It’s a Tim Schafer Moment: The Role of Wish Fulfilment in Tim Schafer’s Evolution as a Video Game Auteur

Jenova Chen describes auteur theory as “a theory about creations sharing coherent identities from an author, so that people manage to memorize and become able to identify works from their creators”[1].  Jason Schreier sees auteur theory as the single, strong creative vision which leads development of a project[2]. Yet this auteur analysis of Tim Schafer will not directly focus on either of these definitions. Rather, this paper will examine the creative process behind Schafer’s work in accordance with his game design philosophy, and how this influences narrative, gameplay, and what Schafer is  best known for – humour.

Evolution: Writer, Director, Founder.

Tim Schafer has mostly worked on adventure games, categorised for their shared emphasis on narrative (which the game mechanics are built upon), exploration and puzzle-solving over physical challenges[3]. The protagonist acts as the surrogate of the player in the game world, actions are conveyed through a verb and object interaction pattern and narrative is pseudo-linear, with the illusion of freedom within chapters[4].

The three games examined as case studies in this paper focus on different periods of Schafer’s career. This allows for an analysis of the evolution of Schafer as a game designer.

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) introduced Schafer’s dark and humorous writing under the direction of Ron Gilbert[5]Grim Fandango (1998), Schafer’s second solo project, and what many consider to be his magnum opus, came at the end of his tenure at Lucas Arts and marked the end of the golden age of adventure games[6][7].

Psychonauts (2005), Schafer’s most experimental game to date, was his first creation with his company Double Fine Productions, and the first of his games to depart from classic adventure game conventions.  “No one on the team had ever made a platformer before…This was also the first time I’d ever worked with designers[8].”

These games were selected for their status as Schafer’s best works. Although they are distinctly different, they share underlying themes, showcasing the evolution of Schafer’s design philosophy.

Creation: Wish Fulfilment in Character Design

The driving force of Schafer’s games, his design philosophy, is wish fulfilment, for both the creator and the audience[9]. His characters are somewhat idealistic, with clear morals. They begin as underdogs, burdened with the task of saving the world around them (e.g.  Manny Calvera is the only person capable of overthrowing the corrupt government).

Schafer draws inspiration from his own life (e.g. Schafer’s grandfather and Psychonauts character Coach Oleander’s father were both butchers) to create fantastical worlds that he brings to life. For example, Grim Fandango arose from Schafer’s curiosity of the backstory behind a book of Day of the Dead art[10].

For Schafer, once a compelling world has been conceived, the next step is to figure out “What character would I want to be if I went to that world?  I want to be the coolest person there[11].” Schafer’s use of extremes in the creation of characters and environments is an important foundation for comedic dialogue and actions. This is reflected in The Secret of Monkey Island, whereby the protagonist repeatedly describes himself as “Guybrush Threepwood, a mighty pirate”, despite being a skinny and timid looking character.

According to Scahfer, the next step in setting up the underdog is to decide “…who is the bad guy, what are they up to?”[12]. Schafer’s villains are often authority figures (undead pirate captain LeChuck, Manny’s boss Don Copal, Raz’s teacher Coach Oleander), undeserving of their positions.

Schafer’s method of building characters sets the perfect breeding ground for his narratives to follow the monomyth model, the hero’s journey.

Monomyth: The Hero’s Journey

Schafer’s use of the monomyth may have been influenced by his time working at the Skywalker ranch, as his employer, George Lucas, used Campbell’s theory of the monomyth to structure the biopic Star Wars (1977-2008)[13]. The theory breaks down the hero’s journey into 17 microstages within three main stages: departure, initiation and return.

The role of the monomyth in Schafer’s work is both implicit and derivative. For example, the microstage ‘Belly of the Whale’ can be seen in can be seen in Psychonauts when Raz is swallowed by the mutant lungfish Linda. However, the microstage ‘Master of Two Worlds’ is a running theme through Psychonauts, as Raz’s training takes place in both real and mental worlds.

The monomyth fulfils many potential fantasies. The rise of an ordinary fellow, called to save his world from peril, who, despite the odds, gains the items, skills and faith necessary to become a hero. During this process, he saves the damsel and earns her love (Elaine in Monkey Island, Meche in Grim Fandango and Lily in Pyschonauts).

Although Schafer’s games follow certain conventions of the monomyth for the purposes of wish fulfilment, he tends to warp other stereotypes used in the hero’s journey for comedic effect.

Humour: Defying Stereotypes and Conventions

Whilst Schafer’s female protagonists do need saving, they are helpless by circumstance, not by lack of mental or physical strength. For example, Meche, who first appears in Grim Fandango as a distressed damsel, is later revealed to be a femme fatale, who chides Manny on his naivety. The forwardness of the female protagonists make them ideal counterparts to Schafer’s male protagonists, giving an added obstacle for the hero (to both save them and gain their love), as well as providing an ideal breeding ground for humorous banter.  Strong female characters allow Schafer to cater for both genders’ needs in terms of wish fulfilment as female gamers are likely to identify with them with their ideal self.

Schafer’s defiance of stereotypes is not limited to feminist readings, however, with the vegetarian cannibals in the Monkey Island series another example of unlikely characteristics combined for humorous effect.

His circumvention of stereotypes and conventions is also derivative of a desire to create more realistic characters, in order to ground the narrative, in spite of the fantastical worlds they are set in, to increase player immersion. “If a character jumps on your head then you’ve gotta write something funny in response to that, otherwise you’re just ignoring how ridiculous the situation is and that breaks the suspense of disbelief[14].” This is reflected in Pyschonauts, whereby smashing items in Bonita’s dressing room elicits the response “oh I didn’t need that anyway”. This is in stark contrast to fellow action-adventure games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, whereby home owners remain silent whilst Link destroys their belongings.

Conclusion

It is Schafer’s desire to create a world that both he and his players will enjoy journeying that has seen the creation of the expression ‘a Tim Schafer moment’, used in the industry to describe an instance of great creativity or genius[15]. For whilst the monomyth can be used to describe the structure shared by Schafer’s games, each of his creations deviates so greatly from the last that it is difficult to show how they are otherwise related. However, Schafer’s worlds of pirates, the un-dead and psychic soldiers do have one important thing in common: they are filled with jokes, planted within dialogue trees, commentary and cut scenes.

Who else but Tim Schafer would go on to make a game parodying his own quest to be funny[16]?

Gameography

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) Lucasfilm Games, LucasArts.

Grim Fandango (1998) LucasArts, LucasArts.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) Nintendo EAD, Nintendo.

Psychonauts (2005) Double Fine Productions, Majesco Entertainment.

References

Ashcraft, B. (2010) The Search for the Video Game Auteurs, Kotaku Australia. Retrieved from: http://kotaku.com/5477174/the-search-for-the-video-game-auteurs on 1/8/2012.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image (2012) In Conversation with Tim Schafer, Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Retrived from: http://www.acmi.net.au/Schafer_in_conversation.aspx on 1/8/2012.

Fernández-Vara, C. (2009) The Secret of Monkey Island: Playing Between Cultures, ETC Press. Retrieved from: http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/content/secret-monkey-island-clara-fern%C3%A1ndez-vara on 1/8/2012.

Goldman, A. (2012) Tim Schafer explains how to make games, tell stories, On The Media. Retrieved from: http://www.onthemedia.org/blogs/on-the-media/2012/jun/09/tim-shafer-explains-how-make-games-tell-stories/ on 1/8/2012.

Hutchison, J. (2011) BabyGamer: Grim Fandango, End of an Era, DualShockers. Retrieved from: http://www.dualshockers.com/2011/11/06/babygamer-grim-fandango-end-of-an-era/ on 1/8/2012.

Kuchera, B. (2012) Basic Braining: Tim Schafer talks story, the 90s movies behind Psychonauts, and learning to platform, Penny Arcade. Retrieved from: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/tim-Schafer-discusses-the-stories-and-inspirations-behind-psychonauts on 1/8/2012.

Lammle, R. (2012) 5 Retro Games brought back from the dead by Kickstarter, CC Social Marketing. Retrieved from: http://ccsocialmarketing.com/5-retro-games-brought-back-from-the-dead-by-kickstarter/ on 1/8/2012.

Larsen, S. & Larsen, R. (2002) Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind: the Authorized Biography, Inner Traditions.

Rollings, A. (2006), Fundamentals of Game Design, Prentice Hall.

Schafer, T. (2009) Host Master and the Conquest of Humor, Double Fine Productions. Retrieved from: http://www.doublefine.com/news/comments/host_master_and_the_conquest_of_humor/ on 1/8/2012/

Schreier, J. (2011) Videogames Need Auteurs, But Good Luck Finding Them, Wired. Retrieved from: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2011/02/game-auteur/ on 1/8/2012.

The SCUMM Bar (2004) The Secret of Creating Monkey Island – An Interview with Ron Gilbert, excerpt from LucasFilm Adventurer vol.1, number 1, Fall 1990. Retrieved from: http://www.scummbar.com/resources/articles/index.php?newssniffer=readarticle&article=1033 on 1/8/2012.


[1] Ashcraft, B. (2010) The Search for the Video Game Auteurs, Kotaku Australia.

[2] Schreier, J. (2011) Videogames Need Auteurs, But Good Luck Finding Them, Wired.

[3] Rollings, A. (2006), Fundamentals of Game Design, Prentice Hall, pp. 622, 629.

[4] Fernández-Vara, C. (2009) The Secret of Monkey Island: Playing Between Cultures, ETC Press.

[5] The SCUMM Bar (2004) The Secret of Creating Monkey Island – An Interview with Ron Gilbert, excerpt from LucasFilm Adventurer vol.1, number 1, Fall 1990.

[6] Lammle, R. (2012) 5 Retro Games brought back from the dead by Kickstarter, CC Social Marketing.

[7] Hutchison, J. (2011) BabyGamer: Grim Fandango, End of an Era, DualShockers.

[8] Kuchera, B. (2012) Basic Braining: Tim Schafer talks story, the 90s movies behind Psychonauts, and learning to platform, Penny Arcade.

[9] Goldman, A. (2012) Tim Schafer explains how to make games, tell stories, On The Media.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Larsen, S. & Larsen, R. (2002) Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind: the Authorized Biography, Inner Traditions. pp. 541-543.

[14] Kuchera, B. op. cit.

[15] Australian Centre for the Moving Image (2012) In Conversation with Tim Schafer, Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

[16] Schafer, T. (2009) Host Master and the Conquest of Humor, Double Fine Productions.

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