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Backed into a corner, Tim Schafer finally agrees to the interview.

Story and photos by TYLER STEWART



November 2012 High Times

The High Times Interview


You started in the industry as a programmer and a writer, two very different jobs.

nce upon a time, video games were treated like a niche hobby supported by the geekier subset of societyyou know, the inside kids. But with the advent of computer technology and several generations of gamers disproving the stereotypes set by their predecessors, the industry has boomed into a more profitable business than both music and film, projected to pull in more than $67 billion in 2012 alone. As a result, more people are recognizing the medium as an art formand within that culture, the artists have emerged. One of those artists is Tim Schafer, considered among the crowd as one of the most rebellious, eccentric and creative minds in the industry. With games like Grim Fandango, a noir tale set against the backdrop of an underworld occupied by Mexican calaca figures, and Psychonauts, an adventure wherein lead character Raz is tasked with venturing into the minds of his subjectsliterallyto extract emotional baggage and uncover subconscious thoughts that darken their psyches, Schafer hasnt shied away from challenging people to think differently while getting their kicks. Hes also known for his sharp wit, scripting classic games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Full Throttle during his time at George Lucas studio LucasArts. That reputation helped him launch his own studio, Double Fine Productions, in 2000. Since then, he and his team have released seven titlesall to critical acclaim. The most popular among them is 2009s Brtal Legend, which stars Jack Black, Tim Curry, and rock icons Rob Halford and Ozzy Osbourne in a story so metal, its density cant be measured. Today, Double Fine is riding the wave of the most successful crowd-sourcing effort in video game history, having raised almost $3.5 million through Kickstarter to fund a return-toroots point-and-click adventure game, the genre that made Schafer famous. As a result, hes rejecting the shackles that publishers often throw on the wrists of development teams by reaching out directly to the fan base. Combined with the looming antiquation of discs, this experiment could have a resonating effect on the game industrys future, and Schafer is happy to lead the charge. High Times dropped in on Double Fine to meet him, where we discussed the benefits of being a geek, the creative process and the importance of finding altered states of consciousness.

At Berkeley I studied programming, but I found myself more and more interested in creative writing. I entered some short story contests and stuff and, back then, the job seemed perfect. They called us scuttlebutts, we were like the lowest on the totem pole, but it didnt matter.
They being LucasArts, who during that time dominated PC gaming. What was it like working for George Lucas?

sometimes you just assume something has to change because its so ridiculous, but it actually doesnt. A lot of the lessons that Ive learned in the industry have been about not worrying about stuff.
Most people have a focused strength in either the technical or the creative. What do you think has been a big driver for your development of both skills?

Beside the fact that it was on Skywalker Ranch, I was actually really excited about the games. We didnt know what we were going to work on; we were just four young guys in a room, and we were messing around with some practice art. They were just teaching us how to use this language, SCUMM.
The first game you ended up working on was The Secret of Monkey Island.

Ron Gilbert, one of the teachers who trained us on SCUMM, would come in in the afternoons and watch what we had done with it. He picked me and Dave Grossman out of that group to work with him on The Secret of Monkey Island, which he was just starting to develop.
Why did he pick you two?

Cause we had done the dumbest jokes, maybe, I dont know. Theres something about the kind of jokes and the creativity that you use when you dont think it matters, the kind that takes away worry. If you dont think what youre doing is going to be used by anyone you can kind of free yourself to try crazy, stupid things and they turn out to be the funniest, best stuff sometimes. I assumed that Ron would come in and fix it all. But he was like, No, no, this is good, were gonna use it. Which was a good lesson for me in that

I love computers. I just saw them as one more tool to make something fun for other people to enjoy. Like drawing a picture, its a way to take something in you and use it to entertain someone else, or capture something and share it with someone else. Video games are just another way of doing that. It was very helpful when I was writing dialogue to be able to program, because you could make the dialogue work for various interactive possibilities that happen in the game. So, you know, if youre playing a character and he wants to say something but the game needs to figure out whether you have a certain inventory item in your pouch, or whether youve met another character, or whether you chose to be a female character or a male character, the writing has to change to incorporate all that or else the programming has to work around it to change the writing. So being able to choose from either solves the problem instantly. Its really essential to make those games work that way for me.
What would you say your early influences were, text adventure games?

Yeah. I loved those. I grew up playing a lot of Infocom text adventures, like Zork, Deadline, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Wishbringer, those games. And then the Scott Adams adventures before that which were really just simple commands. I loved those games. I played those on my Atari all day long.


The High Times Interview

A lot of developers make these really washed out, serious games with little or no humor in them. What do you think about those types of games?

High Times November 2012

Did you have any influences from the writing side, like comedians or personalities whose humor kind of echoes through in your writing?

Growing up I loved comedy albums. I would find them in my brothers room, these old Bill Cosby and George Carlin albums. Just hearing the audience laughing on the record, there was something really magical about them. But then reading stuff like Kurt Vonnegut in high school had a big impact on me. Just his way of telling stories was really funny and sad at the same time. And surprising and unpredictable.
Humor seems to be a major part of the narratives in your games. That doesnt mean they lack emotional depththey sometimes focus on darker aspects of our humanity and of nature. Do you think that its important to find humor in the dark stuff?

Games can put you in a meditative state that is healthy. Theyre like lucid dreams.
do an interesting project in an interesting way, you could get money from the Internet.
Speaking of opening doors, theres a rumor you wanted to put a peyote trip sequence into Full Throttle ...

I feel that its more that Im injecting the dark stuff once in a while into humorous situations. When Im writing, its not about searching for jokes, but to start with where the characters are. I look for their sourcewhat drives them, what their background is. Like anybodys life, were all here, but maybe years and years ago something terrible happened to us. It doesnt mean were here broken because of that, but it means something. And it means in everything that we do, its there lurking, and you manage to have fun and have lighthearted moments even though youve been through something bad in the past. Thats all youre writing, its all part of life being tragedy and comedy mixed together, and one doesnt exclude the other, and neither one is a cure for the other and theyre just always coexisting. And I think the funniest moments come from having all that background knowledge of what a character has been through because you know what that surprise, or that twist, or that joke means to them.

backers, who are our biggest fans and I like serious, you ultimate players of know. Of course, the game. And for me it would thats who we be a very difwant to please ficult challenge. anyway; when I often start were making out with a high a game were concept being always thinkserious or seriousing about making sounding and then those guys happy, when I discuss so thats all we the structure, have to do. We these character dont have to journeys are all worry about a very serious. publisher, or And then when investor, or anyI go to write the body else telling scene, the actual us what to do. Its dialogue, theres just a totally different a lot of like idle time way of making that has to be games than filled and it gets usual when filled with jokes youre working for some reason. with someone You know at the elses money. micro level its a lot more jokey than at the larger Do you think that level. Like in Grim this experiment will Fandango, the have long-term four-year joureffects on the ney of the soul industry, or across the Land could this be a of the Dead is fluke? not a comedy I think its setup, but when a permanent youre in there and change. It has theres a demon opened up a with a big tongue From top: The Secret of Monkey door that will Island (1990); Full Throttle hanging out of stay open. (1995); Grim Fandango (1998); his mouth, funny Psychonauts (2005); Brtal The future is Legend (2009). stuff happens. definitely going to be all digital, so you dont have to worry You had tremendous success about distribution. This just with Kickstarter. The goal was takes yet another one of those $400,000 and you raised $3 pillars away, which is that million more than that. What you dont necessarily need does that mean for the game someone to get financing. you guys are creating? You could go to the crowd. As It means an incredible long as you have a compelamount of freedom for us ling idea and you are able because the money came with to present yourself as an no strings attached, except for interesting person who could our own commitment to the

I self-censored that because I knew I couldnt get it in. George Lucas is a little bit like Disney in that hes a family game maker. I thought about it, but I stored a lot of those ideas away until I made Psychonauts.
Which was the very definition of a mind trip.

I think Psychonauts was kind of the realization of that. Ive always been interested in psychology and the human mind and what it does in altered states of consciousness. Those states can be achieved in a lot of different ways: it could be meditation, it could be drugs, it could be an Australian Aboriginese walkabout, or just dreaming.
What about dreaming?

I took a class on the psychology of dreams, Psychonauts was really inspired by it. A big part of it was about how people create things in their dreams that represent emotional things going on in their lives. You know, people will dream about a bear when theyre really scared about their father or something. Theyre trading metaphors just like a poet or a writer does. Theyre regular people who would not consider themselves as skilled poets, but theyre creating beautiful symbols for these emotional things. Everyone has this power in their head to create poetry, and they do it when theyre dreaming.

courtesy of lucasarts and double fine productions


The High Times Interview

long he was running through a library in his head, knocking over shelves, knocking over books, and he would just keep going. Then he would sit down at the end of the day and he would smoke pot, and to him that was putting all the books back on the shelf, sorting out his mind and getting it all taken care of. Its different for everyone, but for some its just another one of those things that can free your mind up a bit and allow you to think more clearly.
Not everybody in our readership does play video games. How do you explain to somebody just what art value they have and how fun they can be?

High Times November 2012

And so do you think that to understand our minds better, its important to find these altered states of consciousness?

I definitely think you need some way of leaving your dayto-day state of mind, because sometimes theres that rut you get in that you need something to kick you out of, to see things differently, and to relax and be happy. I think if you just have this repetitive mental cycle all throughout your day and you bring it home, it just wears at your heart and you die early.
So, peyote ...

Double Fines walls are covered in years worth of concept art, fan submissions and deadline tears.

Ive never taken peyote, I can say that, but I ... lets see, what can I say about that ... I planned on pursuing the idea.
Got ya, got ya. Well, what role do you think things like pot play in the industry, in terms of conceptualizing ideas and even approaching programming?

I had a friend who would say that he felt like all day

To me theyre literature just like books and movies, and theres great art being done in the world of games. I think its like comic books, where theres good ones and bad ones and sometimes its helpful to have a guide or someone who knows a lot about them

because theres like five good ones to every hundred bad ones. You know, to like really find the stuff thats meaningful. But I think, as I hope the art form progresses and the games become more about emotional topics and things like that, they can have the same benefit as books and movies do where they help you run kind of a practice session in emotional situations. You know when you read a great novel, it helps you

develop emotionally because you see the foreshadowing of situations that helps you to prepare when something like that happens in your life. Games in general can do that same thing, putting yourself in situations that help you visualize something that is not safe in your real life or youre not ready for. Games can put you in a meditative state that is healthy and great for development. Theyre like lucid dreams.P