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Interview: Tim Schafer On Adventures

Fawning nostalgia

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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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