Bone – TellTale Brings Bone to Life

July 2, 2005

The prospect of taking one subject matter that is intrinsic to a certain medium, say comic books, and transplanting it into a decidedly different medium is both an exciting and trepidacious proposition. All of us have seen those things close to our heart taken and watered down for the sake of banking in on their popularity and making a few quick dollars. This shameful truth has never been the sole ownership of the videogame industry, but its presence has always seemed to be felt more acutely by gamers and followers of the medium. How many games since the age of sprites and sixteen colors have been suckered into dropping their hard-earned money in exchange for a box pushing their favorite moniker, only to find the game within the box to significantly lacking? Total Recall, Superman and even the infamous E.T. have all been positioned in such a way as to appeal to an existing fan base, despite sporting an underdeveloped end product.

So why do we still follow these games that try to ride upon the coattails of popular properties? Well, morbid curiosity has something to do with it, for sure, but recent years have shown that a talented team and a passion for creating a genuinely memorable experience can turn what should have been a train wreck into something special. Granted these successes are still more the exception than the rule, but it is encouraging to know that the simple prospect of having a game being made about a popular movie, comic book, or whatever else is far from a predestined death sentence.

This is why when we first heard that the team at TellTale Games, a company that has existed well below most gamers’ radars up until now, was working to bring Jeff Smith’s venerable Bone comic to the PC in the form of a new adventure game, we kept our chins up and our hopes high. On the one hand, a failure would mean lots of subsequent therapy and nights spent sleeping in the closet crying over the latest graphic novel. Then again, the property has such potential, and a success by TellTale could mean something substantial for both casual and devoted fans.

Those of us at eToychest felt it was our civic duty to get down to the truth of the matter, and find out just where the loyalties of these folks at TellTale Games lied. To that end, we struck out on an epic quest that led us to sitting down and speaking with programmer Randy Tudor at TellTale. Randy is currently hard at work on the Bone game, but he was gracious enough to turn away from his computer screen long enough to put our fears to rest regarding the game, and to tell us a bit about where the team is planning on taking players with the title.

First of all, before we begin, let me thank you for speaking to us regarding Bone. It’s a game we are very excited about. What has your role been on the project?

I’m the gameplay programmer. I get to take all the assets produced by the other members of the team, both programmers and artists, put it all together and make it go. There’s a lot of pressure, of course, but I think it’s the best job in the business.

What other games have you worked on prior to Bone?

The first game I ever worked on was Indiana Jones’ Desktop Adventures, the last LucasArts game to ship on a floppy disc. I also worked on Afterlife, Yoda Stories, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, ToeJam and Earl III, the ill-fated Full Throttle 2 and Sam and Max: Freelance Police, and some other Star Wars games.

Bone is a very long series that is essentially divided into smaller chunks. Will Bone follow the same storyline as the series? If so, at what point in the series does the game take place?

Essentially, yes. The first episode parallels Out From Boneville.

How is the story of the Bone game broken up? Is it told as one long story, or it broken up into smaller acts?

It’s a serial adventure, broken up into episodes. Out From Boneville is also the first book published by Scholastic as part of their new graphic novel imprint, Graphix. It happened to have great content for the first game. We will see if the next book, The Great Cow Race, works as well.

How many and which characters will be playable?

There are 3 player characters in the first episode. The first half of the game is mostly Fone Bone’s, and the second half more heavily Phoney’s. The third character? Well, I will tell you it’s not Smiley.

What kind of adventure game will Bone be? Is it point and click, more action oriented, or rather more focused on puzzle solving?

We tried to achieve a balance between narrative and puzzle solving, with a bit of action thrown in to spice things up. The first episode has dialog puzzles, traditional inventory puzzles, and a few actions sequences.

Outside of playable characters, what of non-playable personalities? What others from the comic can players expect to see?

Well, just about everybody. The Bone cousins, Thorn, Gran’ma Ben, Ted and his big brother, the dragon, Kingdok, and of course the rat creatures, all figure prominently in the first episode.

How stupid will the rat creatures be?

Stupid stupid. The Rat Creatures are just great villains, they have so much personality.

How much involvement and creative input does Jeff Smith have on the project?

Well, he hasn’t asked to look at any of my code yet, but we’ve consulted with Jeff on just about everything: the look of the characters and environments, character animation, voice casting and game design. Jeff is a great storyteller and has offered much to the team in terms of bringing out personality. He is also a trained animator, which explains the great sense of movement he achieves in the comic book.

As fans of the comic, you no doubt are aware that much of the comic’s humor is dependent on the panel-to-panel style inherent to the comic structure. How has this translated to an animated medium without panels?

I think we’ve done a good job of capturing the essence of the comic. We can use the camera to achieve much the same kind of panel-to-panel affect. I can’t say yet what the final result will be, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction.

Will the game feature voices, or is it pure text? If there are voices, have you begun looking for voice actors yet?

The voice actors have already been cast and recorded. Jeff was involved in the selection process which was cool, he pointed us in a general direction and we tracked down the actors. We are really excited with the performances!

When compared to other arguably more mainstream comics, Bone is not as well known. How are you planning on overcoming this niche nature of the comic in order to appeal of a more mainstream audience for the game?

Scholastic recently published the complete Bone series in a single volume, and is doing a great job of bringing Bone to a larger audience, so that will help. Bone has developed a strong following over the years because it is high quality, it is just now getting mainstream notice it may be on the cusp of being huge. As a developer, I want to make games that I would like to play myself; if we sell a million copies in the process, that’s great, but I’m happy just going to sleep at night (sometimes they let me go home) knowing that I’m working on a game I can be proud of.

How far along is the game currently, and what facet of the game is the team currently working on?

We’re quite far along when you consider we’ve only been in production about 5 months. At the moment I’m working on the Dragon’s Stair scene. I’m not sure what everyone else is doing because I’m working from home right now, but I know Kevin Bruner is working on a top secret action level in the desert because he keeps bothering me with email about locust, jumping Bones, and rampant subtitles. Graham McDermott is probably eating and working on our dialog tool. Heather Logas is likely working on dialog logic and monitoring the number of days since our last power failure. Graham Annable and Kim Lyons are no doubt making the game look even more beautiful. Jon Sgro is probably making up a more stringent file naming convention while rigging Smiley, light mapping 3 different environments, and worrying about being a new father very soon. I’ll bet Dave Grossman is thinking of something very witty. And Dan Connors is probably worrying.

What are you, as a single person on this project, most proud of thus far in the game’s development?

All of it, but especially the Bone lunch box Jeff gave us. It kicks ass. Dan got a Phoney t-shirt. I’m jealous.

Again, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Bone. Is there anything else you would like to add that we have not yet touched on?

Just that they made me say all that about not wanting to make a lot of money. Buy Bone! I gotta put three kids through college!