Tim Schafer: Man, He’s a Funny Dude

  “..why are you banging your head against the wall? Because stopping feels so good!” 

Tim Schafer (explaining puzzle-related frustration in Adventure games + the follies of unilateral game design)

 Picture this: Tim Schaffer and 200 people crammed into NYU’s smaller auditoriums. A night that included amongst other things: considering the problems of ludo-narrative dissonance and then resolving it with jokes, discussing the life, death and christ-like rebirth of Adventure games, an awkward few minutes discussing speed racing Psychonauts, and of course the top-secret(not) demo of a game that came out of Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight (an internal game-jam within Double Fine). A mash between Heavy Rain and Fruit Ninja, that uses body language as feedback, a dude dressed in a bikini, and players that posses the will of a haunted dagger and control a ship full of scandal mongers to freedom. Intrigued yet? Read on!

Tim Schafer came to visit our friends down at the NYU Game Centre (Alas! No roast beef sandwiches this time…) and for the first time ever, I got the damn email alert early enough to RSVP and make it to the talk. For those of you who don’t know who this Tim person is, stop whatever you are doing and go play something he made like this, this, or this. He is the games industry’s response to Joss Whedon, and like Joss, Tim’s iconic design style has fundamentally changed our perception of games. A man who nonchalantly waves away concerns about that holy grail of game problems: Ludo-narrative Dissonance, by advising humor to diffuse a situation. As the person sitting next to me put it Tim is “..alarmingly funny”; a sentiment I have to agree with as I witnessed him demoing a strange Kinect game, and entertaining the audience with tales from  Lucas Arts of yore. He even answered my questions about the future of bunnies at Double Fine. In a nutshell, the talk was great.

I was going to write more about the talk (for reals, I even took notes and everything) but  there is many a post already about just that (- look here & here and follow the breadcrumbs for more). Then it suddenly dawned one me; now is when I should heed Robert’s advice and not over-think it! So instead, I am going to write about why this talk was an inspiration to me and fueled the last leg of my thesis process (hopefully disaster free).

This GDC, I met Dan Pinchbeck (of the Chinese Room – Dear Esther fame), someone I look up to and another defender of the story grail, and was intrigued by his ideas on making a rich narrative experience work in a game environment. Whereas Dan’s take on the matter might be considered experimental and indie, Tim’s talk was on the other end of the spectrum, making story work in a very commercial environment, with an emphasis on the intentionally absurd; an interesting contrast from the perspective of my personal practice. Tim makes games that are funny, silly, and weird, but with a strangely poetic depth to them, all within the traditional morays of conventional game design. To have one’s pie and eat it too? How does he do it? That is what I hoped to find out at this talk, and in a strange and round about way, I think I understand. The key seems to be respecting your art

So, a bit of backstory. Apart from the game design bug, I have been obsessed with comics for a while now, and that is where I discovered Double Fine the company; while trawling the interwebs for a new web-comic to read (you know, something easy and funny, preferably an autobiographical diary comic like this or this for example). But, this is what I found instead:

This is Nathan S.‘s comic about himself, Chewbacca, O-Ren Ishii, a floaty skull and some lady with red horns who gets beheaded. This image sort of sums up the Double Fine I love. It is weird, has some recognizable tropes in it, but is strange as shit. It makes me chuckle but also makes me think about it for a while. Given this intrigued me, and I checked out their other things, and found Psychonauts instead (what a glorious glorious day) so began a journey. But coming back to Tim’s talk, I have read the FAQ’s and Jobs page of Double Fine a ton of times, and I used to attribute a large part of the writing style to clever editing, and well, good comedy writing. It is witty, insults you with a charming wholesomeness that makes you almost want more, and I was curious to see the man behind all of this. He is indeed a funny dude, and there is no denying that. It can’t possibly be an act, because he never gets out of character, even over drinks after the talk he was getting the laughs out of people, albeit in a social kind of way.

So why do I, a person who did not grow up playing The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle, adore him so? Well, to put it simply, because Psychonauts made me look at first person games with a new appreciation and interest. Nearly 9 months ago, when RobertBen and I started working on our thesis project Souvenir, I was going through a rough patch in my relationship with 3D environments, coming from a primarily 2D visual aesthetic. Being a lover of story-games, I am often disappointed by what flies for story in a game environment. But when I played Psychonauts, I was struck by how well the dialogue, look & feel, and game-play all complimented each other. This was a pivotal time for me, I was still deciding if games were my “thing” or if I just a enthusiastic dabbler. This game gave me hope that I could see a future for myself here in gameLand. So hearing him talk was the completion of a circle in my evolution as a game designer.

I have a tendency to lean towards the darker themes in my work, and listening to Tim’s philosophy of game design and life makes me want to try a few jokes once in a while, see how they feel. Heck, maybe even give funny a shot one day. Why not? Life is waaay too serious as it is, and god knows we could use a few laughs. I am pretty sure Tim would laugh with us, if we could only get him away from other pressing business..


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