'Matt Hazard' Creator: Games Take Themselves Too Seriously

A few weeks ago when I started getting some random e-mails about the return of Matt Hazard, I thought there was some blind spot in my gaming repertoire.

But it turned out that "Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard" is Matt Hazard's first video game.

The brainchild of Vicious Cycle's Dave Ellis, who wrote the 2008 Writer's Guild Award-winning PSP title "Dead Head Fred," "Eat Lead" stars a hackneyed but "legendary" hero who makes his return to video games after years of being on hiatus. The game features a slew of gaming cliches and is meant to parody classic games as well as modern-day shooters.

Ellis, who's a 16-year industry veteran, told me that the last shooter he worked on was a 1998 Star Trek game called "Klingon Honor Guard." So what made him want to return to the world of third-person shooters?

"I just thought that a lot of third-person shooters take themselves too seriously," the lead designer told me during a demo of the game. "It's always this dire, grim, save-the-world thing, and there's a lot of these tough-guy archetypes in those games. I thought it'd be nice to just twist that around on itself and do a tongue-in-cheek sort of comedy."

Heavily influenced by over-the-top comedies like the "Airplane!" movies and "Police Squad!" TV show, Ellis thought it'd be nice to see more games that made people laugh. "There are hardly any games that feature comedy writing," he said. "I think that people are looking for something new in games, and comedy is definitely a breath of fresh air as far as I'm concerned."

The level I saw had Hazard being helped via radio by an outside friend named "QA." The protagonist made constant quips as he fought undead foes imported from his other games by enemy hackers. I had a few chuckles during the short demo but no laugh-out-loud moments. However, I was told that this was the pre-alpha version of the game so things were still being polished.

Later in that level Hazard was suddenly in a Western game, using revolvers to take out bad guys amidst covered wagons and outhouses. Ellis also said the stable of classic video game enemies will appear throughout the game, and that we'd see references to everything from "Contra," "Duke Nukem" and "Quake 3" to "Super Mario Kart" and "Jak and Daxter."

However, not every parody was on the table; there was a lot of back and forth between the designers and the legal department. Ellis said he thought that the parody rules for television are probably a lot more lenient than for video games. "I'm a big fan of shows like 'Family Guy,' and it seems like nothing is off limits with them," he explained. "But you have to tread carefully and not infringe on somebody's copyright, for sure... In no case do we belittle any other game; it's all in good fun and [there will be] things that people will recognize and laugh at."

Ellis explained that even the not-so-hardcore gamers will get the game's jokes. It helps that former "Arrested Development" actor Will Arnett is voicing Matt Hazard and sitcom star Neil Patrick Harris is playing the game's main villain. "We actually do some pop culture parody as well, and I think with those actors in there, that's going to resonate with people who aren't gamers."

He added, "One of the lines that Will Arnett ad-libbed during the recording sessions was 'My favorite actor is Will Arnett.' It's one of Matt's idle lines when he's just standing around, so you'll probably hear stuff like that in there."

But humor aside, he assured me that the game is a solid, third-person shooter utilizing Vicious Cycle's proprietary engine. "We have very solid gameplay mechanics, we've got some unique features to our cover system, and we have a good variety of weapons," Ellis explained. "And all of the action sequences are on par with the action shooters that are out there. The comedy will only carry it so far!"

You can see for yourself when "Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard" is released in the first quarter of 2009 on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.