Tim Schafer Says Games Must Ditch Sci-Fi And Fantasy To Grow

Near-mythical game designer Tim Schafer reckons games need to look beyond cliched fantasy and science fiction inspirations in order for the industry to reach a broader audience. Is he right?

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, the genius behind Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, says:

"If you look at movies, they deal with everything about life. They deal with all aspects of life: romance, comedy, serious dramas. And games are mostly limited to the summer action blockbuster.

"They haven't really gone outside of that. But I think they will, and hopefully they will soon, or else people will be solidified in their view of games. Their expectations are set."

Schafer is quick to acknowledge that he's not exactly leading the way with his latest game, Brutal Legend:

"Not everybody wants to get into these super violent worlds and yet here I am making a game about broad axes and decapitation. But I think humour would get more people into games."

It's a valid point he raises. The success of games grounded in reality, such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and The Sims, might indicate that it's easier for a broad audience to enjoy something they can relate to.

Quantic Dream's David Cage would agree. For Heavy Rain, Cage deliberately steered away from the fantastical elements of his previous game, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy).

“I believe it’ll be much more emotionally involving, as gamers will easily relate to the situations and characters. In Heavy Rain, you won’t be a superhero or a gangster. You’ll just be someone real.”

So, what about The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or Lost? All successful films or TV shows that comfortably sit inside the sci-fi or fantasy genres both Cage and Schafer admit games need to move on from.

Yet all three use their unreal settings to depict real people dealing with very real situations, emotions and drama. Games tend to give us the former, but so very often forget the latter.

What are your favourite real world games? Or your favourite games that deal exclusive with real people experiencing real romance, comedy and drama?

Subject matter is biggest barrier to entry for games - Schafer [GamesIndustry.biz]


    The last game to achieve true emotional connection with the PC is Baldur's Gate II. Half-Life 2 boasted Alyx (the annoying bitch who got hurt and ruined the gamepace) as did Fallout 3 boast your own dad (which would require WAY more gametime to feel connected to).

    sad really...

    love, comedy and serious drama do not make entertaining games, they are passive activities more suited to TV and Film.

    you know what had a lot of love, comedy and drama, MGS4, and how did it achieve it? multiple cut scenes with minimal game time. it was an awesome story but a terrible game.

    you want real people experiencing real romance comedy and drama, FF7. that game left a mark on people. they cared that aeries died, people still care. and they cared about those characters so much they hounded square for almost 10 years to find out what happened to all of them.

    if no more games were released i wonder if fans would campaign for that long that loud to get the final fate of master chief.

    there are plenty of games with romance, comedy and drama but just like TV and film the memorable ones you can count on your fingers and hundreds of others tank after one game, season or movie.

    This guy has clearly only experienced Halo if he thinks sci-fi is dead.
    Check out stuff like Deus-ex, System Shock and Dead Space then come back and try again.

    "The success of games grounded in reality, such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and The Sims, might indicate that it’s easier for a broad audience to enjoy something they can relate to."

    And the success of other games would indicate that it's even easier for a broad audience to enjoy something involving fat plumbers jumping on mushrooms, imprisoning animals in small containers and then forcing them into deathmatches with each other for cash, and aligning blocks with each other to form contiguous rows.

    I don't really think you can take sales data as anything other than popularity, and popularity is unrelated to maturity or complexity. The reason that 'summer blockbuster' games are being made is because they sell. It's like moaning about Hollywood films all being repetitive and formulaic. They are that way because it reduces the risk involved. Check in the boxes and for an investment of X, you can expect a lifetime return of between Y and Z.

    Really, you're not going to see radical departures from the formula coming from the big publishers. Periodically they'll do something interesting, but if there is a revolution in the concept of what elements work in a game, it's going to come out of the small and independent developers, not big business.

    Additionally I'm not sure what counts as a 'real world' game. Games are fantasy by their very nature. I don't have much interest in being joe average playing joe average's every day life - that's what I do in reality. If your character is 'average' then you can guarantee that the situation he or she will be in will be something decidedly not average. And if the world is firmly grounded in reality, then the characters won't be.

    Aas far as 'real' drama and whatnot, as complicated as a simulation can get, it will never be as 'real' as real people. I'd say there's a convincing argument that an anything-goes MMO like Eve Online has more 'real' interaction than anything supposedly set in the real world, yet it's a SF game and would be exempt.

    Or starcraft, or warcraft and Halo--the most successful games in the world by large margin are still sci-fi and fantasy.
    I disagree entirely that games cannot grow in any genre. Some of the most successful movies in the world are fantasy, like LotR, Harry Potter. It's all about quality and attention to detail.

    People shouldn't identify with a game because it's content deal with the real world. They should connect with the game because the dev pulls them in--that's good story telling. Saying otherwise is just a cop out method to get the audience involve. You don't want to do that unless you're Fox Co.

    You just need to look at the top 10 grossing movies of all time. I think you'll find most of them are sci fi and fantasy.

      Aren't the first two on that list Titanic and The Dark Knight...?

        Dark Knight's opening day / weekend figures are top, yes. Titanic doesn't even enter into the list any more as far as that goes. Which isn't a surprise - it's a 3 hour film.

        Sean was probably talking about Lifetime gross though.

        Regardless, Dark Knight is absolutely either Fantasy or SF depending on your definition.


        The list is pretty interesting, actually. The proportion of SF/Fantasy to 'reality' is very, very skewed away from reality. But once again this is equating popularity with substance. Schafer isn't saying that games will make tons of cash if they break away from the 'summer blockbuster' formula, he's saying that hardly anyone actually tries to do that and more people should or the industry will never be taken seriously.

    Tim makes a good point. We definitely need to move away from clichéd sci-fi and fantasy ... towards non-clichéd sci-fi and fantasy games.

    Nothing wrong with a little bit of variety, after all.

    My favourite real world/drama/romance/comedy? Hard to say. There aren't many out there. Does "Playboy: The Mansion" count? I cried when Dead Cousin Ted won the Human Show in Day of the Tentacle. It was a beautiful moment.

    1) Games will be taken seriously when gamers are all old enough. It's not about substance--it's about the fact that gaming is the scapegoat for the current generation.
    2) I don't think substance can only be found in realistic media though. Most of the work that speaks the loudest about human nature (if that's what people mean by substance) are very abstract--it will always be abstract due to the metaphysical nature of 'humanity'.
    But if substance means social commentary, then games will have to avoid it for a while. Apparently when gaming industry tries to realistically portray the battle of Fallujah, it gets trashed very horribly. When it attempts to express its idea about religion, people are outraged.
    There is no space for social commentary in video games just yet. (See #1)

    This is an interesting thing because I wouldn't equate reaching a larger audience necessarily with substance. But for some reason do we consider substance in terms of the literary snobbery that goes on in literature? Where literature is considered to be the work of substance and mainstream fiction does not because it is made for the masses?

    Getouttatown Tim Schaffer! You don't know nothing! ;-)

    There does need to be more Sims though. That shit is real man and so damn funny.

    I take his point, but I disagree. Just as there are people who go to a movie to watch a dramatic situation they can vicariously attach themselves to, there are people who want those fantasies. What's sad is how many variants of "you are an elf" and "you and your squad of beefy space dudes must..." Where's the hard scifi? where's the fantasy rooted in linguistics and anthropology? we've settled for either big mushy dreamscapes or ampules of testosterone in a hard futurist casing.

    That said, all this is a big red herring.

    What's really needed are games that play more than one-note; they need to expand the realms of what players can do while they're there. Halo is a highly polished shooter... but that's as far as it goes. HL2 engaged its audience with a broader range of approaches to similar problems, and Fallout3's gone further again. Everytime we force players to do EXACTLY what we as designers want them to do, we're killing our own medium.

    I'm going to agree with Savin here, it's unfortunate that any time a game tries to really delve into deep or controversial issues the mass media immediately throws a negative light on it. Even Indie games which really try to explore social issues without a major budget are absolutely slammed. Just think back to some of the terrible media and negative hype surrounding Super Columbine Massacre RPG.

    There is a chilling effect which has been pressing down on the games industry for quite a while as a result, but there have always been exceptions to the rule. Certain companies and individuals like to explore these deeper areas. To those who say that emotional involvement doesn't belong in games; look at Final Fantasy VII, Ico, Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Shadow of the Colossus and the fascination with Alyx Vance for some examples of creating relationships with the game's characters and exploration of morality and consequence.

    My point is that until games stop being portrayed as socially corrupting child's toys who's only purpose is violence and destruction, then most companies won't be exploring riskier content because it's not a wise business choice. After all, games are an industry and profit is key. If 'summer blockbuster' style games generate sales, that's what will be developed.

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