The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Heroes Week: The Brütal Legend of Tim Schafer

This week, I’m going to be looking at (hopefully) five heroes of mine from five different sections of the entertainment industry. I’ll be covering video games, music, movies, television, and fiction writing. I’m beginning the week with an article about the man that inspired heroes week in the first place: Tim Schafer.

When I was growing up, I played a lot of video games. I still do in some respect, but my life was more centered around gaming back then than it is now. I’ve had consoles for as long as I can remember dating back to the Atari 2600. I have a lot of good memories from the consoles of my youth, but what I actively look back at with the fondest memories was the era of the graphic adventure. Graphic adventures existed and were named as such at the time to differentiate themselves from text adventure games (Zork, for example), because this was the original wave of true adventure games that had, well, graphics. The lion’s chare of these games were so-called “point and click” games for the very reason that they were controlled by a cursor on the screen that you would point and click at things to move your character around and interact with objects in the world. There were two companies that mattered in the 90’s when it came to point and click graphic adventures. Sierra shipped out these games in startling volume, thanks mostly to the “Quest” series of games (King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, et al), all of which had at least four installments. The other side of the coin was LucasArts, who was stepping out from beyond the licensed property game to create new intellectual property like the Monkey Island series and Maniac Mansion. I played the hell out of games from both companies, but always tended to gravitate toward LucasArts. Their games had more of a feel of whimsy, and were also very famous because it was impossible to die or get truly stuck in basically all of their games. One of the true stalwarts of both the graphic adventure genre and LucasArts throughout the 90’s was Tim Schafer.

Schafer got his start working on the NES port of Maniac Mansion. The first entirely new game he helped design while at Lucas was The Secret of Monkey Island, the original adventure of one Guybrush Threepwood. He also worked on the sequels of both Monkey Island (LeChuck’s Revenge) and Maniac Mansion (Day of the Tentacle), as well as standalone games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. This, to me, was the golden age of video gaming. The stories were incredible, the art design was second to none, and Schafer was at the front of the pack, just constantly putting out solid gold entertainment. And he didn’t stop there. Schafer created his own development company, Double Fine Productions, and has since put out two games under that banner, Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. These are the first games Schafer has done outside the point and click graphic adventure genre, and he’s still got it. I don’t think there’s anyone out there working on games right now that can write on the level of Tim Schafer. And it’s not just simply writing jokes (although he is REALLY GOOD at writing jokes). The stories themselves are deep and enjoyable and complex in their own rights, which makes these games rise above simply being jokey with no substance. It’s exceptional design from all aspects.

I’m trying to keep these articles somewhat short, but I’m going to end every one with a top five list. Today’s is…

Top Five Tim Schafer Games

5. Full Throttle (PC, 1995)

I love Full Throttle, but I think it’s on the weaker side of the Schafer canon. I think part of that is because the story itself doesn’t speak to me the way all his other games do. It’s the beginning of his less actively funny period, in that it was not a game that was as abjectly jokey as his previous games. I really enjoy it, and even the weakest of Schafer’s games is a hell of a lot better than most of what gets released on a regular basis.

4. Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle (PC, 1993)

Day of the Tentacle is a fiendishly original story. It’s got one of the more iconic villains in video game history in Purple Tentacle, and such a great design gimmick of multiple timelines. It’s such a wonderful way to set up puzzles, trying to figure out how you can change things in the past to affect the future and get things you need to the people that need them. It’s a flawless setup (which is a hell of an impressive feat considering the heavy use of time travel), the humor is there, and it managed to eclipse Maniac Mansion in every possible way ever. The fact that it’s number 4 on this list just proves the prowess of Tim Schafer as a game developer.

3. Psychonauts (Xbox, 2005)

Schafer leaves his comfy home of graphic adventures to release a full on action platformer. The story of Psychonauts would probably be Schafer’s best if not for the first game on this list; you play the role of a psychic secret agent in training at a sleepaway camp where some bad mojo is going down. Just about every stage in the platformer takes place in a different character’s mind, and each mind is specifically designed to reflect that characters mental state, as well as whatever psychoses or instabilities that exist magnified to an extreme degree. The platforming itself does get maddening at one point, but it does not detract from the overall polish of the game. Wonderful.

2. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (PC, 1991)

The best story and the best puzzles of all the Monkey Island games. This wasn’t a Schafer original; he was still working with Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman as on the original Monkey Island title. There are so many memories about this game, from Stan’s used coffin store, to the Rapp Scallion story line, to the wide open portion of the game where you go to find the map pieces, to the final sequence leading to the undeniably bat-shit insane ending. It’s very much the game that set graphic adventures out into the stratosphere and allowed for such games as Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle to be possible.

1. Grim Fandango (PC, 1998)

The highest echelon of PC gaming. This is, in short, the best PC game I have ever played. The art design is absolutely gorgeous. That 1920’s art deco style mixed with the hard boiled narrative noir of the 40’s combined with the mythos and art of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and you’ve got a singular experience like no other. The only possible problem with the game is the fact that the interface, the first of its kind to be controlled by keyboard and not require pointing and clicking with the mouse, is not the best. It’s very apparent that this was LucasArts’ first attempt at this control scheme, and it’s not as elegant as the mouse control. Even still, the art design, voice acting, and story are so overpoweringly strong that it is easy to overlook the small foible of the clunky but still functional control scheme. I love this game. It’s one of the absolute best of all time in any genre. It’s the main reason I consider Tim Schafer a personal hero.