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For Schafer, storytelling has been a life-long love affair.
Born in July 1967, Schafer grew up five blocks from Sonoma's sleepy downtown, well before the town of 11,000 people became a major winemaking hub. Early on, Schafer got hooked on stand-up arcade games like Night Driver and Space Panic. His father bought the family a Magnavox Odyssey — the first videogame console — and, later, various Ataris.
"I loved them all, but the one that was special was a game called Adventure," Schafer says, referring to Warren Robinett's innovative 1979 Atari title in which a cursor collects swords and keys and avoids dragons. "It was the first, you might say, graphic-adventure game. It triggered that feeling of space existing in a computer, which felt like magic to me," he says. Soon, he started writing his own games — and discovering an appreciation for the offbeat, especially in the small town kids at his high school called "Slownoma." "As a teen, I listened to the Ramones, and identified with them, when everyone else was listening to Journey."
After graduation, Schafer studied at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and later transferred to UC Berkeley. He majored in computer science, even though he found the classes boring — too much science — and preferred tinkering on computers at home.
Classes outside his major made him a better game designer, he says. Literature professors exposed him to Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. A UCSC course on the psychology of dreams paved the way for the subconscious romp of Double Fine's Psychonauts. Alan Dundes' legendary folklore class at Cal exposed Schafer to the Norse mythology that suffused Brütal Legend and the Día de los Muertos iconography that became the backbone of Grim Fandango.
Schafer was working at Cal's computer store and finishing his computer-science degree when he landed a job at LucasArts, then headquartered at Skywalker Ranch. His first job was play-testing, but before long, Gilbert had roped him and Grossman — who started the same day as Schafer in 1989 — into designing the goofy pirate game he'd dreamed up.
"He was always hilarious," Grossman says of Schafer. "But he wasn't so self-assured then. These days, he has a little rock and roll around him."
"Skywalker Ranch was kind of a dream," Schafer says. "It was beautiful ... and isolated. There was no Internet that we knew of. It was just us entertaining ourselves."
That pirate game became the first Monkey Island. After its success, and that of Day of the Tentacle, Schafer convinced LucasArts to let him lead production on Full Throttle, a dystopian graphic adventure in which Ben Throttle, the leader of a biker gang, must clear his name after being accused of murder. Schafer worked hard to make the game more accessible than his first efforts. "We had this theory that maybe if your hero is tough and cool, and if there's a lot of hot rods and explosions, people will like it," he says. His team also made the game shorter, and the puzzles easier, which disappointed some longtime fans. Still, the changes paid off: Full Throttle sold 1 million copies after its 1995 release.
"Every game has compromises," Schaefer says. "George Lucas used to say if you get 40 percent of what you want, that's a success. I always feel like I get 85 to 90."
By then, Schafer's following included future big-name developers. "I never really enjoyed the adventure game genre, with the notable exception of anything by Tim," said Will Wright, creator of The Sims. "Every game he has designed I have loved and played all the way from start to finish."
Next, LucasArts handed Schafer $3 million to make Grim Fandango. The game's main man is Manuel "Manny" Calavera, a travel agent at the Department of Death who helps souls book passage for the four-year journey through the land of the dead. Styled after noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Grim Fandango won top awards from critics and sold roughly 500,000 copies, according to Schafer.
But some blamed Grim Fandango for killing the genre it exemplified, if only because it didn't sell millions. Grossman doesn't agree that Grim Fandango was the nail in the coffin of adventure gaming, though he concedes that the game "might have killed it at LucasArts. It was pretty ambitious and expensive, and I don't think it made very much money back. People looking out for the bottom line were wondering, 'Should we be making these?'"
Schafer left LucasArts in 1999, in part because the company was planning a Full Throttle sequel without his input. (It was later canceled.) The publisher's last graphic-adventure game was 2000's Escape from Monkey Island.
At LucasArts, Schafer had the luxury of working in-house for a publisher, but that changed when he founded Double Fine Productions in 2000. The price of independence: struggling to survive from game to game.
Brütal Legend seemed like a slam dunk. Just as heavy metal was kicking ass worldwide again, Schafer pitched his headbanging action-adventure to publishers, and Vivendi Games picked it up. The game's $20 million budget helped Schafer lure major talent, including rocker/funnyman Jack Black as Eddie Riggs, a roadie who is sucked into a cartoonish heavy-metal universe. There, he meets allies and demons voiced by Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmeister, Halford, Osbourne, Brian Posehn, and Tim Curry.