Pendleton Ward is the creator of the Emmy-nominated animated series and pop-culture phenomenon Adventure Time, along with the new original series Bravest Warriors on Frederator Studios’ YouTube channel. Both cartoons have already spun out popular comic books, and Adventure Time, which just entered its fifth season on Cartoon Network, is featured on lines of action figures, apparel, and school supplies. Pendleton spoke with The Gameological Society about his involvement in the recently-released Adventure Time game (Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!), his favorite games of the past and present, and the contact lenses of the future.
The Gameological Society: As a cartoonist, game design is not really your area of expertise. How involved are you in the game?
Pendleton Ward: I wrote half the script, with James Montagna. I talked with [the development studio, WayForward Technologies] in the beginning about what we could do, what everyone could do, and what I would like to see. They took my suggestions. I feel like that’s what I did with it. I’m so busy with the show. I wish I could have been at the studio all the time, every day.
Gameological: Even before this game was announced, you posted sketches on your Twitter account of what your dream Adventure Time video game might be. Did you approach the higher-ups, and say, “Hey! Here are ideas, let’s make a game,” or did they come to you and say, “We’re working on a game, and we want you involved!”?
That’s what’s interesting to me about games. Interactive storytelling.
Ward: I was just sitting back and daydreaming about what the game could be. I don’t think my ideas are in the game—my old suggestions. It was fun, that’s all those (sketches) were.
Gameological: From an animation standpoint, in the first trailer for the game, I recognized Paul Robertson’s animated sprite work. Do you recall when Robertson got involved? How familiar with his work were you before the game?
Ward: I knew of him, but I didn’t know everything about him. The game studio got Robertson really involved, and I got so happy. I’ve became a big fan just recently after I knew he was working on the game. After I heard he was on the Adventure Time game, I looked up everything about him, and now I’m a turbofan. That’s the coolest part of the game to me, that Paul Robertson did all these big sprites for it. They’re really awesome, and really cool. They make the game. In the game, there’s an ice bull in the Ice Kingdom, and you can see these entrails and stuff from like a dead body. That’s another one that Paul did that’s awesome. He just killed it with the guts spilling out. It looks like it was Alien.
Gameological: That sounds like something out of Robertson’s film Kings Of Power 4 Billion %. Aside from the game aesthetic, there are a lot of stylistic overlaps between Adventure Time and The Legend Of Zelda. I know that Shigeru Miyamoto once said that Zelda was based on his own experiences as a kid, where he’d wander through the woods, and make up adventures. Did Adventure Time come from a similar place for you?
Ward: It started as just a sketch in a sketch book. I was drawing the characters. It was just a doodle, a random doodle, and I plugged in my personality into them—my friends’ personalities—into the characters. It’s just everything I would want to see. I tried to make it what I would want to see if I was a kid watching cartoons. I don’t think it pulls from anything real. If it does, it’s a raw, emotional realness, not any actual adventures I’d been in on my real life. We try to treat it real, and have the characters feel real. Those are my favorite kinds of shows to watch.
Gameological: Have you given much thought to the types of stories that games can tell in a different manner than animation?
Ward: I was playing the new Doom from like six years ago—I can’t remember which one it was. It was so terrifying, and I was playing at night with the lights off, headphones on, and the screen right in my face. I was moving through that world, and there weren’t any enemies attacking me; they were just messing with my head. I was moving through an area, and I’d see a silhouetted demon skitter across outside a window. That would freak me out! It was all sounds and effects like that. My hand was shaking so bad that I had to stop playing the game, because I couldn’t play anymore because my fingers were shaking so much. I couldn’t press the keys, I was barely able to press control-alt-delete and shut down my computer. It was like the worst nightmare of my entire life, and that was inspiring because that’s what games have over television. You’re pressing the “W” key, which moves you through the scary area, you kind of have to interact with it. That’s what it has over the television. Was that what we were talking about?
Ward: That’s what’s interesting to me about games. Interactive storytelling. I feel like it’s still relatively untapped. I think stories generally come second in game-making. It’s usually gameplay first, which is super-important, but I want to bulk up the story parts in the game, and see if I can reach the maximum potential in game-making and all that. It feels like a new frontier still.
Gameological: Recently, there was the Adventure Time Gamemaking Frenzy 48-hour game jam. You recorded a keynote for the jam and posted some of your scores in the games on Twitter. Was there anything in that group of games that particularly surprised you?
Ward: There were like 400, 500 submissions. I haven’t gone through them all. The first one on the page, I think, the first one had a really small Finn in like a top-down Zelda.
Gameological: Adventure Minute.
Ward: Yeah! That was amazing when I played that. Trying to get all the different bad dudes.
Gameological: I was genuinely impressed by a good handful of them.
Ward: They’re exceptional for the two day crunch. Oh, you know what I really liked? I liked the games that were made by Ice King. Did you see these? Virtual Princess Dating Sim. It’s made from the Ice King’s point of view, like the Ice King made it.
Gameological: Now that we’ve got our hands on the first official Adventure Time video game, are there talks about branching out? Like an Adventure Time board game, card game, or role-playing game?
Ward: Yeah, I’d be down for a tabletop role-playing game. That’s all I can do for that one. Ask. Nicely. I’m sure something will happen if this game does well. And if not, we’ll just keep making game jams.
Gameological: They seem to turn out well. In the past year and a half of the show, BMO [the sentient video game console that lives with heroes Finn and Jake] has become more of a main player. How was that decision made to beef up the role?
When you’re pushing that “W” key and you have to move yourself through, it gets really intense. I like the potential in there.
Ward: After you do two seasons, like, what are you going to do? I look to The Simpsons a lot, because The Simpsons was awesome, to me, growing up. You’re just trying to expand a world, developing all the side characters. But more than that, it’s just that I love BMO. BMO’s my favorite character on the show. Niki Yang [the voice of BMO] does an awesome job. We went to school together. She’s cool. Everyone thinks BMO is so cute and super fun to write for, so those episodes are the ones where everyone wants to write them on the show, everyone tries to reserve the episodes with BMO.
Gameological: Are there any other Rainicorns?
Ward: Her parents, yeah. They’re in the crystal dimension. We had a whole episode in the first season where they were going to go there, but it got canned for one reason or another. You’ll see more, though. Talking about it now reminds me that we need to go back there.
Gameological: Have you played any games based on cartoons in the past? Like there’s been a ton of Simpsons games, a handful of Avatar: The Last Airbender games. Recently there was the Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion.
Ward: The Beavis And Butthead Sega Genesis game was my favorite game like that for a really long time.
Gameological: You’re not the first to tell me that.
Ward: Virtual Bart, that’s awesome. Probably the best Simpsons game. I’m trying to think of some other ones, I don’t know. Cool Spot? I don’t play a lot of licensed games. I played some old stuff, a game with The Noid.
Gameological: Domino’s had The Noid.
Ward: I had some game, like, the only colors they could use were pink and blue, and you were The Noid and you had to get to the top of the tower. I played that.
Gameological: As you’re on the fifth season of the Adventure Time TV show now, lots of ideas have had to be cut and left on the floor. Were there any ideas that had to be cut in the show, but found their way into the game somehow?
Ward: No, it was all new ideas in the game. I don’t want to spoil anything. Nothing from the cutting-room floor. But we had to cut a high-five out of an episode one time where Finn and Jake gave each other a high five. I just had to get another second or two out of an episode to cut it down. That was a bummer, and then I tweeted about it, I think Jhonen Vasquez was like “Make that its own episode, then. Just them doing one big long high five.”
Gameological: “Five Short Grables.” I love that episode, especially because of Emo Phillips as the narrator. The thing that consistently amazes me about the show is the celebrity voices you get.
Ward: For me it’s the most fun part of having this show, getting to meet super funny people, people I admire. LeVar Burton came in recently to do a voice of a bubble. I freaked out because he was complimenting me, saying he liked the show. I’ve never done this before, but I started choking! I lost it and couldn’t recover. It was awesome! A lot of them come in and surprise us that they’re fans of the show. LeVar was talking about how he liked the show a lot, and how his daughter was cosplaying as one of the characters. I thought that was awesome. That was another thing making me freak out, that they like the show so much. A few of them are fans. You know, celebs.
Gameological: You didn’t do any music for the game, did you? I know you wrote the show’s theme song, and there’s tons and tons of great music by Rebecca Sugar.
Ward: I composed a short song for a secret screen. And I also did some animations for it.
Gameological: I read somewhere that you said if people buy enough copies of Mercenary Kings, there will be a Pendleton Ward in the game for you to rescue.
Ward: You can. I totally dropped a lot of money on that Kickstarter. You can rescue me somewhere in the game. That was one of the prizes in the Kickstarter. You can also play me as a character in the new Shadowrun Online, which I also did in the Kickstarter.
Gameological: What games are you playing these days?
Ward: I’m playing Super Hexagon on the iPhone.
Gameological: That game is crazy hard! Everything by Terry Cavanagh is just crazy hard.
Ward: Yeah, it’s hard, but I’m so good at it. It’s all I’ve been playing right now. I’m at 121, so that’s where I’m at right now, on the base-level hexagon. I’m not playing it until my friends can beat me. Jesse Moynihan, one of the storyboard artists on the show, he showed me Super Hexagon. Now I just shove it in his face every time I beat his score—121 is pretty high up there, so I’m just waiting for someone to beat me. Someone who can feel the drive.
Gameological: I think it might be a good long while. You might be the king of the heap on that for a bit.
Ward: I don’t know. They’re encroaching upon my score. It’s pretty fun, man. It really puts me in a wild state where my heart’s flopping around when I get up past nine. I think it could hurt somebody. You keep going faster and faster. Other games I’m playing—did you ever play Enviro-Bear?
Gameological: I loved Enviro-Bear 2010. The first half hour you’re playing it, your brain hurts, because you’re trying to figure out the controls. You’re like, “I have to drive this way, then I have to grab the fish, and put the fish into my mouth, and then keep driving.”
Ward: It’s really well done. You should look up this game that’s a fighter on the iPhone: The Thousand Seasons Of Kyumori, Episode 1. It’s not the best game. It’s funny to play. The style is rad. It feels old-school.
Gameological: Between Super Hexagon and Doom, it sounds like you really enjoy getting your heart pumped, getting some adrenaline when you’re playing games.
Augmented reality is cool. You could get contact lenses to turn buildings into dragons. Why don’t we do that?
Ward: I think that’s what I like when playing Doom. I hadn’t felt that kind of fear since I was really small. As an adult, it’s hard to have that feeling, like in a movie, going to a movie, you get all scared. When you’re pushing that “W” key and you have to move yourself through, it gets really intense. I like that, I like the potential in there. I think in the first F.E.A.R. game, they had an awesome—I was playing the demo. They’ve got a little girl. There’s one ladder in the demo, you look at it, and there’s nothing down there. When you turn and move down the ladder, the camera turns around, and you see a little girl in front of you. That scared the hell out of me, because there’s something about expectations in games, and turning around and going down ladders to see what’s out there. It plays off my expectations. That’s what I like the most.
Gameological: Which do you prefer, modern games, or the games of your youth?
Ward: All of the above. It’s all fun. It all has merit, old-school games and new games. For a while, I was first place in the world playing the Tron first-person shooter, when that came out a few years ago. [Laughs.] I think that’s because it was me and 12 other 14-year-old kids playing it. I like that the Tron first-person shooter is like being inside computers, like ReBoot, that cartoon.
Gameological: There have been a lot of advances in modern technology in games—we have touchscreens, and motion controls, and all this stuff. Is there anything you want in an Adventure Time or Bravest Warriors games that modern technology just doesn’t do yet?
Ward: Good question. Augmented reality is cool. I think the trick is getting it without all the heavy gear. Or any gear at all. You could get contact lenses to turn buildings into dragons. Why don’t we do that? There was a comic back in the day called The Good Guys that no one liked, but I liked it so much. It started as a contest, like a real-world contest for kids to submit their powers and their photograph. [The comic’s creators] picked one, and they would just draw them with whatever powers they wanted. It was really exciting to me when I was growing up. To be in a comic. I think they’re still doing this. Now that I have money from my TV show, I can pay people to put me in their video games.