[5 November 2009]
Long a hero to gamers familiar with his seminal LucasArts PC titles, developer Tim Schafer’s first foray into console gaming came in 2005 with the wildly creative Psychonauts. The main conceit of platforming inside the minds of other characters in order to combat physical representations of emotional issues or memories was immensely enjoyable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the thoroughly unique presentation and gameplay elements of each level. Further, for anyone familiar with Schafer’s previous work, there was a certain enjoyment in seeing his humor and creative vision applied successfully to a much more visceral style of play than were the point-and-click adventures through which he made his name. Though it’s widely cited as one of the most critically acclaimed sales disappointments of the last console generation, Psychonauts holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, easily measuring up to Schafer’s best work.
If the sales performance of Psychonauts indicates anything, perhaps it’s that the sensibilities that Schafer brings to his titles represent a gaming niche. This is what makes the choice of subject matter for Brütal Legend so interesting. Rather than attempt to create a title based on universally accessible source material, Double Fine has instead followed up Psychonauts with a game whose subject matter appeal seems highly specific. Essentially a love letter to heavy metal, containing both a sincere appreciation for the form as well as an affectionate awareness for some of its inherent cheesiness, Brütal Legend unapologetically celebrates a musical style that is well past its prime in terms of popularity. But it does so with such humor and infectious enthusiasm that it’s difficult to imagine the game not putting a smile on the face of anyone interested enough to try it whether or not they appreciate heavy metal in general.
In many ways, Brütal Legend is the ideal vehicle for Jack Black. While the original Tenacious D shorts wrought a lot of humor out of the premise of Black’s arrogance and grandiose visions, his turns as leading man in other projects have been fairly hit or miss. Generally, he seems most effective in small doses as demonstrated by his scene stealing performance in High Fidelity. But Brütal Legend might actually be the best use of Jack Black yet, affording him a starring role that caters to his comedic roots and sensibilities while allowing everything around him to be more over the top than he is. The imagery and artistic style of the game fit well with the title thematically, and the casting of metal icons to various roles and the exceptional soundtrack further underscore Brütal Legend’s dedication to all things metal. Further and within the context of these elements, the writing is predictably funny. Schafer’s made a name for himself by being one of the few game developers that can consistently make humorous games. Given the relative glut of titles that take themselves seriously, this is a quality that’s easy to appreciate.
But while it’s difficult to question Tim Schafer’s abilities with respect to creative vision, humor, and writing, these qualities do not necessarily guarantee that a game is fun particularly if it suffers some fundamental gameplay issues. Brütal Legend’s gameplay is a mishmash of discrete styles, and while such an approach has become more popular in the past several years, it doesn’t quite work here. Given the way that all the creative elements come together cohesively to present a singular and enjoyable vision for this world, it’s difficult not to notice the way that some of the gameplay elements clash. This is particularly so since Psychonauts was able to present multiple styles much more effectively by separating them into distinct worlds as opposed to blending them all together. As a concept, Brütal Legend seems ideally suited to the action adventure genre, and while the actual action is certainly enjoyable, the open world elements seem a little unnecessary, and the RTS mechanics (the aspect of the game that seems to be drawing the most vocal criticism and that comprises the entirety of the game’s multiplayer component) feel fairly out of place.
It becomes interesting, then, to consider why Brütal Legend still feels successful, and indeed what (outside of profits) actually defines a game’s success. In this case, we have a humorous, well written, and thoroughly original game (all of which clearly speak to Schafer’s strengths) that perhaps tries to do too much from a gameplay standpoint. In fact, the game may not have been fun to play at all had it been wrapped in different clothing. But because of the exceptional nature of all aspects of the presentation, the overall experience is enjoyable despite gameplay missteps. Brütal Legend is an example, then, not necessarily of style over substance but rather of the style becoming the substance. Arguably, the most important criteria as far as a video game is concerned is how much time players want to spend in the world of the game and how much fun they have being there. By that measure, given how much fun I had, it’s difficult to claim that Brütal Legend is unsuccessful. Further, as someone that appreciates efforts to bring originality and passion to an industry that seems too often dominated by safe sequels, I sincerely hope that it sells well enough to allow Double Fine and Tim Schafer to continue down their unbeaten path.