Tim Schafer – Double Fine interview
After previously releasing remastered versions of LucasArts classics Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle, Double Fine is nearly ready to send an updated edition of Tim Schafer’s biker adventure Full Throttle our way at maximum speed. Luckily, just in time before the game releases for PC, PS4, and Vita on the 18th of April, I was able to get hold of Tim Schafer for an extended Skype interview with the legendary designer. As you can imagine, there were loads of things to talk about. Read on as we discuss all-things-Full Throttle Remastered, have a look back at Tim’s days at LucasArts, and discover more about the many projects currently going on at Double Fine’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Ingmar: Hi Tim, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you!
Tim Schafer: Hi Ingmar, good to talk to you! How is it going?
Ingmar: It’s going very well, thank you. I know you’re a busy man, and having watched the Double Fine documentary, I know how you feel about press work, so we better get started. (grins)
Tim: WHAT? (laughs) I love press work!
Ingmar: That’s the problem with doing such documentaries, you know. (both laugh)
Tim: What did I say about press in that documentary? I don’t remember anymore.
Ingmar: Just kidding. There was this one scene when your producer Greg Rice was telling you about potential press appointments that week. You didn’t seem too excited as you had lots of things to do on Broken Age. That was perfectly understandable, of course.
Tim: You know, Tim Turi from Game Informer was like: “It blew my mind to watch that documentary, and see how you guys discussed our interview.” There’s this scene where I was handing out Game Informers to everyone on the team, and Tim was like: “That’s so weird. It never occurred to me. I just never thought of the team sitting around, reading our article, thinking it could be a big deal for them to get that kind of coverage.” (laughs) It’s funny, because there’s a bigger divide between journalists and game developers than you think it is.
Ingmar: Speaking of the documentary, I watched the whole thing again when I prepared for this interview. Good timing to say thank you, as the documentary is unlike anything else out there and a great insight into game development!
Tim: Yeah, we had two different missions going on there. 2 Player Productions had their mission, which was to document the creative process, you know, and my mission was to pull back the curtain. I really wanted to show everybody how game development is really like, because I always wanted to know when I was a kid. (laughs) I’m glad it’s out there!
Ingmar: The remastered version of Full Throttle is about to be released, and the remasters of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle have been out for a while. A long time has passed since you worked on the original versions. As a fan, I have vivid memories of originally playing most of the LucasArts games. When I played Day of the Tentacle Remastered, for instance, I immediately remembered how my brother gave the original game to me as a Christmas gift, and how I could barely wait to get into my room on Christmas Eve to check it out, and having a blast playing it with my friends during the holidays.
Tim: That’s awesome!
Ingmar: I have loads of memories that come back to me as a gamer, and many other adventure fans certainly feel the same way. How does it feel for the developer to revisit those days?
Tim and Purple Tentacle in the LucasArts years
Tim: It’s really fun and very rewarding. The way we make the remasters, doing the commentaries, finding the concept art, etc., it’s a little bit like a team reunion. On Day of the Tentacle I got back together with Dave [Grossman], and we played the game together all the way through. It was amazing to just spend time with Dave again as we’ve both been so busy these last few years. And also, like you, I have very strong memories. When we played through a scene that one of us wired up, you remember staring at things for days and days, making small micro adjustments, and just playing that scene again, and again, and again; certain lines of dialogue you heard over and over and over again, so that sticks in your head. Depending on what the game is, I remember sitting at Skywalker Ranch, what my desk smelled like, you know, (laughs) what we were doing that day, who I was going to lunch with… sometimes crazy memories will come back to me.
But most of all I remember that weird time that we were making these games. We were in this perfect storm of great things, which is that we couldn’t make licensed properties, we couldn’t do Star Wars, we had to make up new stuff, we were making adventure games, and also… we were funded! (laughs) We didn’t worry about money; we were sitting on a big pile of Star Wars money. There were a lot of really good times.
When it comes to the memories I’m enjoying most, doing these remasters, there’s also the team. Grim Fandango just represents this amazing coming together of artists, and I mean all kinds of artists: programmers, audio artists, actors, the writing combined with the music, and so on. So many talented artists came together to make this game, and it’s fun to see that snapshot of all these people working together.
Ingmar: Full Throttle Remastered is launching this month. Please give us a summary of the improvements.
Tim: We did a lot of things we did for the other remasters, like we got the team back together to record commentary for the game, we went back and found uncompressed versions of the audio. A few of the voice actors passed away, both Roy Conrad and Hamilton Camp; not that we were ever going to re-record anything or change the characters, but even if we wanted, we couldn’t. So we found the uncompressed audio sessions, re-cut and re-edited those, and we went back to Keith Karloff – the leader of The Gone Jackals – and got his re-released tapes of all the music remastered in stereo, which is amazing.
And then we re-painted every cell of animation, and every background, which is just crazy. This is the most ambitious part of the all these remasters because Full Throttle has that streaming mine road, and tons and tons of frames of full-screen animation, more than any game that we had done before. We had Shiny Shoe – a developer from across the street – working with us on all the remasters, including Full Throttle. It came out looking great!
Starting with the first Monkey Island: Special Edition from LucasArts, when I started playing I wanted it to be exactly the game I remembered, so I started on classic mode – same thing with Full Throttle. Then I switched back and forth, and after a while I was, like, “you know, Ben is easier to look at in this remastered version; I’ll stick with the remaster.” Then, at some point, I switched back and forth again as I thought, “what did Ben use to look like?” (laughs)
Ingmar: Personally, I was glad you didn’t turn the gameplay elements in Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle upside down by changing a lot. What have you changed this time when it comes to the gameplay in Full Throttle?
Tim: We made a couple of tweaks on the mine road – that you might not notice – to make it a little less frustrating and a little more intuitive. Other than that, we haven’t changed anything. Well, of course, everyone has walkie-talkies now instead of guns. Just joking! Tons of machine gun fire, it’s still happening! (both laugh)
Ingmar: Grim Fandango still has cigarettes, so I wasn’t worried about that.
Tim: We’re not revisiting the games in that way. We’re revisiting them as if we’re making a blu-ray version of an old VHS tape – a high-fidelity version with respect to the work of art that was made back then.
Ingmar: Full Throttle was the first project at LucasArts you worked on as a project leader. How difficult was it to convince them of the concept? I mean, it was quite different from all the other adventure games the company created before.
Tim: It was, and I almost got fired! (laughs) You know, Dave and I had done Day of the Tentacle, so they asked us: “what do you want to do next?”, and we would both work on our separate ideas, and then they said, “why don’t you pitch us five games each?”, as if that would make it better. So, "give us five games, including a pitch for a Monkey Island sequel, and a pitch for a Day of the Tentacle sequel.” I wrote an idea for a Monkey Island game, wrote an idea for a Day of the Tentacle sequel, and then I wrote a pitch for a spy game, a Day of the Dead game, and a biker game. Me and Dave both pitched five games, and I remember they read those, and they pulled us in their office and were like, “you guys! We don’t even know what to say! Do you want to do any of them?!” The fact that we pitched so many made them feel like we weren’t passionate about any of them – even though that’s what they asked us to do.
They calculated how much money we got paid to make these documents. They were like, “we paid you this much to make these documents! Go back, you have one week, pitch us one game!” I was like, “I’m gonna get fired” because they were really mad, so I just went back and thought to myself, “which one do I really want to make?” And it was the biker game, so I wrote a deeper look into it that kind of explained what my thinking was.
Full Throttle's Vulture Rock, classic and remastered versions (click image to enlarge)
Ingmar: How did you come up with the concept in the first place?
Tim: It was a story I wanted to tell because I had talked to a friend who hung out with bikers in Alaska. It sounded like this amazing alternative fantasy world, you know, because at LucasArts we didn’t want to do straight fantasy; we always wanted to do alternative fantasy world stuff, like pirates. But also, back in the day, whenever a new LucasArts adventure game came out, it never felt like they were selling very well. We were always comparing ourselves to King’s Quest, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and we were just trying to break a hundred thousand copies. (laughs) Also, people had all these problems with adventure games, like, “I hate being stuck,” “I hate the interface,” and so on, so we were always trying to streamline the games and take out the things that were frustrating.
You know, I love Bernard Bernoulli and Guybrush, but I was like, “we make fun of those characters so much, that you’re kind of making fun of yourself when you play those games.” Maybe people who like to make fun of themselves like those games, but maybe some people prefer the fantasy of being cooler and stronger than they really are, and Ben is that character. I was thinking this could be more popular, and it was, so I feel like that actually turned out to be true. It may not have been because Ben was so tough, I don’t know. It was definitely a creative impulse to make the game, but there was also kind of a thinking about how to reach more people.
Ingmar: Since Full Throttle sold more than one million copies, I’m wondering where all those new players came from. Could this to some degree be related to the success of games like Doom, as the action elements of Full Throttle also appealed to their audience?
Explosions in HD!
Tim: Where did they come from? That’s an interesting question! Maybe it was because it looked like an action game, and had explosions on the box. You know, I don’t want to lay this all on Full Throttle. We had this legacy at LucasArts for a while, so maybe it was that more people had played Monkey Island since then, more people had played Day of the Tentacle. Each game was selling a little more than the one before. Each game was building on the success of the previous games, so Full Throttle had a lot of advantages. I guess things kind of exploded for Doom and stuff, but shooters had not completely taken over the market yet as they would after Quake, Unreal, and all that.
Ingmar: You mentioned that Sierra was selling a lot more copies of the King’s Quest series than LucasArts did with their previous adventure games. I grew up in Germany, and as you probably know, the LucasArts games were a lot more popular over here, so that situation might feel kind of surreal to some German adventure game players.
Tim: (laughs) Maybe that’s because they [Sierra] didn’t have the great translations of Boris Schneider-Johne [translator of several LucasArts adventures and Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park].
Ingmar: Actually, Sierra started offering German translations years after LucasArts started doing it, so who knows, maybe that’s an important part of the reason.
Tim: That may have been the Lucasfilm influence, because Lucasfilm was an international company already. Another thing that’s strange is, I’ve heard an interview with Roberta [Williams] where she talked about how she was always conscious of the fact that LucasArts games got better reviews than the King’s Quest games even though King’s Quest sold a lot more. So… it’s like we were both envious of each other’s success in a different way.
Ingmar: I didn’t even mean to bring up the whole LucasArts vs. Sierra story, as you probably got asked about that a lot in the past. Turns out this is just too interesting not to discuss it, though.
Unnamed Sierra competitor
Tim: You know, I like talking about it. I think it’s a symptom of the fact that we didn’t have the internet back then. Nowadays, I’d be Facebook friends with those guys, and we’d all be making fun of each other on Twitter. Back then, we just didn’t talk at all, except for a couple of people that knew the Coles. There was a little back-and-forth, so the Coles came to the ranch to play softball, and they beat us. (laughs) They put it in the Sierra newsletter, but didn’t even mention the name LucasArts, just “Sierra beats competitor in softball”, and we were like, “oh my god, guys!”
I got to know Lori Cole a little at GDC last year; we were on a panel together. They were much more aware of our games than we realized. We thought that we had this competition going on, and they weren’t even aware of it, but they were much more aware than we thought! They kind of saw us as taking over. Lori was like, “we were on top for a long time, but after Monkey Island things started to shift, and Lucas took over.” They had a completely reverse idea of that competition than we had, which is that we were always up against them, and they were winning. I mean, they definitely won the sales war. We’re winning the remasters war, though! (laughs)
Ingmar: Getting back to Full Throttle, you mentioned that you decided to streamline the game experience. Please tell us a little more about your approach to the puzzle design in Full Throttle.
Tim: I was trying to do something a little different with the puzzles in Full Throttle. I talked about that a little in the commentary, but when you see the junkyard and it’s locked up, and you pull on the chain and must figure out how to pull the chain to get up to the top, it was the first example of “I want to make puzzles where it’s all kind of on one screen.” Up to then, a lot of our puzzles were about “collect these five objects, mix them all together, and you’ve got five hundred objects in your inventory. We’ll make it a puzzle by just confusing the player with so many inventory items.” (laughs) I thought I’d prefer to have nothing in the inventory, and you’ve just got to look at the screen, and figure things out. That’s a lot of what the puzzles in Full Throttle are like.
Ingmar: Full Throttle was developed at a time when CD-ROM technology enabled developers to do a lot of things they couldn’t do before, and many companies started putting a stronger emphasis on film elements. What was your vision of how the game could benefit from a more cinematic presentation?
Mo's shack, Full Throttle Remastered
Tim: I mean, we were always trying to push what we could do with adventure games. I remember wiring up the scene where Guybrush runs out onto the pier, and he sees LeChuck’s ghost ship taking off, and that ghost ship sails away and fades into the night. It was just a very small piece of the screen, but the framerate just went dooooown. (laughs) We were like, “we’ve got to make some changes to the engine, so we can animate full-screen stuff.” We pushed that a lot on Day of the Tentacle, you know… the Edisons running away from the mansion when they’re scared of the skunk, and the brothers jumping out of the window. That was a huge thing, even though when the Edisons were screaming, only their eyes and their tongues were moving. We wanted to push that even farther, and I think we resented how hemmed in we were by how many pixels we could move at the time, but we kept pushing against that until we were moving the entire screen all of the time, and Full Throttle was doing that a lot.
As Larry Ahern explains in the commentary, a lot of that was actually to get some savings. Some of the inspiration was Out of this World [aka Another World]. It’s more of an action game where you die a lot. They use these camera angles, and they’re really dramatic. And even though it’s really low-poly, chunky, and jaggy, it’s visually expressive. The character gets into this elevator, and the whole screen is just like a crack of the light moving in the elevator. It’s like a Luc Besson movie. (laughs) You’re seeing this tight frame, but it’s really cinematic, and that’s what we tried to do with Full Throttle. You know, we had a lot of action, but then we cut really fast to Ben’s face, and just show his eyes move a little bit, then someone walks into the room, and we cut away from him to show Ben’s eyes again, and cut back to the other person. We saved a lot of money on animation, but it also seemed more dramatic when we cut to a close-up. (laughs) But still, it was the most expensive and time-consuming game I had ever made.
Ingmar: Around a third of the original concept was cut, right?
Tim: We were just not getting done, and everyone was like, “you’re gonna sink the company with this game”, so we had to cut out a big chunk of it, for sure.
Ingmar: Quite a few companies at the time were pretty ambitious about live-action video. Do you know if the executives of LucasArts, other than using that technology for cutscenes in action games like Jedi Knight or Rebel Assault II, ever toyed around with the idea of doing live-action video adventures?
Tim: Hmm, I think not. I mean, management didn’t really drive the creative process. It was the project leaders who came up with creative ideas, and we liked working with the artists. I’m surprised that [Hal] Barwood didn’t do this as he was the film director of all of us, but he liked stylized art, too, so I think we all just really liked the stylized art our artists made, and we never wanted to move away from that to make something that’s "more realistic".
Ingmar: LucasArts cancelled two Full Throttle games you were not involved in, Payback and Hell on Wheels. As the creator of this world and its characters, how difficult was it to watch these developments from the sideline?
Early Double Fine Schafer
Tim: That was part of the reason I left LucasArts to found Double Fine. I heard about the first one through the rumor mill. I was like, “hey, what are Larry [Ahern] and Jonathan [Ackley] doing now that they finished Curse of Monkey Island?” Someone was like, “oh, they’re working on a Full Throttle sequel”, and I couldn’t believe that no one from the company came to me and talked to me.
It wasn’t like I left in anger because of that, but that made me realize “I don’t own anything that I’ve made here, and that’s fair, I guess, because I have been paid for it, but if I’m ever going to own any of my properties, I’ll have to leave”, and that started the seed of the idea of founding Double Fine. Then, after I founded the new company, work on the second sequel started, and I wasn’t a fan of the way it looked, and I wasn’t optimistic about it being true to the original. Of course, I didn’t want that team to be out of work or anything, but I was relieved when the game was cancelled.
Ingmar: When it comes to the sales of the remasters of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle, do you have an inkling of how many of the old fans bought the games in relation to new players?
Tim: You know, we don’t really have a way of telling if they’re old or new players, but the remastered versions sold more than the original copies, so I feel like that’s got to be all the old players and more.
Ingmar: Is there a realistic chance that Double Fine might also remaster other LucasArts adventures that you weren’t involved in?
Day of the Tentacle Remastered
Tim: We’re in favor of that as long as the original creators themselves are interested in working on that with us, and it’s just a matter of trying to get permission. We need permission from Disney to do that, and, you know, it can be hard to get those deals made because Disney is a very busy company. But I would like to!
Ingmar: Any personal favorite(s)?
Tim: I would love to remaster… well, I don’t want to name anything because it might be interpreted as an announcement, but anything you could name, I’d probably be happy to remaster. They’re all special and unique!
Ingmar: Do you think it’s still viable to do point-and-click adventures from scratch that aren’t based on a popular IP or accompanied by the kind of hype that surrounded Broken Age?
Tim: I mean, I don’t think it’s realistic to spend millions of dollars on them like we did, but adventure games don’t have to do that. Especially with crowdfunding, it’s possible to pull things off independently. The great thing about adventure games is that they’re very story-based, so they’re not set in how much art fidelity they need. We used fancy art on Broken Age because we like fancy art, we like working with artists, and we like art that’s really polished, so Broken Age went for a very polished, stylized look, but you definitely don’t have to do that to tell an amazing story. I feel like, actually, South Park gave that lesson to a lot of people by saying: “look, if the script is good you don’t need to blow people away with your art.”
Ingmar: What games that you played in recent years left a strong impression on you?
Tim: I think the adventure games that really made the strongest impression on me in the last few years were the Amanita games. I think you can see that when you play Broken Age; there’s a strong Machinarium influence on it. I mean, those were some of the only new adventure games made that were widely played before crowdfunding kind of brought a lot more adventure games onto the market. There were other adventure games, of course. But since then, all kinds of different things made an impact on me. I mean, I really liked [Middle-earth] Shadow of Mordor. (laughs) It had a really, really interesting nemesis system, and the way they told the story with the orcs, you know, I felt was very interesting. I also loved Hohokum; did you play it?
Ingmar: No, actually, I didn’t. I do have Shadow of Mordor in my Steam library, though, and still haven’t played it, so thanks for the reminder!
Tim: Well, yeah, when it starts off, Shadow of Mordor is all bland, and I felt like I was playing in a muddy trench. But as you get into the interaction between these orcs, and how you can kind of work within their political system to work against them, it’s hilarious. But Hohokum is beautiful, really relaxing, and fun. It has an interesting way of telling a story, and there are puzzles in it. The same company [under a different name, Hollow Ponds] made this game, Loot Rascals, which just came out. I’ve been really obsessed with it recently, which is strange because it is like a rogue-like, and I usually don’t play rogue-likes, but the art is great, so, yeah, I’ve been getting into this one.
And we just published David OReilly’s Everything [available on PS4, coming to Steam on the 21st of April], which is unlike any other game that you have ever played. It’s really like a meditative exploration of reality, if you will. There’s also Night in the Woods. You know, it’s more of a story game than an adventure game, I guess, but it’s just the kind of writing you don’t see usually. Oh, and I just started the new Zelda!
Ingmar: As we get closer to the end of this interview, it would be great to also get a status update on the other projects DoubleFine is officially working on at the moment.
Tim: Yeah, we haven’t talked about our other adventure game which is out there. After Broken Age, I felt like “I’m not gonna make another adventure game for a while.” When we started working on Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, in our minds it was “just” a VR game, but then half-way through we were like, “hey, this is a point-and-click adventure.” It’s more physical because you’re lifting objects through 3D space and stuff, but you’re picking up objects, and you’re poking, and you’re probing, talking to people, and doing adventure game puzzles. So, right after Broken Age, we immediately worked on a point-and-click adventure called In the Rhombus of Ruin. If you have a PlayStation VR, you can play that one!
Otherwise, things going on at Double Fine are that we are making Psychonauts 2; we are hard at work on that one, working with Starbreeze as our publishing partner. And we are working on a secret project, which has not been announced yet. We’re remastering Full Throttle, of course, and then publishing things like Ooblets, Knights and Bikes, David OReilly’s Everything, and Gnog, so… a lot of good things that we’re associated with.
Ingmar: It must be pretty awesome to work on Psychonauts again.
Tim: Oh, yeah! This is a world I have a lot of affection for. It was our first game, so we have a lot of fondness, and it’s great to get back together all those actors, all the artists, go back to that world, and yet have new people on it, like Zak McClendon the lead designer, bringing a lot of great platforming-type design work that we didn’t know much about on the first game.
Ingmar: What has your experience developing for VR been like? Is this something you’d like to explore further when it comes to your future design work?
Tim: Yeah, I mean, I don’t have any rules about it; we’re a very inspiration-driven company, so if we get an idea for a VR game, we’ll make it. I wasn’t a skeptic, but I was not as enthusiastic about VR at first as a lot of people who were immediately willing to say all games are going to be VR from now on. I was, like, weeeeeeell, maybe. But we made In the Rhombus of Ruin, and by the time we were done, I just loved that game. I love being in that world with the Psychonauts, and Milla is bending over to talk to you, and you’re looking into her eyes, and you move your head to the side, and Milla turns her head to look at you. It’s very powerful, you know.
The feeling of presence is so strong, and then we put you in the rhombus, and you’re in this gigantic space, and you’re looking at little bits of dust floating around, and you feel like, “wow, I’m in this crazy world!”, which is what we’re trying to make you feel like in an adventure game all of the time. I think this is a great platform for adventure games because you’re in this other world, and the interface for adventure games is so simple. You don’t need to move around, and do things that would typically make you feel nauseous, so I would love to see more of those games.
Ingmar: Now that we’ve reached the end of this interview, it seems appropriate to close with a few words about my favorite ending of a Tim Schafer game. I noticed the Casablanca references in Grim Fandango, even though I didn’t initially know it happens to be your favorite movie. The ending of few movies have had as much of an emotional impact on me as Casablanca still has, and Grim Fandango has a very similar effect on me. They both have that certain kind of magic!
MINOR SPOILER WARNING for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus
Rick and Ilsa... err, Manny and Meche (Grim Fandango)
Tim: That’s awesome, and that means a lot because we were really inspired by Casablanca. It’s still my favorite movie, and I still feel film schools should be watching it over and over because everything is done so well. In some ways, I feel like they were a little braver than us as they had a sad ending, and how many games would pull that off? Not many games would make you fight, fight, fight, and then have Zelda go off. (laughs) I think Ico and Shadow of the Colossus actually do have kind of a sad ending, but there aren’t many games.
But it means a lot that you like the ending. I felt very emotional about those characters as well. I mean, Manny and Meche had a great relationship, but the part that always got to me is when Manny and Glottis were hugging.
Ingmar: Tim, thanks so much for your time. It was great to talk! All the best with the release of Full Throttle Remastered and the other Double Fine projects!
Tim: Thanks so much, it’s been my pleasure!