In What Are You Playing This Weekend?, we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Jhonen Vasquez made a name in the early 2000s as a purveyor of dark comedy thanks to comics like Johnny The Homicidal Maniac and his anarchistic cartoon about the universe’s most incompetent conqueror, Invader Zim. The Gameological Society got Vasquez on the phone to talk about games, the post-smartphone world, and the joys of designing characters.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Jhonen Vasquez: This weekend, my friend and I are getting through some of the [downloadable expansions] for Borderlands 2. I just finished Dishonored. I still do the Black Ops 2 multiplayer stuff. What else am I playing? I just got that Uncharted for the Vita. I get a weird feeling playing on a lot of the handhelds. It used to be such a cool feeling, and now it’s more, “I want to play this on my TV.” My phone has replaced a lot of what Game Boy-style systems used to fulfill, the quick “sit and play then put it away” kind of game. I played Gravity Rush on the Vita, and I was like, “This is really fucking cool! But I want to see this big. I want to hear it big.” I don’t want to play games like that on a handheld.
Gameological: Even though people make these really wonderful games to play on your phone, it still seems like there’s a stigma surrounding a game you play on your phone as opposed to a game you play even on a handheld. There are like five people in existence that own a Vita. But for some reason a Vita game is taken more seriously than an iPhone game. Why?
Vasquez: I think it’s the culture of games. It’s that this comes from a certain somebody, or this comes in a box. It’s melting away. And I love when things start to die. It’s exciting. I have an entire library of awesome little games on my phone. It’s upsetting especially if you’re Nintendo or something, and this is your livelihood. I don’t like playing games that emulate physical controls. I love games that are made for the console that you are playing it on. Like on an iPhone or an Android or anything that is just touch based. There’s some incredibly clever games, and I love the whole culture of indie gaming that’s popping up around phones. It reminds me of the old PC game days, a lot of the shareware stuff. This has popped up since what? Since 2005?
Gameological: Not even. That first iPhone was 2007. So it’s been five years, and there’s this entirely new culture.
Vasquez: I love it. I always get depressed hearing people go, “Oh, things were cooler when…” blah blah. Things are cooler when I see them changing.
Gameological: And people come to that point where they have no concept of a world where they can’t play a million different things on your phone.
Vasquez: Or the concept of a screen that you can’t poke. I love seeing that pop up in me where I’ll go to a stinking ATM and I’m like, “Where is the touch screen? Why is it cracking?”
Gameological: And you’re punching it repeatedly.
Vasquez: Yeah. It’s become so ingrained that this is how things work now.
Gameological: It’s brought so many new people in, too, but you still see the “gamer” culture persist, this culture of being into something sort of niche, exclusive. For the life of me I can’t figure out why there’s still this idea that gamer culture is unique and outsiders must be kept out and yet everybody plays games on their phone.
Vasquez: You find that in every scene. There’re the people that see themselves at the core of it. I imagine them watching someone on a bus or something just playing on their phone and just hating them. Just actively like, “Ugh. Look at the guy having fun. Uuuuuuuuugggggghhhhhh.”
Gameological: My wife made fun of me when we were on a train recently because I saw somebody playing Angry Birds and I was like, “Goddamn Angry Birds!” And she was like, “You can’t stand it when people like things that are popular.” And I was like, “Damn it, she’s right! I’m awful!”
Vasquez: I’ve been at the other end of that. I mentioned playing Fieldrunners on Twitter and someone said, “Fieldrunners? You just lost so many points with me.” And I’m like, “Oh, no. I’m destroyed by how little I care.” But at the same time I do care, because why does that make you feel anything?
Gameological: What’s a game that’s broken your heart? You can go two ways with this, either a game that’s broken your heart because it disappointed you or a game that legitimately broke your heart. With sadness.
Vasquez: When I killed my horse in Shadow Of The Colossus, that was horrible.
Gameological: Spoiler alert, guys. God.
Vasquez: I was thinking about these moments in games or movies or even books—like the Iron Giant moment. Speaking of spoilers. It’s towards the end, and he’s, you know, sacrificing himself. I definitely had a moment of, like, “I feel something.” I didn’t feel this for the entire movie and I don’t love the movie but this moment works. Just this moment works and I well up inside. Not where I’m embarrassed, manly crying. But I feel something and I love it.
I love those moments. I was thinking about moments in gaming that do that to me because it’s even more rare. It’s harder to elicit that kind of response with a game. That moment with the horse was one where I was taken aback. It’s always a moment of surprise and appreciation on every level. It’s not just, “Oh, no, the horse died.” It’s an appreciation of the work that went into that moment, creatively and imaginatively, that all these things come together and work and how incredibly difficult that is to do. To make a moment work. It’s like I’m jealous of what it took to make that moment happen, you know what I mean?
Gameological: Do you think that Invader Zim would be more of a success on television today than it was 10 years ago?
Vasquez: I don’t know. I think that it needed the history to gain its popularity, does that make sense?
Gameological: What do you mean?
Vasquez: It’d be like if someone were to invent a teddy bear that walks around on its own, but it accidentally maimed a kid, then over the years people would be like, “That’s that teddy bear that maimed that kid! Ha!” Then they buy it as a joke, and they keep buying it and suddenly it’s very popular. I think Zim needed to maim people, and be punished for it, and gain the kind of infamy it has over the last couple of years. I don’t know the science behind it but it sounds right.
Gameological: So what are you working on today?
Vasquez: I can’t really say. I’m literally looking at a contract right now.
Gameological: Can you give me a medium?
Vasquez: It could be cartoons, coincidentally.
Gameological: All right, all right. Okay, cartoons maybe. We’ll put a big question mark there.
Vasquez: It’s a bunch of weird ambiguous things that sound weird. I might be involved in reviving an old toy line, weirdly enough. Some kinds of weird things that are really fun. I designed the characters for a Disney show a while back.
Gameological: Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, right?
Vasquez: Yeah. I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the show. I had just been asked to design the five main characters and then a shit ton of monsters. And I got to define the terms of that work for as long as I was working on it and it was fun. It was a pleasant experience. I worked with really nice people. I worked with my friends at Titmouse.
Right now as we’re having this conversation, I’m sitting here and I’m just drawing a monster on this piece of paper because that’s what I do regardless. Because it’s fun. And so when they asked me to do Randy Cunningham it was, “Well I would really like to just draw monsters and robots. That would be great.” And they said, “All right.” Then I get to see the stuff running around in some weird form down the road but it’s still cool to see.
Gameological: So what’s your dream game? If someone comes to you and says, “Mr. Vasquez, here’s a huge pile of money. Make a video game.” What do you make?
Vasquez: I had an idea for a game during the age of my huge platform obsession. I was huge into Jak And Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. Just loved them. I still do, but you don’t see them as much.
Gameological: Very rarely.
Vasquez: I was working with a team from Shiny back when there was still a Shiny. They were working on Enter The Matrix at the time. So they were like, “Help us! We’re working on Enter The Matrix! Everything is grey and green.” They didn’t come to me officially. They said, “We want to present an idea for a new game after we do Enter The Matrix.” I wanted to make a kind of MDK-style Jak And Daxter-y platformer game. The idea was to bring Shiny back to what made Shiny, you know? Like MDK and Earthworm Jim. Like, those are still some of my favorite games ever.
They were making a game for them. And hopefully people would like it. I love seeing anything that’s like that. That’s how I do what I do. It’s not that I don’t like making people happy, it’s that I love when what makes people happy is what I happen to have done. It’s more interesting to me. It’s either a more interesting failure or a more enjoyable success instead of a thing like, “I hope people like this.” And then people don’t, and there’s just no fun in that.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.