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In videogames, there are your wisecracking anthropomorphic critters, your angst-y androgynous teens and your adrenaline-fueled space marines - and then there's Winterbottom. Hunchbacked and bulbous, with a stovepipe hat, a Picasso schnoz and spindly fingers that seem to perpetually click together in giddy anticipation, he's equal parts Dr. Robotnik and the Little Tramp. Forget money, women and power; he's driven (perhaps even haunted) by an all-consuming lust for pie. And he'll do whatever it takes to procure it - even if that means tearing a hole in the fabric of space and time itself.
Winterbottom is the brainchild of Matt Korba, formerly a student at the University of Southern California's Interactive Media Division and now the President and Creative Director of The Odd Gentlemen, an upstart game studio located just down the street from USC's campus. In February 2008, Korba and company presented the portly pie thief to the public when he demoed his student thesis, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, at GDC's Experimental Gameplay Sessions. Now, nearly two years and thousands of pastries later, Winterbottom is nearing a Q1 2010 release on the Xbox Live Arcade.
"It's kind of crazy to go from doing a Flash game, which we really were just making for fun, to seeing that, 'Oh, hey, this might actually go somewhere,' to having our own company right after we graduated," says Korba. "We really haven't had the time to even reflect, because things have been moving so fast."
It's not the first time that a group of students have catapulted themselves into the public conscious with a single wildly imaginative concept. In fact, USC has some pedigree in that regard. "thatgamecompany had already come out of USC," Korba says, referring to the developer of experimental PlayStation Network titles like flOw and Flower. "Kellee [Santiago] and Jenova [Chen] were two years ahead of us, and they had already done their thing, and once we started getting attention, it was like 'maybe we can set up something similar.'"
The Odd Gentlemen's first project displays a flagrant disregard for marketability. Winterbottom is pale, bald and misshapen, with a silhouette that is all torso and top hat. He has no discernable motivations or impulses unrelated to the acquisition and consumption of baked goods. And the world he inhabits is both silent and colorless, save for a jaunty ragtime-piano soundtrack and a couple choice tints to convey basic gameplay information. Yet it was this staggeringly anachronistic vision - a piece of 21st-century interactive media that harkens back to the silent filmmaking of 1920s artists like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang - that made Winterbottom stand out.
"I think we were at the right place at the right time with this pretty cool idea," Korba says. "We never thought any of this would happen so quickly. But it also makes a little bit of sense just from where videogames are at - the downloadable services coming into play - that someone would be able to do something like this."