Videogame Auteurs: Tim Schafer

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It seems like I’ve been talking about screwball gaming mastermind Tim Schafer a lot recently, what with his Double Fine studio casually raising a million dollars in 24 hours for a new graphic adventure game. The unexpected success of touch screen adventure game remasters for the iPhone and iPad has proven that there is still a big market for a traditional gaming format once thought obsolete and outdated. All it takes is a man with a singular voice that people believe in to helm the project, and fanboys the world over have parted with real, actual currency in support of Schafer’s vision.

Contributions to the project are still being welcomed at the project’s Kickstarter page, and fans of the genre should really think about giving some money, even a little bit. People thinking about giving towards the idea have already missed their chance to qualify for one of the best returns on investment I’ve ever heard of. For the princely sum of $10,000 or more, one lucky bastard somewhere in the world has gained the opportunity to have lunch with Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert. While the asking price seems a little, uh, steep, think of what a great afternoon that would be: sitting at a table to eat some pasta with videogame visionaries of Schafer and Gilbert’s stature would be an hilarious, if quirky, experience. Between the two of them, they have given gamers the surreal, offbeat worlds of the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts

Schafer specialises in hugely original oddball fish-out-water stories that have great characters and writing. His first game as project lead, the timebending kook convention Day of the Tentacle, had three friends travelling through time to save humanity from domination by a megalomaniacal mutated purple appendage. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. With the friends accidentally scattered across three time periods hundreds of years apart, some of the puzzles had some devilishly crooked logic, especially as you carry out events that have knock-on effects in the following time periods. The slightly more off-the-wall aspects of the plot were grounded by some charming writing, with a deliciously deadpan sensibility running through the dialogue. What I loved most was the sharp sense of humour, and also the fact that you could exchange objects between the three playable characters across time through a giant, interdimensional portaloo.

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The best game Tim Schafer has made so far is the Day of the Dead ‘em up Grim Fandango, which follows the pint-sized wiseguy grim reaper Manuel Calavera through a cabaret of Mexican folklore. Manny acts as a travel agent for deceased souls as they begin their journey through the Land of the Dead to the ninth underwood, a place of eternal rest. Good deeds are rewarded with a ticket on the Number Nine express train, which rockets to paradise in four minutes. A life less wholesomely lived, however, will earn you much less extravagant aids on the passage to the afterlife, and in Manny’s case his worldly actions have left him with a little time to work off to the “powers that be.” But then, like a gust of wind, in comes this broad, Mercedes Colomar, a saintly dame who has lived her life with nary a bad deed. Manny sees her case as his ticket out of purgatory, and his attempts to get Meche the seat on the Number Nine she rightly deserves – and saving his own soul in the bargain – take him on a four year journey through the sleaze and the corruption of the Land of the Dead.

Tonally, Grim Fandango is an affectionate, authentic homage to classic film noir, faithful to the genre’s feel and aesthetics in a way games like L.A. Noire struggled to reach. Because Grim Fandango is an adventure game, you spend the majority of your time talking to people, and Schafer here displays a keen ear for the vibrant wit and humour that all great noir dialogue has. Schafer’s playful mixture of classic noir tropes and Mexican mythology is stunningly original, and the notes of melancholy he often adds make for a really rich narrative experience. Schafer knows how to create great characters, and Grim Fandango has some of the best in gaming. There’s the giant, excitable speed demon Glottis (Manny’s faithful companion throughout the game), the zippily grave revolutionary Sal Limones, the crusty sea captain Valesco, and they are all brought to life with excellent writing and voice acting. One of my favourite characters was the morgue attendant Membrillo – his mournful, elegiac maxims about death and grieving are delivered with a tired growl that adds a quiet sadness to the whole story.

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The trippy mind-hopper Psychonauts took Schafer out of adventure game territory into more platformy fare, and while the game mechanics were a little bit clunky at times, the premise was yet another Tim Schafer classic. Joyfully subverting the cliché, Psychonauts put you in the shoes of a boy who runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for tween psychic soldiers. The inside of Schafer’s mind must look a carnival where everyone has taken LSD. Recent axe-wielding metal epic Brütal Legend may have upset some of Schafer’s party faithful due to some discrete sneaking in of strategy game elements, but I was won over by such a warm, loving tribute to metal music. Schafer is a devoted metalhead, as am I, and I really dug Brütal Legend’s inclusion of metal legends like Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne as mythical presences in Schafer’s demented guitar-flavoured fantasy world.

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Even though I’ve kind of implied I consider Tim Schafer a videogame auteur by the title of this piece, it’s still hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about his sensibilities that identifies him as the author of a game. Maybe it’s the sense of humour, a weird mixture of the wry and the bizarre. Perhaps it’s his elegantly deranged premises, his attention to nuance and colour in writing and characterisation. It could be his commitment to gaming as a narrative form, I’m not sure. Either way, he is one of the gaming industry’s true rockstars; his games somehow identify themselves as his. So please give him all your money and let him make another game. No one knows what we’re going to end up with, but I can guarantee it’ll be memorable.

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