Tim Schafer on puzzles, poop jokes and returning to point-and-click with Broken Age
Tim Schafer is the CEO of Double Fine, having made his name in the ’90s with his involvement in the first two Monkey Islands, Day Of The Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. The past few years have seen him experiment with new forms in Psychonauts, Brütal Legend and Stacking, though, so we ask him how it feels to return to the genre that he helped define.
How was it returning to writing duties, and the point-and-click genre?
I’m always more comfortable in that role, writing all the dialogue, because I’m kind of controlling about story, character tone and stuff like that. I was really familiar with certain things that were going to happen, so it was really interesting working with a team who hadn’t made an adventure game before and watching them learn all about them, and how handcrafted and hard to make they are. Every moment in these games is created – it’s not like a system that is then expanded over a set of data. With adventure games, every time you pick up an object and talk to somebody that moment has been handcrafted by someone.
Broken Age’s puzzles are slickly designed. Did you consciously try to avoid the kind of head-scratching associated with the genre in the ’90s?
We definitely tried to remove some of the crazier, really illogical and impenetrable puzzles from the old days. The monkey wrench puzzle in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge seemed to make complete sense to us at the time when we were sitting giggling in Ron [Gilbert]’s office about it. But then when I played the special edition, I was like, ‘How did we ever expect anyone to get this?’ Especially someone who doesn’t use the term ‘monkey wrench’ – someone who might call it a spanner, for example. Just a few clues would have made that more apparent. But there’s a contingent of our backers who are like, ‘That’s the best. I worked on that all night. I love that!’ Unfortunately, you can’t tune a game to everybody, and we really wanted this game to have a flow to it and play in a way that everyone could finish it. I think that’s going to make it maybe go faster than a game that kept you stuck for three days on one puzzle. But I also hope people enjoy the journey, and it’s not necessarily about banging your head against a wall, but about the interplay between the characters, the story and the puzzles.
We awarded Double Fine’s Kickstarter-backed adventure an 8 in our recent Broken Age review.
Some critics expressed concerns that Broken Age’s interface is tablet-focused, and limiting as a result. What’s your response to that?
Our response is we’ve changed it. We [were] in a beta with our backers and that’s exactly the kind of stuff that we wanted to hear. We were really trying to make the best interface and continue the streamlining we’d done in the old adventure games to have more of the screen filled with beautiful art rather than UI, and so it got simpler and simpler as we went along. Dragging verbs around was simply what I had been used to with other games, and a lot of our PC players wanted to click on an item then click on the world.
Stool jokes aside, the story feels very mature.
I always liked Kurt Vonnegut. His books are very funny, but they’re aware of the range of human experience and how it can be very tragic and sad. That doesn’t mean it’s any less enjoyable overall. In some ways, being aware of the hardness of life is what makes the sweet moments more sweet, and so I think that’s been present in everything I’ve done. There’s a bittersweet element to Full Throttle, for sure, and that’s how it ends. And Grim Fandango was a lot about death and regret and choices like that. In Psychonauts, it’s more hidden in the levels, but since you’re in people’s minds, you could really get in there and see their sadness and fears. They’re not meant to be super-dark stories; they’re just about life and what people go through. I think Broken Age is a lot like those, but then, when you get into the gameplay of it, you have a talking spoon and there are poop jokes. That’s what life is all about: tragedy and poop jokes.
“They’re not meant to be super-dark stories; they’re just about life and what people go through,” says Schafer of his work.
Are you disappointed that half of those poop jokes have had to be held back for the second episode?
At first I was kind of resistant to [splitting the game in two], because I imagined the game as a whole, and it’s frustrating to see some of the reviews say, ‘It’s good, but it’s short; it feels like half of what the game should be,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what it should feel like.’ But by the time we were done and I saw that last cutscene all polished, and the way it felt after going through this adventure with these people, I was like, ‘Man, that is a great place to end,’ because it brings up so many questions – you just thought you knew what was going on and then all of a sudden this new raft of questions come up. And it’s not like a TV series where you know we’re going to drag out answering those questions for the next five years.
We’re going to answer them all in the next instalment. I think in some ways it’s nice that there’s at least one point where everybody has to stop and wait and think about what they just played before they rush through, because otherwise a lot of people just binge play games like this, and it’s hard to force people to stop. If you’re doing your job, they’re kind of hooked in and they don’t want to stop. But you also wish they’d savour it, because it took you so damn long to make!