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'Brutal Legend' image courtesy DoubleFine

Q&A: Tim Schafer’s never-ending quest to inject storytelling into video games

Tim Schafer, fearless leader of DoubleFine Productions, is living in another world. Although you might not be able to tell just by looking at him, he’s actually been displaced into the distant past—The Age of Metal in which the human race was enslaved by demons led by Lord Dolivicus. Maybe you don’t remember? Well, it was a legendary time of magical belt buckles, motorcycle-driving beasts, and spell-casting V-Factor guitars. Thankfully, humanity was saved by a roadie by the name of Eddie Riggs, who gathered legions of Headbangers, Bouncers, and Runaways to do battle with the forces of evil. Coincidentally enough, all of this mythology ended up in Shafer’s Brütal Legend, quite possibly the ultimate (and only?) heavy metal video game, inserting players into an alternate universe inspired by a musical genre known for its spiked wrist bands, Nordic mythologies, and high-pitched vocals. Although sales weren’t especially strong for the action-adventure-meets-real-time-strategy game, it further cemented Shafer’s reputation as one of the most creative game developers in the industry. But is furthering the art of video games a thankless job?

Interview conducted April 2008

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What was your very first experience playing video games?

It was, strangely enough, at a summer camp where they had a hamburger stand at the lodge, and next to it they had one of those early Space Race games—two little vector-graphic ships flying side by side and you’re trying to avoid these horizontally scrolling dots and get to the top of the screen. It was awesome. That was the first time I ever saw a video game, and then my dad brought home the Odyssey One machine–that was basically like 800 variations of Pong with different plastic overlays on the screen. Then we got an Atari, then I got an Atari computer, and then all of a sudden I’m working in the industry.

What can you remember about the experience of playing your first video game?

I was the youngest in my family, and everybody else would play with the Atari when they came home and then get bored, except for me. I was fascinated by everything about it. I remember when the game was over on the Atari it would go into this attract mode of different colors and I would just stare at that for a long time. I was fascinated by having moving images on the screen and being able to control them, and with the thought of being able to make up your own.

When did it occur to you that you could actually make a game?

As soon as I got my Atari, I tried writing games in Basic. We were trying to write a Pong game in Basic and that’s the first time I had the challenge of frame rate; with Basic, I couldn’t make the paddles move fast enough. And that whole problem of fighting with frame rate is still with me today. And then I got an Assembly cartridge so I was going to make a new Galaxian but in Assembly language on the 6502 (chip), and I realized that Assembly language programming is really hard. So I was always trying, and my friend and I would get together and he as writing games in Basic, and he was like, “We should start making games to sell them.” And I was like, “You can’t do that! High school kids like us can’t make games and sell them. They’re made by huge companies like Atari and stuff.” I didn’t know any better, and I found out later that no, it was exactly kids like us who were making these guys. Years later that guy called me and said “Hey, whatever happened to you, what’d you end up doing?” And I was like, “I ended up making games. Sorry.”

Your first professional gig was at Lucasarts?

Yeah, right out of college I started working at Lucasarts and the first thing I worked on was The Secret of Monkey Island, the first of the Ron Gilbert Secret of Monkey Island games. I couldn’t ask for a better dream job out of college. It was at Skywalker Ranch and we were using the SCUMM system, which was the scripting language that we used to make all those graphic adventures back then. They called us “SCUMMlets”. And we were just goofing off and writing what we thought was jokey, temporary dialogue for the game just as practice, and they said, “No, that’s the dialogue we’re going to use. It’s good.” And that’s how we got our start.

How did you learn that storytelling could be part of videogaming?

It started in college. I was majoring in computer science and programming, and I became less interested in that as time went on and more interested in creative writing. I was taking creative writing and writing on my own, and I thought I’d write short stories for a living. Then I saw a job posting at Lucas, and it said we want someone who can program and write dialogue for our games. And I was like, that’s strange–that sounds exactly like me. The games that I was used to did actually have a lot of story—well, I don’t know if you could call it story, really, but they had a setting and a really immersive narrative space, like Zorg and the Scott Evan’s adventures like Voodoo Castle and Savage Island. You were definitely in a space that had a feeling to it and a backstory to it, and a rich character. The environments were described so richly and the stuff that happened to you was really interesting, so I definitely had expectations you could do it that way. But mostly, we were just making something that we would like, just writing dialogue to entertain each other in the office and crack each other up. It was really a communal, collaborative environment, so it just came out of the personalities that were involved. We were at Lucas, and George didn’t get too involved in the games, he came by once in a while to look at them and he looked at Monkey Island when our character didn’t have a name and he said, “You should really emphasize the main character more and make it about the character.” So there is a history of story emphasis at Lucas and that did carry on to the games.

What kind of experience are you trying to create with your games?

The main thing I’m trying to do is create a world that is really captivating and feels real, has characters in it that feel real so when you’re playing you forget who you are for a while and get pulled into this fantasy world. What you’re doing is not necessarily as important as how magnetic that [world] is. I want to pull you into this world you think about after you’re done playing. You know that feeling when you’re playing a great game, and then you’re out driving around or you’re at work and you start thinking about that game—the world and the music, the way it feels. I want to also try and broaden with each game a little bit what people expect from games. I think people expect what they’ve seen before in games, and I think games can be more, games can be appealing to much more people you’d call “normal”—there’s a hardcore gaming community, a casual gaming community, and then there’s people who don’t think games are for them. But they could be if they are about topics or people or settings that are interesting to them. Games can be about anything, they don’t just have to be about World War II or space marines. They can be about any topic under the sun.

When you plan a game, do you consciously balance creativity vs. commerciality?

You’re always thinking about that because you’re spending someone else’s money—you’re spending the publisher’s money, so you’re morally obligated to create a return on that investment. But you also you want as many people as possible to see your work; there is a creative benefit to being successful, which is that the game is actually experienced by people. I believe there is always an overlap between the creative thing you want to do and the mass-market appealing thing. Some of most successful games out there are the most creative, like The Sims or the first Tomb Raider — when that came out there hadn’t really been a game like that before. Or Grand Theft Auto was kind of a new thing. People think that you have to be somehow a safe bet to be successful, but actually the big hit games are the ones that take the big chances.

Psychonauts was a critical hit, though the sales probably weren’t you wanted them to be. Any lessons that you learned from that?

The overwhelming feeling on Psychonauts was just how happy we were to be able to finish it and get it done, because it was such a rollercoaster ride—starting DoubleFine and switching publishers. But we got it done and we got a game that we were proud of so we just think of it as a successful game. It sold about 500,000 copies, which is not huge numbers but it’s enough that we got paid.

You know what William Goldman, that famous screen writer, said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” A lot of people talk like, “here are the 10 rules for making a hit game,” or “here’s a quick test to apply to your concept to see if it’s going to be a big hit.” But the truth is that nobody does know anything. Some people were saying, “You can’t make a game about a 10-year-old kid because it won’t appeal to anyone but 10-year-old kids.” But then again you can bank on Harry Potter. There is always a counter-example. You take you’re best shot at being commercially successful and then if it doesn’t work out, you try to do better with the next one. The question is, are platformers viable? When we started, it was before Jax and Daxter came out, before the new generation of platformers had come out in 2000. The last one was Super Mario 64 and that was it, and that was a big hit. So we were like, “Platformers are hot!” and so we started a platformer. It took us so long to make it that by time we were done, a lot of platformers had come out and there had been a glut of platformers that didn’t do very well, the names of which are now kind of forgotten. So by the time Psychonaughts came out, nobody wanted to talk about platformers. It’s still a genre I love to play; I think Super Mario Galaxy is my favorite game this year. So I wish they would make more of them.

When planning your next game, did you think in the back of your head, “This time we’re gonna make a hit!”

I think that every time! No, it’s just that they’re different kinds of games I like to make. Like Full Throttle was a game I made about bikers and it had explosions and stuff and it was a big hit. But it was really just the game I felt like making at the time. Casablanca is one of my favorite movies, and obviously an influence on things like Grim Fandango, but The Road Warrior is also one of my favorite movies, too, and I like to make games like that. That’s what we did with Full Throttle and what we’re doing with Brütal Legend.

How did the whole rock roadie character get created for Brütal Legend?

I met a roadie from Megadeth, let’s call him “T,” at a party and he was just telling stories about being a roadie. And I thought that is such a crazy lifestyle because you see all the over-the-top craziness of the rock n roll world but from a real get-r-done perspective – the guys who actually plug everything, they can’t party too much because they have to haul the amps and get it all loaded up. Very practical minded people living a real impractical lifestyle. It seemed like such a different kind of hero that you could have. So the character of Eddie Riggs in the game is that practical-minded guy who gets pulled back in time by a cursed belt buckle that he has, and he ends up in this barbaric world where humans are enslaved by demons. But he finds this human resistance – really just two people, Lars Halford and his sister Leah who want to start a revolution but don’t really know how. They’re incredibly charismatic, attractive people who are natural leaders, but they don’t know the practical matters of how to get the swords made or how to organize the army, stuff like that. So the roadie is like, Oh my gosh I know these people—they’re the rock stars of the barbaric world. And I know what I should do—I’m going to help them, put this show together, and put it on the road. And that’s what you do in the game, mission by mission, put this army together for Lars.

So that’s how the character came about, and as soon as I met that guy, we made that character Hoagie in Day of the Tentacle, a roadie for Megabreath. But we didn’t really touch on what it meant to be a roadie, so now we’re really making a game about that.

‘Brutal Legend’ concept art courtesy DoubleFine
How did you hook up with Jack Black for the character voice?

Back when it was just us making the game we didn’t have a publisher and we were just kicking around ideas, we always talked about how the character was like an extrapolation of Jack Black’s character in School of Rock or Tenacious D, where he’s like a big music fan into metal. And we were talking about that with Vivendi—“Yeah, he’s like a Jack Black character.” And they’re like, “Why don’t we get Jack Black?” And I was like, “Whaaat? You can’t do that! Those guys exist on a different planet.” But they set up a meeting, and I went and met with him and showed him the game, the concept, the character, everything, and he was like, “Sounds cool. I’ll do it.” Back in my head, I felt like that was our goal, whether we got Jack or not: To make a game that Jack would like. Because I felt like if Jack Black likes this game whether he’s in it or not, then we’ve nailed it. And he liked it enough to sign up. He’s been great; he’s added a lot to it—he improvises in the studio, he added a ton of his own character to Eddie Riggs, he just breathed life into the whole game.

Any heavy metal cameos?

Yeah, I don’t know if it was because we had Jack or because of the game, but we managed to get ahold of Rob Halford from Judas Priest, and he did an awesome voice, he’s a real great performer. And Lemmy from Motorhead did a great voice, and Ronnie James Dio, and some others that will be announced later. Some people were like, “These guys are singers, let’s not give them big parts because they can’t act.” But I think especially heavy metal singers, they’re so used to creating a character on stage, like Judas Priest all the songs they sing are named after these characters they’ve created, like “The Painkiller.” So creating a character and bringing it to life is something they know how to do.

What was it like pitching the idea to publishers?

We pitched it all around and got a lot of interest. Some people wanted to change it a lot; they were like, “Does it have to be heavy metal?” One person was like, “Does it have to be a roadie? Can it be something more exciting? Who fantasizes about being a roadie?” So we went with Vivendi because they were excited about the concept and liked it as it was. [Note: After Vivendi’s merger with Activision, the title was dropped, but it was picked up by Electronic Arts.]

It always seems like there’s some company out there who wants to try to do something new and original, so I’m always counting on that company existing. As soon as there are no more companies like that, we’ll have to find our money somewhere else. We’ll have to start robbing banks.

We are far along, but we’re coming out in 08. We have our characters running around and battling, we just have to build a whole bunch of world. It’s an open-world environment, a big, streaming, barbaric fantasy world that we have to build with next-gen visuals. I don’t even like to call it next-gen anymore—best gen, current gen, awesome gen. The visuals are like 10 times more complicated than before, but the end result is worth it because you really feel like you’re in a place. “Wow, this is a real place!”

‘Brutal Legend’ image courtesy DoubleFine
How has the current generation of hardware affected how you design games?

I think different people are taking different approaches. A lot of people are saying the games don’t have to be that long anymore, let’s make a dense, rich experience. And sales wise, that seems to have worked out, as long as you have a multi-player component to your game, people don’t really complain about a short single-player experience, It used to be, when I started, you’d brag about how long your game was: “It’s 40 hours!” We’d always say 40 hours, we didn’t really know, didn’t really time it. But nowadays, it doesn’t seem like something you even brag about anymore.

One of the best experiences I had playing a game this year was Portal, which was really fun, really creative, and it took me four hours to play, I’m a little slow. It was one night’s entertainment but it left me with this great impression, I had an awesome time. If they made another one, I’d buy that one too.

The danger is that since the assets are so expensive to create that people will become more conservative with their bets: “Well, we can’t experiment because it’s so expensive.” But I think it will lead to more experimentation in the pre-production phase, which would be better anyway because churning over ideas while the assets are cheap can mean honing your gameplay before spending a lot of money on it.

I’ve never felt held back by technology because I think the games industry is always more held back by ideas; it’s more held back by it’s inability to take more risks than it is by technology.

What games do you think are taking risks these days?

I really enjoyed Portal, I think that came about from experimental workshop situation by some people …. Everything about that was unexpected. I know it’s not a revolution in platformers, but I’m really enjoying Mario Galaxy because they really took the basic concept of relative gravity in that world and just ran with it—“How many more ideas can we come up with?” I just started Assassin’s Creed, and so far it’s really good, I feel like I’m playing something new.

Halo 3: I wouldn’t call it a huge risk. The guy who thought of the idea to make Halo 3 is not what I’d call a gambling man.

Has the Wii changed people’s perceptions of what a game can be?

I’m really happy with the Wii, just the fact that it exists, because I think it confounded all those people who swore they knew how to make big hit games. If you had pitched that to a lot of people—“Hey, we’re making this thing.”—a lot of people who run the games industry now would not have said, “Oh yeah, that’s a surefire bet, let’s do that.”


Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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