Published Oct 23, 2009Game designer Tim Schafer is not a well-known man, at least not to the mainstream. But like Buffy creator Joss Whedon, Schafer's a full-blown hero amongst the geek-pop set, his name synonymous with creative vision, critical acclaim, fervent fans and, alas, sub-par sales.
Take Schafer's surrealist masterpiece Psychonauts, a last-gen cult classic with each level set in the subconscious of a different counsellor at a summer camp for psychics. Yes, really.
"We'd be like, 'How about if we made a level inside a black velvet painting?'" Schafer recalls. "[Developers] often pull from the same inspirations, whether its space or World War II or, um, spacey World War II. It's pretty easy to come up with original ideas in games."
Indeed, Schafer's new title, Brütal Legend, is the first of its kind - a heavy metal videogame. No, Guitar Hero Metallica doesn't count. This one's set in a skull-laden land inspired by metal's horror-fantasy lyrics and album covers that "look dark and brutal and freak you out."
"Metal is the only genre of music that really relates to videogames in this way. They sing about epic battles between good and evil and wielding broad-axes. Three Inches of Blood literally has a song called 'Destroy the Orcs.' They're just custom-made to be the soundtrack to the world's best videogame," Schafer say of the Vancouver band that boasts two tracks in the game. "We don't have any orcs - but we do have Battle Nuns and a guy who barfs rats and flame-breathing monster cats!"
Schafer also has Jack Black, a Hollywood power-player, Tenacious D singer and Psychonauts fan who provides his voice, likeness and fame as Eddie Riggs, the game's heroic roadie. Black also helped rope in a who's who of heavy metal icons to contribute voiceover work and/or music to the 108-song soundtrack, which ranges from Anvil to Quiet Riot.
"We flew down with concept art and a pitch about a heavy metal fantasy world and Jack signed up right there. Then we got Lemmy and Rob Halford. Then Ozzy. It just kept rolling and rolling like a heavy metal runaway snowball. No wait, train, not snowball, runaway train."
Schafer's career has similarly been steadily picking up speed since his days at LucasArts, where he wrote dialogue for the 1990 point-and-click classic Secret of Monkey Island (recently refurbished as a download release), co-created 1993's time-travelling Day of the Tentacle and helmed 1995's dystopian biker adventure Full Throttle.
Being employed at Skywalker Ranch meant the world's most successful sci-fi filmmaker would often wander by with notes. "Working under the shadow of George Lucas helped us learn some storytelling things that were very important," Schafer recalls. "I had a lot of creative freedom there because the mantra was that we couldn't use Star Wars so we had to come up with our own ideas. To be forced to create original ideas every game cycle was an amazing opportunity."
Along with its originality, Monkey Island was renowned for its sense of humour, a trait common to all of Schafer's titles. "Comedy appeals to people who don't normally play videogames. But it's scary to a lot of [developers] because comedy is hard. It's really challenging to make something funny."
Schafer's reputation as an industry iconoclast was cemented with the award-winning Grim Fandango, a stylized adventure that mixed a cartoonish aesthetic with a film noir detective story, the Aztec afterlife and a main character that was a papier-mâché skeleton. Yes, really.
In 2000, Schafer went indie and founded Double Fine Productions because, "you should play a game and think 'that could only have been made by that studio at that time.' Like a great album by a band, you don't what to feel like anyone could have made it. That's what makes them unique and have such an intense effect on people."
Some argue the personal approach can also make games commercially risky, but Schafer steadfastly denies that, say, Psychonauts' admittedly disappointing sales had anything to do with its imaginative approach.
"You could find just as many impersonal derivative games that didn't sell very well. Some people see creativity as a warning sign - that project looks really creative therefore it's not a good bet. But that's not how it works. The biggest breakout hits in the world of gaming have always been creative."
This is why everyone, including mega-publisher Electronic Arts, has such high hopes for Brütal Legend, a game Schafer's been developing since before the first Guitar Hero came out back when people were saying nobody cares about metal.
"It's scary to put yourself out there creatively," he admits. "If you were really not committed to making a personal project and the publisher said 'hey, can you switch the genre of music to hip-hop or country?' than you would have done it. But we stuck to our guns and eventually the world changed to suit our purposes."
The game's original publisher, Sierra, got swallowed up by a corporate merger and the game was let loose. (An unsuccessful lawsuit was later launched against EA, to which Schafer responded: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it.")
The genre-blending Brütal Legend marries the music-game and open-world zeitgeists with a never-before-seen setting that eschews realism for fantasy, stays true to its metal source material and bypassed the focus-grouped blockbuster approach altogether.
I feel like games should mean something. I don't mean like it has a moral, but that it has meaning. I don't want to do something that's pretentious and heavy-handed with a lot of text," he says, an oblique dig at Braid. "It's not a deep psychological evaluation of any complicated human emotions - it's mostly about rocking and the experience of living out the rocking. But it has a love story and betrayal and hopefully people feel when they play it that it's emotionally true, that the characters feel real and the story is not just an excuse to have cut-scenes between levels."
Metal gods willing, this epic tale of a roadie head-banging his way through a heavy metal hellscape will give Schafer the crossover success he's long deserved and remind those same-same game publishers that creative people, not pretty pixels, are what make games legendary.