Gaming Gods
Gaming Gods: Tim Schafer

The eagle eyed among you may have noticed that the previous entrants into our Gaming Gods series have been pioneers from the East, however there as just as many incredible and influential designers over in the West. It can’t be argued that this weeks gaming god has shaped an entire genre, and indeed recently managed to kickstart an appreciation for it after years of its stagnation. We are of course talking about the adventure game genius that is Tim Schafer.

Tim Schafer is known for some of the industry’s finest adventure games as well as creating games that go beyond peoples expectations. Every title oozes creativity and humour, and every title places the joy of gameplay right in the heart of its experience. Schafer however didn’t start out with such glamorous projects under his belt, he pretty much found himself in a situation that allowed him to go on to create such great things. This first situation arose out of an opportunity to work at Lucasfilm Games whilst he was studying computer science at UC Berkley. After an awkward phone interview, where he essentially revealed he had pirated a previous Lucasarts game, he bagged the job thanks in part to an amusing comic strip he provided as way of apology; the comic in question showed him applying, and getting, the job with Lucasarts, it was also staged out like a text adventure game.

The next opportunity for Schafer is in fact a double edged one. For Schafer, at the time, it must have felt like an opportunity missed; yet in hindsight, Atari turning down his job application was a missed opportunity for Atari and a near miss for Schafer. If Schafer had left to join Atari would we have ever had the genius games he went on to produce? Would we even have his development company Double Fine? Whats certain is that if he had left we wouldn’t have had The Secret of Monkey Island, least not in its current and comical guise. No, before Schafer became involved in the writing and programming of the title, it was intended to be a serious adventure game but thanks to more amusing placeholder text by Schafer and fellow programmer Dave Grossman, series creator Ron Gilbert was convinced to change the tone of the title. It’s a good thing he did too as it went on to become the most recognised and acclaimed games of the genre, and it and it’s many sequels are all still loved to this day.

Schafer however begins to really emerge into the Gaming Gods category when you take a look at the first project he was co-lead designer for, Manic mansion: Day of the Tentacle. Here, in the sequel to Ron Gilbert’s Manic Mansion, you were faced with another hilarious point-and-click adventure against a tentacle that had gained sentient life and supreme intelligence, and so naturally was hell bent on global domination. Day of the Tentacle etched itself a place in the hearts of anybody who played it, it met such critical acclaim that many still revere it as one of the best games of the genre, it was once again another success for Schafer, and another mark left by him on the world of videogames.

His next significant step came with Full Throttle, a title that was solely Schafer’s baby as he wrote and designed the title. Being a Schafer Lucasarts game it obviously contained the cooky plot that had now become a signature of his work, this time though Full Throttle takes place in a dystopian future where motorised vehicles are being replaced by anti-gravity hovercrafts, and somehow it’s main focus is on the murder of the last Motorcycle manufacturer in the country. Once again though the title received quite a fair bit of critical acclaim, and thanks to some superb voice actors on board as well as tight gameplay and cheeky Star Wars references, Full Throttle managed to completely secure Schafer’s name in the hearts of adventure fans everywhere.

For many though it was his next game that gained him the adoration that he so rightly deserves. If it wasn’t for his next, and indeed last, game for Lucasarts his future titles and even his ability to set up Double Fine may never have happened. Grim Fandango really changed the face of adventure games, it brought them into the graphical 3rd dimension, and it really made designers think how they were going to transport across this entirely new way to interact inside the space, as point-and-click gameplay could no longer work like it had before. Grim Fandango wasn’t perfect however, but it’s darkly comical story likening the Grim Reaper to a travel agent, and its heavily drawn upon influence from the Mexican Dia dos les Meurtos festival, meant that it stood out as an astounding and fantastic adventure from start to finish. It really cemented his name even more firmly inside the adventure game genre, and showed that Schafer knew what the hell he was doing; which is why his next opportunity is somewhat surprising.

In 200o, after a little while of working on a new game for Lucasarts that never saw the light of day, Schafer set up his own development studio, Double Fine Productions. Here he began to go about creating arguably the most under-appreciated platform game from the last generation, Psychonauts. Psychonauts easily had all that Tim Schafer charm, odd setting, crazy yet loveable characters and even though it departed from the point-and-click adventure settings that Schafer had cut his teeth on, when you played this game you knew it was something special. It’s plot revolved around a young boy gifted with psychic abilities who runs away from the circus to sneak into a summer camp for those with psychic abilities, it’s here he uncovers a sinister plot only he can stop from happening. Gameplay progresses though ‘Raz’, the aforementioned psychic boy, infiltrating summer camp patrons crazy minds and help them overcome their past problems that plague their mind. It was fun, creative and unmistakably Schafer; he had managed to bring solid gameplay and the excellent storytelling from adventure games together in one package.

After Schafer’s more traditional hack-n-slash-meets-real-time-strategy game Brütal Legend – in which  you took up the role of metal head Eddie Riggs, voiced by Jack Black, and went deep into the realms of a fantasy world inspired by 80s rock album covers to fight orcs and save music – Double Fine began production on four smaller titles due to the uncertainty of what might come next. Once it was confirmed that Brütal Legend 2 wouldn’t be happening, these games went on to become Stacking, Costume Quest, Iron Brigade and Once Upon a Monster. Stacking and Costume Quest came about with reduced production times, something akin to how Schafer had worked back at Lucasarts on the Monkey Island titles. This was to ensure that the games stayed tight and fun, it was a new way for the team to learn but thanks to their immense popularity it goes to show that these downloadable only titles did a good job of winning folks over to this new way of development from an established dev team.

Once Upon a Monster is easily the most interesting recent project to come from Double Fine and Tim Schafer’s mind though. Inspired by his experiences as a father, and the sheer lack of games that were available for him to enjoy alongside his son, Schafer went about tweaking the earlier model into a game that could fill this purpose. Set within the world of Sesame Street, the game played out in bite sized chunks and utilised Micrsoft’s Kinect technology to really make it truly accessible for almost all kids and adults. The bright colours and familiar Sesame Street characters made it appealing to children, and even the cross generation appeal of Sesame Street meant that it reached out to parents too. It was a genius move, and one that really opened up the possibilities of Kinect beyond that of simple mini games or party entertainment, it allowed a parent and child to connect and to do so in a fun way, it’s story played out like that of a children’s book, and its episodic nature meant that parents could choose when to stop playing without breaking the flow.

Shafer’s next move was one that showed just how much love he and his games have within the industry. Whilst Double Fine are beavering away on multiple titles with publishers, Schafer felt that people wanted another adventure game, however the risks in publishing it were too great and so he turned to the community that said they wanted one so much, and asked them for money. It turns out that his Kickstarter project did the right thing, and even though he only asked for $400,000, he had managed to raise well over that in the first 24 hours. Indeed his target smashed the $2 million mark, and  became the most successful project on Kickstarter, with over 63,000 donators. It’s impressive to say the least, but Schafer doesn’t think its anywhere near as revolutionary as many seem to believe it is; a sign he’s still every bit as modest as he was when he first started out.

So, after all of that what makes Tim Schafer worthy of being a Gaming God? Well, if you can’t see that this man has influenced not only an entire genre, but also an entire ethos of game development – one where combining solid gameplay with great storytelling is the norm not the exception – then maybe you shouldn’t be playing games. His career has spanned over 20 years and his titles may have never been international blockbusters, but they have always been revered by his peers and by critics and gamers alike.  On top of this all, he still strives to be a creative mind and an honest man. When the Kickstarter project exceeded his incredibly modest expectations he promised to deliver more content and bonus footage for the game instead. It goes without saying that this developer is a gaming god through and through.

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