Double Fine chief and LucasArts veteran Tim Schafer talks about the scope of video games, the ghosts of early ambitions and the danger of cultural appropriation.
Tim Schafer is telling me about the old gods.
“Norse gods were creeps sometimes,” he says. “Same with Greek and Roman gods. They did a lot of very shady things.”
The LucasArts veteran folds his hands together on his lap, eyeing me as I scribble into a notebook. Schafer is responsible for a coterie of classic video games, including Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. Since founding Double Fine in 2000, he’s grown into something of an elder statesman for the industry; an advocate for indie experimentation and testimony to what can be done with attention to storytelling.
“I think games aspire to be as effective as folklore,” he muses. “Folklore is a powerful thing, with stories that have been passed through an oral tradition for generations without any sort of marketing campaign. I studied Mexican folklore, and folklore in general, at anthropology classes in college. I just found them inspiring.
“I found a lot of folklore to be more daring than modern stories,” he adds, leaning in. “They’re surreal in their imagery. When people talk about Norse mythology, they often think there's Thor and there’s Ragnarok, but there’s also a cow that licks a waterfall and creates humanity – really weird trippy things that are visually bold, and don’t fit with ‘safe’ storytelling because the characters are mixed in their morality. Folktales are very honest about what drives people.”
For me, growing up in England in the 1990s, Grim Fandango was a kaleidoscopic introduction to both film noir and the mythology of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The LucasArts adventure is intelligent, intertextual and populated with layered characters. On a personal level, it was hugely influential in how I started to think about writing. Schafer speaks softly about the game, questioning his own role in helping to make it.
"It can be a really callous act of cultural appropriation if done incorrectly"
“You have to be careful,” he says. “I’m part-Norwegian so I feel comfortable talking about Norse mythology, but doing something about Mexican folklore... I don’t have that background. It can be a really callous act of cultural appropriation if done incorrectly. Ideally it would be someone from that background, who grew up with that tradition, making [Grim Fandango]. I feel like what I can do, as someone who has an opportunity to make a game and get people’s attention, is to do the most respectful treatment I can.”
Schafer emphasises that he immersed himself in research about Mexican folklore, used native Spanish speakers for the game’s dialogue, and received positive responses from people in Latin American countries for the representation they saw in the game.
All the same, he’s aware he’s using elements from a culture that – as a white American man – isn’t his own, even if it is woven into noir tropes from the likes of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. He describes games like Grim Fandango as “the first step”.
“If it encourages someone from one of those cultures to get into the games industry and make games themselves, then you will start to see a broadening in diversity, leading to that ultimate goal of having different cultures and different voices telling their folklore. So it's not perfect to make something like Grim Fandango, but I think it’s a good first step in widening the circle that is game development.”
Life is very broad
Against the backdrop of an industry still dominated by big-budget shooters, Double Fine has marked an area for itself with esoteric games that centre around, in no particular order, trick-or-treating children (Costume Quest), Russian dolls (Stacking), detachable heads (Headlander) and a heavy-metal roadie (Brütal Legend). As a publisher, Double Fine has also been key in getting games such as David OReilly’s meditative Mountain and Boneloaf’s party beat-‘em-up Gang Beasts to market. From a distance it looks like a scattershot lineup, but there are strands of surrealism, irreverence and childhood nostalgia that run throughout.
“If I were doing this interview 15 years ago, I’d have told you that games are frustrating, that they all do high fantasy and science fiction, and that’s all they’re doing,” says Schafer. “Nowadays, I think that’s a lot less true. I think indie games have shown you can make games about immigration, about cancer, about many different cultures around the world. I think indie games have shown people how many more things there are in the world. Because life is very broad and games are traditionally very narrow.”
The past few years have seen Double Fine focus on smaller titles, many of which have come through the studio’s Amnesia Fortnight game jam, a two-week period during which any member of the company can pitch an idea. The model is pivoting somewhat with development on Psychonauts 2 – a sequel to Double Fine’s first major release and the largest project the studio has undertaken for close to a decade. This doesn’t mean the studio is putting an end to its wide-ranging approach to game design. Schafer tells me that projects chosen by Double Fine are based on the people who make them. If there’s someone with a strong idea, the company with help them pursue it.
He notes Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet and Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please as games with strong ideas, made by other developers. The former is a platformer that is, in his words, a “real celebration of the player’s creativity”. The latter, in its depiction of the everyday life of a fictional border-controller officer, is an example of how powerful the medium can be when it confronts the player with difficult choices. In Papers, Please, the core gameplay of checking and stamping passports is only part of a deeper interrogation of the impulses behind authoritarian regimes and institutional corruption.
“That’s the thing about life, right? We want to think about Nazis as monsters. But they are us. We could all go down that path if we made a few different choices. There's a continuation between us and some of the worst people in the world. I do think that Papers, Please forces you to confront that. I think games can do anything, and they can do this but also be fun.”
Schafer started out a writer, and he approaches game development with a writer’s eye. “I grew up loving Kurt Vonnegut,” he tells me. “I think that had a big impact in terms of making something that was both funny and could also go into really sad places. The human experience is all about that. I think that's reflected in the work I do. Another writer [I like] is Mark Leyner, who wrote My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. It was really out there, and inspired me to just go for it.”
I ask him if he has ever considered writing outside of games. There’s a laugh; a brief pause.
"I still have a ghost of my ambition from when I was younger"
“I was going to write short stories, like Kurt Vonnegut. He was an engineer at GE [General Electric] and wrote short stories at night. I thought that's what I'd do, then accidentally got the best job in the world. But there's still part of me that wants to do one of everything: write one screenplay, write one children's book... Who knows?”
“It took me a while to accept that I was getting paid to write,” he says, hands on his lap. “It took me a long time. I still envy people I know who write for a living outside of games. I still have a ghost of my ambition from when I was younger. When I hear about someone publishing a book, I want to do that. Then again, I guess I'm doing okay.”
Schafer tells me he was inspired by what his fellow San Franciscan, the writer Dave Eggers, did with 826 Valencia – a non-profit in the city’s Mission District dedicated to helping children develop writing skills. He says that one day he’d love to set something similar up for video games. It reminds me of what he said earlier in our conversation, about the power of folklore; the strangeness of its images, and the way it is passed from one generation to another. Can games like Grim Fandango be described in a similar way? Can they tell us what the human experience is all about?
“My big dream is that there's a game for everybody,” Schafer says. “A game that speaks to anybody, no matter how old you are, what culture you're from, how much money you have, there's a game that feel relevant to you.
“I think we still have a long way to go.”