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Basic Braining: Tim Schafer talks story, the 80s movies behind Psychonauts, and learning to platform

Basic Braining: Tim Schafer talks story, the 80s movies behind Psychonauts, and learning to platform

There is much on Tim Schafer's plate right now but, with the possibility of a Psychonauts 2 back on the table, we wanted to explore the world of the first game and try to figure out what made it so special. I played through the entirety of Psychonauts once more in preparation for this interview, and I found that the game still looks and plays wonderfully. Schafer was a little taken aback by the idea of talking only about one game, but the stories he shared about the development of Psychonauts and the movies that inspired it were well worth the time.

Let’s start at the ending and work backwards. What did Psychonauts teach you?

Tim Schafer: Psychonauts was like learning how to make games all over again from scratch, as if I’d never made a game before. I guess because it was the first game that I had made that wasn’t a straight point-and-click graphic adventure, so all the elements of physical game play and 3D camera layout and all the bugaboos of 3D action platformers were all completely new to me. This was also the first time I’d ever worked with designers… the adventure games had a head designer, like Ron [Gilbert] or me, and then everything else was just the details of that, implementing that design. But now we’re working with designers on each level and having a high level concept that got turned into actual geometry and getting that pipeline going. I’m just listing a whole bunch of little things I learned, I don’t know if there was one big takeaway that I learned there. It was kind of a miracle that we survived and finished that game because we were learning so much so quickly, you know, and just barely staying ahead of the axe most of the time.

It’s kind of fascinating that you say you were learning so much, and the levels are intricately designed. When you look at the cube level with Sasha, or the milkman level, do you think coming at it from a fresh perspective let you play with these tropes a little bit?

I think definitely we didn’t have a bag of tricks to rely on and so for each level we did a lot of stuff as these one-off special cases that I think gave us a lot of variety in the levels, but definitely we didn’t realize how hard we were making it for ourselves by not using some of the things that the other games are using. I was definitely working off games that I had loved, you know, like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy or Rayman 2. Those are like a lot of the console games I had played right before and during the making of that game, so we definitely had things we were using as reference and some things we wanted to be like, but how to get there was something we were just kind of inventing on our own. No one on the team had ever made a platformer before, everyone was figuring it out from the programmers, the artists, it was all new.

Psychonauts was a very, very character driven game for a platformer. Did you sit down and write a script or did the characters come from early concept art? How solid was that in your head when you began?

Well the concept of Raz, he was named d'Artagnan at first, was kind of central early on. Very early on the story was actually about an ostrich, it always feels so funny to say that, the idea was that it was an ostrich with multiple personality disorder and his different powers were his different personalities, so he would become this kind of tough ostrich or really smart ostrich or an ostrich with a gun and you’d switch between them. Then I was giving a speech at GDC about character design and I was like, “all games are wish fulfillment and so no matter what, all your games are fulfilling some sort of fantasy of the player” and then I was in my head at the podium, I just got really quiet as I got lost in thought about whether the game I was designing actually followed this rule that I was telling everybody about. Like, does anyone really fantasize about being a mentally insane ostrich? And so then I had loved this movie, New Legends of Shaolin, which is a Jet Li movie where there’s this badass little kid who is an amazing martial artist and he just looks so intense and serious and I really wanted to have this kid that was like a little monk, you know, really intense, really physically dexterous, amazing hero kid. The same kid was also in My Father is a Hero, another Jet Li movie, and so we had this kid named d'Artagnan as our main character and he was kind of a – kind of turned into a gypsy with, like, Prince of Persia pants on with a big stocking cap. Anyway, so he went through different iterations, but then everybody hated that character eventually through all the tests that we did. He had a blue face because [cartoonist Scott Campbell] and I were really into Joe Sorren, this artist who has a lot of alternate skin tones in his paintings, so we had this blue faced, stocking capped, pajama wearing gypsy boy no one liked in the end. So it just goes to show you, sometimes an idea really comes together and everyone hates it, but I think we just weren’t implementing it right, but also there’s this character in The Fly 2 about the child of The Fly, I’m going really down a rabbit hole in that with all this information.

The Eric Stoltz vehicle.

The Eric Stoltz movie, exactly, that came up a lot when we were talking about the game… so that’s about this kid with powers at this secret government training facility, right? That’s kind of neat, I wanna do this story about a kid who’s got amazing powers who is at the secret government training facility, but then we’re stuck on that for the longest time and then we had this idea of it being at a summer camp just came into play and then everything just clicked together. Click, click, click.

Is it harder in a platformer to be funny? I keep talking to writers who say the more interactivity there is there harder it is to be funny.

I don’t think so, I mean, I don’t THINK so… That’s one of the inspirations for the comedy in the platformer is that you can do these ridiculous things like jump on people’s heads, 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. Like if you have a character jumping on someone’s head and the person you’re jumping on the head of is just acting like nothing’s going on then all of the sudden the game doesn’t seem real anymore. And what can you say there but something funny?

But on the other hand you have things like Zelda where you can break into someone’s house and steal all their shit and no one says anything to you.

Doesn’t that bug you?

It bugs the hell out of me, it never seems realistic.

Yeah, I always try to do that in games. I think in Psychonauts you can go into Bonita’s dressing room and you start smashing her stuff and she goes, “oh I didn’t need that anyway,” like she comments on it just for that reason. It drives me crazy when you go and trash someone’s house and they act – I tend to imagine in Zelda that they’re not talking about it because they’re absolutely terrified of you. They think you’re some sort of complete psychopath that’s gonna kill them, you’re like a mobster or something and you’re smashing the place and they’re like, *whistles* and as soon as you leave they fall down on the ground and cry.

The thing that struck me in how I talk to people about Psychonauts as I was replaying it is that the levitate power is such an interesting kind of locomotion, and you don’t really see that a lot in games, although levitation is fairly common. Where did that come from, that kind of subverting the idea of a normal levitating power?

Well that actually came a little bit from Zelda, I mean there was a – wait did it not come from Zelda? Near the end of Ocarina of Time you get these boots with wings on them that let you kind of coast over gaps. You can’t go forever but you can coast over short gaps, and I was like, “you know, that would be kind of cool, but maybe you’d be on top of a big levitation ball,” but in my head it was gonna be this big, ungainly thing that you kind of kicked around, a little bit like they have, actually there’s a big ball that rolls through some sort of fluid in the new Zelda game, but because it’s hard to balance on and stuff, and then that just wasn’t that fun and we made it faster and faster and it became this skateboard that you zoomed around on, and that was a great example of something that we did because we didn’t know any better, because it broke everything. You could get up super high, and you could bounce off everything. There was no way to lock the player by just normal platforming means because you could jump and float across an entire level if we weren’t careful, so it broke everything but it was, I think, really fun.

In the Lungfishopolis level the power was taken away completely, could you just not get it to work in that environment?

We all felt that it broke the fantasy of being a Godzilla-type character. It detracted from the sense of scale. We slowed you way down in that level, so you walk slower than normal because we wanted you to feel big and powerful like a giant monster, and if you could jump on top of this bubble and just whiz through the level it just made it seem like you were no longer Godzilla so we took it out.

Even the strange characters in Psychonauts feel very human. How much backstory do you write for these characters or that you have in your head before you…

I wrote a lot, like I’ve always learned and studied in writing that you write paragraphs of people, like your major characters in the game you write a page about at least about their parents and where they grew up and the story of how their parent’s met. I like to get all those things down because it generates a lot of little details and then you maybe leave a lot of them on the page or maybe when you’re writing dialog and you need an idea you’ll pull out the fact that his dad was a baker or something and you’ll use it in the dialog and it will go somewhere and it goes to making the characters really specific. I think that’s one of the most important things in writing is that your characters are not generic, they’re specific. Raz is a very specific psychic acrobat little boy who ran away from the circus; he’s not some general purpose character that fits a general description. There’s only one of him in the world because we thought about every detail in his existence. We don’t do that for every single sub-character but you do a little, like that’s the way to get rid of guard number 4 or spear carrier number 4, instead always try to give those characters names and then think a little bit about where they’re coming from and why are they a guard, why did they pick up a spear in the first place, why don’t they work for the rebels, you know, and think that through a little bit, and then it gives you ideas for funny things for them to say.

How did you decide which little mini-story to put in for each of the characters? It seems like that’s a detail that most people who create platformers, even if they write it, they don’t add into the game. Is that something you always knew you wanted to do?

Sometimes it was thinking about going into someone’s mind, like the basic premise of going into someone’s mind led to a lot of things like emotional baggage just being like a pun on that, you know? So we added lists of things we wanted, like let’s have emotional road blocks, which got cut later, but let’s have, you know, vaults kind of came from that Seinfeld episode where he always talks about, “don’t worry about your secret, it’s safe, in my vault” and wanting to have vaults and what can be in them and finding people’s secret memories. I mean another game that really inspired Psychonauts was Dreamscape, a Dennis Quaid movie where he goes into people’s dreams, you seen that one?

Yeah, with the snake.

With the snake monster, exactly.

And they have sex on the train.

Yeah, oh that was hot, I remember that in the 80s when I was in high school, well I’m much older, but yeah. I mean it’s a little cheesy, but it’s also great. It’s just full of these ideas about being in someone’s mental world and how the things are representations of emotional situations and how everything in your dreams is just some aspect of you even though it looks like someone else. There’s this scene where they’re inside the mind of this little boy and they’re trying to cure him of his monsters, of his nightmares, and he runs through this room and it’s his dad, and his dad is sitting at the dining room table and they say, “oh it’s your dad,” and the kid’s like, “oh don’t talk to him, he won’t help us, he never does,” and it’s just this sad statement about how this boy sees his father as unloving, or at least unhelpful to his situation. He's represented in his mind as a character, but it’s really just a representation of the boy’s feelings about his father and so that’s why Raz has this representation of his in his mind… it’s more about Raz’s perception of his father that’s being manifested in this character and that’s just so interesting, like what a great way to tell as character’s story without just sitting you down and making you listen to a boring story. You know, like those long conversations in [Red Dead Redemption] when you’re riding out to a mission and you have to listen to how his father was a drunk Scotsman and I just try to avoid those things.

Oh the info dumps, yeah.

The big info dumps. I mean that’s a great game, don’t get me wrong, but the info dumps. You have to be really, really careful with the backstories so that you also don’t reveal too much of it, because people love to put books in games that give you a whole bunch of backstory and stuff and I think you’re kind of killing the art of it. The art of it is to create it and then only show little snippets of it here and there.

Do you ever go back and play the game and think, you know, this game doesn’t have enough collection?

No, I don’t collect anything. No, I mean, are you saying you thought there was too much collection going on?

There’s a whole lot of collection going on in Psychonauts.

Well part of it was like this theory of how to change adventure games. Just that the idea we got from Zelda was not to let the player put their controller down, because one of the things in adventure games is that you get stuck and then you put the controller down or the mouse down and just walk away and you never play the game again, and so when you’re playing Zelda when you get stuck and you can’t beat a certain enemy or you can’t figure out a certain thing you can go ride your horse around Hyrule field and try to capture ghosts or, you know, you can trade masks with this guy and they have these different paths you can go down that can free up your brain and let you figure out how to get past that thing you’re stuck on. So we wanted to have all of these different kind of paths that you could go down, like maybe you get interested in collecting all of the cobwebs at a certain point or maybe you get down one of these side paths and you have something to do while you’re figuring out how to get through that level you’re stuck on. You know what I mean?

Yeah, I've never really thought of it that way. Also, I was playing the game on PC and it looks absolutely astounding on modern hardware.

Great, yeah, there was something about that PC version.

Do you ever worry about or think how a game is going to look a decade down the line when you release it, some games have aged a little bit better than others.

Yeah, and you know the strange thing was that consoles are supposed to be kind of the cure for that because the PCs, it’s not just they look worse but they also start to break after a while, you know, and people are always asking, “how can I play Grim Fandango now?” There’s a website that can help you but I don’t think I can tell you about them. There’s emulators and there’s ScummVM and there’s Residual and there’s great ways to play it, but you have to have a wrapper to play them and I thought, okay, consoles will keep the game alive forever because that hardware is locked, but then people don’t actually keep their old hardware around and if the system upgrade is not backwards compatible then you’re just screwed. I do worry about how things age, I do really envy people who make things like comic books who can just hand a copy to their parents and just be like, “here’s what it looks like,” and it will always look like this and it’s on acid free paper. We’ve always come to really rely on the fans to do amazing work with abandonware and with emulators and they even fix bugs in games that were made. I just found a bug in Grim Fandango that I didn’t know was around for the last twelve years that explains a major plot point is missing from that game if you talk to the wrong person at the wrong time and a fan found it and it was like, “oh my god,” and people were always asking me about the plot and the plot doesn’t make sense to them and I’m like, “What? But there’s this whole thing where Domino talks to you,” and they’re like, “Domino never talks to me.” That was really funny. So anyway, the fans are great about keeping the old games alive.

Psychonauts had a very troubled development cycle, to put it lightly, did you worry about ending on a cliffhanger?

Oh you mean the end of the game? Like was I worried that I’d never make a sequel?

Yeah.

We never planned to go right into a sequel or anything. We thought we’d leave the door open to maybe come back to it someday, but that was always meant to be what I would call the Back to the Future ending, in fact it’s literally – not frame by frame – but it’s very inspired, if you watch Back to the Future when the Delorean goes down the street and then it flies right out of the camera. “It’s the problem with your kids Marty.” In fact I think it might have been better if we’d never gone into the future to see the problem with Marty McFly’s kids, I think it was a fun way to end that movie to just imply that their adventures continued. It’s not really a cliffhanger because you’ve satisfied all the major questions that were raised in the first movie. You’ve gone through that plot, you’ve had the ups and downs, you’ve been satisfied, and now it’s just kind of like oh, my god, something amazing is about to happen and then they’re off and I think that’s fun and I think that’s the way we meant Psychonauts to end as well.

It’s also kind of a dark way to end the movie, I always got a sense that, you know, in Back to the Future they started playing with time and now they’re never gonna be free of it.

That is pretty sad. I heard that was the original draft of that screenplay when he came home everything was different and there were these little hovercraft cars going around and the future was totally awesome but different and that’s the way it ended, just a totally future he came home too but everyone felt like he was not coming home, like his home was destroyed by that so they changed it. We'd like to thank Tim Schafer for sitting down with us for this interview. This Wednesday we'll discuss where the game's sequel could take us, and the business of owning the publishing rights to a cult classic.