Adventure Time creator's love of video games and animation are hopelessly entwined

Pendleton Ward loves video games. He also loves drawing.

Pendleton Ward loves video games. He also loves drawing.

His greatest success, at least so far, happened when he put the two together and created an animated television series called Adventure Time. It's a show about Finn, a 14-year-old boy, his talking, stretching, magical dog of a friend Jake and their adventures in the colorful, post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo.

Now the show, inspired by a heady mix of gaming, Dungeons and Dragons and indie comics, is getting its own video game.

But it's not exactly what Ward originally had in mind.

Just six months after Adventure Time's spring 2010 premiere on Cartoon Network, before the show was nominated for three Emmys and had cemented its monstrous, cross-demographic following, Ward took to Twitter to noodle out some ideas for an Adventure Time game. It was a topic he kept returning to for years. He'd talk about the idea of a game with realistic physics and characters with limp, noodly arms. He wanted a game that would talk back to players if they tried to break the rules.

It's not exactly what Ward had in mind... but he thinks you'll like it.

What if, he told me during a recent interview, the player wanted to walk outside the limits of the game.

Ward described a grasslands setting of infinite green hills and blue sky. A level that if a player kept walking, ultimately the game's Finn or Jake would resist and turn to the player to yell at them.

"Then he would clip out of the world and you would see the rest of the level load up in front of you, everything," Ward said. "And he would say, ‘I hope you're happy, you put this on yourself.'"

But that's not this game. This game is Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?! A title being developed by WayForward Technologies for the Nintendo DS and 3DS for release later this year.

While it may not be exactly what Ward had envisioned (some of his early drawings included diagrams of how players would press and release buttons to punch in different directions as they walked), Ward and his love of gaming still have plenty of influence on the creation.

"This is a different game than what I was drawing about on Twitter," he told Polygon. "The game that's coming out for the DS is heavily inspired by Zelda 2 for Nintendo.

In the upcoming game, people take on the roles of Finn and Jake as they punch, slash and throw enemies in a quest through The Land of Ooo. The action-adventure game has light role-playing elements as well, allowing players to level up their characters' speed, strength, health and attacks.

While the game's official description sounds a bit routine for something based on the sometimes subversive humor of Adventure Time, Ward says it's still true to the franchise.

The story, for instance, subverts the traditional "boy saves princess" tale found in Nintendo's classic Super Mario and Zelda games. In Hey Ice King, Jake and Finn are chasing the princess-obsessed Ice King through The Land of Ooo not to save a princess, but to get their garbage back.

"What the Ice King is doing throughout the game is building different princesses out of garbage," Ward said. "But you don't care about the princesses, because they're made of garbage. You just want your stuff back."

Ward's love of video games was only pre-dated, perhaps, by his love of animation and art, but the two seem to have always been entwined.

"When I was a kid I was already working on flipbooks," Ward told me when I asked him which of the two interests blossomed first. "When I was little I would make my own levels on notebook paper after playing Mario; creating levels with lava pits and spikes and things like that.

"All we're trying to do with every episode is make it fun to watch and make you feel nice when you're watching it."

"I was just drawing stuff that was fun, stuff that my imagination wanted to be real."

Over the past few years, Ward said, he came to the realization that he's not just a gamer, but, he said adopting the the vernacular of gaming, a "hardcore gamer." He says these days he spends a lot of time playing zombie-survival game DayZ, a stark change from his time spent playing more open-ended experiences like Second Life.

"I love games because I want to make games," he said. "I buy games that are bad just to see what's wrong with them."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that this realization of his love for gaming came as he was working on Adventure Time. While Ward calls the many video game references found in Adventure Time, accidental, there's no denying that gaming is an important part of the show. Jake the Dog is voiced by John DiMaggio, who's voice work in Gears of War make him an almost iconic part of gaming history. Jake and Finn both spend time in the show playing video games and one of the duo's friends is Beemo, a sentient video game console.

"It isn't intentional," Ward said when I asked him about the many references. "All we're trying to do with every episode is make it fun to watch and make you feel nice when you're watching it."

But he does point to specific episodes that even more directly video games and says that whenever he's in desperate need for inspiration in creating a creepy botanical garden, he likes to "think a lot about Bioshock."

The entire script was put through the "Pen filter."

In helping to combine his interests in video games and animation, Ward found himself running out of time. Ultimately, that meant that most of his input for the upcoming game has to do more with the game's narrative. But that doesn't mean he didn't offer some advice about gameplay.

"I'm able to influence it in little ways," he said. "I talked with them about Zelda 2 and moving from third-person, top-down gameplay to side-scroller in dungeons. That's in the game, and that's cool."

And he's not without ideas true to the heart of his own subversive nature.

For instance, Ward suggested that a set of characters that look like rocks with eyeballs make shrill, "scream queen" screams when they're killed. He also suggested that the game include a specific option in its settings to turn off those rock screams.

"That's all up in the air right now," he said.

James Montagna, director at WayForward, said Ward's involvement went beyond writing the game's story. After they received Ward's initial story, the team put together a skeleton of the game and then created a script based on where you would be going, and who you would be talking to.

Ward then took that and rewrote it, putting the entire script through the "Pen filter," Montagna said.

"It was a lot of back and forth discussion," he said. "As far as gameplay features go and the moves you do, that was us coming up with the sort of things that we'd like to see, and of course Pen had his input on that. What's interesting on that is, we get a lot of instances where Pendelton will email us, and he'll send a little funny sketch of, for instance, 'I want Jake to turn into this shape' and he'll just draw it out and we'll get all these really goofy doodles in every email we get from Pen. So that was how he expressed the sorts of features and moves and things he'd like to see in the game."

Mariogif

Ward's very busy these days. So busy he doesn't have the time he used to, to drop ideas on Twitter. But less than three hours after our interview the man behind Adventure Time was once more struck with an idea and he took to a newly created Tumblr account to announce it.

"My name is Pendleton Ward," he wrote above an animated drawing of Mario jabbing the air in front of him with a plunger. "I want to interview people who work on games."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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