KitTeaCup spent a few minutes with TJ Huckabee, a Systems Designer for BonusXP, to talk about working on Stranger Things 3: The Game. TJ started working with BonusXP in January 2019, and is responsible for several of ST3’s levels and quests.
TJ said he’d learned a lot of lessons from playing the first Stranger Things game, particularly regarding puzzles and combat. “The new isometric view of Stranger Things 3: The Game mandated certain changes over the top down view of the first game,” he explained. “Areas became larger, characters moved faster, and a greater variety of enemies and collectables gave more reason to revisit areas…and to face different challenges when you do.”
A lot of this change is driven by the switch from single-player to couch co-op in ST3: “Having a friend means you have twice as many eyes to figure out puzzles, and back-up in tricky combat situations. Two-player mode additionally offers unique and powerful synergistic combos that can only be pulled off with a friend.”
However, this meant that a lot of design had to be re-thought to accommodate the reduced screen size for each player in the game. “We had to make sure that levels were directed enough that, even if you lose about half your view distance, you wouldn’t miss seeing important clues or find yourself unfairly ambushed by enemies.” The controls also had to be adjusted, but TJ is confident that the adjustments he and his team implemented made for a better game experience: “We added camera scrolling to the right control stick to help players out in this situation, which doubled as a great quality-of-life feature in single player as well. ”
Because Stranger Things 3: The Game is available on consoles, there was also a fair amount of user interface redesign. “The studio is flush with game development experience, and plenty of that has been with more traditional controller and keyboard/mouse control. If anything, transitioning to a full console games was more like back-to-basics for us.”
When asked about his design process, TJ had a lot to say about adapting a television series to a game. “Early in production, we pick out tons of plot beats we want to showcase,” he explained. “Throughout design and development, the fittest of those concepts survive and turn into epic moments. Picking plot points that represent important moments from the show but also gamify well is key.” What was an example? “The fight with Flayed Billy in the sauna and escaping the monster through Starcourt Mall’s many shops are two stand-out examples of struggle and success on that front.”
TJ added an adaptation example that really hit the mark: the Spider Monster—a creature from the Upside-Down that manifests in the real world as a kind of giant arachnid made entirely of flesh and bone extracted from its victims. “The first time our players see the full-sized Spider Monster, there’s always a visceral ‘WOAH!’” He said that BonusXP’s artists did an incredible job of turning Stranger Things’ intense special effects into pixelated recreations. “He takes up almost the entire screen! The fight in Starcourt Mall at the end of the game is a real gem.”
TJ was also particularly proud of some of his environmental work. “The Fairgrounds, Starcourt Mall, and Hawkins Square…these all feel great to run around and explore. I feel the game is at its best when you see something you recognize…and then get to look behind the curtain and explore a new and unique place that feels like it belongs in Hawkins.”
Oddly enough, some of the powers from the series were actually more of a challenge to bring to the game. “Will Byers is a perfect example. His connection to the Upside-Down makes him a central figure in Stranger Things,” said TJ. “But portraying his sixth sense in a way that was compelling for the game was tough. We didn’t want to underdeliver on such a fan favorite character, so we racked our brains on what to do. Then we gave him a fireworks launcher, and I don’t think any character was as popular as ‘Will the Flayed-Slayer’ in playtest from then on.”
But even so, Will is not necessarily TJ’s favorite character in the game. “I love Murray Bauman—the conspiracy-theory guy we first saw in Season 2. I love his caustic cynicism and biting wit, and the larger role he played in Season 3 was especially great.” TJ also had high praise for the actor who played Murray: “Brett Gelman’s performance is excellent. He’s very funny—but without sacrificing consistency with the tone of Stranger Things.”
TJ even designed a romp through Murray’s warehouse, to really bring out the conspiracy nut’s personality—even though there’s no direct connection in the television series: “It’s a much looser interpretation of the events—which gave me the chance to write some exchanges between him and the player character.”
Does TJ’s love for Murray mean he liked Season 3 of the series better than Season 2? “I’m a bit too young for a lot of the nostalgia factor, but I loved the setting of Starcourt Mall and the Cold War era secret base. But I actually prefer the earlier game, simply because I wasn’t a developer on it, so I got to enjoy it completely spoiler-free—something I couldn’t do with ST3, because BonusXP had a very intimate look at the monsters ahead of time, so we knew what to expect. Even so, Stranger Things is so atmospheric that you really connect with the tone and feel the tension.”
To round out the interview, we asked TJ a series of questions about his personal likes and dislikes—and who he would be if he weren’t working on games.
- What is your favorite word?
Banger. As in, “That song is great. It’s a real banger.” or “Wow dude, that’s a banger Tweet. It will surely do numbers.”
- What is your least favorite word?
Most game designers love saying “grok” and “grognard.” Not me!
- What sound or noise do you love?
The announcer saying “You Win” in Street Fighter II Turbo.
- What sound or noise do you hate?
- What is your favorite curse word?
I don’t swear.
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d love to work as a cruise ship director. I’d absolutely kill at karaoke with two dozen retirees.
- What was the first video game you ever fell in love with?
Unironically, Glover—the platform game from 1998. I was absolutely obsessed with Glover in first grade. I drew the main character every single day. I assume it was because he was a glove and thus easy to draw.