For Tim Schafer, creativity is king

After a legendary three decades in the games industry, the Double Fine founder has never stopped pushing creative boundaries

Before Tim Schafer found a way to make games for a living, he idolised the people already living his dream. It’s hard to imagine – the developer is behind iconic adventure games like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, all titles that are beloved for their comedic chops – but a teenage Schafer thought the prospect was beyond him.

Schafer has been playing video games since his dad brought home a clunky Magnavox Odyssey – the very first commercial home gaming console – and it didn’t take long for his ambitions to take root. After that, “I had an Atari 400 and 800,” recalls Schafer, “And I remember thinking: I gotta figure this out. How can I get a job making games?”

“I wrote to a magazine – I think Analog magazine – asking how I could get a job in video games. I must’ve been in junior high, seventh or eighth grade, and I never heard back! They never wrote back, and that’s when I gave up my career in video games,” mourns Schafer, with a hint of laughter in his voice. “I was like, okay I guess it’s just out of my reach – but I couldn’t imagine who made them. They seemed like this distant, different type of person – another level – so I gave up.”

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

Even when Schafer tried his hand at making “basic” games with a pal from high school, the suggestion that they set up a video game company seemed fantastical. “I was like no, we can’t, that’s not people like us,” Schafer recalls saying. “We’re losers, they’re really super smart people.”

Luckily for us, that didn’t quite pan out. Though Schafer says he believed getting into the industry was “impossible,” after leaving college he saw a job listing at LucasArts, owned by Star Wars and Indiana Jones creator George Lucas. It’s here that he would go on to work on cult classics like Day of the Tentacle, a critically acclaimed game brought to life with lashings of Schafer’s trademark wacky humour. Even today, Schafer’s knack for comedy runs strong, and the developer says LucasArts was a “magical place” that gave him the confidence to explore his zanier side.

“I remember thinking: I gotta figure this out. How can I get a job making games?”

“It really helped me learn how to write more economically,” explains the developer, who recalls having to work on his editing skills due to the era’s fairly limiting technology. “We’d have these crises of having too much text to fit on the floppy disk in Monkey Island, so we had to cut our writing down. I was like, ‘I can’t cut my writing – it’s perfect,” exclaims Schafer, with mock outrage.

At one point, Schafer remembers thinking he was writing temporary dialogue for Monkey Island, and believing Ron Gilbert – one of LucasArts most famous developers, and the game’s director – would come in and write the serious text. “ I thought it was temporary, because we were writing goofy stuff in our own voices – then Ron was like, ‘No, this is the dialogue for the game – this is what it’s gonna be!’ If I had known that, I wouldn’t [have written it]. That’s when I learned [about] that kind of casual, inspiration-driven writing…I realised that sometimes the ideas that seem silly– the ones you want to hide from other people – are the ones that are the best.”

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

Though Schafer enjoyed an astounding run of games released at LucasArts, he left the company in 2000 to found Double Fine Productions. The studio’s first game, Psychonauts, was a platformer about psychic spies who use their powers to enter the cartoonish worlds of people’s minds and resolve their problems. It was a critical success, so much so, that Schafer says “a lot” of later Double Fine employees were drawn to the studio because they loved it so much. And in the 17 years since its release, Double Fine has defined itself with games brimming with the same colour and humour – think Brutal Legend, a metal-fantasy-strategy starring Jack Black, or the charming Costume Quest series, which sees twin siblings take on some very-real monsters when their Halloween trick-or-treating goes wrong. However, it seemed inevitable that Double Fine would eventually return to the game that started it all – and last year, it released a sequel to its mind-reading classic.

While Psychonauts 2 was a massive success for Double Fine, Schafer admits that making its predecessor was one of the team’s biggest challenges to date. The studio head says it involved “one of the worst crunches” he’s ever participated in, and involved developers working “until five in the morning, for days on end” to get it out the door. While Psychonauts 2’s rocky financing was an issue in itself – the game was originally crowdfunded, and original publisher Starbreeze Studios went bankrupt during development – Schafer says that crunch-time during that first game was a major learning lesson for himself and the company.

“We were just like…oh god, that was terrible. That’s wrong – let’s never do that again. To this day, it’s still a struggle, but the important thing is to not normalise it. If you have crunch mode, it means something went wrong. Either you overscoped, or you lost some productivity for some reason, or something bad happens. As long as you don’t say that’s normal…you say, how do we fix that problem? That’s the important thing: and it’s a constant struggle to get better at it every game.”

“Changing our tendency toward crunch behaviour, and [improving] quality of life for people who work in the games industry is really important,” Schafer adds.

Psychonauts 2 was such a long haul. So many things went wrong, just like the first game – we lost our publisher at one point. It was such a roller coaster, and at certain points, it really didn’t feel like it was going to be good,” admits Schafer. He explains that it “took awhile” for the sequel’s premise to click with the team, but once it made sense, it was a matter of working hard to make it happen.

“Psychonauts 2 was such a long haul. So many things went wrong, just like the first game – we lost our publisher at one point.It was such a roller coaster, and at certain points, it really didn’t feel like it was going to be good.”

Despite these problems, Psychonauts 2 launched to critical acclaim. NME awarded it five stars in our review, and like many, found a lot to love with the way that Double Fine had broached the subject of mental health. The cartoonish platformer touches on topics like depression, trauma and addiction, and Schafer says it was particularly rewarding to see the game recognised as an “empathetic take on the human mind.”

“It was really important – because it’s a comedy – that people knew we weren’t making fun of people, but were looking humorously and lovingly at the human psyche.”

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

That shift in tone required some changes to the way Double Fine approached a sequel. While Schafer recalls developing the first Psychonauts thinking “we’ll just be light-hearted about it and everything will work out,” he points out that it what he calls a“different time” and there was “a lot less sensitivity” toward many issues. “Some things we did in the first game, we didn’t do in the second game on purpose – but we’re just older, and had more sensitivity to a lot of issues that naturally express themselves in the game,” explains Schafer. “It was important that it had the same kind of jokes and humour, but [also that we] cared more.”

Schafer says this has been a major point of growth – not only for himself, but for the entire industry over the years. Though Schafer says he’s proud of indie developers for “moving the cause” on inclusivity, he adds that it’s “an ongoing education, for everybody – no one ever stops learning.”

“I thought I’d learned a lot, and then we tested a game and people pointed out a word and asked if we knew what this word means to certain people,” recalls Schafer. “I had no idea – and people will criticise that and say ‘woke culture, PC police’ and stuff – but for any art, I’m thinking about how my art will be interpreted by the viewer. If I’m making a horror game, I want the viewer to be scared – is this effectively scaring people? It’s a comedy, is it making people laugh? Is a romantic comedy making people feel romantic?”

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

For Schafer, the best comedy should never punch down.“If you’re told you’re hurting people [and it’s] a comedy, it’s not supposed to be hurting people,” he continues. “You naturally want to think about how your words affect people, and make sure that the artistic intent is successful. Are you using shaming words? Alienating depictions of people? The best writing is never based on stereotypes. The best writing is based on research, or real world found-dialogue or your own personal experiences. It always makes for writing that punches through as unique, as opposed to a grab bag of stereotypes.”

Schafer, who has worked in the games industry since 1989, says a shift in sensitivity is one of the industry’s biggest changes over the years. However, he says there are a few areas he would like to see change further. While dismantling crunch culture is at the top of his list, Schafer also wants to see more creativity make its way into games, and people “making games that don’t look like games that already exist.”

“I wrote to a magazine asking how I could get a job in video games. I must’ve been in junior high, seventh or eighth grade, and I never heard back! They never wrote back, and that’s when I gave up my career in video games.”

“When you go to a theatre, there’s a movie for your kids, your grandparents, and there’s a movie for everybody – romantic comedy, action, stuff like that. But the scope for games is still kind of limited in that way,” he explains. “I still think there’s so many types of games to be made, that aren’t – and they’re games that would draw more people in, who don’t consider themselves gamers right now. I would like to keep pushing the boundaries of what a game is […] It’s so important to expand people’s concepts of what a video game can be.”

“Where are the romantic comedies? Games have gotten so gritty and dark – TV has been doing that too – [but] part of me wants characters with big, bright red shoes running around,” says Schafer, who jokes that he would “love” an Elden Ring comedy spin-off. “I always wanted to do a [The Simpsons] Treehouse Of Horror episode for some big, serious IP like Skyrim.

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

On the subject of other games, Schafer says that he still finds the time to play plenty – this year, his favourites have included Ron Gilbert’s Return to Monkey Island, BlueTwelve’s feline adventure Stray, and Zelda-inspired adventure Tunic. Schafer explains that although “It’s very easy for people in this profession to say they don’t have time to play games anymore,” he finds they help push his own creative drive in new directions.

“You play them and it’s not like you want to steal the ideas – like ooh, I want to make a game about a stray cat – it’s more like you think about why the game made you feel a certain way, and you wonder if you could make somebody feel that way with other techniques. You break apart those atomic components [for inspiration],” he says, explaining that his brain will “whisper” ideas to him as he plays.

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

For Schafer, that sort of creative energy is what’s kept him in the industry for so long. Rather than searching for the next Minecraft, he says he’s still continually drawn towards the projects that make him happiest. Rather than become a wizened and jaded industry veteran , Schafer laughs that he “often feels like I have this kind of age dysphoria, where I forget how old I am.”

“I’ve been very careful about taking care of my own enjoyment in my career,” explains the developer. “ You can get pushed into roles you don’t want to do, or pushed into making games you don’t want to make, just because that’s what people want, or that’s what you think you can sell. You can end up in these dead-ends in your career, where you’re just doing something you just don’t want to do, and quit – you just don’t feel excited when you wake up in the morning. I’ve always steered toward the thing that makes me the most happy, so that I can still say after 30 years, I’m really happy to be making games.”

“If you want to make a game, you’re exactly the kind of person that makes games – you can do it too.”

As Double Fine’s head, Schafer’s desire to push creative boundaries has naturally moulded the direction of his studio. “The number one thing that we strive for is creativity, trying to just do games that haven’t been done before, that people haven’t seen before,” he says. “It’s very important to me, and we’ve been lucky enough at the company to create a safe space for creativity. People could pitch all sorts of wild ideas, and just experiment with trial and error, and not really be bound by what’s been done before.”

Under that philosophy, Schafer’s favourite Double Fine title is Happy Action Theater, a 2012 game that Schafer directed with his two-year old daughter in mind. Over camera, Schafer impersonates an emotionless gamer playing a traditional action game – slack-jawed, and staring listlessly into his webcam – then compares it to a room-full of hyper children “jumping up and down” whenever he brings out Happy Action Theater at his daughter’s birthday parties. “Watching people jump in the air with absolute glee? I can’t think of anything I’ve made that made someone as instantly joyful as that game,” smiles Schafer. “I’m very proud of it – it’s probably the smallest-selling game we’ve ever made, but I still love it.”

Five years after Happy Action Theater, Double Fine was acquired by Microsoft. Schafer explains that the gaming giant has actively tried to avoid having an effect on the studio, and has instead provided more resources, allowing Double Fine to be more ambitious with their projects. Looking ahead, Schafer says Double Fine is now “limited only by our creativity” and reiterates that “treating the team well, and making great games – really creative games – is what we stand for.”

Additionally, with the added financial security that Microsoft’s acquisition has brought, Double Fine’s future is something that Schafer is immensely excited for. In the past, Schafer spent sleepless nights worrying about going broke, and pointed to times when he thought Double Fine would “crash and burn” – particularly during the development of the Psychonauts 2, when its future was uncertain.

“I’ve always steered toward the thing that makes me the most happy, so that I can still say after 30 years, I’m really happy to be making games.”

“If we went out of business, the whole four years of working on Psychonauts would have been for nothing – that version of Psychonauts vanishing into the ether was really painful to think about,” recalls Schafer, who adds that the thought of his team being left out of a job would have been like being “kicked in the teeth” after their hard work.

Now though, the Double Fine founder is infectiously optimistic about what lies in store. When asked about revisiting any ideas he never got to make, he offers a solemn “yes” – letting the answer hang for a second before bursting into laughter because he’s not allowed to talk about it. Now, Schafer is a far cry from the teenager reeling from an ignored letter to a magazine – but it’s a moment he’s never forgotten. “When I wrote to that magazine, I didn’t think it was me who made games,” reflects Schafer. “ I thought it was other people. I want people to see that developers are people, just like them.”

Tim Schafer
Credit: Marisa Bazan for NME

Though comedy is a neglected genre in gaming’s big leagues, Schafer has carved out an empire with his talent at writing zany, delightfully eccentric titles. For many budding developers and writers, Schafer and Double Fine have become the sort of legend he would have idolised in his teenage years – but he doesn’t want to be treated with the same reverence: “If you want to make a game,” advises Schafer, “you’re exactly the kind of person that makes games – you can do it too.”

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