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Tim Schafer wants more video games to make you laugh. The legendary designer behind Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle thinks comedy is necessary and not enough games are doing it right. Or even trying.
Speaking to some two hundred people at the NYU Game Center Thursday night, Schafer shared his thoughts on the current state of the gaming industry, discussing the nature of adventure games, his personal favorite titles, and that one important tool that many developers fail to use: humor.
If you go and ask a game development team why they're not making funny games, the Psychonauts creator said, half-joking, they'd say it's because nobody's made one that sold very much. "Comedy's really scary," he said. But it's also really necessary.
"If the game is not funny, you're missing something," Schafer said, telling the crowd how he used comedy as a tool to solve problems in The Secret of Monkey Island. While working as a programmer/writer for developer Lucasfilm, Schafer was tasked with writing the scene where protagonist Guybrush Threepwood and Governor Elaine Marley meet on the beach and fall in love. In five lines.
"You can't write a serious scene that has a pirate and a governor fall in love in five lines," Schafer said. "Humor is a tool to cover up the fact that this is not a solvable problem."
So he wrote the scene as if it were a joke, peppering the dialogue with terms like "honey pumpkin" and "plunder bunny." Without that humor, it wouldn't have worked. But by playing it up to absurd proportions, Schafer was able to throw logic under the rug and leave players laughing instead of scratching their heads.
Schafer, who has made headlines recently for his monumentally successful bout with crowdfunding site Kickstarter, didn't give any specifics on his new $3.4 million point-and-click adventure game, though he did assure the crowd that it will be in 2D (because it's cheaper). He promised that it would be true to the nature of adventure games, as nostalgic Kickstarter backers might demand. But it will also have new ideas, he added—because "people like to be surprised."
And—like all of Schafer-helmed studio Double Fine's projects—the upcoming crowdfunded adventure game will aim to be funny.
"If you don't have anything funny to say about a situation, the player will realize something's fake," Schafer said, bringing up the oft-cited pot-smashing of Zelda games, in which you can destroy and steal from peoples' homes with reckless abandon. When those townspeople don't react, the illusion is broken. Suddenly you realize that you're playing a video game.
Maybe that's why Schafer has fallen in love with what he calls "wacky Japanese games"—titles like Katamari Damacy, LocoRoco, and Okami. Even when they're melodramatic, those types of games still never seem to take themselves too seriously. And they're atmospheric, Schafer points out. They're packed with emotions.
"Those things that the King of All Cosmos says are just so crazy," Schafer said, referring to the planet-sized Katamari character.
Last year, Schafer and his team developed a prototype for a narrative-heavy game that was quite literally driven by emotions. Instead of using verbs or commands to solve puzzles in the Kinect-controlled adventure game, players would use gestures to manipulate characters' feelings, forcing them into emotions like fear, anger, and love. The publisher backed out after the final prototype, so we'll probably never see that game, Schafer said.
One fan asked Schafer what he thought of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Though the designer said he hasn't paid much attention for fear of spoilers—he still hasn't even beaten Mass Effect 2—he mused that he "always winds up defending the author" in situations like this.
"Games aren't made by an autonomous robot," Schafer said, "they're made by people. And those people have a point of view on the world and that's interesting. Connecting with those people is what makes art art for me."
Another crowd member asked if Schafer was worried about that sort of fan pressure now that he has 87,139 backers to worry about. Does the thought of living up to all of those expectations stress him out?
"It's not that stressful to get a whole bunch of money all of a sudden," Schafter said. "It's kind of relaxing."
The Psychonauts soundtrack was composed by Double Fine mainstay-maestro Peter McConnell. While no soundtrack may ever replace McConnell's own Grim Fandango in my heart, this one perhaps demonstrates his depth to an even greater degree.
For all of its Danny Elfman-ish flourishes, psychedelic country guitars, and emotionally charged Spanish bullfighting music, the theme that plays whenever Raz goes to Agent Cruller's HQ is my favorite.
It crept up on me, the slowly building horns, the choir, that noble melody... and the single chord change that lifts things ever so slightly… yeah.
It felt like a good first "Listen Here" for Kotaku Melodic. If ever you need to get in the mood to mete out some justice, this piece is a good place to start.
A Tweeted offer to back a sequel to Tim Schafer's cult favorite Psychonauts was "a semi-joke," said Markus "Notch" Persson, the creator of Minecraft and a guy who's not hard up for cash in light of that game's success. Notch rattled off a host of reasons why we shouldn't get our hopes up, especially the cost of the project.
"The budget for doing a Psychonauts 2 is three times higher than my initial impression, Notch wrote on his personal blog today in a post titled "Hype!" He also assumes (rightly, one thinks) that Schafer's Double Fine studio will be tied up with the Kickstarter project, which has raised $1.8 million in about a week.
"Tim and I haven't spoken much at all other than a couple of emails," Notch wrote. Also "a couple of other parties have mentioned also being interested in investing in it."
In one of those conversations, Schafer told Kotaku that he informed Notch the original Psychonauts budget was $13 million. It released in 2005. "I was like, 'I don't think you can make [it] for a million dollars,'" Schafer says he told Notch. Yet, "as soon as I mentioned the amount of money he said, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"
Evidently that figure moved up to about $40 million. That's not to say Notch hasn't seriously thought about it—he has, to the extent that he would be very specific about his reasons for doing so. "I would not be investing in this as a charity. It would be because I think the game would be profitable," he said. "And naturally, I wouldn't want to have any creative input in the game. It would be purely a high-risk investment in a project I believe in.
"All I know is that IF the numbers work out and IF they still want to do it and IF they don't decide to self fund a sequel by doing more crowd funding (which is honestly what I would've done if I were them), I would be most interested in doing this type of investment," he said.
Hype! [The Word of Notch]
But then the man who made millions making Minecraft, Markus "Notch" Persson, offered, over Twitter, to "make Psychonauts 2 happen."
Tim Schafer, whose Double Fine Productions made the first beloved Psychonauts game told Notch he'd be into it, but it was going to be expensive.
"I was like, 'I don't think you can make [it] for a million dollars.' The original game was, I think, $13 million, I think you have to match the original game."
"As soon as I mentioned the amount of money he said, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"
Imagine if other rich people—say, any game publisher in the business in the last half-decade—had been as ready to make this game happen.
Tim Schafer has pitched Psychonauts 2 to big video game companies. He has pitched the sequel to a game that was canceled, revived and then earned raves when it finally came out in 2005. But no publisher ever bit. They thought it was too creative or too obscure.
The failures frustrated Schafer, because Psychonauts, an adventure about a boy who can enter the minds of other colorful people and explore their thought-landscapes, wasn't supposed to be one-and-done.
"We had a lot of plot elements that were backstory in that [first] game that we planned on revisiting in the future and tying it back in," Schafer told me last week. "We had a longer story arc planned for those characters."
This is how he'd pitch the sequel to big game publishers: He'd show a 2010 fan trailer called Inceptionauts that mashed up the movie Inception and the first Psychonauts. "It's better than any trailer we ever had for the game," Schafer said. He says it even helped him remember how much he'd liked Psychonauts, which he had taken a break from thinking about after it came out. "It reminded me how much I like it," he said, adding that "I'd like to thank that fan for making the video. I used it to try to fund Psychonauts 2."
Schafer may have talked plot and setting to his potential Psychonauts 2 backers, but he demured from telling me how the new game would relate to the first, other than to tease that "I have ideas to take them to a more international setting."
He did, however, definitely talk to publisher suits about sales. "My pitch also involved how the game sold something like 400,000 copies initially. It wasn't enough for us to make money. But since then, through Steam and Good Old Games and all the places it's been, it's gotten in the hands of a lot of people." He recalls one day when a $2 Steam sale pushed Psychonauts even ahead of Call of Duty for revenue for that day. That, he remembers, was a good day.
None of this turned Psychonauts 2 into a real project scheduled to become a game you or I could play.
Then, on February 7, Notch Tweeted.
Schafer woke up to text messages from friends telling him to check Twitter. He thought he was being sued. No, the opposite. Someone wanted to give him money.
Soon, Notch and Schafer were talking.
"He said he had no idea it would get picked up like this. He said, 'Sorry for putting you on the spot, I didn't realize it would go so big.'
"I feel like I was being proposed to on the jumbotron at the baseball game."
Schafer sounds like he wants to say yes, but negotiations between him and Notch remain private. (Notch and his team at Mojang didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The man who oversaw the making of Psychonauts simply wants to work with the man who made Minecraft. "He's been pretty successful. And, when you look into it, it's a really inspiring story. He's just a regular guy. He didn't do anything sleazy to get it. He just made it himself, distributed it himself, it's a great story. I think we have a lot to learn from him, so I'd like to do something with him.
"And I'd like to make Psychonauts 2."
You want to know how Tim Schafer and Double Fine managed to generate more than a million dollars in Kickstarter cash? Look no further than this hilarious exchange from twisted platforming classic Psychonauts. Sometimes you just gotta make out.
Expect to see plenty of Schafer and friends in our weekly Great Moments in Gaming Humor segment. He and colleagues Dave Grossman and Ron Gilbert are responsible for a some of the most hilarious gaming experiences ever gifted to mortal man from on high, from the point-and-click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island to the point-and-click adventure Day of the Tentacle.
Apparently pointing and clicking leaves a lot of room for funny bits.
But 2006's Psychonauts is no point-and-click adventure. It's a platform odyssey through the fractured minds of the campers and counselors of a summer camp for psychic children. Children like Razputin, the game's hero, voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz of Invader Zim fame. Or Raz's girlfriend Lili, who get excited by the strangest things.
The entire game is filled with side-splitting humor, courtesy of both Schafer and Eric Wolpaw, half of the beloved gaming commentary site Old Man Murray, who later went on to write the dialog for Portal and Portal 2.
But those are games for another week. Now pucker up!
Got a favorite funny gaming moment? Send them to Fahey @ Kotaku Dot Com and they could be featured in the next edition of Great Moments in Video Game Humor.
After joking around earlier, Double Fine head Tim Schafer has told Kotaku that a Psychonauts sequel funded by Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson could very well be a possibility.
"Could happen!" Schafer told me in an e-mail today. "I have found funding on Twitter before!"
This likely refers to Steven Dengler, CEO of Dracogen, who helped fund versions of Costume Quest for PC and Psychonauts for Mac after talking to Double Fine on Twitter. Dengler also expressed interest in helping fund a hypothetical Psychonauts 2, publicly chatting with both Persson and Schafer today.
Double Fine head Tim Schafer is just as baffled as the rest of us at news that Markus "Notch" Persson wants to fund a Psychonauts sequel.
"I just woke up," Schafer told me when I asked what he thought. "Is something strange going on?"
The legendary designer responsible for games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle responded to a barrage of tweets in classic Tim Schafer style.
"Man, so many tweets," he later wrote on Twitter. "I assume this is all people asking for codes to Happy Action Theater and Rise of the Martian Bear?"
"Oh wait," he continued. "Hm. This is interesting."
Clearly this is all just Twitter goofing for now, but we'll keep hounding Schafer for a more serious response.
Update: Double Fine has sent official word to Giant Bomb, telling the gaming website that "Tim and Markus are talking. Who knows what might happen?"
Image: Matt Tichenor
Tim Schafer's Psychonauts is practically synonymous with the phenomenon of great, under-appreciated games. It didn't set the world on fire with massive sales when it came out years ago but has gone one to become a cult favorite, with a Mac release happening late last year.
So, what about a sequel? Well, you may have noticed that Schafer's Double Fine dev studio's changed a bit. For the last two years, they've shifted to packs of smaller, leaner teams working on smaller, leaner games destined for the downloadable market. Schafer's said that from a manpower and financial perspective, Double Fine's not quite set up to crank out a follow-up to Psychonauts. Still, he told Digital Spy that he'd love to do a sequel if a few millions dollars magically appeared for that purpose.
Enter Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft and hat-wearer extraordinaire. After reading the interview with Schafer, the man known as Notch indicated on Twitter that he'd be willing to bankroll the return of ‘Nauts hero Razputin, saying "Let's make Psychonauts 2 happen" in a tweet directed to Schafer. and later remarking that he's serious.
Schafer's yet to respond, but it's unlikely that any pact would happen out in the open on Twitter. Nevertheless, if this gets the wheels turning on another Psychonauts game or a Double Fine/Mojang partnership, awesome things may transpire.
[Thanks, tipster Morris!]
Notch Says To Schafer "Lets Make Psychonauts 2 Happen"" [Rock Paper Shotgun]
A couple of weeks ago, I attended GDC Online in Austin. I was covering the event, but I was also there as a speaker, giving a microtalk as part of a six-critic panel on great game storytelling. Joining me were N'Gai Croal (Hit Detection), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), John Davidson (CBS Interactive/Gamespot), and Ben Fritz (the L.A. Times). The talk was organized and led by Chris Dahlen, who is editor-in-chief at Kill Screen Magazine.
We decided early on that we'd each give a small talk dedicated to one thing that we look for in a great video game story (or one thing that we'd love to never see again). The format was the wild card—Chris suggested we try something similar to the Pecha Kucha 20x20 talk, in which each presenter shows 20 slides which play for 20 seconds each. For my talk, I focused on character motivation, so of course I wound up talking about... chickens.
We did a modified version of Pecha Kucha, doing 20 slides apiece and setting them to play for 16 seconds each. Let me tell you: it was a challenge! I've given talks before, but I've always had control over when the slides advance. For this talk, I had to rehearse the hell out of it in order to make things line up the way I wanted them to. It wound up being a great exercise, and I think the approach helped me keep things focused.
I was thrilled to get to give a talk alongside such wonderful critics and writers, and I really enjoyed each talk. John took a loose, conversational look at the various storytelling tricks he values in games. N'Gai took a more technical approach, breaking down the main sorts of game storytelling and explaining them. Leigh's talk was a deep look at building better online characters and quest givers, her slides (humorsly and predictably) covered in text. Ben talked about how most of the games that win awards for writing are the games that feature the most writing, which was something I'd never considered before. Chris closed us out with my favorite of all the talks, in which he discussed mystery, and how only in games can players take an active part in unravelling the story.
At some point, video of the session will be available at the GDC Vault, but in the meantime I wrote to the folks at GDC Online and asked if it would be okay for me to run my microtalk here, and they said yes. So, in this slide show, you'll find my 20 slides. For the full experience, set a timer to ding every sixteen seconds and read the slides out loud to yourself. (Or, you know, just read it normally.)
Thanks to Chris Dahlen for including me, and to Jennifer Steele and everyone at GDC Online for having us! I can't wait to go back next year.
Hi everybody. I want to talk about character motivation, and I'd like to start with a question: Why did the chicken cross the road? I'm guessing that you all know the answer: she crossed to get to the other side. It's a nice, direct answer, humorous in its ironic simplicity.
But is that really a good enough answer? What if a car had come along? What if she had lost her way and never made it back to her family? Why would this chicken risk so much, what was she going towards, what was she trying to escape? What are we really asking here?
It's not so much "Why did the chicken cross the road," as it is simply: "Why?" Why do we do the things we do? Why do we love, why do we lie; why do we take risks or hurt one another? Why did the chicken cross the road?
…What does this have to do with videogame writing?
Well, maybe it doesn't have to be a chicken.
For me as a game critic, the question of "why" is of the utmost importance. Of course, that question is of the utmost importance for… pretty much every aspect of everything. But for today, when I talk about "Why," I'm talking about character motivation. Why do a game's characters do what they do?
Oftentimes the phrase "character motivation" becomes synonymous with "backstory." In Mass Effect, players are given the opportunity to choose their protagonist's backstory from a short list, and it kinda works! Choose a backstory, and voila! Instant character depth.
But backstory can be so much more than a quick and dirty means to providing character development. In Tim Schafer's Psychonauts, players enter the subconscious minds of the other characters, exploring their pasts, their secrets, their proud moments and their shame. It was a brilliant synthesis of character development and design.
The challenge is that too much backstory, improperly applied, can also backfire. I was frustrated with Brendan McNamera's LA Noire for the muddled ways that he and his writers attempted to show me Cole Phelps' motivations. I never did feel like I understood him, or why he did the things he did.
Great writing and performances can help inform of a character's "why" intuitively, and most of my favorite characters often feel motivated by the same unknowable impulses as rest of us. But then, that's television… or film, or literature. That's not video games.
Because here's the thing: when it comes to games, everything I've described is only half the story. Why did Frogger REALLY cross the road? He did it because you pushed the joystick forward. He didn't need another reason for his actions. This frog really DID cross the road just to get to the other side.
"Because it's there."
"Because it's there" is a good enough response for many video game characters. Most, even.
Mallory was probably more concerned with how he was going to climb the mountain. And often, game designers seem similarly focused on the how over the why. How does this level work? How are our combat elements balanced? How do we get this vehicle segment functional?
But as a critic, I'm never as interested in how the chicken crossed the road as I am in why. By foot, by air; by boat, by train—it doesn't really matter. In a game, as soon as I've done something, I know how I did it. It's nicely unambiguous, but also narratively uninteresting.
Games may not need great characters to work, but well-developed, three-dimensional characters make me enjoy a game so much more. Why did he rescue his missing wife? Why did she defeat that dragon? Why did he build that farm? In so many games the answers to those questions are thin or even non-existent.
I guess it will always be both a risk and a challenge to ask videogame characters "why." That's partly because it'll probably always be easier to ignore the question entirely. It's also because of Frogger and the joystick: the conflict between player control and authorial intent.
But that conflict is precisely what makes videogame characters so fascinating to me! Shadow of the Colossus's Wander, tricked along with the player into committing heinous acts. Planescape Torment's Nameless One, his past catching up with him even as through him, the player creates a new future.
And then there's multiplayer, in which the connection between player and character becomes even more complex. Many multiplayer games have found an easy answer to the question "why." Why do we play multiplayer games? "To level up! To win!" But must that really be our sole motivation?
Whether by design or not, our personal motivations are already coming to bear in online spaces. What if I watered Suzy's crops not because I want to get more FarmVille bucks, but because I have a crush on her in real life? What if I screwed over a coworker in EVE Online because of a perceived workplace slight?
The motivations of the characters we play in digital worlds overlap with our own lives in ways that writers and designers have only begun to explore. Through our connections to the game, the story, and to other players, our in-game actions become an entirely different sort of real, and so too do our motivations.
But too many games, single and multiplayer, don't just fail to answer the question "why," they fail to ask it at all. It's enough that they work, it's enough that the design is fun and the feedback loops are compulsive. It's enough that they'll sell a ton of units.
I don't ask writers to put aside notions of design-oriented, functional writing, I only ask that they aspire beyond them, beyond the "how" and into the "why?" You've built the chicken, you've designed the road. She's standing alongside it, waiting. Now tell me, show me: why would she want to cross it in the first place?
Psychonauts, arguably Double Fine Studios's best and most well-known game, is all about memories and how they shape our lives. The PS2-era game impacted Chris Machado so much that he wrote into the dev collective founded by Tim Schafer, which led to a visit to their San Francisco offices.
Years passed and Machado was diagnosed with a debilitating brain disease called hydrocephalus, where fluid builds up in the skull and causes excruciating headaches among other symptoms. Machado endured two unsuccessful surgeries in five months to try and treat the condition, with another on the way. Despite being out of contact with him for years, the folks at Double Fine sent along a hand-drawn card filled with well wishes for Machado. (There was a bunch of Double Fine swag along with it but the card's really a one-of-a-kind thing.)
There's always been a strong emotional core at all of Double Fine's games so this incredibly sweet gesture lines up with the playable work that they've been making for years. So, the next time you're on the fence about one of the company's clever downloadable releases like Trenched or Costume Quest, just go ahead and plunk down your cash. They make good games and, more importantly here, one good deed deserves another, no?
Why Doublefine is the greatest game company ever [I Heart Chaos]