I am a gamer but I’m not the kind of gamer who likes to play gritty war games like Call of Duty or sports games like Madden or huge online games like Halo, Warcraft and The Sims with a bunch of strangers. I am more into sweeping adventure games and epic stories and artistic beauty and likable characters. The truth is that I dislike realistic action games immensely because they are so formulaic. I want video games to transport me to another world the same way animated movies do. Which is why I love Tim Schafer so much because he always makes the types of games I love. Which keeps him on the outskirts of the mainstream gaming industry, but that has mostly been to his benefit throughout his career, artistically if not financially.
Before Tim Schafer broke into the video game industry while he was studying computer science at UC Berkeley, he applied to work for companies like Atari and Hewlett-Packard while developing databases for small companies as an intern. This career path went nowhere for a while but when he found out George Lucas’s game division Lucasfilm Games, popular at the time for its PC game Maniac Mansion, was looking for people who could program and write dialogue, he realized it was the perfect job for him as he would often write short stories as a hobby while trying to advance his programming career.
Schafer was hired by the company (known throughout most of his career as LucasArts) in 1989, basically as one of the grunts who had to figure out how to implement the ideas of the lead game developers using the LucasArts game engine SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) which spawned the nickname “scummlets” for the grunts. Schafer worked on games like the NES version of Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game alongside fellow scummlet Dave Grossman under the guidance of Maniac Mansion writer-director Ron Gilbert, who would later offer Schafer and Grossman the chance to work on PC adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) which really set Schafer forward on his career path.
The Secret of Monkey Island was a point-and-click game in which you control a wanna be pirate named Guybrush Threepwood while navigating a fictional version of the Caribbean, and by Gilbert’s account, Schafer and Grossman were responsible for about two thirds of the game’s dialogue, which was much more comedic than the average game (a sign of what was to come from Schafer later in his career). This offbeat but fun game was highly acclaimed by many and its success led to the sequel Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991) which Schafer also co-wrote.
Schafer’s first lead role on a LucasArts game was as co-designer, co-writer, co-director and co-producer of Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle (1993) in which friends Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne team up to stop an evil sentient tentacle from taking over the world, travelling through time and visiting such periods in history as the American Revolutionary War in the process.
Schafer’s first solo lead role was as designer and writer for Full Throttle (1995) which follows Ben the leader of a biker gang who is framed for the murder of a motorcycle manufacturing mogul.
One of Schafer’s most critically acclaimed games was also his final game for LucasArts. Grim Fandango (1998), which was Schafer’s first game to feature 3D worlds, was about a travel agent in the Land of the Dead named Manny Calavera who guides souls to the afterlife. In addition to the Aztec belief of life after death, the game was inspired by film noirs like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
All three of Schafer’s games from LucasArts would later be remastered and introduced to newer generations after Schafer reacquired the rights from Disney following their purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequently LucasArts in 2012, with Grim Fandango Remastered coming out in 2015, Day of the Tentacle Remastered coming out in 2016 and Full Throttle Remastered coming out in 2017.
Several developers at LucasArts left to start their own game companies during Schafer’s time there, especially when Grim Fandango’s lackluster commercial success caused LucasArts to focus less on adventure games, and while Schafer recognized the benefits of working for a big company owned by the guy who directed Star Wars, he did love the intimacy of creating video games with a small independent group of creatives, which often produced the best ideas, so Schafer left LucasArts and founded his own studio Double Fine Productions in 2000 and started working on a long gestating idea for a video game called Psychonauts.
Set in a remote government training facility for psychic-powered youths known as Psychonauts (disguised to the outside world as a summer camp), the game follows young protagonist Razputin Aquato (Raz for short) who runs away from the circus against his father’s wishes to become a Psychonaut. Throughout the game, Raz will learn how to use telekinesis, pyrokinesis, invisibility and other psychic powers while also entering the consciousness of certain individuals and resolving the psychological issues that are plaguing then from inside their minds.
Published by Majesco and first released for the Xbox in 2005, the game was incredibly creative, fun to play, full of hilarious dialogue that rivaled an episode of The Simpsons and received critical praise just like all of Schafer’s other games, but unfortunately, just like Schafer’s other games, it was not a commercial hit and its poor sales put Majesco in financial trouble, but Double Fine bought back the rights from Majesco in 2012. This was the first game of Tim Schafer’s that I played and it made me an instant fan of his, so I am bummed about its lackluster success, but it has enough of a cult following that Double Fine was able to fund a sequel via crowdsourcing. Psychonauts 2 (2021) has also received positive reviews and many are saying it improves upon the original.
Following Psychonauts, Schafer directed and wrote Brütal Legend (2009) which starred Jack Black as a roadie named Eddie Riggs (it also featured the voices of heavy metal musicians such as Ozzy Osbourne) and combined the world of rock and roll with epic fantasy when Eddie gets transported to a medieval world (inspired by heavy metal album cover art which Schafer observed was often medieval in nature). Another critical success but commercial failure, Double Fine would work with many publishers and develop many different types of games to stay afloat as a company in the 2010s.
Throughout this period, Schafer would try something new like directing the Kinect motion-sensing casual game Double Fine Happy Action Theater (2012) with the idea being creating a game that his two-year-old daughter could enjoy. It was targeted specifically at children and was a fun time for many children who had the chance to play it.
Schafer would return to adventure gaming when he launched a Kickstarter-funded game called Broken Age released in two acts, the first act released in 2014 and the second in 2015. The point-and-click game follows the lives of two teenagers with no apparent connection named Vella Tartine (voiced by Masada Moyo) and Shay Volta (voiced by Elijah Wood) whose main similarity is that they both seek to break the tradition in their lives. You could switch between playing as each character at any time. Critics found the game’s story heartfelt, funny and full of depth, especially the first act.
Schafer’s motivation for crowdfunding the game came from the fact that many publishers were wary of the adventure genre when, like I said, things like Halo and Minecraft were much more financially lucrative. Despite this, Broken Age was one of the most successful Kickstarter projects at the time at over $3 million.
Crowdsourcing via the website Fig (of which Schafer sits on the advisory board) is how development on Psychonauts 2 got started and that method is not off the table for future Double Fine games, although the company received a huge boost in 2019 when Schafer sold the company to Microsoft. Schafer initially came to Microsoft for financial aid on the development of Psychonauts 2 but Microsoft counter-proposed buying the company in exchange for their aid, which Schafer was sold on after being assured that the tech giant would not interfere in their development process, something Microsoft has had a good track record on with its previous acquisitions. This means Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine are free to be creative and focus on making great games with Microsoft’s financial stability backing them. Looking forward to the crazy ideas that will come out of Tim Schafer’s mind in the future.