Dossier is a survey of one game maker’s creative output—an attempt to tease out the themes that emerge over the course of a video game career.
It takes more than a good track record to convince 80,000 fans to give you more than $3 million. When Tim Schafer used Kickstarter to fund the forthcoming Double Fine Adventure, he benefited from decades of goodwill earned not only for making funny and beloved games, but for doing so with a compulsion for originality, a passion for art, and a certain wholesomeness.
Play a Tim Schafer game, and you’re going somewhere different. Whether it’s the Aztec-inspired noir afterlife of Grim Fandango or Psychonauts’ summer camp for psychic kids, Schafer’s games seem to answer the unbounded promise of video games in a way that makes other games feel horribly generic and unambitious.
And, yeah, Schafer is a funny guy too. He has a wry humor that feels sharp enough to cut. But though his gags can go dark, they never break the skin. Schafer’s talent for writing extends beyond mere quips—the guy has spent the last 20 years crafting some of the best stories in video games. Pulling that off takes more than a way with the pen.
Tim Schafer cut his teeth in the trenches of Lucasfilm Games at the dawn of the adventure-game genre’s golden age. After paying his dues as a playtester, Schafer’s first break came during the production of the 1990 point-and-click adventure The Secret Of Monkey Island. He and programmer/writer Dave Grossman were allowed to write a script around the plot, scenarios, and puzzles that designer Ron Gilbert had already conceived. The pair’s words wound up coming off cheekier than originally expected. Monkey Island was originally planned as a fairly strait-laced tribute to the Disneyland ride Pirates Of The Caribbean and the fantastic pirate novel On Stranger Tides. But the gags stuck and wound up setting the quirky tone for the series, now beloved for its anachronistic jokes and lighthearted sentiment.
The game’s most memorable sequence finds hero Guybrush Threepwood facing off in a duel against a reclusive sword master. The game, more about exploration and puzzle solving than combat, can’t manage arcade-style sword fighting. So rather than use brawn, Guybrush must cultivate an arsenal of stinging insults to throw his opponent off guard. (Most of the creative team re-united for 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge which, oddly, never saw Threepwood setting foot on Monkey Island.)
Schafer and Grossman were given leadership roles in the design of Day Of The Tentacle, the follow-up to Lucasfilm’s genre-shaping 1987 adventure game Maniac Mansion. And Schafer’s fingerprints are all over Tentacle. With a visual style influenced by cartoons and a time-travel plot that sees a chubby roadie hang with America’s founding fathers, it’s easy to draw a line from this early part of Schafer’s career to his more recent games. If The Secret Of Monkey Island is quirky, Day Of The Tentacle is totally off the wall. Puzzles are ridiculously contrived and very tricky, but they are sewn into a world that’s so colorful and well-dressed that the game manages to entertain even when the player is stymied. A good part of the player goodwill revolves around just how silly the puzzles were. One particularly involved quest has you prank George Washington with an exploding cigar, trick Thomas Jefferson into making vinegar out of a bottle of wine, and rope Ben Franklin into using his kite to charge a battery.
Full Throttle, Schafer’s most under-appreciated game, is relatively sober when considered next to Day Of The Tentacle. It’s the story of bikers in a near future who unravel a plot to kill the founder of the beloved Corley Motors Company. The game’s lead, Ben, is square-jawed and spare with his words. Schafer’s writing proves more than capable of weaving a yarn about tough men and truly wicked villains. And his guidance of the game’s design assures that there’s not too much tonal dissonance. Full Throttle’s goofiest moment happens when Ben uses a bunch of wind-up bunny toys to clear a mine field. The rest of the game is played close to the vest. And the tone works. Schafer can do serious.
Schafer’s confidence was catching. The artists, voice actors, and musicians who Schafer wrangled to paint Full Throttle’s dusty dystopia stretched their legs and expanded expectations. The cast—one of the first in the games industry to include professional actors—stars a who’s who of animation aces, like Mark Hamill as the baddie Adrian Ripburger and Maurice LeMarche (doing his “Brain” voice) as the henchman Nestor. But the game’s visuals are particularly affecting, rendered and animated in a lovely, detailed 2D with rudimentary 3D models of motorbikes and other heavy metal tastefully injected into the image. When Ben’s tires squeal, they kick up clouds of pixel dust and meticulously animated flaming tracks. Just as Full Throttle’s plot dwells on the death of an American classic, it’s hard not to look at the game as the last, dying gasp of a particular kind of video game art. Over the next decade or so, chunky, polygonal 3D character models would come into vogue, crowding out the tradition of pointillist pixel drawing.
Schafer embraced the 3D future in big way. 1998’s Grim Fandango, the game many consider to be Schafer’s masterpiece, paints an afterlife populated by Mexican Day Of The Dead skeletons. It’s damn clever the way Grim Fandango sidesteps the uncanny valley by tearing the skin off of all its characters. Protagonist Manny Calivera is a cylindrical skull stuffed into a sharp suit, his face a simple grill of black teeth and empty black eyes. But even today, it’s hard to find a video game character so well drawn. The thick, weary accent of actor Tony Plana sells a lot.
It’s the way that Schafer weaves the character into the detailed world that makes Calivera work. The best, subtle character moment happens in the early moments of the game, when we’re learning about Manny’s gig as a soul collector. He looks like a badass with his scythe and cloak. But we learn that he’s really a Fred McMurray schlub when he shrugs off his shroud and steps down from a pair of stilts. Manny Calivera is a shrimp. And he winds up caught in a web of deceit way bigger than a guy of his stature should expect to untangle. Across four years, players see Calivera through fixes, set-ups, and jams, culminating in the kind of happy ending that noir chumps rarely ever merit. It all feels earned.
As cool as Grim Fandango is, it was a commercial flop. Some view it as the last nail in the coffin of the classic adventure genre. But the game was a victim of the times. With development budgets swelling, thanks to the complexities of beefy PCs and more powerful home consoles, publishers grew more risk-averse. Offbeat, low-concept games became harder to sell in a studio system that perceived its audience as hungry for action.
Rather than give in, Schafer found a way to adapt without abandoning his creative urges. In 2000, Schafer split from LucasFilm and founded his own studio, Double Fine. Some of the Grim Fandango team came with him. The fledgling studio pinned their hopes on 2005’s Psychonauts, a lively game about a summer camp for psychic kids. On paper, the game is a traditional platformer. The main character, Raz, jumps across crevasses and navigates complex spacial puzzles, the way Mario and many other game mascots have done for ages.
On this familiar framework, Schafer and company were able to hang adventure-game-style storytelling, cramming the game with the kinds of conversations that Tim Schafer had become known for. But the traditional form of the platformer—usually divvied up into an array of isolated, unique worlds—also proved fertile ground for Schafer’s imagination. Rather than explore physical spaces like deserts or death factories, Raz uses his mental prowess to dive into the thoughts and nightmares of others. These voyages include one excursion into the psyche of a conspiracy nut. His world is a suburbia twisted into knots, suspended in the sky and crawling with trench-coated agents who recite their civilian cover stories in an unconvincing Dragnet deadpan. Co-writer Erik Wolpaw, responsible for much of the color in this sequence—“The Milkman Conspiracy”—would go on to pen the equally skewed Portal for Valve.
Microsoft pulled out of a Psychonauts publishing deal in the 11th hour, leaving an opening for fledgling publisher Majesco to exploit. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Psychonauts had a difficulty finding an audience. The game was a hard sell to begin with, and Majesco had no idea how to wring profits from an oddball product. This would become a recurring theme in Schafer’s career.
Brütal Legend (2009) would be Schafer’s most ambitious and most divisive game. It was a star-crossed project from the start. After production on the game was underway, Brütal Legend’s publisher, Vivendi Games, was acquired by Activision. The Guitar Hero juggernaut devoured the smaller Vivendi, canceling many projects—including, it was rumored, Brütal Legend. After a short period of doubt, Electronic Arts stepped in to help finish and publish the game, at which point Activision engaged lawyers to stymie the efforts of its biggest competitor. Brütal Legend found itself torn between two corporate parents and was lucky to survive the dustup.
It turned out, though, that Activision’s gut was right. The game sold poorly; the public didn’t want a strategy game about heavy metal starring Jack Black. That’s on the public. Because Brütal Legend is a heartfelt homage to the head-banging musical genre. And despite some rough edges, it’s a surprisingly accessible entry point into a game genre—real-time strategy—that intimidates many.
The idea is that Eddie Riggs, a rock ’n’ roll roadie trapped in a fantasy world torn from the front of metal records, could use his leadership skills to lead an army. But in practice, the game’s “Stage Battles” feel disconnected from the rest of the game, which behaves more like an open-world action game akin to the Grand Theft Auto games. Audiences who weren’t already scared away by the super-authentic soundtrack were turned off by the notion that they’d be forced to micromanage troops with an Xbox controller.
Those who stuck with the game were privy to a video game fantasy world unlike any other—a place with the soul of metal coursing through its characters and landscapes with a crazy vibrancy. With a dream cast of legends like Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford, Lemmy, and Rob Halford and an exquisitely curated soundtrack the game rippled with authenticity. But the homage isn’t slavish. Schafer’s trademark imagination, inspired by the music of his adolescence, shines through. Among Brütal Legend’s many killer metal flourishes, the best is perhaps the simplest: black panthers that shoot lasers from their eyes.
In the midst of the grueling Brütal Legend development cycle, Schafer sought to give his team a break from the grind. During what was dubbed the “Amnesia Fortnight,” Double Fine designers were invited to forget their heavy metal problems and come up with prototypes for something new. The two-week excursion wound up being extremely fruitful, resulting in a handful of smaller downloadable games. The first product of the Fortnight was the lightweight but delightful role-playing game Costume Quest, spearheaded by ex-Pixar employee Tasha Harris. The game views Halloween through the lens of nostalgia, but it does so with clear eyes and the self-sufficient heart of the latchkey kid.
Pivoting from ’80s nostalgia, Stacking presented players with longing for a time most of us never knew: the Great Depression. But it’s the game’s conceit, more than its setting, that makes it so interesting. All the game’s characters are nesting matryoshka dolls. Players control the tiniest one, a scamp named Charlie Blackmore. The kid takes over the bodies of others and gains their skills by hopping into their hollow insides. Stacking, like all Double Fine games, is buoyed by clever writing. Here Schafer’s team uses wit to both skewer and soften the sting of nettlesome issues like child labor.
The most “hardcore” of Double Fine’s downloadable offerings is Iron Brigade (originally entitled Trenched until a trademark dispute forced the name change—yet another corporate headache for Schafer to endure). Set in an alternate history, the armies of World War I must fend off a science-fiction threat. Players pilot “mobile trenches”—giant robots piloted by disabled soldiers. The action sees players collecting resources in the midst of battle, building new armaments on the fly and fighting off waves of enemies while trying to protect their home base. The game’s fiddly customization and square-jawed affection for mid-20th century men’s magazines make it the most conventional entry in Schafer’s production oeuvre. But it’s not hard to see the gung-ho soldiers in Iron Brigade as heirs to Full Throttle’s macho legacy.
Even more out of character (at least at first blush) is Double Fine’s first foray into licensed games. Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster is a children’s game in which kids use the Xbox 360 Kinect motion sensor to play mini-games with Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Grover. It turns out that the pairing of Schafer and Sesame Street are a good fit. Where most games (and TV shows for that matter) aimed at kids are somewhat soul-crushing, Once Upon A Monster manages to be quick, clever, and likable. That’s because Schafer has an instinctual understanding of the Sesame Street voice. Cookie Monster’s snack obsession, Grover’s high-strung cadence, and Elmo’s unabashed purity all feel just as they would on TV. But here, kids play alongside their favorite puppets rather than watching them from the couch.
Double Fine’s most recent offering is another downloadable game using Kinect controls. And it is the biggest diversion yet for Schafer and his studio. Double Fine Happy Action Theater is a collection of mini-games with only the barest thread of a theme. There’s no story wrapping these games together, just the loose retro motif of a dimly lit playhouse. The games are pared down. Many eschew scores and win conditions for the mere fun of standing up and moving your limbs around. One game uses the Kinect camera to fill a real-time image of your living room with pigeons who will perch on your shoulders, couch, and even your pets (if they hold still long enough). Another casts you and your family as monsters rampaging through a city. Even amid these sparse trappings, it is clear that Schafer can’t resist a little humor by way of the written word. Another mini-game sends a gout of molten lava flowing across your living-room floor. Become submerged in the stuff, and you’ll earn an achievement. It’s a one-off gag that continues a long tradition of movie references that can be traced all the way back to the Monkey Island days. The text on the achievement reads, “I know now why you cry.”
- 1. The Secret of Monkey Island: Available as a download on consoles and via Steam this early adventure game is worth playing for the classic adventure-game humor; download Monkey Island 2 for the enlightening creator commentary track from Schafer and Ron Gilbert.
- 2. Full Throttle: Out of print and somewhat unloved by Lucasfilm, this gem is happily had for a song on eBay and from other online traders. Be sure to download the fan-written ScummVM software to help the game run on newer computers.
- 3. Grim Fandango: Also hard to come by and unlikely to see a re-issue soon. This game is a little tricker to install and play, but the hard work of fans insures that the game can still be experienced. Look for the ResidualVM software before attempting to install.
- 4. Psychonauts: A PC re-release on Steam ensures that nearly anyone can experience this quirky gem.
- 5. Brütal Legend: Though maligned by many, Brütal Legend is a worth playing for its tightly knit universe and surprisingly deep multiplayer. Those who are curious will want to hop into matches sooner rather than later. Electronic Arts has a bad habit of shutting down sparsely populated servers.