For Tim Schafer, dreaming is work and work is play. The video game designer and head of Double Fine Productions is best known for the cult classic Psychonauts, set both in a camp for psychic kids and in the dreams — and nightmares — of its campers.
Psychonauts was directly inspired by the psychology of dreaming, which Schafer studied at UC Santa Cruz. He later worked as a developer at LucasArts where he worked on such classic titles as the Monkey Island series and Grim Fandango before founding Double Fine in 2000. There, he released a series of critical hits including the Jack Black-voiced Brutal Legend and the point-and-click adventure Broken Age.
He’s currently at work on Psychonauts 2, which will delve even deeper into the world of dreams. Also in the mix is the standalone Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, a virtual reality game for the Playstation VR.
In his own words, here’s a professional oneironaut on gaming, productivity and the collective conscious.
I’ve just changed my sleep schedule. My normal thing is that my family goes to bed first — my daughter’s young, so she goes to bed around 8 p.m. and my wife might stay up until 10 — and then I’ll stay up until 1 a.m. playing video games. I’m in the industry so I have to play games, and that’s the one chance I have. Especially for the ones that aren’t so cool for my daughter to see. Lately I’ve been playing this game Tharsis as well as Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Fallout 4 and Hand of Fate.
But I started reading about how lack of sleep affects your ability to recall and use memory. How, as you get older, you start not being able to find the right word. Things like that. And I thought, “I wonder if that’s my problem?” So now I’m trying to go to bed at 10, like a real old person.
It’s hard. You hang out with your friends at work and everyone just wants to go all night. These 20 year-olds just want to hang out all night. But I really do see a difference on the nights where I get eight hours of sleep. I’m trying to stick to it but it’s rough, it cuts into my video game time.
I’ve never felt comfortable with sleep aids because I’ve heard they can disrupt your dreaming pattern. I don’t know the exact science here — that they can prevent certain types of sleep, which are actually the restorative parts. But I will say that last year I had my gall bladder taken out, it was my first time having inpatient surgery, and the night I spent out in the hospital was the most amazing sleep I ever had.
Once, working on a game, I was in crunch mode and I stayed up for 36 hours straight. I was just playing really loud music and drinking a lot of coffee. That doesn’t sound like a lot — only 36 hours? — it really felt more like it was 120 hours. It puts you in this weird dream-reality where you feel like you’re just floating and you’re running on fumes.
That’s how the game industry is sometimes. You just can’t go to sleep. I was younger, though. I don’t think I’d do that again today.
Psychonauts and now, Psychonauts 2, were all inspired by a class I took in college called “The Psychology of Dreams.” We studied Freud, Jung, gestalt therapy. What inspired the game was thinking about how people will change things in their sleep. Like, someone’s having a fight with a family member and then they have a dream about a big angry bear. It’s crazy — they’re not a poet or an author but they’re creating beautiful poetic metaphors for their stress, their problems.
Everyone does these beautiful things in their sleep. And that was the inspiration for the game, where you go into people’s brains and see their mental states represented by dream images.
I try to keep a dream journal. We kept one for that class, and one thing you learn when you keep a dream journal is you do dream every night. A lot of people think “Well, I didn’t really have any dreams,” but it’s just that in the first few minutes of being awake you burn them all. Your brain just fries them.
If you have a dream, just keep a pen and a paper by your bed and just try to write the notes before you even open your eyes. It’s important to try to stay laying down, even — sometimes you get up and you think “Oh, I just remembered a dream,” and if you run back to bed and lay down in the same position, it’ll come back to you. You can find out you’re dreaming all these dreams every single night.
The dreams that are most interesting to me are the ones with creative work in them. In this dream class we talked about how, if you hear any songs in your dreams, you should try to remember them; if you see any paintings, try to recreate them. It’s interesting to look back at those images later and see that they kind of make sense but they don’t make sense at all.
Something we always try to do in games is just create this open experience where you can kind of explore your own journey. I used to think the “collective conscious” was this hippy, cosmic new-age thing, but it’s really much more grounded: There are these parts of your brain that are really old, which haven’t evolved since a long time ago. And when you sleep, dreams can come from all different parts of your brain — your conscious mind, your unconscious mind — and some are coming from these ancient parts.
When you meet characters in your dreams, some of them might come from this other, ancient part of your brain. It sounds cartoony but I think that’s so interesting — that you might meet a caveman in your dreams, some memory of some early, early ancestor.
We can only go visit that place when we’re asleep.