Headlander is an unusual entry in the Double Fine cannon in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a Double Fine production. The new game has a lot of the usual Double Fine charm – there are plenty of quips from beleaguered doors and robots – but it’s difficult to separate the story from the constant sound of laser fire. Headlander is a straightforward action game, and that places it at a considerable distance from Double Fine’s typical adventure game format.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Headlander is one of Double Fine’s more well received efforts in recent years, and it’s well worth the price of admission. Headlander just wasn’t what I expected based on Double Fine’s prior body of work, and I think that break says a lot about audience relationships and the way we interpret directorial intent in video games. Though the games industry often wants to celebrate individual creators, it also demands consistency from publishers and franchises. That paradox breeds disappointment when developers try to utilize their creative freedom.
The contradiction is particularly evident in the case of Headlander and Double Fine, a mid-sized studio with a recognizable in-house style. Some studios sell games with complex gameplay systems or cutting edge graphics. Double Fine sells its games with strong world building, storytelling, and humor, packing it together with gameplay that is just good enough to serve as a vehicle for those strengths.
The studio has struggled when it tries to get cute with complicated mechanics, as it did with 2009’s Brutal Legend, a game with phenomenal art direction and a terrific concept that sank beneath the weight of obnoxious gameplay. The studio’s output for the next few years featured games like Costume Quest and Stacking that were less ambitious but more coherent and more fun. I’ve long felt that Double Fine does its best work when it streamlines its mechanics to allow its stylistic choices to come to the fore.
Headlander breaks with that trend. The game has a quirky retro aesthetic, and like most Double Fine games, there’s a current of black humor hidden beneath the upbeat tone. The difference is that the artistic elements serve as the vehicle for the gameplay rather than vice versa. Headlander is fun because it offers a satisfying progression of interactive challenges. The combat is a random and chaotic mess (Double Fine still struggles with precision), but it is solid enough to be the primary attraction.
In other words, Headlander is good because it’s fun to play, not because it’s an offbeat and memorable narrative experience (though I will concede that a disembodied, cryogenically frozen head that can decapitate and take over robot bodies is pretty damn memorable). A 2D Metroidvania game is far more manageable than a third-person brawler crossed with Grand Theft Auto and real time strategy (Brutal Legend), but Headlander nevertheless proves that Double Fine can deliver a product in which the gameplay provides most of the substance.
The problem, unfortunately, is that Headlander still isn’t as good as Stacking, Double Fine’s other game about usurping civilian bodies to accomplish specific role-related tasks. Mechanically speaking, Stacking is simpler than Headlander, with a more measured pace that places few demands on the player’s reflexes. Stacking makes up for it with incredibly engaging puzzles and beautiful environments, and in the process it more or less proves my point. Headlander has more ambitious ideas, but Stacking is superior because the visual and puzzle components are more fully realized.
That’s why Headlander almost feels like a letdown. No one can mimic Double Fine’s particular brand of whimsy, so if Double Fine wants to do something different, it feels like its regular output is missing simply by default. There are other studios that make technically sound Metroidvania games, but there’s only one Double Fine, and that distinctive humor is what I’m looking for whenever I sit down to play one of its games.
Of course, that’s a ridiculous and unfair metric, and it says a lot more about me than it does about Double Fine. People’s interests change over time, and creative people are always seeking out new challenges. If studio head Tim Schafer wants to try something different that’s his (completely understandable) prerogative. If I’m disappointed, it’s because I’m looking at the world as I want it to be rather than as it is.
As it happens, Headlander is not a disappointment as much as it’s different. However, it is indicative of the way video games are marketed and consumed. While I might want Double Fine to keep making the same kind of game over and over again, that’s an unreasonable expectation. It’s laudable to see longtime industry veterans expanding their horizons and embracing new goals. That’s usually what we want to see from creative individuals.
The catch is that the games industry often tries to hide the contributions of individuals, especially at the triple-A level. Games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed represent the creative work of thousands of artists, but the product that ships is often stripped of personality. Corporate oversight allows the series to have a degree of continuity when key employees leave, which in turn lets consumers know that next year’s Assassin’s Creed will look roughly the same regardless of the makeup of the team.
That contrasts sharply with film, television, and other media. Even inside the studio system, film directors like Steven Spielberg or showrunners like Shonda Rhimes stamp their work with their artistic signatures, creating entertainment that is in large part sold with a cult of personality. With few exceptions (Suda51, Peter Molyneux, Hideo Kojima), video game directors seldom have that kind of presence. Video games instead bear the signature of a studio or a franchise. This is Rockstar. This is Mario. This is Street Fighter.
Artistic vision is reserved for small indie studios or independent artists, which is what makes Double Fine so fascinating. It’s a mid-tier studio halfway between the two extremes, at once large enough to have multiple projects in the works at any given time yet personable enough to have a distinct creative vision thanks to the presence of the charismatic Schafer. However, that presence can be misleading. Headlander and Stacking were in fact directed by Lee Petty, and many Double Fine games are directed by other people within the company. Even though I’ve been deliberately conflating the two, Tim Schafer does not encapsulate all of Double Fine, yet several recurring themes – children, comedy, adventure game mechanics – became codified as the house style despite reflecting the interests and contributions of many different individuals.
That’s what makes Headlander an anomaly. There’s no reason to expect Double Fine (or any creative team) to keep doing the same thing, but the studio is an outlier in an environment in which games are either corporate triple-A products or nakedly independent statements like The Witness. Double Fine has a long history that generates expectations, but it also has the flexibility to pivot in a manner that we typically associate with only the most stridently independent studios. Double Fine isn’t afraid to change its formula, and that always leaves people disappointed when fans don’t get exactly what they want.
Headlander seems like something that another developer could make, but the fact that Double Fine made a game that feels so unlike their previous output speaks to their ambition. It’s also a good reminder that the studio doesn’t owe anyone anything. If we want to see gaming evolve, developers need to have the confidence to explore the medium. That means we have to celebrate their creativity even (and perhaps especially) when they do something we’re not expecting.