Tim Schafer: A retrospective

By Hans Wuerflein


Last week Brutal Legend came out too much fanfare.  A  few reviewers and gamers weren’t as big of fans of it as they thought they would be, and there seems to be some confusion over what genre it falls in, having elements of both a third person action/adventure title (Zelda, God of War, etc) and a real time strategy game (Starcraft, Command & Conquer).

To get a better perspective on Brutal Legend I think we should take a look back at the other games Tim Schafer, Double Fine Productions president and the driving force behind Brutal Legend, has worked on.

Maniac Mansion ( 1987 – DOS, Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and NES)

maniac mansion

Although Schafer wasn’t the driving force behind Maniac Mansion, it is the first game he worked on.  There’s not so much an influence by Schafer as an influence on Schafer.  From the start of his career, Tim was working on games that had a heavy emphasis on storytelling, a quality that would show up in his later work.

Maniac Mansion, was Lucas Arts’ (at the time Lucasfilm Games) first “point and click” adventure game.  In fact, the engine used to run all of their adventure games for the next decade, the SCUMM engine, was developed for this game.  (SCUMM stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion.)

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990 – DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, Sega CD)

monkey island

Schafer’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, marked his writing debut.  The game recently received a full Xbox live arcade and PC update with a new graphical style, full voice over, and the ability to switch between the new and old art styles on the fly.

The game, featuring wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood, is widely considered one of the all time great PC games, and it had a huge influence on the industry and shaped the direction Schafer’s career would take for nearly the next decade.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991 – DOS, Macintosh, Amiga)

monkey island 2

Schafer made more design decisions in the excellent sequel, and the high quality, hilarious writing continued.  The game was also known for its, at the time, incredibly detailed, hand painted backgrounds.

Ron Gilbert, the series creator, originally had a trilogy planned, but plans for a third game were put on hold, and Curse of Monkey Island wasn’t made until 1997, after he had left the company and Schafer was busy with other projects.  Curse is still considered a great addition to the series though, and was the last game to use SCUMM, albeit a heavily modified version.

Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle (1993 – DOS, Macintosh)


With Day of the Tentacle Schafer took an even bigger role, as he served as co-writer, co-director, co-producer, and co-designer on the game.

Featuring an interweaving plot focusing three characters stranded in different time periods (with full voice over!) the game was as ambitious as it was successful, and is still one of the most beloved PC games of all time.

Full Throttle (1995 – DOS, Macintosh, Windows)

full throttle

If you can ever really attribute the design of a game to one person, this was Tim’s first with him solely at the head, as he was writer, designer, and project lead.

The game also marked the start of Schafer working with darker subject matter.  Although his previous games had dealt with pirates, ghosts and mad scientists, they had always kept a certain lightheartedness to them.  With Full Throttle, even though it had its comedic moments, there was definitely a more serious tone to the game.

Grim Fandango (1998 – Windows)


Grim Fandango takes players on a four year journey through the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos (and if you’ve played the game, yes, that does make sense) with underworld travel agent Manny Calavera.

It plays off many film noir staples, like the hero who’s down on his luck, the mysterious potential love interest, the damsel in distress, and the corrupt businessman.

This game is the very definition of style.  From the characters to the backdrops to the music, everything is just perfect.

Schafer was, once again, the project leader, writer, and designer, so it’s easy to see his hand in every aspect of the game.  This also marked the end of his work with Lucasarts.  He stayed with the company for another year or two working on a PS2 game that was cancelled before it was even officially announced (and word just came out after he left).  After his departure, he decided to build his own game design studio, Double Fine Productions, which leads us to…

Psychonauts (2005 – Xbox, PS2, Windows)


Schafer’s first game with his new studio is incredible.  Moving away from his previous work, Schafer build a strange, beautiful action platformer taking place at a summer camp for psychics.

Although there really isn’t anything not to like about the game, the writing was exceptional, and even won a BAFTA, often called the British equivalent to the Oscar which has, *gasp*, video game categories, for best video game screenplay.

It is an amazing game, and largely the reason (even before the ridiculous marketing push) that Brutal Legend was generating such buzz.  When Schafer moved over to consoles, mainstream audiences got a look at what PC gamers had been seeing for more than a decade: This man is a genius.

And that brings us pretty much up to date.  Now, it might be a bit hard to come up with copies of some of these (except for Psychonauts, which is even available for download on the Xbox 360, and The Secret of Monkey Island through its remake), but if you have the chance to play any or all of them, do yourself a favor and give them a playthrough.

But, if you want a taste of Schafer’s older work and can’t come up with copies of any of these, there is always…

Host Master and the Conquest of Humor (2009 – Double Fine’s Web site)


In this authentically old-school styled point and click adventure, you have to help Tim find the jokes hidden around the green room before he goes on stage at the Game Developers Conference or face dire consequences.

The writing is good, and it was a great throwback to fans of his early career.

So whether you are a fan of his past or present work, there is no denying the impact Tim Schafer has had on the industry.


2 Responses to “Tim Schafer: A retrospective”

  1. he’s a genius !

  2. […] you may remember from my Tim Schafer piece from a few months back, Psychonauts is […]

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