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LucasArts' Secret History: Grim Fandango: Tim Schafer, Project Leader

30 Aug, 2009

An interview with Tim Schafer

Tell us about what it is you did between the time Full Throttle shipped and the time you decided Grim Fandango was going to be your next game.

Wow, that's a good question. I have almost no recollection of that time. I can tell you all about the time after DOTT and after Grim, but after Throttle... what was I doing? That was right when LEC was moving from the Kerner complex (over by ILM) over to the new, fancy "Death Star" on Los Gamos road. I remember someone from the marketing department suggesting that I make Full Throttle 2, but I don't there was any question in my mind that my next game was going to be Grim Fandango. I think that time was fairly peaceful and not stressful, so that's why I don't remember it as well as the others.

Full Throttle was the most commercially successful adventure game LEC had put out at the time. Did this give you a bit more pull to do something as "out there" as Grim Fandango?

Yes, it's definitely easier to pitch something when you come riding into the meeting on a big wave of money. Everybody was all smiles. The only negative comment I remember from the pitch meeting was that Hal didn't like the title. Back then it was called "Deeds of the Dead." He said you can't have dead or death in your title--it's bad luck.

Grim Fandango is the game that finally discarded the long used SCUMM engine in favor of a brand new 3D engine that allowed for direct control and more cinematic presentation. What were some of the reasons you pushed for this progression for adventure games?

Everybody was pushing for 3d at the time. We were the old 2d hold-outs in the graphic adventure department. We always thought it looked better. Although on Throttle we did make 3d models of the bikes and the trucks and a lot of the things used in the action sequences. Then we rendered them out and painted over them. But I thought 3d looked so bad back then. Until I saw Bioforge, and I loved how dramatically the camera angles changed as you walked around. That was one thing we couldn't do with 2d--have quick camera angle changes. So that kind of seduced me into the world of 3d.

Grim Fandango continued the streamlining trend seen in Full Throttle by eliminating the text/cursor interface altogether. What sorts of challenges did this introduce, and what sort of freedom did this allow for?

Well, back then there were just as many games with character-relative controls ("tank controls" like Tomb Raider or Resident Evil) as there were screen relative (like Mario 64). So we felt it was a toss-up which way to go. The advantage of tank controls is that you can walk through a series of camera angles without changing the the meaning of the controls. You just press up and Manny walks forward, and the camera can cut to a top town view, a low angle, a reverse shot, an Manny just keeps on walking. I thought this was cool in Bioforge so that's why we went that way. And we got so used to driving Manny around in the office, we had no idea that it was so hard for newbies. Mentally, I had already moved on to making console games. So I was giving Manny a control scheme like I had experienced in Tomb Raider on the PS1, or Final Fantasy VII. The problem was it was on the pc and people were mostly not using gamepad controllers--they were using the arrow keys on the numpad. So it ended up being hard to control for a lot of people.

Was it difficult to convince the powers that be to introduce the expensive new technology that it took to bring Grim Fandango to life?

No, in the beginning we just said we were going to take the Jedi Knight engine and add a scripting language to it. I remember Ray Gresko saying, "That sounds easy. That would take about three brain cells to do that." Turned out to be a little more complicated in the end, but these things usually are. I think it took at least nine brain cells, if I remember correctly. Which meant we had to hire four programmers! (Haha, programmer burn.)

Grim Fandango took three years to make, which would seem like some kind of record if it wasn't for Double Fine's first two titles. Still, how did you and the team manage to keep a focus on the vision of the game throughout such a lengthy development cycle? Were there any lessons learned that you applied to later games?

Well, we had every shot storyboarded and the puzzles all planned, so there wasn't much room to wander away from the vision of the game. But the implementation was nasty, and we mostly just all worked too hard and burned ourselves out. After the project I had to go home and not come into the office for three months.

How did you expect me to figure out the safe puzzle?

Which safe puzzle? The one with the elevator? I thought we cut that.

The voice actors in this game are impeccably cast. How involved were you with the casting process? How was Tony Plana found?

Our voice department made casting packages and gathered all the auditions and weeded out the top ones, and then we'd listen to them together. At first I didn't think we were going to find anybody, because I wanted him to sound like Humphry Bogart. And Tony didn't really sound like that at all, but we liked him. The question came up of the accent. Manny wasn't originally going to have an accent, and I don't know who suggested it--maybe Darragh?--but I remember that at first it seemed scary to do--I don't know why, because it seems like a no-brainer now. But at the time it was like, "Dare we? Dare we give Manny an accent? I'm too scared." Luckily we came to our senses. Tony turned out to be awesome, and a really nice guy. It's fun to watch him on Ugly Betty now. If you every find a way to watch Tony's original tv show, though, you really should. It was called Bakersfield P.D. and it's one of the great, lost TV shows.

Grim Fandango was the last "straight" adventure game you worked on after nearly ten years with the genre, although your subsequent games seem as story and character-driven as the stuff you did in the 90s. Do you ever find yourself wanting to return to traditional adventure games, or are you cool with them being fond memories?

I care more about the characters and the worlds then I do about the exact way you move through them. I mean, I care that it's good of course, and that the gameplay is fun, but I'm not married to any particular genre of gameplay. Whatever suits the purposes of the character and the story, that's the right one to use. That's why there are action sequences in Throttle. Not because someone said we had to add action. But because Ben was an action-oriented hero.

Despite its unanimous critical praise, Grim Fandango is often regarded as the flop that ended the reign of big budget adventures (presumably because it was the penultimate one LEC put out), but there seems to be some indication that the modesty of the game's sales was vastly exaggerated. Could you put this to rest for us?

When I left Lucas in 1999 I asked for Grim's numbers, and they told me it had sold about 500,000 worldwide. So, yeah, it could have been more, but I got a royalty check for it, so it must have been profitable. Either way, I wish I did know some way to put this issue to rest because I don't think the sales numbers for these games are the most interesting aspect of them.

Possibly due to the several references to that classic film, some regard Grim Fandango as the gaming counterpart to Casablanca. I've personally always thought that making a sequel to it would be as misguided as a sequel to that movie, but have you ever entertained the notion of a Grim 2 (in the hypothetical scenario that it was your license to toy with)?

I think about that from time to time. There are ways it could be done. Casablanca ended in such a way that it's kind of important that Rick and Ilsa don't have further adventures, you know? Or else it takes away from the power of what Rick does in the end. Grim doesn't have that problem. But I have other stuff I want to make first!

What went on with you between the shipping of Grim Fandango and the founding of Double Fine? Wasn't there some PS2 spy game that died on the vine? On a related note, were there any salacious "political reasons" that you left LEC? Come on, we've never heard anyone say anything good about LEC management circa 1999-2000.

I worked at LEC on a ps2 game that never left pre-production, and it was never called anything more than, "Tim's Spy Game." It had some cool stuff in it, but I was having trouble coming up with ideas that felt original enough because it was set in space, so everything looked like Star Wars to me. In Grim we had the Aztec/Mayan/Noir arena all to ourselves. But space is very crowded. There were no political reasons why I left. I just left because I wanted to have control over the IP I was creating, and also to have more leeway in how I managed the team. (LEC would not let us have artists that worked 3 days a week, for example.) Also, most of the old crew had already moved on, so I was starting to feel like the creepy old guy who hangs around the high school after he graduates, like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.

Day of the Tentacle had a heavy metal roadie (who even claimed to have a friend named Eddie who "eats raw sewage on stage") while Full Throttle and Grim Fandango had an obsession with ostentatious hotrods. Is it safe to say that the world of your upcoming Brutal Legend is a culmination of ideas that you were maybe sneaking in to some of your earlier work?

I have always loved demons that drive hot rods, and roadies, and metal. Those elements have been poking their heads into everything I do for years, and Brütal Legend is really just me saying, "The hell with it. Let's do the hot rod thing all the way. Let the demons out!"

Recently, we've seen LucasArts allow Telltale Games to develop for the Monkey Island license. Do you see any chance of your IP being continued in a similar way? Have you threatened the necessary people to ensure that Grim Fandango makes the cut of the next batch of back catalog titles that LEC puts on Steam?

It would be nice if people could play all the old games easily, sure. I'd love to see the original version of Grim Fandango running on XBL or the PSN, working with a console controller. But continuing the IP makes me nervous. With Monkey it makes sense, because a lot of people have already contributed to that world. I'd say Monkey belongs to the fans more than anybody else now. Day of the Tentacle could work as long as Dave is involved. Grim, though, I'd be sad to see that continue without me. I think that would be a mistake. You know what I'm most excited about though? Rather than talking about all these old games? I'm more excited to think about what new characters and worlds and IPs these companies could all create. TellTale is a company full of creative people. And they say that LucasArts is full of people who love the old adventure games. So if the spirit that went into those games is still alive then I can't wait to see it doing what it does best: Making up brand new ideas. I think they have it in them.

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