Indie Spotlight: Nearly Departed

    GotNext chats with the creator of the upcoming zombie adventure

    By Travis Fahs, February 25, 2006

    Imagine waking up one evening with no recollection of who you are, only to find that you've just clawed your way out of a grave and have an insatiable hunger for human flesh. So goes the story of the undead remains of Doug Upton, a reluctant zombie, and the subject of John Green's promising new adventure game Nearly Departed. A whimsical dark comedy (if indeed such a thing is possible), Green's creation looks to challenge some of the big names in the genre. Despite its homebrew roots, it captures the spirit of the early-90s classics better than perhaps any game in recent years.

    Yet the homage to the Lucas Era was almost not to be. By day John is a graphic artist, producing comics for Disney Adventures, as well as his own independent projects. "I get an idea for a comic book practically every other day," he says, "and I write them onto little post-it notes and scatter them all over my apartment." This was precisely how the idea for the undead adventure began. But comics and adventure games are not entirely unlike media (something Sam and Max creator Steve Purcell has long since proven; his comics became one of the iconic classics of the genre). "Comics and traditional adventure games I think have a lot in common with each other," Green explains. Both are visual storytelling media that require an investment of the imagination of the viewer or reader. "Sure, [comic readers] don't control the actual actions of the character the way one does in a point-and-click adventure, but they have more control over a comic than they do over watching a movie. As a fan of comics, and a fan of adventure games, turning an idea for a comic into an adventure game just made sense."

    Green had cut his teeth designing games on the Commodore 64, but since his work has him bound to the Macintosh, he found himself discouraged from developing any games. "Sometime last year I had gotten a chance to play some of the classic LucasArts games I'd never gotten around to," John recalls, "and that pretty much sparked my interest in making a game of that style again. Fortunately, I came across a mostly Flash-based engine, LASSIE, which was designed specifically to make games in the vein of Curse of Monkey Island, and its cross-platform compatibility made it perfect."

    "When I got it in my head to make an adventure game, this one just seemed most appropriate," Green recalls. "It just fits the mold." Indeed, Nearly Departed does not seek to reinvent the wheel. Some might find it refreshing that as other developers seek to streamline the puzzles and interaction, this title makes few compromises, with selectable verbs and some clever inventory puzzles that are both challenging and logical. "You want there to be a reason for every puzzle," Green notes, "just like there's a reason for every action a character makes in a movie or every plot twist the audience has to digest. Without that, the player's suspension of disbelief crumbles and they no longer want to play the game, they just want to know how it ends."

    While genre newcomers might find his game more challenging than the likes of Out from Boneville, John Green is confident that a classic-style game still has an audience. "I'm not sure if the genre has declined in popularity so much as the population of people playing other genres has grown." Explaining that the entertainment industry tends to over-exploit a successful formula, he continues: "There is an audience for games other than first person shooters (and I'm not knocking them, I like quite a few myself) but with publishers focusing so much on that genre, the fans of other genres end up not making as many trips to the video game store, knowing that there's not going to be anything for them there." He might be right. It's hard to deny the instant likeability of his creation that seems to transcend age and experience.

    "My sister-in-law and 3 1/2 year-old nephew have been playing the demo and having fun (though, they hadn't gotten to the cartoon gore part last I spoke to them...). Despite the morbid dilemma facing the game's protagonist, Nearly Departed never keeps a straight face. That appeal of melding the sinister and the silly has satiated Tim Burton fans for years. "I guess it's for mature children and immature adults."

    Yet it seems John was naively unaware that he was really on to something. "I never imagined anyone would show this much interest in the game. I figured I'd do it, release it, and hear nothing of it, but at least I'd have something I was proud of and could show my friends." Mark Darin, of Pinhead Games has approached John and has entered an agreement to help produce, distribute and promote Nearly Departed and it is thanks to them that the title will feature full voice acting, a musical score, and professionally engineered sound. Despite this, Nearly Departed is still expected to be a freeware title, not a commercial release.

    For all the gorgeous artwork, polished design, and the mounting excitement surrounding its release, Nearly Departed remains an amateur, if exceptional, creation. Green still chips away at his creation in his spare time, on no certain schedule (although he hopes to complete his game by year's end). "In the end I really just want people to play the game and get some enjoyment out of it," he says humbly. He might not realize that he could have a hit on his hands. With any luck it won't be the last we hear from John Green. "I've got countless stories to tell, so hopefully Nearly Departed will be well-received and I'll get to put all those other ideas to good use."

    Keep your browsers tuned to the official site, to Pinhead's site and occupy yourself with the very entertaining preview demo while you wait.