Sitting on a park bench in Market Square amid the weekday lunch rush, Tim Schafer is living in another world. Although you might not be able to tell by just looking at him, he's actually been displaced into the distant past—The Age of Metal in which the human race was enslaved by demons led by Lord Dolivicus. Maybe you don't remember? Well, it was a legendary time of magical belt buckles, motorcycle-driving beasts, and spell-casting V-Factor guitars. Thankfully, humanity was saved by a roadie by the name of Eddie Riggs, who gathered legions of Headbangers, Bouncers, and Runaways to do battle with the forces of evil.
All of this epic action will be documented in Schafer's upcoming Brütal Legend—quite possibly the ultimate (and only?) heavy metal video game, inserting players into an alternate universe inspired by a musical genre known for its spiked wrist bands, Nordic mythologies, and high-pitched vocals. With the hero being voiced by Jack Black and with a supporting cast of heavy metal royalty such as Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath, it promises to be a unique game from a designer known for idiosyncratic titles such as Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts.
So why is one of the game industry's foremost creative geniuses sitting in Market Square, describing his latest project while patiently waiting for a table to open up at Tomato Head? Two years ago, Schafer married Knoxville expat Rachael Sbuttoni, a freelance graphic designer in San Francisco, and he has since made regular visits to see his beloved mother-in-law (and Metro Pulse contributor) Betty Bean. But while the prospect of a pesto-and-sundried-tomato pie has drawn him to the Square, his thoughts are still racing into the distant past of Brütal Legend and its hero, Eddie Riggs. He first came up with the idea for the character 15 years ago.
"I met a roadie from Megadeth at a party and he was just telling stories about being a roadie," Schafer says. "And I thought that is such a crazy lifestyle because you see all the over-the-top craziness of the rock 'n' roll world but from a real get-r-done perspective—the guys who actually plug everything in, they can't party too much because they have to haul the amps and get it all loaded up. Very practical-minded people living a real impractical lifestyle. It seemed like such a different kind of hero that you could have [in a game]."
Coming up with unusual characters in bizarre settings is something of a Schafer trademark—so much so that his name can often be found on the box covers, promising an atypical experience. The adventure game Grim Fandango fuses Aztec beliefs about the afterlife with the noir stylings of movies like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. His last game, the platformer Psychonauts, follows the adventures of a psychic boy as he explores the minds of other characters, helping them overcome their fears. Schafer's focus on creating rich stories was honed at LucasArts, his first professional job out of college, where he worked on point-and-click adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle—not only programming them, but also writing their often hilarious dialogue.
"The main thing I'm trying to do is create a world that is really captivating and feels real, so when you're playing you forget who you are for a while and get pulled into this fantasy world," Schafer says. "With each game, I also want to try and broaden what people expect from games a little bit. I think people expect what they've seen before in games, but I think games can be more. Games can be appealing to people you'd call ‘normal'; there's a hardcore gaming community, a casual gaming community, and then there are people who don't think games are for them. But they could be if they are about topics or people or settings that are interesting to them. Games can be about anything—they don't just have to be about World War II or space marines."
This out-of-the-game-box philosophy is the kind of thing you often hear discussed at design conferences but is only rarely executed by publishers. For every dazzling mind like Will Wright (The Sims) or Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong) who receives creative carte blanche, there are droves of designers employed to churn out the latest Halo imitation. The industry talks a lot about being innovative but rarely allows itself to take the financial risk. Of course, there's a good reason for that: Consumers usually buy things they're familiar with, which is why there are so many sequels crowding store shelves. But Schafer doesn't buy into the idea of sure things or sure failures.
"You know what William Goldman, that famous screenwriter, said about Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything.' A lot of people talk like, ‘Here are the 10 rules for making a hit game,' or ‘Here's a quick test to apply to your concept to see if it's going to be a big hit.' But the truth is that nobody does know anything," he says. "Some people were saying, ‘You can't make a game about a 10-year-old kid because it won't appeal to anyone.' But then again you can bank on Harry Potter. There is always a counter-example. You take your best shot at being commercially successful and then if it doesn't work out, you try to do better with the next one."
Despite the fact that Grim Fandango and Psychonauts both topped many Game of the Year lists and are still praised for their blazing originality, neither game was considered a big sales success. Nevertheless, Schafer and his Double Fine Productions studio have pursued their muse into the fresh territory of Brütal Legend. When Schafer originally shopped the game concept around the industry, he got a lot of interest—in changing it entirely: "Does it have to be heavy metal?" "Does it have to be a roadie? Can it be someone more exciting? Who fantasizes about being a roadie?" But mega-publisher Vivendi stepped up to back the original idea.
"It always seems like there's some company out there who wants to try to do something new and original, so I'm always counting on that company existing," Schafer says. "As soon as there are no more companies like that, we'll have to find our money somewhere else. We'll have to start robbing banks."
But with millions of dollars on the line due to the increased costs of developing assets for current-gen consoles, does Schafer consciously worry about balancing creativity and commercialness? Oh, yeah.
"You're always thinking about that because you're spending someone else's money—you're spending the publisher's money, so you're morally obligated to create a return on that investment," he says. "But you also you want as many people as possible to see your work; there is a creative benefit to being successful, which is that the game is actually experienced by people. Some of most successful games out there are the most creative, like The Sims or the first Tomb Raider or Grand Theft Auto. People think that you have to be somehow a safe bet to be successful, but actually the big hit games are the ones that take the big chances."
Brütal Legend is certainly taking chances by creating a universe for hardcore metal heads, loaded with in-jokes that perhaps only they can truly understand. (Rob Halford's long-haired villain, for instance, is named General Lionwhyte in apparent reference to the not exactly respected hair-metal band White Lion.) But it's also brimming with action in an open environment that includes hot-rod cars ready to belch fire, Goth enemies called Grave Diggers, and handy battle-axes for detaching demon heads. And, with the casting of comic actor Jack Black as its hero, Brütal Legend could prove to be not only another Schafer opus, but also his biggest seller.
During the development of the game, the Double Fine team kicked around Black's name as an inspiration for the main character. Black's portrayals of rock superfans in Tenacious D and School of Rock were right in line with the brave roadie, Eddie Riggs (who looks a bit like Schafer himself, only with much bigger arm muscles). When Schafer described the character as being "like Jack Black" to executives at Vivendi, they immediately said, "Why don't we get Jack Black?"
"And I was like, ‘Whaaat? You can't do that! Those guys exist on a different planet,'" says Schafer. "But they set up a meeting, and I went and met with him and showed him the game, the concept, the character, everything. And he was like, ‘Sounds cool. I'll do it.' Back in my head, I felt like that was our goal, whether we got Jack or not: To make a game that Jack would like. Because I felt if Jack Black likes this game whether he's in it or not, then we've nailed it."
Whether Schafer and Double Fine have hit the leather stud on the head will be determined later this year when Brütal Legend finally hits store shelves; a lot of hype for the game will appear at July's Electronic Entertainment Expo. In the meantime, expect to see Schafer around town more often—he and Rachael are expecting their first child in May, which no doubt means more visits with the in-laws.
Corrected: Rachael Sbuttoni's last name.