By Erin Sherbert
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For the first time, Schafer had a blockbuster. Now he just needs a game.
Unlike most of today's furiously paced games, which are predicated on ease of use and constant forward momentum, Schafer's graphic adventures emphasize thoughtfulness, patience, and creativity. The Secret of Monkey Island — his first, co-written with Gilbert and Dave Grossman in 1990 — is typical. Players guide the improbably named pirate-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood about the pirate-infested Mêlée Island by clicking an onscreen command — "pick up," "use," "walk," etc. — and then an item in Threepwood's vicinity. In a bid to become a pirate himself, the hapless Threepwood bumbles about chatting with the island's denizens, gathering items that players will put to unlikely uses (a saucepan becomes a helmet when Threepwood volunteers as a human cannonball), and solving puzzles. All of this is presented with the humor that has become Schafer's trademark.
In one scene, Threepwood chats with a man in a jail cell:
Prisoner: You gotta get me out of here! I'm a victim of society.
Threepwood: Not to mention halitosis. Yuck!
Prisoner: Hey, it's hard to keep my breath minty-fresh when there's nothing to eat in here but rats.
Silly, but also something of a puzzle. What items on Mêlée Island could Threepwood use to help this sot out? Later, in a shop, Threepwood will have a chance to acquire breath mints, which he can then use to win over the prisoner — a far cry from the gun-barrel diplomacy of today's most popular games.
"A lot of people think Tim is really funny," says Michael Capps, president of Epic Games, home of Gears of War. Capps cites an example from Double Fine's Psychonauts: "'A bacon phone! How droll. What will he think of next?' they think. What they don't realize is that Tim actually sees the world that way, and he's just communicating those delusions to us through games."
Whatever Schafer was communicating, fans adored it. Monkey Island sold "north of 100,000, far south of 1 million," Grossman says. "Back in those days, a few hundred thousand was a giant smash hit."
Schafer, Gilbert, and Grossman made a sequel in 1991, followed by 1993's Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, both in the graphic-adventure mold. By then, they had won over a breed of thoughtful, patient gamer. "Adventure-game fans have a high tolerance for being stuck," Schafer says. "And then they solve it and they feel great."
Even in the early '90s, that wasn't necessarily the norm, though. "A lot of people will say 'I don't know how to do this; I will move on to something easier,'" Schafer says. "They want that flow and momentum, and that's valid, too."
That same year, Doom hit the market, and gamers got that flow and momentum. id Software's space-marine bloodbath was the first 3-D first-person shooter to gain massive popularity; experts estimate that more than 10 million people took aim at Doom's demons in the first two years after its release. Suddenly, LucasArts' adventure-game sales looked weak.
If that weren't enough, Sony unveiled the PlayStation in 1994. It was the first gaming console to use CDs instead of cartridges, allowing for more storage space and sharper graphics. The PlayStation was the first console to sell more than 100 million units worldwide. The gaming market began to shift away from PCs and, to large extent, graphic-adventure games.
"Advancing technology caused budgets to rise, and adventure games weren't able to expand their sales to keep up the pace," says Kurt Kalata, author of The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. Meanwhile, he adds, many game critics at the time felt that the graphic-adventure genre "had grown stale and wasn't innovating enough."
Major publishers stopped making these games, even though the fanbase hadn't budged. "Ron and I have always felt adventure games have the same market they always did, which is about 200,000 units sold. But with Call of Duty people expect 15 million units sold," Schafer says. That left his audience neglected. "People were told, 'You guys like these kinds of games, but you're not worth it, so we're not going to make this kind of game for you.'"
One of the things graphic-adventure games got right — in part due to their technological limitations — is their focus on story and characters, argues Patrick Chin, one of Double Fine's Kickstarter backers. Each new generation of gaming consoles drives designers to dazzle gamers with bleeding-edge graphics. That's partly due to cost; it's more expensive to build games for brand-new systems, so most of the cash goes toward visuals likely to grab gamers' attention and result in a hit. As consoles mature, studios return their attentions to character and narrative, according to Jordan Weisman, who designed the original Shadowrun role-playing videogame and recently raised $1.8 million on Kickstarter to create a sequel, Shadowrun Returns.
"We're at the end of the lifespan of the current generation of consoles, so the focus has been on the depth of story," Weisman says. There's also evidence that gamers hunger for better storytelling: Earlier this year, fans of the action role-playing hit Mass Effect 3 launched major protests over the game's unsatisfying ending, ultimately winning an apology from BioWare, the game's publisher, and a new downloadable epilogue. "When the new generation of hardware comes out, people will revel in the graphics and story will be swept aside again," Weisman says.