Rocktober Cometh: Tim Schafer Readies Brütal Legend
Tim Schafer and his team of creative wunderkinder at Double Fine near the end of their headbanger's journey. While his soldiers remained in San Francisco, dutifully tightening the graphics on Level 3, Schafer spent the last month of the five-year Brütal Legend development banging the drum for his music-infused action game. Crispy Gamer caught up with Schafer at PAX 2009 to talk about true metal, false geeks and the allure of the computer fair.
Crispy Gamer: The last huge Brütal Legend announcement was around the soundtrack. It was the final test of your metal cred.
Tim Schafer: We were waiting to see what the metal fans said. We're making a metal game, and metal fans are pretty intense. They're not going to stand by -- I don't want to pick on any bands -- but if you released something that sounded like the marketing department of some label said, "here are the new bands we're pushing this year," and those are just slapped onto the game, I think metal fans would have rejected the game completely and then shredded it online. Myself being somebody who grew up on heavy metal, I would have felt ill making that. You know what I mean?
Crispy Gamer: That's where Kabbage Boy fits in.
Schafer: Some trends in new music -- you're watching some reality show or you're at the mall and you hear the song and you're like, "Oh, god. Why is this music being made?" The great thing is that EA never asked us to put any of that stuff in the game. We were always able to make the soundtrack from the heart. Starting with Black Sabbath and Motörhead -- just getting the core of that. The bands that I love, and the songs that I love within them. We have Black Sabbath but we didn't pick "Iron Man." I still love "Iron Man," but it's one of those songs, like "Ace of Spades," that people have heard enough. Motörhead had some later albums like "Inferno" that had some really good songs on them.
Crispy Gamer: You were going for deeper cuts. Not just the songs they'd play on the radio.
Schafer: Emily Ridgeway, our music director, did some research -- we talked to this guy Alan from Aquarius Records. He's just insane. He turned us on to a whole bunch of bands that I didn't know about. It's been an education for me as well. I think when people play the game, we've done it in a way so you can always press pause and the name of the song and the band will come up. And then you have this thing in your car that shows a complete list -- divided into sub-genres. Progressive, thrash, trash metal, pirate metal. You can get a metal education while you're playing the game.
I think it will turn people on to things like Bishop of Hexen -- more obscure bands that a lot of people don't know about. As well as having Mötley Crüe and the stuff that people are more familiar with. But it's also stuff that hits that period again. We have a hair-metal battle in the game -- it's a hair-metal militia. And it is fun to listen to. Now, in my advanced age, I can finally listen to that stuff. Because as bad as I thought it was in the '80s, it's still better than the shit coming out now.
Crispy Gamer: There's this distance where you don't have to have your arms folded to prove how metal you are. You can actually say Mötley Crüe was alright.
Schafer: I love their first album. That's why we put "Live Wire" in.
Crispy Gamer: I wanted to talk about conventions and being a nerd -- that's different from metal. It's kind of the opposite.
Schafer: Is it the opposite? Aren't they both about alienation?
Crispy Gamer: But one group?
Schafer: One's more angry about it. Its more like we don't fit in and "f*** you." The other one may not be aware they're not fitting in because they're so busy playing D&D.
Crispy Gamer: They're a faction of geeks. But there's other half of metal where there's no geekiness whatsoever -- like roadies.
Schafer: Let's be scientific about it. I've always heard that nerdism is caring about something too much. You care about it to the extent that you're forgetting about being cool in other ways. You don't manage to learn how to dress yourself because you care about comic books so much. It's not a priority. You prioritize when the next Spider-Man is coming out.
Crispy Gamer: But geekiness allows for being cool, like Quentin Tarantino.
Schafer: Tarantino actually gave that definition of nerdism on "The Tonight Show." He said he was a film nerd. A geek is the guy who bites the head off of chickens.
Crispy Gamer: But they did it because they were addicted to drugs. There was that novel about carnies. [Editor's note: The book was "Nightmare Alley" by William Lindsay Gresham.]
Schafer: "Geek Love"?
Crispy Gamer: Long before "Geek Love" -- it was a crime novel, and one of the characters was a heroin addict. They had him bite snakes and they would feed him his drugs. That where the word "geek" was coined, I think.
Schafer: And then a spaz is someone who is just physically ... we could go on all day. I think about that a lot because nerds and geeks have gone through this transition. They were super-derogatory when I was growing up. It's become sort of hip and cool to say you're a nerd. And now I feel like it's almost pass?. Until I came here, and saw that it was alive and well. Sometimes, when you see a mainstream comic say, "Comic-Con came to town and all these virgins?" The joke always involves virginity and living in your parents' basement. I think it's moved beyond that. Yeah, it's still a crowd that cares a little too much to an unhealthy degree about a very narrow thing. Yeah, they dress up and don't care whether they look cool or not. But some of it feels like it's been exploded out, and they've come to love themselves.
Crispy Gamer: The self-loathing.
Schafer: Yeah, there's no self-loathing about it. There's a self-acceptance that makes the term almost less evil.
Crispy Gamer: There's also so much volume -- so many people that it can't possible be a subculture.
Schafer: Yeah, now it's getting to the point where people are claiming to be nerds and geeks who are not.
Crispy Gamer: Its like untrue metal. Untrue geekdom.
Schafer: Yeah? Exactly. They're like, "I've got the big chunky glasses. I'm so nerdy."
Crispy Gamer: Were you a con-goer?
Schafer: No. I was into nerdy things, but I never had that addictive personality to care so much. I went to computer shows with my dad. But I didn't dress up.
Crispy Gamer: Like your favorite programmer?
Schafer: That would have been awesome.
Crispy Gamer: These were trade shows?
Schafer: There would be a big computer fair in the San Francisco convention center. They'd unveil the new Apple printer and you'd get a free mouse. I remember the show where the mouse was announced.
Crispy Gamer: Your dad worked in the field?
Schafer: No, no. A doctor. He was into computers and stuff. He brought home the Odyssey when it first came here. Somehow he was just following the stuff -- like an electronics hobbyist. He never built a Heathkit Sinclair or anything. He always brought that stuff home. I'd try to get him to buy more and more Odyssey cartridges. He was like, "Well, I'm thinking of getting this new Video Computer System."
Crispy Gamer: He wasn't an engineer?
Schafer: In the '80s, computer games and stuff seemed more like a tinkering-dads kind of thing. There were magazines like Kilobaud.
Crispy Gamer: And you'd buy the magazine and it would have BASIC code in it.
Schafer: Yeah, we'd type it in together. There were magazines like SoftSide and Compute!. We'd get those and we'd type in the games. You'd have to trade off with your friend or your dad and put this little bookmark.
Crispy Gamer: Was this on tape?
Schafer: If you're lucky. For a while I'd type in short games, because I had to type then in every single time because I'd use them. They were all variations of Oregon Trail. You move. You sleep. You eat.
Crispy Gamer: You guys excel really well at telling stories, but multiplayer is not something that's in your wheelhouse.
Schafer: It's not something we'd tried yet. We did that first. That's always the rule. You try to do something that's really scary -- the thing that you don't have the most experience with. The most out-of-control thing. When we started four years ago, we got multiplayer working. We had Eddie and his axe, and another Eddie and headbangers -- you could control them. Right away.
Crispy Gamer: Was it more real-time? Like Pikmin?
Schafer: You had resource points. At first it was more complicated. You had three different buildings. You could build buildings. Now it's more about action. That's what we worked on first. Then we worked on the streaming world. And we got that working. Then we worked more and more backwards to the things I was more comfortable with. I was writing the dialogue toward the end -- and the story and the single-player game later on.
Crispy Gamer: In a way, that's kind of contrary to auteur theory. The idea that the great writer has this amazing framework and you build that.
Schafer: Yeah. But I did have that. I had the heavy metal and the roadie -- the broad strokes and the main points of the whole thing set up. So everything we did was according to that. It's easier to write a story that fits gameplay than to make gameplay that fits a story.
Crispy Gamer: As the gameplay developed, did that transform what the game was about?
Schafer: They grew together. I wanted an epic heavy-metal battle. I wanted this roadie -- like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" -- who uses his knowledge of when eclipses are going to happen to freak out the natives. He knows how to make generators so he electrifies the castles. There are scenes where knights in shining armor are climbing up the castle walls and getting electrocuted. I loved that anachronistic combination. Like that last shot in "Evil Dead II" with Ash, where his car falls out of the sky. I love that. Heavy-metal album covers are the same way. You can have a hot rod and an ancient medieval sword. You can have Satan and a lady dressed up as a nun --- you can throw all that stuff together. That was there from the beginning.
Crispy Gamer: I guess I'm thinking about game flow. The way something would play from a single-player experience.
Schafer: We started with multiplayer. What is the gameplay. What are the weapons in all that. What do we want the single-player to be. Well, we want it to be a sort of tutorial. We go really deep with all these mechanics, but we don't want to overwhelm the player. We introduce them slowly, mission by mission. You get the axe; then you meet Ophelia and you get your car. By the third mission you're controlling squads with the d-pad. I had the highpoints of the story. Who Eddie is. Who Ophelia is. And what Doviculous is all about. Who the enemies were. And then the gameplay informed the details of where you wanted to go, mission to mission.
Crispy Gamer: The unique thing about game design is that testing informs design more than say, a movie. You'd test market and tweak the cut a little. But games are constantly tested. And that can wreak havoc with a creator.
Schafer: Yeah, and I'm in the really lucky position of being in control and also the writer. And there are not that many cases where that's the case. Usually they hire some guy or a woman who is a contractor and then that writer is gone and the team says, "None of this writing works. We're going to rewrite it."
Here I can be the guy who says, "Here's what I want for the game." And the designers say, "Well, we'd like this to happen -- we need a ranged weapon." Then I can think about a solution that actually supports the fiction. "How about if Eddie brings a guitar back with him and the guitar can summon lightning?" So long as each solution improves the story you're trying to tell, you can do that.
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