video games. I did learn a lot from those guys though, just to have fun. I think that’s the key.
PM: Do you think people might take your lead with Trover and start utilizing VR for comedic experiences in the future?
JR: I hope so, because I will be a day-one purchaser. If there is an original game that’s comedic in nature that hits our funny bone just right, if we had any hand in inspiring that, it would be the greatest honor. I would love to see some triple-A players jump into the comedy ring. Hopefully there will be more in the future.
Trover Saves the Universe is available now as a PlayStation 4 exclusive.