Comments Off The rock star who wanted to be a roadie

On Brütal Legend, Tim Schafer and his games

In the old days, videogame magazines lessened some of our indecision when it came to buying games. We knew Nintendo for their charming visuals; we knew Taito for their slick shooters; we knew Data East for, other than a good number of reasonable games, that Guns N’Roses pinball machine. But beyond specialty mags and our friends we knew little about who developed what. It all changed with the growth of the internet: over night companies were no longer unknown entities and we began finding out the names of those who worked on those levels, of who coaxed wonderful melodies out of 8-bit machines, of who poured their heart in making those sprites. At certain point gamers began understanding the notion of author and suddenly Mario and Zelda were no longer Nintendo products but Miyamoto’s games. Metal Gear Solid was no longer a Konami game and instead became Kojima’s “creation”. And so came the idea that videogames could be more than montly paycheques and that some creators have a voice or a vision. The idea that the industry may not just be about financial reports but about “art” instead. The idea that certain people in the industry deserve a certain status, even if the jury is made up of people who don’t know what “art” is, much less what a videogame is.

Which is not to say that, once in a while, videogames can’t go beyond themselves without losing what makes them unique and different when faced with other forms of expression. The ratio between attempt and success at this is arguable; less arguable are the mediatic temples consecrated to certain names. Tim Schafer is one of those cases where reputation elevates a creator to rock star status, earning him the esteem of journalists, respect from his peers and worship of the audience. Before Brütal Legend, Schafer was already a legend. Why? When Psychonauts saw the light of day, the press kept building this image of a brilliant designer whose games were filled with fantastic worlds and comedy, but their often mediocre controls and mechanics prevented further recognition. Which is peculiar. Before Psychonauts, Schafer had only worked on adventure games – a genre where controls and mechanics are generally irrelevant. And the only game prior to Psychonauts where Schafer had absolute authorial control was Grim Fandango.

Something to think about: all that reputation was built around one single game. Is it possible that the lack of recognition Schafer gets from the audience stems from a wrong idea promoted by the very journos who wanted to celebrate his work but didn’t quite do their homework?

And if so, how much of that reputation is responsible for Brütal Legend?

Brütal Legend can be summarized as an ode to heavy metal. Where numerous album covers and Fran Frazettas’s artwork come alive in the landscape, where guitar solos melt faces and Ozzy Osbourne is a Guardian of Metal who sells guitar strings. Eddie Riggs, the lead character, owes his existence to Lemmy Kilmister and Iron Maiden’s mascot as much as he owes it to Jack Black’s voice, who probably the best role of his life here (thanks to not appearing on screen and adopting a decidedly non-Jack Black stance). Riggs, among other things, drives the Deuce – a metal hot rod called into being by MUSIC – finds love, commands armies of fans and moves heavy metal crowds (the “good guys”) to fight against someone who represents hair metal (the “bad guys”). Is it important to highlight the musical genre Schafer used? For a neophyte of the genre like me, probably not, because Schafer and Double Fine tried their best to keep private jokes regarding the genre and its culture accessible enough. But it’s still interesting to think about the choice of a musical genre which in spite of it all is a niche; which, inevitably, turns it into a niche game.

I have very little to say about heavy metal but I appreciate arguments about whether Def Leppard and Scorpions could ever be a part of the genre; that one juxtaposes the juvenile and misantropric themes that surfaced in the genre against the virtuosity of some of its artists; even that someone would ask why I’m talking about heavy metal – a term which can now pay a pint to role-playing games, green Coke bottles and Sony Walkmans while they bemoan the fact they no longer mean what they used to – when, from memory, I only recall a certain fondness by old school Metallica, Angra, briefly listening Dream Theater and a certain indecision where I’d place those musical UFOs that were Bruce Dickinson’s solo albums, Deftones’ third album, Pantera’s sixth album and Therion’s ninth. In other words I’m a tourist in the land of metal and when Eddie Riggs, the best roadie in the world working for the worse band in the world, fights general Lionwhyte, I can understand and appreciate that a fan of the genre is opposed to variations of the same genre, even if I’m not intimately aware of both. Unless that hair and those clothes are an attack on glam rock, and then I feel like asking what anyone could possibly have against David Bowie or Roxy Music.

Of course, I don’t ask, because Riggs would probably apply a strong axe blow to my skull and armed with his guitar, would play a solo that would block out the sunlight and awaken an ancient metal god whose fifty mouths would sing, simultaneously, the end of all times. And because Brütal Legend’s character is inequivocaly that of a statement. From Schafer to himself, almost, because it’s an apology, an honest love for his passions and obsessions that’s at stake here. Something he always believed in.

But is believing enough to convince? One has to admire Schafer, even if just for the small transgressions that were always a part of his career. He got a job at LucasArts even after letting slip he had played a pirated copy of one of the company’s successful games. Against the suits, he was one of those responsible for turning The Secret of Monkey Island into that magnificent comedy. And his games always have that enfant terrible vibe, of the kid sticking his tongue out after he played the biggest prank of all. Few are those that can tell a character’s story while making the world around it the very soul of the character (Psychonauts is a prime example of this but it’s important to remember Full Throttle‘s roads). The world Schafer came up with for Brütal Legend has no name but I’m willing to bet that to open one’s mouth in order to enunciate the thing would result in

that would make us spontaneously combust, which would make us human bombs ready to detonate in the name of heavy metal’s glory, whether we like the genre or not. If metal in Full Throttle was the symbol of the asphalt cowboy, but also the promise of a way of living (“A heavy metal adventure” by Tim Schafer, one could read in the game’s box), then metal in Brütal Legend is life itself (Riggs’ clothing, his personality, the fans), but here Schafer imagined a place where its wide open spaces are asphyxiating; a character with a strong presence but a superfluous place; an open heart story backed by closed fist mechanics.

If we think about the way Schafer builds his worlds we see how they operated little transgression within the conventional rules imposed on them. Ben, the main character in Full Throttle and a prototype of Riggs, would never “die”: one false move was held as a memory lapse of his and the player would restart at the beginning of a sequence where he botched up. Grim Fandango was built around a visual idea that only videogames seem to risk with film noir, the Day of the Dead and legislator demons dominating an excentric universe which dripped cool. And Psychonauts was a lesson in how the consequences of role-playing games and the exploration and discovery of platform games could keep the adventure game alive. But Full Throttle spat out arcade driving sequences while Razputin’s journey suffered from a boring collect-a-thon and queasy navigation across its levels. Elements which jeopardized a certain conceptual and design economy, terribly afraid those microcosms didn’t have enough “game” in them.

A fear which never felt larger as in Brütal Legend.

It’s a strange game. Maybe a wrong game. Not when it tries to transform the familiarity in Schafer’s mind into something unique for the audience. Not in the inspiration of several other genres to give substance to the ideas of music as a fantastic power capable of influencing people. Those contexts seem beyond complaints; maybe more important than recognizing some artistic merit in Schafer’s games, would be to recognize his will to keep his dreams alive while having fun with it. And it’s impossible not to feel that in the story. But in Brütal Legend’s

the ambition sandbox design principles are quite noticeable. Why sandbox as a ludic device? On one hand we have the sense of discovery, of being carried away by the naive notion that a large world is somehow better than a series of corredors. The trick begins with a small sugestion, a false modesty, on behalf of its creator, who assures the player that the curiosities planted along several virtual square miles are deserving of attention or, at least, are a complement to the main course. On the other, what’s the benefit of the vast unknown if it doesn’t say anything about the virtual world it’s trying to support? The remains of a civilization, the fall of a society and the fragments of a dream (an American one, but one that could have been ours) in the radioactive wastelands are not a fault or creative surplus of Fallout: they are integral to understand the game’s theme. Now the perpetual conflict in the streets, the lifeless puppets and the genetic memories of Prototype are pointless: mere props which bring no dramatic punch in the story it tries to tell.

Brütal Legend’s main theme is that of heavy metal. There are moments where it looks at the attitude and culture associated with the genre in a way that it requires immense willpower not to smile from ear to ear or, in cases of extreme enthusiasm, go for a standing ovation. Those are a triumph of design by subtraction, where Schafer isn’t carried away by futility and just sticks with what’s essencial. A divorce from stardom (rock or any other form), a refusal of the hero showing off in favor of a good man’s honesty, a way of life that begins and ends in the road: it’s all there and so light and sober that it would embarass sixty hour dialog from “major” studios. Riggs’ affinity for music comes from the intimate knowledge of what makes a star, not the desire of being one, and that makes him the eternal roadie: in music, in love, in life. And – risking repetition – the subtlety of these moments are important details in edifying the character who chooses to set the stage for others to shine under the spotlight rather than claiming it all for himself. This attitude is a trait so rooted into the character that, when the game highlights these differences, Riggs justs shrugs them off. He’s a man who chose a certain way of life, who knows what it takes and doesn’t turn his back on it. Just like Schafer.

And a few hours late into the game we’re doing stuff like driving around dusty plains, in a fully armed hot rod, looking for dragon statues, carrying beer kegs, competing in races and killing vaguely demonic creatures.

None of which has anything to do with Riggs.

Why do we play videogames? Since omniscience is beyond our grasp, let’s assume one of the more timeless reasons in existence: escapism. Meaning, we play to escape from this world, to be carried away into virtual worlds, worlds that could only exist in the virtuality of videogames thanks to their concepts and the way we relate to them. A post-apocalyptic world where its past and hints concerning its future were unavailable to us would hold little interest; a world invaded by aliens would hold little interest as well if we could not fight against them. Otherwise it would be no different than literature or cinema which, their importance notwithstanding, establish totally different parameters for us to assimilate their characters, worlds and narratives. Brütal Legend is about heavy metal and about Eddie Riggs and that’s where the game wants to take us. That’s what Schafer believes in and that’s why we’re grateful he didn’t think of, let’s imagine this while we say thanks, Pøpstar Legend.

But it’s in the ludic relationship he remains unconvincing. I suppose one of the dilemas the contemporary designer faces is the notion of similarity, of transferable skill, let’s call it, which hinges on gamers’ predisposition towards certain games and the stagnation of certain genres in order to offer a familiar experience. There’s no way to beat around the bush: nowadays, to play Resident Evil 5 is to play Dead Space is to play Gears of War is to play Red Faction: Guerrilla is to play Dark Void (by the way, don’t play that last one). In spite of thematic and visual differences (ie., Dead Space is the American History X cranial curb stomp over and over again, Guerrilla is being a space asshole, Resident Evil 5 is the best Castlevania ever outside the main series, etc.) they’re all based on the same formula: over-the-should third-person camera, tactics and cover. In every person accusing Nintendo of dilluting their games in order to appeal to casual gamers, there’s one unwilling to acknowledge the fact that some of the more radical experiences of the past have been dilluted by familiarity. Say what you will about Resident Evil’s tank controls – the fact is, in 1996 a scant number of games played like it whereas nowadays, Resident Evil plays like most games in the market. The advantage of transferable skill in modern games – going from one experience to the next requires no great ludic knowledge from us – carries with it the inability these games have of making a difference among their peers. And the same applies to sandbox design which, while it had matured before Grand Theft Auto 3 came along, seems like an almost mandatory bullet point in a game’s design document.

What happens outside Brütal Legend’s main story arc is simply this: driving around aimlessly, carry out optional missions and unearth secrets. How many times have we seen this? How many more will we see it? Did we need to see it in Brütal Legend? Does Brütal Legend gain anything from them?

It would be easy to only address the technical issues (driving is merely competent; optional missions are repetitive; the game doesn’t clue you in on the secrets you’ve already found) but those would be unfair criticisms if they excluded the main missions, since those also present scenarios based on the same things. But the problem is something that goes beyond Brütal Legend’s marketing, beyond the majority of trailers which only showcased the combat and omitted the realtime strategy aspects and results in a simple Google search not offering much in the way of actual in-game images, and even less images of the RTS component. it’s something that, unless one considers the life of the roadie to be exhausting and repetitive, is built around this terrible idea of what the “modern videogame” should be: a little bit of everything wrapped in familiarity, in this case of the open world to be explored. But nothing of which it offers dignifies Riggs’ presence: it’s a playground exclusively dedicated to the gamer. Therein lies the fundamental issue: to believe in the world you create but fearing it’s not enough to convince those who visit it. The story already shows, in a commendable way, how Riggs is dedicated to his job as a roadie – what do side missions where taking beer kegs along several miles, or hunt for a given number of monsters, say about him? What does unearthing musics to listen to while driving the Deuce say about the larger intention of paying a homage to an entire musical genre?

It is by no means a bad game but it’s one too burdened with outside expectation. Music as a power capable of influencing crowds or the power of fans that keep the band alive through merchandise are gold nuggets among the mud of the sterile sandbox and the artificially needed peripheral curiosities (like new solos, or extensions of Riggs’ health, elements which while not things to overlook are breadcrumbs thrown at the ground). Under those ominous skies and open roads, hovers the spectre of (dis)solution and (re)integration of several genres into a single one, but its promiscuity is dubious. On one hand we have absolutely me(n)tal moments, where Riggs cooperates with field units in battle to unleash special attacks, protects the gang’s tour bus or stuns creatures with music screaming out of huge speakers in order to use their carcasses as weapons; on the other, the largest slices of information about the gameworld are burried away somewhere in the world instead of being shared with Riggs and the player in a more natural way, the headbangers who require assistance across the map always insist on the same activities, and driving without the story’s context is sedated and as structurally sound as a wet cardboard box.

I imagine there’s a certain appeal in listening to Kiss, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson or Ozzy himself while you’re driving on the road. I imagine that corresponds to a certain degree of “fun” and that it fits within the theme: “dig some heavy metal” while you’re driving carefree. The difference between Brütal Legend’s open world and those of games like GTA or Red Faction: Guerrilla is context. Whether in Rockstar or Volition’s games, it’s not chaos by our hands that makes it interesting: it’s the sense of place, that there’s something larger in motion, even if it’s just illusory. But they’re consistent in that illusion and when you see north-american culture being satirized in outdoors, when you see people on the streets simulationg dialog (GTA) or when you save hostages and are given interesting tools to interact with what’s around you (Guerrilla), you fell those are worlds or at least, an offline MMORPG which replaces 12 year olds insulting you with activities that have meaning in the global context of things. Brütal Legend’s vastness has nothing: ramps to jump over with the Deuce, statues to destroy and others say nothing about the place – they’re design leftovers hammered into the world, for no other reason than other games do it too. It’s like entering a fairground late at night, when the guard’s already gone and there’s no one to turn on the lights, and all you can do sit in a bumber car and make crashing noises yourself. No matter how “fun” that may be to some, it’s by no means an example of the fairground’s virtues.

In the end, it embodies everything the contemporary videogame has become: it’s no longer about playing, but about giving the player “something to do” even when that something has no bearing on everything else. Eddie Riggs is Tim Schafer is Eddie Riggs – the guy always on the road, who makes everything work backstage, with absolute conviction in the things he loves (and an absolute love for the things he believes in). But for the first time, Schafer seems genuinely afraid he won’t have anything interesting to say to the audience. Why? Music as context is quickly going from stardom to boredom with Guitar Hero and derivates in charge of recycling MTV to the point of nausea, and trying to distance Brütal Legend from other musical games is a natural concern, but for the life of me I can’t believe someone would confuse Green Day’s inane songs with melting faces with the power of music. Yet it’s curious that, even moreso than any other Guitar Hero or Rock Band iteration, Schafer and Double Fine’s game actually makes me want to play some riffs. A rythm minigame very similar to those featured in Harmonix’s series even features in the game but Schafer admitted he couldn’t think of a way to use plastic guitars.

Take a deep breath: Schafer and his team created a game about music, in which they were incapable of devising a way to use a guitar but dedicated their time to building an unessential open world. Brütal Legend, one of the rare games in the last years where one can’t say it’s creators weren’t actually passionate about music, does not let you play guitar. Instead, it lets you fool around in a virtual playground like so many other games. Schafer wants people to love his games, but also wants them to sell. It’s a reasonable attitude but one that risks turning them into complacent husks and conditioned to player expectations. If gamers yearn for a certain kind of experience, does that mean Schafer should comply? The sandbox world is there, the online multiplayer is there, the collectibles are there, even DLC will be there. It’s like saying “if you don’t enjoy heavy metal or the game’s story, here’s something familiar so that you might have fun. Please buy our game. It’s not niche, see – it even features things you find in other games”.

Like any other man, if I were a woman I’d have Schafer’s babies, but were he to employ that as a pickup line, it would all be ruined. You want to take me to the land of metal? A land just like every other one out there? Forget it.

Schafer is at his best in creating worlds and characters, and he’s someone who knows what he is doing, knows what he’s good at. But with each new game you get the feeling that, in a way, he resents having to make a videogame. As if it stopped him from moving forward. And even if the characterization is stronger in its intensity (in the imaginary of the musical genre, in the characters’ emotions, in the fans as the life of music) than in its integrity (of the author’s expression conditioned by player’s expectations) there are some cases where both converge; and in those cases it’s important to realize that if Brütal Legend belongs to a “genre”, it’s that of the work of an author. An author far removed from Bayonetta‘s wet dreams, halfway from the school of Miyamoto (it’s impossible not to see Pikmin when in control of the small squads of headbangers) but desperately in search of elegance not unlike that of Darwinia. An author who doesn’t hide his obsession for memory, for the mythology of a past, the likes of which a younger Kojima or Suda 51 only dare to. But if the romantic ideal Schafer tries to explore is not without a certain merit, it’s one where the talent is only visible in the powerful dialogs and the strength of the story. His love for the videogame form is a genuine emotion but in order to share it, he has to rent his heart out to strangers. Is this what we want from him?

When Brütal Legend ends, its world remains open to our presence but silent to Riggs’ own. Music lives on through Riggs’ voice, through the landscape built from the aesthetic of metal, from its cultur mirrored in the characters, as if it were all an altar unto itself – but outside the story’s main stage, the only ritual we can perform is a moment of silent contemplation, the aftermath of a concert where instead of sharing stories about the show, we’re picking up the trash. Maybe the only way to play Brütal Legend is to forget the sandbox and stick with the main story.

Curious: a game about being a roadie and working backstage ends up being at its best when you pick up the guitar and take the stage.

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