Chris Charla doesn’t look like a guy under much pressure—but when your new game title is being touted as a potential “killer app” for the Sony PSP, you’ve got every right to be a little nervous. With launch games that didn’t exactly wow critics, the PSP’s sales haven’t reached Sony’s projections. But Death, Jr. is expected to help change that. With its stylized graphics and offbeat storyline, the platform/shooter has stood apart from the handheld’s other titles ever since it was announced. Now, with its August 16 release date edging closer, gamers are eagerly awaiting their chance to plug Death, Jr. into their PSPs. As senior producer of the game (and Executive Producer for Development at Foundation 9 Entertainment), Charla knows exactly what they’ll be playing. In this interview, he gives us a preview of Death (Jr., that is).
What’s the premise behind the game?
You’re an average, every day middle-school student—except your dad happens to be the Grim Reaper. Obviously, this causes some problems in your middle school, like the other kids aren’t that great of friends with DJ (Death, Jr.) because he looks like a little skeleton. But he does have this core group of freaky friends he hangs out with: Pandora, who’s a little Goth girl; Smith and Weston, who are twins conjoined at the head; Stigmartha, a girl whose hands bleed when she gets nervous; Dead Guppy, who’s a dead guppy; and the Seep, who’s kind of like an armless, legless fetus in a jar.
So on a field trip to the local Museum of Supernatural History, they sneak away from the main group, and Pandora finds this box that she really wants to open. DJ has a little bit of a crush on her, so he whips out his scythe, smashes open the box, and unleashes hell on Earth. So he realizes, as his friends are getting their souls ripped out of their bodies and sucked into the box, he should probably call his dad. Clearly, something is afoot with death, and he’s really screwed up—but he also knows that if he calls his dad, he might get grounded or go to military school. So he sees a sign that says “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass,” and there are two pistols behind it, so he smashes it with the scythe and away he goes. Basically, you have to get rid of all the demons that have been unleashed, rescue your friends’ souls, and confront Moloch, this necromancer who’s been trapped in the box.
What inspired this concept?
We were working on a tech demo, and we needed a character to put in it. We weren’t really planning to do a full game at the time, and we came up with a big list of different characters, like a female secret agent, a guy with an axe, all that kind of stuff. And one of the artists just slipped in this sketch of this little dead kid, and it just said, “Todd, the Son of Death.” And everybody who saw it said, “That’s just freakin’ hilarious. We’ve got to do something with it.” Especially because it was a tech demo, there’s not a lot of risk. And then when we started showing the tech demo around, the publisher and media interest was so high, we knew we had to keep going. So we fleshed out the world and did a comic book with Ted Naifeh, just self-funded, which we gave away at Comic-Con. It just kind of grew from there.
I think we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to have a shooter—the basic goal of the game was to have Mario with a gun, so you’d have this combination of platforming and shooting. You’ve got platforming with the scythe—you can use it for ledge grabs, wire slides, and stuff—but you’ve also got this huge arsenal of guns: twin pistols, electric gun, rocket launcher, and C4 hamsters, which are hamsters with a charge of C4 on their back that just squeak to an enemy and explode. We have a level set in a middle school—we wanted to figure out how we could do a shooter set in a middle school that wouldn’t upset anyone. But if you’re ever confronted with demons in your middle school, you should kill them.
Was there any caution over designing such a morbid game about Death in these socially conservative times?
Death is like the ultimate supernatural civil servant. It’s not his job to determine where you go after you die. He’s like the mailman: When you die, he shows up, he severs your soul from your body, and away you go. You can argue with him all you want, but at the end of the day he’s not a force for good and he’s not a force for evil, he’s just a force of nature. And the notion that his son is extremely cute, sort of naïve, and doesn’t 100 percent know what his dad does for a living is just funny. Especially when he’s holding a scythe that’s twice as tall as he is.
So who is Death, Jr.’s mother?
She’s a beautiful woman with blonde hair who’s wearing pearls and high heels while she’s vacuuming the living room, very much like June Cleaver. We’re doing a comic book for Death, Jr., too, that (artist) Ted Naifeh and (writer) Gary Whitta are doing, and mom gets explored a little more deeply there. And of course, she has to be the classic ‘50s housewife.With the focus on familiar games and characters in the industry, was it difficult to find a publisher for an original title that’s so unconventional?
It was definitely a lot of hard work, but there was never a time in the game’s development where we felt “It’s hopeless. We’re never going to sign this. It’s all over.” Every time we went to publishers, even if they were like, “This isn’t quite for us,” they really liked the game. So that gave us confidence to keep going. And we actually got a ton of advice from publishers even if they did turn it down. Some of the best advice we got early on was from Konami, and they were like, “We like this, but this is the kind of game and new character that you need to launch with a new platform. We don’t want to get this and launch it on PS2 and have it be lost mid-way through the console’s life cycle.” So we made the decision after PSP was announced to develop exclusively for PSP. We were able to go back to Konami, and they were like, “Now it’s a peanut butter and chocolate situation.” In the whole 18 months or so that we were working on it before we signed the game, there was a lot of work to do but we always felt like, “There’s a cool thing we can do, and it’s almost in our grasp.” We never felt like we were getting rejected by publishers.
What was your experience like developing a game for the PSP?
It’s been great. It’s always really fun to develop for a new platform, just because it’s cool that you’re getting to do stuff nobody’s ever seen before. You’re finding graphics modes that no one’s ever really done before—you’re finding bugs that no one’s ever seen before. It was definitely tough. The PSP is awesome system to develop for, and it’s pretty easy to get up and running—but to get a lot of performance, it gets a lot harder. There are a lot of dead-ends and mines you can fall into, and we found most of them the hard way because it was a first-generation game. But that said, now that we’ve finished it, we know where all those things are, and as the development went on it got a lot easier. Obviously, with new hardware, there are always some challenges.
Since Death, Jr. has been touted as a potential “killer app” for the PSP, did you feel any added pressure?
No, we put ourselves under a lot of pressure at all times, so I don’t think we ever felt any extra pressure. Like, we’re already at “11,” so we couldn’t go to “12.”
How did the stylized look of the game get developed?
The original look was very simple, and kind of like hand-drawn—that was what the original concept art looked like. As we moved forward, we experimented with a couple of different looks, but we always wanted to keep it cartoony—not in a cel-shaded way, but stylized. The game happens in the real world, but it’s a slightly tweaked version of our real world. You’ll probably need a psychologist to explain the exact mechanics of what made us come up with Meat World, or setting a third of the levels in a children’s insane asylum. But it was just a desire to make it look unique.
Now there’s talk of making Death, Jr. its own franchise, with more games and possibly a movie. How are those plans shaping up?
When we developed the character, one of the first things we did was to make a comic book to help flesh out the world. That was received very well and got us into a lot of Hollywood discussions. The comic is actually out now on Image, and the first story arc is two-thirds done. That led to discussions with Madhouse, who is working on an anime version of it. And then there’s the feature film—I can’t really say exactly where it is in the production process, but it’s near the beginning.
Are you planning a sequel?
We would love to do a sequel. Absolutely. That’s all I can say!