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.”
Winterbottom also fills an emerging niche that larger, more risk-averse studios may be ill-suited to serve: those players for whom the latest re-skinned first-person shooter has lost its appeal. “There’s been a lot of next-gen games coming out, and the big deal with those is ‘photo-real’ and ‘let’s push the boundaries with the technology,'” Korba says. “For me, I was like, ‘I want to try something that’s totally different in style.’ We have all this technology, but we can use that technology to do stuff that’s surreal as well.”
Certainly, videogames are no stranger to the bizarre and dreamlike; the medium will forever be in debt to a certain mushroom-chomping, turtle-hucking plumber. But Winterbottom‘s weirdness is a bit more studied. “I was a film major before I was at USC,” says Korba. “I just love silent films, and I wanted to bring some of that charm into the gaming world. And I wanted it to be something that was simpler and tell a much simpler storyline that was humorous. Silent films captured that very easily.”
“But if you look at what we’re doing, we’re not creating a true silent film,” he continues. “We’re creating nostalgia of a silent film. Like we have the scratches, and we’re playing with grain and frame rates. If you were to watch silent films back when they actually came out, they were perfectly crisp and clear.”
Like last year’s indie darling, Braid, Winterbottom lets you play with the passage of time. But where the former centered on a “rewind” button, the latter focuses more on a “record” button. You can create multiple copies of yourself that interact with each other in unique and unexpected ways: One Winterbottom might dip into a pool of freezing water, creating an ice-block platform to help you progress through the level, while another might wildly swing his umbrella, lobbing you across a gap or directly into a scrumptious dessert.
Occasionally, Korba says, the necessities of Winterbottom‘s gameplay forced him to depart subtly from his original vision for the game. “My artistic side wanted to put no sounds in it, and make it just like a silent film, but you do need some sounds just to let the player know what’s going on. So we’ve used very minimal sounds, and we’ve tried to keep most of the sounds musical so it fits in with the score … the old-timey music was such a big part of the experience and how it played with the comedy that was going on onscreen.”
Then there’s the color scheme, or lack thereof. “We’re doing the game in black and white,” Korba says, “and we really had to work hard to make sure that the backgrounds and the foregrounds were sticking out appropriately, because color is used a lot to distinguish the two – the background will be shades of blue, while the foreground will be shades of red, or different brightnesses. We didn’t have any of those tools, so we had to go back to the basics of composition, and we had to do a lot of research about old photography and how they composed shots.”
The net outcome of that research is one of the most visually distinct platformers in recent history, a game that has earned a small but devoted following and the Odd Gentlemen their first publishing contract. In August, the Gentlemen announced that they had signed a deal with 2K Play to exclusively distribute the game via Xbox Live Arcade.
“We actually had met with the head, [Take-Two Chairman] Strauss Zelnick – he was at USC and we had lunch with him,” Korba says. “He has a really strong opinion about just letting creative people be and giving them the support they need to do what they need to do.”
That wasn’t the case with the other companies the Odd Gentlemen spoke to about Winterbottom. “Some other publishers we went to, everyone really liked the idea, but some of them wanted to put their own spin on it – make it in color and all that kind of ridiculous stuff,” says Korba. “We got pitches about, like we should take Winterbottom‘s mechanics and put licensed content in it. So like have the Tasmanian Devil instead of Winterbottom.”
For Korba, that approach misses the point. It’s not about making a game that will appeal with the largest number of players – it’s about making a game that he would want to play. “When a team is passionate and they put love into their work, it shows. And I think people can tell that this isn’t just some generic super-hyper character that was designed to shoot down a bunch of baddies. It’s genuine.”
Of course, true innovation spawns imitators, a lesson that indie developers have learned the hard way in recent years. “I think that more and more people are starting to look toward the indies,” Korba says, “and unfortunately games like Crayon Physics have been straight ripped off – before Petri [Purho] could even release his game there were rip-offs and clones of his mechanic.”
When Winterbottom sidles onto Xbox Live Arcade in early 2010, expect larger studios to notice. Indeed, one company may have already been inspired by the pie pilferer’s time-shifting antics: Insomniac’s most recent installment of Ratchet & Clank, A Crack in Time, features a similar recording and playback mechanic. When pressed, Korba acknowledges that the timing lines up, but says it’s more likely the result of a “time zeitgeist” in game design than anything else.
“Everyone can copy a mechanic,” says Korba, “but it’s your particular game and how you’re using it that makes it unique.” And whether there will ever be another character like Winterbottom again, this is one student project that will likely be studied – and hopefully enjoyed – for years to come.
Jordan Deam would create his own time paradox if it allowed him to enjoy some delicious pumpkin pie any sooner than this Thursday.