In 1998, developer Tim Schafer’s “Grim Fandango” was embraced as one of the best adventure games of all time. Set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, the story revolved around the experiences of a grim reaper-cum-travel agent named Manny Calavera who helped newly departed souls find travel packages to help them on their journey to the land of eternal rest. Rendered in gorgeous 3D graphics, the game borrowed as much from film noir as it did from Mexican folklore, as Manny himself launched an epic journey to the afterlife in search of a woman wronged by his company’s corrupt schemes. With eloquent odes to “Chinatown” and “Casablanca,” the game developed a greater cinematic eye than one usually found with the adventure game genre — even in the nineties, when developer LucasArts had been making them for years.
Schafer himself had been at the helm of treasured adventure games such as “Day of the Tentacle” and “Full Throttle.” But as the company lost interest in the genre, Schafer left to create his own company, Double Fine. While he continued to develop new gaming experiences, such as “Psychonauts” and “Brutal Legend,” LucasArts abandoned adventure games and the rest of the industry largely followed suit. The legacy of “Grim,” meanwhile, faded as only gamers who played it during its initial release recalled its virtues.
That’s no longer the case, now that Schafer’s Double Fine has completed a restoration of the game for multiple platforms, including PS4, Vita, Mac and PC. The gorgeous result means that “Grim Fandango” can be appreciated all over again, from the magnificence of its setting to the unique challenges of its story-based puzzles. Schafer spoke to Indiewire about how the restoration came about, as well as his plans for “Broken Age,” his company’s latest adventure game — Double Fine released the first part last year and will complete the second half in the coming months.
How did the idea for the “Grim” restoration come about?
Well, it always bugged me that people couldn’t play it. They’d say, “Sorry, I had to pirate ‘Grim Fandango,’ I wanted to buy it, but I couldn’t.” That was frustrating. There were some fan emulators that let you play the game. But if you did have the game, it wouldn’t run on your modern computer.
We tried to make it work over the years and it never lined up with the right people or the right companies. Until lately, when we were running into people at big companies who were real gamers and wanted to make good things happen. That’s how they work — when you meet the good people there, you make good stuff happen. And if you can’t, they’re just frustrating bureaucratic messes.
What did it take to get the project off the ground?
We licensed the rights from Disney. They still own it. We made the case that if you’re going to bring these games back, you should involve the creators. Because there are all these questions, like “What was the intent at the beginning?” To make sure you remaster it in a way that speaks to what the original game was trying to do. If you do that disingenuously with someone else, it’s not going to have the same dedication we’ve put into the “Grim” remaster. Disney felt that way, too.
You left Lucasarts in 1999, around the time the company was moving away from adventure games. It lasted until 2013. Do you feel like you got away just in time?
I started Double Fine in 2000. Lucasarts was changing, but after I left, there were many different regimes and changes in direction. Some regimes were very into what they call “legacy” titles and some were not.
You’ve said that “Broken Age” is the kind of game you would have made after “Grim” if you’d stuck around…
That’s how we’re trying to treat it. We aren’t trying to introduce new gameplay mechanics or modernize in a way that changes it. But to be like, “What if we never stopped making them? If we just made them better and better every year?”
How did the Kickstarter support change the equation for you?
It made it harder. There’s something about struggling against the man that clarifies your purpose, in a way — it gets you to strive to get this done in spite of the bureaucracy.
But you aren’t making subversive games. They’re adult in their sophistication but pretty widely accessible.
I always felt like adventure games were meant for a mass audience because they’re about emotions, storylines — things that regular people care about. You don’t have to be hardcore to be into these stories about people.
At one point, you said that Steven Spielberg called you because he was playing “Day of the Tentacle” with his son and needed some hints. What was your sense of the way the larger entertainment industry related to these games?
Steven was a gamer. He played them with his son, Max. A lot of people in films were not that interested in games back then. They just thought they were trivial and crass. There are a lot of things that you used to be able to get in an adventure game, like story, great art work, music. They were these lush productions that action games didn’t have — until they started absorbing those things. Now you can find summer action movie narratives in these shooting games.
For a while, it was like, “Do adventure games have a point anymore?” That’s when we started this project, to figure out what was left. They have a special pace — they move at their own speed. That’s good for people like me who aren’t good at sports or fast, twitchy gameplay. Physical coordination. I can’t handle shooters. I really like puzzling over a puzzle at my own pace. Adventure games let you do that. They take place inside your knowledge of the world. You need to know what motivates people to get them the object that solves the puzzle. You need to know how things work — this is a guard, and he’d probably like a bride. In a lot of games, you’re like, there’s the asteroid, shoot it. Adventure games are about the world around you.
For “Grim,” how did the sensibilities of this game come together?
I always wondered why I got into film noir, like was it something I saw in my hometown? There are certain phases in your life when you really get hardcore about something, and it comes out in the games you make. I really liked samurai movies like “Yojimbo,” and that came out in “Full Throttle.” In the case of “Grim,” for a while, it was just the Day of the Dead came in my head. Someone on the team was like, “So what do you do in this game? Dead stuff?” At that time, I was seeing a lot of noir stuff, and thinking about what happens when a person gets sucked into a world of hardcore crime and corruption.
After all these years, how do you think newcomers to “Grim” will respond to it?
It’s exciting. There’s so much mystery about how people will perceive it. A lot of people have just heard about it. Who knows what’ll happen? I wonder how they will react to hard blocking puzzles that make you go, “I don’t know how to fix that.” The idea is that if you keep playing the game you’ll solve the clues. Modern games tell you just walk up to this guy and press A. They just give you the answer. Also, there’s so much more communication between players now. I don’t think getting stuck is as scary as it was in the old days. The trick is to keep them from asking for too many hints. It’s hard to recover from looking up hints. It’s harder than games are now. We tried really to make the state of being stuck entertaining. There are definitely head scratchers — or skull scratchers.
What appeals to you about the restoration?
We did an actual lighting model for the characters. In the old game, Manny had a kind of pencil shadow. Now he walks in and out of colored lights. We repainted the textures on all the characters so they’re not hi-res and jaggedy-looking. We found the original Pro Tools files, so we could put in actual live music, including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. One of the guys who runs it was one of the “Broken Age” backers. They did such a good job on the music for that.
How did you feel about the game as you played through it for the restoration?
I was pleased with the way it held up. The characters are pretty sincere. They feel like real people. I was mostly pleased with the friendship between Glottis and Manny, especially since we show the passage of time. They’re friends for four years. They go from boss and driver to good friends. I was struck by how the game has so many people and characters and they all have so many stories to tell.
What sort of challenges do you face when scripting an entire world?
Writing for me is about doing the backstory and research of each character. Manny’s job is just a job. The coroner just sees all these people who’ve been sprouted. Even in the land of the dead, they’re wondering if the purpose is to march on or make this one worth living. Every character has a different view on that. In “Grand Theft Auto,” they create a whole world; in adventure gaming, you’re simulating a haunted house game and suggesting what’s outside of it. You can do that with characters who have a history with each and suggest their lives may be fuller outside of the screen.
What do you make of the way the legacy of the game has lasted over the years, even when it wasn’t available on current platforms?
We’ve relied on fans to keep the game alive all these years. Some of them literally have kept it alive over the years. In one case, there was a guy who did a point and click version of the game and he gave us some of his code and stuff. When you see people who have a tattoo of one of your characters on their arm, you want to respect that connection.
Do you see a resurgence of interest in point and click adventure games now that everybody uses touch screens?
The version of the game when you can just tap on the screen feels much more natural. You want to interact with something on the screen. A restoration of “Day of the Tentacle” is our next project.
How’s the second half of “Broken Age” coming along?
We’re going to record the final session with Elijah Wood. It’s going to be on PS4 and Vita. We haven’t said the exact date. People have been watching the online documentary, so they knew it was running past December. It’s still twice as fast as act two.
You’ve been pretty transparent about the production process, to keep your Kickstarter supporters happy. How do you keep the story under wraps?
People don’t want it spoiled for them so we’ve blurred stuff out in videos. But in the latest episode we talked about types of puzzles in one area and some people were mad. The end of act one poses this massive question — what the hell is going on? — and act two answers everything.
This is a game that was not meant to be split in half. It’s the natural progression of the story towards its conclusion. We’re drawing on the artistic ideas of various artists. It’s not like “Grim,” which is film noir meets Mexican folklore…this is more about artists following their inspiration. There’s a little Miyazaki and “Silent Running” to the two settings of the game.
How do you keep the backers happy without feeling like they’ve taken over your autonomy?
That’s part of the team’s responsibility. Overall, a backer who gave me money is saying I’m responsible for it. The obligation there is I can’t say it’s a bad game because the backers told me to make it bad.
I love the funding model and the way you get to interact with your funders in a way that makes sense. Some of the transparency has been hard. People see things they don’t want to see — your schedules, etc. They’re managers who have never made a game before. They see your schedule and go, “What? Three million dollars, are you crazy?” But we have salaries and health care, all that stuff. The backers want to learn about gaming development and have come out of it knowing a lot more.
You have people working at Double Fine who grew up playing your games in the nineties. When did you start becoming more cognizant of that generation maturing into adulthood?
I always wonder about that. Did the older games have more impact? It was really just this delayed effect, because they have the strong effect on younger people — that’s when you’re taking in stuff, forming your own taste. It’s like the time I saw “Blue Velvet” for the first time in college. That was the first time I had my whole point of view rearranged by a movie. I saw that and was like, “What? This is crazy.” Then it takes time for that person who has that revelation about that piece of art to come into adulthood and start creating art themselves. People come up and say, “I was young when I played this game and it had a big effect on me.” I’m like, “It’s taken you 12 years to tell me that and I’m still around so I can hear that it meant something to you!” In the old days, for better or worse, there was much less feedback. You’d make something and put it out in the world and maybe you’d get a magazine review but that would be it. There was no internet feedback, really. There were bulletin board services, but no Twitter, or anything like that. Now, when we’re in production, we get a whole lot of feedback, which is a whole new challenge — the good stuff is great, the bad stuff makes you want to quit. I can’t be exposed to every bad thought someone might have about my work.
What games are you playing these days?
I think it’s important to always play games, even though the temptation is that you’re always too busy. This year I got really into “Shadows of Mordor.” I got really into the nemesis system. I think there’s a lot you can learn from it — the way they personalized enemies and made them different.
How do you feel about mobile gaming?
We experimented with “Middle Manager of Justice.” But I feel like deep down I like to make larger experiences. When I’m playing a mobile game, I’m often on the train going to work. You can’t lose yourself in a fantasy world if you’re worried that someone might steal your iPhone. I like to make experiences you can’t dip in and out of.