Game Designer Tim Schafer and Elijah Wood Discuss the Making of ‘Broken Age’
The acclaimed video game maker and actor tell us about the very modern creation of an old-fashioned adventure.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of VICE Magazine in the UK.
It's been over three years since Tim Schafer and Double Fine first announced Broken Age, and throughout that time it has risked being overshadowed by the hoopla surrounding it. That's hardly surprising considering its unconventional origins. An idea spawned from a documentary pitch, its crowdfunding campaign exceeded its goal by a factor of eight, and its A-list star was recruited via Twitter.
The story began when documentary maker 2 Player Productions interviewed Schafer for its 2012 film Minecraft: The Story of Mojang. The company wanted to make a warts-and-all story about a game's development from inception to release. "It sounded really appealing to me, because I like attention," Schafer jokes. "But also I wanted to show people that games were both easy and hard to make, so people could see the dedication of the team, and how much work and care goes into all the games you play. It seemed a good opportunity to throw the factory doors open."
For Schafer, it also represented an opportunity to highlight the pressures studios often face from publishers. The troubled development of Double Fine's 2009 adventure Brütal Legend is well documented, with Electronic Arts stepping in to publish the game after Activision cancelled the project, prompting lawsuits, countersuits, and an eventual out-of-court settlement. But Schafer knew that publisher involvement in the documentary would present a false picture. "It wouldn't be very good if we had to get them to approve everything, as they wouldn't agree to anything that might portray the game in a less positive light. So we decided to [crowdfund] a game as well—not as an afterthought, but as a secondary idea."
Having been successfully funded for the Minecraft documentary, 2 Player Productions suggested Kickstarter as a platform for the campaign. "What people were doing with Kickstarter at the time was enabling things to happen that couldn't happen," Schafer says. "That made me think about the games we get requests for, that we have a passionate following telling us to make but don't have the money [for]." His mind naturally turned to the point-and-click adventure, the genre in which he'd made his name, with the likes of Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, but which no longer seemed financially viable.
Double Fine set a modest target of $400,000, which would include the production costs for the documentary. Schafer envisaged a game built in Flash over three months or so, akin to the free titles it had featured on its website, albeit more polished and substantial. "We didn't ask for less than we needed," he explains. "That was the right amount of money for the game [we thought we were making]. And when it got over-funded, we thought, 'Hey, this is the same budget we had for Grim Fandango.'" But Schafer felt no additional pressure. "Panic really isn't the word. It was a great feeling. It may be surprising, but getting millions of dollars all at once is an incredibly pleasant sensation. [Our reaction was] more like, 'Wow, we can do this thing right.'"
Schafer had conceived Broken Age's story as two intertwining coming-of-age tales. Experienced voice-over artist Masasa Moyo was recruited to play the spirited Vella (Schafer pays generous tribute to her performance), but the casting of Shay, a likable everyman smothered by overbearing parents, was rather unorthodox.
"It all really started when I saw Tim's Kickstarter campaign," Elijah Wood says. "Even though it had far exceeded its [target], I contributed as well. I mean, I was a huge fan of Tim's games—Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle shaped my teenage years, and he was the first game designer I really knew by name." Wood tweeted enthusiastically about the campaign, and Schafer noticed and reached out to him. "He asked if I'd be interested, and I said I'd be honored," Wood recalls. "We didn't know whether he might just want to do a cameo or something," adds Schafer, "but he [said], 'No, I'll do Shay!' and he was great."
'Broken Age,' PlayStation launch trailer.
"He turned out to be a big nerd in the best possible way!" Schafer enthuses, and it seems the admiration is mutual. Broken Age isn't the first game Wood has voiced, though he describes the opportunity to work with Schafer as "extraordinary." During early recording sessions, Wood constantly made reference to lines and characters that Schafer had written in his LucasArts heyday. An actor rarely accepts a role without first seeing the script, but Wood needed no second invitation. "Not at all! I blindly signed on. That style of game hasn't really existed for quite some time, and as a fan I was very excited by Tim returning to that format." It quickly becomes clear Wood is extremely game-literate; he cites art-house adventure Kentucky Route Zero as a recent favorite.
It's a collaboration both would be keen to revisit. Wood credits the "truly incredible" work of voice director Khris Brown, and says he's excited both at the chance to work with Schafer again and the possible revival of the point-and-click adventure. "I think even Double Fine was surprised by the success of the Kickstarter," he says. "That they got so much sends a strong message that fans love those games. I think people getting to play these classic LucasArts games on their computer or console is a beautiful thing—and I believe Full Throttle may be next in line."
Schafer, meanwhile, would be happy to repeat the process, even given the often brutal nature of documenting the lows of development. "It's [been] very uncomfortable to watch sometimes," he admits. "We'll be sitting in the same room where we had this horrible meeting where we talked about what we had to cut from the game." But for a boy who regularly wrote to game magazines seeking insight into the creative process, it's a useful glimpse into what life is like in the trenches. "It puts you in difficult positions sometimes, sure, but I think the end product is valuable—enough that I would do it again."
Broken Age is out now for various platforms including PC, PlayStation 4, Vita, and iOS.
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