It’s been almost two years since Tim Schafer appealed to his fans to fund the traditional adventure game he yearned to make but publishers wouldn’t take a chance on. When the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter raised $3.3M, more than eight times the amount Schafer asked for, his plans grew as well. He went on to design Broken Age, a game comparable in scope to his 1990s titles Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango—and his eagerly awaited return to the genre is almost upon us.
Traditionally, each Tim Schafer game is radically different from the last, and Broken Age continues the trend. Schafer describes the plot as “two stories [that] are parallel and have a lot of similarities,” with two teenage protagonists, a boy and a girl, coming of age and questioning the expectations of their respective societies. The girl, Vella, has just been selected for a "great honor": to be sacrificed to a monster, Mog Chothra, who eats a maiden every 14 years in exchange for not destroying her town. “But she raises this question, ‘Isn’t there another way? What if we actually fought the monster?’ and everyone sort of just laughs it off,” Schafer explains. “And she makes a decision that she then has to deal with the consequences of, and try to rectify the situation and fight against Mog Chothra.”
The other storyline follows Shay, who lives alone in outer space on an “incubator vessel” that carried him to safety when his world was dying. The ship’s maternal computer has coddled, nourished, and entertained Shay his entire life, shielding him from potential dangers that lurk beyond the pod bay doors, but Shay has recently become suspicious of its motives and determined to take control. Like Vella standing up to Mog Chothra, Shay’s decision to hack into the spaceship’s controls and steer his own course will have repercussions that he must deal with for the rest of the game.
During a recent visit to Double Fine’s office, I watched over Tim’s shoulder as he played a portion as Vella in Meriloft, a colony in the clouds. Though my demo was too brief for me to really savor Schafer’s writing, his knack for coming up with odd people, places, and scenarios is clearly as prevalent as ever. A giant blue bird named Jessie carries Vella to Meriloft after her initial fight against Mog Chothra, and Vella’s goal here is to find out where the monster is going next so she can kill it. As Jessie sulked in her nest, refusing Vella’s attempts at conversation, Tim explained that her egg has been swapped out with a golden substitute, a calamity Vella must resolve by finding the real egg and returning it. But first Vella needs to acquire special shoes so she can walk around the colony without sinking into the clouds. She’ll also encounter various members of a “cult of lightness” whose guru, Harm’ny Lightbeard, encourages shedding excess baggage from their lives (including letters of their names).
When Vella ascended a twisty-turny ladder to meet the revered Harm’ny, I got to hear one of Broken Age’s celebrity voice actors, film star Jack Black. (He voices the guru—a hippie-dippie type with birds nesting in his cloud-draped hair and beard—with a lilting, slightly stoned drawl befitting a cult leader.) Black’s involvement is a nod to the ‘90s, when many of the genre’s early talkies boasted Hollywood talent. It’s a luxury most adventures with their relatively small budgets don’t enjoy these days, but Broken Age will be an exception. Double Fine recently revealed that Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, a backer and adventure game fan, will play Shay. Other familiar voices will include Star Trek: The Next Generation alumnus Wil Wheaton, Hynden Walch (TV show Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum), and Nick Jameson (Day of the Tentacle’s Dr. Fred and Max in Sam & Max Hit the Road).
Elijah Wood as Shay in Broken Age
Broken Age’s aesthetic reminds me of illustrations from Caldecott-winning children’s books, but Schafer disagrees: “When you say children’s book I feel like people really just mean ‘painted.’ It’s children’s book in that it’s got a stylized, friendly look to the characters … but we’ve also gone to a lot of detail.” Though the art is 2D, the engine employs some technological tricks commonly used with 3D graphics, such as dynamic lighting. This is evident when Vella crosses from one side of the screen to the other, the glow on her hair subtly changing as she moves between light sources. (“That helps the characters sit in a scene and actually feel like part of the painting,” Schafer explains.) The characters are made of individual pieces that flow together, similar to the paper cutout effect used on television’s South Park, with occasional parallax hinting at depth in a universe that, in line with backers’ expectations, exists in only two dimensions.
In many ways, Broken Age is a fitting follow-up to the LucasArts adventures that came before it—almost as if its designer hadn’t been dabbling in other genres for the past 15 years. With a simplistic UI that Tim considers an evolution of the well-worn SCUMM interface, the screen is uncluttered, allowing the stylized cartoon artwork to shine. The inventory, stored in a horizontal “tray” at the bottom of the screen that only becomes visible when you move your cursor down there, works basically like the old SCUMM inventory: you can select an item from the tray to use it in the environment, or drag one item over another to attempt to combine them. During conversations, dialogue options display at the bottom of the screen just like in the old LucasArts games. But in spite of these old-school roots, everything about the presentation is “elegant and modern,” as Schafer noted during our demo: “I feel like this treatment of the UI is really slick, and is something that doesn’t look like you’re playing a ’90s game.”
Of course, no discussion of a “traditional adventure game” would be complete without the verb debate. Like most modern adventures, Broken Age uses a smart cursor that represents whatever verb makes the most sense in context. Though this may come as a blow to some old-school fans, Schafer says this represents a refinement he and others at LucasArts were always trying to make. “Even back when we were working on Monkey Island we were [asking], ‘Can we get rid of some of these verbs?’ Because we didn’t like the way they look on the screen, and also they’re not really relevant to most puzzles. When a door is open, ‘open’ on the door is not interesting. ‘Close’ is interesting, but ‘use’ on the door will open or close it based on the context of the door. If you do ‘use’ on a closed door it opens, and if you do ‘use’ on an open door it closes. So really ‘use’ is more interesting than ‘open’ or ‘close.’ And using an object that’s on the ground is the same as picking it up. So then we were like, are we going to get rid of everything except for ‘use’? No, that would be too much of a break. So we never did it, but that’s what adventure games have matured into,” Schafer says, noting that Psychonauts, the action-adventure he created after Grim Fandango, also had a smart cursor.
Because of the smart cursor, creating unique and useful dialogue lines for each interaction is now much more attainable than in the verb coin days: “If there are 9 verbs, and maybe 15 inventory items active at any one time, [the designer has to do a lot of work] to think of a proper response for all of that. … So trimming it down to the really meaty things helps you focus the writing and response generation on the stuff that’s meaningful for the puzzles.”
The settings and situations Shay and Vella find themselves in will be reflected in the gameplay and puzzles we can expect with each character, at least in the first part of the game. “She’s got all the dialogue trees. He has very few dialogue trees,” Schafer says. “Also [they have] different types of puzzles; he’s got some pattern matching-type things that she doesn’t have. She has more item combining.” Schafer didn’t necessarily design the game with this intent: “It kind of naturally fell out of their situations, the kind of puzzles you come up with for each one. In some ways you just try to watch that and make sure the balance is interesting. Because I feel that’s the way it should be, the puzzles should reflect the characters who are doing it and also the situations they’re in. That’s why a lot of Ben’s puzzle solutions [in Full Throttle] were him kicking down doors instead of picking locks. He doesn’t pick locks. To me the ultimate goal is someone feeling transported to a fantasy world that they want to stay in, and gameplay and story are both hooks to that situation.”
It hasn’t been revealed yet whether Shay and Vella will cross paths during the game, but we’ll definitely be able to switch back and forth between them while playing, like in Day of the Tentacle. “The idea is that when you get stuck on a puzzle you can switch over to the other character and work on that for a while,” Schafer says. Designing puzzles that will have players stumped was actually one of his goals in creating a traditional adventure game, but we should get plenty of contextual hints along the way from the dialogue of Shay, Vella, and the characters they encounter. “I feel like, when you really do an adventure game well, the hints are all in the fantasy. Like if you talk to everybody, they’ll almost tell you the solution to the puzzles, they’ll mention it so many times,” Schafer says.
Tweaking the difficulty until it’s just hard enough has been one of Double Fine’s recent focuses: “It’s a really interesting process, because we have never playtested an adventure game this thoroughly before, really watching people play and seeing how no one is clicking on the thing I thought that everybody would click on.” (So far the game has only been playtested by Double Fine employees and close friends—backers won’t get their hands on the beta until mid-January.) “We got rid of a lot of the things that were hanging everybody up, but then I was like, oh no, now it’s too easy. So we went back and took out some hints that we put in, because to solve a problem we put in like three hints, and we realized we could take two of them out and people were still getting through it. … And now I was like, okay, I think we’ve got Act 1 to the point where it’s not too hard and not too easy, but I think I want to make Act 2 a lot more challenging. Because it can’t be easier than the first act, it has to be harder.” He’s now reworking Act 2’s design to reflect this feedback, with the inclusion of more inventory combination puzzles as one of his action items.
Backers at qualifying tiers will get access to an Act 1 beta on January 14, with a more polished version to be publicly released a few weeks later. The second half should follow this summer. It might sound suspiciously episodic, but Schafer doesn’t see it this way. Double Fine’s decision to release Broken Age in two parts is logistical: after Tim designed the game, he realized the Kickstarter money wouldn’t entirely cover its development, but he didn’t want to compromise his vision by scaling back. Instead, Double Fine opted to put additional money into the project along with early access profits (a model that has already worked well for their space station simulator Spacebase DF-9). What’s the benefit of playing now, versus waiting? “For some people it’ll be that they feel they can weigh in and have an effect on the final game by checking out the first half. Or they just can’t wait, because they’ve had to wait for two years,” Schafer says. While the early access version of Act 1 will be final, he says that players’ reactions could lead to changes in Act 2: “It’s good that we can get that kind of feedback on the game, because usually early access games don’t get reviewed and it allows us to have a really big beta in a way.”
For more insight into Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure journey, read on for our Q&A chat. You can also learn more about Broken Age on the game’s official website.
Emily Morganti: You went into the Kickstarter not knowing how it would go; maybe the game would be really small and weird but you’d have a cool documentary about it. How has that process been, having people with cameras filming your inner workings?
Tim Schafer: It’s been great for me because I really liked telling the story, just because I’ve been doing game development for so long and I felt like most people don’t know what really goes on when you’re making a game. … It’s this weird thing to make software that’s entertainment, and all the problems with software, and all the subjectivity of entertainment and the unpredictability of complex software multiplied by each other. So like I said in the pitch video, either it’ll go well or it will all go to hell, but either way it’s good for the documentary, and I definitely think we’ve lived up to that.
Emily: How is the response from backers who are watching the documentary and commenting on what they’ve seen? Has that changed your process at all?
Tim: We invite their feedback. It has an effect on the game, a positive effect. Little things like we had this visualization test where we made up a bit character, this lumberjack; he wasn’t really part of the game, but people really glommed onto him as a character, “I love Curtis the lumberjack, I’m so sad he’s not going to be in the game.” People were lamenting it so much that I was like, “I’m going to design him into the game,” and he totally normally flows into the game, and that was just from noticing their reaction to him. It’s not like we do formal playtesting with [backers], but we do put up concept art and kind of get a sense of what they love and don’t like. We did solicit ideas once for environments, and it was like 52 pages long, this thread of just environments. There’s so many it’s hard to even read through them all, but we did pull at least two environments from that that made it into the game.
Emily: Did you ever have it in your head that the game was going to include something that you backed off from after getting feedback?
Tim: I guess I would say I do have an idea for how I want the game to be, but a lot of stuff that fed into the forming of that idea came from feeling like I knew the backers, from reading their comments on the forums. That they liked adventure games. … They were mostly very supportive, “you guys just do what you do,” and of course everyone has their opinion of “I think you should have a verb coin” or “I think you shouldn’t,” but I got a sense that they weren’t looking for a reinvention of adventure games.
Emily: Have you heard any of the pushback people have against Telltale’s games, “don’t make it too much like an interactive movie”?
Tim: What Telltale is making with Walking Dead—they’ve had a lot of success with Walking Dead, and I think it’s a game that’s related to adventure games, but it’s not an adventure game really. It’s a new thing, it’s a different thing. It’s got Quick Time Events, but it doesn’t really have any puzzles. Most of the puzzles are solved by eventually clicking everything on the screen and maybe figuring out the right order to do that in. [But it has] choices of greater consequence than most adventures have. So they’re going after a different thing that’s totally valid. But the reason I had confidence to make [a traditional adventure]… it was the fact that we had all these backers, and we were hearing their voices, it created this feeling that they would be there. They gave me the confidence to make this game in this traditional way.
Emily: You know that there are at least 87,000 people who want it like this.
Tim: Exactly. And they already paid me for it. I’m going to make it for them. And that’s even a change from what we did in the old days. A lot of people don’t realize that every single adventure we made at Lucas, there was a sense that it was a failure, from management, because they never sold as much as King’s Quest. We were trying to hit 100,000 copies or 200,000 copies, and King’s Quest was selling more than that. And so every time we made a game we would get a lecture from management. Even George [Lucas]—George would tell management, “You guys are like the Merchant Ivory of games, and I want you to be the Star Wars of games, not the Merchant Ivory of games. You make these well respected games for a small audience, why can’t you make games for a bigger audience?”
[Because] each game was considered a failure, [after every game] we’d do this exercise of “How can we bring more people into adventure games?” And that’s where things like doing full screen animation with Day of the Tentacle came from, the action sequences in Full Throttle, and making Grim 3D. That was a real commercial move, to make Grim Fandango 3D, and it’s seen as this really arty, nichey kind of game, but [actually] it was like, “Let’s make it 3D! 3D’s so hot right now!”
Emily: Do you read reviews?
Tim: Oh yeah.
Emily: The first adventure game since Grim Fandango, are you nervous about that?
Tim: With Brutal Legend, there was stuff in that game that I didn’t see reflected in a lot of the reviews. And I started to realize that in the end, you know whether you did a good or a bad job with the game, and it’s hard for that opinion to be changed by a review. If you thought you could have done better, even a good review’s not going to cheer you up. And likewise if you think the game is really good and you’re happy with it, a bad review can still be a bummer, but it’s not going to really change how you feel about it. I’m always going to be a little anxious about the response to something, but there’s a lot of easing into it that’s happening this time around. I mean we’re playtesting a lot, getting a lot of feedback, we’re getting the beta to the backers and we’ll get a lot of feedback from that, so it’s not like no one’s seen it and then everyone’s going to see it, this cliff that we’re going to jump off. By the time a lot of people see it we’re going to have [made] a lot of really smart tweaks to it, that hopefully will make it so people just love it.
Emily: Is that different than your experience at LucasArts?
Tim: It was more of a bubble at LucasArts, and also there was no internet until Throttle. Like, we’d send that stuff out and we’d get a print review months later, at that point you’d already moved on. I remember Full Throttle came out and it was my first time experiencing people on a chat room complaining about how short it was. That was my first experience with the internet and the feedback you get from that. And Grim, there was internet in ’98 for sure when Grim came out, but it was such a grueling crunch to finish it that I walked out of the office the day it shipped, I never even checked. GameSpot gave it Game of the Year and that was awesome, but I mostly did not follow up on the reviews, I just kind of walked into the desert.
Emily: Obviously there’s been a lot of internet scrutiny on the Double Fine Adventure, from the very beginning, but it’s mostly been positive. That changed a bit when you announced that the game would be split into two parts. How did you feel about the backlash?
Tim: It was upsetting because we hadn’t gotten anything negative in a long time and that was a big wave of negative press, but a lot of our backers came to our defense. Because a lot of the press headlines were wrong, they were like “Double Fine’s out of money” and “Broken Promises”—that was a common one. It was the first time that the comments were easier to read than the articles, because the comments were like “no, they’re not actually asking for more money,” [the backers] corrected that, and that was very satisfying. That pointed out what you get when you do something where you’re really open with the public, you are more vulnerable, but you also get a lot more people on your side, a lot of advocates, people who realize that they’re part of it, they’ll defend it like they’re defending themselves. So it brought us closer with our backers.
Emily: You recently acquired the rights to Costume Quest and Stacking, which were previously owned by a publisher. Would you ever try to get the rights to Full Throttle or Grim Fandango?
Tim: Yes. I would always try to get those back, and Ron [Gilbert] has too, we’ve always tried over the years. It’s hard to explain to them [Disney, who now own the LucasArts properties] why it makes sense for them to do that [sell the rights], because it does. We’re more motivated to do stuff with it if we own it, and they can take a share in that.