Tim Schafer on his game writing philosophy: “always punch up, never punch down”

“I didn't set out to make a game about healing, but that's just naturally what flows out of going into someone's mind and helping them.”

The story of Psychonauts begins with Peyote. After cutting his teeth writing dialogue for The Secret of Monkey Island, Tim Schafer spent most of the 1990s crafting genre-defining adventure games at LucasArts. During the development of his biker bar odyssey Full Throttle, he wanted to include a sequence where the protagonist eats Peyote and has a psychoactive fever dream. “I was always interested in exploring visions,” Schafer said. “Somebody going on an interactive vision to find a solution to a puzzle is interesting because I think sometimes you know more than you think, you know? Through hypnosis, sometimes people recover memories and things.” Unfortunately, his family-friendly publisher wasn’t keen on the idea.

Schafer was mainly interested in interactive dream sequences because of the metaphoric language on offer. “You can have symbols standing in for other people’s emotions and troubles… but it was not the right time or project for that company,” he said. After directing Grim Fandango, Schafer left LucasArts to start his own studio, Double Fine Productions, in the year 2000.

“Then I was trying to put together a spy game where you would meditate on objects to find clues,” Schafer said. “I was working on it for a while, you were a spy who was very spiritual and could meditate on objects to find clues based on who made the object, and you would go on a journey into your own mind to unravel things.”

Grim Fandango Credit: Lucasarts

The final piece of the Psychonauts puzzle was a stroke of pure fate. “Someone actually misheard me pitch it,” Schafer said. “They were like “tell me about that game you’re making where you go into other people’s minds?” and I was like, “no, no, you go into your own mind,” and then I was like, wait a second, I like what you just said better! I should probably share credit with that person, but I won’t. It’s too late.”

Launching in 2005, Psychonauts was Double Fine’s debut, and it tasked players with exploring mental worlds to unravel a brain-stealing conspiracy. The psychically gifted protagonist Razputin Aquato would use a Psycho-Portal, a tiny handheld door, to enter the minds of others and investigate their subconscious. It was a golden opportunity for Schafer to gamify and explore mental health concepts, resulting in a charming adventure that still feels fresh, funny and profound in 2021.

With such an inspired premise, Psychonauts quickly became a cult classic, even if it didn’t sell well in its heyday. But after sixteen long years for fans, Double Fine has developed a sequel. Psychonauts 2 launches on August 25, and contains plenty more of Schafer’s cool, long-nurtured ideas.

“A lot of times, little half ideas hang out in your mind for years, like I had the idea to do an RTS about Big Daddy Roth demons, and I also wanted to tell a story about a roadie who goes back in time,” Schafer said. “And then one day, they crash into each other and can be the same game. They team up; Idea! Power Up! (Schafer gestures like he’s forming a Voltron) and when they get close, they start sparking and creating other ideas, which is when you know you’ve got something.”

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

Schafer is, of course, referring to 2009’s Brutal Legend. Double Fine’s next big project after Psychonauts was a heavy metal action-adventure game starring Jack Black and Ozzy Osbourne. “Ideas can rattle around in the skull for 20 years before they hit each other,” Schafer adds.

Double Fine’s unorthodox projects have unfortunately been met with publishing problems in the past, but the daring developer was acquired by Microsoft in 2019, during the crowdfunded development of Psychonauts 2. All of a sudden, a staunchly independent studio became part of the growing Xbox Game Studios family.

“When they were talking about doing this deal, it was like ‘what would you do if you had, you know, a little more money, what would you do?’” Schafer said. “And a lot of it is taking time to do the game right and to have the first thing you’re talking about at the meeting be quality instead of time. It doesn’t mean that you have infinite time, but you shouldn’t think about the schedule because that’s just demoralising for everybody.” Psychonauts 2 had been in development for years before the acquisition and was pushed back multiple times before locking down a 2021 release.

“You want the game to ship, but you often get into a state of like “hey” where you’re quietly raising your hand saying, “I thought of a cool idea”, and everyone is like, “NO, we only have…” and you become so overwhelmed with the terror of the schedule that it stifles creativity,” Schafer said. The Double Fine founder feels that his company is in a position to put quality and creativity first with Microsoft.

Psychonauts 2 Credit: Double Fine

This is self-evident when you go hands-on with Psychonauts 2, which is set just three days after the first game. It continues the adventures of Razputin Aquato and his psychically gifted colleagues, a band of secret agents who must investigate the unfathomable.

Schafer had planned to have children voice some of Psychonauts’ younger characters like protagonist Razputin Aquato, but he’s now glad they stuck with adults given the gap between games. “It’s been 15 years for some of us, and it’s been three days for other people,” Schafer said.

“But It’s really funny how, almost instantly, I felt like I was inhabiting the world while they were inhabiting my head, you know, like Raz, Lili, Sasha and Milla and Coach Oleander especially,” Schafer said, listing the game’s main cast. “Once you make a character and try to make it real, it just stays real in your head forever … It’s just a very happy place for me, you know, as an IP.”

Double Fine’s love for its firstborn meant that it was easy for the studio to dig back into its world. “Everyone making it just cares about the world itself so much that it becomes real to us, and we just fall into it completely without popping our heads up and looking around to be like ‘what does the market want?’” Schafer said. “Like, it’s very hard to be in that world and be like, ‘is this something out of the demographic? And does this hit all four quadrants?’ because you just can’t think about that stuff when you’re down there asking ‘what does Raz want’ and ‘how does Raz feel about this’”.

Psychonauts 2 Credit: Double Fine

“It can be dangerous, having the person making business decisions be the person who’s lost in the world, but I feel like it led to better worlds,” Schafer said. “I think it would be a problem if we were trying to make it something it wasn’t.”

Psychonauts 2 feels true to the gameplay of the original as you explore new mental worlds that mash together hospitals with casinos and take you to Yellow Submarine-inspired musical festivals. But Psychonauts 2 also sands down the first game’s sharper edges, introducing several cool new powers and concepts. Schafer identified that the combat and the camera were two key areas to work on when developing the sequel, as well as making the psychic powers more snappy and dynamic in battle.

The newer members of the game’s design team mapped out Raz’s platforming functionality to find ways to innovate. At the same time, the artists brainstormed mental health concepts and moods that Double Fine didn’t implement in the original. This created a natural overlap between disciplines, leading to new powers like the Mental Connections Raz can grapple between that forge new ideas in a subject’s mind. There are also new collectables like Half a Mind, where Raz can find sloppy-looking brains in levels that he must squish together to boost his health bar permanently. Another Psi Power, Projection, was inspired by Schafer’s study of Jungian Archetypes in college.

Instead of incorporating all the hallmarks of modern gaming, Double Fine has tried to make a sequel that is a polished and well-executed version of the original game. But new technology has also allowed the studio to realise ideas that weren’t feasible during the development of Psychonauts, like a post-game state inspired by Toejam and Earl.

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

“We work so hard to make these worlds places people want to go to, like, you want to hang out there,” Schafer said. “I wanted to in the first game, but it was too much work for everybody, so we didn’t do it. That’s why there’s a warning like ‘go and collect everything now because the game is about to be over!” Schafer explained. When players finish Psychonauts 2, they’ll be able to wander around the environments, finish sub-missions, wrap up collectables, and enjoy new dialogue.

When it comes to his unique writing style, Schafer still has his constants that stretch back to his time at LucasArts. “I still love brainstorming, just freewheeling conversations where you’re trying to make puzzles or develop the story. I learned a lot on those [Monkey Island] games from Ron Gilbert when I thought I was writing temporary dialogue because we were just writing silly stuff, you know? And then he’s like, ‘no, this is the dialogue for the game.’ And I was like, ‘aren’t you gonna come in and turn it into serious pirate lore type dialogue?’”

“I remember writing this temporary line – because it’s so stupid – which was ‘Look behind you. There’s a three-headed monkey’, and I was like, Ron’s gonna come later and be like (Schafer shifts into a Pirate’s drawl) ‘HAVARRR, AVAST, LOOK YARR,’ but Ron’s, like, ‘no, that’s great, and let’s get Steve Purcell to draw a monkey,” he explains.

“It was a big lesson, like, especially when we’re younger, we think, you know, adults are in charge, they’re gonna do the serious stuff, and I’ve got to censor myself, and I’ve got to act like an adult, and I’ve got to change my writing to be more serious,” he said.

“And it’s like, no, just put out the dumb stuff! And you can always edit it and take out the bad stuff, but let those ideas that seem really silly come through because often they’re, they’re more entertaining to people,” Schafer said.

The Double Fine founder still has a three-ring binder that he freewrites in whenever possible and consulted documents from the early 2000s to inform the narrative of Psychonauts 2. “It was always going to be about going to Psychonauts headquarters, and it was always going to be about Ford Cruller’s backstory, and that’s been the case since before Psychonauts was finished,” Schafer said.

Across Schafer’s career, his writing has consistently taken the more difficult route of being funny and nice rather than funny and mean. With its artistic interpretations of serious mental conditions, Psychonauts is a game series that deals with plenty of sensitive topics, but there’s a throughline of hope, humour and empathy that radiates from its characters, especially in the sequel.

“I first heard this quote a while ago, always punch up, never punch down,” Schafer said. “Like, it doesn’t seem that funny to be mean to someone who has less power than you or is less fortunate”. Reflecting on the original Psychonauts, Schafer says that there are elements of the game that he would do differently now, given how the conversation around mental health has matured.

Psychonauts 2 Credit: Double Fine

“The first time we just kind of instinctively treated all the characters with empathy, and wanted to show that whenever you meet someone who’s behaving badly, you don’t know what’s going on inside their mind, there might be something they’re fighting inside their mind or struggling with or scared of that you should think about,” Schafer said. “I didn’t really think about it deliberately in that way when we did the first game, but I’m thinking about it that way now, and I’m definitely a lot more careful about how we portray things.”

Double Fine has consulted mental health specialists for the sequel, and Psychonauts 2 opens with an advisory, warning players that while these conditions are presented in “a light-hearted or even comical manner,” they could still cause distress.

Schafer says that better art and characters come from research and personal experience rather than stereotypes, which can be lazy and potentially harmful and stigmatising in cases of mental health.

“Someone told me when one of the actors was recording dialogue for Psychonauts 2; they said ‘the thing I like about this game is every level is about healing.’” Schafer said. “I didn’t set out to make a game about healing, but that’s just naturally what flows out of going into someone’s mind and helping them with what they’re struggling with.”

Full Throttle Remastered Credit: Lucasarts

Looking beyond the release of Psychonauts 2 on August 25, Schafer paints an exciting picture for the future of Double Fine. “I think there are other stories in that [Psychonauts] world that we wanna tell someday, but I’m also really excited I’m working on new stuff because I have these ideas that I’ve been kicking around for years, that, wow, if I didn’t really have to pitch these to a terrified publisher, I could maybe get these really creative ideas made,” he said.

“Broken Age in some ways, was a new game, but it was also a look back on adventure games – the remasters we’ve been doing have been a nice trip down memory lane, and Psychonauts 2 is a sequel,” Schafer explains. “Ever since 2012, I’ve been kind of looking In the past a little bit, so it will be nice to do something completely brand new and not related to anything else.

Psychonauts 2 releases on PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles on August 25.

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