Image courtesy of Squanch Games

High on Life pushes the frontiers of comedy in video games

Jimmy Thang
At Squanch Games, we make stuff that people love. Games that we want to play ourselves. Experiences that we would like to enjoy and be totally immersed in hours at a time - as well as shorter, crazier experiences that would be great to play with a group of friends or possibly with your grandmother, who only comes over because she is afraid you'll starve to death if left to your own devices.
Founded by Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland, Squanch Games is a pioneer of comedy-focused games. Having developed Accounting+ and Trover Saves the Universe, the California-based studio aims to continue to push the boundaries of comedic storytelling and interactivity with High on Life, which is being described as The Muppets meets Blade Runner.

We caught up with several members of the studio to discuss the game's inspirations, how the developer captured and integrated so much ad-libbed dialogue, how the studio designed High on Life's talking weapons/companions, and more.

Whether it be games, movies, or anything else, did you have any specific inspirations coming into High On Life?

Art Director & CCO Mikey Spano:
Aesthetically, we really wanted to draw on sci-fi and horror movies from the 80s and 90s, as well as action figures and playsets from He-Man, TMNT, and Toxic Avengers. We wanted all the designs to feel toyetic in terms of design and proportions, and physical in terms of shaders and rendering. The overarching theme for the visuals in the game was “what if Jim Henson made Blade Runner?”

Chief Design Officer Erich Meyr: For the game's particular flavor of sci-fi, we looked at a lot of 80’s/90’s sci-fi adventure films/shows like The Explorers, Mac and Me, The Fifth Element, and Farscape. We wanted to capture that feeling of being a normal kid brought into this larger cosmos that’s a weird yet familiar alien reflection of our own world. In terms of gameplay, we looked for inspiration in a lot of Y2K games that were close to our hearts, like Metroid Prime, Bioshock, Halo, and Ratchet & Clank, but also pushed to modernize our game’s feel and add the “Squanchyness” we’ve developed as a studio.

Were there any major goals you had coming into the project?

Mikey: We wanted to expand on all the ideas and techniques we came up with while developing Trover [Saves the Universe]. It was really important to us to make something that we not only laughed at but also felt really proud of from both a gameplay and technical perspective. We wanted to use common ingredients from games we loved to come up with our own unique recipe that felt both accessible and unique. Overall, we just wanted to make something we really wanted to play.

Erich: What he said.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
Being a pioneer of humor-centric games like Accounting+ and Trover Saves the Universe, did you learn anything from those experiences that you've built upon for High On Life?

Mikey: We went into Trover completely blind. We knew we wanted to bring more humor into the game space but had no idea how much work and iteration that would actually take. We ended up coming up with a lot of tools and techniques that were instrumental in starting High On Life. We also learned that iteration and timing were really important in comedy; so we had to build a workflow that allowed us to get lines in quickly, change animations easily, and ultimately throw it all out and start over again.

Erich: We learned a lot about the difference between telling a joke and letting the player be part of the joke. We do both a lot, but as we playtested ideas, we found that being responsive to players’ actions and setting them up for a joke (even at their own expense) really got people laughing. We often gauge our success on whether people are laughing while playing, not just watching.

Considering the studio's past games have all been VR, can you talk about the decision to develop a more traditional first-person shooter?

Justin [Roiland] had the idea for guns that talked to the player before the studio even started. Early on, Justin was showing Erich and I some sketches and ideas he was kicking around, and we instantly fell in love with the concept. While developing Trover, we started noodling on ideas in between meetings and after work, and we knew pretty quickly that we wanted High On Life to be a first-person shooter with an emphasis on comedic storytelling (duh), but we also wanted to make sure the game was a fun and challenging FPS experience. Honestly, both pillars were pretty big mountains to climb, but we’re really proud of where we landed in both areas.

Erich: A lot of us have FPS DNA running through our veins–having grown up playing through their primordial soup and later having worked on a number of shooters in the games industry. We wanted to try and add something to the legacy of comedic FPS games, from the crass (no longer acceptable) comedy of Build Engine games to the modern standards of FPS comedy shown in series like Portal and Borderlands.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
How many people are on the development team, and how long did the game take to develop?

This one is a tricky question. We started kicking around ideas and concepts all the way back in 2017. At that time, there were just a handful of people working at Squanch, and we were working on 2.5 other projects at the same time, so High On Life was firmly in the back seat. I’d say we started “real” production in 2020 with about 15 developers, then steadily grew to about 50 people. Once we had enough people, we really got into deep development in 2021 and made 90 percent of the game in the last year and a half of development. Comedy requires a lot of rework: establishing a new IP, building a team, and figuring out what we really wanted the game to mean meant that we had to balance a budget while also tossing out a lot of hard work. It was a rollercoaster, for sure.

Considering High On Life has been described as The Muppets meets Blade Runner, can you talk more about why you wanted to blend such disparate motifs?

Justin and I love The Muppets. They look so ridiculous in the most endearing way, and I think that design sense permeates a lot of the ideas we talk about in general. At first, I was thinking that the game should look like a 3D Rick and Morty, but I started to realize that the studio needed its own identity and challenged myself to figure out what that might look like. I stayed up late every night sending sketches and ideas back and forth with Justin, and we really started to hone in on this 90s action figure vibe. As we developed the game further, I realized that the toyetic approach really only applied to the bounties you were pursuing and not the guns, humans, or various NPCs you encounter throughout the game. I was already basing the guns on the simplistic designs of the muppets, and it hit me that Jim Henson already created worlds that had humans, puppets, and practical monsters. Realizing the connection, I came up with the “Jim Henson Scale” and mapped each character to a spot on that scale. The Henson Scale helped solidify the idea I was struggling to articulate, and naturally, the tagline “What if Jim Henson made Blade Runner?” became the elevator pitch for the aesthetic we were going for.

High On Life appears to have large, colorful levels with unique biomes. Can you speak to the game's world and environmental design?

I spent a lot of my career working on amazing, gritty games, and I wanted to take that experience and make something that felt uniquely colorful without abstracting things too much. I like to think that things are only weird if everything else feels normal, so I tried to maintain a balance between Lisa Frank and Roger Dean for the more natural biomes and Syd Mead and Moebius for the more techy areas and cities. I wanted to keep things 80 percent grounded and 20 percent weird and colorful. If you want colors to pop, you have to limit the color palette, so every environment in the game is restricted to a triadic color scheme and that makes everything feel colorful without feeling overwhelming. I spent a ton of time gathering references for each area, and worked with some amazing concept artists to establish key art for each biome. It took a while, but the end result is absolutely worth it.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
Can you speak to how the game is leaning into its non-linear Metroidvania-inspired roots?

Metroid is such an important franchise to Erich, Justin, and myself. We naturally gravitated toward the idea of little pockets with secret items and interactions, and to our horror, we started to realize we were designing a complicated lock+key Metroidvania game. Our initial reaction was that we couldn’t do something as complex as a Metroidvania, given the team size and all the constraints we were under as an indie studio, but we just couldn’t stop ourselves from adding in little Metroidvania ideas and level designs. We finally gave in and decided to lean into what we all wanted to do and ended up making a game that has a lot of Metroidvania elements while still maintaining a relatively linear A-Story. It was a massive challenge to build in all the potential interactions and all the dialogue the guns might say, given the nonlinear nature of a lot of the game, but we were fortunate enough to get a really dedicated Head Writer/Narrative Director, Alec Robbins, that was able to take this challenge off Erich and myself. Alec went super deep into figuring out all the potential dialogue choices that allowed us to expand more on our sadistic Metroidvania designs.

Erich: At the start, we evaluated the difference between a tight linear narrative game and wide open non-linear experience. Our previous games were very linear and allowed us to hone in on the player’s moment-to-moment experience, control exactly how we wanted the narrative to move, and get jokes just right. We knew we wanted to open things up more, let the player have more choices and more comedy, but we didn’t know how non-linear to go. We wanted players to have choices about what bounties they tackled first and that we should send players back to the same locations so that they could build a relationship with each world. As we experimented with making our missions have branching paths and areas to explore, it just felt natural to use abilities to gate off things for return visits, and we found ourselves making something we loved, a Metroidvania-inspired world!

Leaning into the humor aspect, High On Life features companions that happen to be talking weapons. Can you talk about how you designed the game's guns, both from a gameplay and narrative perspective?

Narrative Director Alec Robbins: The talking guns—we call them Gatlians—went through a LOT of iterations. We modeled them a bit after RPG party members, where they're your adventure crew, and they speak for the player when you're interacting with NPCs. It took a while for us to figure out how to handle dialogue and how to work within achievable constraints. There are moments in the game that change depending on which guns you have available, and each gun has different reactions to some of the story beats as you come across them. When picking which gun to equip, you'll be thinking about both their personality and their combat mechanics. Sometimes, I want to chill out and hang with J.B. Smoove's character, Gus, who's really chilled out and friendly. Other times I want to hear what Tim Robinson's character, Creature, might say; he's more of a wildcard. It's all about flavor; some players might only use Creature when necessary for progression, and they're going to have a very different textural experience from players who use him all the time.

Mikey: We started off on paper, sketching out a ton of gun ideas. The looks of all the guns were based on their potential gameplay mechanics. Erich, Justin, and I sat down and went through all the concepts and cherry-picked ideas we liked until we whittled the guns down to something manageable enough to prototype. Erich started prototyping the guns, and everything just slowly evolved as the game changed. Once Nick Weihs, our Technical Director, took over combat design and iteration, we started to land on really solid mechanics for the guns. We went through a couple big design changes on the guns throughout the project, but the core stayed mostly the same as the initial pitches.

Erich: A lot of the gun ideas started from: We want this gun archetype; what would be funny or interesting if it had a personality? Is an SMG super aggro because it’s spitting bullets out constantly? What if a sniper rifle told you to shoot at the wrong targets? What if a grenade launcher shot its own children and was really proud when they blew up? But not all of the guns had so much careful thought put into them - one gun, in particular, came out of Justin just repeating a phrase over and over, and we thought it was so funny we based a whole gun around it. When it came to gameplay, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to weave the guns' style, their personality, and their utility into the game. Early on, we knew we wanted the guns to not just shoot but also have “abilities” that extended beyond combat. We iterated for a long time on how those abilities would be connected to the guns and how they would control. At one point, the guns even kept track of how much you used them and would level up their abilities + their relationship with you over time. While this was fun, it felt a little too “gamey” for our style, and we opted to keep the gun’s personal development directly tied to the story.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
Considering High On Life has so much optional dialogue, was the game designed with replayability in mind?

Erich: Absolutely. Right from the start, we wanted High On Life to have more player story than our previous games. This meant giving people more choices to make that would diverge their playthroughs and allow people who love the game to play it again and again. We weren't looking to make any grand world-changing choices like Mass Effect or even massively story-changing choices like Telltale games. We wanted people to influence comedic moments in the game and laugh because they did something stupid they’d never expected a game to allow. To this end, we layered some larger choices in, like unlocking guns at different times (and thus different dialogue avenues for entire missions), and small choices, like choosing to shoot someone or talk with them.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
From low-level ant-like enemies who think they are the baddest enemies in the game to multi-staged boss battles, can you talk about your approach to designing enemies in High On Life

Pretty quickly we landed on the idea that our enemies should not only be fun to fight but funny as well. They were already halfway there just based on how derpy they look, but we wanted the ways in which you dispatch them to make you smile and even laugh. There were a ton of micro-decisions from the combat team that really add up to make you chuckle. A moment that really solidified the tone was when the small Grunt enemies (who have one large eye on their heads) had their headshots set up to make their eye pop out, causing them to run around blasting wildly, potentially killing their own teammates. After making a solid base of naturally fun and funny enemies, we then did our best to pepper in narratives for them throughout each mission, making sure they often have unique lines and jokes that tie into the bounty you're on.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
What made Unreal Engine a good fit for the project?

I worked at Epic for six years, then started an indie company that exclusively used Unreal for another five years after that, so I knew the engine inside and out. I love the fast iteration and high visual quality that can be achieved in Unreal, so there was no way I would ever risk going to another engine. A lot of people come into the studio with Unreal experience and the developers that have none pick up the tools really fast and start making amazing stuff. People are often surprised by what they can do after a handful of tutorial videos.

Did the team have any favorite UE tools or features?

Technical Director Nick Weihs: Blueprints are one of the most powerful tools of any engine out there. The ability to have non-programmers prototype features early on was essential for us to find the core gameplay early on in development. We also deeply appreciate the fact that Unreal is open source. Without it, we wouldn't have been able to hit the quality bar on a few key features due to the necessary engine changes.

With RPG-style dialogue choices chock-full of jokes, any idea of how much dialogue is actually in the game?

It's too much. Way too much. Any time one of the guns speak, there's the possibility that another player might have one of the other three guns equipped... that means every gun line had to be written four times, once for each personality. And that's not even taking into account the sequences with branching dialogue. We definitely don't have as much dialogue as a Bethesda RPG, but we're not as far behind as you'd think. Too much dialogue. Next time I'd like to write a Tetris game. There's no talking guns in Tetris.

Can you shed light on the dialogue writing process?

We had more comedians on the writing team than game designers, so a lot of my job early on became sitting down with the designers and hashing out what sort of dialogue we needed. From there, we'd craft what I called a "dummy" script, which was basically the most boring version of each line: "Go over there," "Let's go rescue these guys," and "shoot that bad guy." Once we had that skeleton in, we were free to pour in all the personality and comedy and even build on that core to add more interesting ideas we came up with. We've been re-writing and re-recording all the way up until the end. Every time we jump back into the game, we come up with more gags that make us laugh and try to squeeze them in. It's a lot like building the highway as you're driving on it, so those early dummy scripts are extremely helpful, even if they quickly become outdated.
Image courtesy of Squanch Games
How much of the dialogue was ad-libbed?

We had so many amazing comedic performers come in to do voices, and most of them have incredible improv skills. People like J.B. Smoove, Andy Daly, and Echo Kellum got to cut loose a bit when the lines allowed for it. Obviously, some dialogue needs to follow the script exactly, like specific exposition or gameplay instructions; we can't have J.B. go off-book when telling you what button to press to launch a disc attack. I mean, actually, I think it would be funny for him to make up buttons and give the player wrong instructions. Okay, hold on; let me go back and ask the team to restart the game and do that instead.

Not many games try to be overtly funny. Can you speak to the balance between trying to achieve top-notch comedy and gameplay?

Yeah, honestly, it's scary. I think if you label a game as a comedy, people are going to very fairly come in with lots of expectations. I think the funniest games usually don't market themselves as a comedy; Portal 2 is a puzzle game first and foremost, but it's got some of the best joke-writing in the medium. The Fallout games have some very good comedy, but you'd never call them "comedy games." In film and TV, comedy has a bunch of subgenres, so you can better choose to match your subjective tastes: slapstick, romcom, stoner, satire, and such; games don't really have that, so it's hard to hit the audience with the same comedic taste you're aiming for. I know I'm personally a very tough crowd when it comes to comedy in games. I think I'd be very skeptical of High On Life if I hadn't worked on it. But we're lucky because Justin Roiland has a very specific demographic, and hopefully, we can grab a bunch of them. It's very much his humor; we're writing to Justin's voice on a macro level, and I'd say some of the writers have peppered in their own humor throughout as seasoning.

Can we expect post-launch content?

We supported our previous game, Trover Saves the Universe, for a long time after launch and plan to do the same for High on Life. We haven’t announced anything specific but keep your empty peepers peeled.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about High On Life?

High On Life will release December 13, 2022, on Xbox X|S, Xbox One, Windows PCs, Xbox Cloud Gaming, PC Game Pass, and day one on Xbox Game Pass! You can pre-order/pre-install/wishlist now on Xbox, the Epic Games Store, and Steam.

Learn more at and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (@highonlifegame everywhere). You can also keep up with Squanch Games (@squanchgames also everywhere).

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