Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
Tim Schafer Explains How to Make Games, Tell Stories
Saturday, June 09, 2012 - 03:52 PM
On last week's show, my colleague PJ Vogt and I interviewed game designer (and hero) Tim Schafer about his decision to fund his latest game entirely through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Over the course of the 60+ minutes that we spoke to him, we got way more than we could possibly use on the show about what inspires him, how he approaches game design, and how to tell an interesting story. Since we thought other parts of the conversation might interest listeners, we decided to cut a second interview and post it on the blog. Enjoy, and please let us know what you think in the comments below.
TIM SCHAFER: One of our fears is always that, when people talk about, you know, their favorite games, or favorite books, or anything, you’re always worried that the answer’s actually gonna be, “well what I really want is I want to be 12 again.” Like I really want, you know, really, it was awesome to be 15, and 12, and like, I really, cause you know there’s an age where any work of art can have an effect on you that it just can’t have later. Like you can’t really, I don’t think you can read Catcher in the Rye for the first time when you’re 40 and have it meant the same thing that it meant to you when you read it when you were 14 the first time.
PJ VOGT: Mhmm. Are you scared that some of these funders, they’re basically like, here’s 35 dollars, like, bring me back. Like these twenty hours of my childhood?
TIM SCHAFER: Well, you know, I feel like I know that that is true for a lot of the backers. That they’re just, they had a great time when they were kids, and they maybe haven’t even thought about it since then, and um, they’re like, oh man, you know, and maybe it is a nostalgia trip. And so I feel like, there’s a way to make all those people happy. Like, cause I think we can bring back the good things about it, and I think we can bring back the things that actually were meaningful, because I think a lot of stuff has been lost. And it’s not just about nostalgia, but it’s about, there are things about those games that were, besides the breadth of, you know, the emotional range they can have, which I think games don’t always do, nowadays, you know, on average. And I think there’s other things, like the pacing of those games, which is very unique, in that they didn’t move when you didn’t move, for the most part. You don’t have to worry about being agile or quick-witted, and I think that’s why I liked them, because I can’t really play shooters. Like, I just can’t think that fast and I can’t move that fast, and I like games where I can just sit there and kind of ponder things for a while before I make my move, and you know, that’s what adventure games are really good at. But there’s other things too, there’s like in the old adventure games some times you’d have to like, like, look up stuff to solve a puzzle. You know? But the idea that they use your whole life knowledge. Like there’s some puzzles that required you to know things, as a human being outside of the game that you would then use to solve a puzzle, and I think that’s.
PJ VOGT: What are you thinking of?
TIM SCHAFER: Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that for an example. [laughs] I mean, this is a really simple example, cause this is more just like a science fact, but like, the old Ghost Town Adventure from Scott Adams you had to make gunpowder, and there was no, it was only because I’d watched that Star Trek episode where Kirk builds gunpowder, to fight the whatchamacallit, the big lizard. So remember, he gets the bamboo, and he shoves the diamonds in, and he makes the, you know, salt peat and carbon—hey, I think I still remember how to make gun powder! Anyway, at some point in that game I realized I was going to have to make gunpowder, and so I remember asking my dad, like hey, how do you make gunpowder and we looked it up and like I used it to solve a puzzle. You know, there’s two different ways to make a game. Like, you can make it so the solution to the puzzle is all on the screen. You know, a game like Limbo is really great, part of the reason you can solve a puzzle is you know everything you need is right there on the screen you just got to think about it and try different things.
But another way, that adventure games did, was actually you had to know some thing about life, sometimes, or know something about how people operate, how people are motivated. And you have to know that if I give this anatomical chart of a tentacle to Betsy Ross, and she designs the American flag based on it, later in the future I’ll be able to find an American flag that’s shaped like a tentacle so I can wear it as a disguise. Like that, so that’s what I’m eventually getting to. The main point is that adventure games taught you about American history. [laughs] Made better citizens out of all of us.
PJ VOGT: what’s your sort of process, like do you start with an idea for a world? Do you start with an idea for a character? Do you start with an idea for a story?
TIM SCHAFER: The process starts differently for every project, and there’s usually just some flash of inspiration that connects a lot of things that have been floating around in, in my head or in someone else’s head. You know. Like, you know, I had a story idea for many, many years about what would happen if a roadie for a heavy metal band went into a fantasy world created out of heavy metal album covers? And then I had this other idea that I wanted to make and RTS game with Big Daddy Roth demons in it, and at some point it occurred to me in a big flash that those could be the same game, tied together. And sometimes it’s just an idea that’s about a fantasy world that you just want to bring to life. A friend of mine was, you know I said what’d you do last summer, and she was like, I was hanging around with these bikers, [laughs] and, you know, sometimes, she was telling me about her summer in Alaska, and she was hanging around this biker bar, and all about these crazy bikers and all the things they were doing. And I was like, that’s kind of a crazy fantasy world, like pirates, like most people don’t really understand what goes on in the world of bikers and that’s a perfect world to explore ‘cause it has it’s own rules, like fantasy does, but its not the same old kind of fantasy that you get with everything else, so that’s always kind of exciting to me. And sometimes it’s like, the idea of going into a miniature world, or just, like, um, like I had a book of Day of the Dead art, and it showed you know, those little, um, papier mache sculptures of skeleton people doing everyday things. Like skeleton cop, skeleton fireman, skeleton doctor, and I just started imagining a whole world, like, walking down the street where everybody’s a little skeleton, and all the characters, and the baby, and the baby carriage is a little skeleton, and wanting to jump to that world, and all the brightly colored, you know architecture you see in those pictures, you know, just wow, I want to actually run around in there. So I guess, that’s the impetus, for making a game a lot, for me, is just, trying to make these worlds come to life and let you jump around in them.
PJ VOGT: And then how do you know when you’ve got a story that works? Like, a story that’s compelling enough to sustain, you know, twenty, thirty, forty hours of game play?
TIM SCHAFER: Well, like, when I was researching Day of the Dead, and I hit on this one important part of the folklore is about, um, after you die you just, your soul makes a four year journey across the land of the dead, and that just sounded like a quest to me, that sounded like a quest for an adventure game. And starting to put together, you know, who was the protagonist, and then who was the antagonist, and that tension between them really creates some, you know most of the things you’re going to use in your plot. So, I was really into film noir at the time, and watching old film noir like, The Big Sleep, and things like Chinatown, and looking at the plot of Chinatown and how the plot took control of the water of Southern California, and that scam was going on, and just having a great villain who has a great scheme afoot that your noir hero just accidently stumbles into and then gets pulled into this darker, shadowy world. You know a lot of things that seem really creative are really just you sitting down and just answering a series of questions, like okay, ‘How am I going to provide some opposition to this main character? What is the bad guy up to?’ That’s always a question that I’m writing to myself in my notebook. ‘What is the bad guy up to?’ And at first it was gonna be—I’m just gonna do a real-estate scam just like Chinatown, so I had the bad guy, you know, selling off plots of land in some evil way and then I realized, no one probably wants to buy a plot of land, and in the Land of the Dead they’re trying to get through it—so it’s got to be a travel agent. Okay so Manny Calavera will be a travel agent cause that’s what people want to do, they want to get out of the Land of the Dead. So he’s gonna set up a travel package for them, and how is the bad guy using that to his advantage. Then—then it just writes itself after that, so easy.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) You make it sound so easy.
TIM SCHAFER: I mean but it really is, it really is about like, figuring out—I mean, for me I have a compelling world that I want to go into, and then if I wanted to go into that world, what kind of suit do I want to wear? Like what kind of disguise? What character would I want to be if I went to that world? Like if I was gonna go into the world of spies and secret agents I’d want to be James Bond. I mean that’s just like, I want to be that cool secret agent who has the cool gadgets and if I’m gonna go into the Land of the Dead the Grim Reaper. I want to be coolest person there. So, once you have that character, who would oppose him? You know, and what is that villain up to? And then everything else is kind of about the tension and release of that character trying to get what they want out of the other character and back and forth with, you know, the stakes rising and rising until they hit some big climax and then just throw a bunch of explosions and it’s over. See?
(ALEX and PJ laugh.)
TIM SCHAFER: It’s not that hard. There were no explosions and I don’t think we ended it with an explosion, did we?
PJ VOGT: I think people got planted.
TIM SCHAFER: Oh yeah, the-the villain exploded! Okay, I take it back. There was a big explosion.
(ALEX and PJ laugh.)
TIM SCHAFER: Spoilers.
PJ VOGT: You said one of the questions you ask yourself is, what does the bad guy want right now? Do you have like ‘Tim Schafer’s list of five things you continuously ask yourself when you’re writing a videogame’?
TIM SCHAFER: Let’s see. What is the world? And then, who do you want to be in that world? And then, who is the bad guy, what are they up to? And then…let me think about this for a second. (Laughs.) A lot of it is what people think is going on. I think the difference between what people think is going on, and what’s actually going on is really important. So sometimes I’ll write from each character’s point of view. I think that’s a really important thing, actually. Doing research and writing and back story writing from the point of view of every character. So, in Full Throttle, for example, you know Maureen is the female, um, lead in it and I wrote a big chart of every stage in the game what Maureen thinks is going on. ‘Cause at first she thinks Ben’s a nice guy, and then she thinks Ben killed her father. And it’s really important for me to know what mental state Maureen’s in at every point in the game, so I know how she should act. And so that makes that character more consistent, and that makes her seem like a real character. There’s also a lot of back story stuff that I do. I really like creating a bigger world than you show in the game, I think that’s really important. As if you’re looking at the back story through a slit in the fence, you know, and you’re just seeing a little bit—hints of the whole world behind the fence that you can’t get through. I had that challenge on Psychonauts to make twenty camp kids. And at first it was just gonna be this crowd of kids that just kind of swarmed around, but if you’re gonna write dialogue for twenty kids, they all have to be unique. They all have to be memorable little kids. And so um, I was trying to name them all, I was trying to write descriptions for each one of them and I was trying to think about what their relationships were to one another, ‘cause I wanted them to be summer camp-like and have—people have crushes on each other and people have enemies, and people we’re ganging up on—all kinds of things that happen among kids at summer camp. And I kept stalling on writing that document because I was busy with this new thing that had just come out at the time, which was Friendster.
(PJ and ALEX laugh.)
TIM SCHAFER: So Friendster just came out and I couldn’t—we were all addicted to it for like three days. We were all just like on it all the time making testimonials to each other and trying to make the perfect profile and I was like, ‘Ugh, I should really get back to this document which describes the social network and its cr-and its links to each other, and I should work on that instead of messing around with this Friendster thing.’ And then I realized, oh my gosh—this is the format I’ve been looking for. ‘Cause I was trying to write a document, I was like ‘How am I gonna do this in a Word document, to show all these links? Do I need to draw a graph?’ And I ended up making fake Friendster pages for all of the kids in the camp.
PJ VOGT: Really?
TIM SCHAFER: Yeah I made, you know, I made-cause it was really interesting, and a great revelation for me in terms of how to do character design, which is, you know filling out a Friendster profile is, for-for a character. What music do they like? Even if you never show that in the, um, game. I was like, okay, this character really likes the Wu Tang Clan.
ALEX: Which character in the Psychonauts really liked the Wu Tang Clan?
TIM SCHAFER: Chloe, the one with the-the space helmet?
(PJ and ALEX laugh.)
TIM SCHAFER: She’s really into hardcore rap. And I-I put that in there, and I think it only came up like a couple of times. It’s weird, it’s like she doesn’t really come and say it, but she says some things that are consistent with that. And I think that’s an important part about back stories. Not declaring your back story, but just filling in the negative space around it sometimes is what’s most rewarding. The other thing that’s great is um, the pictures that you put up on a Friendster profile. You know, I started thinking, from the character’s point of view, ‘What six pictures would Lily put up? Or Raz?’ you know ‘What collage would they make?’ And that was just an interesting exercise in character design just to think about what visual collage your character would make. And then when they list their likes, their dislikes in the statements they make about themselves, that you have to make on those social network pages, like, ‘What would each character say about themselves?’ And then, there’s this testimonial—which is the old version of the wall, your Facebook wall?
PJ VOGT: Yeah.
TIM SCHAFER: So I could have characters make testimonials and write on each other’s walls, have those conversations go back and forth, so it was like the first hint at what the dialogue for the game was gonna be like, ‘cause I practiced it on that. And that was amazing, and the whole process was so fun, you know, everyone on the team could browse this. I mean, a fully functioning fake Friendster microcosm. And people could browse it interactively and go through all these testimonials and look at their pictures and their likes and their dislikes and see who’s friends with who, and who wasn’t friends with who. And then we tried to actually put it up on Friendster, but they wouldn’t allow it. And so we put it up on MySpace. I think it’s still (laughs) up on MySpace.
TIM SCHAFER: If you search for the camp kids on MySpace, you might find it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You know, giving people just a tiny peak reminds me of one of my favorite touches in any game. And I think it might have been due to the localization team for Paper Mario, in which Luigi is in the basement of Mario’s house, you can find his diary, and it has all of these things about how incredibly jealous he is of-of Mario’s relationship to the Princess. It connotes this whole weird back story that is, that is never seen before or since. I just loved that tweak on such a popular character.
TIM SCHAFER: Like and-and see I think that a lot of games get that wrong, where they put a bunch of books around the world and you read the back story? ‘Cause sometimes like my Friendster thing, you get so in love with it, you created it, you’re just like ‘Oh this is so great—I want everyone to see this!’ And that’s the mistake, is that you think seeing it is better. And so you put that page as a readable piece of text, hidden in a chest somewhere and that’s never fun. If you show everything, then there’s no magic or mystery at all left. And also if you show just a little bit, people use their imaginations, and they tend to imagine something that’s more to their taste than you would ever come up with.