An action-RTS inspired by classic heavy metal album covers. Starring Jack Black. And a mad menagerie of metal icons. And a 100-strong soundtrack that pridefully pounded eardrums with everything from Judas Priest to Motorhead to (ew) DragonForce.
Let’s reflect, for a moment, on how absurdly specific Brutal Legend‘s chunky thematic stew actually was. And then let’s remember that EA, of all publishers, was manning the unlikely super group’s synth – which, in this particular case, was wired exclusively to make “ka-ching” sounds at Double Fine’s behest. Oh, and that was only after Activision flushed Schafer’s metal dream into the nightmarish bowels of development hell, nearly dooming it in the process. By most standards, Brutal Legend simply shouldn’t have happened. Nowadays – a mere three years later – a similar meeting of minds isn’t even conceivable. But Double Fine’s last truly all-or-nothing shout at the triple-A devil was unique for a number of reasons. It was a product of oddball inspiration, once-in-a-lifetime timing, and quite a bit of luck. Also guitars. OK, mostly guitars.
“It’s funny,” Double Fine President Of Needing No Introduction Tim Schafer told RPS. “Like a lot of things, it was two ideas floating around my head that crashed into each other. I wanted to make an RTS game that involved Big Daddy Roth type demons and hot rods. Hot rods driven by demons controlling them. Have that in an RTS game. I also had a story about a roadie for a heavy metal band being pulled back in time to a barbaric world where demons have enslaved humanity. I realized those could be the same exact story. Those could support each other. That’d be a cool way to do it. Big bug-eyed demons.”
It was two ideas floating around my head that crashed into each other.
“In my head it was an RTS game in the beginning. One of the initial inspirations for me was Herzog Zwei. In that game you fly most of the time, but the thing I liked about it was you could land if you really needed to and go out in a tank, then pop back into the air. The shift came when we went from flying 90 percent of the time and landing 10 percent of the time to running around the battlefield 70 percent of the time and flying 30 percent of the time. That’s why I talk about it not being a strict RTS game. It started as an RTS game and then it became its own thing. It made that shift to being more action and more character-centric. That’s why I’m hoping that now, with relaunching it, people know all these things are in there, so we can kind of clarify people’s expectations.”
But, whether people thought they were in for Hot Rod of War or RockstarCraft: Winged Demons of Liberty, there was one message that made it through loud and clear: metal. Contrary to popular belief, however, Tim Schafer wasn’t born BFFs with nearly every major fixture of the genre’s youth. In fact, the original plan didn’t really involve any of the greatest and best songs in the world. Just tributes. But then Jack Black came along.
“It started small and then kind of snowballed,” Schafer explained, still seemingly a bit shocked. “In the beginning of the game, I never would have dreamed that Ozzy Osbourne would be involved at all, or that we’d get all these Black Sabbath songs. That was just crazy. We were thinking we’d get a voice actor who was like Jack Black, who could do a Jack Black character.”
“When we crossed that line to, ‘Let’s try to get Jack Black,’ when he signed on, all of a sudden it started rolling really fast. Then we started talking to the metal acts, and we had Jack involved. This was not a joke. It was a really serious thing. Then everyone that signed on, all of a sudden they got the next people to sign on, and then pretty soon bands were sending us their CDs. They still send me CDs. ‘I wanna be in the next one!’”
It was the domino effect, only wrapped in chains and snaking sonic electricity. And it just kept going and going and going.
“By the end of it I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Schafer enthused, almost childlike. “I couldn’t believe I was hanging out in the studio with Ozzy and Rob Halford and Lemmy. I’m on the phone with Lita Ford and stuff. It got to be where I was thinking, ‘What else is my favorite metal song?’ and then putting them in the game. The whole thing was so crazy. The most ridiculous, surreal moment for me was being on the stage at the VGAs while Jack Black shot a flamethrower into the air, yelling my name. That was one of those things where I was like, ‘I don’t know if it can get any crazier than this in my life.’ Then four Amazon women hauled me on stage.”
“One of the weirdest moments was when we recorded Ronnie James Dio. We actually recorded up at Skywalker Sound, which is up on Skywalker Ranch, where I used to work when I started in the game industry at LucasArts. When we were working on Monkey Island, we were up at the ranch. I would eat lunch in the main house every day, this beautiful old Victorian building. I brought Ronnie James Dio up there and then I took him on a tour of where I used to work in 1989. With a guy who sang ‘Mob Rules,’ music I listened to when I was 14, I’m touring through the place that I worked in my 20s. Now I’m here making this game with him. That was so surreal, the combination of George Lucas, Ronnie James Dio, heavy metal – all this stuff.”
But while a mix of “really complicated reasons” and tragic circumstances kept Dio out of the final game, he was far from the only metal legend to miss out on getting the Brutal treatment. Metallica and AC/DC, for instance, were simply too expensive. Schafer’s biggest regret in hindsight, though? Not pinning down Iron Maiden… because of a simple misunderstanding.
“They were concerned about the name of our main character being Eddie Riggs,” Schafer explained, “because they have their [mascot] named Eddie, and the artist who draws Eddie is named Riggs. So they thought people would think it was endorsed by Iron Maiden. I don’t think that was the case. But then near the end of the project someone from their marketing department said, ‘We really want to get involved.’ And we were just like, ‘…Oh.’ So if we ever did a sequel I think the first thing we’d do is try and lock down Iron Maiden. It’s a natural fit for our game.”
But Brutal Legend wasn’t all aged metalheads getting their shots at digital immortality. And it wasn’t all Tim Schafer braining out a screaming wildchild, either. The whole production was a team effort, and that resulted in some highly fascinating (well, insofar as that word’s been applied to these bands, er, ever) finds that ultimately formed the backbone of its precision-crafted personality.
“I had a small list of songs that were childhood favorites, like ‘Children of the Grave’ by Black Sabbath, Scorpions’ ‘Blackout’ – those kinds of things,” Schafer said. “Then our music director, Emily Ridgway, went and did a massive research project on metal. She listened to tons of it and came up with these things that I had never heard of, like Breadfan and all these bands. I learned a lot about metal by making that game. I had not heard about some of these bands, like Three Inches of Blood, which now I really enjoy.”
“She would listen to them, listen to the lyrics and what they’re talking about, and think about how it could apply to the missions. For example, there’s a mission starring Lemmy Kilmister, so it made sense to use a Motorhead song. She used ‘Bomber’. But it’s a mission about your first female troops being in the army. It’s set in this little shrine to women in metal. So she picked Girlschool’s cover of the Motorhead song. How do you do a mission that’s about women and Lemmy Kilmister other than using a Girlschool cover of a Motorhead song? It was genius. Those kinds of choices are all throughout the game, that Emily made.”
Real life, however, has a nasty habit of interfering with even the most feverishly wonderful of dreams, and eventually, Double Fine got one of the rudest awakenings of its entire history. Put simply, Double Fine was quite pleased with Brutal Legend. EA, however, wasn’t feeling it. Not even a little.
“[Brutal Legend’s scope] was a lot of fun, but it also made the game really expensive,” Schafer admitted, suddenly somber. “It’s still our highest-selling game, but it’s also the most expensive one. That’s a double-edged sword. I think EA didn’t feel it was blowing up as big as it needed to to overcome the massive amount of money they spent on it. They walked away from [the sequel].”
Brutal Legend 2 was going to be the second half of the game that was originally designed.
The sequel wasn’t just some half-baked attempt at keeping the spotlight on Eddie Riggs and co, either. Basically, if you felt like the original Brutal Legend’s final plot threads best resembled the world’s most hardcore half-knit sweater, you weren’t alone. Schafer explained, using the ancient art of SPOOOOILERS:
“[Brutal Legend 2] was going to be the second half of the game that was originally designed. It happens almost every time I design a game. I’ll come up with about twice as much as I can actually fit. In Brutal Legend, the island is kind of C-shaped, and you were going to go through the home of these factions. We had three: Ironheade, Drowning Doom, and the Tainted Coil. Those were all throughout development known as group A, group B, and group D. We had to cut group C. Group C was this whole other faction. In the game, right now it ends at the Sea of Black Tears. You were going to power on through into group C’s territory and then power through into group D’s territory and eventually confront Doviculus in his imperial palace at the tip of the demon’s land. There was going to be a massive boss monster there.”
But wait, I interjected, isn’t Doviculus kinda, you know, out of commission now?
“His head fell into the Sea of Black Tears,” Schafer grinned. “Who knows what could happen in there? You saw what happened when Ophelia fell in the Sea of Black Tears. There’s a lot of possibilities there.”
And perhaps we’ll see that story unfold one day, if Schafer has anything (else) to say about it. Really though, the fact that he’s talking about new Double Fine games at all is somewhat miraculous, given that – back when Brutal Legend 2 first ended up on the chopping block – it was nearly curtains for the entire studio.
“That was a real low point for the company, because we had high expectations for Brutal Legend,” he said. “Getting the sequel canceled was not the reward we were hoping for. We had been working on that and thinking about that for a long time, that sequel. We didn’t have anything else ready to go and we didn’t have much money left in the bank. It was a moment where we almost ended the company.”
That, however, kind of turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of falling off the map, Double Fine found new direction amidst all the uncertainty. Metal to the very core, it exploded into a pile of bloody phoenix feathers and emerged with a new “Fuck the man” attitude. Smaller, riskier games? Sure, bring ‘em on. Crowdfunding. Yeah, why not? Kick off a revolution with a side project. It’s no big thing.
“We wanted to do smaller games for a lot of reasons, but it’s hard to get that started when you don’t have to,” Schafer admitted. “Those resources always get sucked into the big game. We were like that kid sitting on the edge of the pool going, ‘Uh, I want to get in, but it looks cold.’ Then some big bully kicked us in, and then we were really happy. It all worked out. We’ve done Amnesia Fortnight ever since them. We did it publicly this year.”
“When you’re strapped to the front of that giant rocket, you don’t have much control. It’s an exciting ride, but you aren’t steering anything. That’s one of the reasons I started the company, for control. I was part of a big publisher in LucasArts and I could do a lot of things that I wanted, but there were still bigger entities that controlled what I did. Not that I control every single game and everything that’s going on here. Other talented people are controlling things as well. But we control our own destiny. We can choose what we do and what we don’t do. That’s been great.”
It’s not just the break from dependence on publishers that’s changed Double Fine for the better, either. In the wake of Brutal Legend’s unfortunate failings, the company’s internal affairs have matured. Where once the creative process best resembled a marathon whose only finish line was complete burnout, expectations are now more reasonable. And, perhaps even more crucially, Double Fine’s not just The Tim Schafer Company anymore.
“I used to choose ideas over the quality of the team’s life,” Schafer chuckled darkly. “It was like ‘Look, you guys, we’ll have to stay late, but I finally figured out this puzzle. Let’s do it.’ That wore on the team a lot and nobody wanted me to forget that. But I think we’ve matured a lot and learned how to manage those ideas. Using things like agile development: ‘Here’s a good idea that we can do next month, when we’re evaluating what to do next month. We don’t have to do it right now.’ Making those compromises between me and the team.”
I wanted to show that Double Fine is really the thing. Not just me.
“Each project is led by someone I don’t try to control. Ron’s doing The Cave or Lee’s doing Stacking. They run those projects. They’re their babies. They take care of them and I do not interfere, unless they need help. I definitely wanted to show that Double Fine is really the thing. Not just me. There are so many creative people here. When the company first started, a lot of them were pretty junior, but they’re really experienced now. That’s great, because what I always wanted and dreamed for the company was for it to be a creativity machine, a big factory where great things come out all the time.”
Ultimately, though, Double Fine is still uniquely Double Fine. Its enduring, endearing brand of creativity hasn’t died. Quite the contrary: It’s grown with the demands of a rapidly evolving industry, yet managed to keep clear of conventional wisdom that says relentless sequelizing and same-y worlds are the only way to survive. And while there’s been plenty of luck and happenstance involved, the end product is one of mentality first and foremost. It’s the same one that guided Schafer and co before Brutal Legend and during, and it seems destined to stick around for the foreseeable future.
“When Brutal Legend was done, a lot of people wanted the wrapper to it – the heavy metal world – to be [the only unique thing about it],” he said. “They basically wanted the heavy metal funny version of God of War. A very simple hack and slash game. That’s a real tough call for me. It’s hard to say, ‘There’s this other thing that’s not the thing you’re trying to do. The thing you care about and that you love. There’s this other version of it that’s totally different and it would be more successful. Why don’t you make that version?’”
“Maybe it would have been more successful. It would have been more accessible and simpler and easier for people to grasp. But it wasn’t the thing that got me up in the morning and made me want to make the game.”
It’s certainly not the safest approach, to be sure. But these days, safe doesn’t mean successful, so Schafer’s decided to go all-in. Pretty metal, if you ask me, so I decided to ask him if this is the most metal Double Fine’s ever been. His response? A wry grin and the following words:
“We have always been very metal in that we will never die.”
Brutal Legend is out now on Steam.