Freedom Finger is a Bat$#!% crazy space shooter from the minds of Travis Millard and Jim Dirschberger
We chatted with old friends Jim Dirschberger (Sanjay & Craig) and Travis Millard (all kinds of good stuff!) about their new "hand-drawn Shoot 'em Up, Punch 'em Up, F&#$ 'em Up!" video game. Featuring a giant, flying, fist-shaped, middle finger-giving ship embarking on an intergalactic rescue mission to save lunar scientists taken hostage by terrorists, Freedom Finger is the game we didn't know we needed, a special opportunity to travel through the wonderfully weird imaginations of Jim Dirschberger and Travis Millard.
The game features completely hand-drawn visuals, and voice acting by some of the industry’s leading talent such as Nolan North, John DiMaggio, Sam Riegel, and Eric Bauza. Freedom Finger also features a killer soundtrack of licensed music from Red Fang, METZ, Power Trip, Com Truise, White Fence, Ty Segall, Makeup and Vanity Set, True Widow, The Radio Dept., Drab Majesty, John Maus, Vektroid, Danimal Cannon, Cleaners from Venus, and more!
Find the game on Steam here. Check out some of Travis's original sketches in the gallery above.
Juxtapoz: What is the origin story of the game? When did you guys first start talking about the idea?
Travis Millard: Jim had been bubbling on it for a while when he invited me out for a bowl of chili at the famous Chili John's in Burbank and dropped the idea on me. My knowledge of video games left off with Nintendo in the 80s, but Jim and I have worked together on a number of short animation projects and expanding on a bigger project with him was interesting to me. Soon after our chili date, Jim came by the house to go over the concept and I started coming up with some rough characters and drawings for the middle-finger ship.
Jim Dirschberger: I've wanted to develop a game for years but didn’t know where to start. After attending the Game Developer Conference in 2016, I learned that the tools for making games are more accessible now than ever. I was convinced. I had to do it. In my mind, I always visualized the game in Travis’ style, so I had to ask him. After weakening his defenses with Burbank chili, it was a pretty easy sell. We’ve been jamming on Freedom Finger for about three years now, off and on.
Walk us through the process like creating the game. How does it differ from other narrative animation projects? Did the middle finger hand come first, then the rest of the characters and story?
Jim: The process for a story-driven game is a lot like animation. The story drives the art, the art drives the tone. The gameplay took a lot of trial and error to nail the feel, but once we found it, we didn’t have to revisit it often. The biggest difference between cartoons and games is the interactive element. You really have to plan for every scenario, you can’t assume the player is going to do what you think they’ll do. It requires a lot of documentation, which is the most tedious part of the entire process. I found myself in spreadsheet hell for a while.
In terms of art, the middle finger came first! It immediately sets the tone and expectations that Freedom Finger doesn’t take itself too seriously. And, you know, the finger reads; people have an immediate reaction to it. It was helpful because as I wrote the script if I found myself getting too serious or dramatic I would remember “Oh yeah, it’s a giant flying middle finger” and walk it back.
Most of the characters are based on historical figures. The lead, Major Cigar, is a hybrid of Curtis LeMay, Wernher von Braun, and your drunk uncle at a family bbq. Again, not wanting to get too heavy with the themes, we always found a way to undercut their dialogue with comedy. Our cast, Nolan North, John DiMaggio, Eric Bauza, and Sam Riegel, are hilarious dudes, so that helped too.
Early Freedom Finger sketch by Travis Millard
Are there other hand-drawn games out there these days?
Jim: Absolutely. Most games tend to draw individual elements like arms, legs, and facial expressions and then manipulate them inside the game engine. It looks great and is about 100% faster than drawing individual frames. Coming from animation, I know how hand-drawn art can elevate the animation. There’s just no substitution for it. It was a tough call because going with hand-drawn meant we’d also have a very long production schedule. After a few tests, we went for it. If you’re going to do it, do it right, you know? It’s one of the reasons it took us about three years to wrap the game but the result has been totally worth it.
For those unaware of your backgrounds and art, it must be a pretty unusual approach to games. What have people's reactions been in the gaming world?
Jim: We've already seen Justin Roiland (Rick & Morty) and Pen Ward (Adventure Time) produce games, and I think you’ll see more folks from animation mixing into the game space as time goes on. For those of us who grew up immersed in the early Nintendo/Sega-era, making games is hard to resist. The technical barrier has been lowered and the creative freedom is unprecedented. Not to mention the potential that VR offers.
For all the systems and markets young artists have been locked out of, making games feels like the one place we can get in on the ground floor. You can make a game with friends and share it with the world for very little money. Coming from animation, which is very expensive, that’s pretty incredible.
Later Freedom Finger drawing by Travis Millard
What was the most challenging part of the whole process? Any good stories from the experience? Any sage advice for anybody who sees this and decides they also want to make a video game?
Travis: For me, the most challenging part was just wrapping my head around how many drawings had to be done and finding a comfortable way of working it all out. Jim’s experience working on an animated show was super helpful in the way he was able to structure everything that had to be done in manageable chunks. When I started, it was all done with pencil and pen on typing paper. Then I’d scan the page and color in photoshop with a Wacom tablet. I was doing all the character movements total caveman style with multiple sheets of paper on a lightbox and stitching them together on a big layered photoshop file. I’d never worked with a Cintiq before, which is pretty standard in the animation world. Jim offered to give me an old unit he wasn’t using which was a huge game changer for me. I still worked things out with pencil on paper, but it completely streamlined the process and made everything so much easier. Eventually, I upgraded to a newer model and it’s been the best addition to my toolbox I’ve found in years. When we set out to do this, I really had no idea how intensive it was going to be but am so happy we did it. Feels like I learned so much along the way and it’s just a treat to finally see it all come together.
Jim: Marketing the game is pretty grueling. You’re swimming upstream against a torrent of new games and content. Last week Steam added 160 new games. That’s fucking insane! On top of that, each digital storefront has its own algorithms for promotion too. You really have to find creative ways to game the system just to make sure your game gets in front of people.
Despite that, the independent game scene is one of the more welcoming communities I’ve ever worked within. People openly share art, music, code, and everything in between. So regardless of your skill set, chances are someone already made and shared the thing you need. I’d highly recommend looking into local game dev groups. Bring a friend. Learn to code. It’s all there. And when you make your game, tell me about it. I want to play it!
Any plans to install it in a video arcade console???
Travis: I'd love to see that.
Jim: Same! But for now, we’re focused on the PC/Mac release via Steam and console ports, which should be out later this year. In the meantime, we'd love for people to check out the Steam page and wishlist Freedom Finger!