Tim Schafer is one of the most famous names in the games industry, and not without reason. He played an important part in the making of the first two Monkey Island games, played a larger part still in Day of the Tentacle, and was the driving force behind Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Everybody had high hopes for Double Fine Productions, the company he formed in 2000; but has Schafer become his own worst enemy in recent years?
Though most immediately associated with sharp and witty dialogue, it’s worth remembering that the LucasArts games his name is attached to are also fondly remembered because they were great fun to play. This is true even of Grim Fandango, one of the first games to make the transition from ‘point and click’ to ‘walk and click’. Despite the clunky controls that games in the genre suffer from to this day, Grim Fandango was a mesmerising and utterly addictive experience. This was certainly due mostly to the excellent writing; but also thanks to the ineffably gripping and slightly eerie atmosphere provided by the art and overall concept. Here was a game that made an impossible and potentially ridiculous world immersive and believable, in a way that it had seemed only Terry Pratchett was capable of.
Seven years and one new company later, Schafer gave the world Psychonauts in 2005. A third person action platformer that abandoned the point and click genre completely, this was uncharted territory for him. If you’re wondering why this game has achieved cult status, and is afforded the kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for games drowning in nostalgia, you clearly haven’t played it.
Psychonauts most definitely has its problems. There are camera issues present in most platformers of the era, checkpoints are perhaps not quite so frequent as this particular game requires, and there are a few nasty difficulty spikes; for example, the final level features some perversely difficult sections. Nonetheless, it is little short of a masterpiece. The writing was predictably wonderful (it was co-written by Erik Wolpaw, who went on to work on Portal). Not only was the script often hilarious, it was surprisingly deep for those willing to look; issues of psychology had an effect on both the story and the environments. And how on earth could I fail to mention the art design? Hated by those uncomfortable with their own maturity, it was fantastically fresh and original. It impresses to this day, proving that the best visuals are not about processing horsepower, but about talent and vision.
Unfortunately, it all started to go downhill from there.
Double Fine’s next game was Brütal Legend. At first it seemed as though it would never see the light of day, despite having Schafer’s name attached and Jack Black heading the voice cast. When Activision became Activision Blizzard this new publishing behemoth found itself with the publishing rights, and decided to drop the game. It was eventually rescued from publishing hell by EA. Amusingly, when they saw all the positive press Brütal Legend was attracting, Activision Blizzard claimed that they still held the publishing rights; even going so far as to take the issue to court. Everything was at last settled out of court, on terms that remain undisclosed; and EA published.
On a personal level, Brütal Legend seemed like my perfect game. I loved Tim Schafer games, I loved Jack Black, and I loved heavy metal (the soundtrack is made up of dozens of metal songs, and the cast includes cameos from legends such as Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne). Opinion was split however, and I was surprised to find myself edging toward the negative side of the fence. For a detailed explanation of why, you can check out the somewhat unconventional review I wrote.
There was so much to like. The writing was once again top notch, as was the metal album cover – inspired art; the acting was mostly excellent, too. It’s no exaggeration to say that this game features one of the best performances of Black’s acting career, and even the rock gods did a great job. Driving and combat were simple yet fun, and ordering people around was quick and easy. It started off life as a fully fledged RTS game, but that got whittled down until that element only made up about a third of the experience. Unfortunately, what remains of the RTS battles alienates many people. It’s not close enough to ‘proper’ RTS gameplay to please traditional fans, but close enough to be off putting and frustrating for non–RTS fans. Many people still loved even that part of Brütal Legend; but so many disliked or even hated it, Schafer felt the need to explain how to play his game on the internet. Surely if you come to that point, you’ve failed as a game designer?
Had Schafer dropped the RTS idea completely it would have been a much better game, and would almost certainly have met with a greater number of very positive reviews and better sales. As it was, it seems that the RTS idea was too close to his heart for him to see that it sat awkwardly with the rest of Brütal Legend.
This year, Double Fine released the downloadable title Costume Quest. Speaking for myself, this seems to be even more of a disappointment than Brütal Legend. I must stress immediately that I’ve only played the trial version; but surely it’s not good to find yourself getting bored of the demo?
Though not quite as sharp as that in previous titles, the writing is still great. The art style, again, stands out from that in most of its contemporaries. The concept is fantastic, and as with Psychonauts laughs in the face of hypermachismo; it’s Halloween, and you go out trick or treating with your sibling. Said sibling gets kidnapped by goblins who have invaded your town. You then set out on a rescue quest, hunting down sweets and monsters on your way – with the occasional bit of kid politics thrown in for good measure. On paper, it’s wonderful. In practice, it seems that concept comes first and gameplay second.
With the design in place, I can’t help but think that Schafer directed Double Fine to do their best to force gameplay in without denting the original vision (Costume Quest’s development was led by Tasha Harris). Combat is ludicrously simple turn–based fare, and from what I can tell changes very little from start to finish. I was bored of it and dreading the next battle before even half a dozen such encounters. No amount of Halloween themed characters can act as an ample replacement for engaging gameplay. And then there’s the fact that nothing has been done to spice up the act of walking from door to door trick or treating (which either rewards you with sweets or triggers a battle). Going from house to house and walking around town feels like work.
Could it be that, as head of his own studio with nobody above him to tell him what to do, Schafer now puts concept above all else?
The good news is that Schafer recently hired Monkey Island cohort Ron Gilbert. Two legends are better than one, and hopefully this will result in Double Fine producing the line of finely honed games promised by Psychonauts. Time will tell…