It's been an interesting week for Tim Schafer. First, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick accused the Brütal Legend creator of missing milestones, going over budget, and, perhaps worst of all, making poor games. Schafer then hit back in his own, unique way. All this amid the hiring of old LucasArts pal Ron Gilbert and the completion of Double Fine's first downloadable game ever: the cute, funny, Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest.
The fun and games all began, of course, in July, by the sea in sunny Brighton. Now, as we sit down for round two with perhaps the funniest man in gaming – and lead animator and chief architect of Costume Quest Tasha Harris – the rules are different. Tim has a publisher – THQ – and is on a tight leash. Still, we didn't want to let you down.
Eurogamer: After our last interview a few people doubted you were aware the tape recorder was on. The tape recorder is on Tim. There's a red flashing light.
Tim Schafer: Yeah. Well, you know I was making a joke about how I didn't know the mic was on. These things never show up as jokes.
Eurogamer: Jokes are impossible on the internet. Where to start, Tim?
Tim Schafer: Costume Quest... Tasha?
Eurogamer: There's a mini-game where you have to eat apples that bob in water. For some reason I was revolted by the apples that had worms coming out.
Tim Schafer: How strange. That's strange that you would be revolted by the idea that you were eating a worm.
Eurogamer: What would Freud say?
Tim Schafer: Obviously your potty training was botched. That's what Freud would say.
Tasha Harris: It might harken back to when I was in kindergarten – it's funny, you only remember these certain aspects of when you were that young – but I remember a kid putting a worm in a girl's milk carton. And her not drinking it, but spitting it out, like on the ground. And the worm was... Oh.
Eurogamer: Is that why there are worms in the game?
Tasha Harris: Maybe subconsciously I was thinking about that when I did it.
Tim Schafer: Sometimes a worm is just a worm, Wesley.
Eurogamer: I've spent some time with the turn-based combat, the quick-time button presses and the levelling up. It feels quite easygoing. Is that old-school JRPG stuff in the game because you used to love JRPGs back in the day?
Tim Schafer: That was just what Tasha likes.
Tasha Harris: A lot of it is that. We had some focus tests with kids, and I wanted to make it very accessible for all players. With kids, it gives them more time to think about things. It's not twitch-based gameplay where you have to wrestle with a whole bunch of controls. It's something that's more accessible for a kid. The Pokémon games are like that. Mario RPG.
Eurogamer: Did those games inspire the JRPG sections of Costume Quest?
Tasha Harris: Yeah. And the old-school RPGs, obviously.
Eurogamer: Did you play those kinds of games back in the day, Tim?
Tim Schafer: Yeah. Tasha's a real expert on EarthBound and games like that. But I came into liking RPGs later in life. Later in life, as an older man, when my brain started moving slower.
Eurogamer: Turn-based combat is out of fashion now, isn't it?
Tasha Harris: Yeah. A friend of mine pointed out, how many turn-based Western RPGs are there? And I was like, oh man, I can't really think of one. Maybe the new Penny Arcade games?
Eurogamer: You guys are bringing it back.
Tasha Harris: Yeah. Well, people who grew up with those games are now making games.
Tim Schafer: The one that made an impact on me was Skies of Arcadia. I really liked it. It was turn-based combat between regular warriors, and also you could fly in a pirate ship.
Eurogamer: You like pirates, don't you?
Tim Schafer: It always works. Pirates always work.
Eurogamer: Outside of combat you have to do a lot of exploration as you get and complete quests and talk to NPCs. Was that deliberate?
Tasha Harris: Yeah, definitely. Halloween is one of the days when kids can go out and explore their neighbourhood, maybe even by themselves. So I wanted to get that aspect into the game.
Eurogamer: Did anyone inspire the main baddy, the evil witch?
Tim Schafer: How far did you get with her?
Eurogamer: I got to the point where I was fighting her right-hand monster, the middle management guy.
Tasha Harris: Maybe the classic Disney villains, the evil queens.
Eurogamer: The Snow White one?
Tasha Harris: Yeah. But I don't know if there's anyone in particular...
Tim Schafer: The right-hand middleman quit smoking because Zak quit smoking. That's our business dev guy.
Tasha Harris: Really? I didn't even know that.
Tim Schafer: Yeah. He quit smoking. When I found out what was going on I was like, I'm going to make our guy quit smoking. He was really irritable one day because he quit smoking. And I was like, I want to use that.
Eurogamer: He's funny. I didn't get to finish the boss fight with him, but I hope he doesn't go away because I thought he was great.
Tim Schafer: He calls in his mandatory team-building exercises.
Eurogamer: You've talked about download-only games allowing you to be more creative and take more risks. Do you feel strongly that this kind of game is the future? Is the 50-million pound blockbuster going to die out?
Tim Schafer: You're going to see both. It's just that there's a lot more opportunity and a lot more diversity. That's going to increase in games. Hopefully that'll bring in more people as players, and that'll perpetuate over time.
Maybe games like Costume Quest will appeal to people who don't consider themselves hardcore gamers. Maybe it'll bring in people's spouses and kids and people who hadn't played before. The more diverse the game industry gets the more people it speaks to and the healthier it is.
Eurogamer: You've said download channels allow you to take more risks, but Costume Quest doesn't feel like much of a risk.
Tim Schafer: The risk just came from it being Halloween-themed. Publishers were like, I'm not sure about this because it's seasonal. Apart from Madden, there aren't any seasonal games.
Eurogamer: How long did it take to make?
Tim Schafer: About nine months. That's the same amount of time it took to make Monkey Island. But back then that seemed like a lifetime. Now it just seems like a holiday.
Eurogamer: Costume Quest is your first download-only game. It's your first RPG. It's the first game of yours in which you can play a female character. And by your own admission it's the first game you've finished on time. Someone - we're not allowed to say his name, let's call him Burger King - made a point of saying you don't make games on time. How come this one's on time?
Tim Schafer: Because of Tasha and the producer. They're both much better organised than me.
Eurogamer: It seems like a funny and nice game. It's not violent and doesn't have swearing...
Tim Schafer: It's got people exploding into candy. What are you talking about? It's super violent. But delicious.
Eurogamer: Are there too many gory space marine games?
Tim Schafer: I don't think we sit there and say, ah there's too much of this kind of game. It's mostly a more positive thing of what do we like? What do we want to make? Tasha's style is evident in the game. There's just stuff she's into herself.
Tasha Harris: It's a combination of all these different games I grew up liking and I like now. I like cuter stuff. I like Nintendo's games a lot. World of Warcraft I was really into for a while.
Tim Schafer: It's nothing against space marines. If Tasha was like, I love space marines, we probably would have made a space marine game. Probably not space marines. Maybe funny space marines. No one's really done funny space marines.
Eurogamer: You should make a funny space marine game.
Tim Schafer: Yeah, let's do that. Funny space marines. That'll be the name of it. I'm feeling lazy. Let's just call it Funny Space Marines. But it's a really sad story, just to keep people on edge. 'It's called Funny Space Marines! Why is it so sad?' Ah, I gotcha.
Eurogamer: I can't wait to play it. I expect it to happen.
Tim Schafer: Sad Funny Space Marines.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about costumes. I had a go with the Statue of Liberty costume...
Tim Schafer: You had a go at the Statue of Liberty?
Eurogamer: It sounds bad.
Tim Schafer: She's a cold lady.
Eurogamer: And the Knight in Shining Armour, and the robot. What other costumes are there?
Tim Schafer: There's a lovely unicorn based on Tasha's childhood unicorn costume.
Eurogamer: What did you call it earlier?
Tim Schafer: Battlecorn! It sounds more like a piece of corn on the cob with lasers or something. Battlecorn!
Eurogamer: Or it could be like a space ship in Star Wars but a massive corn on the cob that shoots lasers.
Tasha Harris: We have a costume idea for DLC now.
Tim Schafer: Yeah. You can have corn on the cob. No one's had corn on the cob, right? There's a really evil, scary pumpkin head.
Tasha Harris: And a space warrior. We can't reveal all of them because we want to leave some as a surprise.
Eurogamer: Is the space warrior costume a space marine?
Tim Schafer: It's a funny sad space marine. He is kind of a funny space sad marine, actually. No! He's not a marine, he doesn't have a gun.
Eurogamer: So he's just a space warrior?
Tasha Harris: A generic space warrior. That one is also based on a costume I made as a kid. I really wanted to be Darth Vader this one year but my mom wouldn't buy me the official Darth Vader outfit, so I had to make my own outfit out of stuff I found around the house. It just came out looking like this hodgepodge crappy space warrior.
Eurogamer: That's what you should call it: hodgepodge crappy space warrior.
Tim Schafer: That's the sequel to Funny Sad Space Marine.
Eurogamer: It teams up with Battlecob.
Tim Schafer: Battlecob? You changed it. That's even better. Battlecob!
Eurogamer: I've confused corn on the cob with that battle unicorn thing. It's been a funny day. Okay, the environments. You've said there are three main areas.
Tim Schafer: An every town suburban neighbourhood, like we grew up in...
Tasha Harris: And there's a shopping mall. I think that level is awesome. In a way it's an homage to the mall level in EarthBound.
Tim Schafer: You didn't tell me there's a mall in EarthBound.
Tasha Harris: There is.
Tim Schafer: Oh, we've got to cut that then. That's totally derivative.
Tasha Harris: They don't trick or treat in the mall.
Tim Schafer: I like that level because it was fun to think of names for stores. That is always my favourite thing on The Simpsons, when they come up with, like, A-1 Baby Crutches or something, as a name for a store.
Eurogamer: The Simpsons used to be funny. It's not any more.
Tim Schafer: It comes and goes. For some reason, when I was writing the store names for the mall – that was one thing I contributed – I don't know why I thought it was so funny, but there's a store called Husky Toddler. I laughed and laughed. I really amused myself with that. I'm not saying it's a great joke, but it made me tear up. Husky Toddler... It's so mean.
Eurogamer: You wrote the dialogue for Costume Quest. The humour isn't self referential, though.
Tim Schafer: It's not like Monkey Island. It doesn't break the fourth wall. It stays within a fantasy world.
Eurogamer: But it has that trademark Double Fine style, which people associate with you. How would you describe the humour you put into your videogame dialogue?
Tim Schafer: Mostly we work hard on defining our characters and their back-stories and think about where they came from, what they care about. And then, in the moment of writing, you're like an improvisational actor. You're acting out the lines as if you were those characters.
I try to make them real. To me, humour is all about surprise. I try to put in not the line you were expecting, but some surprising line in instead. By keeping the characters real there's a lot of empathy. We try to write them like they're real people we care about. That makes a certain tone in the game.
Eurogamer: It's quite intelligent, isn't it? It's not slapstick Tom and Jerry stuff.
Tim Schafer: Well there's nothing wrong with slapstick Tom and Jerry stuff.
Tasha Harris: Sometimes that comes across in the animation, though. Not really in the writing.
Tim Schafer: There's a lot of physical comedy that's pretty funny in the game, like when that monster – it's so unnecessary – he falls off that dumpster and topples into the trash can. I always crack up on that. That's not exactly high brow. I'm not snob when it comes to comedy. But I do try and use Einstein's theories a lot when I'm writing, because he's very smart.
Eurogamer: I did notice that. I thought it was too obvious to mention, though.
Tim Schafer: It's a response to Stephen Hawking theology. It's a subtext. He's represented by the cat's butt.
Eurogamer: I didn't see the cat's butt. Where is it?
Tasha Harris: Oh, you're going to have play it again.
Tim Schafer: In here [points at own heart]. The cat butt is in here, in your heart.
Eurogamer: Sorry for causing you a difficult week, by the way.
Tim Schafer: Not at all. Actually I really enjoyed it. It was fun.
Eurogamer: What do you think of Bobby Kotick?
Tim Schafer: He's a really nice guy.
Costume Quest will release on 19th November on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store.