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Q&A

Jack Black puts on his video game face

December 13, 2008|Alex Pham | Pham is a Times staff writer.

When he was growing up in Los Angeles, actor Jack Black had two passions: rock music and video games.

As an adult, he played out the rock-star fantasy with his band, Tenacious D, and a 2003 movie, "The School of Rock." Now the 39-year-old Black is taking on video games.

He has been secretly working with game developer Tim Shafer for three years on Brutal Legend, in which players can slay enemies by cranking out heavy metal music. Black had lent his voice to a previous game, a title based on the 2005 "King Kong" movie in which he starred. But Brutal Legend is his first attempt at helping to make a game from scratch.

Black plans to debut his project Sunday night at the Spike TV Video Game Awards, which he's also hosting. Brutal Legend will be one of about 10 games unveiled at the sixth annual VGA, which has become the premier venue for major game publishers to show off potential blockbusters.

Brutal Legend, scheduled for release by Electronic Arts Inc. next fall, was initially the brainchild of Shafer, a quirky developer known for his humor. Though two of Shafer's earlier titles, Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, were not commercial hits, their aesthetic brought him critical acclaim and near-cult status among fans.

One of those fans is Black, who wouldn't talk with The Times without Shafer. "Tim is the moist and delicious chocolate pudding cake," Black said. "I'm just the frosting."

Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Why did you decide to make a video game?

Black: When I was a child listening to metal, I imagined myself slaying dragons to the music, or riding pterodactyls, or strangling a Minotaur, or making love to a beautiful centaur. You couldn't do that back then. You could only imagine that. What this game allows you to do is physicalize heavy metal music. You can do battle with this dramatic, dangerous music as your score. It's a real wish-fulfillment game for me.

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How is working in games different from in movies?

Black: It's exciting to me because it's still relatively new. It's an art form that hasn't really reached its potential yet. When people play games, they don't get into a hypnotic zone like they can with movies. Games can get you involved in the story, but they don't hypnotize you, not yet anyways. So there's a lot of uncharted territory.

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Tell me about the game you two are working on. How does it explore new ground?

Shafer: Unlike any game we've done before, this is about making a coherent world that sucks you in. We want players to feel like they're in a living, breathing place that exists even when they're not playing it. There's a rich back story for the world that's inspired by Norse mythology. As you go through this world, you'll see ruins and relics right alongside emblems of the modern world. We wove that with the Norwegian death-metal scene. I guess the bleak Scandinavian weather leads to a lot of, um, introspection.

Black: Brutal Legend combines majesty of metal with the ridiculousness of metal.

Shafer: Rock metal is both incredibly serious and incredibly ridiculous at the same time. There's something over-the-top about it. You can take it seriously and there's also a comedy aspect to it.

Black: Well said!

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How did you two meet?

Shafer: We started our project before we even dreamed of having talent of this magnitude associated with it. I wanted to make a game that Jack Black would like. Then I heard he played games. Some . . . people arranged for a meeting at the Four Seasons for lunch. I was very nervous. But when Jack instituted a smoothie taste test, I immediately felt comfortable.

Black: I was a big fan of Tim's Psychonauts game. That's the amazing thing about this. Tim is the only person I would have done a video game with. And he's the only one who's ever asked me. It was . . . destiny.

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How did you present it to Jack?

Shafer: I brought along a portfolio with concept drawings to show Jack. It was early in the process. We didn't have much more than that.

Black: It was the ambition that impressed me most. It's an alternate world. Everything in the world is made of heavy metal. All the elements of this land were inspired by metal. The trees, the lands, everything.

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Is this your first venture into games?

Black: I've actually won a [Spike TV Video Game Award] for my work in King Kong [in 2005 for best performance by a human male]. I played the same role in the game that I did in the movie. I even beat Robert Duvall. I think it proves I'm a better actor. I'm a force to be reckoned with.

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You have a reputation as a serious gamer. What's your pet peeve about games?

Black: I don't like it if there's not a good finale. I have an obsessive-compulsive streak in me. I have to finish my games. I like to conquer all games on easy mode. Then I dive straight into the arctic hard-core mode so I feel like I get all the juice I can out of the game.

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You're a new father of a 6-month-old baby. Where do you find time to play?

Black: I play one hour a day right after the baby goes to sleep, when not a creature is stirring. Only my mouse.

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alex.pham@latimes.com

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