Interview with Jeff Stewart, creator of Space Quest 0: Replicated

This interview appeared in audio form in episode 18, but is also available here for your reading pleasure:

1) First of all, please tell me what you feel comfortable divulging about yourself. How long have you been a Sierra / Space Quest fan, and how did you first come across the series?
Well, Space Quest 2 was the first video game I ever played. I got it for Christmas the year it came out and played it on my Tandy 1000HX. I was only just learning how to use a computer and I actually formatted the disk in the process of trying to launch the game for the first time. Don’t ask how that happened cause I don’t remember why, but luckily the folks at the computer store were kind enough to replace the game for me. So in Space Quest II when the black screen appeared with “Welcome to Space Quest II” on it, there was this feeling of elation and accomplishment, so the rest of the game was just icing on the cake.

2) What made you create and design your own adventure game? Why choose Space Quest as the subject matter?
It’s a nostalgia thing for sure and the game content is so easy to create now. I was working at EA at the time, there was a lot of crunch going on and I just needed a project to work on for fun. Something to help blow off steam. There was a bit of activity in the AGI development space with the editor and NAGI and others.

I really grew up with Space Quest. I loved the snarky humor and the violence and the parody. In a lot of ways the game kinda validated my own interests for me. I was kind of a nerd in a good ole boy culture and it was nice to see that there were other geeks like me.

3) Why did you choose to do a game in the style of the old AGI games? Why not something contemporary?
It’s stupid simple to make the art and animations and I really appreciated the nuance involved. When you do pixel art, you have to make some elements a bit cartoonish so that they will “read.” You can’t just put a pink pixel on the screen expect people to know it’s a band-aid, right?

And it’s also a challenge to make some elements animate correctly. Drawing diagonal shapes is often tough because of the staircase look from the pixels.

Doing pixel art and animations is a lot like anime at times, because you get to switch styles completely just to get an expression out of a character.

There’s so many challenges to doing pixel art, but ultimately it’s easier and more engaging than more contemporary styles. Every step you take in the direction of realism is going to cost you exponentially more time usually.

4) What do you feel the parser enables you to do that you couldn’t do in, say, a point-and-click style game?
The parser frees you in a way to do lots more, but you still have to leave enough hints so that modern players who aren’t used to these kinds of games can know which questions to ask.

I didn’t really look at this game very hard from this point of view though. If I had, I probably would have included a lot more mad lib style mechanics or something.

There are some elements of parser games that I prefer to point and click, like the manual control of the character. I also like the feeling of exploration you get when using the parser. That back and forth 20 questions style game that’s usually just about finding keywords was really cool back in the day. It created this mystique that the computer was almost another entity that you were communicating with.

I remember these all day binge gaming sessions where the end result is just getting to the next room. Us old school gamers really took a lot of punishment.

5) The graphics for the game are really stand-out spectacular. They almost rival that of Mark Crowe himself. How did you go about creating the graphics for your game?
Thanks man, I appreciate that. I had some thumbnail sketches just to lay things out, and I used PICEDIT, which lets you draw over a background. So I could sometimes cut and paste things and trace them. Mostly I just made it up as I went along, and I borrowed heavily from the style of the other games. You can really notice the quality bar was raised between the early King’s Quest series and the Space Quest games.

6) You included an arcade sequence in the vein of the SQ3 Nukem Dukem Robots, namely the Light Saber battle. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
I had a ton of arcade style sequences planned, and many didn’t make it in. The lightsaber duel was really just a Star Wars ripoff scene and wanting to kind of include a lot of different “Space Quest-iness” in the one game. I wanted to make a super mario clone called Super Pinkun Brothers and make a mini game where you were being chased through space. Ultimately I got more busy at work and rather than shelve the project, I just decided to finish it quickly.

I’d also never done a fighting game before and wanted to explore that. The light saber battle came out ok, but it was missing the third action, which was going to be a kick or shoulder ram type move. I honestly just didn’t feel like coding it all at the end of the day. 😀

7) In broader terms, what are your opinions of arcade sequences in adventure games in general?
Ah, ye olde argument. I’m not going to be authoritarian and say that arcade sequences do not belong in adventure games, but I’ve certainly played a few where it felt tacked on and not fun. The skimmer sequence in SQ1 was too hard, IMO. I’ve also played a few where it worked. Running from the Sequel Police in SQ4 was all kinds of saveload frustrating but it seemed to fit in the game to me.

So I guess I’m a fan as long as it flows well. When it’s fun, not overly frustrating, and it doesn’t feel shoehorned in.

You can look at a game like Sid Meier’s Pirates that sort of feels like an adventure game and then you have this arcade element that’s present throughout. And then you have the newest version where most of the arcade sequences do feel kind of tacked on. And then you get people that say Sid Meier’s Pirates isn’t an adventure game! and then I point them to a game like Police Quest with all of the driving and ask where you draw the line. I think it just depends on the game. I love it when genres are transcended or mixed and it just “works.”

8) Are there any interesting hidden things / easter eggs in the game that you are prepared to divulge?
I think people have found them all. I didn’t really go overboard with the secrets. I did include a lot of references, like Dr. Bowdler is supposed to be the same guy mentioned in one of the other game manuals. A lot of the things in the game like the slime devil and the decontamination chamber are from those little comic books they included with the older games.

9) What was your inspiration for Xavi, the romantic interest in the game? What’s her story, anyway?
I think I based her look off of Drew Barrymore. And being a scifi nerd I just totally dig blue chicks. Her back story is very purposefully mysterious, but one thing most people don’t know is that she has tentacles. I won’t say where.

Seriously though, most of the story of the game is just kind of pieced together. It’s full of lulls and plot holes and if I had been clairvoyant I would have probably put more effort into it.

10) The game is 11 years old by this point and came out during a time when the Space Quest community was, truth be told, pretty much comatose. What do you think of this current resurgence of interest, of the Two Guys reuniting, and the upcoming SpaceVenture?
There’s been rumors for years about Sierra and something happening with the Space Quest license. It’s a mystery to me why there isn’t at least one live action Space Quest movie somewhere. It would have to be terrible, of course. But it should at least exist! I’m such a loyal fan at this point I’d probably buy a steaming pile of doo if it had the Space Quest logo on it.

I wish the Two Guys and team all the best! I totally want to play more funny space adventure game, and I’m a big fan of the Two Guys. I want to see what they bring to adventure gaming as well. The new game looks fun and I can’t wait to play it.

I just wish they had let me join up! I sent my resume! Jerks. 😀

11) Have you played any of the other fan games? Not just the retro ones (Vonster’s “Lost Chapter” and Boston McShew’s “Decision of the Elders”), but Space Quest: Incinerated and Vohaul Strikes Back?
I have not. Now I’m curious though. Gotta go see what the community is up to.
I hadn’t even played any of the fan games when I started making SQ0. I did eventually play most of them and I had a lot of fun seeing such different interpretations of the Space Quest universe.

12) Finally, any interesting stories about the development, the technology, the artwork, anything at all you feel I may have missed?
I think SQ0 was something I just had to “get out of my system,” you know? I had, and still have, so much love for the games but they were so mean in some ways. I have this love/hate relationship with Adventure games ever since.

I don’t play many games in the genre because they tend not to capture the same magic as the old AGI games did. Those games were like halfway between an idea and an art piece. There’s enough resolution that you can tell that a little guy is walking around, but not enough that you can draw many conclusions or specifics. Your brain gets to make up a lot of what’s going on, and I think that’s cool.

A buddy of mine got SQ0 working on his DS and I remember thinking that’s cool and all, but you just killed the fun of the game. Instead of guessing what to do you now have a categorized list of keywords to pick from, most of which didn’t really make sense in context.

I built SQ0 in such a short time that I didn’t really agonize over any details. Because of that, I was able to crank it out, but there’s all these little trouble spots that I see in the game and think “that was just a terrible idea.” Nowadays, I spend more time designing these really interesting (I think) games but I just never actually finish them.

And of course, there’s only ever so much that you can ultimately do with a fan game. It’s a riff off of someone else’s IP, so you can’t sell it. The most you can do with it is use it to pad a portfolio or something.

But if you’re clever you can maybe ride the wave of an idea, and produce your own new thing that just draws some inspiration from the things you love. That’s really what the indie game development “meta-dialogue” is about. That’s why I got into games. Well, that and Space Quest. 🙂

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