High on Life is divisive by design. For developer Squanch Games, that's the unavoidable cost of investing so forthrightly in comedy as a central tenet of this upcoming first-person shooter – a joke will either make you laugh or it won't, after all. The fine line between raucous and repellent audience reaction is something Squanch Games CEO Justin Roiland is all-too familiar with by now, through his work as co-creator of caustic animated shows like Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites. And after playing High on Life, it's clear to me that there's the same unmistakable sense of defiance in its DNA.
It will only take a couple of minutes of playtime for you to discern whether you'll love this video game or loathe it, and High on Life offers little room for the indecisive caught in the crossfire. Thank the Gatlian gods for Xbox Game Pass. "I think that the biggest challenge for us has been trying to work out how much is too much," says Mikey Spano, chief creative officer and art director. "Some people will probably find High on Life too much. But for most people, I think it'll just feel really, really good."
Pure, unadulterated carnage
High on Life is an absolute riot to play. That has become obscured after the wide dissemination of short gameplay clips, which have divided social media. Some are declaring High on Life to be the Rick & Morty-inspired game we always deserved, others are lambasting it as obnoxious and crass. The truth is somewhere in-between. For as contentious as its style of humor is, High on Life is also wildly imaginative; threatening to break new ground in an entertainment medium that has, famously, had a contemptuous relationship with comedy. That gets lost in thirty second snippets that loudly showcase a knife who is horny for blood, or a talking gun openly lamenting the loss of a 'E for Everyone' ESRB rating after you murder an alien kid for the crime of being a pain in the ass.
Narrative director Alec Robbins describes the story of High on Life as: "Earth being invaded by this evil criminal cartel of aliens who come in and start selling them on the black market like they are drugs, and you're the one human who has to team up with a talking gun and stop them." It's an absurd concept, and the backdrop to a twelve-hour metroidvania in which you explore gorgeous alien worlds, battle monstrous cartel bosses, and attempt to avoid being locked inside of a 'Hyberbong' – which allows aliens to experience the "intense highs of humanity."
At the heart of High on Life (and much of the blowback) are the talking guns. High on Life is by no means the first game to deploy weapons who don't know how to keep their mouths shut – the infantile Johnson from Shadows of the Damned is an infamous example – though Spano says you should consider the weapons to be powerful personalities that bring color to the world around you. "A lot of people are hesitant about having talking guns because they don't think of them as characters, but they are members of your team."
High on Life leads the GamesRadar+ Fall 2022 Preview, which is exploring the most anticipated video games you can expect to play before the end of the year.
Spano is drawing from his experience at Epic Games here, having worked on the original Gears of War trilogy – where companions provide context and commentary during combat, exploration, and downtime. Spano also points to Mass Effect, where squad selection impacts dialogue options and critical decisions. Admittedly, Kenny (the wide-eyed pistol) and Knifey (the homicidal sidearm) couldn't let a second of silence go by uninterrupted in my playthrough – it makes for a loud game, and I can see how the initial charm could give way to irritation. Executive producer Matty Studivan promises that High on Life will quieten down, eventually. "The early levels are very talky as we're trying to teach you a lot, but we're not having them blabbing at you the whole time. We read everything people write, you know, and we're concerned about it ourselves. So we're trying to find the right balance."
Studivan tells me that Squanch is "still trying to balance the cognitive load for the player" against a clear creative remit: "The guns have to feel alive. We want them to react to things around you; to your actions, to the environments, and to each other." Many of the most memorable moments came from the interplay between Kenny and Knifey, so I'm keen to see how the other personalities factor in. Particularly as some of the guns are more mild mannered, and that narration will change depending on who is equipped. Not to mention a voice cast which includes comedy-royalty like Justin Roiland, J.B. Smoove, Tim Robinson, Zach Hadel, and Michael Cusack.
The humor in High on Life is situational, self-aware, and unashamedly stupid – whether that'll work for you is down to personal taste and perspective. Spano points to one of Roiland's shows as a bellwether for those on the fence: "If you look at a show like Solar Opposites, jokes are hitting and sometimes there's no time to think about them. We're trying to hit that same pace." If that sounds unappealing, that's okay – just like the comedy underpinning High on Life, we should be able to recognize that no one game has to appeal to every one of us.
Justin Roiland has been kicking the idea of talking guns around for a while, with the concept first appearing in the hand-written pitch document Squanch prepared for its experimental adventure Trover Saves the Universe. The studio has since tripled in size, and believes it's ready to properly bring the concept to life. What isn't clear from what we've seen so far is how much of High on Life is scripted versus improvisational, although Studivan tells me the balance is tighter than you might expect.
"A good portion of Trover Saves the Universe was written in the booth – Justin is a great improviser. For High on Life, we brought on Alec Robbins as our narrative director – he's got this huge comedy background in TV and live performance. He understands what you need to have as the base level, and where we can let the actors just go off." Spano adds that it's this blend of written and improvisational humor that really brings High on Life to, well, life. "When you have something down on paper you're like, 'yeah, this could be cool' and it's great when you get into the booth and it all comes together. It's so funny when the guns are making fun of you – the guns are kind of picking on you throughout the game – and when the fourth wall is getting broken, it's great."
As a mature content warning on the High on Life Steam page reminds us, the game features "Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, and Violence" – so it begs the question, is there a line? "Oh, there's definitely a line," Spano laughs. "We sort of have these tiers of development. We have the room that doesn't really get offended – that's where we pitch all of our 'what if we did this terrible thing' ideas. And then we kind of go, 'okay, maybe that's too much.' A lot of times we'll have an idea and then when you get it in-game you're like, 'that's not hitting right.' It's definitely something that we think about, but we do like to push as much as possible."
"Think about the moment where you killed the kid – we give that choice to you as a player. We didn't tell you to kill the kid, that was your choice. You chose to kill the kid," Spano continues, laughing again. "You can go out of your way to not kill the kid and have a totally different experience. We want to let the player make these decisions so that we're never forcing something really uncomfortable on somebody."
The game behind the guns
Spano likes to describe the world of High on Life as 'Blade Runner if it were designed by Jim Henson', but there are other influences in the mix too. It's clearly channeling the oddities of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath and the free-flowing carnage of Xbox 360 era shooters like Bulletstorm, although Studivan points to an unlikely inspiration: Metroid Prime – Nintendo's stunning, silent crawl through a hostile alien world.
"Well, it certainly isn't the silence that we've taken inspiration from. Metroid Prime is a silent game, and we're not a silent game," laughs Studivan. "You know, we are all huge Metroid Prime fans. So many devs dream of one day making a Metroid Prime game, and while High on Life isn't a deep metroidvania, we did take inspiration from its lock and key elements," he continues, adding, "and if you think about how [Retro Studios] handled the re-traversal of areas, they really squeeze every last bit of juice out of the environmental storytelling and level design."
Want to know more about how this game plays? Then you'll want to read our direct High on Life hands-on preview.
High on Life features similar squeezing then, as you navigate dynamic alien worlds that range from "jungle paradise to a city built inside an asteroid." You're also going to spend a lot of time at the hub of the cosmos – Blim City. "We love games that have a hub that changes over time. It really lends itself to the world building – Deus Ex is a really classic example. So from the beginning of development, we knew that we'd use your house (which warps away from Earth) as a sort of microcosm of the entire adventure."
It's from your home that you'll gain access to Blim City, a sprawling hub that expands as you gain new traversal abilities and is home to "some of the funniest bits and jokes in the game." Your house is also where you'll encounter Gene, a washed-up, unhoused intergalactic bounty hunter who has taken you under his wing – if you die he gets the lease to the house, but he's otherwise eager to see you succeed in saving humanity. Spano tells me that the core game cycle sees Gene advising you on the surviving bounties and from there "you punch where you want to go into the Bounty 5000 that's been installed in your living room, track down and try to kill a bounty, and a bunch of weird, dumb shit happens along the way."
"Once you kill a bounty, you take a little chunk of their body with Knifey, turn it into the Bounty 5000, and then it brings you back to the hub area," Spano continues. "There are shops and all kinds of stuff you can do in Blim City, as well as different NPCs to meet and random stuff to find as you get more abilities." Studivan adds that Squanch has "taken great care in creating a world that feels lived-in" which will reward players who take the time to explore. "Oh," he adds, "and there's a whole alien language in there – alien languages are in vogue in games these days, and we've got one too!"
You can take on Garmantuous's gang of alien goons in any order from the Bounty 5000, and different cartel bosses will ultimately reward you with new abilities, collectibles, and access to the other charismatic weapons. "We'll bring you back to each of the levels a little bit as part of the main story, but you can always go back and explore between bounties if you want to," says Spano, who explains that you can even purchase unique warp coordinates from a black market dealer in Blim City and that, when punched into Warp Bases on each level, will spawn in unique content. "You can warp in all kinds of fun stuff – random narrative beats and weird puzzles. You have to find a location in a world where you can warp that stuff in, and we hope it encourages backtracking."
Each of the four weapons (a pistol, shotgun, submachine-gun, and launcher) have primary, secondary, and ability fires. Kenny, the pistol, has a 'glob shot' which crashes through elements in the environment, while the shotgun appears to allow you to place ledges that you can then leap between – or swing toward with Knifey's tether ability. "It was our plan from the start to always have the guns be able to unlock areas. Those were more complex to start, and now they are where they are… making games is hard work," laughs Studivan.
Thankfully, traversal and gunplay feels fantastic in High on Life. I wasn't surprised to learn that design director Erich Meyr and technical director Nick Weihs are former employees of Insomniac Games – lending their talents to the Resistance trilogy, Sunset Overdrive, and countless Ratchet & Clank games. You can sense that in the way movement and shooting coalesces, particularly as you find yourself strafing between waves of projectiles fired from something like a swarming gang of giant ants.
"Combat is a little strategic, a little bullet hell-y – we're trying to mix all these different elements to make something new," says Studivan, who wants players to know that there's more to High on Life than rapid fire jokes. "The game I always think about is BioShock. Why was it so successful? It had this great story, it was this great immersive sim – but the shooting was top notch. That kept it all together; we tried to think about that as we were making our game."
What's next for High on Life?
High on Life is a singular experience – so clear in its creative vision that it's difficult to turn away from, if you're willing to get on its level. Squanch Games is keenly aware of how easily comparisons are being drawn to Rick and Morty – no surprise, given that Kenny has been front and center in the marketing campaign, complete with Roiland's infamously sharp, stammering delivery – although Spano is ultimately glad that the studio has invested in a new IP it can call its own.
"Most of us on the team weren't involved in creating Rick and Morty or Solar Opposites. We wanted to build something we owned as a team – that was like our baby. A lot of the ideas initially came from Justin, but we've really built upon those and our team is really attached to this game. I think if we had hooked up with Rick and Morty or Solar Opposites, we wouldn't have been as involved in the decision making. It's really important for Squanch to own its own IP – High on Life is 100% our IP, and we can do whatever we want with it."
High on Life was delayed from October to December as Squanch Games was concerned that God of War Ragnarok and Modern Warfare 2 would dominate the conversation.
High on Life is set to release on December 13 for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC, and it'll be available to all 25 million Xbox Game Pass subscribers from day one. "It's scary for a small team," says Studivan, considering the pressure, "but we feel like we're delivering, and that's a good feeling. We want people to stick around and we want people to talk about this game; Trover's success was largely through word of mouth, and we expect the same to be true of High on Life. If people are into it, we expect to add cool new shit in and support this game for quite a while."
In fact, Squanch is already thinking about ways it can build out this world and expand upon its initial concepts – if players vibe with this first try. "It's gonna be a bit of a waiting game, to see if the game takes off, but we have big, big plans for this universe. There's even some little secrets that hint at potential sequels in there," Spano teases. "It's just a matter of whether there's an appetite for it, and I think there will be. And if there is, I think there's a long tail on this franchise. We have so many fun characters that we couldn't get in, and we're hoping to do some DLC. If people like High on Life, we are absolutely happy to do sequels for a very long time."
High on Life is one of our most anticipated upcoming Xbox Series X games. It's set to launch on December 13, 2022 for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC, and it'll be in Game Pass from day one.