The Curse of the Underdog: An Open Letter to Tim Schafer

Dear Mr. Tim Schafer,

I’m not one to make letters like these.  One reason is that they never get to where they’re supposed to go, so I never really saw a point in making one of these.  But after recent events, I felt that I needed to speak my mind on an issue that has come to light.  While it would be cool that it reaches its destination, the purpose for these lines of text is really for my own benefit, being that I have a difficult time letting go of things/concepts once they have come to mind, and writing them out usually helps them go away.

Another indication I’m not used to this kind of thing is that I don’t have much of a place to start off with.  After all, your games have been part of a series of staples to my childhood, originating all the way back when I was eight years old.  My parents had surprised me with a Lucasarts Classic Adventures compilation package, which included Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (adventure game), Loom, and The Secret of Monkey Island.  Though I thoroughly enjoyed the package as a whole, there were two games in particular that I held (and still continue to hold) in high regards: Loom, and Secret of Monkey Island.  These two games are what have prompted me to pursue other projects such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max: Hit The Road, Day of the Tentacle, and Monkey Island 2.  As of today, all of these games are precious to me.

I understand that there were only a few of these games in this list that you personally worked on, but this is to give you a bit of background on what my early years of gaming were based on.

Now in my early twenties, I have recently seen the list of games that you have participated in.  And I realized that I have played through nearly all of your catalogue, the only ones missing being Full Throttle and your newly released Costume Quest.

In short (too late, I guess :P) – I am familiar with your work.

Recently, I’ve had the chance to play Psychonauts for the PS2 (being that I don’t have normal/reliable access to Xbox Live, and having long since moved on from PC gaming, thus needing to find a physical copy).  My search for this game was the result of curiousity more than suggestion.  When I went online to look up news for Brutal Legend last year, I continually saw people and critics who lamented how poorly Grim Fandango and Psychonauts have sold despite their favorable acclaim.  Seeing that I only had experience with Grim Fandango, I wanted to know why people loved Psychonauts so much, to the point of an almost gleeful smiling similarity to the works of Joss Whedon.

The results have been… mixed.

Sure, the familiar feeling of comedy brought a warm, nostalgic feeling.  But the gameplay ultimately took the joy that I had previously uncovered away from the game.  The writing was good.  But the lack of polish wore down on me as I neared the end of the game.  The time spent was enjoyable.  Unfortunately, the time spent was quite short, as well.

I was slightly disappointed, but then I realized something:

This was the same result that I had gotten with Brutal Legend.

Now, these are two very different games, so it can’t be the exact same result.  Moreso, I probably enjoyed Brutal Legend far more than Psychonauts (being a musician with several influences from classic metal, among others).  But I saw some traits in the Brutal Legend game that I feel were carried over from Psychonauts: great writing, great locations, sub-par gameplay, and a short duration.

Even now, reviews of your game Costume Quest have been underwhelming, at best.  While they have their charm in both graphics and storytelling, the gameplay has been considered “stale” and “repetitive”.

It’s at this point that I have to wonder about your presence in the gaming industry today.

There’s no denying that you have a great visual imagination, or that you don’t lack the means of crafting a memorable story to go with those visuals.  But it would appear that, in your quest to release your concepts and characters, you’ve become more and more chained down by the means to tell your stories.  I’m not saying it was an easy time back in the 80’s and 90’s during the height of adventure gaming.  In fact, it was probably much harder back then than it is today.  But considering the simplicity of the required action to continue the story which basically boiled down to “take item, use item on obstacle, repeat”, I have to ask why you simply can’t go back to that.

Another thing that I have read in regards to your style is that you always strive for innovation in gameplay.  This is something that I can appreciate.  After all, in a market where there are hundreds of First Person Shooters and RPG’s that are more or less the same, it’s nice to see something new and unexpected.  And yet, I can’t help but feel that this is also your weakness.  New gameplay ideas are always great.  But I suppose the reason there are hundreds of FPS’ and RPG’s is because people are so accustomed to their controls and visuals and ways of gaming that the new stuff will feel too different for them.  That’s where the casual folks usually thrive: with the familiar.

I applaud your continued quest in entertaining the masses.  You have inspired many a gamer.  But in an industry that is becoming undone by Call of Duty child soldiers, Nintendo-paranoid parents, and God of War clones, I feel that your talent is going to waste.  I feel that you are fighting an epic quest to stay relevant in a gaming market that you helped to create, vying for the prestige that you once had.  And I also feel that you are losing.

Since everyone can agree that your writing material is always great, why not simply write?  Lend out your writing talents to other developers, help them create an experience that will truly be unforgettable?  I know that it’s a smaller position than having complete control, but after having seen your whole packages for the last ten years, I think it would do you good to take a break from trying to appeal to the masses and just let the stuff in your head be released, no matter what the method used.  This isn’t limited to video games, however.  There are more mediums to take advantage of.  Comic books (or webcomics), cartoons (or flash animations), movies (or straight-to-DVD projects), you could always find a way to get your material out there that people will eat up and cherish forever, the same way they have for your previous works before the New Millenium.

Of course, I have no experience or knowledge of the industry today, so most of what I have to say is most likely either moot or twisted around.  I’m just giving you my overall impression of what I see.

Believe me, I appreciate all that you’ve done.  But with these recent games, I have begun to lose that respect that I initially had for you.  I hate to say that, but I can’t deny what I see and read about you.  It has gotten harder for me to keep on supporting you.  Rest assured, you will still be an important factor to my own writing and imagination, but it is painful to see someone as special as you slowly disappear into a fog of obscurity and, even worse, average performances.

Please take what I have said into consideration (even though technically it will never really reach your eyes).

And no matter what: keep fighting the good fight.

Sincerely,

– Jackson

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