The Making Of: Toonstruck
Toonstruck could have been a very different game had the design team stuck faithfully to the concept originally floated by their executive producer, David Bishop.
“David had the seed of an idea for a children’s game where a villain was draining the colour out of the world, turning it black and white,” cowriter and designer Jennifer Mcwilliams tells us. Once Jennifer and her colleagues got their hands on the idea, however, it was soon transformed. “He gave the concept to the design team and next thing you know, he had bovine S&M, insane clowns, fish-flushing, and all the rest. Poor guy,” she jokes.
The idea of an antagonist transforming a cartoon world stuck, albeit with a twist. The game’s story revolves around Count Nefarious’ plot to remould the cartoon realms of Cutopia and Zanydu in his image. He sends out a ship equipped with a beam that transforms cute and cuddly landscapes and the characters that inhabit them into twisted versions of themselves. Hence the cow Jennifer referred to, whose love for butter becomes a love for bondage after being hit with Count Nefarious’ weapon. Clearly, the idea that this would be a children’s
game didn’t stick. There was still plenty of silliness, but some comic violence and a penchant for parody with a hint of cynicism skewed the game towards a slightly older audience.
Regardless of the changes made to the original idea proposed by David, Virgin Interactive decided to back Toonstruck to the hilt, investing a lot of money in the project. The game seemed to encapsulate an ethos that the company held at the time. It bleeds through in Virgin Interactive’s memorable introductory video – a pulsating eyeball being assaulted with visual imagery as the beep of a heart-rate monitor grows ever quicker, the crescendo a flatline. The video seemed designed to suggest that this was a company whose games push things to the limit, harnessing the power of CD-ROMS to do mind-blowing things that hadn’t been done before.
“Yes, that was true,” says Jennifer when we ask if that accurately reflects the company’s approach. “I think the success of the 7th Guest (one of the very first games to be released on CD-ROM, published by Virgin just before Toonstruck’s development began) really inspired the company to see if it could take CD-ROM technology even further. We were empowered to make the game as cinematic as possible, in some ways treating it like a movie as well as an adventure game,” she explains.
John Piampiano, an artist who, “was originally brought on to do background paintings”, but ended up working on a whole host of tasks including, “character development, storyboarding, character and background colour styling, 2D effects animation, logo design, gaming icon design, marketing promos,” and more, confirms that Virgin were keen to push Toonstruck into new territory.
“There was definitely a conscious effort to create a more cinematic gaming experience, one that transported three-dimensional elements of reality into a 2D cartoon world both literally and figuratively,” John recalls. “Hyperrealistic 3D gaming technology was about to explode in the industry, so Toonstruck was a bit of a swan song to what would eventually be the decline of 2D gaming platforms, whether intentional or otherwise,” he continues. “Naturally, Virgin wanted all the bells and whistles it could possibly cram in”.
Indeed, the production values on show in Toonstruck was something that really stood out at the time – cutscenes that seemed more like something you’d see in a cartoon than a videogame, with a star-studded voice cast and rich and colourful backgrounds. John tells us that those impressive locations, characters, and animations were influenced by classic Warner Bros cartoons, Tex Avery, Hannah Barbara, and Disney, sprinkled with “humorous nods to iconic action adventure films and television” and some “British humour referencing and lampooning American pop culture”. From the bizarre and wacky region of Zanydu where its inhabitants enjoy nothing more than smacking each other upside the head with their Wacme gadgets (there’s that Warner Bros influence), to the saccharine sweet hills
of Cutopia (that’s where Disney comes in), this was a world that felt as if had been created with the investment of an unusual amount of time and money for the standards of the day.
“That would be a colossal understatement,” says John. “The producers of the game and execs at Virgin wanted a product that would wow its audience. It was ambitious to say the very least. So much of the game was handled like a full-scale movie production on just about every level, from storyboarding, to endless frame-by-frame conversion, and manipulation of live-action footage compressed to work in a 2D environment,” John explains. “A huge amount of 2D characters and animation were developed and keyframed inhouse, then farmed overseas to be fleshed out. I accompanied one of our in-house lead animators to the Philippines to assist and oversee animation production for a short period. The vision behind Toonstruck was always meant to feel cinematic in much the way ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ ambitiously pushed boundaries of integrating 2D and 3D visuals.”
When you’re trying to create a movie-like production, it makes sense to bring movie stars on board. Toonstruck did that with its Roger Rabbitesque blend of live-action footage and cartoon animation. Christopher Lloyd of Back To The Future fame took the lead role of Drew Blanc, the frustrated creator of the Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show who, suffering from creative block, pulls an allnighter, falls asleep, and wakes up in Toonstruck’s cartoon world. Ben Stein makes an appearance as Drew’s boss, Tim Curry lends his voice to Count Nefarious, and Dan Castellaneta, best known for playing Homer in The Simpsons, plays Drew Blanc’s toon companion, Flux Wildly.
Jennifer tells us that most of the writing was done before the actors were locked in, though as a Tim Curry fan, she happened to have written a lot of the characters with him in mind. “We actually had a different actor cast as Flux,” Jennifer reveals, “but after a couple of recording sessions it became clear that he wasn’t going to be a good fit. We were extremely fortunate to replace him with Dan Castellaneta, who was just a few years into his run with The Simpsons at the time.”
“He was an extremely useful little guy,” says Jennifer when we ask why the decision was made to give Drew a cartoon companion. “From a story perspective, Flux gave us a window into the ‘real’ Drew, and he also gave our hero a fun-loving sidekick. He was critical in terms of the dialogue as
well – so much of the game’s humour came from the relationship and the banter between Flux and Drew. And he was a great addition for puzzles.”
Thinking about the game as a movie-style production helps to explain some of the design elements that make Toonstruck stand out from its adventure game contemporaries. The game tried to give you a sense of time passing to tie what was happening around you to a story which was telling you that you were in a race against time to stop Nefarious. For example, when you moved into a new area, you might be treated to a cutscence where Nefarious would talk about the problems you were causing and order his goons to hunt you down. Later, those goons would show up looking for you and you’d have to find somewhere to hide to stop yourself being discovered. The point-andclick genre is one where time often feels static, its worlds frozen in a moment in time until you solve all the puzzles you need to progress to the next act In contrast, Toonstruck gave you the sense that the plot was always progressing as you explored.
“We really wanted to create a living world – one that would evolve as the game’s events unfolded,” Jennifer explains. “We tried to accomplish that with the cutscenes, with the dialogue, and with the art. In terms of the dialogue, we had all played games where an NPC would continue to say something like, ‘Lovely weather we’re having!’ after a dragon had incinerated the entire town,” she continues.
“In Toonstruck, if you spoke to a character after a critical event, in most cases they would comment on it rather than simply repeating their original dialogue from the earlier parts of the game.” So far, our tale of Toonstruck’s making has been overwhelmingly positive: a design team given big money backing, fantastic art, big stars, witty dialogue, and some clever structural touches. Toonstruck’s development was not without problems, however. As the game neared release, Virgin made the decision to split it in two and save the latter half for a sequel. “We were full of ideas, so we designed… and designed… and designed… with a great deal of focus on what would be cool and interesting and funny, and not so much focus on what would actually be achievable within a set schedule and budget,” Jennifer says. “We were fortunate that the company for the most part stood back and let us do our thing, but when it became clear that we had designed enough for two games or more, the powers that be in management had to step in and give us a dose of reality. We then needed to come up with an ending that could credibly wrap the game up halfway through, with a cliffhanger that would, ideally, introduce part two. I think we did well considering the constraints we were under, but still, it was not what we originally envisioned,” Jennifer laments. “The game was designed and written with a carefully-thought-out story arc, and cutting it in the middle definitely disrupted that.
“Toonstruck was meant to be a funny story about defeating some really weird bad guys, as it was when released, but originally it was also about defeating one’s own creative demons,” Jennifer tells us. “It was a tribute to creative folks of all types and was meant to offer encouragement to any of them that had lost their way. So, the second part of the game had Drew venturing into his own psyche, facing his fears (like a psychotically overeager dentist), living out his fantasies (like meeting his hero, Vincent Van Gogh), and eventually finding a way to restore his creative spark.”
Unfortunately, though critically well received, Toonstruck did not sell well. Given its hefty production costs, it’s unsurprising that this led to Virgin deciding to leave the near-finished sequel on the cutting room floor. It’s great that over 20 years later, Toonstruck is still being played, in part thanks to its release on platforms like Steam and GOG, but we still wish we had gotten to see the conclusion to Drew Blanc’s story. There have been hints at prospects of reviving Toonstruck 2 over the years, but they’ve never amounted to anything. If the whispers we hear in the wind at Retro Gamer Towers are to be believed, however, the possibility that we’ll get to see the sequel that never was might not be dead just yet…