The Dungeon Experience by Bone Assembly is the brainchild of Jacob Janerka (Paradigm) and Simon Boxer (Ring of Pain), currently being developed in collaboration with a small team in Melbourne. It’s a comedic narrative adventure game about venturing into a high fantasy-inspired dungeon run by a lowly mud crab, with the promise of achieving financial freedom if you can reach the end.
Among other ridiculous and delightful shenanigans, you’re required to sign a friendship contract with the mud crab and carefully push the elongated nipples on an animatronic barbarian to gain access to the dungeon. “We tried to do both – crab nipples,” said Janerka in an interview with GamesHub, “but I think the world was not ready for it.”
With some incredibly suss characters and scenarios – including a dubiously contented character named Table Man, who is sentenced to kneel on all fours with a glass tabletop on his back and only eat canned dog food – it begs the age-old question: what were the developers thinking when they made this game? What kind of a brain creates this?
“Would I promote the game [by] letting live crabs pinch my nipples? Unequivocally, yes. I’d do horrible – but ethical – things to make people aware of our game.” – Jacob Janerka, 2023
Janerka’s path into game design seems normal enough, having begun with a passion for art. “When I was fifteen I decided to start a journey to become a concept artist after I discovered an art forum website called ConceptArt.org, where I got really intense about improving,” he said.
“Eventually I ended up in university for illustration … During [that] period, I tried my hand at doing cool, grim, drama stuff, which had lukewarm reactions from my peers – often met with ‘haha, yeah cool’ without eye contact. It wasn’t until I [stopped] forcing serious stuff and [started] doing silly stuff I always loved, [that] people gave me the eye contact I so craved.”
Wanting to follow in the footsteps of other concept artist peers, but finding that there were no jobs where he grew up in Perth, he began applying for roles internationally. He tried for jobs at American game development studios and with TTRPG companies, aiming to “be one of the many contributors drawing ‘Angry Orc’ and ‘Wizard, but not Gandalf – really’” for tabletop giants like Magic: The Gathering.
“I got many rejections,” Janerka said. “Eventually I decided that my funny, weird stuff was where my strengths lay, and because I had no other choice, I started making my own stuff, which led to my first game, Paradigm.”
Paradigm (2017) is just as eccentric as The Dungeon Experience. It’s a surreal point-and-click adventure that follows a mutant named Paradigm, “whose past comes back to haunt him in the form of a genetically engineered sloth that vomits candy”.
Much like the point-and-click adventure games that Janerka played growing up – such as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max and The Neverhood – Paradigm is dripping with 70s and 80s nostalgia, dark humour, and oddball characters.
After shouldering the weight of the entire development process as the sole developer of Paradigm, the collaborative nature of The Dungeon Experience has posed new challenges for Janerka, but reaped equal rewards.
“When we first started growing the team, honestly, I was worried about losing some creative control – especially because some of the ideas I like to do are relatively hard to pitch until you see the finished product and execution,” he said. “However, I’ve been extremely lucky. We have been able to find people who share similar humour and sensibilities and are very skillful at what they do.”
“One of the coolest things working with a team is that you get to see the project with fresh eyes all the time when other people contribute. In contrast, when you’re doing everything yourself, you have seen things a million times, and have no frame of reference if others find it funny; just [the] existential dread that only you and your mum find it funny – thanks, Mum.”
That isn’t to say that Janerka hasn’t had to push his creative limits for this project, though. “This game is by far the longest thing I’ve worked on,” he said. “I took the challenge to want to make something bigger, learn 3D from scratch, and learn Unity, which came with a lot of growing pains. For a fair amount of early dev, the game just wasn’t working … It’s really hard [to] sell [a] narrative/comedy game without having it up to a certain amount of polish. So much: ‘Oh haha, trust me, like when the art is done and there is voice acting, it’s going to be funny!’”
“I think I definitely channelled some of that energy into the crab who is trying his hardest in making his failing pyramid scheme business work. Definitely none of the parts where the crab stares at a wall, having an existential crisis [are] related to my life at all. None. Please stop asking me.”
Both on social media and in person, Janerka gives off a mysterious, aloof aura. He could indeed be three mudcrabs in a trenchcoat for all we know, though GamesHub was unable to catch a glimpse of any claws or antennae to confirm the theory.
“I build up this mysterious persona to create a metaphorical wall to stop people from peeking over and seeing the real me, who sometimes considers deli ham and milk as a well-rounded meal. Sincerely though … I’ve always loved how artists like David Bowie, Childish Gambino, etc. make these exaggerated versions of themselves – an alternative reality almost. Although, it mostly comes down to, it’s just fun for me and I like making people laugh.”
We asked whether he feels pressure to be that funny guy – to live up to the expectations of the mythical, somewhat one-sided persona. “Sometimes,” he said. “Occasionally I have felt like, ‘they’re gonna find me out, I’m not funny or witty in real life. Let me get back to you after I go to a toilet cubicle and write down my funny response to your question’ … Is this therapy? Maybe I need to pay you for this interview. Or maybe this is some elaborate ploy that my loved ones have orchestrated.”
The aforementioned mudcrab who is single-handedly running the dungeon is a true highlight of the game, which GamesHub had the opportunity to play during its first public exhibits at PAX Aus and SXSW Sydney this year.
As for how Bone Assembly landed on such a charming and enigmatic lead character, Janerka produced a list of considerations. “We actually came across the crab for multiple reasons,” he said. “One, we really liked the talking Mudcrab Merchant from Morrowind. Two, we just thought it was funny that instead of this big epic character being a dungeon master, it’d be a common low-level monster from most RPGs that dreams of breaking the stereotypes of their people. Three, we wanted something more interesting than the classic fantasy races, or some dude. When you’re lucky enough to have such a free medium, it’s best to take advantage of things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
While Janerka managed to elude giving a precise answer to our question about why he feels so passionately about crabs and nips, our chat made one thing clear: like all art, The Dungeon Experience can’t help but reflect its makers.