I have a confession to make: Tim Schafer’s games never really moved me.
From an academic standpoint, I recognize the contribution that story-driven episodes of weirdness like Day of the Tentacle and Secret of Monkey Island made to gaming’s progress as a maturing medium. But there’s always been a disconnect between the worlds Schafer wanted to evoke in those early games and the primitive technology of the times.
The stories were always there, the characterizations were always there, but no matter how well-written the early LucasArts adventures were, an endless series of syntax puzzles (and the endless series of stops and starts they engendered) was somehow less enjoyable a prospect than just tapping a button to jump on a turtle, even if the reasoning behind said jump was (and still is, come to think of it) a bit fuzzy.
Brütal Legend, Schafer’s latest game from Double Fine Productions, seeks to break the streak of relegating Schafer’s games to cult classics that are recognized by many but actually played by few. It’s the story of Eddie Riggs, quintessential American roadie. A technical genius wrapped in a tough-as-nails exterior a generation out of style, Riggs disdains modern musicians for the liberties they’ve taken with the heavy metal of his youth. He longs for the good old days when Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” was considered a documentary.
Riggs (voiced by Jack Black in a role created by God specifically for him) gets more than he bargained for when an onstage accident shuffles him off this mortal coil and drops him, Army of Darkness-style, into a mythical world of savage musical delights and an inter-genre conflict between the progenitors of his beloved metal and their twisted offspring.
Schafer, as a developer, isn’t known for putting money over a good story. Otherwise, Brütal Legend would be a Guitar Hero clone and Activision Blizzard, Brütal Legend’s former publisher, wouldn’t be whining about the one that got away. Nonetheless, what money sometimes represents—praise and acceptance of a creator’s efforts by the masses—is always a motive for anyone who works toward audience consumption.
With Brütal Legend, Double Fine has finally retrieved the last piece of the puzzle, unlocking the door that stood between Schafer’s games and large-scale mainstream success. The key to that door? Making a game that cerebral types like me can appreciate while at the same time making one that dumbasses like me can enjoy.
Make no mistake: Brütal Legend is by no means targeted toward the lowest common denominator of gamer. Schafer and co. know their source material and have taken pains to give it the presentation it deserves. What Brütal Legend does is tap into a cultural zeitgeist ready-made for its audience. It’s flush with recognizable icons and spiked with moments fine-tuned to achieve maximum goat-throwing potential. Guitar-shaped monoliths, graveyards of giant swords, Ozzy Osbourne as a jovially evil mentor/shopkeeper—all of these things speak to us in a language we easily understand. “This is the world of which your bards sing,” they say. “Observe it and know it for an epic.”
So epic, in fact, that Brütal Legend can’t contain itself within one genre. The majority of the game is presented as an open-world third-person adventure, a Legend of Zelda with a rotating cast of opposing metal sub-genres in the Gannon role. Halfway into the story, however, we’re reminded that a good roadie’s real strength lies in the show he builds.
From that point on, boss battles are handled as real-time strategy matches, with Riggs leading the headbangers of Ironheade against his rivals in the Drowning Doom and Tainted Coil factions. (This content also comprises the game’s multi-player aspects.) Mixing genres mid-game is usually a risky trick, but Brütal Legend streamlines the RTS elements enough to make them a viable addition to the game without jarring players unfamiliar with them.
That improbable accessibility is Brütal Legend’s greatest strength. Schafer and Double Fine took a concept that allows players to ride a panther that shoots lasers from its eyes into battle against a horde of Hot Topic rejects to the tune of Dimmu Borgir’s “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” (coincidentally, I now have one less item on my “Things To Do Before I Die” list) and turned it into something that... well, maybe not something that the whole family can enjoy, but for a game that bookends itself with decapitations and fills the space between with parental advisories, it’s pretty close.