Playtonic is trying to recapture the gaming atmosphere of yesteryears. Founded by former Rare (the studio behind games including Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye, and Viva Pinata) employees, the small independent studio had an extremely successful Kickstarter, which brought in over £2 million. Its first project, the throwback 90s platformer Yooka-Laylee, launches on April 11.
For Andy Robinson, writer and communications director at Playtonic, Yooka-Laylee was actually his time working on a videogame.
“I wanted to get these guys back on their feet and help them, you know, make a lot of the games that we want to see,” Robinson says.
The world of Yooka-Laylee is inhabited by the titular Yooka and Laylee, as well as a cast of characters that includes a pants-wearing snake named Trowzer, and a polygonal dinosaur straight out of the Nintendo 64 era. Robinson says that he thinks that, as with everything Playtonic tries to do, they want the characters to be fun.
“I spend a lot of time just thinking about what would be really absurd,” Robinson says. “But at the same time, it has to have a lot of heart. I don’t want it to be just endless, meaningless gags.”
And, Robinson says, the rest of the team’s talent only makes his job all the easier.
“You could make tax returns full of personality if you’ve got a googly head next to them made by one of our guys and a funny voice,” Robinson says. “It’s a joy.”
Rare’s games are also known for a certain sense of humor. After playing a demo of Yooka-Laylee, it seems to be very much following in a similar vein. And part of that stems from the culture in which the games were conceived.
“We don’t shy away from British-isms,” Robinson says.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a line for Playtonic to walk; they wanted Yooka to be something that families and kids would be able to play together. Conker’s Bad Fur Day (the notorious M-rated Nintendo 64 game), this is not.
“It’s like the Pixar, Simpsons mold. I wanted adults to be able to get some jokes as well, but not, the game certainly shouldn’t be like crude or anything like that,” Robinson says.
But that in and of itself was also a challenge. In the days of Rare, there was usually somebody else, be it Nintendo or Microsoft, to provide that final say as to what was appropriate or not. This that isn’t the case for Playtonic. Those proverbial shackles, so to speak, aren’t in place anymore. And freedom can cut both ways.
“We’re independent now, so you have to be your own barometer,” Robinson says. “You know, you can’t just chuck it in and see, ‘Let’s see if we get away with it.’ Because you probably will get away with it, and that’s not necessarily right for the project.”
Robinson recalls that the first time that Yooka-Laylee was shown to the press, he came to realize that the balance wasn’t right. He rewrote the game on the spot, realizing that while the game was actually being played, certain areas just weren’t working.
“It’s different in context, right?” Robinson says. “When someone’s actually playing the game, in a level, with all of the characters and challenges together, suddenly your realize that, you know, too much fourth wall breaking, or too much innuendo, or too much of one emotion, too much sadness, too much black humor, it might be out of balance.”
Playtonic also had to take into account the legacy of games like Banjo-Kazooie that Yooka-Laylee is following. When asked if he had to write anything in rhyme — as the Banjo series antagonist Gruntilda spoke in — Robinson said that certain new characters, with only a few lines, do talk in Bardic fashion, in a “fun nod” to the older series.
On the other, well, wing, he said that if fans were to make a new Banjo-Kazooie game, they’d likely have a rhyming villain, and that wasn’t the path he wanted to take with Yooka. Instead, the new villain — Capital Bee — doesn’t rhyme, but speaks in business inspired nonsense.
“I didn’t want it to be fan fiction … we don’t want to be, like, that on the nose with influences,” Robinson says.
But, Robinson does hope that much like the classic Rare games, fans are able to see in Yooka the Playtonic team’s humor and chemistry.
“Our internal chat room sometimes is unbearable,” Robinson says. “Like, you’ll say something, serious, ‘Does anyone know the password for, you know, Twitter?’ And then someone will put a bird pun in there. And it becomes a competition then. Suddenly there’s 20 minutes of endless stream of bird puns. That’s absolutely typical of our internal chat room.”
Willie Clark is a writer, editor, photographer, barrel-rider, reliable brave guy, and co-host of the 8 Bit Awesome podcast. You can find his scribings at sites like Polygon, Vice, GamesRadar+, and many other fine dining establishments.