One of America’s greatest living artists sits in a former clog factory in San Francisco.
Tim Schafer’s videogame career has spanned every platform from the Commodore 64 to the current generation of consoles. Along the way, his extraordinary talents as a writer, puzzle maker, and industry rabble-rouser have consistently pushed the entire medium forward. Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, in particular, are unchallenged classics. His best game, Brütal Legend, stands as an important but little known artistic achievement of the early 21st century.
Schafer was born in Sonoma, California. His generation was the first to grow up playing videogames. Schafer did not invent videogames any more than Orson Welles invented cinema, but by drawing upon the earliest text-based games and the graphical innovations of the videogame renaissance, he unleashed their potential. “I think that games can be enriching in the same artistic way that books and movies are,” he said. Schafer’s oeuvre offers a lesson in videogame history.
Attacked by Ducks
Schafer was 12 when his father brought home a copy of Adventure for the Atari 2600. Like so many others, he became enthralled by the game. “I didn’t read the manual at all,” he told an interviewer. “I was like, What’s happening? I’m a square? There was an arrow and there is a horned cup and a castle and a duck is attacking me. I just remember how confused I felt, but also excited as well as confused.” That sense of bafflement would later inspire him.
He went on to study computer science at UC Berkeley, where he began reading Kurt Vonnegut and taking creative-writing classes. His budding literary sensibility would find expression in his games. After graduation, he found work programming databases until the perfect job opened up. He learned that Lucasfilm Games, which would soon become LucasArts, needed programmers who could also write dialogue for their games. His cover letter was a self-referential text adventure about his own efforts to secure his dream job.
His first task as a “scummlet,” or assistant designer and programmer at Skywalker Ranch, involved play testing an ill-fated videogame adaptation of a Steven Spielberg movie—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game. It was not the most auspicious start to his career.
For many years, videogames had been designed for either a home console like the Atari 2600 or for a desktop computer, one or the other. Those distinctions would soon fade. Schafer started during a transitional time; his next assignment involved taking apart Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s Commodore 64 and Apple computer game Maniac Mansion and reprogramming it for the Nintendo Entertainment System. That game, a point-and-click adventure, re-combined elements of prior games into something new and wonderful. The only familiar element was the objective: to rescue a kidnapped woman from the clutches of an evil fellow. Every other aspect evinces a particular kind of cleverness. One obstacle required providing a man-eating plant with radioactive water. Another involved making a demo recording of a depressed, green tentacle in search of a recording contract.
Maniac Mansion employed an unusual game mechanic: the player had not one but three avatars in the game. The content of the game changed depending upon the particular combination of chosen characters. That detail made Maniac Mansion playable again and again, which was an important consideration when purchasing an expensive piece of software.
While Schafer had only a walk-on role in Maniac Mansion, its weird genre bending would clearly inspire the first game he co-wrote.
The Secret of Monkey Island was initially published on floppy diskettes in 1990. Two years later, the game was remade for the more cutting-edge CD-ROM. Like Maniac Mansion and all of Schafer’s future games, it melded a gleeful and absurdist sense of humor with some infuriating brainteasers. The Secret of Monkey Island, was inspired by The Simpsons, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Though the graphics are now dated, The Secret of Monkey Island remains one of the best-written games ever made. The attention paid to the script was truly rare for a videogame; in most, the backstory, if there was one, felt like an afterthought and dialogue was constructed out of every known cliché. Most videogames simply do not tell stories well, in large part because the story itself is subordinate to the gameplay.
I’ve always wanted to bring in people with well-developed emotional lives to come and play games, and broaden it, because life is broad.
One of Schafer’s great innovations was to broaden the space games accorded to storytelling. Another was his use of humor—his irreverence and uncommon attention to language, inspired by text-based games and literary fiction, would soon enliven some signature videogames. Johan Huizinga reminded us that “in play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it—in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.”
The levity of Schafer’s games stands in stark contrast to most of the best-selling, often ultraviolent games on the market. “The fact that something as mainstream and ridiculous as comedy is a niche in the game market is telling,” he told me. “I’ve always wanted to bring in people with well-developed emotional lives to come and play games, and broaden it, because life is broad.”
The Hardboiled Aztec Detective (Obviously)
After working on sequels to Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, Schafer began making his first game as project leader. In preparation for what became Full Throttle, he studied screenwriting, specifically how to structure a story in multiple acts. He drew on cinema in other ways, too. His protagonist, Ben, is, as the misunderstood leader of a leather-clad motorcycle gang, a cartoonish version of the sullen and stoic heroes of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and George Miller’s Mad Max.
The game begins after a full nine minutes of cinematic scenes. A rifle-like crosshair appears on the screen. Moving it over drawn objects allowed the main character to interact with them. An arrow might pop up on the screen, for example, to indicate which direction to go. A number of LucasArts’ previous games had used these point-and-click mechanics and decision-tree puzzle-solving as well, but none so successfully as Full Throttle.
Those elements would be put to use again in Grim Fandango, Schafer’s next game as writer, designer, and project leader. Grim Fandango featured, as he put it, “a story set in the land of the dead from Mexican folklore.” It was also “very heavily inspired by film noir. I love film noir and hardboiled crime detective novels,” he said. The game relied on the same puzzle-solving focus as Full Throttle and other games on which Schafer worked, but added 3-D graphics to the mix.
The calaca-like Manny Calavera is both grim reaper and travel agent at the Department of the Dead. His job entails finding clients among the recently deceased inhabitants of the World of the Living and escorting them on the trek through the Land of the Dead on the way to the Ninth Underworld. The color palette and décor resembled a hardboiled private-detective movie, albeit one that drew from Aztec mythology.
Though now regarded as one of the best games ever made, Grim Fandango was Schafer’s last for LucasArts. In fact, he would not release another videogame for six years. When LucasArts tried to produce a sequel to Full Throttle without his involvement, he avoided a potential boss fight by leaving the company and starting his own. Double Fine studio opened its doors in July 2000. The name derived from signage on the Golden Gate Bridge that threatened motorists with excessive speeding tickets.
The Era of Double Fine
By 2005, home videogame consoles had grown exponentially more sophisticated. Whereas Grim Fandango had appeared exclusively on Windows, Double Fine was able to publish versions of Psychonauts for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 as well. Because the same games could now be played across different platforms, the distinction between computer games and console games had in some ways broken down. Back in the saddle, Schafer served as creative director, co-writer, and designer for a title that would win an astonishing number of game-of-the-year awards.
Schafer once explained that his own earliest video gaming memory was of an arcade cabinet in the lodge at the summer camp he went to as a child. His personal nostalgia certainly inspired the setting of Psychonauts, but the game also took technical inspiration from the videogame renaissance. The result was a platformer with a wildly original premise brought to life by Schafer’s cinematic and comedic sensibilities.
The most distinctive parts of the game occurred in the minds of the different characters. Schafer had thought about the concept for a long time. “I’m going to do this game where you go into other people’s heads,” he said. “This fit in with a lot of other stuff that I was interested in when I was studying psychology in college.” Schafer and his team designed mind-bending landscapes, stretching the new 3-D technology to its furthest reaches. “It was a whole new way to do environmental storytelling. The environment is someone’s brain.”
As critic Kristan Reed wrote, “It’s hard to think of too many other games that have inspired such heart-warming bursts of pure fun merely from the quality of the writing alone. It’s as if critics the world over exploded in a righteous froth at the undiluted joy of being released from the harrowing shackles of reviewing intolerably beardy World War II/Sci-fi/stealth/D&D epics and actually allowed to play something that made them laugh.” Despite almost universal praise, Psychonauts didn’t sell as well as many big-budget games. It did, however, make Double Fine America’s foremost indie game studio. For my part, I tend to regard it as a stepping stone to the defining creation of Tim Schafer’s career to date.
The scale of Brütal Legend far exceeded anything Schafer had previously attempted. It was imagined as big from the start. “I had wanted to do an RTS [real-time strategy] game ever since I played Warcraft,” he said. The opening cinematic for Brütal Legend is an actual film clip shot at a record store in Los Angeles and starring Jack Black as a customer looking for a legendary LP.
The game’s premise is so utterly strange that it goes full circle, all the way back to making perfect sense. A roadie named Eddie Riggs gets crushed in an onstage accident and in death finds himself transported to a violent fantasy realm. Armed with a battle axe and a Flying V guitar, he unlocks powerful new guitar-solo spells and goes on a series of missions to help free the human race from the demon lord Doviculus, Emperor of the Tainted Coil. The aesthetic of Brütal Legend celebrates the lavishly leather-clad, Tolkien and Nordic-myth-inspired heavy metal ethos of the 1970s, but at the same time insists that we rethink its absurd, cock-rock masculinity.
Players had the option to tone down the profanity and outrageous gore of the fight scenes, but the gratuitous splattering of blood here was central to the artistry and Schafer’s cultural critique. In a more prosaic way, Brütal Legend also spoke to the fantasy of stepping away from our cubicles and the daily grind in order to return to some savage nature otherwise stifled by our civilized routines. It offered a critique of dullness itself.
Game as Art
Schafer wants his games to “take you on an emotional journey and let you feel for other characters and go with those characters as they go through a journey.” A great work of art, he said, “lets you experience things outside of your normal life and kind of come to know yourself better.”
Even the most fleeting personal bonds established in a digital world can influence how we behave outside of games.
“There’s people like me who always considered games art and want to see them treated and protected in the same way and given the same First Amendment protections that books receive,” he said. “And there’s people who don’t really care about it being an art. They don’t want it to change or expand or have anyone else playing them, but I do. And so I guess I’m interested in those kinds of topics like how games work as art and how they connect with people, the unique ways they can forge empathy between people.”
The idea that art can make us more empathetic wasn’t exactly radical, but hearing Schafer articulate it made me think differently about, in particular, every multi-player game I had played. The ways in which we interact virtually perhaps shape or reflect only part of our real-world personalities; after all, I’ve no doubt that many vicious trolls are perfectly nice and reasonable in meatspace, at least some of the time, and that the virtual world itself is what gave rise to, or released, their abhorrent behavior.
Turn that idea on its head, though, and you arrive at a Schaferian insight: even the most fleeting personal bonds established in a digital world can influence how we behave outside of games.
Videogames, taken together, are not one thing, but a potential form of personal expression for both the creator and the player. They have come a long way since Tennis for Two, and they will continue to evolve and change beyond the foreseeable future, hopefully for the better. My hope is that the profit-driven game developers along with the ivory tower and the art world will eventually form a system of aesthetic checks and balances as well as stability—financial and otherwise—for the creative-minded people who choose to make games outside of the system.
Excerpted from Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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