Brütal odyssey

Game designer Tim Schafer rides a heavy metal road to Brütal Legend

>>Read Ben Richardson's full interview with Tim Schafer here

GAMER "The first time we pitched it, they wanted us to change the genre, to make it about country or hip-hop or something."

Game designer Tim Schafer is sitting in his SoMa office, in his favorite chair — appropriately, a rocking chair — and talking about his masterpiece. "They were saying, 'Why don't you open it to all music?' We said, 'Look — this is a game about epic battles, good vs. evil, Braveheart-type moments. And heavy metal is the musical genre that focuses heavily on folklore. It sings about medieval combat. It's really the only genre that makes sense for it.'"

The game is Brütal Legend (Double Fine/EA), and in the end, Schafer got his way. Taking control of Eddie Riggs, a grizzled roadie voiced by Jack Black, the player journeys through a metal landscape inspired by the album covers the designer studied in his youth. Wielding a massive battle-ax and a magical guitar, Riggs encounters righteous friends and fiendish foes, including characters voiced by luminaries like Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, and Lita Ford. The soundtrack is a carefully compiled list of headbang-inducing classics.

Schafer agrees that the game is his most personal creation to date. "All games are wish fulfillments. All games are about fantasy. This is a game where I've been able to make my own wish fulfillment. I would like to go back in time with a cool car and a battle-axe while listening to heavy metal."


Growing up in Sonoma, the designer escaped his suburban life by rocking out to Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. He would drive down to San Francisco for shows, catching sets at Mabuhay Gardens or the Stone. The music introduced him to a mythic world of horned hell-monsters, glistening chrome, and mortal combat, a world he never quite left behind.

He attended both UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, dividing his attention between computer programming and creative writing, two talents he would later fuse. At Berkeley, he took a class on folklore from Alan Dundes, a provocative professor whose belief in the power of folklore influenced Schafer's work tremendously. In 1989, he got a job in San Rafael at Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts. He was assigned to The Secret of Monkey Island, a comedic adventure game by designer Ron Gilbert. Monkey Island was the perfect vehicle for Schafer's talents, taking full advantage of his boundless imagination, storytelling sense, and biting wit. It is best remembered for its "insult sword fighting" section, in which dueling buccaneers trade verbal jabs in lieu of physical ones.

Mitch Krpata, game critic for the Boston Phoenix and author of the blog Insult Swordfighting, identified the defining quality of Schafer's LucasArts output via e-mail: "Character. There are a few archetypes that most games go to again and again: silent man of action, easygoing everyman, tormented soul out for revenge. Schafer's protagonists aren't like that. They're individuals. They're good guys, but they have flaws, and their flaws aren't things like they just care too much, dammit."


After finishing the biker-themed Full Throttle in 1995, Schafer hunted inspiration. It came to him as an unlikely combination of themes, both closely tied to his San Francisco home. Initially, he was devouring classic noir films at the Lark and Castro theatres. A trip to the Day of the Dead parade in the city's Mission District delivered the epiphany. The higher-ups at LucasArts had been agitating for a game with 3-D graphics, a prospect he did not relish.

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