Some of the earliest and best-known video games are based around premises like "ascend a rickety construction site and confront a barrel-slinging ape," and "jump on monstrous turtles and sentient, traitorous mushrooms to rescue a Princess from captivity." It feels like we should be long past the point where a game is still capable of making us say "Huh, well that sure is weird," but here we are in 2019 with Trover Saves the Universe for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation VR.
Trover Saves the Universe is a 3D adventure game by Squanch Games, a studio co-founded by Justin Roiland. If you're familiar with the hilariously bizarre aliens and worlds Roiland invents as the co-creator of the hugely popular Rick and Morty cartoon, then you already have an idea of what Trover has on tap.
Trover Saves the Universe pairs you up with the titular Trover, a member of an alien species that walks around with other tiny aliens jammed into their eye sockets. In fact, several aliens in Trover's universe boost their power by plugging living beings into their eye sockets.Trover needs your help because a malicious alien named Glorkon discovered the kind of surrogate eyes all alien dictators dream of: Your Maltese dogs. As long as Glorkon is plugged into your pups, the universe is effed.
Trover Saves the Universe is brimming with Roiland's offbeat (or "offworld," if you prefer) brand of humor, including endless sight gags, improvised one-liners stutteringly delivered by reedy aliens, and enough profanity to fill the bellies of the crassest players. But even though Roiland's spoor is all over the dialogue, story, and setting of Trover Saves the Universe, writing a game versus a television episode supplied new challenges he had to consider and surmount.
I interviewed Roiland at PAX East 2019 about the tragedies and triumphs that come with writing for games versus television. We talk about writing for interactive entertainment versus cartoons, how he stayed buoyant when things got tough, his motivation for bringing about the end of the universe with puppies, and the time he utterly blew out his voice while playing Lemongrab, Adventure Time's citrus-scented mad King/dictator.
Roiland learned that writing games is essentially like "writing TV where people can reach in and knock things over. Then you have to have the characters respond to the fact they're doing that." Indeed, you find evidence of Roiland acclimating to his new environment as early as the tutorial for Trover Saves the Universe, which teaches you how to move around and examine your environment with the help of aliens arguing on a trashy TV talk show. ("Why can't you respect that I don't want to rotate my chair?" snarls one alien woman on the broadcast.)
"Early on, [writing a video game and a television episode] are the same, foundationally," Roiland says. "You're still making a story, you're still trying to find curvature. But it's more like writing something much bigger. The player is not going to be sitting there for 22 minutes. They're going to be there for hours and hours."
Roiland and his team quickly discovered their talent for improvisational writing pairs well with the freer, lengthier structure of video games. "For the moment to moment, we decided to cut loose and have fun," Roiland says. "That's what made us laugh the hardest and where we were happiest, but it also allowed us to put a lot in the game. When a player reaches in and knocks something over, metaphorically speaking, we would want the game to acknowledge it."
The Trover team ultimately wound up recording somewhere close to 25 hours of dialogue, which is an impressive load of speech for an adventure that clocks in around eight hours. Nearly every action you make triggers a reaction from an alien in your vicinity. Obviously, if you want to hear all the voicework Trover Saves the Universe has to offer, you'll need to play through it more than once; Squanch Games isn't about to make you sit still and listen to everything.
"We made a rule to never tie the players down and force them [to listen]. We try to get the most important information out of the way, and then free them up to go," Roiland says. "But the characters are just going to keep going, and you can hang out and listen."
Another challenge that comes with writing a game versus writing episodes of a TV show involves plotting an hours-long game instead of much shorter, self-contained tales. (The shared story elements of the Rick and Morty universe notwithstanding.) I ask Roiland if he ever felt run-down or drained of story ideas during his work on Trover Saves the Universe.
"There are definitely record days when you're not in the zone. We'd do a full day, and I wasn't in love with it," Roiland says, "but there were so many days where it was just really funny, really good stuff. The days that weren't, we either threw out a lot of that stuff and re-did it, or it was stuff that didn't really need to be super funny. Not everything has to be a joke."
Luckily, Roiland and his team had more good days than bad. When you're writing a story about an alien that steals dogs because jamming them into his eye-holes will grant him ultimate power, it sets a bar that makes it difficult to run dry on ideas. Which begs the question: Why dogs?
"I have two dogs. [The dogs in the game] are literally those guys," Roiland says. "Of course, I love them. One has a little pink nose and wears a red harness, and the other has a little black nose and a blue harness. As a writer with a very sci-fi mindset, I always want to have a reason. But that's one thing in the game where it's like, I don't really have a reason. I just wanted to do it. The original sketch of Glorkon in my notebook is a beaked monster with dogs in its eyes. I don't know why I drew it. I was just, 'That's cool.'"
Roiland points out dogs are also just relatable on a human level. You, as the player, just want to get your dogs back. Moreover, the dogs are the basis for some great visual storytelling in Trover Saves the Universe: You start the adventure lounging in your house, which is tiny, but absolutely packed with dog photos, toys, supplies, and kitschy accessories.
"The answering machine messages are like, 'Yeah, OK, we get it, you love those dogs, and nobody else likes them,'" Roiland says. "You really love those dogs. You want them back."
We cap the Trover Saves the Universe discourse with a bit of a diversion about Adventure Time, Cartoon Network's (now concluded) show wherein Roiland plays the Earl of Lemongrab. Lemongrab, for the uninitiated, has a scratchy, warbling voice that sounds like how it feels to skin your knee on gravel. I ask Roiland if it's OK to ask him about his time as Lemongrab; he deems my curiosity acceptable.
"Lemongrab was a tough character. I did an episode [Season 5's "All Your Fault"] that was a three-hour record. This was before I knew my limits as a voice actor and I blew my voice out," Roiland laughs. "This was season one of Rick and Morty. If you listen to the episode ["Meeseeks and Destroy"], and you listen to the Meeseeks talking to Beth at the restaurant, just—listen to my voice. My voice is shredded."
Despite his vocal injury, Roiland admits he misses playing Earl of Lemongrab. He loved giving life to an unhinged citrus dictator who usurps his brother by eating him alive. If the aliens in Trover Saves the Universe are anything to go by, it's exactly the kind of bizarre role that makes his soul sing.
Trover Saves the Universe is out now for PS4, PSVR, and PC.