Preview: A Conversation with Greg Johnson by Blake J. Harris
[Editor’s note: This interview was first published inMega Visions Issue #1, which was published on Nov. 15, 2016. To read the full interview, you can purchase the issue by navigating to www.megavisionsmag.com or by clicking one of the app store links at the bottom of this article.]
By Blake J. Harris
ToeJam & Earl, SEGA’s beloved 1991 Genesis game, garnered a cult following for numerous reasons. It was fun and funny, cool and subversive, critically acclaimed and currency for street cred. And yet it’s hard to imagine that, at first glance, anyone’s reaction to this game was anything other than: What the funk?
I mean, it’s a game about two aliens (one oddly named, both oddly shaped) who love hip-hop, high-tops and slinging slang. Hailing from the planet Funkotron and having crashed on something akin to Earth, they use a Bill-and-Ted-like elevator to scour various islands and search for the scattered pieces of their spacecraft. Oh, and along the way, they encounter giant hamsters, man-eating mailboxes and evil, drill-wielding dentists. WHAT. THE. F*CK.
What were the creators thinking? What was SEGA thinking? And, most importantly, why does all this madness work so well together? To find out, I spent a few hours chatting with ToeJam & Earl creator and Greg Johnson …
Blake J. Harris: Greg, I’m psyched to chat with you about the origins of ToeJam and Earl (and the origins of your career in videogames). But before we travel back in time, I had a question about something much more recent.
Greg Jonson: Sure. What would you like to know?
Blake J. Harris: Last year, you launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring back ToeJam and Earl. To make a 4th game. So my question: why now? Why 25 years after the original (and 10+ since the previous incarnation)?
Greg Johnson: Oh, that’s a simple answer. I’ve been trying to bring it back for years. I think that for most creative people—and I’m sure you must feel this way—there’s a pull to old things you love. So in between new projects, whenever I had some free time and was thinking about what to do next, there were a number of times I took ToeJam and Earl to different publishers. To SEGA and EA and Ubisoft. A whole bunch of publishers, but I could never get traction. Everyone always said something like, “Yeah, we don’t know. Game 3 didn’t do that well. I think that might have killed the property. Plus it’s old. How many people out there even remember who ToeJam and Earl are?”
Blake J. Harris: Interesting. Well now I’m tempted to ask why this was the project that stuck with you. Why, of all your games, ToeJam and Earl is the “old thing that you love.” But I suspect, as is often the case with histories of love, it’s not the kind of thing that can be answered in a paragraph. Nor, really, can it be answered directly.
Greg Johnson: Right. Like: why do I love my wife? Because I love her!
Blake J. Harris: Exactly. And the reasons why have as much to do with you as they do with her herself. So on that note, let’s start at the very beginning…
Part 1: A Perception of Depth and Peacefulness
Blake J. Harris: Tell me a bit about your childhood. What was your family like? And, since videogames didn’t yet exist in the 60s, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Greg Johnson: [laughs] Really? It’s flattering that you would ask that at all, and surprising. But I’m happy to answer. Let me see… it’s a rather melodramatic story. I grew up with my mom raising me and my sister. My dad, well, he was an alcoholic; and my mom ran away from him when I was about four or five. His story is like a movie.
Blake J. Harris: In what sense?
Greg Johnson: So he was a black man. And it was a dramatic life that my parents led. My mother came from a very traditional Jewish family that had escaped from Russia during World War II. And they disowned my mom for marrying a black man.
Blake J. Harris: Wow.
Greg Johnson: He was a brilliant man. A professor. Had a couple of doctorate degrees in philosophy and musicology, I think. And then in a time when abortion was still illegal, his wife—his earlier wife—died from the abortion. I think it was at his urging. So that’s what launched him into his drinking and he never came out of that hole. My mom loved him but couldn’t take it any more so she fled with me and my sister when we were little. So I grew up just being raised by my mom who was an amazing woman. Very strong. She ran a school in Southern Cal for kids with emotional disabilities. She was just a real inspirational person. And it was really because of her that I grew up with the confidence to pursue creative things. In fact, in my graduating high school yearbook I won “Most Creative.”
Blake J. Harris: Really?
Greg Johnson: Yeah! I went to a pretty big high school in LA. We had 1500 kids in our graduating class. So it was quite an honor.
Blake J. Harris: What was it based on? How did people know you were creative?
Greg Johnson: One thing I remember I did was I wrote this science fiction story. And then I got a friend of mine, who was a really talented artist, to illustrate it and create a slide show. And then I got another friend of mine to compose the music and I put on a show in the auditorium at the end of the year.
Blake J. Harris: That’s awesome.
Greg Johnson: So I guess that was one way. There were other things too. And I wrote for the school journal. I wrote a lot of poetry.
Blake J. Harris: Typically, I would imagine social life to be tough for a mixed race kid who was into science fiction books, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case here. Did you feel like an outsider when you were growing up?
Greg Johnson: Not really. I had a small, but tight circle of friends. I wasn’t part of the popular crowd or the jocks crowd, but I was in all the honors classes so I hung out with the geeky kids. And I always kind of hung out with the Asian kids too. I don’t know why, but I was always kind of an Asia-phile.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah?
Greg Johnson: It’s funny, I’ve been told by people that I was Japanese in my past life. When I was young, I used to ride across town. A long way across town, on my bike. And I’d just stand in the Japanese market. Just because it felt comfortable; it felt like home to me. And then I married a Japanese woman. And I’ve learned to speak Japanese. And one of my great creative heroes is [Hayao] Miyazaki. Anyway…
Blake J. Harris: Well, wait. Why do you think that is? Or was, I suppose, I mean. Why did it make you feel comfortable? Why did Japanese culture feel like home?
Greg Johnson: I’ve thought a lot about it over the years. It would be easy to rattle on at great length about my feelings on Japanese culture. But if I go back to those days: I really didn’t know. I didn’t have a clue. Maybe it had something to do with what I perceived to be a depth and peacefulness. And, I suppose, a kind of simplicity to the aesthetic. It kind of called to me. I’ve always loved the Japanese themes of innocence and purity. And the quiet small moments that I see in Japanese work that are so missing in American work. American work is always so darn fast-paced; we seem to have to fill up every space with something.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah. As both reader and writer, I like trying to find those moments. Those “kind of quiet small moments.”
Greg Johnson: Yeah. Anyway, I should jump back. In college, I moved my major all around. I was an Asian philosophy major for a while. And then an animal behavior and bio major. And then I was a linguistics major. And then I read a book that was transformative for me.
Blake J. Harris: What was the book?
Greg Johnson: It was a book by John Lilly. The Mind of the Dolphin: A Non-Human Intelligence. I don’t know if you’re familiar with John Lilly, but he was kind of a fringe scientist who did a lot of work with marine mammal communication back in the 60s and 70s. He pushed the boundaries, but was only partly respected by the scientific community because he took a lot of acid, and he wasn’t terribly rigorous in his approach. He was criticized a lot, but he had some incredible anecdotal stories about the things he had discovered in regards to what dolphins could do. In particular, how they could communicate with each other. It completely sparked my excitement. Like wow, there’s an alien race living on this planet; another race of intelligent beings living right next to us here (who, by the way, we were destroying and exploiting). And I remember that moment—I was just sitting next to the window in the library at Colorado College—and I had this feeling of: that’s what I’m going to do with my life. I’m gonna be the one who breaks the barrier and talks to dolphins for the first time and figures it all out.
Blake J. Harris: Ha! That’s awesome (and quite ambitious).
Greg Johnson: [laughing] Then, I had another thought too. It was a little more out there, but I was a big sci-fi reader in those days. I thought: wow, if I succeed and I really become a total expert at this, then when the aliens land and they need someone to talk to them, who are they going to call? It’ll be me!
Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing.
Greg Johnson: Yeah, so I got really excited by that too. But I thought: okay, that’ll be my secret goal. But my actual goal is going to be to talk to the dolphins. So I transferred to UC San Diego, started preparing myself with an independently designed major I called Bio-Linguistics and I got a job at Scripps Oceanographic Institute.
Blake J. Harris: Did the experience end up being what you had hoped it would be?
Greg Johnson: There were a handful of magical moments. Like I remember I was out on a Scripps research boat for a month or so. I would get up round the clock to collect water samples. One night, at around 3 a.m., I noticed there was this school of dolphins riding the bow wave of the boat. I laid down on my stomach with my face hanging over the front of the boat to watch them. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing, because as the dolphins swam there were bursts of light all around them in the water. After awhile I realized what it was: certain kinds of bioluminescent phytoplankton glow when they get agitated. It was one of the most magical things I’ve seen in my life.
Blake J. Harris: That’s beautiful.
Greg Johnson: Yeah, it was. And there were other great things about my time at Scripps, but I also ended up getting a firsthand view of how difficult it would be to make a career out of pure research. I realized that researchers spend most of their time chasing funding, and that it was going to be a real rough road, especially in the political climate of the time. So I took a little time off. Then I ended up getting involved with a project my roommate was helping out on, for some new home computer entertainment company no one had heard of [laughing]. This new publishing company [laughing even harder] had about 20 people on staff and called themselves… Electronic Arts.
To Be Continued
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