BattleBlock Theater Lead Level Designer Talks Story, Single Player, Stamper

During PAX 2013, we had the privilege of sitting down with BattleBlock Theater Lead Level Designer, Aaron Jungjohann, to talk all things Batteblock. And we mean all things. As the release date was finally announced just days before the convention (April 3 for those keeping score), we were able to get the inside scoop on all the many features the game has to offer. Included is how the single player experience compares to co-op, narrator Stamper’s involvement in the game,  its unique development cycle, what the story/characters have morphed into and much more. Also, yarn balls and cat guards.

[Hardcore Gamer] When was the idea for BattleBlock Theater conceived; was it before Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers?

[Aaron Jungjohann] After Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers. BattleBlock Theater was originally based on PDA games, which are minigames inside of Alien Hominid. So if you go back and play [Alien Hominid] — or download it for free on iOS — you can actually play it. After playing BattleBlock Theater, you can see that elements like the little boat are exactly the same. The basic ideas of blocks with different functions and trying to collect jems to get to the exit is basically the same thing, but it was more “stick man” on a smaller scale.

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“With a small team, we had the freedom to be able to explore these things and stop when we’re ready to stop instead of it being arbitrary.”

[HG] So it all stemmed from that?

[AJ] Originally, that was the core idea and that’s why it’s taken us three or four years to get it done. We just kept on seeing the potential of this idea and trying out different modes.

One of my favorite stories is that we almost cut one of the different arena modes called “Ballgame”. The idea is you’re trying to score baskets, it’s just kind of like basketball and soccer with the addition of grenades. And we almost got rid of that because the way you interacted with the ball was kind of awkward, but we did a couple of tweaks right before we axed it — just to try it one more time — and it clicked. During the beta and internally, it’s probably our favorite mode in arena. With a small team, we had the freedom to be able to explore these things and stop when we’re ready to stop instead of it being arbitrary. We’re really grateful that we kept going at it and kept going at it and got where it is today, because we’re all really proud of how much fun we were able to squeeze out of it.

[HG] Was BattleBlock Theater originally intended to become as robust as what it is now?

[AJ] Nobody really anticipated that. The arena mode was the big focus at first and then the potential of the different blocks and various sequences really screamed for a big story, linear experience. We brought Stamper on and he started creating this amazing narrative and it just built on itself. At this point, I really think anybody who plays the game is going to find something, some kind of mode that they’re really going to love and have a great time with.

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“Anybody who plays the game is going to find something, some kind of mode that they’re really going to love and have a great time with.”

[HG] Does the game have to be played cooperatively? If not, how does the single player experience differ from multiplayer?

[AJ] When you’re playing the story mode, if you do go into the levels by yourself, you’re going to find that the levels are actually different then they would be [if you were in multiplayer]. So you’ll actually find the puzzles are set up different and will have to rely more on manipulating your environment to do some of the work for you, working with different friend AI creatures in the game to help you out, whereas co-op, the areas are roomier and we had the luxury of creating levels that were similar, but actually larger and puzzles that utilized both people, so that way you’re never really getting in each other’s way. You feel like “oh, I’m glad you’re here, because I don’t know how I could do this.”

Although, what’s kind of neat is the different weapons that you unlock in the game. Yarn balls can be collected that you bribe the cat guards with to give you weapons, which we call weapon tools, that all have a “I will kill you function” and also a platforming function. For example, the acid bubble will melt your face off or allow you to jump off the top of it, which is pretty cool. There’s lots of ways to move through the enviroment; it might be a co-op level where you need your buddy, but if you got, say, the dart gun which will make a little platform on the wall, you can get through it that way too maybe.

[HG] So would you say co-op is the premiere experience?

[AJ] It’s the heart of the game. The fact that you can mess with each other and beat each other up as much as you want because you’re not penalized for dying, unless you choose the mode where we penalize you for dying, means that you’re able to do the co-op and not get tired of it as quickly, because for me at least, when I’m playing co-op I’m like “eh, we’re working together so much and I have to play so nice with you that I just have to vent my frustrations sometimes.”

There’s definitely competitive modes [also], if that’s more your thing — if you want to just prove you’re the best around — we got all kinds of modes for that. The majority of it is focused around the co-op experience.

[HG] Hypothetically, if the game was just single player, do you think it’d still stand on its own?

[AJ] Absolutely. For me, sometimes, I’m not in the mood to wait for a guy or to workaround somebody — sometimes I really do just like jumping in and bouncing through the room quickly and trying to get my best grade depending on how many things you pick up or what time you get, so for me I like that perfectionst completionist quality. If I was going to play with my wife or a friend, it probably wouldn’t have that angle, but by myself I can replay a level until I get it just right.

[HG] We know Hatty Hattington’s name, but what about the other prisoners?

[AJ] They have serial numbers, but there is some backstory to some of them — you’ll have to play the story mode to see how that works out.

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“Expect it to get a lot stranger. A lot stranger…a lot stranger; oh yeah.”

[HG] The Prologue and Opening Cinematic that were released awhile back and the announcement trailer released a few days ago are hilarious. Will that style and humor carry on in the final version of the game?

[AJ] Absolutely. The narrative throughout features quite a bit of storyline and it’s exactly in the style of some of the cinematics already revealed, so expect a lot more of it and expect it to get a lot stranger. A lot stranger…a lot stranger; oh yeah.

Stamper goes into his little booth and then just does hours and hours of stuff and we kick through it and go “there’s a story, I think, that makes sense in a way…in a fashion.”

[HG] What role exactly does Stamper play in the game?

[AJ] That’s another thing maybe best left for the story. He’s effectively the narrator, but in some degree it’s left up to you.

[HG] Who’s idea was it to bring him on?

[AJ] You know, I don’t know. He’s from Newgrounds and that’s sort of our sister company — Behemoth came out of Newgrounds, so we’re still in contact with them and talk to them all the time. It might of been Dan as he knows those guys.

[HG] You mentioned that the opening cinematic has changed from the original one posted awhile back?

[AJ] Yeah, so before you were freeing fellow prisoners that were just these faces. You didn’t know what their connection was to you, but now it’s not just you and your buddy Hatty getting stranded on the island, it’s you and a bunch of friends — hundreds of these guys. It gives you a little more incentive [to free them] and ties you in a little bit more to what’s going on.

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[HG] It was mentioned that the original cinematic he recorded actually went on quite a bit longer — any plans to ever release that as an unlockable extra?

[AJ] I would love to — we’ve talked about it — there’s some amazing footage and I think we could release it in some fashion or another.

[HG] But you’re limited as it’s a downloadable title?

[AJ] Yeah, but we could do things like put it on our website, so hopefully we’ll have a chance to share that kind of thing or just present it on our devblog sometime in the future. There’s some amazing things; for awhile, we were experimenting with actually doing plays like Little Red Riding Hood that you played through and we did [Stamper’s] own completely psychotic and wonderful version of a Little Red Riding Hood play and that’d be great for people to get to see.

[HG] A “Prisoner Population Chart” was recently released that shows hundreds of characters from the game. Will these be playable, or play some other sort of role in the game?

[AJ] Yeah, those are all available for free and playable and there’s a bunch of heads on that chart hidden with stars that will be divvied out later. There’s a huge number of characters and everybody will find at least one that they latch onto,

[HG] So they’re not unlocked from the start, you have to find them?

[AJ] By playing the game in arena or story mode, you collect gems by winning matches and those gems are exchanged for more and more prisoners.

[HG] The Closed Beta kicked off a few weeks ago. How was the response?

[AJ] Great. We found some bugs that we’re glad we found before they got out in the wild [thanks to] the help of that many people [participating]. But more than that, it was cool to finally see players that have more than maybe the ten minutes they have at a tradeshow to learn the move set and mess around with the level editor. We actually made a little montage video of our favorite moments of levels that they made. And just seeing how people actually started enjoying the depth of it was really enjoyable. A lot of people had responded to the arena modes as being kind of chaotic, like they don’t really understand what’s going on, but once they learned the timing and all the different movies, we really started to see this advanced countering going on and them getting into it and understanding the idea of it. It’s very cool and made me that much more excited about the release. People are going to get it, I think.

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“LittleBigPlanet is a little more of an investment I think, and for me, I know more people who would be able to just jump in and mess with BattleBlock Theater’s Editor than maybe LittleBigPlanet’s.”

[HG] Is the Level Editor still in the works? If so, will it be released alongside the game at launch?

[AJ] It’s in. It really is pretty much everything we have in the art department, so anything we can do, you guys can do and better. Hopefully we get a lot of people doing it — my team is only three guys so when we get thousands and thousands of people playing it and making levels, hopefully we’ll see some really cool stuff.

[HG] Will it compare to LittleBigPlanet in that sense?

[AJ]LittleBigPlanet has maybe a broader range of things to do, but ours is something that anyone can do and just mess with. You can make a level in thirty seconds. It’s so easy to throw some blocks down, throw a start down, throw an exit down, throw some gems in it and then share it with your friends. LittleBigPlanet is a little more of an investment I think, and for me, I know more people who would be able to just jump in and mess with BattleBlock Theater’s Editor than maybe LittleBigPlanet’s. If you really want to put in the time, LittleBigPlanet is fantastic, but if you just want to throw something together real fun and watch your friends get hit by all your traps, BattleBlock Theater is a pretty awesome place to do that.

BattleBlock theater is due out for release on April 3. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming review.