Juan in Guacamelee.
Drinkbox's south wall is a shrine. There's a triumphant oil painting of their new luchador hero, Juan Aguacate, surrounded by level layouts, promotional graphics and a row of unopened He-Man toys. Festive skeletal figurines stand atop a meeting room shelf. All that's missing are some recently dimmed candles, dry roses and a mariachi band.
Yet only one member of Drinkbox's studio is actually from Mexico: Augusto Quijano, an artist, animator and impromptu voice of authority for the lucha libre-themed adventure, Guacamelee.
"You can see it around the office," says Chris Harvey, Drinkbox cofounder, "when you're working on a project you try to be more interested in that subject than you might be otherwise. There's a mirror in the bathroom with luchadors on it."
Harvey, Ryan MacLean and Graham Smith founded Drinkbox Studios in 2008. The three were refugees from the closure of Pseudo Interactive, the studio behind Cell Damage. Treading lightly, this new team juggled contract work for publishers like Activision and EA, while tasking free members to original properties. Their first release was Tales from Space: About a Blob for PlayStation 3, a buoyant, B-movie inspired cartoon platformer that cast the gamer as a slimy glop with an assortment of powers. When Sony approached the studio for a Vita launch title, they didn't intend to follow up immediately with a sequel, but the timeframe and otherwise risk factor led to Mutant Blobs Attack.
Before Mutant Blobs Attack launched, siphoning confidence from experience, the team compiled a small sample of concepts, including the luchador Metroidvania pitch from Quijano, and polled peers at Game Developers Conference. "Guacamelee was the clear winner," says Harvey.
The setup: soon before the Day of the Dead, lowly Juan Aguacate is forced into hero-dom after reanimated fiends kidnap el Presidente's daughter. Donning the role of a luchador and gaining the ability to shift between the worlds of the living and the dead, Juan must flex muscle, solve puzzles and bash skulls. Juan can also transform into a chicken if need be. With A sharp look, some rich mythology and unique, specific mechanics in a continuous overworld, Guacamelee isn't as, say, amorphous, as About a Blob.
In gaming, Mexico commonly rates alongside Afghanistan and Syria as far as gunfire hellpits go. In Army of Two, Rainbow Six: Vegas and Call of Juarez, being south of the border is just another warzone with tons of thugs and terrorists to shoot at. Quijano grew up in Yucatán, and while he acknowledges his home country isn't making the best reputation for itself today, it's vastly mislabelling the place he grew up.
"We're going through some tough times," says Quijano, "but stuff like that's taken residue from old westerns, this kind of outlaw environment. Guacamelee is kind of doing the opposite. We wanted to focus on the stuff I and other people love about Mexico. Stuff that makes us sad to be away."
Quijano describes masked wrestling in Yucatán similar to hockey here. "It was in the background. It's always there, part of the culture. I remember going to wrestling matches, I was still young enough to believe it was real. My dad's like, "You know, it's not real," and I yelled, "You don't know that!"
During development, Harvey proposed that Juan could change between powers by switching masks. Quijano, speaking on behalf of every luchador, objected. "It's not the same as Spider-Man, Batman, where they have double identities" he says. "Luchadors are always this person. The mask has to be worn all the time. That's his face."
His passion sometimes intimidated Harvey about offending, having to ask permission if it was authentic to include a beer advertisement. (It was. They do, after all, sell beer in Mexico.)
Harvey wanted a game of whimsical, humorous qualities, which games like the gothic Castlevania and Metroid rarely permit - apart from the odd Japanese-to-English translation (see: Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night's famous "What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets"). Quijano wanted a cultural sampling of Mexico. The result is colourful blend of game in-jokes (which bloggers have been feasting over), folklore and Spanish slang.
"The idea was to do the game like a celebration of Mexico," says Quijano, "I think that comes across."