By Oldirtybearon 17 Comments
Tim Schafer is an interesting chap, isn't he?
He's got that sort of Mad Scientist hair-cut that many self-flagellating faux-intellectual aspire to craft, and he's got that kind of wispy half-beard that speaks of "I'm an artist, and I don't give two shits about what I look like". These are bad qualities when discussing someone who hasn't seen hide nor hair of success. However, this man, this Tim Schafer, has had quite a bit of success, hasn't he?
From my understanding, his first real writing success (and that is the key understanding here; Tim Schafer is a writer first and foremost) from the Monkey Island series of games. From there he also wrote and produced titles like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. From my understanding, these are adventure titles and reputed to be very funny, if not touching on some emotional level.
I write this all down because Tim Schafer, to me, is someone who has a lot of good ideas... and absolutely no damn clue on how to execute them.
I will profess here and now, that I am the quintessential Nobody. I haven't accomplished nearly any of the feats Tim Schafer has, and I doubt I ever will. Life has treated us both very differently, and personally, I do like his style. This blog, however, is about the misconceptions we as the gaming community seem to have about this chubby, innocuous artisan.
Let me preface this odd little thing by stating that I have only played two of the Monkey Island titles, skipped his later adventure games, and have only played his most recent foray into the console market in the last six years. It is armed with this lack of knowledge or, perhaps, this removal from Schafer-dom that I feel I can articulate why it is his games, for lack of a better term, don't sell.
It's funny, though, isn't it? Tim Schafer is held up by many gamers with fond memories for his work as someone to be inspired by. He's done a lot of interesting things, experimenting with genre-melding and has, consistently, crafted well-done tales about many different objects. He's made funny games, he's made a serious game (From what I've been told, Grim Fandango fits this description), and he's made bat-shit-crazy-why-the-hell-not games (Brutal Legend). Yet in the entirety of Tim Schafer's catalogue, I can't help but wonder why it is that this modern day comedic genius has not really seen the monetary success he seemingly deserves.
I must also admit I have never played Psychonauts. I've heard from all who have played it that it was a fun platforming game with a cool story and really hilarious scenarios. I can safely say I had no interest in the title, and skipped it in lieu of something else (as I imagine many other gamers did, as well). So what does that leave me with then, to try and articulate Tim Schafer's lack of monetary success?
This game was destined to be fantastic, I thought. I can remember sitting in front of a Mac's convenience store--on the curb with my butt staining the short-cut summer grass--and flipping through that month's Game Informer magazine. It promised the reveal of the "next comedic adventure by Tim Schafer's studio Double Fine". It was intriguing, and I had never really heard of this Schafer character before, but the art design was inspired, and it looked genuinely different from anything else I had seen that year. I read the article, I enjoyed it, and I began to look forward to Brutal Legend. I mean, surely a game that was a simple ode to classic heavy metal was going to be a success, both critically and commercially. It had seemed that, with the rise of Guitar Hero and the return of Rock N' Roll, that a game of this magnitude, a game that had you playing as a demon-slaying Metal Roadie in a fantasy land ripped straight from heavy metal album covers... it just seemed like a can't lose scenario.
And oh my God, how I was wrong.
Now, Brutal Legend isn't a BAD game. Far from it. Each of the game's mechanics work competently well. The problem, however, is that none of it--all mashed together--is exactly fun. It's just... not. The hack and slash elements are slow and stilted, lacking the fluidity of a Devil May Cry or a God of War title. The open-world adventuring was slow and tedious thanks to the poor navigational system and lack of mini-map, and the RTS elements... well... let's just say that if Blizzard couldn't figure out RTS controls for the N64, then there's simply no hope for the genre on a console.
So why is it, then, that I and many other gamers endured the lacklustre gameplay? Was it for the story? The characters? The plot? No, I don't think so. When you boil it down, distill Brutal Legend into its most basic components, what you have is a rather bland I-can-do-everything sandbox game. The design is certainly inspired, yes, and the musical score (when not being assaulted by Amazing Metal™) is decent. The voice acting, too, is well done and each character is brought to life quite swimmingly. So why then, does this game not live up to the hype?
It seems to be that the Tim Schafer name has become a brand of sorts. For evidence of this, look no farther than the boxart for the game Brutal Legend. It has his name in a decent sized font right on top of the logo. "A Tim Schafer Game". What does this say, then? I think, honestly, the pretension one must have to think his name will sell a title is a little preposterous in this industry. Games are not the same as television or film, because there is no single creative vision. It is the collaboration of a hundred artists working together under a shared vision. It can be steered by a producer or a "Creative Director", but in the end, it's not their project alone. You can't point to one game and say "This game exists because of a single person". You just can't.
That, in my opinion, is the first sign of Tim Schafer's problem.
So again, why did this game not live up to the hype? If I were to put a finger on it, I'd say it's because while Tim Schafer has tremendous talent as a writer, he has absolutely no idea on the basics of a well-designed game. A game cannot stand alone on its story and voice acting. You need interesting if not outright fun gameplay to reward the player. This coupled with the lack of an oversight on "his" project, and I believe that is why we have the RTS elements that we do. I'm pretty sure that if he were simply The Writer, what Brutal Legend would have become was a competent hack-n-slash with some open world elements that was well written and beautifully designed. Alas, we did not get this, and I feel that the major culprit of this nefarious deed is Tim Schafer himself.
Honestly, why is it that this game has such loving detail spent on its writing and cutscene composition, and yet almost no attention is paid to the gameplay? The gameplay is key, isn't it? It's the reason we play games, or at least, that's what most people would think.
And yet we have broken combat and barely functional RTS gameplay. I mean, it baffles me. After all these years and all of these great RTS studios have tried and consistently failed to bring an RTS to consoles in a competent way, what the hell could have possessed one Tim Schafer to think that Brutal Legend would have worked out differently?
I almost hate to say it, but I think it's arrogance, on his part and EA's.
And that's really what it boils down to: arrogance. To Tim Schafer's credit, the man is genuinely a funny and a seemingly nice individual. While it may be emasculating to say so (and that is not my intent), I honestly don't think that man could harm a fly. He just doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body... and yet, why is it his games just fucking suck at gameplay? It's arrogance. Plain and simple.
I think the problem with Tim Schafer Games™ is that the man has no one challenging him. Everyone from the gaming press to the gaming community reveres Tim Schafer's work for being brilliant fiction for the medium. There is only so long a person can ignore that kind of praise without starting to believe it. There is nothing wrong with confidence, but once you start believing everything you touch will turn to gold, that's when you let little things like bad animation and jarring navigational systems muck up your game.
What Tim Schafer Games™ needs is someone to challenge him. Not the aloof arrogance of believing that good writing will see you through to critical (and more importantly, financial) acclaim. The man has been in the games industry for almost--if not--twenty or more years. He cut his teeth on adventure titles where gameplay consisted of clicking on objects and seeing what got you through a puzzle and what didn't. To make the leap from that to third-person platforming, to third-person hack n' slash-and-everything-else-too is not a good idea without some entity overseeing it and making damn sure you get the gameplay right.
As it stands, Tim Schafer does very good writing, but really, when you boil it down, the man needs people around him that won't gawk at his creativity and lavish him with high praise. What the man needs is someone willing to say to him "That's a bad idea", and like all technical and not creative types, they can be the unsung heroes that often save a title.
So what's the point?
The point, I suppose, is that Tim Schafer is a very talented writer. What he is not, however, is a talented game designer. I think, personally, that the more critical the gaming press and community becomes of this aspect of his work, the sooner we will see a rise in quality. And perhaps, maybe, just maybe, the first financial break-out title for a man (and studio!) who so richly deserve it... if only for the sheer creativity he and Double Fine bring to the table.