Interview: Tim Schafer On Adventures

By John Walker on February 28th, 2012 at 1:06 pm.

Preparing to defend himself against the avalanche of money.

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.

RPS: How much do you think you can adapt the adventure genre now?

Tim Schafer: It’s an interesting problem. The question we have to figure out is, how much do we want to change the format? Do we want to modernise it? These people who backed the project are expecting something like what they had in the past. When we were making adventure games in the past, it felt like we were apologising for making adventure games, by adding action sequences, trying to get more people to play them. Maybe if we put something more exciting in… This time we’re not apologising at all. We’re declaring at the very beginning that we’re making an adventure game, so we have to serve that audience, and not try to rope in another.

RPS: I’m slightly surprised by the decision to go completely 2D, now that companies like Telltale seem to have mastered including 3D in adventure games. What’s the reason to stick with pure 2D?

Tim: Part of the reason was we just hadn’t done this in a while. We like to try new things, and 2D is effectively new for us right now. The other part was to keep costs down. 3D does complicate things a lot. It adds a lot of costs. And I was really nostalgic for a time when a great 2D painter like Nathan Stapley, Peter Chan, Scott Campbell. A lot of our internal guys – I don’t want to name them all – oh okay, I’ll name them. There’s Levi [Ryken], there’s Derek and there’s Raz[mig Mavlian], and a whole bunch of great 2D concept artists – you see their paintings, and they’re amazing, and you want the player to experience them directly. The figments in Psychonauts came out of that. Scott Campbell, his cartoony drawings are so great, but you knew it would be really hard to model characters who looked exactly like one of his drawings. So even though we did that with Raz and all the characters in the game designed by him, I still wanted people to see his exact drawing style, so the 2D figments were put in the 3D world, and I think that was really successful. He’s also very prolific – Scott will kick out one hundred doodles in a day, and he placed them all by hand.

RPS: On the subject of 3D, I guess you must get asked this a lot, but I don’t know the answer…

Tim: You’re going to ask me a question that you don’t know the answer?

RPS: That’s right!

Tim: That’s very risky!

RPS: This is my new interviewing technique.

Tim: You’re just lucky that you’re not a lawyer trying a case. Go ahead.

RPS: [Laughs]

Tim: I’m just worried that I forgot one of our concept artists… Oh, there’s also [I'm afraid I can't make out the names - they shall be forever insulted].

RPS: If you could go back with the freedom, would you have made Grim Fandango in 2D?

Tim: No. It’s funny, because people think of Grim of being – I don’t want to say “artsy” – but a little bit of an artsy, uncommercial game. But it was very commercial, there was a lot of pressure back them to make 3D games. I never wanted to do it until I thought of a way to do 3D I liked, which was to make skeletons. In the early days 3D looked really bad, people looked like they were made out of cardboard boxes, and they had silkscreen nylon stretched over their boxes. They were so low poly that they had internal features painted on them, like bones on the outside if they were a zombie. And I thought, there was Mexican folk art that had skeletons that were sculpted out of clumps of clay, with the bones painted on the outside, and I thought, that looks like 3D… hey! That would be a good compromise. What was previously a limitation of the technology becomes its art style. Then we put them all in suits, which destroyed that whole concept.

RPS: Right, I’m going to nerd out. Day Of The Tentacle. It’s just the best thing.

Tim: Well, thank you! I often refer to that as the last game I had fun making. [laughs] That’s kind of an overstatement, because we always have fun making games. But that was the last one that felt like nothing but good times. That was part of the reason we wanted to do 2D again. Also voice. We had voice on DOTT, but we added that afterwards. 3D and voices adds a lot of pressure on development. 3D takes so much longer to make all your characters. And voice definitely made it so you had to have things locked down early in production. You had to have the voices recorded, so you could start animating the cutscenes, which took a long time. But you don’t have the dialogue written, because you want to playtest the game, see if you need to add dialogue, and it’s this big complicated knot of dependencies. Voice always enhances a game, but on DOTT we definitely did not have to worry about any of those things until the end. I don’t know if that was the secret, or if it was just smaller production, or times were easier back then, but… it didn’t have any crunch mode.

RPS: It surprises me, as the voice casting in that game is so superb. It seems like the characters could have been designed around the voice.

Tim: No, we were almost done with the game when the whole talkie thing started, so we thought, hey, we should make this a talkie. It took a year to make, then we did six months of voice work on the end of it.

RPS: Do you still use those voice actors now? I feel like I heard some of them in Psychonauts?

Tim: Well, my sister! My sister played both Nurse Edna, and also the den mother in the Milkman level of Psychonauts. Strange coincidence. She also played Val in Brutal Legend. But Lavern, Hoagie… there was a lot of time between production, so no, not really.

RPS: There’s a fondness in your voice as you name the characters from DOTT. Do you miss those characters?

Tim: Heh, well I obviously missed Hoagie enough to make a whole game about him. I do miss those characters, they were fun to write for. I like all the characters in all the games – you try to take on those personalities as you’re writing them, and there are certain jokes that each one of them were really good at telling, and they were fun to write for different reasons. Laverne would say something really spacey and non-sequitur and that was always fun, and yeah, I do, um… You’re trying to trick me into making another Day Of The Tentacle game!

RPS: This is a kind of brainwashing process.

Tim: If we could get that from Lucas, we could make that in a second.

RPS: It’s great seeing Activision letting fans make Sierra spin-offs.

Tim: How did that happen?

RPS: They tried to block it at first, but a massive email campaign had them change their minds.

Tim: That’s interesting. I mean, yeah, maybe if there was a massive email campaign [LucasArts] would let a bunch of fans do it, but not a commercial entity like Double Fine do it – a sueable entity.

RPS: I think one of your most underrated games was Full Throttle.

Tim: And it was also our biggest hit.

RPS: Really?

Tim: Yeah, that sold like a million units back in the day. We had never sold anything like that before. We tried to break 100,000 copies with those games. They got more and more popular, and it peaked with Full Throttle. It simultaneously was the biggest hit, and also the one we got the most negative response from. People liked the game, but they hated the length of the game. I went away from that feeling bruised and beaten, because people on the bulletin boards were very irate. I was sad about that too, because I didn’t want to cut those things, but we ran out of time, because we were pushing the production values so much on that game. Compared to the game before, Day Of The Tentacle, it had these crazy cutscenes.

RPS: I feel like it tried to push in new directions. It was interesting and novel, and people seemed to react against them.

Tim: In some ways that was because our design was a little bit off, because really those were not action sequences – those were puzzles. But the puzzle was to pick up the powder from the truck, and throw it in the chainsaw girl’s face, and then use the chainsaw to get the plank from the other guy, and then use the plank to get the cavefish. So it really was an old-fashioned puzzle chain, but we presented it in a way that misled people. You could get through it with just skill, but it was much more frustrating. We wanted people to have two paths to go. There was an action path, and there was a puzzle path. Not formally, it wasn’t Indiana Jones [Fate Of Atlantis], but informally, action players would do the punch-out version, and puzzle players would get the spilled powder. But the game design thing I learned from that was people would go down the most obvious path, and once they’ve found one path they won’t look for another path. And they’ll just keep pounding away at that one thing until it works, and they’ll be really mad about.

RPS: Full Throttle also went to some huge efforts to put in jokes for when you made mistakes. The Ride Of The Valkyries sequence with the bunnies and the bombs, for instance.

Tim: That’s a way of the game saying it knows you. You thought you were going to sweep the mines with that box of bunnies, no, that’s not quite right. It’s almost like the presence of the person who made the game is directly contacting you at that point, saying, in some weird way, that you’re both human beings.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

__________________

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61 Comments »

  1. Furtled says:

    Full Throttle remains one of my favourite games – I actually ended up writing to Lucas Arts for help with one of the puzzles and they were nice enough to post a hint back. Excuse me while I have a nerdy nostalgia moment…

    • Melonfodder says:

      A few years ago me and a couple of friends plopped in a FT disc into my Wii (with ScummVM on it), and we just sat around and got through it in one sitting, solving the puzzles together. It was a brilliant experience. And the length was just perfect!

    • StingingVelvet says:

      I just played Full Throttle for the first time recently and hated it. It seems like a great game but the puzzles are TERRIBLE. Go hide in the tiny little random spot after setting off the alarm? Give me a break.

      Even the best written and most interesting point and click needs good puzzles or it’s a chore.

    • ffs_jay says:

      I think I’ve replayed Full Throttle more than any other thing, ever. It’s just effortlessly charming and hugely entertaining stuff. Well, aside from that (“special”) wall bit.

    • Furtled says:

      Melonfodder
      That sounds brilliant – haven’t done something like that for ages. Never felt it was too short myself, but that could just be adding in the constant breaks to try and work out some of the puzzles!

      @StingingVelvet
      Ahh everyone has different tastes, I enjoyed the challenge and the find that one precise spot or one tiny area of screen to click on was a fairly common thing for point and clicks, guess when you’re playing a lot of similar games you learn to ignore it.

      @ffs_jay
      Ohh god that wall 0_o

    • Vagrant says:

      With the exception of the bit where you hide in a corner, I loved every bit of Full Throttle. The puzzles were much easier for me to grasp than most other adventure games. I think FT & Loom are the only 2 I’ve ever finished.

      That’s honestly one of my most memorable games.

    • Jackablade says:

      The Demolition Derby section is the part that I remember bugging the hell out of me. Like the bike dueling, it’s a puzzle that looks like an action sequence and if you’re slow to pick up on the way to pull it off, you can be stuck there for ages banging around against other cars and not achieving anything.

      It’s been a while. Remind me, which bit is the alarm mentioned above in?

    • Dervish says:

      It’s when you have to fix Ben’s bike. The alarm is on the ladder to the gas tower.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I think he’s talking about the fuel depot.

      Kicking the right spot of wall is nightmarish.

    • apa says:

      FT was great also because it was short! Most games are unnecessarily drawn out – less IS more.

    • Zephro says:

      The thing I remember about Full Throttle more than anything was that it was the first game to genuinely get an emotional response from me. The ending genuinely made me sad.

      I’m not sure I remember many other games except Grim Fandango pulling that off.

  2. Melonfodder says:

    I think there’s another reason they’re going 2D: System requirements. They want to put it on mobile platforms, and having it 2D makes it absurdly more easy to make it appealing.
    I’d definitely prefer it in the 2D format if they really put their artists to good use.

    It’s impressive to see this happen at all!

  3. westyfield says:

    Tim, what happened to your finger? THE WORLD MUST KNOW!

  4. CaspianRoach says:

    Honestly you can just put Tim’s photo up for every article on the site and nobody would mind. He’s just that handsome.

  5. Faldrath says:

    Great interview, although it does seem to end abruptly. And the bunnies scene is still one of my favorites in gaming.

    • povu says:

      Come here Mr Bunny!

      Wait, wrong game.

    • Petrushka says:

      One of my favourites too. Followed closely by the bit right at the end, when you’re hanging off the front of the truck. You’re supposed to ram a stick into the fan so you can climb past it, but you also can use the bunnies aga, and the “ride of the valkyries” theme comes back …

  6. Zeewolf says:

    Heh, yet another “Thank you for your time” that doesn’t really fit in. I’m guessing a third part is coming. :-)

    • Juan Carlo says:

      I’m guessing they said “Thank you for your time” like 3 times during the interview at intervals just about the right size to cut up into three separate posts. Schafer was no doubt confused.

      Juan Carlo: Thank you for your time.

    • Durkonkell says:

      I’m curious: Do RPS always say “Thank you for your time” (those exact words – never “Thanks” or “Thank you so much” or anything) and then INSTANTLY hang up / walk out / disconnect before the interviewee can say “That’s all right” or something similar?

      Do they even actually say “Thank you for your time”, or do they just append that to the end of every interview to make it seem like they’re more polite than they actually are?

      DK: Thank your time for you.

    • Apples says:

      They instantly hang up, file a restraining order against the interviewee, lock all their doors and windows, and hide in an air raid shelter with a laptop. “Thank you for your time” is just shorthand for that.

    • aldo_14 says:

      I assumed the interview ends about the same time that security realises the ‘hand grenade’ is actually a small jar of pickled onions, wrapped in tinfoil.

      Aldo: Thank you, time!

    • Jams O'Donnell says:

      “I’m sorry Tim, the doorbell just rang” *hang up*

      “I’m sorry Tim, but I really need to go pee” *hang up*

      “Oh my god get out of my house! Tim, call the police!” *drop phone and shuffle about a bit to simulate a home invasion. consider screaming*

      “[say nothing for however long it takes for Tim to hang up]” *hang up*

      “Torchlight was great. What made you stop making adventure games and change to ARPGs?”

  7. Apples says:

    “It’s almost like the presence of the person who made the game is directly contacting you at that point” Oh man, I love those times in games. Where it’s almost as if the developers have wandered in and looked over your shoulder and high-fived you for even trying something like that. It acknowledges straight out that the game is a dialogue between you and the devs, and that the dialogue/animations etc are rewards rather than just mechanisms of doing things. The BTDT games had responses for basically everything and I loved that.

    I’m just more glad than I can express that it’s going to be a 2D ‘pure’ adventure game. That’s not to say it’s the ‘best’ genre, but it’s been so long since I’ve played one…

    edit: and it better have some of those weird Lucasarts-style clouds in. I don’t know why but that’s always what I remember about their art style. A lot of clouds.

  8. InternetBatman says:

    I don’t quite agree with him on voice acting. It can enhance a game, but only if you have a good one. There are plenty of decent games with terrible VO. I’m glad they’re not doing it for this one though.

    • SurprisedMan says:

      They are doing if for this one – they’ve said so. I’m pleased. I’ve never played a Tim Schafer game with less than brilliant voice work.

  9. fuggles says:

    Interesting that you say Telltale seem to have mastered adventuring in 3d when the majority of their output can be described at best as above-average when Grim Fandango is near universally seen as an amazing game that should be on sale in every shop, right now.

    As a very rough guide then metacritic has two entries for Telltale at 74 and 73 (highest was 86 and 81) whereas Grim Fandango got 94. Heck, dreamfall got 75 and that was half crap action game.

    Just seemed an odd sentiment about a company who rigidly stick to rule of three puzzles and have very similar reviews in PCG every time a game is launched, sort of a ‘meh – but at least they churn them out quickly’ sort of response.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      >Interesting that you say Telltale seem to have mastered adventuring in 3d when the majority of their output can be described at best as above-average

      I think they are referring to things like scene layout and character control rather than content here.

      (And for the record, I think Sam & Max season 3 is better described as “pretty darn great” rather than “above-average” :-)

    • Dervish says:

      The Telltale games are also plain ugly. They look like any number of those cheap computer-animated children’s shows.

    • Apples says:

      They totally are ugly as sin, but the weird thing is that their concept artists are actually rather good. And when I look at the concept art vs the 3D art, I can’t tell where it went wrong, only that it did. It’s not as if beautiful low-res games haven’t been created, so it’s not just a necessary feature of small-size games, but… something is definitely off about the models/textures.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      You really think they are ugly? I think they look great. The only problem for me is the high reuse of character models, especially prevalent in Monkey Island Adventures.

    • SurprisedMan says:

      I think actually it’s mainly the lighting. They got a bit better at it, but not enough. Having the scenes well lit could make all the difference. Also, some of the facial animation could use work.

    • Urthman says:

      I know it’s largely my love for the characters, but I enjoyed the Telltale Strong Bad games about 5x more than Grim Fandango. Their 3D tech was just about a perfect match for that setting.

    • Shuck says:

      @ Apples: Speaking in general, if a concept artist doesn’t intimately understand the limits of 3D modeling in games, it’s pretty easy to create a design that just doesn’t translate well into a model (I’ve seen it happen plenty of times), and there are a lot of mistakes a modeler (and/or the people texturing, rigging and even animating the model) can make that cause the result to fail to capture the concept sketch. I’d actually say it’s fairly rare for the end result to really match an exciting concept sketch.

    • vodka and cookies says:

      I think Telltales stuff looks pretty decent, considering the games are done on a shoe string budget so you cant really hold their feet to the fire if they cant afford it, they probably would look better in 2D but the market demands 3D.

      The newest one based on Walking Dead looks quite nice, as to gameplay though yeah Telltale still are missing something…

      It’s like the putting the band back together with Tim and Ron, really though none of the Lucasarts alumni have faired that well with adventure games after that era, some of other others less known like Bill Roper and Hal Barwood have tried but never really recaptured it.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Last I knew, the sentiment on Telltale’s inventory system was that it was so atrocious that it made Manny’s jacket look convenient.

      The age of just having a grid of icons and some cursors was apparently just too straightforward, powerful, and intuitive.

    • Ninja Dodo says:

      I liked Manny’s jacket.

  10. Berzee says:

    You guys need to get some kind of standardized tagging for all these here articles =P the one wot is an interview between Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer is tagged “Double Fine Productions” and “Tim Schaefer” and who knows what else? I had to *GOOGLE* to find it; I thought I was beyond such menial labor.

    • Chris D says:

      Tags as a way of organising content as opposed to an excuse to shoe-horn in more jokes? It’s a novel idea but I don’t see it ever catching on.

    • Jusskarr says:

      And how is this not in the “STARING EYES” section?

    • Berzee says:

      @Chris D:

      oh…if I type your name with a : after it, it looks like a sad face
      heee
      (whatever else I was gonna say, is forgotten)

  11. dangermouse76 says:

    I was trying to think of a style I would really enjoy for a 2D game. BELLEVILLE RENDEZ-VOUZ came to mind.

    As did he Venture brothers. Busey !!!

    Also have not noticed the moderation thing before whats that. youtube links now removed.

  12. Khemm says:

    Telltale’s 3D adventures for the most part look just ugly or “soulless”. If you can’t do 3D right, and to do this right you need to invest a lot of time and money, don’t do this at all and go for 2D. It’s the right decision.

  13. Pidesco says:

    You didn’t ask when Brutal Legend is coming out on the PC…. :(

    • Lars Westergren says:

      A question asked many times. If you haven’t seen it: Since no publisher want to/can afford to fund a port: Never.

  14. Bobtree says:

    For nostalgia’s sake, here’s the original Full Throttle trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qj_1s_X3I-0

  15. adonf says:

    So Eddie Riggs is Hoagie?!? I never figured that out /facepalm

  16. Urthman says:

    So it really was an old-fashioned puzzle chain, but we presented it in a way that misled people. You could get through it with just skill, but it was much more frustrating. We wanted people to have two paths to go. There was an action path, and there was a puzzle path.

    Some of the “hard” parts of Psychonauts are like that. You can beat them with pure skill or you can make it a whole lot easier with creative use of your psychic powers. It’s #27 on the list of my 500 favorite things about that game.

  17. Trousers says:

    Artie Lange cleans up well.

  18. Kevin says:

    If this game is ever going to vindicate the ~$2 million it got on Kickstarter, it had better re-examine its roots and innovate rather than being a pure throwback to games that ask you to make a mustache out of cat hair and honey. We complain that games like Call of Duty and the single-player campaign of Battlefield 3 are rail-roaded to hell, yet point-and-click games of yore get a free pass from that criticism when they were prone to having only one (likely obtuse) solution to any given situation. I too share Alec’s frustration that the genre didn’t take a cue from Blade Runner (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/02/17/the-best-pc-games-ever-part4/) and evolved itself in that vein.

    For instance, I think the style, atmosphere, and narrative of the Longest Journey could have worked as a Deus Ex-style immersive sim. Mind you not exactly as in April Ryan going around Starke with modular pulse carbines akimbo, or going around Arcadia dressed in a chainmail bikini whilst wielding a Naginata, but with the level of interactivity you would find in a Deus Ex or MGS game and penchant for multiple solutions.

    • Ultra-Humanite says:

      Have you been following it at all? Maybe you should try more of that and try less ignorance.

  19. WJonathan says:

    Damn, Tim, eat a salad every once in a while. You’ve deteriorated into Artie Lange.

  20. fenriz says:

    “*”The other part was to keep costs down. 3D does complicate things a lot. It adds a lot of costs”*”.

    heyholla.
    is the genius of the other topic going “2d is waaaay more expensive” still around here or is he tooting in a corner of his room right now?

    And one even said something around “2d is more expensive, because you have to hand-draw every visual perspective for the mouselook”.

  21. Synesthesia says:

    DOTT is one of my favourite games of all time, i went through it over and over and over again as a kid. Amazing times.

  22. RegisteredUser says:

    A game that took a year to make was wildly more fun than many that took 3-5.

    A game drawn in 2D to me is still infinitely superior to one in 3D if the artists rule. It also has its own flaire, and if it comes together with great writing and characters, its just the best thing ever.

    I cannot shake the impression that as soon as adventures tried to go 3D they on average started to really suck(to me, personally, the original first two 2D Monkey Islands and Sam&Max are infinitely better than their 3D counterparts).
    Also I love drawn stuff.

    Also yay.