Before an interview via video conference even starts, game designer Tim Schafer jots down a message, then holds the note up to the computer screen. “I killed a guy,” it reads.
Schafer’s games are laced with humor, and so are his interviews. The independent designer hasn’t of course killed anyone, but he has been accused of killing an entire genre.
When Schafer released “Grim Fandango,” a Day of the Dead-style noir, in 1998, its disappointing sales were blamed for dooming the adventure game, a plot-driven field that once had believers thinking games were the new cinema.
Yet “Grim Fandango” was so ahead of its time that its time may be now. Today it’s celebrated as one of gaming’s greatest moments, and the title is on the verge of being re-released Tuesday in high-definition for home computers and Sony’s PlayStation 4. A cult favorite often cited as influencing a generation of independent developers, the story line that “Grim Fandango” was a complete flop has now been rewritten. Almost.
“People talk about ‘Grim’ like it was a bomb,” Schafer, 47, said via Skype from his San Francisco-based office. “People like that narrative of creative games not doing well. People are more comfortable with me as an underdog.”
The games Schafer has directed continually prove that audiences value character, comedy and story in a field where gunplay, competitiveness and reflexes are given precedence. See the brash humor of LucasArts’ biker gang mystery “Full Throttle,” or more recently, Double Fine’s “Broken Age,” an approachable yarn about growing up and surviving loneliness.
Schafer doesn’t see himself as a David triumphing over the mainstream video game industry’s Goliath: “No,” he said strongly, when asked if he likes being viewed as an underdog. Yet his story-driven approach and business acumen have been dispelling industry myths for the better part of three decades, first with groundbreaking game studio LucasArts and today with his own Double Fine Productions.
Double Fine has shown that an independent firm can comfortably exist outside of industry conventions. “Broken Age,” for instance, relied on investments from fans rather than larger publishers, and some Double Fine-published games could be best described as art projects (in one, you play as a mountain). Schafer himself has become one of the medium’s most vocal executives, standing up against those in the game-playing community who continue to harrass female critics and developers.
Not bad for a guy whose greatest creative achievement was once considered the end of an era.
In hindsight, it could be argued that Schafer, along with “The Secret of Monkey Island” creator Ron Gilbert and “King’s Quest” architect Roberta Williams, is one of the industry’s first narrative-focused auteurs. Raised in Sonoma, Schafer studied computer science but dreamed of becoming Kurt Vonnegut. His first post-college job, at the then-Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts, allowed him to merge the two passions.
“Adventure games are broad and draw on life. That’s what I like about them,” he said. “There’s no other genre of games where you have to pull from knowledge outside of the game. You have to know social things, the motivations of people. ‘If that guy is jealous of that guy, and you do this for him, then he’ll do this for you.’ You have to think that way to solve puzzles in adventure games.”
Even in an art form in which anything goes, “Grim Fandango” is bizarre, but its underlying conceit is simple: What if the daily grind of the afterlife is even worse than that of the living? As Manny Calavera, players adopt the role of a down-on-his-luck Grim Reaper, a travel agent who helps the living transition to the world of eternity.
Only Manny is fed up with receiving the most broken of souls and makes a play for a higher class of dead. He steals a client, and his crime of desperation reveals a vast conspiracy that’s dooming many of the deceased — those who didn’t die rich, at least — to an eternal life of hell. The look is Mexican folk art, the tone is part “Beetlejuice,” part Hitchcock, and the plot continues to reflect our financially stressed times.
While the graphics and controls were updated and some technical bugs were fixed, Schafer doesn’t expect the $14.99 game to suddenly become a blockbuster. For one, it’s difficult. “There are things that put off people about adventure games,” he said. “They are super hard.”
Schafer cites “Double Indemnity” as inspiration, the 1944 noir in which an insurance agent’s life gets turned upside down. Yet tackling a noir vibe wasn’t the largest challenge for a game that was three years in the making and left Schafer so burned out that he says he didn’t show up at work for three months after its completion.
There were technical issues, namely because the game was an early example of 3-D rendering. Then there were also cultural concerns. Skeletons were chosen as the stars of the show in part because they would be easier to create than humans in the flesh.
“I knew I was appropriating someone else’s culture, so the idea was to be as authentic as possible and do as much research as possible,” he says.
To describe the feel that the game needed to strike, Schafer cites San Francisco’s popular Day of the Dead festivities. “There’s a lot of serious reverence toward remembering the dead and the art. Then there are some people who paint their faces like skeletons and get super drunk. You see the difference, they’re just stealing Day of the Dead so they can get drunk. Then there are those exploring the themes. We wanted to be exploring the themes.”
Only with the rise of independent games in the last three or four years, of which Double Fine has been a leader, have such thoughtful, exploratory universes once again come to the fore. Whether it’s Red Thread’s sci-fi story “Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey,” the poetic “Dear Esther” from the Chinese Room or the bulk of the work of Telltale Games, the adventure genre is suddenly flourishing.
“The thing I really love about [‘Grim Fandango’] is that it could have been made today,” said Adam Boyes, a vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment. “Bringing it back is representative of how the culture in game development has changed so drastically. Now if you don’t have some great angle or rich world, you’ll fall by the wayside.”
Celia Pearce, a professor of game design at Northeastern University, said that during her eight previous years at Georgia Tech, Double Fine was the most student-requested studio for internship placement. “There’s a generation of kids for whom Tim is the role model,” said Pearce.
“Grim Fandango,” which cost about $3 million to make, ultimately sold 500,000 copies, said Schafer. That was enough to net him a royalty check but not as impressive a number as the multiple millions being sold by “Super Mario Bros.” titles and war games.
LucasArts saw the future and eventually became a factory for churning out “Star Wars” titles. A year after the release of “Grim Fandango,” Schafer opted to strike out on his own, ditching a proposed spy game.
Schafer is careful discussing his time at the now Disney-owned LucasArts, which he’ll continue to work with on reviving his early works. But there’s no denying that the company he joined after graduating from UC Berkeley had begun to shift its focus by the time “Grim Fandango” was released.
“There was a period that people would maintain that game designers were going to be treated like rock stars,” Schafer said. “That’s silly, because rock stars are attractive.
“At Lucas, there was a culture of creativity that probably came from the top. Story matters. Quality matters. Creativity matters, partially because it was valued to the company, but, legally, someone else had the rights to ‘Star Wars’ licenses, so we had to make new stuff.”
That level of invention has marked the work of Double Fine, which has released games in which trick-or-treaters become their costumes, heavy metal songs become war arenas and a talking cave can expose human faults. There have been growing pains, and struggles in the early 2000s to release “Psychonauts” nearly resulted in the closure of the company, but the 50-person company today does — and says — what it wants.
Schafer, for instance, has been one of the few prominent designers to voice support for Anita Sarkeesian, a culture critic who, under the Feminist Frequency banner, is critical of the often-sexist nature of video games. Sarkeesian is regularly a target of death threats. Double Fine has also raised money for Girls Make Games, which hosts camps and workshops designed to encourage young girls to learn and explore the inner workings of video games.
When Girls Make Games launched a Kickstarter for its game “The Hole Story,” founder Laila Shabir said every Schafer tweet “equated to couple thousand dollars.”
Northeastern’s Pearce said Schafer was “courageous” for standing behind Sarkeesian. Schafer said it was “common sense,” adding that developers “have a responsibility” to be vocal about even the most unsavory aspects of the game community.
In a corporate-led industry afraid of offending its customers, openness is as rare as a game about a professionally stunted Grim Reaper.
“One of the advantages of being independent,” Schafer said, “is you can be honest.”
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