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Interview: Picking the brain of Double Fine's Tim Schafer

3:00 PM on 08.20.2009 // Ben Perlee

Tim Schafer. Tim f**king Schafer.

He's a man that most of us know. One of the writers behind The Secret of Monkey Island, and the man behind Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, and Brütal Legend, Schafer has remained on the cutting edge of game narrative and humor. It's with good reason that at the 2008 Spike Video Game Awards, Jack Black decided to chant Schafer's name for a solid two minutes: it's one of the biggest in the industry.

That's why I was so excited when I was faced with this opportunity: a one-on-one interview with the man himself. How could I say no? So I went to the event, played some Brütal Legend, ate some sandwiches, and settled down with the guy.

What did we talk about? Well, you probably already know about stuff like the game's eight-player multiplayer, his commentary on Monkey Island, and the issue of creativity, but I'll let you know: those quotes don't do it justice. We talked about lots of things, from the state of the industry to how things have changed in 20 years. In an industry swathed with secrets and hush-hush/wink-wink attitudes, to talk with someone like Tim Schafer with candor and fun was refreshing. You'll definitely want to take a look at it for yourselves.

Hit the jump for the full interview with Tim Schafer.

DESTRUCTOID: Now, this event is the multiplayer event, which you said was the first part of the game that had been developed and worked on. Can you describe how the multiplayer came about with Brütal Legend?

Tim Schafer, President and CEO of Double Fine Productions:

I always imagined it as a multiplayer game right from the beginning, which is that it's all about being a kind of leader of a rocker army, and Eddie is this guy who, in the single-player campaign, builds an army. You get to see the creation story for each element of the army, the headbangers, the razor girls, the thunderhogs, and each unit he adds to his army.

In multiplayer, you have them all at your disposal. And the idea is that you are building this stage, and, in Brütal Legend, we kinda equate rock shows with wars, and bands with armies. So you are building a band, you are building an army. So you build these headbangers, you recruit them to your army; they come stage diving off the stage.

You go out there, you find these fan geysers -- which are naturally occurring fans bubbling out of the ground -- and you win them over to your army by playing an awesome guitar solo in the game, and then you build them a merch booth, because fans need merchandise. And they stay loyal to your army and they fly back to your stage and that's basically the only resource you have to worry about. They fly back to your stage automatically, and they help you put on bigger and bigger shows. You can make either a bigger stage or you can recruit more warriors to your troops, so that's kind of a strategic decision you make when you play the game.

So that's the flow of the game. Capture resource points, get fans, build warriors, send them out on the battle field, capture more resource points, eventually get a big enough army that you can just attack your enemy's stage and burn it down.

Tonight we are playing just 1v1, but I know that this goes as high as 4v4. Describe that experience.

That's a cooperative experience with your friends. You get on team chat, and you hopefully agree amongst yourselves that “Okay, I'll take care of maybe the resource building, you take care of harassing enemy troops.” Or maybe you all do everything at the same time. It's really up to the players to decide how to split up the duties. You can play the game that way, just as an action game, just you and your ax, doing the combos, you can do your rockslide and you can do your rock kick and you can do pyrotechnics and play as an ax-wielding brawler.

Or you can play more strategically. You can change the weather by playing the right solo at the right time, which changes the tide of battle. Or flying around over the battlefield, you get this bird's-eye view of your troops or your enemy's troops. You can scout out and see, “Oh, they're building a lot of infantry,” and if you're an advanced player, you'll think, “I've got my metalbeast, which is really strong against infantry, so I'll build some more of them,” and there's these counters in the game. Really, it's for all levels of play, where if you are into the action, you can be in that, or if you want to go deeper, you can go deeper.

I've noticed there's only three different character factions. Could we see any more factions down the line with downloadable content?

I can't say...but sure, I think right now, the three are so different and they provide such a different  experience that there's a lot of things to explore with it. For instance, there's the Ironheade, Eddie Riggs' army, and it's Ironheade with an extra “e” on the end, 'cause they are extra metal, and they are more of what you'd think of a classic rock, kinda something you'd see on an album cover, just like rocker girls and the headbangers and guys on choppers and stuff. They have a lot of fire attacks, and they're really fast.

Then you have the Drowning Doom, which is more of a black metal. They listen to black metal, they look undead, they're really creepy, they have a guy who barfs rats, and their specialty is playing debuffs and buffs. They can play really depressing music with an organ. They are willing to use keyboards, which sets them apart from Ironheade. They depress everyone on the battlefield with their music and that makes them fight better and makes their enemies fight worse.

And then the Tainted Coil is the demonic army, and they are run by Doviculus, who is voiced by Tim Curry. They are all about the hierarchy, so they have Battle Nuns and War Fathers, and Over Blessers who are like this structured, organized army. They all have their own minions, and you can talk to a Battle Nun, wherever she is on the battlefield, and she can spawn minions right there. If you are at an enemy base, you can spawn a bunch of minions, so it's a very powerful technique. But they are more complicated, so there's strengths and weaknesses with each faction. I think there's a lot of stuff for people to be exploring for a long time in our multiplayer.

So the multiplayer looks like it's going to be a strong component of Brütal Legend. It's getting close to the completion of the game, and it has gone through some hurdles that most games don't go through. What is it like for you knowing that this game is almost done?

It's exciting. I mean, you work on a game for a long time, it kind of becomes your life, it feels like your job is not games, but Brütal Legend. I'm so excited for people other than us to actually be able to see the game. We've been looking at it, we've been playing it, and we think it's really fun, in the office, right? But you never know. We're like, “Oh, I can't wait to show it to people,” and showing it tonight, to anybody, is really terrifying. The fact that people are still hanging around, playing it, and having fun is a good sign.

So now that we are entering this exit phase of sending Brütal Legend out to the presses, when are we going to learn about the next Double Fine's next product? Can you offer some hints?

[laughs] It might be a while before we can talk about that. I mean, it could be a lot of different things. There are a lot of stories in the Brütal Legend universe I'd like to tell. There are also new ideas I'd like to do. You're just going to have to wait for that, but there's a lot of stuff with Brütal Legend still to come that we'll be talking about.

Very cool, it sounds like good things are to come. Within the last month, some very cool releases and re-releases have come out. The Monkey Island franchise, which you helped create, has all of a sudden become a really big deal. What's your response to this game being remade and reborn and having a whole new generation play it?

It's really interesting. I mean, it's great. I have a lot of warm feelings about Monkey Island; when I hear the music, I get instantly happy, and I remember it being 1990, back when you were three years old. I was sharing an office with Steve Purcell and Peter Chan and Dave Grossman, and Ron Gilbert was down the hall, and we were making this game together. I was much younger, and it was before you could go online and read a bunch of nasty forum comments. [laughs]

It was you and a bunch of friends making a game to entertain yourselves. It was really a fun time. When I play the game, especially when I play it in the classic mode, all those kind of feelings come back to me. It's really a fun experience for me to play. It will be interesting to see how people react to it. Things change, and people want different experiences.

Part of the thing with games in the past is that they are either better than you remembered, or they are worse. I hope people remember Monkey as even better than they remembered, because maybe they were so young when they played it the first time, they didn't get half the jokes. You always try to write it like a Warner Bros. cartoon, where there is a juvenile version of the joke, and where there's a more sophisticated version for people who want that, so hopefully people who played it as kids will play it as adults and get a deeper level of understanding. That's what I hope. I hope it's not like Catch-22, where you read that in college, and it blows your mind. Then you read it as an adult, and you're like, “I think this was better when I read it in college.” [laughs]

So were you involved in any way, shape or form with the re-released Monkey Island?

I only heard about it through rumors. I mean, Ron and Dave knew about it, but they are really tight-lipped professional dudes [laughs], so they wouldn't tell me anything, but I could tell something was going on, because a lot of people were rumbling about it.

Do you think you'll ever go back to a point-and-click at all?

The way I work is, I just have an idea, and do it. So if I ever had an idea for a point-and-click game, I would do it. I play a lot of console games, and they kind of inspire me. I would say playing Super Mario 64 is what made me change from thinking about PC games to thinking about making a console game. That's where Psychonauts came from. It started this long process that eventually became Psychonauts. Playing Ocarina of Time and Mario 64 made me realize there was different ways to explore a world. There's a much more accessible way to run through it, instead of just clicking on it. There's nothing wrong with clicking on it; it's a different experience. We had a lot of fun making The Host Master and Conquest of Humor, which is a silly little Flash game that our web guy Clint made, and you're playing that and you're like, “Well, it's kinda fun to make this kind of game.”

Basically, I'm optimistic about the future, because it seems now the industry can support games of all sizes, so we can make a small adventure game. They don't have to be five-year projects. Double Fine itself is maturing to the point where it can hopefully make a big game and a little game at the same time.

I actually have some questions from community members on our site, and one of our community members, Naim Master, asked if you had ever thought about making a 2D-style game, or a quick and easier downloadable title for Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network? Could that be something in the future of Double Fine?

Definitely. I feel I am open to making whatever idea comes into my head, and I feel very fortunate and lucky to be able to say that, cause everyone would like to be able to say that. Hopefully, through this team we've built up through Double Fine, there's a lot of talented people there, we're able to do more than one thing at one time. And we do little 2D games, like Tasha's Game [a side-scrolling platformer on the Double Fine site]. I don't know if you've played that, but it comes off like a web game based on a comic. Clint had made it all by himself with some art from Tasha, and music from Raz, and Bird, but if you play it, it actually has a really fun mechanic. Basically, we are doing it; that's all I'm saying.

You mentioned the creative process, and we have some community members, DaedHead8 and Krow, who really wanted to know: You are known for making very unique, very special, very...not necessarily outlandish, but very different types of games and types of characters and tropes and images, especially with Psychonauts, and with Brütal Legend...

What's a trope?

A trope? [laughs] Uh, it's like an overarching theme within a work.


Sorry, I'm an English major, it's terrible.

Wow, man, you tropes. What a bunch of tropes.

[laughs] But I want to ask you, what do you do to get creative? How do you get your creative juices flowing?

First, I like to eat a bunch of tropes. That really inspires me.


I always believe there's like a goose in your head, and the goose either lays golden eggs, or it doesn't. When you live off creative ideas, it's kinda scary, because at the beginning of every day, it's like a blank page. You won't get paid, and you won't pay your mortgage if you don't have an idea. Which is kind of terrifying if you think about it.

Everybody is capable of being really creative; it's just a matter of not being afraid to follow up on those ideas. I learned that while working on Monkey Island with Ron [Gilbert]. I think the only reason we wrote funny dialogue is that we thought it was temporary dialogue. We were just joking around. I was like, “Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!” I assumed Ron would tell me the real line and we would replace it. When Ron came up to our office -- it was shared with programmers, and he laughed at the line -- and I was like, “I don't really know what to say there” and he was like, “That's it! We're gonna say that line!” I was like, “You can't be serious. A three-headed monkey? There's no such thing as a three-headed monkey, Ron. Don't you ever watch the Discovery Channel?” [laughs] In fact, maybe it was Dave or Ron, but one of them said, “We should actually make art of a three-headed monkey to come out behind you.” And I was like “No, you guys! That's too ridiculous!” And then we did it, and it was one of my favorite things about the game.

That's when I learned that there's this internal sensor you have in your brain that kills your own creative ideas because you are afraid other people will laugh at you. And you are afraid someone will come by and say to you, “That's WRONG!” So you censor yourself. And there's a lot of that stuff in Psychonauts, the censors that go around with ideas, these self-censors who destroy your own ideas. Also there's that big fat critic in Gloria's level who is like the idea of having an internal critic that's too large, that is too critical, that keeps you from doing the things you need to do. It's a psychological thing that people have to deal with.

Doing that experience with Monkey Island is what taught me that, “No, actually, you're right. The stupid ideas that you have are often the best you have,” and who cares what anyone else thinks about them? Everyone else is wrong, and those people are really stupid, so who cares what they think? So take those dumb ideas and run with them. There are no consequences for putting that stuff out there. That's what I would encourage people to do, run with their stupid ideas more.

It's really a testament that you are running with those ideas, because it was your name that was chanted on cable television for, like, five minutes by one of the most popular comedians in the nation, Jack Black, going “Tim F**kin Schafer!” What was that like for you?

That was unreal. I mean [both laugh], 'cause on those shows, you don't have developers at all; they have an actor come out and pretend to be the guy from Grand Theft Auto accept an award. They won't be an actual developer. I think in some ways it came from Jack, because Jack was one of the creative forces behind those awards, and he's a real gamer. You know, he played Mass Effect twice. That's a scary thing working on this game, is I'm working with his voice. I know he's gonna play it, and he's going to find every line of dialogue, and there's, like, 30,000 lines of dialogue. So I have to make sure he's going to like it.

Anyway, he's a real gamer, and he knows what he's talking about when he talks games, and I think that was his choice to elevate a gamer to that level. It was kind of a joke, but it was also kind of great, in a way, for all developers. We'll never be as glamorous as the Oscars. I don't think any award show for games will ever be as glamorous. I think the most glamorous we'll get is the Director's Guild Award, because game developers -- until we have a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in our games -- are craftsmen. So it was really a lucky thing that I got to be on TV.  And, it's a tribute to Jack, but with our generation, a lot more people are game-savvy these days. It used to be voice talent. They would come in, they would work on the game, they didn't know what they were saying. Nowadays, people know what they are talking about, games are more prevalent, and it's a different age.

Well, thank you so much, Tim Schafer, this has been a incredible interview, and I really appreciate you being so candid.

Was I too candid?

No, no! [laughs]

Did I say anything I'm going to regret?

Well, would you like to say anything las--

Would you like to say anything you'll regret? [laughs]

Well, sure! Would you like to? [both laugh] What would, like, people, when they sit down to Brütal Legend, come Rocktober, if you could sum up in three, or five, or ten words -- what is the feeling you would like people to have?

I want people who love heavy metal to actually feel like someone who loves heavy metal made a game just for them. But I also want people who hate heavy metal to be drawn in by the humor or action of the game, then come out of it liking heavy metal just a little bit more. It's something that's true [to me], and I really do love it. And I hope it really does expose people to a lot of great bands they haven't heard about before.

Awesome. Well, thank you very much.

Thank you!

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