Backstage with Tim Schafer

Most of us are familiar with the Rock Star Developers, the elite group of game designers we quietly idolize. Miyamoto might be the Bowie of the bunch, boasting a catalogue of wildly fantastical gems over his 30-plus-year career. Cliff Bleszinski shares Noel Gallahger’s talent for crafting punchy sound bites that occasionally overshadow the actual product. And when Spore is finally released, Will Wright will certainly be bigger than Jesus.

Then there’s Tim Schafer. More Mark Mothersbaugh than Mick Jagger, Schafer has built a reputation for creating weird, cerebral games that rely more on clever dialogue and witty characterizations than seat-of-your-pants gameplay. Beginning his career at LucasArts with The Secret of Monkey Island, which he helped write and program along with fellow designer Dave Grossman, Schafer has carved out a niche in an industry obsessed with the next Top-40 hit where he and his team can work on something a bit more offbeat.

In 2005, it was Psychonauts, an “adventure platformer” developed by Schafer’s studio, Double Fine Productions. Reviewers were equally blissed-out and bewildered; Official Xbox Magazine gushed that “the world of Psychonauts is the most inventive, creative, and downright visionary that’s ever graced a videogame,” while Games Radar UK lamented that the gameplay was “on the verge of going stale.” It topped plenty of critics’ year-end “Best Of” lists, but compared to titles like God of War and Resident Evil 4, sales didn’t match the press’ effusive praise. Schafer, however, has a different outlook.

“In some ways, that has been a little overstated. Our games have always done fine … of course, we didn’t sell as much as Halo, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as flops at all,” Schafer says. “Sometimes, I think our fans actually prefer the ‘flop’ version of the story though.”

Perhaps it’s Schafer’s uncompromising vision that inspires such devotion in his fan base. When Microsoft Game Studios, originally slated to publish Psychonauts, began showing concern about the game’s direction in 2004, Schafer only became more insistent. “They were just like, ‘We don’t get where this is going; we don’t think the builds are fun, and what’s going on?’ And we were like, ‘No, you don’t understand, this is going to be this way, and this is going to be that way, and these parts aren’t fun because we aren’t working on them right now.'” Microsoft eventually dropped the title in March, before Majesco signed a deal to publish it later that year.”It’s like, when I was in high school, I really liked the Ramones, and it was me and just this one other girl in the whole senior class who liked the Ramones. We would talk about it like it was a secret club when everyone else was listening to Journey. We’d always say we wished they were bigger. But I think deep down, part of us liked that it was an exclusive thing, like only we appreciated them. We identified with that, because in some ways you’re saying, ‘No one appreciates us.'”

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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.”

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.””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.”

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.”

Schafer’s latest theme park is Brütal Legend, another action-adventure title in the Psychonauts vein starring Jack Black as a heroic roadie in a world of heavy metal mythology. On paper, it’s a drastic departure from its predecessor’s cognitive crusades, but the way Schafer gets into his characters’ heads, you’d swear protagonist Eddie Riggs could be just another resident of the asylum at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp.

“What would [a roadie] daydream about? What kind of a fantasy world would that person have? Where do you think he would want to go if he could go anywhere? I think a lot of them would want to go to the place where they can be this hero in a time where that kind of heroism mattered, and they also could bring their Camaro back with them.”

With Brütal Legend, Schafer aims to change that. Unfortunately, even with the extra star power (including Motörhead bassist/vocalist Lemmy Kilmeister, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and Ronnie James Dio himself), Schafer has found himself re-pitching the title to a new group of investors. While Sierra was set to publish the game in late 2008, parent company Vivendi’s merger with Activision became a hurdle. When Schafer and I spoke last month, Double Fine was in “mid-gap” between Sierra and the “new regime.” It turns out that there may not have been anyone waiting on the other side; as of this writing, Activision is “reviewing their options” on whether to publish a host of Sierra games in progress, including Brütal Legend.It’s a dream that Schafer may have shared himself at one point. “When I was 14 or 15, I really loved that music. There’s always this flirting with fantasy elements … if you watch a Dio video, there’s always swords and, especially in power metal, references to dragons and stuff like that. The two worlds are so similar, heavy metal and fantasy, that they might as well just coexist. But you don’t really see them full-on mashed together.”

Fans needn’t worry too much: Hearing the enthusiasm in Schafer’s voice when he talks about his latest project, you can’t help but be drawn in. “When you’re excited about an idea, you don’t mind talking about it to people and explaining why it’s so exciting. Like, ‘This is fucking awesome. You’re a roadie going back in time! Do you understand? He’s a man that feels that he doesn’t fit in to the modern world and he gets to go back to a world where there’s broadswords and battleaxes and hot rod cars, fuckin’ A!‘”

For a Rock Star Developer like Schafer, shopping for a new publisher this late in the development cycle is the equivalent of the tour bus breaking down. The show must go on, and Double Fine continues to work on Brütal Legend despite the uncertainty. (They’re “still in limbo, but spirits are high.”) But Schafer and his team can take comfort that they’ll have a legion of fans lining up at the venue when they get there, nodding to each other in recognition: Even if no one else does, at least these people get it.

The closest Jordan Deam has been to a real rock star was front row center at a Neil Diamond concert. It was totally metal.

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