Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Earlier this week—amidst the news that Rick And Morty star and co-creator Justin Roiland was being removed both from that show, and his Hulu series Solar Opposites, after the reveal that he was being tried on domestic abuse charges spawned deeper looks into his online conduct—a similar note went out in the gaming sphere: Roiland was resigning as CEO of his video game company, Squanch Games.
The news comes at what is a very weird moment for Squanch—which, thanks to the recent release of its most high-profile game to date, the heavily promoted High On Life, was already on the cusp of trying to transform into something more than just “the Rick And Morty guy’s personal games studio.” Roiland didn’t write, design, or build High On Life—although he reportedly whipped up its initial concept, about talking guns in a wacky alien world, and pitched in ideas for its design. But it’s still intimately associated with his brand, to the extent that one of its biggest selling points (a month ago) was that it was the game where your main gun constantly yelled at you in Roiland’s “Morty” voice.
But, here’s the thing: More than maybe any other medium, games are almost never the product of a single person’s brain. (And you can basically blame Stardew Valley for me feeling like I have to put the “almost” caveat in there at all.) It’s one of the reasons gaming nerds like me get so annoyed when people give in to the shorthand of referring to games only by their most prominent director or creator: References to Shigeru Miyamoto or Neil Druckmann or, god help us, Hideo Kojima mostly just serve to obscure the dozens, if not hundreds, of other people who help shape the games those “visionaries” “create.”
High On Life was designed by (among others) Erich Meyr and Andy Vatter; art directed by Michael Spano; written by Alec “Mr. Boop” Robbins. (Robbins has been refreshingly forthright on social media about all this, writing that he’s “ashamed to be associated with” Roiland and noting that, “it’s soooo much easier to kill off a talking gun than it is to kill off two humans with their names right there in the title”—referencing whatever hell of expectations Rick And Morty is about to go through with its efforts to re-cast its title characters). And that’s just a handful of what would properly be several dozen names: Artists, producers, engineers, writers, designers, voice actors (and, goddamn, but is that a good voice cast—J.B. Smoove, Andy Daly, Betsy Sodaro, James Urbaniak, Tim Robinson, and a whole bunch of other ringers all show up) who all put years of work into making the game.
Even the title’s harsher critics concede that there’s a better idea at High On Life’s core than just “what if your gun sounds like the voice every nerdy guy does when he’s nervous or drunk these days.” High On Life takes steps to foreground its comedy in a way that shooters almost never do, inviting you to provide your own (very violent) punchlines to the very annoying scenarios it often traps you in. Whether you find that commitment to the bit exhausting or not, it’s an attempt to do something innovative in a very familiar space.
Which raises the question: What next? We’re talking about a studio that just had a massive hit on Microsoft’s GamePass service, launching their biggest game yet up several tiers of recognition, and landing it in far more hands than ever touched their earlier titles, Accounting or Trover Saves the Universe. At the same time, unraveling the studio’s legacy from its founder is going to be hard—I mean, “Squanch” is a Rick And Morty joke right off the bat, and it would be naïve to assume that Roiland’s name, and voice, didn’t sell a lot of people on the game, regardless of how much work he actually did on it.
But a games studio is, ultimately, a collaborative creative endeavor, one where the name at the top of the masthead matters far less than the contributions of the artists actually putting in the work. Squanch Games (or whatever it ends up calling itself) is at an almost unprecedented moment in its evolution; whether it remains locked in people’s memories as “Justin Roiland’s game studio,” or takes the identity it’s already built for itself and expands out from there, is going to be a fascinating process to watch.