Sorry.  I didn’t mean to jump to hyperbole.  I’m not saying that Double Fine Productions has a history of releasing trainwrecks of incomparable awfulness, in fact the whole reason Double Fine continues to disappoint me is that the man at the tippy-top of the company is responsible for some of the most seminal works in all of video games (definitely in adventure games).  But even putting aside the legacy of Tim Schaffer, I find that Double Fine having a legacy of promising big, but delivering short.  That, in and of itself, isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if we are so eager to crucify Peter Molyneaux and David Cage every time they start spewing their big ideas, it’s only fair that we hold Schaffer and his Double Fine teams to the same accountability.

In case you missed it, and it would be fair if you did, Double Fine launched Headlander this past week and it feels like every game Double Fine has launched this side of Middle Manager of Justice – it’s unfocused, unfinished, and squanders what looks like a perfectly wonderful idea.  Headlander isn’t a catastrophe, but like so many Double Fine games it is a lukewarm game that could have been a good one with more attention and love.  This is a routine I feel Double Fine has become known for in the last few years, instead of delivering solid outings that consistently break into top ten lists, they release games that wind up being honorable mentions.

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It’s hard to remember that Double Fine was a the germ of an indie studio before indie studios were really a thing.  They didn’t initially publish games on their own, partnering with the likes of Majesco, Electronic Arts, and THQ before starting to push more and more titles out independently.  This makes Double Fine something of a relic.  Size-wise, they are the kind of B-level studio that doesn’t exist anymore – yet their spirit is that of the indie scene, which has never been so robust and successful as it is today.  The problem with this is that while Double Fine likes to have the autonomy and aspirations of an indie studio, they’re just too big to make that happen.  There seems to be at least two teams working in-house, and Double Fine desperately tries to keep those teams busy and – more importantly – paid.

I don’t mean to belittle the people who work at Double Fine, the fact that the studio has seen its fair share of financial troubles over the last few years is not something that should go unheeded, but it seems to feed into the problem that keeps the studio hamstrung with their interesting concepts.  Double Fine’s development process seems to allow enough time for their projects to get into a three-quarters-baked state, before getting shipped into the wild.  That doesn’t mean they’re all the colossal failure of DF9, but they often tend to be games with extremely rough edges.  Something that might have been forgivable back in their Psychonauts days, but is just annoying at this point.

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The easy solution to this problem is a longer development process, something that gives these games more time to develop and breathe.  I can see you starting to pull your hair out about Broken Age’s long development cycle, but it’s important to remember that the game went from a twinkle in Schaffer’s eye to early 2012 to being half done two years later and being completely done a year after that.  That seems (I don’t know for sure, I’ve never made a game) like a fairly standard development time frame – and given that Double Fine took feedback from Act One and tried to incorporate it into Act Two, it seems they were in early stage for the latter portion of the game.  If we’re being honest, Broken Age probably could’ve used another six months.  But again, this how most Double Fine games have felt recently.  I genuinely liked Massive Chalice, but the game only delivered on the letter of it’s promise, rather than fleshing out into the sprawling fantasy epic that Brad Muir had envisioned – there just wasn’t enough time to build the game Muir pitched in his Kickstarter.

Even when they’re not on a Kickstarter deadline, Double Fine has still run into these issues. The studio’s 2013 release, The Cave, Double Fine again failed to deliver.  The Cave was the return of Ron Gilbert, the unspoken promise that he and Schaffer would be cooking up a triumphant puzzle game worthy of their Lucas Arts roots.  Instead, The Cave was rushed and incomplete, it seemed like Gilbert could have used another half-year really tying the whole thing together with some more creative overarching design instead of “here’s some characters, get them through this cave”.

So we return to Headlander, a hodge-podge of ideas that fails to amount to anything more significant than: “Wasn’t 70’s sci-fi weird?”  Like so many Double Fine projects before it, you can see good ideas in Headlander, in the opening minutes, the game flirts with being a puzzle-platformer revelation.  Unfortunately, it quickly falls apart with annoying spawn/saving rules and dialogue so repetitive and obnoxious, it’s amazing it made it out the door.  The first stage has some good fun and promises to be a mind-bending sci-fi adventure, but once you get to the first boss-fight, that promise feels empty.

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Perhaps it’s fate that Headlander comes out at the same time as Netflix’s Stranger Things.  Comparing a TV show to a game might be a little apples-and-oranges, but both properties try to make throwback fiction that is packed with nostalgia tropes while trying to stand on its own two feet.  Whereas Stranger Things works because the story, characters, and aesthetic elements come together to be more than the sum of their parts, Headlander is revealed to be completely devoid of anything interesting when you strip away the psychedelic colors and analog soundtrack.  The game only seems to have had enough time to get the look perfected, any work being done to evolve that aesthetic into a game worthy of playing seems to have been at a premium.  

But again, this is what Double Fine does now.  They pitch you something awesome, make it look awesome, but then deliver a game that doesn’t live up to standard you feel they should be held to.  If this was Spiders Studio (most famous for The Technomancer, Bound by Flame, and other bad games you probably haven’t played) these kinds of games would be totally serviceable fair.  But this fucking Double Fine, and the studio makes it a point to remind you of that.  With the re-release of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle, Double Fine’s disappointing run for the last handful of years has become all the more apparent.  If they wanted to escape this legacy and stealth release mediocre titles for the next decade, that would be fine, but they have made a point to remind us of their pedigree with these revisited classics, so it’s only fair we can hold them to the bar they set for themselves.

And they can’t seem to clear that bar – even worse, they seem to consistently knock their head against it.  I wish I could say a studio so respected has an ace up their sleeve and is going to deliver soon, but it’s hard to believe that when the company operates on such a razor’s edge they consistently push out unfinished work – returning to the crowdfunding well so often they probably should change their name to Double Fine and Friends.  Look, Psychonauts was the game that put this company on the map, their slam-dunk franchise they’ve milked time and again.  It’s hard to imagine such goodwill is going to be spoiled with a subpar game – though it gets easier with every Double Fine game I play.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • Probably the only thing they could realistically do is fire/hire new staff. Video games aren’t at a point where there’s any real arena for people to prove their chops, to then be cherry picked from.

    I am skeptical of the studio model in general. It’s very hit or miss. When I look through the games of the last several years I don’t see anything that interests me. I was just on the Japan PSN looking for Panzer Dragoon in the PS2-classics store, because Wikipedia said it was in there. I found out that it’s not in there, and fixed the Wikipedia article. But I went ahead and looked through the entire store while I was there. There’s literally no good video games anymore, but that’s just my personal standards talking.

    PS: Like last week I looked up “seminal” to see if I was using it correctly. Just for fun, its root is actually semen, and that also seems to be its primary definition. I’ll never hear it the same way again.