“I Didn’t Leave Games, the Games Left Me”

by Shannon Drake 3 months 0 comments

Amidst the flannel and depression of the mid-’90s, there was Earthworm Jim, a surreal world of toilet humor and offbeat jokes in an entertainment culture drowning in seriousness. While Shiny ex-pat Dave Perry usually gets the credit for the games, the creator of Earthworm Jim is artist and animator Doug TenNapel. His expertise ranges from cult-hit video games like Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood to comics (GEARCreature Tech) and television (Catscratch), but he’s been noticeably absent from the gaming scene in the last few years. As a fan of his style and his creations, I wanted to find out how he got into the industry and how he wound up getting out.

He describes himself as someone who has drawn for his entire life, “just about every day.” He got his education at Point Loma Nazarene College, where he earned a fine art degree. Outside of that, he says, “I’ve taken some classic portrait classes and some intensive figure drawing classes to help supplement my education. Most of what I’ve learned about art has been during production. Production forces me to finish drawings and make them appealing as possible.” Going pro was a lifelong aspiration. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist professionally, I just didn’t dream that many people would ever pay me to draw,” he says, describing himself as a fan of Disney animation. “That was an early goal of mine: to be a great animator. Little did I know that my lazy California roots and lack of persistent training would prevent me from that kind of greatness.”

TenNapel’s video game career began with some freelance work. “I did some freelance animation for David Warhol (Loom) on some early Nintendo games. I got my first big job with Bluesky Software in San Diego to work on the Jurassic Park game for Genesis,” he said. “I always loved video games since the first time I played Pong at the local pizza parlor. I spent my summers in high school working in the berry fields to make a few bucks to ride into town and play Pac-Man at the arcade.” His work on Jurassic Park eventually lead to a stint at Virgin, where he met Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield, who, indirectly, contributed to the creation of Earthworm Jim.

“Earthworm Jim was my job interview at Shiny,” he says. “I had only known Ed Schofield and Mike Dietz for a few months when they left Virgin to start Shiny with DP [Dave Perry]. I had met DP a few times, and we were kindred spirits since we were both 6’8,” but DP had some really aggressive scams in mind, and I was still just an animator on the Jungle Book video game.” However, he says, “I was dying to get out of Virgin and wanted to be with Ed and Mike on whatever they were doing. Mike wasn’t convinced that I was their man yet, so he asked me to come up with a character to see if I had the animation chops. I was desperate for a job, so I put on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and hit play.”

Before the album finished, he says, “I had created Earthworm Jim, Psycrow, Professor-Monkey-For-A-Head, the Princess, Queen Slug for a Butt (DP named her) and Peter Puppy. Like I said, this stuff is easy, and I didn’t know then that these characters could all occupy the same universe, so I was just blowing stuff down. Earthworm Jim was the most interesting of the characters, though each was a sort of animal with very human characteristics. EWJ became my lead because he was a weak, vulnerable worm in a powerful battle suit! How cool is that? It was very video gamey, though I hadn’t seen anything like it I in video games. I did a walk cycle and presented him to Mike and Ed, who took him back to Dave Perry. I got hired (thank God. No, I’m not talking about you, DP) and then my real animation boot camp began. Mike and Ed were working on a vastly improved system of animation than we were using before, and my drawing needed to rise to the occasion. We did some figure drawing, and I did a lot of animation.

“At the time, DP was paying generously, so I could kind of work on my craft. Those early days at Shiny were incredibly fun, and I grew to deeply love my teammates. We worked hard … often 18 hour days even on weekends, and we made one of the greatest games of all time.” He describes the Shiny team as “the right team at the right place at the right time with the right character,” adding, “Earthworm Jim changed a bit over time, especially since Mike and Ed did much of his standard (run, jump, shoot) animation, which is really how the look of a character is described. I was more in charge of the bad guys.” He cites Mike and Ed as his inspirations, saying, “There are few inspirations in gaming, but I’ve always enjoyed my work-mates Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield. We challenged each other on Earthworm Jim to really push our animation skills. They have been mentors both in animation and in real life because they are skilled artists but also successful family men, a rare combination.”

When I asked him about the process of designing a character, because it can’t all be Fleetwood Mac and desperate drawing, he said, “Well, there’s a tough question. You’re asking about ‘the blue spark’ that fires and magic happens. I don’t know exactly how it happens, but I know it’s extremely easy for me to create characters and worlds. It’s something I’ve always done and it’s one of the few things I’m really good at. The process is always done with a pencil and paper, and since I draw every day, I create critters every day. The public has only seen very few because there are only very few that a business is willing to put money into to bring them to your eyes. Nobody has paid for you to see my best work, but you get the idea of what I’m about from what you’ve already seen.”

Curious, especially with such halcyon talk of days gone by, I asked what happened, why Dave Perry and Shiny get most of the credit for his characters. “After five months of production on the Earthworm Jim game, I still hadn’t assigned the character to Shiny, so it was getting dangerous for them to still be doing the character unless they were going to take it by force and challenge me to take it back. Dave and I shared works and Mike D. was kind of the referee. [Dave] needed the rights to the character, and I wanted to make sure I controlled the character, so he didn’t get whored out to make porn or who knows what. I also wanted credit as creator, and I wanted to make a small per-cartridge rate. DP ended up agreeing to a signage of rights where we shared creative control, I got a small per-cart rate and credit where marketing deemed convenient. We were both teary-eyed because we needed the other to compromise, and I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I bit the bullet and trusted him. It was the single biggest business mistake of my entire career.”

According to TenNapel in a separate interview, he retained “a small level of approval and creative control which I contractually have to share with Dave ‘Earthworm Lance’ Perry. They’re supposed to pay me a minimum royalty on every Jim thing sold but Interplay’s lawyers have loop-holed their way around having to pay me a cent.” The rights to the franchise have traveled with bankruptcies over the years, from Interplay to Infogrames, then to the re-born Atari, and TenNapel has been largely out of the loop. Games made largely outside of his control include Earthworm Jim 3Ddescribed by Gamasutra as “a success neither commercially nor critically” and the largely forgotten Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy.

He’s quick to add, “Now, I have to unpack that, because it’s not fair to just make DP out to be a rip-off artist, but at the same time, I didn’t have legal representation and I had to trust his handshake on my role as creator. … That said, I burned myself out of control of my character, [and] that, I think, is the burn that keeps on burning. If you hate incarnations of EWJ, it’s probably because they’re jacking with stuff that is out of my control, and when I had control, you loved the character … because I get Jim better than others.”

“I can’t let your readers think that this is the end of the story, because while I cut myself out of some of Jim‘s profits, even my tiny slice landed me a quarter million dollars and a fine salary, notoriety and incredible training working with DP. He’s a generous employer and a good friend, just not a perfect friend. And even today, when I pitch a show to JJ Abrams [AliasLost], he shakes my hand and says, ‘You created Earthworm Jim?! Have a seat and let’s talk.’ So Jim is the burn that continues to burn with what I can’t do with him, but he is the gift that has opened every career door I currently walk through. We can play the would’ve, should’ve, could’ve game all day, but I’m in a good spot today, and it was all because I was willing to shake DP’s hand that day instead of exercising my rights and putting his nuts in a vice.”

I asked him if he had any bad feelings about the deal, or about Dave Perry. “When s— companies cut me out of control of my own character, recreate the character, don’t want to pay me to work on the character and I have to ask someone else’s permission to do a movie of my character, I have some bad feelings about signing that deal in 1994 … because that’s where I signed away some of those rights and left the character open for idiots to destroy. But DP and I get along fine, and we had fun for the short time we worked together on Jim PSP. It was going to be the greatest game of all time, along the lines of the original Jim, using much of the original team. I don’t know what it’s going to be now because they won’t show it to me.”

Besides Earthworm Jim, he’s worked in a variety of media, from comics and standard animation to the Claymation work in The Neverhood. I asked about his reason for this exploration. “It’s because I love to tell stories, no matter the medium. I go where I’m invited to sit at the campfire and do my thing. Sometimes, people want me to crack a video game; sometimes, people want me to crack a movie or TV show; [and] when nobody wants me to do anything, I crack a story in comic form. The thing that I’m good at is finding a connection with a broad audience without selling out creative ideas. I’m very similar to my audience in this way, I have conservative leanings but I don’t like to be bored by endless ‘me too’ creations.” He cites comics as his favorite medium, saying, “Hands down, graphic novels are the greatest storytelling medium at my disposal. I can’t tell a story by myself without getting someone else’s permission and money in any other medium, since they are cost prohibitive. Can I animate a TV show by myself? No. But I can make a graphic novel that would cost $400 million to make into a movie by myself in my studio with ink, a brush and six months of free time. Graphic novels are the storyteller’s wet dream.”

With that in mind, I asked him about the recent resurgence in comic books as a medium. “I think comics’ recent success is due to illiterate executives who don’t like to read so many words without pretty pictures. I could read H.P. Lovecraft, but that’s too much work, so I’ll read Hellboy instead, thank you. (And by the way, I think Hellboy is better literature!) Comics aren’t as deep, but we don’t have as much time to get our media fix, so we go for the cheaper crack, since it’s not as hard to get as heroin. I think execs (and our general audience, myself included) find comics easier to read, so more of them get picked up and passed on to hyper ADD audiences used to MTV editing styles.”

Regarding his own GEAR, he says, “I’m sure a lot of people have thought at one time or another that their cats (or their lives) would make stunningly entertaining comics/television, yet in most cases, this is a bit of an exaggeration.” The difference between his “cat stories” and others, he says, is because, “all of my stories are intensely personal, but I put a skin on them to help communicate my humanity to a broad audience. I could turn my butt into a hero’s journey that would make you cry, if I had enough pages to set up my butt’s plight. I write what I know, and I like to tell stories about my cats in GEAR because we all anthropomorphize our animals and make them into bigger heroes than the poop-machines [they] actually are.”

In a previous interview, TenNapel said, “I love my fans, but never ever design a game for your fans.” Curious in this age of all-out pandering. I asked him about it. “My Earthworm Jim and Neverhood fans are voracious,” he said. “They go completely nuts when they even think about the game and the characters, and this is fine; I love those people. But at some point, they just love the feeling they got when they were with the characters, and it’s not my job to recreate the environment for their inner 9-year-old to get his jollies. In many ways, video games are just another kind of drug. … Players can receive a high that is not unlike a drug or an orgasm, and they may associate this with my character. So, now I didn’t just create a beloved character, now I’m their dealer supplying them with junk. I’m not a pimp, I’m a storyteller. And I can’t help it if I make kick ass games that you get addicted to. Yeah, they’re that good. So I try to keep my fans’ desires and impulses out of the forefront of my mind when I make something new.

“After all, before I made Earthworm Jim I was drawing Drew the Iguana, a comic character I made in college that had a fan base of 30 people. If I only served those fans and just made Drew the Iguana, I never would have gotten around to EWJ. When I made EWJ, if I stayed there I never would have made Neverhood or Creature Tech or GEAR or Tommysaurus Rex or Catscratch. I don’t get anywhere imitating myself, and I encourage my fans to also move on and enjoy variety, in addition to EWJ saturation. It is in the spirit of creativity that I keep making new stuff that entertains millions of youth around the world. My audience deserves the very best from me every time I set pencil to paper; this is my duty and my pleasure. When I have fun making characters, they always come out better than characters I make at gunpoint. I hope my fans see that by not creating exactly for them that I’m actually making better stuff for them!”

That brought me back to the gaming industry. I’d noticed that in early interviews with him, he seemed very enthusiastic about being involved with computer games. Later interviews had a much more jaded feel to them, as seen above. And there was the fact that he’d been out of the industry for a while. I wanted to know what happened and why he left. “To be accurate, I didn’t leave games, the games left me. When I was in games in the ’90s, it was still a cottage-run industry, and now it’s a bloated, retarded, perpetually adolescent rip-off factory.

“I’ve always been willing to make games out of my love for the medium, but the industry isn’t really interested in telling good stories, or even making great games, for that matter. That’s a generalization that applies to 95 percent of the gaming industry. Yes, you who are reading this right now; admit it, it’s just a job, and that over-the-shoulder shooter you’re making right now sucks, and it’s going to be camouflage on the shelf if you [get it out by] Christmas. Tell your boss to hire me to fix it, and have your camera ready for when he gives you the bird. Save that picture, and when your game gets killed by bad reviews, send that picture to his shareholders, because he’s part of the problem and I’m part of the solution. To quote the Joker: ‘This town needs an enema.’

“If I seem like a grouchy old man, it’s because I love and respect the medium of games, and I expect so much more from interactive content. It doesn’t cost a lot to bring a competent vision into a game company, but people don’t want to spend $250,000 that will save a $16 million game. And it’s not like in-house gamers don’t know what they’re doing, either. At every company, there are kids who can design their asses off, and they will not be cut loose on creation because they are too busy doing the Spider-Man 6 vs. Supertampon game.”

What would it take to get him back? The answer is simple, he says. “Some company with enough money and clout to hire me to make something spectacular that is original, simple and plays well. I fart this stuff out every day.”

Shannon Drake

Shannon Drake is a game designer, writer, consultant, and PR strategist who has been working in the video game industry for fifteen years.

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