The Bard’s Tale ARPG Interview with inXile Founders
In anticipation of The Bard’s Tale ARPG: Remastered and Resnarkled coming to Xbox and PC with Xbox Game Pass, and Nintendo Switch with Xbox network integration on June 18 (and our fingers crumbling if we have to type that game title again), we sat down with Brian Fargo (Fearless Bard Leader), Maxx Kaufman (Artsy Bard), and Matt Findley (New Orleans Bard) to harken back to ye yester yere.
We reminisce about the formation of inXile and creation of the studio’s first title—you guessed it, The Bard’s Tale ARPG: Remastered and Resnarkled. *snap* Yup. Fingers broke. This was the first game of a brand-new studio. What was it like at inXile when you were working on it?
Brian: I loved the early days at inXile, we were focused purely on hiring talent and the nuances of the game we were making (The Bard’s Tale ARPG). We had no pressure from a publisher in the first six months of the company, and could slowly layer in the right people. The old cliché about smart people hiring smart people is always true.
Finstown concept. (Not so much as a town as a collection of trees)
The Bard’s Tale ARPG isn’t like the other Bard’s Tale I-IV titles; how does it fit in to the world and story? Was there any influence from the other Bard’s Tale games?
Matt: We had to create an original story and world to avoid any blatant copyright infringement with the original trilogy (ed: the rights were at the time held by a different publisher), but the world we created was based on the same mythology that the original game world was based on. We just went back to the deep roots of the Scottish and Celtic Mythology that inspired not only The Bard's Tale, but everything from Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons. We will call it a parallel universe to the BT I-IV world. While the creatures and places might overlap a bit, the Bard does live in a world of his own.
And the world is not without its perils and dangers…
Maxx: From my perspective, I was trying to create something brand new. We weren’t using the old titles as a reference point, we were only using the same locations, with the idea of Scottish lore as our guide. We did research and we looked at structures and we talked about the creatures, and that was kind of the genesis of everything that comprised the game.
When we were making the game, the attitude started to evolve. I designed this creature called the Bugbear…
Matt: A lot of people don't know that when we first started writing the game it was not yet a comedy. Maxx sent me a piece of concept art that he had created really quickly of a Bugbear. Maxx is a great artist, but this concept art was not good. I immediately said, "That is not a Bugbear, that looks like a guy wearing a bugbear suit he got at a discount costume shop." Somehow I could not get that image out of my head and sat down and wrote a quest line that really came right out of an episode of Scooby Doo. Old Man Vinters is wearing a Bugbear costume and is using it to scare the village population into paying him a ransom. By the time I was done writing it, we were now making a comedy.
The infamous Bugbear concept that caused the title to ultimately become a comedy.
Maxx: We had always planned on being irreverent, we were also planning to not just do the normally expected thing. We were going to twist things and put them on their ear. From an art standpoint, Matt’s response kind of got the ball rolling for me on a lot of different ideas about how to approach the game. Do you think this title helped to define what inXile is today?
Brian: I do think this first Bard’s Tale game for the studio helped define an approach that we take to game design. We try very hard to anticipate what the player is trying to accomplish in the game and what they’re thinking. The world is so much more alive and immersive when you’re able to do that successfully.
The Bard’s Tale ARPG was about the humor of our cynical hero (Cary Elwes) arguing with the narrator (Tony Jay). The humor worked because of the tropes it made fun of, and of the understanding of what the player was thinking at the moment. The game also reinforced how the little things are big things. It was the small moments, the song and dance numbers and the dialogue that people remember for years. We love putting effort into those small moments, or scenes that not everyone will see, because we know those are what make an impact. That’s something that continues to influence our development.
Surely this undead Viking isn’t going to just spring to life when you least expect it… right?
Do you have a favorite moment or memory from development?
Brian: One nice moment was working with Cary Elwes for the recording of the Bard. We went into the studio and he said he had a very specific voice he thought would be perfect, it was a harsh Cockney accent. I wasn’t loving it but I know how hard it is to direct big talent and didn’t want to have the whole session to go sideways. But then I got home that night and called Matt (Findley) and said I really don’t like the recording, and Matt was in complete agreement.
The Bard himself.
Brian: So now we need to go back for day two and tell Cary that we didn’t like it and had to start over and finish it all in one day since we only had him for two days total. I was dreading the conversation. We show up and I apologize for not making a bigger deal the day before but the voice work doesn’t sound right. And I was so pleasantly surprised at what a gentleman he was, he apologized to us (which was completely unnecessary) and was happy to try another take. We found the right tone and wrapped up that same day. Anyone that works with big talent knows how unpredictable it can be.
Matt: Spending time in the studio with Cary Elwes was one of the highlights of my career. On that second day Cary WAS the bard. His wit and delivery brought the writing to life in a way that was even better than we imagined. He had total grasp of the sarcastic nature of the character and his comedic timing was perfect. That said, I have never been in a recording session with anyone that was more of a pro than Tony Jay. I don't think we even did a second take of a single line of dialog. He read the script, walked into the booth, and delivered the entire thing in one take. One of the greatest voices of all time, and it was honor to get to work with him.
Don’t worry, you’re not concussed.
The game is very easy to get into, and very funny. Did that mirror the work environment when inXile was just starting?
Matt: I have always said that a great game reflects the personality of the people who made it and The Bard's Tale is a great insight into what the work environment was like in the first five years of inXile. It was always a laugh and we didn't take ourselves too seriously, but we did take the quality of the game seriously. By the time we started inXile in 2002 we had already been working in the games industry for well over a decade and we wanted to get back to the fun that the industry had when we started out in the 80's. Small teams making games they are really passionate about is a great recipe for a great work environment. It doesn't hurt when the game continues to crack you up even when you are on your 20th playthrough.
Brian: I remember having a meeting in the conference room in which we took the entire company through the design of the game, we wanted each craftsman to understand the totality of the experience that was being created. We had fun ideas coming from every discipline and I remember one of the programmers telling us that this was the first time in his long career that he actually knew what game he was making. He said he was more energized understanding what the experience was going to be.
Gonads is Bardric for Family Jewels.
Let’s talk about some of the concepts and get some backstory on The Bard’s Tale art team.
Maxx: Yeah, I found some of Chris Robinson’s original art. He’s really an amazing artist, he’s done some absolutely beautiful stuff. He did all the bosses and he did some of the enemies. You also see here Chris’ render for the Bard based on our original design that I put together. Brandon (Humphreys) was responsible for some of the environments and the enemies. I think it was 5 artists total on the game.
Draugr model, Finnoch illustration, and Herne model by Chris Robinson
What was the design inspiration for the Bard himself? How did he come about?
Maxx: We wanted a Han Solo-esque guy, you know, he’s charismatic… he’s not a bumbling idiot, but as you find out in the story, he doesn’t always know what’s going on around him. He’s just kind of a rough and tough guy and things are happening around him, and he’s causing things to happen moreso than maybe he’s even aware. That’s the style we wanted to come across in the character. The unlikely or undeserving hero.
The final Bard model/concept by Chris Robinson.
What’s your contribution to The Bard’s Tale that you are the most proud of?
Maxx: The one I’m most proud of has to be the Explorer summon (concepted as ‘The Trapfinder’). As I started out, all the summoned creatures were given to me in a list, and I banged out the concepts. I mean I think I did the concepts for all the summoned creatures in like two weeks! Whatever it was, like 12 or 14 characters, it was about 2 weeks. So, regarding the Explorer, the idea needed to be fleshed out. There was this idea there’d be this trap maker, and he can stop traps. And so I started thinking on it and I thought you know, let’s just make him an old man and he just runs up and he dives onto things. You might think that with this stick of his he could be testing the traps out more safely, but these are disposable creatures and allies. They’re essentially spells. You didn’t want these characters living forever, that wasn’t the idea for the summoned characters. You know it was more like, you could use them, they’d have hit points, they’d lose their lives, and they’d go away and you summon another one. So it made sense, and was also pretty funny to us.
Interesting you would put it like that because in some games the indication might be to keep your summons up as long as possible.
Maxx: That’s one of the things that early on people would say, ‘this game is very difficult.’ Well, the game is very difficult if you don’t use your summoned creatures. The game is designed and intends for you to regularly use and swap your summoned creatures. That is your strength.
You'll get by with a little help from your friends.
The music is another special treat to rediscover. Music has always been integral to The Bard’s Tale experience; how did that change or adapt for this title? Matt: We had a vision for having songs with lyrics and people singing in the game. It started off as just the Beer, Beer, Beer song in the opening tavern, but quickly escalated into something much bigger. We ended up with the Singing Trow showing up 4 or 5 times and taunting the Bard in song for all of his mistakes. The singing trow were a cross between a Greek Chorus and the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka. By the time we wrote the zombie dance off scene and the Viking song and dance number I was sure that I wanted to sneak a song and dance number into all our games. What are your thoughts about the almost cult appreciation for the game that’s sprung up over the years? Maxx: At the time when it was originally released, The Bard’s Tale wasn’t that well received. There wasn’t a lot of advertising, so I don’t think we ever got the launch that we had wanted. We could have spent longer on making sure the game launched with more polish, which it did eventually receive in the Remastered & Resnarkled version.
We always believed in the game and we loved it, so it’s kind of like recognition for all the hard work. I feel like I’ve worked on a cult classic. What libation do you recommend while playing The Bard’s Tale and how much was consumed during the making of this game? Maxx: It has to be Scotch. The Bard’s Tale’s is based in Skara Brae because it’s loosely based on the original Bard’s Tale, and so Scotland was our inspiration. It’s also what we would drink while we were working on the game, but we were also drinking a lot of tequila at the time.
Maxx seen wearing his typical Wednesday-attire around the office. (circa 2003)
Matt: I think the actual amount of the libations consumed is almost unmeasurable. It was a small team making the game, but what we lacked in size we more than made up for in commitment to the craft. And by craft, I mean craft beer.
Thank you to Brian, Matt, and Maxx for sharing some of their memories on the game’s original development. Whether you’re looking forward to playing it again for the very first time, The Bard’s Tale ARPG: Remastered and Resnarkled (we copy and pasted it that time!) will be hitting Xbox and Windows 10 PC with Xbox Game Pass, and on the Nintendo Switch with Xbox network integration on June 18.