For many kids, there’s something special about Halloween. There’s a magical property to picking out a costume, dressing up, and going door-to-door asking for candy. Halloween lets children express themselves and be whomever they want to be, whether that’s a superhero, a unicorn, or Abe Lincoln. That magic fades as puberty and teenagerhood beckon, but there’s a lot of nostalgia associated with the spooky holiday.
The spirit of Halloween is perfectly captured in the 2010 video game “Costume Quest,” developed by San Francisco-based studio Double Fine Productions and published by the now-defunct THQ. The role-playing game used cutesy graphics and a classic turn-based combat system to tell a story about becoming something different on Halloween, with kids quite literally becoming their costumes to fight monsters.
“Costume Quest” is a bite-sized adventure that can be completed in a few hours, but its legacy lives on through a sequel, comic book, and now, an Amazon Prime animated show. So how did a hasty pitch turn into a franchise about the power of childhood and the magic of Halloween? It all started about a decade ago during one of the most stressful periods in Double Fine’s history.
Things weren’t looking great for Double Fine in late 2009.
Four years after releasing the now-cult classic “Psychonauts,” the studio had just shipped its second major game, “Brütal Legend.” Set to a metal soundtrack and utilizing the voice talents of actor Jack Black, “Legend’s” development was plagued by a very public change in publishers and a lawsuit from Activision that threatened the game’s existence. Despite all the drama, “Brütal Legend” finally launched to generally favorable reviews in October of 2009, and Double Fine was ready to get started on the sequel. One problem: EA canceled it.
With no projects to work on and the studio’s future in jeopardy, Schafer turned to a morale-boosting tactic he’d used before: the Amnesia Fortnight, a two-week brainstorm in which Double Fine employees from all departments put aside their work and split into teams to see what kind of games they could come up with in that short period of time. The 2009 Amnesia Fortnight resulted in the creation of “Costume Quest” and several other titles, although creator Tasha Sounart told Variety the seeds for what eventually became the quirky Halloween RPG had been planted many years earlier.
“The idea was actually something I came up with as a little kid. I remember drawing these little pixel-art kids trick-or-treating. Halloween was my favorite holiday and I always thought it
would be a cool setting for a game,” Sounart said. She served as Project Lead on “Costume Quest,” but these days she’s working at Pixar as Associate Creative Director, Theme Parks. Despite the stressful events that preceded it, she credits the Amnesia Fortnight for giving her the space to pitch and develop her concept. “It was one of the first times in my career I was able to create something that was fully my own vision, so that was really exciting. Also, I got a lot of motivation from my team members. We were always making each other laugh and creating fun animation and artwork to inspire each other. It was a really great team.”
Originally released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, “Costume Quest” stars twins Wren and Reynolds, the new kids in town who try to make friends through the bonding experience of trick-or-treating. Before long, they discover that their costumes are giving them real-life abilities, which come in handy when fighting the monsters that are hidden among their neighbors. After the game’s release, it became clear that there were still plenty more stories about the twins and their magical costumes left to tell.
“The Next Logical Step”
“We’ve always loved the high concept and characters of ‘Costume Quest’ and felt there could never be enough seasonal content for Halloween,” Double Fine’s VP of Business Development Greg Rice told Variety. So after two games and a comic, Zac Gorman’s “Invasion of the Candy Snatchers,” an animated series “felt like the next logical step.”
Enter Frederator, the television studio behind animated hits like Nickelodeon’s long-running “The Fairly OddParents,” the Cartoon Network hit “Adventure Time,” and most recently Netflix’s “Castlevania,” also adapted from a spooky video game series. “We were approached by Frederator to make a cartoon based on one of our games and as huge fans of their shows like ‘Adventure Time’ and ‘Bee and PuppyCat’ we were immediately sold,” Rice said.
According to Frederator’s Will McRobb and Brian Caselli, that fandom goes both ways. “We really like Double Fine, we’ve met with them a few times and they’ve definitely been big supporters of where this project’s going,” McRobb said in a phone call. Despite the concept being Double Fine’s creation, the developer was mostly hands-off in the show’s production process. “The Double Fine team was really supportive and seemed really happy all the way through and the direction we were going,” Caselli added.
Rice said it was challenging “learning to let go of our baby,” but “Frederator pulled together a killer team… as soon as their work started coming together and we got eyes on it all those fears melted away.”
Going from an interactive medium like video games to a TV show comes with its own set of challenges, Caselli said. “If you’re playing a game you get wrapped up in all the emotions as a player, whether it’s frustration or relief or excitement or achieving all your goals and defeating the villains … But when you’re not a participant, when you’re watching the characters go through the narrative, it’s our job to infuse a bunch more emotion so the viewers get emotionally invested.”
Frederator did this by adding more depth to “Costume Quest’s” four main characters: twins Wren and Reynolds and their pals Everett and Lucy. As McRobb explained, “We were very conscious of having each [character] be a poignant and relatable coming-of-age story. So each kid has to deal with their own internal monsters, along with the external monsters.” Throughout the first season, the foursome will confront the problems typical of childhood, like dealing with your siblings and fighting to be taken more seriously by parents.
The adaptation from short game to 13-episode season gave Frederator some leeway to diverge from “Costume Quest’s” original storyline. The main characters and many aspects of their personalities are the same, which Caselli called “a real jumping-off point,” but other things have been adjusted. “Our main villain of our series is a different villain than the game, and the wants and desires of our monsters are a little bit more specific.” For example, in Frederator’s version, the monsters are after a candy called Nougat, which gives them special powers but causes purple drool to flow from their mouths, letting the kids discern between creature and human. Just like in the game, the kids aren’t the only ones wearing costumes; monsters disguise themselves as humans while they go about their devious business.
Still, “Costume Quest” fans can expect to find plenty of nods to the game, as well as some familiar costumes. And though the show’s six-to-11 target age group is a bit lower than the E10+ rating of the original game, Frederator is confident that “Costume Quest” is an all-ages affair. “There’s a lot of really funny stuff in our show… I think there’s a lot of parts that grown-ups or older kids could like. Six to 11 is our age group but I definitely think that older kids and their parents would really like this show too.” This humor is on display throughout the first two segments; though “Costume Quest” is obviously a kids’ show, it’s got a universal charm and a few laugh-out-loud moments in the premiere half-hour block.
The Magic of Halloween
One topic on which everyone spoke fondly was the transformative power of Halloween. “The games combine a lot of things I am personally nostalgic about: trick-or-treating, homemade costumes, imaginative play, old school turn-based RPGs. I think there are a lot of other folks out there who have a fondness for these types of things from their childhoods,” Sounart said of the original concept. “I also think it’s great to have something genuine that parents and kids can enjoy together, without the cynicism that comes with so much current media.”
“Halloween is a very specific holiday, but in a broader way of looking at it, it’s a day when… you can really be a kid and you can really use your imagination to create something completely original,” McRobb told us. “It’s designed for kids to completely transform themselves in a way that only a kid can do.” This imaginative quality shines through in the games’ and show’s zany costumes, which include French fries and the Statue of Liberty (Sounart’s favorites from the game), a robot costume Rice calls “iconic,” and even ice cream cones, floating eyeballs, and former US presidents.
“There’s a part in the game where there’s a whole party full of kids and they’re all dressed up as Abe Lincoln,” Caselli said, citing the quest as inspiration for one of the first episode’s most prominent costumes: Abe Lincoln Jr. Because this popular outfit is sold out, Wren is forced to create her own, and watching a preteen girl transform into a superhero version of Honest Abe is perfectly in line with “Costume Quest’s” tone.
At that age, McRobb stated, “before you’re ruined by puberty, you have a lot of power, and kids don’t always realize that.” “Costume Quest” is a celebration of that quality, when “all the things that make you a kid are really at the height of their power and you might just be able to save the world if you use them correctly… we really love that message of that very specific time in your life where you might not think you’ve got that much power, and we’re here to tell you in the show that you really do.”
The first six episodes of the “Costume Quest” show will be available on Amazon Prime March 8, with the second half of season one hitting in October – -just in time for Halloween. That gives you plenty of time to start putting together your Abe Lincoln Jr. costume; don’t forget the beard!