Jim Dirschberger should be on your radar. Co-creator of the Emmy nominated children’s program, Sanjay and Craig, he brings a zest, passion, and humility to his first game that’s refreshing to see.
Representing Wide Right Interactive, I meet Jim not at a booth or a meeting room, but on a bench located a short distance away from one of the two major exhibit halls at E3. He has a very relaxed vibe, so I feel free to approach him as I would a friend. After a pleasant introduction, we jump into Freedom Finger.
Freedom Finger is a shmup, and it plays beautifully. You pilot a ship (modeled after a fist with middle finger proudly extended). This fist can punch, shoot, and grab. You can shoot enemies, punch enemies or barriers, and grab power-ups. The power-ups are acquired by grabbing enemies, thereby taking their weapon until you throw them away. It’s a cool system, that sends my mind racing with possibility. Because of the hand drawn nature of the visuals, communication to the player is loud, which is a definite plus in my book. There are 36 levels across 12 worlds and the combat is timed to the licensed tracks on display from Com Truise, The Radio Dept., John Maus, and others.
I wanted to learn about Dirschberger’s style, so I naturally checked out a few episodes of Sanjay and Craig. The energy and charisma he brought to the table immediately floored me. Sanjay and Craig has the lightning quick feel of classic gross out cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, with a focused through-line that gave the stories cohesion and heart. I had heard of Dirschberger’s hustle on Sanjay & Craig, and asked him how his hustle had changed since transitioning to videogames. It didn’t take him long to gather his thoughts, “Its laser focused.” With other projects, Nickelodeon for example, Jim went on to explain that the production company picks up a good bit of the heavy lifting. The freedom to create is there without a lot of the periphery. “My respect for indie developers has grown and I’ve become a better creator in the process,” speaking to the subjects of marketing, taxes, and the fact that there isn’t this huge team to support him and Wide Right Interactive.
Freedom Finger is a beautiful game, with completely hand drawn art throughout from Travis Millard (he’s done work on the Bob’s Burgers comics, as well as album art for Dinosaur Jr., Primus, and others). Think Cuphead, but with a much more current art and animation style. Whereas the art style is completely different (1930s vs 2010s), the gameplay shares a more than a passing resemblance. Cuphead comfortably fits into the shmup sub-genre, bullet hell, but Freedom Finger isn’t aiming for this. Dirschberger is aiming to cater to players of all difficulty settings, sure to garner a sigh of relief from many players interested in his project. Many players have voiced the criticism of Cuphead that’s its just too damn hard (our very own Andrew Parker said as much in our Cuphead episode). Cuphead gave us this beautiful art style (which is a treat in and of itself) and then made the barrier to view that art style quite high. Dirschberger isn’t going this route. He has a story to tell, so making accessibility a key component of the experience is super important to him. He’s going to get the message out regardless. He’s giving players “open reign” with difficulty settings, so anyone can jump in and play. In his mind, his aim, work, and focus as the creator is in the story. Opening up the floodgates, bringing people in to enjoy the game in their own way, is what he wants. Dirschberger’s humility as a creator shines in this regard. He did his work, he told his story. That’s the part he has control over, and where his personality and impact will be seen the most. His open arms approach to difficulty I found refreshing. “The message is static, but how you get there is up to you.” For a brief glimpse of the really creative and addictive story telling in store, check out Dirschberger’s Emmy-nominated cartoon, Sanjay and Craig.
Sanjay and Craig is a simple story about two friends and the antics they get in to. Sanjay, a boy, and Craig, his snake companion, are your classic cartoon pairing (think Ren and Stimpy or Rocko and Heffer). One thing I took away from watching the show was the sheer amount of energy, talent, and charisma on display. I had to see how Dirschberger was translating this charisma to a new medium. From the little time I had with the game and the discussion with Jim, the story of Freedom Finger sounds like its world’s apart from Sanjay and Craig. The scope is political relations between the USA, Russia, and China. The fighter jet you pilot is shaped like a fist flicking the bird. And the tone is irreverent. Some might be concerned that its too in your face, that it’s too on the nose. I brought all this up to Dirschberger. “I would be lying,” he started, “if I said Freedom Finger wasn’t a response to creating children’s content. It’s not subtle, but there is context.” After viewing Sanjay and Craig and talking to Dirschberger, any fears I had concerning the quality of the story telling were laid to rest. Sanjay and Craig is smart and funny with a blistering pace. Why would Freedom Finger be any different?
Dirschberger told me a tidbit of information before our time was up that he didn’t recall sharing before. I asked him about the story, and he shared about a time that the beloved, dearly departed Anthony Bourdain was on his show. They were discussing food when Bourdain shared a kernel, “Food is benign but it’s a gateway to culture.” Bourdain’s wisdom catapulted Dirschberger into a brief discussion on food, and how through it we can empathize with and appreciate other cultures. In short, food has the power to change a country for the better. Dirschberger said this rattled around in his head and he wanted to turn that on it’s head, “I liked that idea, but I was thinking what it would look like if you could weaponize food to change a country for the worse.” I encourage you to go check out Sanjay and Craig and imagine the possibilities that thought could bring with it.
Before we parted, I wanted to know, “Why games?” Jim wanted to expand his creativity, stretch it a little further than he was used to. From what I saw, I’d say Freedom Finger is shaping up to be something special. I saw so much heart from Jim in the short time we spent together. He is pouring all he’s got into this project. Looking to the future of his own creativity as well as the collective creativity at Wide Right Interactive he had some rousing, powerful thoughts to share: “We want to make games. We are not fucking around.”
Look for Freedom Finger on PC/Mac Summer 2019 and on consoles Fall 2019.