They say the devil is in the details.
So I can’t help but wonder what this very specific devil might look like when I learn about the detailed way aliens get high by using humans as drugs in High on Life. Do they light them on fire and smoke them like a joint? Do they boil them down into some kind of resin? The truth is far more cartoonish.
“There's this large alien race with these giant sockets that they plug humans into directly to just get high,” High on Life creator Justin Roiland tells Inverse.
Who would you rather date: Cloud or Zack from Final Fantasy VII? Let us know!
Roiland is the co-creator and vocal star of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty series, and he also founded Squanch Games back in 2016. In High on Life, the studio’s second title, intergalactic drug trafficking and human trafficking are one and the same as an alien drug cartel invades Earth. Much like marijuana throughout the United States, consuming life forms as a drug is illegal. But there’s a thriving industry surrounding its consumption.
“For some smaller aliens, they would have to go to like an Apple store that sells these hyperbongs,” Roiland says. “You would put the species in that and then connect it to your brain. Then you're just sucking the energy and the life force out of the human or whatever else.”
Different types of people give different kinds of highs, which invites all sorts of puzzling and potentially problematic questions. Your chief concern, as High on Life’s silent protagonist, is to take the cartel down with the help of a race of talking alien guns.
It’s an idea that Roiland has been dreaming about for years, and he’s thrilled to finally put a talking gun into your hand. For more details on High on Life’s development — including whether or not the bullets are poop — keep reading our interview with Roiland and design director Erich Meyr.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned making the studio’s first game, Trover Saves the Universe?
Roiland: Opt-in dialogue moments — I don't know if that was a lesson or more just like a cool thing that just happened fairly naturally.
Erich Meyr: We kind of made it a rule by the end of Trover. We want to let players engage with our long-winded comedy on their terms. Do we actually want to stick around and listen to all this, or get them through the sort of important stuff and then let them enjoy the comedy show or interact with it? Or leave it or disrupt it?
You’ve got all these talking guns that face towards you and they fire bullets out the other end. So my question is: Are the bullets poop?
Roiland: Oh, I don’t think so.
Meyr: They're not poop, no. They're gestational fluids from the guns, but we never call the barrel their butthole — like the barrel of the gun — you know?
So if it’s gestational, are we talking about eggs then?
Meyr: Yeah so right away, Kenny is like, “These are my babies. I love them, but they only live so long, and they're all different.”
Roiland: They're from a planet called Gatlus — they're Gatlian guns. Some kind of sci-fi biology generates the rounds they're shooting, but it’s not intended to be gross or comparable to human anatomy. There's plenty of juvenile gross shit in this game.
Meyr: We established they have their primary shooting hole and then they have their trick hole, which is how we get Kenny's Glock shot, which comes out of this trick hole. We don't get into the details but they've got a couple of ways of shooting.
How did you settle on the title High on Life?
Roiland: It’s at the core of the narrative. Earth is being harvested and humans are being taken and sold as drugs. This alien drug cartel discovers Earth, and we're basically drugs on two legs, you know? We're very desirable, but for all of the worst reasons.
Meyr: Organisms getting high off other life forms in Trover was a more symbiotic thing where everyone was enjoying it. But these guys are more parasitic and they just suck the life out of you.
Roiland: Humans aren't the only ones. There are other races and life forms that are sort of caught up in that as well. High on Life just made sense. It's literally what is happening in this game, and it has a double meaning of like, anti-drug. You are anti-drug because you're trying to stop them from using your species as drugs.
What other video games did you look to for inspiration?
Roiland: Metroidvanias, particularly Metroid Prime. There’s some stuff from Far Cry. I don’t know why, but particularly Far Cry 5, the weird religious cult drug empire situation.
I got through one of the siblings, the one that was tied to the weird drug crops. I was like, “This is fucking crazy!” BioShock does this well, but I’m trying to think of other first-person shooters that do it well with cool upgradeable abilities. Metroid Prime is a great example, where now you’ve got this crazy thing, and there was some visual cue that signals to my brain, “Oh this is the thing I couldn’t do before.”
Meyr: We send you back to different hub worlds. You come back later and go, “Oh hey I can go over there now.” There’s a lot of that exploration.
We also looked at the new Doom and a lot of Halo in terms of combat. We didn’t want to make a defensive cover shooter. We have that option, but we also promote you using Knifey and getting melee kills and using your guns’ abilities a lot. We really tried to balance the combat around cleverly using your abilities and getting combos.
Roiland: We intentionally put a shield drop in there because we like the idea of encouraging that kind of run-and-gun combat scenario. I never do that! I’m the one that’s always hiding.
Meyr: We debated this a lot and settled on a nice spot where you can do both. If you're someone who wants to get in and go full aggro, like go for it. But if you're someone who wants to be in cover and take some nice potshots, you can use specific guns to do that. The gameplay allows all that, so we’ve got this sweet spot where people can emphasize their playstyle.
A PC Mag preview said the team used AI art generators. Was it for the world design or character models? How did that work out?
Roiland: It wasn't in the world designer concept thing. We use Midjourney to generate weird posters and cosmetic set dressing. It was a lot of fun to play with that tool and then see how it looked in-world and in-game.
Meyr: We made a lot of alien art, as in alien fine art. AI art can often feel very odd and strange sometimes. And then there are some cool posters that are like alternate reality posters for different things.
How open-ended is the experience, in terms of what bounties you pursue and when?
Meyr: We always give you choices of which bounties to take but more unlock as you progress through each act. There's not complete freedom, there’s some guidance on it.
Roiland: It still has a sliver of that Mega Man energy where you get two bounties, and each one has a gun that is going to join your arsenal as a fully scripted character companion. But each new weapon has its own special abilities.
Depending on which bounty you do first, it's going to change the next one quite significantly, because it'll determine what gun you have with you for it. And these guns have fully scripted dialogue, and if you have them equipped, you're gonna hear a whole different narrative experience. It won’t affect the overarching story, but the moment-to-moment can be significantly different.
Studio Director Mike Fridley said in an interview that you basically created Squanch Games so that you could execute this idea of talking guns with personalities. How accurate is that?
Roiland: That’s kind of true. A talking gun was definitely one of my earlier ideas. But I built the studio because I wanted to make the game that I wanted that nobody else was doing.
Many of the folks on the team are really experienced from all sorts of different studios, and there’s a lot of shooter experience in particular. It started naturally building towards our next game as High On Life. Let’s play in that sandbox but do a single-player narrative with upgrade trees and lock-and-key Metroidvania stuff that’s also BioShock. As a gamer, I want more of that.
I wouldn’t say it’s our mission statement, but a focus for us to make games that we really want to play ourselves that aren’t out there. If they are out there, then awesome. Fucking tell me what it is so I can buy it and play it to save me a lot of time and work.
High on Life is available now for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Xbox Game Pass or direct purchase.