Everything Will Be Fine… Double Fine

Tim Schafer is a gaming God.

Bow down to him. And while you’re at it, make sure you say 12 Hail Miyamotos too.

We’re living in a pivotal time in our hobby’s existence. Video games have never been more popular. Much as the hardcore would hate to admit it, you have your Wiis and Kinect and Farmville to thank for that. The casual crowd has fully embraced gaming as a legitimate pastime and that’s win-win for everybody. The more money tossed around out there, and the greater demand for gaming; the more we see niche genres getting some love too. Digital distribution helps towards that end; a thought I’ll get to in a moment.

It’s not all sunshine and 1Up blocks, though. As popular as gaming has grown, the superstar developers have yet to yield cross-over household recognition. Sure, your typical Soccer Mom can discern Mario from Master Chief but ask the average person to name their favorite game developer and you’ll likely get “Atari?” in response. If you ask someone to offer up their favorite film director, they may not be able to tell a Gore Verbinski from a Darren Aronofsky but you’ll definitely get a Scorcese, Cameron or Spielberg thrown back at you.

And gaming certainly has a wealth of wizards who deserve the spotlight. Miyamoto. Kojima. Wright. Schafer. These guys are proof positive that somewhere in that labyrinthine list of code, there lives a beating heart. One man looks at all those digits and churns out another cookie cutter shooter; another sculpts ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ – gifting us a compelling argument for ‘games as art’.

As a longtime gamer, I appreciate all flavors, depending on the mood. There are times when a mindless shooter hits the spot while other times, I need some brain food. Call of Duty may help me while away those long winter nights, but it’s games like Shafer’s ‘Full Throttle’, ‘Grim Fandango’ and Psychonauts that comfort any worrisome thoughts I may entertain that it’s all just a waste of time.

I think some gamers harbor those guilty thoughts from time to time – likely a call back to when we were young and pushed from the nest with that oft-heard mother’s message – “It’s such a beautiful day, outside.” Hell, like anything, as long as you game in moderation and take time to enjoy the other trivial pursuits that can entertain a life, there’s no shame in gaming. It’s how I unwind each day from whatever stresses the world has conspired to throw my way. After all, I wouldn’t walk around with my head hung in shame after watching ‘The Godfather’, should I ever actually get around to watching ‘The Godfather’. But that’s a thought for another day.

No, the point of this piece is to grant Tim Shafer his due. I know the world has moved beyond our blissfully archaic past when adventure titles represented the apex of gaming technology; and Shafer has struggled a bit in getting his artistic vision to the masses. Those of us who know his name, know exactly what we’re getting in his game – an experience we couldn’t live without. That’s true even in the rare times when he stumbles a bit, such as 2008’s Brutal Legend which painted a delightful world, gave us a unique story and then forced gamers into a watered-down real time strategy affairt that may have known the notes but didn’t quite deliver that rocking power ballad we’d come to expect. Even then – the experience of riding alongside Eddie Riggs, the greatest roadie that ever lived, was well worth plodding through the actual game play.

Brutal Legend didn’t sell nearly as many copies as it needed to – which is a shame as EA fought mightily to shepherd this asset after it was unceremoniously left homeless in an Activision acquisition. EA took a chance on Shafer; but it seems gamers are less apt to take a chance on tasting anything unique. Certainly not as a main course. Gamers these days seem more open to experimentation when noshing on the bite-sized portions offered up via the various digital distribution channels such as Xbox Live Arcade, Steam and PSN.

That phenomenon may hold the key to Shafer’s future success.

In the last six months, Shafer’s crew of artisans at Double Fine have crafted two downloadable titles – each as creative as the big box products he churned out over his impressive career that began with him lobbing one-liners for the Monkey Island series.

Last October, the company released Costume Quest – a Halloween-themed romp that plays as a riff on the traditional turn-based role playing game. The hook here is that children’s costumes morph into mighty forms – a power that comes in handy as they strive to fend off an army of candy-cribbing ghouls. Last week, the company struck again with Stacking – an adventure game that has players controlling a family of Russian matryoshka nesting dolls as they work in unison to settle a forced labor scandal. Both games echo Double Fine and Tim Shafer’s unofficial mantra that character matters.

These are the type of game experiences that nourish our gaming soul. I’ve played every Halo game, the same goes for Call of Duty – and while their broad-sweeping story beats stick with me; I’m hard-pressed to recite rhyme and verse of their narratives. All I know is I went from Point A to Point B; shooting along the way. And those titles can be wonderfully cathartic. I always have a great time when playing with a party of my peers.

But the Shafer-directed games have colored my life.

Several years back, Schafer defected from LucasArts (the games division of King George’s LucasFilm empire) in order to start his own company, Double Fine. While Schafer enjoyed rock star status at LucasArts, I think he saw the writing on the wall that large companies like LucasArts were beginning to shift away from the adventure genre in favor of games with more mass-market appeal, such as their surprise hit Mercenaries. With the recent woes experienced by LucasArts, and other major development houses, this may have been a wise decision indeed.

It would have been a shame for his games to die quick deaths under the foster care of a company that didn’t know how to survive in the current gaming marketplace. I wouldn’t want to lose one title as each one of Schafer’s games has been a true creative well spring – with Schafer’s pregnant imagination giving birth to some truly memorable worlds and game experiences – from the bizarro time travels twists of Day of the Tentacle (a sequel to the early 80′s hit Maniac Mansion) to the great narrative heights achieved in his magnum opus Grim Fandango, which crafts a tale of classic film noir set against the backdrop of the Mexican Day of the Dead folklore. That game’s hero – the skeletal Travel Agent to the Dead, Manny Calavera, is as fully featured a character as I’ve ever encountered in a game.

At Double Fine, Schafer and his talented band of minions worked for three years to develop Psychonauts – an inventive action platformer set at a camp for psychic children. In classic Schafer fashion, Psychonauts weaves a tale that begins deceptively simple (the main character Raz is sent to camp to hone his burgeoning psychic abilities) but soon widens to expose a chilling conspiracy. Your character, a fledgling Psychonaut, uses his powers to enter people’s minds and clear their ‘mental baggage’ as you seek to unravel a series of strange disappearances at this summer camp.

It’s in those twisted minds – these areas that you explore as a ‘psychonaut’ – that Schafer’s genius is in evidence. Each mind becomes your traditional ‘game level’ – and the fun is in discovering how each character’s unique psychosis will translate into your next set of challenges. So, the Patton-esque Camp Counselor Oleander has a mindscape
littered with guns and ammo and challenges that wouldn’t be out of place in Call of Duty, while a diminutive character with a raging Napoleon complex has a world that plays out like a martial board game – think Risk – where you find yourself solving puzzles to gain control of mental territory.

All of these games are no brainer decisions for me. When I see Shafer’s name, it’s bought. When I see the plot outline, I smile. To live in a world where someone imagines these enchantments – well, that just makes it all worth living… and playing.

But there’s the starving artist aspect that doesn’t translate well to game development – a profession that needs money and resources to stay atop the technology wave. They can’t work their magic on creativity alone.

So, when the news broke the other day that Double Fine had signed on to develop a Sesame Street branded Kinect title, Once Upon a Monster – I threw them the proverbial “attaboy”. It’s the right play – a smart move indeed. Some may see this as selling out and going the licensed route but I’m viewing this from a different angle; one where all parties win out.

For starters, Sesame Street has thrived for decades on its strength of character. As a Dad to two young children, I’ve become reacquainted with the program over the last few years and I am amazed at its ability to evolve and survive the passage of time; while holding tight to its core tenets. It’s all about giving children the tools to learn; while encouraging the importance of problem solving. Most importantly – it thrives on character. Kids may grow out of Sesame Street but they don’t grow tired of it.

Double Fine is the perfect developer for this project. Their focus on providing a unique experience – on engineering playful puzzles – is a perfect marriage for a property that is too important to trust in just anyone’s hands. And while the end result will likely be outside of my wheelhouse (and even that of my kids who are just about ready to leave Elmo behind) – there is always a group of little moppets coming up behind who should eat this up. If Microsoft is smart – they’ll bundle this in with some special Kinect packs aimed squarely at young families and really move some units this Fall.

So, while I am unlikely to put major time into Once Upon a Monster (which will mark the first Double Fine title that I haven’t been canceling appointments in order to get maximum gaming time in), I am greatly looking forward to its release. This could be the monster hit the company needs – buying them the cache to keep toiling away on the prized projects. One big hit buys them the resources to keep on working their mojo.

And as long as they keep dreaming, I sleep easier at night.