Stranger in a Strange Land: The Intricate World of Brütal Legend
There's a scene at the end of "Time Bandits" where director Terry Gilliam reveals to the audience the building blocks of imagination. It's a kind of coda: Kevin has already faced Evil in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness -- his allies were a who's who of childhood heroes. Cowboys on horseback. Knights in armor. A Sherman tank. But after hashing things out with the Supreme Being it all turns out to be a dream. We see Kevin asleep in his smoldering house -- a fireman's boot kicks over the chess board and toy soldiers he used to play out his fantasy. I picture something similar when thinking about Tim Schafer's inspiration for Brütal Legend. Just replace the toys with a stack of musty heavy metal LPs and a cardboard box full of well-worn Columbia House cassette tapes.
The heroes in Double Fine's excursion into rock-and-roll fantasy are sullen men with gorgeous Pantene manes and bad-ass rocker chicks clad in jeans and leather. Their names ring with echoes of real heavy metal gods. The game's protagonist Eddie Riggs, a roadie who finds himself in an alternate world where the legends of metal live, bears a name that holds a double reference to the band Iron Maiden. Eddie just happens to be the name of the UK band's undead mascot. Derek Riggs was the artist who brought Eddie to life on countless Iron Maiden record covers.
Schafer insists the "Riggs" bit refers to what Eddie, as a roadie, does for a living. But the Iron Maiden connection makes sense -- Schafer himself said that the fantastic art of heavy metal album covers directly influenced his game's visuals. After the game's first boss battle, Riggs makes an escape in the Deuce -- a hotrod summoned with the power of rock. The roadster makes a dramatic leap into the sky, imitating the album cover for Meatloaf's "Bat out of Hell." Of course, that particular slab of wax isn't technically a heavy metal record, Schafer admitted, "but it looks like it should be."
Good guy Lars Halford, who we first see brooding atop the giant stone sword of Bladehenge, melds the monikers of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford (whose voice work graces the game). His sister Lita Halford shares a first name with Lita Ford -- lead guitarist of the Runaways who had a No. 1 hit with her song "Kiss Me Deadly." (Ford, too, will lend her voice to the game.) Part of Eddie's job during the course of Brütal Legend will be to aid the likes of the Halfords in leading an army of the righteous to save their beleaguered land. Like all lead-singer types, Lars needs somebody to sweat the details. Somebody to organize. Somebody to make sure there are no brown M&Ms in the green room. A person like Eddie -- who, as a roadie, is already extremely skilled at making things happen for distracted deities. These tasks include recruiting an army of headbangers to lead into battle. To do so, Riggs ventures into "The Pit" (the mosh is, apparently, silent), where thick-necked, denim-clad rockers toil, slamming their dense, bandana-clad noggins against the rocks.
Villain General Lionwhyte, who has enslaved these knuckleheads, seems suggested by the ultra-cheesy hair metal band White Lion, underlining the real-world clash that pitted fans of thrash metal like Metallica against the legions who loved ballad-crooning pop chart hogs like Extreme and Nelson. When Eddie frees his first squadron of headbangers (they're enslaved by kiosks that shriek motivational blurbs at the laborers), he finds himself embroiled in that conflict. Like Captain Olimar in Pikmin, he commands his recruits to attack, follow, or stand guard. He can join in the fight against Aqua Net or stand back and rally his troopers from a distance.
Ophelia, the bad-ass rocker chick introduced in the opening moments of the game, has a name that's more Shakespearean than metal. The doe-eyed valkyrie plays straight girl to Eddie (as voiced by Jack Black). "What is this 'French kissing' you speak of," she asks, bewildered by Riggs' otherworldly demeanor. Before Eddie has a chance to teach her the ways of our world (particularly those of France), he must first fend off a slew of attackers. Wielding the Separator, a giant axe, he slices through evil druids and leggy nun-like creatures in latex. Between bouts of hacking and slashing, he stands his ground; switches to his guitar, Clementine; and riffs, summoning the "Earth Shaker" -- an unholy riff that tears the ground asunder, rocking enemies not entirely unlike a hurricane. His rocking shakes the pillars of heaven or at the very least the surrounding temple, which crumbles a bit more with every blow.
Eventually, Riggs discovers the chords (apologies to a certain Ocarina-playing elf, of course) that put him behind the wheel of the aforementioned hotrod. Despite the obvious Zelda parallels, Eddie's gift for rocking things into reality recalls the fantasy series Spellsinger by movie novelization hack Alan Dean Foster -- a book about a long-haired California rocker who finds himself in a Lord of the Rings-styled world and learns that the powers of song go beyond getting groupies out of their skirts. Eddie's ability to conjure rubber and steel does seem to impress Lita though. "What have you done?" she asks after he summons the ride. "I created beauty by simply rocking," he says, "That's all."
Brütal Legend's imaginative world brims with references to heavy metal. The music is on the soundtrack. The music informs the characters, their plights and their personalities. Heavy metal is in Brütal Legend's DNA. And, as expected, there's a sense of humor to the way it all comes together. But will those uninitiated to the ways of metal appreciate such a lovingly woven tapestry? Will the references wash over them? Tim Schafer hopes that his love for the music, as expressed by Brütal Legend, will win the uninitiated over to the side of the headbangers. You may not love metal before you play Brütal Legend, Schafer says, but "my goal is that by the end of the game you will like it."
This preview is based on a developer-driven demo of the game at GDC 2009.
Read Gus Mastrapa's blog post to learn about the secret buried in Eddie Riggs' T-shirt.