Tim Schafer on Brutal Legend, humour over violence, Casablanca and It's A Small World
You know Tim Schafer. He wrote the dialogue for The Secret of Monkey Island, and designed Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango for LucasArts, which everybody loves. He then set up Double Fine Productions and created Psychnoauts, a game everybody loved but not many people bought.
Schafer is currently working on Brutal Legend, a game with a massive profile thanks to a combination of Jack Black's gurning mug, nods of approval from the press and a sticky publishing history.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Schafer at E3 this month to talk about Brutal Legend and game design in general, why voice actors are no longer just in it for the money, how humour can attract new gamers, and why he wishes he could go back and finish Full Throttle.
Q: Let's talk about your voice actors on Brutal Legend. Like, Jack Black, was he actually interested in being in a game? How did that come about?
Tim Schafer: I don't know if he was out looking for a game. We were out looking for him, because we were inspired a lot by the work he'd done in the past, his over-the-top characters, his life-long love of rock with his heart and soul. So we contacted him and found out that he played and liked Psychonauts. And he wanted to do it, just because he likes rock, likes metal.
Q: So were you there for the recording sessions?
Tim Schafer: Yeah. I went to all of them. We did it mostly in person. He has almost two thousand lines of dialogue in the game, hours and hours of stuff. He's really funny, and really fun to hang out with.
Q: What about the others? Lemmy and the rest?
Tim Schafer: They're all different characters, but they've all been really great to work with. Lemmy was the first one we recorded, and we were all really intimidated and scared of messing it up. He was really quiet at first. We hung out for a while, then he just totally opened up and turned out to be a big enthusiast. He collects swords and knives, and we talked about medieval battles. I got to hang out with him a little bit, and he plays videogames. He really likes StarFox.
And then Rob Halford is just such a funny guy. He's very gentlemanly. You always expect them to act like rock stars in person, but they're really good at creating characters on stage, so it's really natural for them to create characters behind the mike in the studio for a voice.
And then Ozzy is just like a frat guy. He just wants to make everyone in the studio laugh with him. He's telling funny stories, so he's a hoot.
Q: Did they all seem to understand the project, or were they just there to record their lines?
Tim Schafer: Guys like Jack Black play a lot of videogames. He finishes more games than I do, like, he played through Mass Effect twice. So he knows exactly what we're talking about. And Lemmy knew all about videogames. I think in the old days, in the 90s, I didn't like to use any sort of 'celebrity talent' because it wasn't often you'd find one that actually played videogames. But more and more, as the industry ages, they know what you're talking about. More often than not now, they're game fans themselves.
Q: Was Jack Black's role written for him by you?
Tim Schafer: I wrote it, but then when he goes on the mic he'll read it the way I wrote it, and then he'll do five different options that are all funnier. He improvs a lot. So it's a mix.
Q: I got the impression playing the demo that a lot of his dialogue kind of sounded like you. Like your host dialogue at the Game Developers Choice Awards.
Tim Schafer: (laughter) They are written in the same way. Hopefully it sounds like Eddie Riggs, he's got a unique kind of character. But my method of writing is to get to know the characters as well as you can, and then you sit down to write it as if you're doing improve acting. So it will have an element of your voice, and it will have an element of Jack's voice.
Q: When establishing the characters in Psychonauts, you set up Facebook pages for all of your characters and had them write messages to each other. Did you do anything weird like that for Brutal Legend?
Tim Schafer: Not weird, but I mean, you want to do something appropriate to what you're doing, and that was all about kids in camps, so using a social network was really natural for Psychonauts. But we have these characters that are heroes in this land of Brutal Legend, they're not really the kind of people who would have a Facebook page. I was really inspired by Norse mythology and read a lot of it, so I wrote more of an epic creation myth for the whole world. Often backstories start with the character's parents and talking about their childhood, but in this case they started with the birth of the entire world that the game is set in, and where that came from and how that led to the gods and how the sun was created and everything. And that's the way those Norse legends read too.
Q: How much of that mythos actually made it into the game? Did you have a lot left over?
Tim Schafer: We actually took a lot of it and turned it into animated sequences where the narrator will tell you some lore of the land. Not all of it is in. I think the point of backstory is that you don't give all of it away, or else it's not backstory anymore. It's fun to make a huge backstory and then just show segments of it that kind of suggest the larger story.
Q: You and I had a discussion a few years ago about your feelings on game design, on how to tell a compelling story without cutscenes, which you said was something you wanted to eventually accomplish.
Tim Schafer: (laughter) What do I know about that?
Q: You told me at the time that your kind of theory behind that, behind telling a compelling story that is always interactive, was along the lines of riding The Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland but being able to occasionally get off the boat and explore.
Tim Schafer: Are you sure that wasn't Ron Gilbert?
Q: No, that was you, I've never met Ron.
Tim Schafer: Ron always talks about jumping off the Pirates of the Caribbean, so...
Q: So you stole it!
Tim Schafer: I always talk about getting off of It's A Small World. That's the ride I want to get off of.
Q: Why is that?
Tim Schafer: I love miniatures. I always loved, like, miniature things. Like in Psychonauts there's that Waterloo World level. I loved going down with the bug camera and flying down really low and looking at the trees and making them look big. It's that same impulse that makes you put your head down sideways on your train set, you put your eye on track level and the train's coming at you and it makes it look really big. Something about miniatures has always fascinated me, and It's A Small World has a lot of that.
But yeah, what can I say about story? I always thought that someday I could make a game that has a story and no cutscenes, but it wasn't appropriate for Brutal legend, which has an epic story plot. I feel like as long as it's entertaining and you don't feel like skipping them, in the end games are just entertainment, so however you're entertaining people.
Q: Do you think it's possible to tell a compelling story in a game with no dialogue?
Tim Schafer: Yeah! You can tell a story with environment, you can tell a story with interactive set-ups, you can tell a story any way you want to.
Q: I had a similar conversation with the two founders of BioWare, we were talking about how to grow the audience through story. Do you feel like there is kind of a story gap preventing people from getting into games, or is it more like a hardware barrier?
Tim Schafer: I think it's a subject matter barrier. Not everybody wants to get into these super violent worlds...and yet here I am making a game about broad axes and decapitation. But I think humor would get more people into games. It's getting better, it used to be that the games industry had a short list of inspirations. You had Tolkien-esque fantasy, Star Wars, and then new things get added. I think GTA brought a whole new level of inspiration. And I think the broader that gets, the more people will be interested in games. If you look at movies, they deal with everything about life. They deal with all aspects of life: romance, comedy, serious dramas. And games are mostly limited to the summer action blockbuster. They haven't really gone outside of that. But I think they will, and hopefully they will soon, or else people will be solidified in their view of games. Their expectations are set.
Q: Along those lines, is there a game concept you would like to develop that you just don't think is possible yet?
Tim Schafer: No. Usually if I have a great idea for a game, I just make it. So I've never really been restrained in that way. I've always made them. Definitely I would love to just keep going and making games about topics you haven't seen before.
Q: How often do you have game ideas? Are you already working on the next one in your head at this point?
Tim Schafer: Brutal Legend was little bits that I thought about for fifteen years. The title was around for years, as well as the different strategy elements that I wanted to have in it. I didn't realize they were all one game until a few years ago when I realised wow, those could all go together in one big, metal experience, and that would be great.
Q: Was Full Throttle the result of some of these ideas?
Tim Schafer: It definitely came from a similar part of my brain. Two of my favorite movies are Casablanca and The Road Warrior. Grim Fandango definitely came out of the Casablanca side of the brain, and Full Throttle and Brutal Legend I think came out of the Road Warrior section.
Q: Do you feel like having a child might have changed you in a way? Will we see a gentler side of Tim Schafer in your next game?
Tim Schafer: Not all of my games are like Brutal Legend, I've definitely made gentler games before. What I usually like to do is the opposite of whatever I did last. I think the whole team likes to have a change. Creative people in general like to do new things all the time. So I probably will do something really different from Brutal Legend next time, but not because I had a baby and want to make gentle things for her. But yeah, if I look at "games for girls" quote-unquote, and I think about having a daughter and like, what would I like her to play? You know what I mean? I don't know if I'd like her to play those games. I'd like her to play like, Mario and Zelda. I mean, who knows, she might not like any games. But I think she'd be really good at adventure games, because she likes to pick up objects and use them on other objects in the room.
Q: Speaking of adventure games, did you see the Monkey Island announcement?
Tim Schafer: Yeah, I saw the announcement.
Q: Was that the first you'd heard of it?
Tim Schafer: I'd heard rumors, there had been rumors for a while. Are you talking about the episodic one or the reissue?
Q: Well, both, really.
Tim Schafer: I like that you can play the exact version of Monkey Island that we made. I think it's nice that people will be able to see that. And I like that the new episodic games are being made by Dave Grossman. Other than Ron I don't think there's anyone more appropriate to make those games than Dave.
Q: On the adventure game category, if you had a chance to go back and re-do any of the ones you did – I don't mean a remake, I mean like, if you were able to go back in time and fix things you weren't happy with – which one would you go with?
Tim Schafer: Nowadays we focus test games, not to change them creatively, but to find out where people get stuck and put hints in. When I talk to someone about Grim Fandango, I ask did you finish it? And they say no, and then I go, you got stuck in the forest, right? Because everyone gets stuck in the forest, with the signpost. A couple of hints would have fixed that whole situation. If I could have just done more testing, like the way you make games nowadays...I do wish I could go back and kind of streamline those situations for people. But other than that, I guess [Full] Throttle. I'm kind of torn, because Throttle was really much bigger, and I cut it to finish it on time. Part of me wishes I could have made the rest of it. But then again because it was so short a lot of people did finish it, which a lot of people liked. It actually sold the most of any game I'd made.
Tim Schafer is founder of Double Fine Productions. Interview by Frank Cifaldi.