That's not to say the transition wasn't a learning experience. When you're pitching your game, Schafer says, "some publishers are kind of interested if you changed a bunch of stuff, and some people are just, 'Wow,' they love it. It's always mattered to us a lot when we're pitching a game that the publisher just loves it ... because you know that relationship will be a lot less contentious."
"The problem is, when [games] cost a lot of money, you do get a lot more people who have to sign off on the decisions that you make. And so what you need is someone who has the vision for the game and is good at talking to all those people. You can't just have an idea and then stomp your heels and pout if people don't get it. You have to evangelize it."
When so much of a project depends on winning the support of others, "you never get out of pitch mode," Schafer says. "You have to accentuate the accessible."
For example, "Milla [Vodello's] level in Psychonauts has this area where you go and find all her memories of when she was a nurse in an orphanage that burned down and she could psychically hear all the children screaming. One of the central ideas of the game was that every mind has something hidden in it that's not really 'in your face.' But I didn't lead with that when I pitched the game to them. I didn't go into the meeting and go, 'Hey, by the way, how do you guys feel about children being burned alive? Do you guys want to do the children-being-burned-alive game?'"
It's not a matter of preserving the artistic integrity of the medium for Schafer as much as it is going against tradition. "Film was regarded as an art form and is always fighting this battle versus commercialism, whereas when games started, no one was talking about the art form. They started as toys, and really, I feel more like any sort of meaning or emotional content you can put in them is a victory."
With games like Psychonauts and Grim Fandango on his resume, not to mention earlier point-and-click adventure games like Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle, Schafer is one of a handful of designers whose work has pushed the boundaries of storytelling in game development. But he hasn't reinvented the wheel; he simply envisions a different type of experience for the player.
"I guess I think of it more as making an amusement park, like a haunted house. You're kind of writing instructions for the mummy who's hiding in the closet to jump out at people, if the mummy could talk, and also if he wasn't necessarily scary - if he was funny instead. And not a mummy."