The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
Leviathyn’s Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne Interview
NBC’s Community is a show that all too often steps outside the conventions of the sitcom genre it falls within and for a lot of gamers watching the show, the Season 3 episode “Digital Estate Planning” was a dream come true as it followed the cast of the show into a eight-bit video game adventure called Journey To The Center of Hawkthorne. Community has always been a show with a particularly enthusiastic fanbase so it should come as little surprise to some that a group of fans enjoyed the episode so much that they set out to bring Journey To The Center of Hawkthorne to life. I was able to have a chat with the game’s development team about the origins of Project Hawkthorne and their progress in bringing the game to life.
Leviathyn: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, do you mind introducing yourself and giving some insight into what inspired Project Hawkthorne?
Kyle Conroy: My name is Kyle Conroy. I’m a software engineer from California. I saw the “Digital Estate Planning” episode the night it aired, and thought it would make a great video game. However, I didn’t do anything until a week later when I saw a post in /r/community. It was a sprite sheet for the video game version of Abed. I took that sheet and made an incredibly basic version of the game. You spawned as Abed in the study room. You could run right and left. That was it. I posted that to /r/community and the rest is history.
Gemma Haines: I’m Gemma Haines. I’m a math graduate from England. I’d done a little bit of coding for my degree, mainly MATLAB (and Java – which I’ve since forgotten). Lua was completely new to me. I’ve been working on this project since June 2012 (about 2 weeks after its inception). I started out making costumes then turned to standardizing the sprite sheets (so all characters have the same actions). I finally started coding for the game in early 2013. Like most people who get involved it’s because I wanted a new feature in the game (overworld costumes) and the devs were busy working on essential features so I thought I’d do it myself to ensure it got done. Since then I’ve done a bit of everything – bug fixing, making the game look more like the episode, adding non-coders’ contributions to the game, editing levels, and play testing. Probably the thing I’m most proud of doing is the scanning animation at the start of the game – I recreated all the images from scratch and then animated it all.
Stephanie Rochon: I’m Stephanie Rochon, a Canadian graphic design graduate that’s now pretty much a freelance artist and comic-convention vendor. I first came across the game when I was doing a marathon re-watch with some friends around early March, and I said how cool it would be if NBC actually made the game in “Digital Estate Planning”. One of them said they thought they saw a fan-game for it, and away to Google I went! I know nothing about coding, but when I saw that they needed artwork and costumes to be drawn, I hopped on that right away! My first contribution was in March, of Annie’s Werewolf costume (I’ve always been better at drawing animals than humans, so it was a good starting point).
How long have you been working on the project? Where is it in terms of completion? What features are planned for the future of the project?
Kyle: The project started more than a year and a half ago. The first version (which I described above) was released on May 20, 2012. We’re working on adding more elements that were seen in the show. We’re close to letting players light the town blacksmith on fire.
Gemma: Because of the possible scope of this game based on what we saw or heard in the episode, it really could go on in development forever. We’ve got a completely playable game but the end is rather anti-climactic without a boss battle. New features for the next release include autosaving, in-game costume changing and a refactored options menu. I know fans really want us to add more features which appeared in the episode – killing the blacksmith, making Abed babies, armour, etc, but I don’t know what I’ll get round to taking a look at next.
Stephanie: I feel there’s still a ways to go (like making Castle Hawkthorne feel like a true “final level” that tests all your skills of the previous places), but as long as we have the foundations – we’re on our way. I just wait for the others to request my drawing services, since I don’t know code and my attempts to learn fall flat. (You know you’re a lost cause when you can’t even execute “Hello, world!”) Oh, and I hope we can get more bosses up and running. I was raised on Zelda so I’m firmly in the mindset that great bosses can make or break a game.
The episode features some pretty crazy and ambitious stuff – how much of that is likely to make it into the final Project Hawkthorne and what kind of things will get cut?
Kyle: The entire character of Gilbert has been removed. You can play him as a character, but in the game he is not your enemy. We’re also not focusing on multiplayer until the single player version of the game is finished. Lastly, Abed’s scripting environment may never make it into the game.
The Community fanbase is a very enthusiastic one – how has the support you’ve gotten for the Project been from them?
Kyle: Their support is the only reason Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne exists as a game. We’ve had over 300 people contribute art, code, and sound. A huge shout out to /r/community, as they were the ones that contributed most of the help.
Gemma: Amazing. There have been people videoing themselves playing the game, people from all over the world telling us how much they love it & at Communicon we had people gazing at our laptops in awe and amazement that this game actually exists. One of the things that made me most amused has been reactions on tumblr to some of Hilda’s responses. I coded in some replies to the hundreds of topics she can talk about as place-holders for people to read until we actually make use of them in the game. Fans on tumblr have gone through and recognized pretty much every reference I put in there – from Parks & Recreation, Cougar Town and Veronica Mars to The Princess Bride and Monty Python.
Have you had any interactions or acknowledgements from the cast or writers the show?
Kyle: Yep, the majority of the actors and writers know of the game or have played it. I actually got to meet Dan Harmon because of the game, which was really exciting. My favorite moment, though, was when two of the artists who worked on the game got to play it for the first time.
Gemma: Yes! When we first started out the cast and crew were tweeting about our existence. Then someone (I think it was Jhoff) recreated the missing tag that was supposed to appear in the episode – with Pierce playing catch with his father. Megan Ganz asked us to add Pierce smiling if he got over a certain number of points and we made her cry. Then she showed it to the cast. Developers have talked to the cast and crew at the “Six Seasons & a Movie” art show and both Communicons. They all really love it. Bucketh3ad and I had a long chat with Dan Harmon about the game and how if Sony had actually paid professionals to recreate the game they could have made a ton of money. I’ve also talked to Yvette about the game and she’s blown away at how much effort fans put into everything they do and how many levels we’ve managed to make. Erik (the guy who plays Garrett) complained at the first Communicon that he wasn’t a playable character and then at the second that he didn’t have any additional costumes (he does now). Irene (Annie Kim) made fun of how she looks in the game – with angry eyebrows and a frowny mouth. Every single interaction with a fan/cast/crew member at Communicon was absolutely brilliant. Everyone was very positive and enthusiastic. Well worth the long trip.
Stephanie: I wish. Under all my enthusiasm for the game, I’m actually a pretty shy person, so I haven’t really tweeted the cast or crew. Although money is a bit tight for me (insert “starving artist” joke here), I’m going to do my best to make it to Communicon this year.
While the Project seems pretty focused on bringing “Digital Estate Planning” to life, it looks like all sorts other Community-related costumes and characters are making it into the game?
Stephanie: As someone who got her start contributing costumes (and later a portion of Greendale), I believe it’s a good starting point for contributors. Also, my coding knowledge is remedial, at best. Costumes and Greendale are how I can help build the game without completely destroying it.
Kyle: Yep, thanks to our fabulous artists, we have 21 characters and over 342 different costumes in the game. Yes, 342. That’s not a typo. We also have our own version of the Greendale campus complete with many rooms featured in the show.
Gemma: I’ve always been a huge supporter of having the costumes in the game. It’s an easy way for people to contribute without any experience or a huge amount of talent and was what made me first get involved. I went “I can do that” and things just snowballed from there. Community as a show is filled with pop-culture references so naturally fans want every single possible reference to the show possible added to the game. Everyone’s had some amazing ideas (and some truly terrible ones). We try to keep non-Hawkthorne related stuff in the Greendale levels. We’re not going to be able to create a game for every episode this show’s ever done but we’re getting very close to having references to them all. Some of my favourite levels are the Winter Wonderland and Cave of Frozen Memories levels which I’m sure a lot of people have never found because they’re tucked away in a basement. They couldn’t possibly have happened in the episode’s version of the game but because of Greendale, we can make it happen.
Part of the fun of the show’s Journey To The Center of Hawkthorne was the way that Pierce’s Father’s outdated and racist worldview was reflected in the game. Is there any temptation to downplay or exaggerate that?
Kyle: We’re trying to downplay it as much as possible. Many people start the game and then get a bit freaked out by confederate flags in the background. For the levels that we created, we tried to make them fit the theme, but not be offensive. It’s a difficult line to walk.
Stephanie: It’s a fine line to walk, I can tell you that. Some of the NPCs you see went through several revisions before I felt they were appropriate. It’s a shame my hard drive failed recently, because I could have shown you some of the earlier designs of Leslie the Traveling Sales-bian in Gay Island: She was much more “butch” looking – and frankly, kind of scary.
Is it challenging bringing the virtual world of “Digital Estate Planning” to life in terms of balancing fun gameplay and being true to the events in the episode?
Gemma: Absolutely. There are a lot of fans who would be very happy just to have a recreation of the episode on their computer and along with that come the frequent request to be able to kill the blacksmith, make Abed babies, and get multiplayer. Those coding the game know how difficult this is to actually achieve and are also focused on creating a completely playable game – something’s that’s actually challenging and fun to play and can stand up on its own legs as an actual computer game in addition to being a huge fan project.
Stephanie: That’s a question that has a bit of a tricky answer. Obviously many fans are clamoring to re-create what they saw in the show, but trying to do so is easier said than done. One of the big issues I made note of was falling in love with Hilda and making babies. Either we’d have to create X amount of assets for babies and new towns for each player – which would take up a lot of resources, or force the player to play as Abed in order to complete the game. Thinking outside the box (and episode) will need to be done, I guess.
Project Hawkthorne is being put together by a number of fans across the world – can you outline how that development process works?
Kyle: We do all of our development using GitHub. Any developer can submit a patch with a new feature or a bug fix. We code review it, test it out, and merge it into the main codebase. Once every few weeks, we cut a release for players.
Gemma: As Kyle has said, we use Github which means everyone can edit their copy of the code and submit it for other people to check and give suggestions and if it’s good, it gets merged into the game. In the beginning we needed to get A and B done, then we could do C and there was more of a structure and guide as to what to work on next. As the contributors have thinned out and the game’s become more complex and detailed, people work on what they want and Kyle gets the final say on whether to include something and where we’re taking the game.
With the rest of the current devs either in the US or Canada, I haven’t felt left out being 5000 miles away. I generally work on the code on my own then call out for help when I run into a problem. Being a morning person when everyone else is a night owl is sort of a blessing. I can hop on to IRC and chat with them on a Sunday morning and they’ll still be up from the night before. It’s not unusual to be talking to someone from Canada and someone from Australia at the same time. More than once I’ve gone “surely one of us should be asleep right now?”
I think out of the 50 people who’ve contributed code, one person had experience using the language beforehand. Everyone’s been very helpful in teaching others how to get involved and even a weak coder is given a huge amount of support because someone getting 70% of a job done and needing a boost to get it finished is way more helpful than them not trying at all. It also gives us motivation to see a feature through to completion – way easier to tweak something to get it the way we want it than to have to start from scratch.
If I could say one thing to people who want to get involved but feel they can’t because they aren’t coders, I’d say “give it a go.” I came into this project only being able to program code to solve partial differential equations and print graphs of the output in a different language. From that I’ve become one of the top contributors and helped to shape this game.
Should Project Hawkthorne be completed, do you have any other ideas for game projects that you’re interested in pursuing?
Stephanie: Oh, you bet. I’ve got almost half a dozen ideas running around in my head. Maybe, in the rare case that I ever actually code something competently, it may be done. Otherwise, I guess I’ll either suck up to the coders here, or get a Kickstarter going to hire one. =P
Kyle: I personally don’t, but it’s not a problem: Hawkthorne is going to be a game that gets updates for a long time.
Gemma: I see Hawkthorne hanging around for a while. I don’t have anything specific for what I’d do next but Hawkthorne’s definitely reminded me that I enjoy coding and I’d like to continue. I’m currently taking an online course in C and I’ve got some game ideas floating around for what I can do for my final project but haven’t made any decisions yet. If I were to make a game it’d probably be a simple logic-based game rather than a platformer or RPG.
I think the game is coming together quite nicely and it looks like when it’s done it’ll be the kind of fun multiplayer retro sidescroller adventure not seen since the Scott Pilgrim game from a few years back. You can find out more about the game (and try it!) at either the Project Hawkthorne website or their subreddit. For more Community-related goodness, check out Leviathyn’s TV Show coverage here and for more indie-centric goodness have a read of our recent interview with the developers of the aerial mecha game Project Nimbus.
Thanks to the development team for agreeing to answer our questions and a big thanks to Kyle, Stephanie, Gemma and everyone else who has contributed even a little bit to Project Hawkthorne – you guys are shining examples of exactly what makes the Community fanbase so special.