Brütal odyssey

Pub date October 13, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionGamer

>>Read Ben Richardson’s full interview with Tim Schafer here

GAMER "The first time we pitched it, they wanted us to change the genre, to make it about country or hip-hop or something."

Game designer Tim Schafer is sitting in his SoMa office, in his favorite chair — appropriately, a rocking chair — and talking about his masterpiece. "They were saying, ‘Why don’t you open it to all music?’ We said, ‘Look — this is a game about epic battles, good vs. evil, Braveheart-type moments. And heavy metal is the musical genre that focuses heavily on folklore. It sings about medieval combat. It’s really the only genre that makes sense for it.’"

The game is Brütal Legend (Double Fine/EA), and in the end, Schafer got his way. Taking control of Eddie Riggs, a grizzled roadie voiced by Jack Black, the player journeys through a metal landscape inspired by the album covers the designer studied in his youth. Wielding a massive battle-ax and a magical guitar, Riggs encounters righteous friends and fiendish foes, including characters voiced by luminaries like Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, and Lita Ford. The soundtrack is a carefully compiled list of headbang-inducing classics.

Schafer agrees that the game is his most personal creation to date. "All games are wish fulfillments. All games are about fantasy. This is a game where I’ve been able to make my own wish fulfillment. I would like to go back in time with a cool car and a battle-axe while listening to heavy metal."


Growing up in Sonoma, the designer escaped his suburban life by rocking out to Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. He would drive down to San Francisco for shows, catching sets at Mabuhay Gardens or the Stone. The music introduced him to a mythic world of horned hell-monsters, glistening chrome, and mortal combat, a world he never quite left behind.

He attended both UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, dividing his attention between computer programming and creative writing, two talents he would later fuse. At Berkeley, he took a class on folklore from Alan Dundes, a provocative professor whose belief in the power of folklore influenced Schafer’s work tremendously. In 1989, he got a job in San Rafael at Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts. He was assigned to The Secret of Monkey Island, a comedic adventure game by designer Ron Gilbert. Monkey Island was the perfect vehicle for Schafer’s talents, taking full advantage of his boundless imagination, storytelling sense, and biting wit. It is best remembered for its "insult sword fighting" section, in which dueling buccaneers trade verbal jabs in lieu of physical ones.

Mitch Krpata, game critic for the Boston Phoenix and author of the blog Insult Swordfighting, identified the defining quality of Schafer’s LucasArts output via e-mail: "Character. There are a few archetypes that most games go to again and again: silent man of action, easygoing everyman, tormented soul out for revenge. Schafer’s protagonists aren’t like that. They’re individuals. They’re good guys, but they have flaws, and their flaws aren’t things like they just care too much, dammit."


After finishing the biker-themed Full Throttle in 1995, Schafer hunted inspiration. It came to him as an unlikely combination of themes, both closely tied to his San Francisco home. Initially, he was devouring classic noir films at the Lark and Castro theatres. A trip to the Day of the Dead parade in the city’s Mission District delivered the epiphany. The higher-ups at LucasArts had been agitating for a game with 3-D graphics, a prospect he did not relish. "I really hated the look of 3-D art back then, because it looked like a nylon stretched over a cardboard box," he remembers.

Picking through a table of Day of the Dead ephemera, the idea came: "I saw those calavera statues. Instead of modeling all of the bones in papier-mâché, they’ll just make a tube and paint the bones on the outside. I was like, ‘This is just like bad 3-D art. This is great!’"

Additional fodder was provided by doctor visits to 450 Sutter — a building that combines Art Deco architecture with Mayan motifs — and Schafer began work on his most ambitious project to date. Drawing on his collegiate folklore training, he and his team wove together elements of Day of the Dead tradition, Aztec folk tales, and noir cinema to create 1998’s Grim Fandango (LucasArts), a sprawling epic of crime and love in which all the characters were stylized, calavera-style skeletons "living" in the Land of the Dead. Featuring a labyrinthine, affecting story, delectable hard-boiled dialogue, and stunning art direction, it is still ranked among the best games of all time.


Schafer left LucasArts in 1999, concerned that the company would exercise its ownership of his beloved characters without his participation. He wanted to found his own studio in San Francisco. As he told me over the phone, "Working at a company where you can look out the window and see the city outside is just so inspiring. It’s not just about having great restaurants at lunch, though that’s part of it." Starting in his living room "in a bathrobe and flip-flops," the nascent Double Fine Productions — named after a "double fine zone" sign on the Golden Gate bridge — jumped from location to location, including an unheated warehouse with a rodent problem and a toilet that often unleashed an "ocean of human waste" into the office.

The first Double Fine game was 2005’s Psychonauts, an ambitious project about a summer camp for psychic kids that failed to reach the wide audience it deserved. Even in this rarefied setting, Schafer included bits of the city’s lore. A character named Boyd was based on a homeless man who hung out near the team’s offices, doing odd jobs and enlightening the Double Fine crew with his extensive conspiracy theories.

"Sometimes he would just be on a rant about [how] the government would be trying to read his mind using satellites, or using the broken glass in the streets to bend their optics around," Schafer recalls. "He just produced great quotes: ‘I don’t want to be liquid, I want to be a turtle with rockets strapped to my back!’" Deciding to include him in the game, the designer painstakingly created a flow-chart that would procedurally generate conspiracy theories for Boyd to spout onscreen. "He constructs it by coming up with a conspirator, what their plan is, what the victim of it is, and strings it all together with a bunch of coughing and stuff."


Brütal Legend, Double Fine’s latest game, was released Oct. 13, and gamers across the country will have the opportunity to play through the piece of San Francisco folklore most familiar to Schafer: the one based on himself. By making a game about a character transported from our familiar world into an ax-happy metal battleground, the designer has turned his story, the story of a misfit headbanger from a city steeped in metal history, into a new kind of 21st century myth.