Since first being released in Japan in 1992, the RPG Maker game engine has allowed users to create their own two-dimensional role-playing games in the old-fashion style of early consoles, a time most people now refer to as the “golden age” of RPG gaming.
Numerous memorable games have been created with RPG Maker, but one of the most acclaimed is Tales of the Drunken Paladin, the exceptionally-funny story of a once-proud warrior who is forced to confront that which he has lost over time. Developed by Steve Gibbon with the assistance of various programmers and artists, the game was first released in 2009. Gibbon has since added two expansions to the game, Big Trouble in Little China, Maine and Hobotropolis.
My background is actually writing. I have literally no game design experience outside of Tales of the Drunken Paladin, which is never what you want to tell people interviewing you. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, and it shows, badly. There are times when I look at the game and hate it so much that I get a hernia. Hate literally oozes out of my human form when I behold what I have created. But, you know, you get over it. You learn to let things go. This is an especially important aspect of my other life—my writing life. You cannot, by the very nature of creation, be satisfied by what you have created, or else you become complacent and cease to grow. Confidence, as they say, is a consolation prize for the less talented. I have to repeat this mantra to myself every time I play the beginning of Tales of the Drunken Paladin or watch someone stream it.
I got a Bachelor’s in English, which took longer than it should have, then I went straight into graduate school and got my Master’s in Fine Art in Fiction and Poetry, so it’s kind of a dual degree. It’s a weird thing, having these two separate lives. I take my writing incredibly seriously and very often write about serious things, so to see this side-by-side with Tales of the Drunken Paladin must be strange for the few people who know about them both.
How did the idea for Tales of the Drunken Paladin come about? Was it a story you had in your head for a while, or was it something that developed as you played around with RPG Maker?
The idea for Tales of the Drunken Paladin was born nearly fifteen years ago when I first got my hands on the unofficial English translation of RPG Maker 2000. A lot of people ask why the game was originally called, Tales of the Drunken Paladin: Book III, and it’s because it is literally the third attempt at a Tales of the Drunken Paladin game I’ve made. The first one was actually completed and kind of chronicles what occurs in the prologue of my current game. It’s awful. It’s the worst thing known to man. If anyone ever got to play it, they would build a time machine and kill me in the past, before the game was ever made. That said, it wasn’t made for anyone but me and a couple of friends, and it was never made available to the public. The second attempt was made on RPG Maker XP, and I never really finished it. It branched off into a totally unrelated direction that doesn’t fit into the current mythology, and then I sort of lost interest. Then the hard drive failed, and I never cared enough about its contents to retrieve them.
Anyway, the specific wellspring of Tales of the Drunken Paladin probably was born in conversation between Palmer and myself, the namesake of a primary character in the series. He is portrayed as an unlikeable misogynist with religious affiliations in every iteration of the project, and if you take away the religious affiliations and all attempts to humanize the character, you pretty much get Palmer. He’s been my friend since I was eight. We used to stay up at my parents’ house when I was a kid for days on end with 24-packs of Coke thinking of ways to torment non-existent players of a game that didn’t exist. Too many of those ideas came to fruition for our own good.
What is the most difficult aspect of creating a game such as this?
The hardest part of making anything for me is getting past the sense that what you are creating doesn’t matter—that it is a waste of time. You can lose a lot of hard work and good ideas to a single moment of weakness. I wasn’t getting paid to make the game (I’m still not getting paid for it), and it took away a whole lot of hours where I could have been advancing my career or earning good money. And when there are no stakes to what you are creating, you start to think: what’s the point? I could be playing video games right now. I could be writing something serious. Don’t get me wrong, making the game is incredibly fun and rewarding—sometimes. Sometime’s it’s just hard work with what seemed to me little or no payoff at the end of it.
What helped was releasing a little demo of the game one day, just on a whim, and getting a lot of positive feedback pretty much instantly. That put an audience into perspective. Suddenly, I wasn’t just messing around with this silly little pet project for myself and some friends, I was making something with potentially larger appeal. And the more stuff I released, the more people starting responding to it, and the more shit I realized I was in, because SHEEEEEEIT—now it had to be good.
Were there any features that you wanted to include in Tales of the Drunken Paladin, but simply couldn’t figure out how to make work properly within the confines of RPG Maker?
Do you think Larry’s Labyrinth would even exist if I knew how to make a video game when I started this whole thing? God, what was I even doing? Everything you see in the game is the result of me settling on something vastly less grand than the idea from which it was born. Imagine Noah’s ark for a minute, just because it’s funny as hell on a number of levels. Imagine God being like, “NOAH, I NEED YOU TO BUILD A BIG-ASS BOAT FOR ALL THE ANIMALS.” I’m comparing TDP to an ark, so bear with me here. Noah was like, “Man, I’m just a goat farmer, I don’t know how to build an ark,” and God said, “YOU GOT LIKE EIGHT-HUNDRED YEARS, FIGURE IT OUT.” So he starts just goof-trooping around with some wood, nailing together boards and making shitty rooms. His kids are out just shredding rainforests, because fuck it, it’s gonna flood anyway.
And little by little, the rooms he’s making are less shitty, and it’s getting bigger and bigger, and he’s learning as he goes. Then God’s like, “TIME’S UP, IT’S FLOOD TIME,” which is sort of like the deadline I set for launch day, and all the animals start coming on board in double-file, ready to not eat for 40 days or whatever the hell God’s plan was. And Noah’s like, sorry dinosaurs, you’re stuck in this first room I made, because it’s not like all those shitty rooms just disappeared after he got better at building them. And the dinosaurs are like, forget it, no way, I’m out. So here Noah is with an ark that includes a room from every level of skill he’s had as a carpenter, and some people walk through and get the full picture and think, “You know, this ark ain’t so bad,” and others just see that first shitty room and want off the boat. And God is like Palmer, or Palmer is like God, just trying to mess with everyone, because he’s an asshole. And Noah gets through the flood and all the animals are saying, “Man, that was a close call. You really delivered back there with the ark. Sorry we all started eating each other.” And things are cool for a long time, and then God is like: Hey, you know what would be funny? If Webber’s mom had a beard. Thus begins the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
What aspects of the game are you most proud of? Continuing your Noah’s Ark analogy, which areas are the luxury suites?
What makes the game special for me is that it does the thing you always secretly wish every other game did while you played them: makes everything you see a mystery, in some way. Every box, shelf, pouch, bottle or any other object in the game has its own little world of possibilities. You can rely on it to do something, you just don’t know what. Not everything that happens is good for the player, so you can never become completely complacent, but on the other hand, most things are good, so you still have to check. When I play RPGs these days, I’m always mashing into every table and shelf and cabinet, cursing a silent God. You find things in treasure chests, and that’s it. Why? Who put everything in all these chests? Don’t get me wrong, I love looting treasure chests as much as the next mortal, but it takes the mystery out of it. There are games where after the first town, I don’t talk to a single NPC ever again, because I establish early on that they never say anything worth hearing. Worse yet, games that just have the same town over and over, where all the NPCs aren’t even humans, they’re these frightening, omnipotent, quantum entities that exist everywhere at once and only ever say one thing.
And why do they do that? Because to them, that’s not the game—that’s just a placeholder for breaking the game up into stages. But for me, that is the game—the game isn’t wandering around in fields fighting endless monsters, it’s experiencing what a new world can offer. In Drunken Paladin, that world offers boxes. It offers pouches. Sometimes those pouches and boxes are demons, and they kill you. Sometimes they’re cool. You don’t know until you check them.
I dropped the ball on the ark metaphor. Sorry about that.
What was the testing process like for this game? Do you just send out copies to a few friends and tell them to try to break it?
The testing process was a strange one. I basically sent the game out to a lot of people online I barely knew with the hope that they wouldn’t just rip it off. Some people did, or at least, they decrypted the game and poked around in its guts to see what was worth appropriating. In any case, my friends did very little, because they’re mostly all very lazy people.
I recall one tester, a woman who taught English at a university somewhere in the south, who made an incredibly-thorough Word document recording every single bug or typo or inexplicable phenomenon she encountered. I had no idea who she was, but she was amazingly useful. She asked if the game was a metaphor for college politics. I remember thinking: Sure, just roll with it. This lady is way too helpful to lose. At that time, I hadn’t even taught at a university, I don’t think. I’ve since taught a few classes here and there, and I sometimes try to find parallels to Drunken Paladin. It hasn’t really happened.
What do you find hilarious?
I find everything hilarious. I’m the guy that laughs at every joke told—not because they’re funny, but because they’re jokes, and they bring laughter intrinsically, somehow. The subject doesn’t matter; I’ll laugh at pretty much anything or anyone. Yeah, sure, I sometimes feel bad about it afterwards. But I guess you’re looking for specifics. What do I find the funniest, etc. I think Brad Neely’s videos are the best things to happen to us in the realm of humor. I think Wizard People, Dear Reader, the re-dub of Harry Potter, is the first thing I would attempt to save in an archive if the world was going to end, and I only had one choice. That kind of humor speaks directly to me, somehow, more than anything else. It can be seen in what I create, no question about it.
Aside from you own, what’s the best role-playing game you’ve ever played?
My favorite RPG is probably Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. That game absolutely blew my mind when it came out. I couldn’t even cope with the physical reality during that period of my life, because it did not contain things I identified with: netches, guars, those goddamn cliffracers and daedric weapons.
Beyond that, in the category of JRPG, probably either Chrono Cross or Final Fantasy IX. I know everyone always talks about Chrono Trigger, and shit man, Chrono Trigger rules, but somehow, Chrono Cross has stayed with me clearer than any other game of its kind. To this day, I have no idea what the hell that game is about, but I’ll never forget the joy I felt immersing myself into that crazyhouse world. That said, if we’re speaking technically, I don’t think it’s as good a game as Final Fantasy IX, which I’ve also always felt a lot of affection for.
Alcohol obviously plays a large role in the story of the Drunken Paladin. What’s your drink of choice?
This one always gets me. I get asked this question a lot, and I’m always ashamed to answer it. The fact is, I don’t drink. I mean, I am not opposed to it morally, obviously, but I just don’t do it much. I crack open a case of cider once in a blue moon (or a Blue Moon once in a blue moon), but I can’t even remember the last time I had hard liquor. I don’t get drunk without way too much of an investment (of both time and money), and when I do get drunk, I just become a more promiscuous and less wise version of myself, not a historically great combination.
What are you working on next?
I’ve always got a half-dozen projects going on at once. You might know that I released a Skyrim mod, Ohnovahkiin, which is basically the main character of TDP as a follower. I really like it, and Hootey, the guy who does the voice, really knows his stuff. And he knows Drunken Paladin inside-out, which is a huge bonus. But that’s not done—we still have some surprises in store in that department.
I also spend a lot of time designing table-top roleplaying games. There is one in particular that I’m polishing up as best I can and scoping out some publication options. My next mission is to find an artist for this endeavor, so we’ll see what happens. I’m always accepting applications (hint, hint).
Beyond that, I’m always writing. I do readings and try to publish when I have time. There are a million things I want to do, almost all of which hinge on finding people capable of translating my brainwaves into pictures. I’d love to do a graphic novel, and I plan to make it a priority once a few other things clear off my plate. I would sell my first-born child to have an animated series, but I don’t even know where to begin with that one. At the beginning, I’m guessing. It’ll have to wait until I’m a millionaire.