One thing hit me about halfway through Brutal Legend– Tim Schafer should stop trying to make videogames and perhaps move into film, or novels.
Wait, wait, wait… hold off on that hate mail for just one second. Here’s my rationale: all of the recent games the man has developed have been lackluster.
As experiences, mind you, they’re nearly unparalleled (at least until Brutal Legend… more on that later), but as games themselves they’re mediocre. No one ever plays a Schafer game for their rewarding and exciting gameplay but it seems like he’s taking his work in a much more twitch-based direction, which unfortunately conflicts with his strengths as a writer of stories.
Grim Fandango is simply one of my favorite games of all time, one of the deepest and most well-told stories ever put into a videogame. The story of a undead travel agent named Manny Calavera and his journey through a noirish Dia de Los Muertos underworld was just so different than anything before it, and it will go down in history as some of the greats. Playing through a game like this, with real thought and love behind the characters and setting, makes you realize how much dreck we subject ourselves to to feed our addiction. How many godawful and stereotypical stories we simply ignore because the game’s pretty and shiny and plays well. It was an amazing high point of adventure games, and of course it was pretty much ignored upon release. We never know how good we have it till it’s too late, and its failure caused Lucasarts to shut down production of future adventure titles.
But amazing as it is, Grim Fandango is not without a glaring flaw- the controls are awful. The change from the usual point and clicking of adventure games (that Schafer himself helped refine at Lucasarts) to a purely keyboard-controlled setup meant that it was needlessly irritating to find your way around the level. It was hard to find objects and the simplicity of the mouse controls was sorely missed. It would have ruined a lesser game but you played through it and loved it because of the characters, because of the dialogue, the beautiful setting and hysterical story.
It’s the same thing with Psychonauts. There isn’t a gamer alive that played the game and actually enjoyed the horrible platform mechanics. No, it became an underground classic for the unique levels, humor, and once again- story. No one liked jumping to their death frequently, struggling to control the big-headed psychic warrior Raz, they kept playing to figure out where the plot went and what crazy mind you’d be thrust into next.
Which is where Brutal Legend stumbles. I’ve got a full review coming but the game suffers from an almost crippling case of Assassin’s Creed syndrome (Symptoms: frequent and repetitive missions, resulting in boredom settling in after a few hours. There is no known cure.) The story here takes a backseat to driving around this enormous metal world and once you realize how little there is to actually do in it the charm wears off incredibly quick. Add in the fact that the game turns into the simplest real time strategy game ever (yes, that demo is no indication of what the game is really like), and you’ve got problems. It feels like they took the concept of the game and tried to shoehorn the story and characters into it, and it sure didn’t fit.
A Schafer game simply cannot rely on gameplay. I really feel that he’s one of the greats, one of the few geniuses working in games right now. But unless he can reign himself in and go back to simpler, story-driven adventure games, or find a development team that will really work on the most important aspect of any game- making it fun– his future work’s going to hurt for it.