Tim Schafer, lead writer and creative director of some of the most inventive and moving adventure games ever (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Brütal Legend), writes beyond what his games show on the screen. His recent interview with On The Media–cut from a longer interview about Schafer’s multimillion dollar Kickstarter project–gets into some pretty inspiring notes on how to approach narrative and characterization, and it sounds awfully similar to what novelists teach in fiction workshops.
So, I was really into film noir at the time, and watching old film noir like, The Big Sleep, and things like Chinatown, and looking at the plot of Chinatown and how the plot took control of the water of Southern California, and that scam was going on, and just having a great villain who has a great scheme afoot that your noir hero just accidently stumbles into and then gets pulled into this darker, shadowy world. You know a lot of things that seem really creative are really just you sitting down and just answering a series of questions, like okay, ‘How am I going to provide some opposition to this main character? What is the bad guy up to?’ That’s always a question that I’m writing to myself in my notebook. ‘What is the bad guy up to?’ And at first it was gonna be—I’m just gonna do a real-estate scam just like Chinatown, so I had the bad guy, you know, selling off plots of land in some evil way and then I realized, no one probably wants to buy a plot of land, and in the Land of the Dead they’re trying to get through it—so it’s got to be a travel agent. Okay so Manny Calavera will be a travel agent cause that’s what people want to do, they want to get out of the Land of the Dead. So he’s gonna set up a travel package for them, and how is the bad guy using that to his advantage. Then—then it just writes itself after that, so easy.
So sometimes I’ll write from each character’s point of view. I think that’s a really important thing, actually. Doing research and writing and back story writing from the point of view of every character. So, in Full Throttle, for example, you know Maureen is the female, um, lead in it and I wrote a big chart of every stage in the game what Maureen thinks is going on. ‘Cause at first she thinks Ben’s a nice guy, and then she thinks Ben killed her father. And it’s really important for me to know what mental state Maureen’s in at every point in the game, so I know how she should act. And so that makes that character more consistent, and that makes her seem like a real character. There’s also a lot of back story stuff that I do. I really like creating a bigger world than you show in the game, I think that’s really important. As if you’re looking at the back story through a slit in the fence, you know, and you’re just seeing a little bit—hints of the whole world behind the fence that you can’t get through. I had that challenge on Psychonauts to make twenty camp kids. And at first it was just gonna be this crowd of kids that just kind of swarmed around, but if you’re gonna write dialogue for twenty kids, they all have to be unique. They all have to be memorable little kids. And so um, I was trying to name them all, I was trying to write descriptions for each one of them and I was trying to think about what their relationships were to one another, ‘cause I wanted them to be summer camp-like and have—people have crushes on each other and people have enemies, and people we’re ganging up on—all kinds of things that happen among kids at summer camp.
Like and-and see I think that a lot of games get that wrong, where they put a bunch of books around the world and you read the back story? ‘Cause sometimes like my Friendster thing, you get so in love with it, you created it, you’re just like ‘Oh this is so great—I want everyone to see this!’ And that’s the mistake, is that you think seeing it is better. And so you put that page as a readable piece of text, hidden in a chest somewhere and that’s never fun. If you show everything, then there’s no magic or mystery at all left. And also if you show just a little bit, people use their imaginations, and they tend to imagine something that’s more to their taste than you would ever come up with.
[via On the Media]