Or "Of Mice And Men... II", or "How Tim Schafer bought us lunch again, and this time let us play his new game."
by Andrew "telarium" Langley and DJG
Mixnmojo visited the offices of Double Fine Productions in San Francisco last week to check up on the status of Psychonauts and spend time with our hero, Tim Schafer. Double Fine treated the (perhaps overly) eager Mojo staffers with an appropriate welcome. We arrived a little earlier than our scheduled time, and were locked in the conference room until Tim came back from a design meeting.
Fortunately for us, the walls of Double Fine's conference room are practically wallpapered in concept art, drawn by talented artists like Peter Chan (of Grim Fandango and past LucasArts concept art fame) and Scott Campbell (a new guy to us at least, doing Psychonauts' character design, and more probably).
We saw designs for the main character Raz (one without his hood!), some unique and varied levels that we can't talk about, many quirky characters we also can't talk about, and much more (obviously we can't talk about it). There were also a few black velvet drawings, possibly serving as the inspiration for one of the levels in Psychonauts. There was even a book on the corner shelf entitled Black Velvet - the Art we Love to Hate. Tee hee.
Tim came in when his meeting was over to walk us through all of the concept art, admitting that we were looking at some pretty big spoilers for the game. That's why we're not going to publish any real pictures of the designs. Well, that, and Tim threatened our lives.
Dave Grossman, co-writer of The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, and Day of the Tentacle, later arrived just in time to join the delighted Double Fine visitors (that's us) for lunch, and tell us about what he's been up to lately. You probably already know that Dave recently wrote two children's adventure games for Ron Gilbert's new company, Hulabee Entertainment. He has also been working on a book of “guy poetry” that will be available soon on his new website, Phrenopolis.com.
“Some of the material describes a lifestyle that can only be fully achieved in the welcoming squalor of bachelordom,” Dave said concerning his book, “but generally it is about male characteristics which persist until death, regardless of domestic status.”
Lunch was over and we all started to walk back to the Double Fine office. Tim mentioned that he heard this particular street was an excellent place for purchasing heroin.
“Watch,” he said, “I'm going to try to buy heroin from some guy.”
Our bewildered staff members looked on as Tim broke away from the group to ask the first person on the street, “Can you sell me some heroin?” Don't be alarmed, though. It turned out that this pedestrian was Double Fine character modeler and animator, Raymond Crook. So hilarious... or is it? Yes.
The Double Fine office is filled with a variety of interesting things that have nothing to do whatsoever with that Psychonauts thing. Well, maybe it's not filled with them, but there were a couple LucasArts droolables laying around.
Among the rat traps, Tim showed us the folder he kept during his work on The Secret of Monkey Island. The folder was filled with design documents, old fashion dot-matrix screen printouts of the maze beneath Monkey Island, and hand written notes about the ship-to-ship combat section that was cut from the final game.
There was also a rejected proposal for Monkey Island 3 that some LucasArts employee wrote a long time ago, but unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to read it. We attempted to plan a way to steal this folder from Tim, but alas, the man has eyes like a friggin' hawk.
Tim introduced us to Scott Campbell, art director for Double Fine Productions and creator of the infamous two-headed baby logo. Scott maintained that his inspiration for the logo was autobiographical, saying that he was born with two heads. He later mentioned that he gave the second head to his uncle.
In the upstairs office area, we sat down and watched as Tim demonstrated Psychonauts for Dave. Even our own DJG got some hands-on time with this upcoming title, which is a little less than a year away from release. Despite the production being at this early stage, the gameplay seemed like a lot of fun. An exhausted DJG (with bags under his eyes) shared his thoughts later that day:
“The game looked very impressive,” he said. “If you enjoy games like Banjo-Kazooie or Sonic Adventure, just imagine if they had a compelling story and were made by Tim Schafer.”
DJG also mentioned that the controls were much more inventive than most action games.
“Raz has a bunch of moves to choose from, which makes Psychonauts a lot more fun to play than if he could just jump on enemies.” [DJG abusing editorship: No I love Mario 64, really.]
Bright fellow, that DJG. After the hands-on time, Andrew “Telarium” Langley asked Tim how he felt about some fans' concerns that he may not be able to cram the extensive Psychonauts story into a fast-paced console action game.
“Have you ever played Zelda,” Tim began, “and you're like, ‘Man, that game would be cool if the guy I just talked to hadn't said all that crap about fairies and light?’ What if they said something that was good? I mean, it's not like a whole new genre to make games like that have depth and a story.” *
Indeed, Tim expressed that part of his inspiration for Psychonauts came out of his dissatisfaction with both modern day console action titles and adventure games.
“I always think the problem with adventure games is people tend to tell the story too much in cutscenes,” Tim said. “I think the story should be the puzzles and the puzzles should be the story.”
He then recalled an example from Half-Life in which you enter a scene with other action going on that doesn't directly involve the player. You hear screaming, and as you come around a corner, you might see a dead monster lying on a floor and a nearby guard crawling towards a medical kit shortly before he dies. Tim describes this as a micro story, and believes that it is an effective way to communicate a feeling or an idea.
“You can have your levels tell the story and you don't have to have the whole game come to a screeching halt to show some cutscene,” Tim said. “You can get the story told in little bits and pieces all throughout the level as you're playing. And it's not just by the words that are spoken to you. Like in this game, because you're going into someone's head, you can have the art tell the story.”
He then went on to further explain how he and his team are using the idea of art and level design to tell the Freudian story of Psychonauts.
“You go into this one guy's head,” Tim said, “and his dad was a butcher. There are weird pieces of meat in the level, and there are things made of meat that shouldn't be made of meat. That kind of tells the story about that guy's character. The story is in every single aspect of the game.”
Double Fine Productions provides steady work for several former LucasArts employees, including most of the old Grim Fandango team. The office additionally houses several pesky parmesan-loving mice (whose days are numbered). For more information, visit DoubleFine.com and look for Psychonauts on the Xbox sometime next year. Also, if you're a poetry fan, be sure keep an eye on Phrenopolis.com for Dave Grossman's upcoming book.
Remember to also check out the accompanying gallery for more images from the trip.
* Tim admitted later that he does really like Zelda.