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A Study of Tim Schafer


Brooetal Legend (the umlaut lifts the sound) seems like something that Tim Schafer has been working towards for a while. I don’t think there’s been a single one of his games that hasn’t had some heavy metal inspiration in there somewhere. Even Grim Fandango’s fiery beaver parts had a bit of a Rammstein feel to them. Christ, that was a weird sentence.

Tim Schafer is a “name,” and that’s always a good thing. By “name,” I mean someone who can help sell a game by having the words “A game by name” emblazoned on the front of the box. The modern industry has become so commercial and design teams have become so committee-driven that very few new names are created – all the current names are old hands, like Schafer, Peter Molyneux, Will Wright, most of the original Doom team, etc. But while names are perfectly healthy in a creative industry, there tends to be the delusion that a name can do no wrong, and a name is always human, just as flawed and squishy as the rest of us.

Schafer earned his stripes with incredibly good writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that he knows what he’s doing gameplay-wise.
Let’s go through his resume.

Day of the Tentacle – back in the days of old LucasArts, when the business model extended beyond rattling a stick around the Star Wars feed bucket, Schafer’s first game in a lead role was this sequel to one of the company’s earliest point-and-clickers, Maniac Mansion. As for its gameplay, well, you can never ask for much of that from the retro adventure, where you generally push piles of random objects around and throw them randomly at the scenery (also known as the “crazy homeless woman simulator”). But that said, DOTT’s time travel mechanics made for uniquely compelling puzzle-solving, so for a point and click adventure the gameplay was decent, which is kind of like saying that for a shopping trolley full of cream cakes the wheels were pretty nice.

Full Throttle – Schafer’s second LucasArts adventure was a grim and macho tale of biker gangs in the near future, pioneering a new, more intuitive “verb coin” style of interface that Monkey Island 3 would later use, but was unfortunately enamored with teeth-grindingly unskippable minigames. On-bike combat sequences were roughly equivocal to a fighting game in which all the characters are inflatable clowns, and some of the puzzle design was shockingly bad, especially that one memorable moment where the puzzle solution is to spend half an hour kicking various parts of a wall.

Grim Fandango – often held up as Schafer’s magnum opus, Grim Fandango was one of the last official LucasArts adventures before the great betrayal and, indeed, story-wise, it eats the entire adventure genre for breakfast on a bed of noir waffles. But with Full Throttle having soured everyone on minigames, GF was back to pure crazy homeless woman simulation, mired by a very tedious inventory system in which you scroll randomly through all your items one at a time like you’re looking for the end on a roll of sticky tape. And the game wasn’t above some seriously bizarre puzzle logic, as in the point where you have to make your monster sidekick vomit gelatin over a set of dominoes so they won’t fall over and detonate a bomb. Yeah.


Psychonauts – a rundown of the debut game from Schafer’s own studio, Double Fine, should best be acquired from my ZP review, but make sure you have a pencil handy before you watch it. Psychonauts was funny, colorful, packed with clever ideas and with the first real movement into new genres, is probably the best of the bunch gameplay-wise. It did have a bit of an overreliance on scavenger hunting and the level design could be a little confusing at times, but so many bases were being covered it was easy to steer around the potholes.

And, of course, Brooetal Legend, which shares Psychonauts‘ fondness for scavenger hunts but within the breathlessly duller setting of open-world gameplay.

Schafer was credited as “Writer/Director” at the end of Brooetal Legend, rather than “game designer,” so it’s possible he’s a lot less involved with that side of things. But the impressions I’ve gotten whenever his games stray from the classic point-click adventure model is of a developer flailing uncertainly around, borrowing gameplay mechanics from various sources and applying them wildly and experimentally, which sometimes works out (as in Psychonauts) but which just as easily becomes a mess. I guess I’m saying that it feels odd that such a big games industry “name” seems to have difficulty with some rather basic game development concepts. Like, say, making sure that the demo you release in some way resembles the final product. You wouldn’t advertise a crème brulee with a picture of caramelized sugar, especially not if the crème is made from vinegar and Styrofoam.


“Was the part about quick time events done well screwed up purposely?”
MasterMayhem117, from the GameX Live Chat With Me comments

Sadly not, and I’ve been asked to clarify what, exactly, I said at the point in the video when the sound went out. It began with the words “it’s very hard.” And I’ll tell you what else is very hard – remembering exactly what you said during a spontaneous interview on a day when you were doing one of those every few hours or so. But, I was asked if it’s possible to have Quick Time Events in a game and have them work. So my answer more than likely would have been “it’s very hard…to piss in a shotglass from across the room, but it’s a cakewalk compared to well-implemented QTEs.”

I think the God of War mid-battle system works best for me, wherein you can do a brief optional one to quickly finish off a baddie, and maybe get a different or bigger reward for it, but if you’re seriously considering flashing one up out of nowhere in the middle of a cutscene, and the only punishment for missing it is having to watch the cutscene from the beginning, then you deserve to have your hands removed by a specially-appointed government agency.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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