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Double Fine's Digital Archaeology

Having remastered Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, Tim Schafer explains why the industry needs to preserve its past better (and why it probably won't)

Double Fine Productions prides itself on originality, but the studio has spent much of its time lately bringing older games to life on new platforms. As Tim Schafer explained to at the Game Developers Conference last week, going back and faithfully adapting his older LucasArts titles like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle introduces some challenges that simply don't exist when making something new.

"A lot of us were perfectionists on those games," Schafer explained, "so it's really painful. They say games are never complete; they're just torn away from you. I usually never looked at the games after we shipped them because I couldn't stand it. Because you couldn't really patch games easily back then, so I knew if there was a bug, I'd just have to live with it. So I would just not play it ever again."

With the new Remastered versions of those games, Schafer has the option of trying to "fix" everything that wasn't quite to his liking with the originals. But at the same time, he said he's trying to respect the work of the artists who contributed to the originals.

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"I wouldn't make too many changes," Schafer said. "I'm really against replacing all the guns with walkie talkies and stuff like that. In each game, we let ourselves do one thing. In Grim Fandango, we added a camera move when she tells one special poem, just because that's the one thing I always wanted to do in the first one. It didn't ruin anything, it was just a little touch. In Full Throttle, there was a famous pixel-hunting puzzle that we made a little wider. It didn't change the solution, but we made it a little more forgiving. Fixing bugs that cause the players headaches I think is OK, but we really don't want to change the meaning of anything unless there was something really hurtful for some reason, but I don't think we had any of that."

That's not to say the games are straight ports. After all, fan projects like ScummVM have allowed diehard fans to play the original games on modern hardware. And these Double Fine remasters have the option to play the games as close to the original versions as the formats will allow, but for the remastering, Double Fine wanted to offer something more.

"They're amazing in what they keep running," Schafer said of the fan communities, "but they can't bring the context of the people who made the game back in 1995. They can't tell the stories about what the inspirations were. They don't know exactly what Ben's boots should have looked like, all these things the original team can do. So I think if you're going to do a full-on remaster, you need the original creators to not just approve it, but to be enthusiastic about it."

"We're in a unique position where we remember where the bodies are buried."

Schafer called it a sort of "digital archaeology." For Full Throttle, the art was completely repainted, often with input from original artists like Larry Ahern and Peter Chen. 3D elements like the game's motorcycles had to be remodeled from scratch because the originals weren't archived. Roy Conrad, the original voice actor for the game's protagonist Ben, died over a decade ago, so they had to track down the uncompressed DAT tapes of his original voiceover sessions in order to remaster them in stereo.

"We're in a unique position where we remember where the bodies are buried," he said. "'I think that sound guy took home a box of tapes once, and I know so-and-so has that thing in their attic.' And at Skywalker Ranch there's an archive that has a lot of cool stuff there, and we got access to those. We got to dig through these flat files, finding these great pieces of art and putting them in the concept art browser for the first time to let you see all this stuff when you play the game. It's more like a fun treasure hunt."

One might expect that the hassles of remastering projects like these would cause Double Fine to re-think the way it preserves its current titles for the future.

"I feel like we had all this trouble finding all these archives," Schafer said, "and it was like, 'Why didn't we archive this stuff better?' And then I was like, 'Are we archiving our new stuff better?' We had to really look at it, and well, you know... In some ways it's easy to make those same mistakes again, to just not really think about what's going to happen 20 years from now. 'Yeah, that stuff's all on that one artist's hard drive, but we don't have time to do all that...' So you really have to push yourself to create good archives, and to put away a machine that can do the actual build of the game. And that's something I hope all developers do, or they'll be kicking themselves later."

Of course, wrapping up development on a game is often a sprint to the finish, and Schafer is candid when asked if he's optimistic about developers ever making preservation a priority.

"No," he laughed. "I mean, we try to bring it up once in a while, and it's so hard just to make a game that it's hard to get an organized archive going. I'm sure some people are doing it well. Like at Lucas, we did it. We had an archive room, and that's why there's anything here at all to work with. But it's still like, we didn't archive the source material for that 3D stuff because it was so big, we couldn't imagine putting it on a tape... We didn't even know what to preserve back then."

"You really hope that because everyone has the best intentions that the situation would just fix itself. But you have to be a lot more active about it."

Schafer is more optimistic when it comes to another practice developers across the industry have been coming around on: diverse hiring. Last November, Schafer posted an admission on the company blog that the company needs to do more to include under-represented groups in its workforce. While it requires the same sort of diligent effort that archiving does, Schafer said the benefits of hiring diversity are much more tangible in the immediate term.

"We've made some hires that have helped with that for sure, but it's the kind of thing where it's not a temporary situation," Schafer said. "You really hope that because everyone has the best intentions that the situation would just fix itself. But you have to be a lot more active about it. We've been reaching out to different organizations that speak to under-represented groups, and we help them organize and find career opportunities. We're meeting them, inviting them into the office, and establishing more relationships that in the end will benefit us and improve the diversity of our workforce. It'll [help us] make better games because it will bring these different perspectives to our games. But it's a lifelong thing for the company. It's a permanent thing you have to be doing because you can't just count on it happening magically by itself."

Schafer admitted that hiring for diversity "puts you in a position to make some tough decisions," but said much of the work is easy, like looking for qualified candidates beyond one's usual circles, trying to work with different schools, job boards, or recruiters.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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