Tim Schafer Discusses His Classic Video Games, ‘Grim Fandango’ and ‘Monkey Island’
We spoke to the former LucasArts designer and founder of Double Fine about HD remakes and the legacy of an adventure classic.
Tim Schafer talks while he types – and does both loudly, as if to make sure I understand he is a Very Busy Man. Like I didn't already know: his studio, Double Fine Productions, has the high-def remaster of 1998 adventure classic Grim Fandango ready to roll, and then comes the small matter of the second "act" of Broken Age, the point-and-clicker that broke Kickstarter records at the time of its crowd-funding drive in 2012.
And there's plenty more going on at Double Fine. The San Francisco-based studio has another Kickstarter-backed project on the go in Massive Chalice, which moved to Steam Early Access in late 2014. They've also confirmed that a special edition of Day of the Tentacle will appear sometime this year. Schafer worked as co-designer on the 1993 original, one of LucasArts' most rapturously received adventure titles.
While at LucasArts, Schafer was also heavily involved in a design capacity on 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island and its 1991 sequel, LeChuck's Revenge, before stepping up to project leader for 1995's Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After that, LucasArts canned its adventure titles – so he left to found Double Fine and focus on making games that weren't Star Wars cash-ins.
Today, we're toasting two achievements: the first being the imminent Grim Fandango release for PlayStation, Mac and Windows platforms; the other the uncommon longevity of the original Monkey Island, a game that the passing of 25 years can't dent the appeal of. Personally, the latter remains one of my favourite games of all time, and one that I can't bring myself to delete from my iPhone (in its special edition form), just in case the urge (re)takes me on a commute. And it frequently does.
Our connection drops once, but rather than leave me hanging when I call back, as some might, Tim's quick to pick up, albeit without breaking the inexorable drumming of fingertips on keyboard. Sometimes the pounding threatens to overpower his answers, but for 40 minutes he's an amiable interviewee, always with a half-chuckle in his responses, expressing warmth that, despite a crackly line and the small matter of 5,385 miles between us, comes over palpably. He's an old pro, obviously, but still speaks with terrific excitement – that he's doing what he absolutely loves is unquestionable.
Grim Fandango retrospective – the HD remaster is available from the 27th of January
VICE: Looking back at the elements that make up Grim Fandango – the film noir stuff colliding with the Aztec influences, for example – it's a smorgasbord of things that perhaps shouldn't stick together. But they did. What do you put that down to?
Tim Schafer: I'd like to act as if it was a brilliant plan, like I knew deep down that these elements of film noir would gel perfectly with themes of Mexican folklore and the afterlife, and that I had this grand vision of it all coming together. But really it was just what we were into at the time. We loved the art and folklore of the Day of the Dead, and I'd studied some anthropology at college, and I was also reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and watching old Humphrey Bogart movies. Doing that, some connections emerged. And also, the four-year journey of the soul really screamed "adventure game" to me – how you must go on this treacherous journey through the afterlife. It sounded like a big, epic quest.
The crime and corruption of film noir aren't inherently part of the Day of the Dead, but I liked the stories about how people in the afterlife had to worry about money, so relatives would hide some in the lining of their coffins so it wouldn't get stolen. So it's not like Heaven – it's this other world, where you still have troubles and corruption and crime, and that was interesting to me. Also, I just wanted to do something that simply hadn't been done before, and one of the best ways to do that is to look into cultures that are not usually represented in games, and to juxtapose these two things that maybe shouldn't go together. In this case, it touched off this explosion of creativity – every day we were coming up with crazy ideas.
I remember Grim getting several "Game of the Year" style accolades, but while you've said it sold "enough" copies, the genre had lost a lot of commercial appeal. What do you think want "wrong" in gaming at the time that damaged Grim's sales?
If you're a publisher, you have to look at the size of that audience versus the one for a Star Wars game, or something that was just a shooter – these games that you know would represent money in the bank. It's not like adventure games wouldn't sell, and I'm really excited to release Grim now, but the money they'd make wouldn't have represented the maximum take possible for a project at that time. They're just looking for a return on their investment.
It's great that we have tools like Kickstarter now, as fans of adventure games don't care about returns on the investments – they just want the games they love. So when Broken Age happened, that was great. We also have these communities on forums who spread the word about hidden gems.
Community's been a strong factor in keeping Grim Fandango alive, hasn't it?
Yeah, there's a community of adventure games players who've kept all of those old LucasArts adventures playable, using ScummVM and ResidualVM, as otherwise you'd have to pirate these games, or find them on eBay. We really rely on the fans to keep that stuff alive. The new versions give you the point-and-click interface that the original didn't have, but that the fans made, and that will make it more accessible because the original tank controls weren't so easy for everybody. It'll also have direct-drive control, the kind you'd expect in a modern 3D game.
We often like to think of gamers as being quite monolithic, maybe only liking one type of game – but, really, everyone has these completely different profiles when it comes to what games matter to them. Adventure games appeal strongly to people who care about story, originality, and who actually don't mind being stumped for a while because they love that feeling of finally figuring it out. I don't think everyone likes being stuck, so that's the challenge adventure games have. You have to make that "stuckedness" entertaining.
Tim Schafer plays Grim Fandango, part one
With Grim, how did the remastering process even begin?
We've been doing a lot of digital archaeology. LucasArts provided us with all the assets they had, and we dug and scrounged and turned up these original, uncompressed frames for cut-scenes – and we found a bunch of those. We found the original Pro Tools file for the audio, which enabled us to remaster the score with an actual concert orchestra, which was amazing. And we could also go back in and repaint all the characters, all the textures, and make them look so smooth and pretty – and now we've got dynamic light, so when someone lights a cigarette, it casts a shadow on their face.
The original Grim cost in the region of $3 million (almost £2 million) to make. If you were to build it from scratch, right now, presumably that figure would be so far below what you'd need?
Probably – but it depends how we did it. As you may have heard from the internet, I'm not very good at guessing budgets.
Did you have to remain restrained with the remastering process, as to go too far – to make Grim too contemporary – might actually spoil the spirit of the game?
I feel like we trusted ourselves to stay true to the original. Since we made this game in the first place, and have a lot of the same people working on this remaster, we were thinking of the new version as being like the Criterion edition. We wanted to improve the fidelity of everything, without changing the story, or the presentation – by which I mean the order of the puzzles, the actual way in which the characters perform. I think if a fan heard a voice they didn't recognise in the remaster, that'd be really unsatisfying. And we've put a button in there anyway, so you can turn off all the improvements, if you want to.
If this Grim takes off and finds a new audience that demands more, where does that leave you in terms of a sequel?
I've had ideas for sequels for every game I've done, and what I've said before is that I'd love to do Grim as a proper 3D game, with dynamic backgrounds, so that the city of El Marrow would actually be simulated and you could punch out that clown and walk through his tent to visit that festival behind him. That's something I've always dreamed of doing, but no sequel is planned, at the moment. It'd be a challenge, as I think we gave the characters satisfying endings, and it might seem weird to revisit the world with new characters, but... maybe.
In terms of Monkey Island, I know you weren't The Guy on that game – that being Ron Gilbert – but that you were heavily involved. So with it reaching its 25th anniversary, I wanted to ask you about its amazing longevity.
I'd like to think its longevity is simply down to us having so much fun making it. I mean, imagine coming straight out of college and going to work at Skywalker Ranch. It was great! It was crazy, and exactly as much fun as you'd think it'd be. Star Wars was everywhere, and here we were making this new game. The internet wasn't a thing in 1990, so we were pretty isolated up there, and we were really trying to entertain each other when writing the dialogue for Monkey Island.
I'd write stuff, and then Dave [Grossman, co-writer] would try it out, and then Ron would too, and we'd see if he laughed or not. We'd be inspired by each other, and then go away and write something else. Everyone up there was funny, and that's why the game turned out funny.
I guess it's no different to, say, a show like The Simpsons, where writing sessions are collaborative and read-throughs used to gauge how funny an episode is.
It's funny you mention The Simpsons, as that started while we were making Monkey Island. We were like: "Have you seen this?" We'd spend half of our meetings just talking about The Simpsons. I know that show was a big influence on me while we were writing Monkey Island.
In terms of your input in Monkey Island, what part of it can you look at and say: "That's mine. I did that."
It got split up quite a lot. Ron did the ghost ship, and Dave did Herman Toothrot and the Men of Low Moral Fiber. I did a lot of work on Stan, the used-ship salesman, and the villagers [the cannibals]. I was really stuck on the villagers for a long time, and then Ron says: "Why don't you make them really health conscious?" And it was just like, bing!
You mentioned the need for these adventure games to be entertaining even when the player's stuck, and I think that really came through for the first time with Monkey Island. Were you confident that the game's humour would carry the players through, even while they were gnawing their fingers off?
Oh, we knew we were tormenting them – like, "Wink wink, you know the solution's here!" Part of the puzzle design was to give you a really obvious solution, but to make sure that wouldn't work. Like, you have to hammer a nail. Sure, here's a hammer, and here's a nail. Wrong! That's a rubber hammer. You have to make a metal mould, and kill a cat, and do all these things. Okay, we probably wouldn't kill a cat.
Did you follow the Monkey Island series after you left LucasArts?
Y'know, I think they did a good job on Monkey Island 3 [The Curse of Monkey Island], and I was halfway through that when the crunch time came on Grim Fandango, so I lost track of it. Then I started Monkey 4 (Escape from Monkey Island), and didn't finish that, but I did play all of the Tales game that Telltale made. They were funny.