"I really hated the look of 3-D art back then, because it looked like a nylon stretched over a cardboard box," he remembers.
Picking through a table of Day of the Dead ephemera, the idea came: "I saw those calavera statues. Instead of modeling all of the bones in papier-mâché, they'll just make a tube and paint the bones on the outside. I was like, 'This is just like bad 3-D art. This is great!'"
Additional fodder was provided by doctor visits to 450 Sutter a building that combines Art Deco architecture with Mayan motifs and Schafer began work on his most ambitious project to date. Drawing on his collegiate folklore training, he and his team wove together elements of Day of the Dead tradition, Aztec folk tales, and noir cinema to create 1998's Grim Fandango (LucasArts), a sprawling epic of crime and love in which all the characters were stylized, calavera-style skeletons "living" in the Land of the Dead. Featuring a labyrinthine, affecting story, delectable hard-boiled dialogue, and stunning art direction, it is still ranked among the best games of all time.
Schafer left LucasArts in 1999, concerned that the company would exercise its ownership of his beloved characters without his participation. He wanted to found his own studio in San Francisco. As he told me over the phone, "Working at a company where you can look out the window and see the city outside is just so inspiring. It's not just about having great restaurants at lunch, though that's part of it." Starting in his living room "in a bathrobe and flip-flops," the nascent Double Fine Productions named after a "double fine zone" sign on the Golden Gate bridge jumped from location to location, including an unheated warehouse with a rodent problem and a toilet that often unleashed an "ocean of human waste" into the office.
The first Double Fine game was 2005's Psychonauts, an ambitious project about a summer camp for psychic kids that failed to reach the wide audience it deserved. Even in this rarefied setting, Schafer included bits of the city's lore. A character named Boyd was based on a homeless man who hung out near the team's offices, doing odd jobs and enlightening the Double Fine crew with his extensive conspiracy theories.
"Sometimes he would just be on a rant about [how] the government would be trying to read his mind using satellites, or using the broken glass in the streets to bend their optics around," Schafer recalls. "He just produced great quotes: 'I don't want to be liquid, I want to be a turtle with rockets strapped to my back!'" Deciding to include him in the game, the designer painstakingly created a flow-chart that would procedurally generate conspiracy theories for Boyd to spout onscreen. "He constructs it by coming up with a conspirator, what their plan is, what the victim of it is, and strings it all together with a bunch of coughing and stuff."
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Brütal Legend, Double Fine's latest game, was released Oct. 13, and gamers across the country will have the opportunity to play through the piece of San Francisco folklore most familiar to Schafer: the one based on himself. By making a game about a character transported from our familiar world into an ax-happy metal battleground, the designer has turned his story, the story of a misfit headbanger from a city steeped in metal history, into a new kind of 21st century myth.