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Tim Schafer: Unplugged

The legendary dev discusses internet rage, his formative years, and the game he's most proud of.

Prior to applying for his job at LucasArts to work on The Secret of Monkey Island, Tim Schafer had never played a graphic adventure.

Schafer was a fan of text adventures - Zork, Savage Island and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were all favourites - but the pressure of his college studies in software programming and creative writing meant he hadn't had time to check out a genre that was only just blossoming. In order to brush up, Young Man Schafer opted to buy Zak McKracken from the store, play through it, then return it. Those were the days.

To this day Schafer says he almost blew his interview when they asked about his favourite games. He was able to impress them with his vast knowledge of Atari 800 titles and text adventures, but then came the follow-up question, "What have you played lately?" Busted.

"I was like 'Well, I've been in college I really haven't had time to play games,'" Schafer painfully reminisces when I talk to him at XOXOfest in Portland. "I could just hear, as I said the words, how bad that sounded. Like I'd lost the passion for it. I could tell that was really bad."

Of course, Schafer got the job. And he went on to be instrumental in creating one of the greatest graphic adventure games ever made. In fact, he then went on to make several of the greatest graphic adventure games ever made with Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango.

Tim Schafer, upon meeting his hero: 'Cookie Monster's cookies are not delicious.'

But what if he hadn't gotten that job? It would have been all too easy for his interviewer to rush to judgement, and that would have been a mistake. We've seen this more recently in Schafer's career when he announced that Double Fine was on track to blow through the $3.4 million it had raised on Kickstarter and would be offering the incomplete game on Steam Early Access to help raise funds. Fans were angry, names were called, money was returned: a whole $600 worth.

Conversely, Double Fine gained $4000 after that kerfuffle.

"This is nothing compared to what Anita Sarkeesian or any public facing woman on the internet gets."

Yet while the general sentiment appeared to be that Double Fine was incompetent or blew all its extra money on hookers and blow, the actual Kickstarter backers who'd been following Broken Age's development saga had little to no problem with this move. They had the context to understand the night and day difference between what the studio initially pitched and what it later decided to deliver with the extra funds.

"For $300,000 that was kind of our iOS game budget at the time," says Schafer. 'We saw it as using an existing engine - like Flash or Adventure Game Maker or something like that - and using art that one artist could produce, and keeping it simple." He notes that it would have been something akin to the free browser games on Double Fine's site, like an extended version of Host Master and the Conquest of Humor.

"When we got all that extra money, it didn't seem right to just pocket it... We wanted to put it all into the game. And then, as we were making it, we got really excited about making an adventure game again."

Schafer says he can laugh about the backlash now, but at the time he found it puzzling and didn't expect a flurry of angry tweets calling him a "douche."

"Then again," he admits, "this is nothing compared to what Anita Sarkeesian or any public facing woman on the internet gets. But it was new to me. I was like 'Wow! That not really very nice!'"

Broken Age isn't just about the first big-name studio opting for crowdfunding, or about a return to the adventure genre. Instead it marks the first time Schafer has made an adventure game with an already built in audience. "When we were making adventure games in the past we were kind of making them for the audience we'd hoped for and we didn't know if they'd show up... You didn't know who you were making the game for. But now we know it's for the backers. We're seeing them and talking to them and meeting [them], so I know they will like this game. I feel a lot more confident that they will like it, but also that I can't let them down because I know they want a good game, especially after all this time it's taken us to make."

Broken Age was originally slated to be a tiny iOS game. Now it'll be a full retail game with Jack Black and Jennifer Hale.

Another reason people are excited for Broken Age is because it's the first big Tim Schafer game since Brutal Legend. While Double Fine has put out loads of good games over the past few years like Stacking and Iron Brigade, these were mostly handled by other staffers in the company than the man on the masthead. In fact, there was only one game that Schafer led development on since Brutal Legend and it's the game he says he's most proud of: the Kinect-based curio Happy Action Theater.

"Just seeing that much happiness in one room between different people who would never usually be playing a game together was the proudest I think I've ever been." -Tim Schafer, on Happy Action Theater

"I feel like it surprises some people that I think Happy Action Theater is the game I'm most proud of," he laughs. "You have your family over and your grandma is playing a game with a two year-old and everybody's laughing and jumping around the room and having good fun together in this really inclusive way. Just seeing that much happiness in one room between different people who would never usually be playing a game together was the proudest I think I've ever been. I've rarely gotten a chance to see that much group joy happen. Not many people saw or bought that game, but it's still an awesome game that I'm very proud of."

Besides Happy Action Theater and the impending Broken Age, Schafer spent most of his time saving the company as it nearly went kaput four times. First Psychonauts was cancelled midway through development before Majesco picked it up. Then, the team struggled to get its heavy metal opus Brutal Legend signed. Partway through development Activision decided to drop the project, leaving Double Fine up s*** creek without a paddle. Thankfully EA signed on as publisher and brought Brutal Legend to fruition, but poor sales led to the company backtracking on its plan to finance Brutal Legend 2.

To combat this "feast or famine" approach, Schafer restructured the company by shifting its focus into more, smaller games via a process he calls Amnesia Fortnight. The idea is the studio splits up into teams for two weeks to create a few prototypes for new game ideas. The ones that are successful go into production as full commercial releases. This is how Costume Quest, Stacking, Iron Brigade, and Once Upon a Monster got started. "If any one project was cancelled, we weren't all of a sudden sinking the company," Schafer explains. "We can shuffle people around and work on getting a new project signed while money's still coming in."

Grim Fandango was largely considered a flop at 500K sales. 15 years later fans still demand a rerelease. Are you listening, Disney?

As successful as Amnesia Fortnight has been, I can't help but wonder if Schafer misses having more direct control on a project. Even with the impending Broken Age and Happy Action Theater, there was still a time when he wasn't the project lead on anything. When I ask if this overseer role still left him feeling creatively fulfilled, Schafer replies in the affirmative. "I was kind of the project lead you could say on Amnesia Fortnight. That was a project that I wanted to do. That was where the shift kind of started. Instead of leading one project I was running the project that was the project of projects."

"It's kind of a hard, lonely job to be the head of a project and [it's] a lot of responsibility. I feel best when I have the time to talk to those people about to go through that."

"It's fun to have that level [of control], because you're helping someone going through a process that you've gone through," he says. "It's kind of a hard, lonely job to be the head of a project and [it's] a lot of responsibility. I feel best when I have the time to talk to those people about to go through that. And now that I'm running my own project I don't even have time to do that. I have so much dialogue to write that I barely even have time to talk to the other project leads. They're kind of on their own right now and I would like to have more time for them. But luckily we have a very senior group of people who are running a lot of projects."

The result is that Double Fine has one of the most varied catalogues of gaming genres at any one studio. In the last few years alone it's produced a heavy metal action/adventure/RTS hybrid, a Halloween-themed turn-based RPG, a 3D puzzle game about Russian nesting dolls, a mech-based Tower Defense game with real-time combat, and a handful of experimental, family-friendly Kinect affairs. Is there anything Double Fine can't do?

Schafer says that, personally at least, there are limits - and he can never imagine ever making a first-person shooter or fighting game. Funnily enough, though, the game that got him back into consoles in the early 90s was Street Fighter 2. "I was like 'oh my god! Street Fighter 2 is so awesome! I need to get a SNES!'" he says, looking back on his formative years as a neophyte game developer. "Then I got really into SNES games and that's part of what turned me into a console game player."

"So why not make one?" I ask.

"I'd never make a fighting game because they're so hardcore," he replies. "The people who play them are so hardcore and the people who make them are so hardcore. Every frame matters in a fighting game. It's just way too intimidating. I think there are people who are on that task and really excelling at it. It doesn't really need my help at all. I would just mess it up. I'd add dialogue trees to it. It'd be terrible."

"It'd be an insult-swordfighting fighting game," I joke.

"Oh my god, that's a great idea!" he laughs.

"I'd also be really scared to make a first-person shooter, because people who make first-person shooters have been tuning those for decades," Schafer continues. "This body of knowledge has been growing deeper and deeper for years and I'd be scared to jump into that."

It's a fair point for a developer whose games are more well-known for their content than mechanics. But oh my, what great content it is!

The vegetarian cannibals in Monkey Island were loosely based on Schafer's health conscious family, who avoided red meat.

"I like that kind of humour that is also kind of sad."

One of the distinguishing characteristics I find in Schafer's work is that while his games are funny, they also centre around distinctly melancholy concepts. For example, the goal of Grim Fandango - besides taking down a gangster conspiracy and saving a girl - is to die... again. Or, more accurately, the main objective is to compete the "four year journey of the soul," and move ahead into the after-afterlife. The game's fiction presents this as a positive outcome, but when held up to the real world it feels incredibly sad. Psychonauts, too, dealt with people's subconscious demons - especially in one hidden room where it becomes apparent that a go-go dancing camp counsellor is partying to forget the pain of her children dying.

"I like that kind of humour that is also kind of sad," Schafer says. "Kurt Vonnegut I always cite as an influence because Kurt Vonnegut's work is always very- I wouldn't say sad, but in touch with how life really is; which is that horrible, horrible things happen to people. It's almost unbearable when you really look at it."

"I'm not someone who suffers from depression, but I definitely feel like I've seen a lot of things happen. I've seen a lot of really good and really bad things happen and I think that that's all just part of life. I think that hopefully makes the comedy funnier."

"Do you think you might ever make an entirely serious game?" I ask.

"I think on different levels they [already] are serious, " he tells me. "Like if you describe the plot of Broken Age or Grim Fandango with the journey of the soul and all that stuff... but then when you get on this level of all the actors trying to deal with the players - this crazy improv actor going around doing things they shouldn't be doing - it gets funny to me." (I'm reminded of what his old Monkey Island colleague, Ron Gilbert, said about only being able to write comedy because the nature of the point-and-click adventure is so goofy anyway.)

But that's okay. I'm not sure if I'd want a serious title, fighting game or FPS from Tim Schafer just as I wouldn't want Woody Allen to make an action movie (but can you imagine if he did? Would it be more talky or less than a Tarantino film?). Schafer may be a legend in the industry, but he's fond of reminding people that he's only human and he has his limitations.

"When I was a kid I didn't understand that it was just people like me who made games," he said during his presentation. That's why he decided to allow himself and his studio to be documented. To show that while making games isn't easy, it's something anyone can do. Sure, Tim Schafer is one of the most revered game developers working today, but once upon a time he was just some out-of-the-loop college kid who couldn't afford to buy retail computer games. I think that's something we can all relate to.

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Jeffrey Matulef


Jeffrey Matulef is the best-dressed man in 1984.