There are no two ways about it, last year was bleak. Lengthy lockdowns. Scalpers scooping up next-gen consoles to resell for profit. And no live music. But at least there was Teenage Blob.
If you're of a certain age you may remember split singles or albums, where one band would take one side of a 7-inch single or 12-inch LP and another would take the other. Usually, they'd have some thematic overlap. Teenage Blob (available on steam for $7.99) takes the same concept, but here instead of two bands, one half of the production is a six-track EP, while the other consists of six accompanying minigames.
The brainchild of a "game-punk trio" from Cape Town called Team Lazerbeam, Teenage Blob sets its tale of an amorphous, blobby, "typical teenage child" trying to raise money to buy some bad-ass boots before heading to a gig by their favorite band, The Superweaks, to a soundtrack from the very same Philadelphia-based pop-punk quintet. The visuals, meanwhile, are kawaii meets MS Paint. The combination of the two is irresistibly charming.
Unsurprisingly, the audio on Teenage Blob is a huge component of the game — and as an intro screen attests — it's best played with the volume cranked up. You'll choose outfits, skateboard in a frog suit, and fling sandwiches from a bicycle, all in your quest to make it to the best night of your life. It may only be around 30 minutes long on a straight play-through, but it's hard not to be won over by Blob's charms. The enthusiasm of the team behind it oozes out of every frame and kooky career goal, and it's one of the most uplifting 30 minutes of gaming we've ever played.
We spoke to Ben Rausch, who oversees art and writing duties for Team Lazerbeam, to talk about how Teenage Blob went from the drawing board to Steam, the challenges of intercontinental collaboration, and what it takes to make a video game with massive ideas but a tiny budget.
How did Team Lazerbeam and The Superweaks end up working on a project together?
Ben Rausch: Back in October 2010, I was touring the States with the noise-pop band Johnny Foreigner, supporting Los Campesinos. We had a day off, but we booked a bonus gig, playing the basement of a Philly artist house called "The Sprinkle Kingdom." Evan [Bernard] and Chris [Baglivo] — who would later become The Superweaks — lived in The Sprinkle Kingdom, and played the basement with the band they were in then, called The Skateboards.
The show was awesome, but the best thing to come out of it was the friends we made that night. We kept in touch with Evan and Chris, and between our respective camps, collaborated on a bunch of long-distance projects over the years. Teenage Blob is the latest — and most ambitious — collaboration so far!
It seems pretty clear from the first frame that this whole project was a serious labor of love. How long did it take to make Teenage Blob from start to finish?
BR: Yeah, it was a ton of work. I'm glad to hear that it shows! On the music side, the songs have been in the works for many years. The music for "The Deepest Blues" [the last song of Teenage Blob] dates all the way back to 2008. More recent events informed the lyrics that would eventually complete the songs — in particular, the passing of The Superweaks bandmate Corey Bernard — but in musical form, Evan and Chris had been working on these songs for years.
“[T]he crudeness of Blob's art evokes a sense of teenage naivety.”
On the games front, Team Lazerbeam started jamming on Teenage Blob in May 2017, and released it in August 2020. For most of the three years it took to make the game, we were working other jobs, and only got to blob out at nights and on weekends. Once 'Superhot Presents' [the indie game fund started by the creators of runaway success, Superhot] got behind the game it meant that Rich [Pieterse, Team Lazerbeam's coder] and I could spend a few months working on the game full-time, polishing it up, localizing it into 11 languages, and getting it ready for release on Steam.
It also feels like the game is a love letter to creative projects like making games or recording music, and to the way those things get harder to do as you get older. Is that right, or totally off the mark?
BR: I don't know if we were out specifically to celebrate creativity as much as evoke a sense of nostalgia for the teenage years where you went out of your way looking for distraction. Whether that's playing music with your friends, or creating a zine in your bedroom, or just riding your board down a steep hill, as a kid you feel like time is infinite and you need to find ways to spend it. Trying to make things and participate in creative communities, you run into all these obstacles — being broke, not being able to get around, not being able to get into spaces.
Then as you get older, those barriers start disappearing, but so does your free time, or energy to pursue those dreams. With its short playtime, Teenage Blob is definitely made for people that don't have much time on their hands but who want a quick flashback to a time when days felt like they could go on forever.
What inspired you to make a split EP with a game attached? Or, conversely, a game tethered so intimately to its soundtrack?
BR: The whole thing came together very organically. I made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia in 2015, and over that trip, Mike Bell [The Superweaks bassist] and I started talking about a collaboration. That turned into Mike suggesting we do a game with the band, and then the idea of making six games for their six news songs in 2017.
With Team Lazerbeam being a "game band," and The Superweaks being a music band, this seemed to be a lovely chance to make the first game slash album split release. For Team Lazerbeam, it landed up being a great cumulation of a bunch of ideas we'd been playing with.
We were very into the idea of music and games being more tightly bound together. We'd also been playing with the idea of having hard cuts between different gameplay styles, timed to music. Editing is something that's totally integral to film, but not really explored in interactive spaces, where progression is typically triggered by the player, not the game. We'd played around with these ideas a bit, but with Teenage Blob we found the perfect opportunity to really explore these concepts, creating six games that would have the player pulled forward by the music itself.
How difficult was it to get the interplay between the music and gameplay right?
BR: This varied a lot between the games. With "Paper Person" [a track / game where you deliver sandwiches like newspapers, by flinging them from a bicycle into mailboxes] we just made the different scenes, then defined when we'd cut to each of them. We quickly had a very satisfying result. Cutting between the different games just felt awesome from the get-go, and we could just focus on trying to make each of the scenes mirror the feeling we got from their part of the song.
On tracks like "Tony Dork" and "The Deepest Blues," getting the game and music interplay right was a lot more challenging. Both games largely leave the player to navigate spaces at their own pace, so it was really tricky trying to strike a balance between maximum player agency and maximum musical synchronicity. Many ideas were pursued and scrapped over time.
The "Tony Dork" level [a platformer-style skating game] was originally dynamically generated, throwing modular elements at the player at just the right moment. This proved to be super complex and not even perceptible for most players. In "The Deepest Blues," it took months of trying to make sure the player would splash out of the ocean at just the right moment. Our success with finally getting it right largely came down to Rich spending months on refining the game feel. I'd mostly just keep pushing him to keep going, offering the occasional animation test to show how I imagined the timings working. There was a lot of back and forth, but we got there in the end.
Tell us about your “amorphous” protagonist… who (or what) is Teenage Blob?
BR: We've jokingly called Blob a "typical teenage child". They really look a lot more like a fleshy version of a Final Fantasy slime, but for most of the game, they present themselves in a reasonably human-looking form. The initial idea was just to create a character that personified the feeling of waking up and not being a fully formed person yet. I struggle with this a lot.
“More than any art form, games seem to be in this state of constant revision.”
Being something of a self-portrait, it's been incredibly cool to see other people play the game and say, "Hey! it's me!" when they first see Blob. Beyond the early morning ooze idea, as the project progressed, Blob's amorphous nature started feeling more and more apt, becoming a metaphor of teenhood and that whole period of feeling like a gooey mess that's not yet solidified into a proper human form.
The janky animation seems very deliberate, and like a perfect tie-in to the punk aesthetic of the accompanying tracks. Was it, or was it also a product of working with constraints?
BR: Yeah, Team Lazerbeam is all about embracing the janky! One of the cornerstones of the band has always been to make games that feel human, flawed, and honest. Typically developers shy away from that kinda thing, polishing all the rough edges out of their games. We aim to do the opposite, embracing imperfection and spontaneity. We certainly had plenty of time to make Teenage Blob's animation look less crappy, but that's not the kind of game we wanted to make.
Similarly, the art seems to perfectly fit the mood of the game. Who’s responsible for it, and is that just their style, or was there a clear brief on how Teenage Blob needed to look?
BR: The art's mostly me. Rich and Jason both have some drawings in the game, too, though. Jay's created some of the best garments in Blob's wardrobe. The look is really just a continuation of the hand-crafted aesthetic we've been developing with our past games. As with the animation, the art is heavily shaped by our focus on spontaneity and honesty. When drawing Blob art, I'd try really hard to create from a place of non-judgment — to silence the little voice that would tell me that what I was doing wasn't good enough. I can be prone to perfectionism, doing a single stroke 30 times over to try to get it just right.
With Team Lazerbeam, it's massively liberating to be able to kill that kind of thinking, creating a space where the first stroke is always perfect, regardless of how janky it might be. With the development stretching out over so many years, we were also very tempted to re-work various art assets. Many elements were reworked or redrawn, but the focus was always to hold on to that sincere, spontaneous feeling.
To bring it back to a music analogy, we wanted the game to feel less like a polished studio album, and more like a chaotic live gig. People have noted that the crudeness of Blob's art evokes a sense of teenage naivety. That wasn't intentional, but I'm happy it worked out that way. Many of the backgrounds look a lot like the kinda thing I would scribble into all my schoolbooks, crammed with cartoon cats and references to bands I loved.
How do you decide when a project like Teenage Blob is finished?
BR: This is a tough question. We've been asking ourselves the same thing, and don't have a clear answer. In terms of the songs, you could call them finished once they were mastered, but on the games front, things aren't so clear. More than any art form, games seem to be in this state of constant revision. A film might be recut or a song remastered, but it's nothing like a game, where a project typically ships in an incomplete state, with players fully expecting that it'll be updated regularly for months or years to come.
Where each developer draws the line on finishing a project varies wildly. With Teenage Blob, there's heaps we'd like to do with future updates, but we're also itching to move on to our next game. This leaves us in a tough space, figuring out how much more love to pour into Blob. We'll figure it out.
What are the best and worst parts of making indie games?
BR: The best bit is seeing our games resonate with people. Nothing feels better than seeing someone laugh at our absurd jokes, pick up on obscure references, or finish a game with a smile on their face. When we started Team Lazerbeam there was no expectation that anyone would play our games, but now that we have a small following we're very focused on creating games that will make people feel good. Every time we get to see this goal achieved, it's like a little spell has successfully gone off.
“[M]aybe it's cool that games don't have the permanence of physical art forms.”
The worst part is the constant battle for people's attention and seeing your work getting totally lost in an ever more overwhelming torrent of media. This certainly isn't something unique to games, and I suspect this feeling is shared by anyone making any kind of alternative-leaning art these days.
A downside that's far more particular to games is — given how the technological landscape shifts so rapidly — our art will die if we don't keep supporting it. But, to reframe that, maybe it's cool that games don't have the permanence of physical art forms. They appear to be enjoyed here and now, and might be forever lost tomorrow.
Team Lazerbeam talks about making "aggressively positive video games?" What does that mean? Because it sounds like something the world needs more of.
The "aggressively positive video games" agenda links to Team Lazerbeam's identity as a punk band. For us, the magic of punk lies in the celebration of community, boundless enthusiasm, and a burning desire to create a kinder world. It's not about hopeless nihilism, wild aggression, or disregard for other people, which is usually the mainstream face of punk.
You can trace this approach right back to Bad Brains screaming "We've got that PMA!" [positive mental attitude] in the late '70s. In a system designed to crush spirits and drive people apart, radical positivity and kindness become wildly rebellious acts. In my book, bands channeling cuteness and positivity can be far more abrasive and disruptive than any hardcore tough guys meeting capitalism's violence with yet more violence.
“In a system designed to crush spirits and drive people apart, radical positivity and kindness become wildly rebellious acts.”
You can see this in modern bands like Chai and Kero Kero Bonito, both aggressively weird but relentlessly cute, they really are elevating subversive music to new heights, totally freaking people out in the process. We can only hope to be as punk with our games. Aside from just making people feel good, working with these cute, uplifting aesthetics can also offer amazing opportunities to explore really heavy themes, creating an interesting juxtaposition between the tone of an artwork and its message.
Chai can turn a rejection of beauty standards into a dance party, and KKB has written the happiest sounding songs about depression or loss. The Superweaks are also absolute masters of this style of Trojan Horse songwriting. The tracks on Teenage Blob are no exception, upbeat and fun-sounding, while wrestling with the heaviest of emotions. We aspire to do the same thing with our games, pouring all our love into creating art that makes people feel good, but which also confronts our own anxieties in the process.
Will we ever see Teenage Blob on other platforms like the Nintendo Switch?
BR: It's possible. We're very keen to put the game out on one of the consoles, and we think it'd feel great on the Switch.
What are some of Team Lazerbeam’s favorite indie games, other than its own?
BR: There's so much good stuff out there. We're massive fans of Sokpop Collective, a fellow game band, and total kindred spirits. They've released an unbelievable selection of charming, inventive, short games. Welcome to Elk is a big favorite. It's an absolute gem, walking a knife's edge between its colorful cartoon presentation and deeply emotional storyline. We also have to celebrate our labelmates on Superhot Presents: Frog Detective 2, and Procession To Cavalry are both just wonderful, and it's so cool that folks like Superhot are getting behind alternative games like this.
What’s next for Team Lazerbeam and The Superweaks?
BR: The Superweaks are always working on tunes, so I'm sure they're gonna have some new songs out soon. They've been sitting on a huge collection of dozens of songs leftovers from their "song a week" project, and I believe they're planning to start putting some of those gems out. They've started a podcast — The Superweaks Superweekly Supercast — and each episode they interview one of the many friends who recorded songs with them over the years. It's an amazing snapshot of their creative community.
For Team Lazerbeam, Teenage Blob has ushered in a new era for us. After six years of making very short games, with no commercial ambitions, we're now very excited about starting a new chapter, focusing on making longer experiences, and building a sustainable career around them. While holding on to our game-punk roots, we're very excited about the possibilities of pursuing the band as a more serious endeavor, making more substantial worlds that people can really get lost in. We've just finished building a prototype for our next game; a sequel to our 2016 pro-wrestler dating simulator Wrestling With Emotions. We're incredibly stoked with how the prototype turned out and hope the final game will be something that's going to bring a lot of joy to players!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.