Those of you who’ve had the discomfort of knowing me for some time might know that among such geniuses as Shigesato Itoi and Shigeru Miyamoto, there’s a curious western developer that I admire to a huge degree – after all, with a resume that includes classics like Full Throttle and Psychonauts, it’s difficult not to. His name is Tim Schafer, he’s the founder of Double Fine Productions and he rocks.
While typing this sentence, my YouTube playlist has just switched over from a punk cover of Simply The Best to a gorgeous piece of swinging solo jazz entitled ‘Glottis Piano’. If you’re wondering why a set of vocal chords are playing a piano, you obviously didn’t play the adventure game Grim Fandango, designed by Schafer and published by LucasArts in 1998.
Grim Fandango was one of those games where every part of it works together in glorious harmony to deliver a hypodermic needle full of joy right into my engorged, pockmarked veins, and if that image has just made you retch I apologise. Fantastic, epic story, genuine humour that sets it apart in a world where everyone seems to just make cake references, brilliant voice acting and wonderful music. Even the graphics hold up pretty well!
The point is, that’s just the tip of the Timmy iceberg. He’s been a source of inspiration about what games should be ever since I heard of him while watching Yahtzee’s review of Psychonauts.
What Schafer specialises in is taking a fairly regular, routine setting and screwing with it until it derails entirely from the original scenario. Let’s have a look at some of his thought processes:
- Devise an every day, familiar situation – let’s say working in an office as a travel agent.
- Think up mad premise – what if all the employees were SKELETONS?
- Flesh out the premise with a setting – In fact, EVERYONE is a skeleton, because it’s one of the underworlds of Mexican folk mythology, and the travel agency is there to make sure people who’ve been good get to heaven quicker!
- Throw in a conflict – There’s a conspiracy involving train tickets!
- Add a sprinkling of laughs and bake for 45 minutes.
It’s original, entertaining and best of all does away with the traditional adventure game problems of massive, tangled inventories and needlessly specific areas to click. One particularly cool feature that I wish developers used more often was that the protagonist turns to look at anything interactive he happens to be near.
My broader question is why do so many games rely on using the traditional action hero archetypes as inspiration for their protagonists? The more interesting hero is the one thrust into a situation he doesn’t understand or can’t quite cope with, and I’m willing to bet that Grim Fandango wouldn’t have had nearly as much appeal if Manny Calavera had been a gun-toting body builder instead of a short, chubby bureaucrat.
If you’re interested in games with ‘just some guy with a story to tell’ as a main character, I’d refer you of course to slightly-nuts Jaaames Sunderland of Silent Hill 2 and the strange-voiced Ethan Mars and Lucas Kane of Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. There’s also this rather cool journalism game called Warco, by Australian developers Defiant Development, who definitely deserve to demonstrate their dexterity at design, and damn, that’s too much alliteration.
The capacity for different personalities in games is almost unlimited, which is why I think it’s a shame that developers spend so much time trying to make a character we can project our own personalities onto in games where it isn’t appropriate. A blank slate would be fine if we ever learn more about the character (I refer once again to Silent Hill), the story is irrelevant (Mario) or if the character is intended to represent the player (most MMOs), but too many times we see generic, forgettable, rugged men who wear scratched armor and carry a big gun.
I’ll pitch a game – You start the game playing as a woman living in the Midwestern United States who is drafted in to work on an assembly line as part of the war effort in 1942. Essentially, this would be a first-person Diner Dash clone with added high explosives, as you have to keep to a production schedule while avoiding killing anyone. At this point the character is anonymous and an entity outside of the game.
Then something unexpected happens. After clearing a few rounds of this minigame, a horn sounds to signal the end of the work day. Your nameless protagonist and a friend board the bus that takes you to your home, but on the way you have a conversation about how your families are. This lets you know a little about the home life of the player and intrigues you to find out more.
You get home and open your front door, to find your husband (a Japanese man) holding a letter and looking concerned. Reading through it, you discover that you are being given 48 hours to prepare your belongings before being transported to an internment camp in Arizona. The opening segment has lulled the player into thinking this will be a short, mundane game about filling artillery shells, when actually it goes far deeper.
The next segment is a rush around the house to collect what belongings you can and attempting to cram them into a case. This could have an element of character development where you have to talk to your kids and work out which items of sentimental value they’d like to take with them – you have to find them.
One of the other ideas I haven’t yet placed would be sequence in which you control first a Japanese Air Force pilot on what seems to be a routine bombing raid. However, you soon realise that you can’t fire any weapons and that the only way to end the sequence is to crash your plane into an American ship. This demonstrates how even one of the typical game heroes (a pilot) can have a story that goes far deeper than it appears on the surface and more importantly how the player can characterise the protagonist through gameplay.
The game continues in that vein, interconnected sequences that show the war from a different angle by concentrating on the human drama within.
Another idea I particularly like is a segment that starts out in typical first-person shooter style with soldiers in a bombed out building; this becomes more complex when we realise that these are the streets of Berlin in May 1945. The objective is simply to kill as many Russians (who are curiously reluctant to fire on you) as possible until you are killed, at which point we make the discovery that the protagonist was a 13-year-old girl from the Hitler Youth pushed to the front lines.
You see how a concept can be advanced into an interesting narrative with unexpected protagonists and gameplay mechanics? I love when a game is more than it seems and with the power available to us today I can see some beautifully rich experiences being crafted.
So firstly, developers, let us find out about the characters from interactive sequences – even if it’s just selecting dialogue during a cutscene or rushing around to pack your bags. Secondly, tap into the number of underused characters out there.
We can all take a leaf from the Book of Schafer. If travel agents, architects and journalists deserve to be playable, fleshed out personalities, the bricklayers and accountants of the world can have their time to shine as well!
I’ll leave you with a bit of music from the game I love so much.