Squirrel with a Gun evolved from quirky test video to Unreal Engine-powered light-hearted action game

Images courtesy of Maximum Entertainment and Dee Dee Creations
June 18, 2024
Dee Dee Creations is a brand-new studio located in New York. A small team of highly dedicated developers with a burning passion for gaming, the studio uses Unreal Engine and a suite of computer graphics programs to bring its  visions to life.
A video of a detailed, realistic brown and gray, bushy-tailed squirrel attracted quite a bit of attention two years ago on social media not simply because it was created entirely in Unreal Engine, but because of what he did 22 seconds in: pick up a gun.

Gripping the pistol in its tiny little paws, the squirrel ran around in the mostly empty setting before switching to an uzi and launching itself into the air with a controlled burst of bullets.

“It exploded over Twitter and lots of other social media,” said Dan DeEntremont, Game Director on Squirrel with a Gun and owner of Dee Dee Creations. “At that point, we were almost obligated to make an entire game out of the concept.”

And thus the aptly named Squirrel with a Gun was born.

We chatted with DeEntremont about the Eddie Izzard inspiration behind the concept, the hours spent studying squirrel gaits, and how an array of powerful Unreal Engine features like Blueprints and Lumen help bring the light-hearted action game (with a touch of horror, he promises) to nimbly-bimbly life.
How did you become interested in visual effects and video games?

Dan DeEntremont, Game Director on Squirrel with A Gun and owner of Dee Dee Creations: I've been into video games since I was a kid. In fact, I went to the DAVE school in Orlando to learn how to work in games. Back then, the curriculum focused a lot on pre-rendered visual effects, so I ended up getting my first job in Hollywood working on a monster comedy film called Infestation. For the next decade and a half, I worked largely in film and TV, but I still held that candle for game development. During my free time, I played around in Unity, trying to emulate the movement and gravity from Super Mario Galaxy and eventually started dabbling in Unreal, building a simple character with fancy alembic grooms that eventually went viral.

What was it like transitioning from working as a 3D artist at Muse VFX to developing a video game about a delightfully violent squirrel?

DeEntremont: It's interesting how related the world of TV/film VFX is to the games industry, yet also vastly different! A lot of my core skills transferred over, such as modeling, rigging and animating. But it was definitely a baptism by fire when it came to coding game logic and optimizing for real time. 

Where did the idea for Squirrel with a Gun come from?

DeEntremont: A squirrel holding a regular-sized gun was among many of the silly ideas floating around in my head. I've mentioned this before, but it might have been seeded in my head from an Eddie Izzard bit where the punchline is "We wanted diamonds, or sherbet, or a squirrel with a gun!” SWAG started as a way to flex my skeletal mesh and character controller muscles in Unreal. When I posted a video of the squirrel using a submachine gun, it exploded over Twitter and lots of other social media. At that point, we were almost obligated to make an entire game out of the concept.

How many people are working on the game?

DeEntremont: At Dee Dee Creations there are three people working on SWAG. I'm handling the bulk of the 3D and Unreal-centric parts. Scott DeEntremont is handling our soundtrack. Kensika Moolnoy-DeEntremont helps with marketing and public relations. There are also many more people working on SWAG on the side of our publisher, Maximum Entertainment, for things such as production management, porting, and video creation. Our credits list has grown quite large, which is great because the credits are also a minigame!

Why did you decide to use Unreal Engine after previously working with Unity?

DeEntremont: Probably the number one reason I switched to Unreal was because of Blueprints for visual scripting. It's fantastic for rapid prototyping and the Event Graphs help me keep a "bigger picture" in my head versus code. But once I got into UE itself, it was an absolute trove of game dev modules. It can be hard to stay focused because you can get lost learning about one of its many systems, even if it isn't related to the game at hand.
 
Were there any other particular Unreal Engine features that had a big impact on the game’s development and if so which ones?

DeEntremont: As you might imagine, Grooms were instrumental in making a realistic squirrel. Lumen has also had a great effect on the lighting realism, especially in dark, enclosed areas. And it's dynamic, so it looks great even on moving objects, which typically can't use baked lighting. The Chaos Vehicle class has also allowed us to make physics-driven vehicles for the squirrel.

I understand you made a lot of use of Epic Games free assets to help with level design. Can you describe how you made those elements unique to your vision for the game?

DeEntremont: Yes! Before we expanded into a "proper" game, I always joked that SWAG would be an "educated asset swap." The monthly free assets that are available on the Unreal Engine Marketplace are great for a small development team to stay focused on core mechanics and world layout. Since the free assets are generally geared toward human-sized protagonists, we tend to adjust most of the models with higher-fidelity collisions.

The movements of the squirrel, coupled with the game's physics, deliver some delightful moments. How did you go about capturing that higgledy-piggledy movement to make it look real, but also allow it to underscore the inherent comedy of the game’s premise?

DeEntremont: Animation has always been a strong interest of mine and I love learning about animals, so it was a lot of fun studying squirrel gaits and applying a realistic bounding animation to the squirrel (that is to say, an animation of it bounding or "hopping" forward). I also applied an additive "bending" pose via the Animation Blueprint depending on the direction it rotates, which really helped prevent the "stiff" feeling of a long animal turning. I also studied how squirrels climb and swim so that it would move realistically on trees or on the surface of water. Among the people interested in the game were many squirrel enthusiasts and owners, so I wanted to make sure it moved as similarly to real squirrels as I could make it. 

Now, when it came to guns, there was a lot more freedom to stretch the limits of realism. We gave our squirrel a unique running/holding animation for each gun as well as some cool recoil effects for when it midair jumps. I also made a unique "takedown" animation for each kind of gun, inspired by the cinematic Heat Actions of the Yakuza series.
 
Did the game concept include a comedic approach from the beginning or was that something you landed on after starting with a more serious tone?

DeEntremont: Ah yeah, SWAG was always intended to be goofy and even a bit surreal. I'm a big fan of the shows you'd see on Adult Swim that just get downright bizarre at times, and I wanted to bring a bit of that into SWAG. Though it is light-hearted, it does contain a few epic action moments and even a dab of horror, if you can believe it.

How did you go about designing the shooting mechanics for the game and how was that then woven so well into the game’s movement system?

DeEntremont: From inception, we knew that a squirrel with a gun should experience powerful recoil as a gag. And later, we thought it would be funny if firing downward allowed you to fly further into the air. But while that was funny, it wasn't very "precise" and therefore wasn't a reliable platforming tool. So we ended up modifying a double-jump into a "shoot straight down" action. Depending on the type of gun, you'll be able to midair jump in different ways. We also make use of poles and trees to allow our squirrel to climb to high-up areas, but at the cost of its gun, as its paws must be free to climb.

Were there any particular features of the Unreal Engine that helped you overcome specific challenges in creating this game?

DeEntremont: Any tools that efficiently handle an optimized system are always welcome to me in UE! I'm glad I don't have to deal with the nitty-gritty of features like the terrain's dynamic LOD, navigation mesh generation, or distance field generation, and they simply work.

Likely the most important question of this interview is all about the squirrel’s luxurious fur. How did you manage to create such an authentic looking fluffy tail? It clearly rises to the level of “floofy.”

DeEntremont: The squirrel's floofy bottlebrush tail is composed of thousands of individual strands, all pointing straight out from the surface of the skin. It's funny because in nearly all 3D hair-design situations, the default state is "hair points straight out of surface," and the artist needs to comb it down the appropriate direction. But all I needed to do with the tail was add a little noise, so the strands weren't perfectly, flawlessly straight. A bottlebrush tail is a particularly hard effect to replicate with a "fins and shells" method of fur, so strands were the best option for realism. 
Another important question - Does our hero squirrel have a name or is it just “squirrel”? If not, have you ever considered a name? 

DeEntremont: Personally, I've just been referring to our protagonist as "Squirrel" throughout the project. We're certainly open to suggestions. Maybe we should have a contest, though I fear if we do, it may end up with a name like "Squirrely McSquirrelface."

What advice would you give other indie developers hoping to create a game that may fall outside the realm of the expected and existing genres?

DeEntremont: My advice to indie developers making such a game is to do a LOT of experimenting and playtests to make sure it jibes with your player base. Even though your game may be a genre trend-setter, it's good to describe it as one or two strongly established genres (like horror/stealth for example). Unless they are highly adventurous, a player usually wants to know a bit of what they're getting into. We've gotten a lot of helpful feedback thanks to playtests organized by Maximum Entertainment that have helped SWAG feel good and fall in line with player expectations, while still keeping its unique identity.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Where can people find out more about your studio and Squirrely McSquirrelface?

You can follow SWAG updates at https://twitter.com/QuiteDan or the SWAG-exclusive YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@QuiteDan.

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