“Clayton Kauzlaric and I created the character of DeathSpank for the Flash comics on my website,” Ron Gilbert explains. “He came to embody all the little things we hated about the games business. At one point, we looked at each other and said, ‘He needs his own game!’”

Alarm bells ring. Games that try to poke fun at the medium’s cliches only end up rehashing them. Can DeathSpank lampoon gaming’s most tedious failures while rising above them? “If there isn’t a good fun game at the core, nothing else matters,” Gilbert says. “DeathSpank is more of a satire of games rather than a parody, but the real key is to make a good solid game. The funny is just icing on the cake.”

Gilbert is best known for his work on Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, and as in those games, much of the comedy comes from the dialogue you have with other characters. “At its core, it’s just about funny writing and constructing the interactive dialogues so players have fun exploring them,” says Gilbert. “They should feel like natural conversations and not like choosing options from a menu. The split second timing found in film or stand-up is replaced by having funny possible replies.”

Witty dialogue trees are joined by a familiar delight in the bizarre, as the hero’s quest is constantly derailed by increasingly bonkers demands. A search for a sword becomes a search for a taco, which then becomes a legal battle over the potential harm caused by spicy food.

“One of the side quest chains in the game involves a farmer named Bobblewood,” says Gilbert, expounding on the creative profanity of DeathSpank’s world. “He’s trying to grow vegetables for the county fair and wants some demon dung for fertilizer, because he’s pretty sure that’s the key to winning this year’s contest. He gives you his experimental ‘Demon Poop Hammer’ to go hit demons with. It does only one point of damage, but has a ten percent chance of making them poop. It’s harder than you think.”

Points of damage? Percentage chances? This doesn’t sound like an adventure game. And it isn’t – DeathSpank’s dialoguing is spliced with hack-and-slash dungeon crawling of a kind most readily comparable to Diablo. Vast inventories, piles of loot, elaborate weaponry, customisable armour, chicken attack squads – it’s a far cry from the ruminative pointing and clicking of Gilbert’s games of yore, but no less gleefully silly.

DeathSpank’s papery collage world seems to unfold from the horizon as you bound across it, like cutouts rising from a pop-up book. This colourful cartoon isn’t paper-thin, however: there’s substance beneath the satire. We only hope we’ll be laughing with it, rather than at it.

Nov 23, 2009