Talking ToeJam & Earl with Greg Johnson – Part 1: Developing a Beloved Game Franchise

On March 18, 2015, I had the opportunity to spend about 40 minutes chatting on Skype with Greg Johnson, one of the creators of the ToeJam & Earl franchise. We mostly talked about the original ToeJam & Earl game, but we also brought up the more recent ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove (which was funded on Kickstarter in March of 2015), and Doki Doki Universe, which Johnson also created. It was an incredibly interesting conversation, in which we explored racism, drug references, linguistics, and more. Read on for the full interview.

ToeJam and Earl Say What's Up

Josh: Since you announced this [ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove‘s Kickstarter campaign], there’s been so much enthusiasm. It seems like it’s almost coming out of the woodwork probably. Did that all surprise you that people are still so interested in the IP?

Greg: Yes and no. It didn’t surprise me in general because I’ve been getting emails from people constantly over the last couple decades. I should say Mark [Voorsanger, co-creator of ToeJam & Earl] and I have been getting emails, you know. I just didn’t know what the extent or magnitude of it was. That’s the part that surprised me. It just sort of bowled me over. I wasn’t ready for that.

Josh: You were talking with Game Informer… about how so many people have these really deep personal stories about they relate to the game — just hearing those sorts of things must be really incredible. [The Game Informer interview can be found here, but it turns out I was confusing that with the interview Greg did with IGN, which is here.]

Greg: It really is. I don’t know that it’s really necessarily a virtue of the ToeJam & Earl game itself. You know, I think a lot of people have personal stories that revolve around different games or books or movies or things that have some sort of special meaning for them, but I think there are probably some certain qualities about the ToeJam & Earl game and the time that it came out that made it a little more likely than some other games to connect with people, or maybe more importantly, facilitate connections between people.

It’s been very eye-opening for me and for the other members of the team. And Mark as well. But I’m the one that’s kind of getting it mostly directed at me. It’s all being funneled right at me, so I’m sort of standing in front of the love hose in a way, you know? [Laughter] I think I’m getting the full-on effect, and it’s hard not to be affected by that. In a really good way.

Josh: I know you were hugely inspired by Rogue back in the day, but what other media would you say inspired the original ToeJam & Earl?

Greg: The gameplay itself was really all Rogue, but ToeJam & Earl is more than just game mechanics…

Honestly it’s kind of hard to think back that far, that’s just an awful long time ago, you know. When was this? Like, late-1980s and early 90s?

I’ve always had aliens on the brain, as you might have read a little bit about. In that IGN interview, I talked a bit about my history with that, even going back to my college years when I was studying biolinguistics in the hopes of — well, I shouldn’t even say “hopes;” maybe the dream that I didn’t even share with people — of wanting to be the one they called when the aliens landed. I was just so fascinated by the idea of that first contact notion and the idea of looking at life and at the universe and ourselves in some new way. [I was] curious how aliens might be or think…

So I think that’s a big part of where my first game, Starflight, came from, and I worked on Star Control with Paul Reiche and Fred Ford after that, and built ToeJam & Earl — which, of course, obviously, big alien theme.

And then there’s the whole funk music thing that kind of came from a different sector of my psyche, and then just the complete, almost random quality of the humor and the satire and the sort of poking fun at who we are in our society and kind of seeing it from outside eyes. It all kind of gelled and came together.

ToeJam and Earl's Funky Ship

Josh: Well, I’m glad you brought up the biolinguistics thing, because it kind of leads into my next two questions, actually. The first is just kind of a throwaway [and, oddly enough, I never really got around to asking the second], but since you have a background in linguistics, did you put any [thought] into how, if ToeJam and Earl had a language, what that would sound like?

Greg: No. I did a fair bit of that in the Starflight game, and came up with a whole bunch of different languages and a system in that game for generating languages that the different… alien races came up with. I didn’t do anything like that in ToeJam & Earl, but there is actually an awful lot of fun stuff you can do with linguistics and language in games and looking at it [through the lens of] game mechanics.

And I think that would be a lot of fun, maybe an element to bring to ToeJam & Earl eventually, although right now I’m sort of intentionally constraining myself… That’s not where I’m going to head now because there’s just too much other stuff to do.

Josh: I like the idea of how linguistics and things can affect gameplay mechanics. I guess the first thing I thought of was the original Oddworld games — Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exodus. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a language, but it’s [about] trying to control other creatures by communicating with them.

Greg: I think that’s a fascinating area, and it’s one that hasn’t been explored very much in games… it has an awful lot of potential, in terms of… the player communicating directly with an AI, and making that whole communication process a part of the game. That can lend a real strong sense [of] believability to the character that you’re communicating with if they’re basically trying to figure out what you’re saying, you know? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about.

Someday, after I’ve finished this path I’m on with ToeJam & Earl, I’d like to explore that are some more, because I think there’s a lot of rich potential there.

ToeJam & Earl Cover

In the second part of this interview, Greg and I talk about Doki Doki Universe’s emotional impact, and about how non-white characters can sometimes be tricky for game critics.

You can read that here.

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