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."
Longevity is a rare commodity in the gaming business. A title comes out, it takes up a two-month residency on a store's chart rack or splash page - if it's lucky - and is then put out to pasture in the used section. To the casual consumer, it's often easy to forget a game ever existed within six months of its launch.
While times are changing thanks to the galloping onset of the digital revolution, this was never more true than it was back in 2005 when Double Fine's eccentric debut Psychonauts arrived on shelves. Despite a rapturous welcome from critics and Schafer fans alike, it famously flopped at retail, nearly dragging both developer and publisher Majesco down with it.
However, since then its cult has slowly grown and grown, fed by word of mouth and the careful custodianship of its creators. Today, the game is arguably more visible than it has ever been, with its followers devouring the merest hint that a sequel might one day get a green-light. That clamour reached fever pitch last month when deep-pocketed indie talisman Markus 'Notch' Persson popped up on Twitter with an offer to bankroll a follow-up.
As we found out when we met up with creator Tim Schafer at Double Fine's San Francisco HQ earlier this month, the story of the game's troubled development and subsequent trek into cult classic territory is almost as engaging and unexpected as the off-the-wall brain-surfing adventures of psychic sprog Raz that the game itself depicts.
The germ of the idea that would one day blossom into Psychonauts was first sown while Schafer was still working at LucasArts, where he was partly responsible for the studio's purple patch of classic adventure games - from Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, to Full Throttle and Grim Fandango.
Schafer recalls speculatively pitching a concept for a spy game to LucasArt's top brass. "You were going to meditate on objects and that meditation was going to be this vision quest that you went on in your head to figure out clues, and that's how you're going to solve puzzles," he recalls.
Its subsequent transformation into the game we know today was actually a result of a water-cooler misunderstanding with a colleague.
"I remember talking to someone in the hallway - they were like, 'I heard about that game where you go into other people's heads. Tell me more about that'. I was like, 'No, you don't go into other people's heads, you go into... wait a second'.
"It was him misunderstanding my pitch, but it actually sounded like a much better idea."
The concept was then put on ice for a few years while Schafer wound up his stint at Lucas. Frustrated that he had no ownership of the games that he felt creatively entwined with and tiring of the company's conservative corporate culture, Schafer upped sticks and set up Double Fine back in 2000.
Here’s what puzzles me. We’ve all been so terribly excited about Double Fine making a new point and click adventure game and potentially making Psychonauts 2 – as though the idea of getting games like that had hitherto been openly insane. And yet, on console, they’d already released Stacking, which is positively dripping in adventurey leftfield puzzles and Psychonautsy surreal-slapstick humour. So, before we get entirely wrapped up in crying for more, let’s celebrate lovely Stacking, which arrived suddenly on Steam just a few days ago. (more…)
Hello, you. I thought you’d like to know that Stacking is out on Steam. Stacking is Double Fine’s puzzley adventure based on nesting dolls. It’s proper lovely. There’s even “money off” until the 13th. But should you buy it? There’s no demo! Well I played a couple of hours of it on the console box, and it was okay – but don’t take my back-handed recommendation as your guide, instead, look into your heart, and if there is only a clown’s face in there, staring silently back at you, wait for Alec’s Wot I Think, which should turn up later this week.
In the second part of our interview with Double Fine‘s Tim Schafer (the first part is here), we get to talking about the nature of the adventure game, and reflect on some of Schafer’s defining classics from the 90s, Day Of The Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, to consider what lessons they offer for today, the reasons for avoiding 3D altogether, and I almost trick him into making a sequel to Day Of The Tentacle.