I wish there was a hole I could just crawl into and die
One of the titles that had the greatest impact on my consciousness in the past few years was Happy’s Humble Burger Farm. What seemed like a novel concept on the surface turned out to have a lot of beef underneath. Centering a horror game around cooking is engrossing enough, but it then gets tied up in interesting ways and dunked into an unconventional world full of mystery and horror. The narrative tells the story of trying to escape from an obvious simulation, but the world in which this simulation exists is an entity worth exploring on its own.
Immediately after stepping into the game, you’re hit from all sides with flavor lore. The TV plays an almost unending list of shows, the coffee table prominently displays a book on the history of the Barnyard Buds, and a Walkman sits nearby to fill your ears with radio skits that inject fat into the world around you. None of it is necessary to understand Happy’s Humble Burger Farm’s main plot, but actually digging through it is a trip on its own.
It’s obvious someone really loves the lore and creating it because there’s a lot more of it than a five-ish hour game really needs. That’s because the Scythe Saga Universe is a sprawling concept originally dreamed up by Jon of the Shred (Jon Reilly) back in 2005. I wanted to get to know more about where this came from, so I got in touch and talked shop. Now I’m sharing that shop with you.
The Scythe Saga Universe didn’t actually originate as an idea for a video game. It was a world to base a rock opera in. “I’ve been developing all of this stuff personally since 2005 when I was just a teenager developing a rock opera,” Jon told me. “I kinda wanted all my music to be set in its own world. That ballooned out into a record label in 2012. My buddy Kaleb joined, and when he joined, he brought art and music of his own to the table. It was me and him that went forward and started a dev team with his childhood friend Blake, but it was the three of us making games that really made it a universe. Before that, it was just concept albums, like what if Dark Side of the Moon had 90 sequels.”
The short-form horror genre has taken off recently, carving a niche within a niche. Most of the time, the inspiration comes from horror movies themselves. Chillah’s Art stays in line with Japanese horror, while Puppet Combo loves their grotesque ‘80s slashers. While there is some of that inspiration, especially in Scythe’s Northbury Grove games, it’s less identifiable in Happy’s Humble Burger Farm.
“A really good comparison point is Mortal Kombat because of how they take so many different genres, and they manage to wrap it into their own unique take on how all this stuff could co-exist.” With mystical monks, sorcerors, movie stars, monsters, and special ops, the Mortal Kombat series does manage to juggle a lot of different genres. “I just really like how they’re able to connect so many different types of stuff that I love and create their own universe for it. It all feels earned.”
With slasher killers, evil corporations, and even a defined solar system to explore, the Scythe mythos already offers opportunity to a lot of different interests. For the DreadX Collection, Scythe Dev Team provided Carthanc, a game about futuristic archeology. It was set thousands of years after another game of theirs, To the End of Days, which depicted the end of the titular world, Carthanc. This is depicted as a completely different planet in the same solar system that Happy’s Humble Burger Farm takes place on. In HHBF, and even as far back as Northbury Grove, you can find mention of it within diagrams of the solar system.
Goldeneye meets Twisted Metal
Despite the grandness and depth of the Scythe universe, you don’t need to have knowledge of it to understand the plot of the individual games. Happy’s Humble Burger Farm is about escaping a simulation. What happened in the earlier title, Happy’s Humble Burger Barn, may be directly connected, but the important details are given to you, and playing the previous game just means you have a wider insight into what’s happening. “I like to reward people with that deep lore if they’re paying attention, but it’s not necessary to fully enjoy the experience. They’re all standalone as well.
“The universe was so expansive that, by the time we started making video games, any genre we wanted to cover already existed in a pocket of this universe.” According to Mr. Of the Shred, Happy’s Humble Burger Barn started off as a first-person vehicular combat game. “Goldeneye meets Twisted Metal.” Which somehow morphed into “a drive-thru at a restaurant.” After the gameplay, Kaleb and Blake brought Jon in to “tie it into the Universe and make it scary.”
In many ways, it sounds a bit like creating a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where there are certain standards and places to draw from for whatever story you want to tell. The big difference here is that Scythe Dev Team is drawing from lore that they themselves created.
Sticking with you
In terms of inspiration, Jon doesn’t turn to video games. “For my writing, my music, my sound design, I’m more inspired by film.” He specifically mentions director John Carpenter as a big draw. Despite that, Scythe Dev Team tries to invoke the sense of exploration found in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where there’s a sense of wonderment at what’s unfolding around you.
Jon follows through to the extent that he doesn’t play other short-form indie developments like those from Puppet Combo. “I don’t go out of my way to play these games ‘cause I don’t want to get inspiration from them or take their ideas inspiration from them.”
I brought up the similarities between Happy’s Humble Burger Farm and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Notably, they’re set in restaurants where you’re harrowed by mascots. I asked if he played them. “What’s funny is no,” he said. “I never played any of them. I don’t know if anyone else [at Scythe Dev Team] did. When Tinybuild picked us up for Burger Farm, they told us, ‘You should use these mascots; why wouldn’t you?’ and we were, like, ‘Yeah, okay, if you’re telling us it’s a good idea, we’re going to go with it.’”
“Kaleb came up with Happy, and I came up with the rest of the Barnyard Buds based on that. My inspiration was The Animals of Farthing Wood, which is some old cartoon where the animals die viciously. It’s like Walking Dead meets Winnie the Pooh. It’s really strange.” He went on to mention Plague Dogs, Watership Down, Bambi, Land Before Time, Lion King. “They all had dark subject matter that would make them stick with you.”
“That was the Barnyard Buds. The whole joke was that meets McDonald’s.”
The Scythian Future
Beyond the games, Scythe Dev Team does a lot of augmented reality game stuff. There are numerous in-character sites related to the universe, including Maverick Cooper News and Justice for Toe. They’re currently leading into their next game, Project Meganet, which is to be a VR title. To help with this, they’re gradually releasing microgames in a series such as Love at First Squeak.
I don’t have VR, so that kind of sucks for me. However, it’s not going to be the end of the Scythe sage. “The whole universe – the games – will all eventually come to a head, and everything will connect in ways that people don’t expect,” Jon explains. “There is a storyline that we’re following for the greater universe that we’ve alluded to so much, but no one would possibly know it’s going to happen until we do the big twist to contextualize all the hints we’ve left.”
Hopefully, we don’t get there too quickly. For now, you can get Happy’s Humble Burger Farm wherever fine video games are sold, but for some of Scythe Dev Team’s earlier titles, you’ll need to grab them off of itch.io.