Tim Schafer talks Brutal Legend and beyond
Tim Schafer is a bit of a critical darling, helming iconic properties such as Full Throttle, Grim Fandango and Psychonauts. Seeing as all three of those games are in my personal top 10 of all time, I was more than a little excited to get a chance to sit down and talk to him about the Devil's pop music, his favourite Jack Black movie, steroids, the writing process and, of course, the imminent release of Brutal Legend. I can also confirm that he has quite an effeminate sneeze.
So, Tim, describe the room we're sitting in.
We're sitting on a pile of corpses, deep, deep underground. We're all wearing fur tunics, with helmets, and we're playing [Brutal Legend] whilst eating giant drumsticks of human flesh. And apples. There's naked women everywhere, and we're talking about videogames.
Now that the game's finally coming out, how does it feel?
It's exciting. It's weird to work on something for four years, and then not work on it. Because I would keep working on it forever. I've been playing, testing it at night - every night I'd play the game, write up a bunch of bugs, and we'd fix them. I like doing that, I like polishing it up and getting all the details done. It's hard to let that end. That's why I don't want to look at the screen [to our right, displaying the game]; I don't want to see a bug.
And what Activision game are you most looking forward to?
Is Starcraft II coming out this year? Oh. I really liked Pitfall... on the Atari 2600. That was an awesome game. They'll probably make an imitation of Brutal Legend. Like Shootall. Shootall Legend.
How is working with EA?
I hate EA... (looking at his PR assistant) you can't make them mad! No, they're great. We came to them with [Brutal Legend], pretty far along, and we showed it to them and they liked it, and they haven't asked to change it or try to push me into using horrible music I didn't want to use. They say that they want to let the creators be creative, and in our experience they do.
You're going to keep going with EA?
This is a weird experience in that we've hit the end of the game and there's no real reason to change publishers, unlike with some other publishers.
How do you think people are going to react to Brutal Legend?
I think they're going to... what I'm hoping is that people who say they don't like heavy metal will play the game and go 'oh my god, I love heavy metal, it's awesome', and that people who like it a little will find out about a bunch of bands they didn't know about. I'm also excited, and hope people will be pleasantly surprised, by how well thought out the multiplayer aspect of it is.
While we're talking about the music, what would your heavy metal desert island discs be?
For years I had "Another Perfect Day" by Motorhead stuck in my car, and I played it all the time and never got sick of it. And there's a lot of early [Black] Sabbath albums, and Iron Maiden. And Judas Priest.
But that's just the starting point for our soundtrack: our music director Emily [Ridgway] did a bunch of research on other bands I didn't know a lot about, like black metal bands, or industrial metal, to flesh out our soundtrack. There's 108 pieces of licensed music in the game, plus original music by [long-time music director on Schafer's games] Peter McConnell.
Have you ever thought about doing Country Legend? Or Hip-Hop Legend?
I'm trying to think what the weapons would be. I can imagine hip-hop. But country would be like... a shotgun? A pitchfork?
Tell us about working with Jack Black.
He was a great person to work with. He's really down to Earth, and funny; a really nice guy. I'd hang out with him all day and I'd fly back home, and I'd have my TiVo set to grab movies with Jack Black in them, and then I'd be "oh that's right, he's a world-famous movie star!" You forget because he's such a regular guy.
Was he always Eddie Riggs in your mind?
I never dreamed that we'd get Jack Black, so I didn't know what we were going to do with the voice. Once I knew we had him, that's when I really started doing the writing for him, stuff I could imagine him saying, and the animators started animating towards his reference.
I saw him the other week at the VMA's...
I'm a little worried about him. He's been working out. A lot. Obviously. Especially the upper body. Doing a lot of curls, and what not. Squats. Also, there's something.... I don't want to imply that he's using any sort of... steroids, or anything like that. But his voice is changing.
So what's your favourite Jack Black movie?
Hmm, let's see. School of Rock was really inspirational in that it had a character that inspired Eddie Riggs a lot. He just loved the music so much. There was a moment in there where he was driving with the band and [Led Zepplin's] The Immigrant Song is playing. You never hear Led Zepplin in a movie; they're so picky about their rights. Have you ever seen the extra deleted scenes on the DVD? There's a movie he made where it's just him on stage, begging Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to let him use the Led Zepplin song - that's what it took to let them agree to use the song.
Anyway, there's that scene in it, and when it cuts to the inside of his van there's this Iron Maiden sticker on the inside of the door. I was just like... it's time to make my heavy metal game, it's rising in the zeitgeist, metal is coming to the forefront. And it is. Not right away: when I was pitching the game initially it was not time, but then as Guitar Hero came out - that really changed things.
But I think Heavy Metal can keep coming back from that. There's themes in it that speak to everyone of a certain age, you know?
I find myself getting into metal more as I get older. Maybe because I'm getting angrier.
It starts like that. When you're a teenager a lot of your connection to it is angry, but now if you go to Ozzfest or something it's a really gentle, a really happy scene. Like, there's a lot of Dads bringing their kids to their first Ozzy Osbourne concert, which is really funny, like, 'oh you kids, this is great, you don't realise, you're going to get to see the original Black Sabbath lineup', and the kids are genuinely into it.
As a more general question, how do you feel about the point-and-click genre? That's really started coming back.
It's interesting. I haven't been able to play games, because I've been playing Brutal Legend every night, but I'm going to be checking them out. I'm interested to actually see how I'll feel about them, because I haven't played Monkey Island in years.
I did have that moment where I realised I wanted to push a character around with a controller more than I wanted to point and click, but I think, well, we'll see.
You started taking that direct control route way back...
Even in Grim Fandango, if you plug in a gamepad you can push Manny around like you can Mario or something like that. It's tricky.
The reason we went with those 'tank' controls is actually because of a game called Bioforge, which was the first 3D graphic adventure as far as I've seen, and it was like Resident Evil controls: left, right and forward. But the advantage is that you can walk down a hallway, and like, the camera would change as you walked, so you can see your character from overhead, to the side, reverse, and I thought that was really dramatic. I liked that. If you're just pushing forward the whole time, you don't have to worry about the control. If you have more screen-relative controls, like Mario  started, you'd be pushing forward then all of a sudden you'd have to pull towards you, and then push it at an angle, and it would be really hard to keep going down this straight line.
But looking back on it, I probably should have just put point and click in there....
Whilst we're talking about Manny, how does it feel creating characters that become so beloved?
It's awesome to go something like Comic-Con or PAX and see people dressed as the characters. You really feel like you've made, your characters have made, a connection with somebody. Thinking about them being real to somebody else, that's very meaningful. You work really hard on the characters, and you care about them a lot. It's nice.
Why do you think you seem to get it right every time when it comes to making characters like that?
Well, it's a lot of work. I work on them a lot. Like, think them through. I think the trick is that you've got to make them real to you, you've got to make them specific: what were their parents like? Where did they come from? What was their life like? All that stuff. Get to know them really, really well. And then, when you write the dialog, you kind of become them, like you're an actor playing that part, and your writing is like improv acting.
So how are Double Fine different from other studios?
I don't know, because I don't work at these other companies. I only know the way we do it, which is to have an idea that we care about and then pursue it to its bitter end!
I don't think you'd ever see Brutal Legend from another studio.
I don't like to tell other developers how to work, but I feel that all games should feel that way - where you couldn't imagine that game being made by any other studio. I think it would be great for the industry if every game had that stamp on it.
Our thanks to Tim Schafer for taking the time to talk to us. Brutal Legend is released on the PS3 and 360 on the 16th Rocktober.