'Grim Fandango' creator Tim Schafer on the adventure-game revival
Today’s a pretty big day for video games. Sixteen years after its original release, the classic LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango is finally available for purchase after having effectively disappeared from shelves. Before today’s release of Grim Fandango Remastered, Grim has never been rereleased in the United States after its initial run. The only way to play what was widely considered to be the last great adventure game was to either pirate it illegally, or buy one of those original copies secondhand.
For over a decade, the idea that Grim Fandango would be released again was, frankly, a pipe dream. It was an adventure game, and no one really made those anymore. Video game genres, like movie genres, fall in and out of fashion. Much like Westerns are no longer the cinematic juggernaut they once were, conventional wisdom has long held that adventure games have been dead for some time now.
But something strange has happened over the past few years: adventure games have made an unlikely comeback. From Telltale Games titles like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones to Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer’s own Broken Age (the record-breaking Kickstarter project that showed the world raising millions on Kickstarter was possible), adventure games are in the middle of a full-on revival.
But what makes them special? Why make adventure games? On the occasion of Grim Fandango‘s rerelease, why not ask Tim Schafer?
“I really liked adventure games because it felt like you were in a crazy place and you could do anything you wanted,” says Schafer, citing how simple other games were during the late 70s and 80s when they first peaked. “You could play them back when the other games you were playing were like Pac-Man. So imagine—you could play a game like Pac-Man, or you could play a game where you were just in Dracula’s castle and could do whatever you want!”
In their earliest incarnation, adventure games were able to give players wild experiences through a clever, low-tech loophole: they were text. Essentially elaborate Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories with extra, game-y features like player inventories and puzzles to solve, they engaged players imaginations in ways the still-limited tech powering video games couldn’t.
It was these games, games like Zork and the text adventures of developer Scott Adams that hooked Schafer long before they started adding graphics. But once they did, they took off, resulting in some of gaming’s most-beloved titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, which Schafer worked on under director (and adventure game legend) Ron Gilbert.
“The ability to transport you into a fantasy world, I thought, was so powerful,” Schafer says. “And I like how they move at your own pace. You don’t have to be a fast, reflexive thinker. I’m not really good at shooters—I just get blown away as soon as I appear. So having a kind of game that waits for you and lets you think is good for people like me who just want to methodically think about a puzzle and then solve it.”
Puzzles in adventure games don’t work quite like most puzzles in most video games, where you have to figure out how to unlock a door or traverse a seemingly unnavigable area by using your character’s skill set. Adventure game puzzles are both much simpler and infinitely more difficult to solve—most of the time, they involve getting other (often very funny) characters to give you things they don’t want to give you—usually by figuring out how to make use of a pretty absurd set of resources.
“I like that adventure games use a part of your brain that exists outside of games,” says Schafer. “You have to know about people to solve puzzles, you have to know about their motivations. If someone won’t give you what you want in an adventure game, you have to think, ‘What does that person probably want from me?’ You have to think about how the world works; you have to think about strange things.”
That, for Schafer, sums up what ultimately makes adventure games so special and different from any other kind of video game.
“Most games are just about what’s on the screen,” Schafer says. “But adventure games are about the world at large.”