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How fast cars and speed demons influenced Tim Schafer's career

Full Throttle
(Image credit: Double Fine Productions)

To the trained eye—or rather the trained ear—there is a heavy metal logic to the world of Brütal Legend. From Black Sabbath come the Ironheades, blue collar headbangers with bulging neck muscles. Their class war is with the Hair Metal Militia, the glam sellouts who got into bed with The Man. And the threat to everyone are the goths, who threaten to pull us all down into their gloomy mire. 

Then there’s Fletus. A pond-green greaser who races you in side missions, he doesn’t have anything to do with the other demons of this fantasy metal world. I’m too ugly, he explains. Squint a bit and you can make out the gruff Geordie demeanour and signature flat cap of AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson. In a land where everybody else has picked a side, Fletus simply leans against his hot rod and scowls through the underbite of exhaust pipe teeth. 

What is he, then? The short answer is that he’s a figment of Tim Schafer’s imagination. But that figment comes from a very specific place in the Double Fine designer’s head. 

At the time of Brütal Legend’s release, the public struggled to grasp its dual identities as an open-world brawler and RTS. That’s no surprise, given that it began as two separate ideas. Schafer had a story about a roadie pulled back in time to a world of Ozzy and axes. And he also had a plan for a strategy game starring demons who drove hot rods. I realised those could be the same exact story," Schafer told Rock Paper Shotgun in 2013. "That’d be a cool way to do it. Big, bug-eyed demons." 

Schafer grew up in California where, in the 1960s, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth was a key figure in Kustom Kulture. This was a scene that developed around hot rods—classic American cars modded to go really fast in a straight line. Roth built ludicrous and beautiful machines with exposed engines, their elegant and exaggerated forms inspiring the Hot Wheels range of toys. But it was the way he channelled the culture into his drawings that made him famous. 

(Image credit: Double Fine Productions)

Roth’s most successful creation was Rat Fink—a grotesque, grinning rodent with a huge maw full of sharp teeth. A fixture of t-shirts in Kustom Kulture and beyond, Fink loomed out over the cars and bikes he rode, as if he was the spirit that possessed them. But the rat was only the most recognisable of Big Daddy’s characters. Roth drew many other oversized monsters with bulging, bloodshot eyes. Demons, driving hot rods. Fletuses.

Looking back, it’s clear that Grim Fandango’s Glottis is part of the same family. An eight foot elemental and frustrated mechanic, he is summoned up from the Land of the Dead and given, as he puts it "one purpose, one skill, one desire: to drive". It’s Glottis who, with very little persuasion, converts a company car into the Bone Wagon, surely the first ever hot rod hearse.

In fact, throughout his career, Schafer has stuffed his games with cars and bikes. Ben’s modified chopper is practically a co-star in Full Throttle—and like the rides of Fletus and Glottis, wears its machinery on the outside. Drift around the coasts of Brütal Legend’s map, meanwhile, and you might find a giant V8 engine, taller than the trees—buried long ago by the metal titans.

Big rigs

(Image credit: Double Fine Productions)

"I do love the hot rods," Schafer told me last year. "The more pipes the better. The biggest heartbreak of Brütal Legend for me was cutting the Motor Freeks, a whole army of Roth-inspired hot rod demons. Fletus was to that faction what Eddie [Riggs], Ophelia, and Doviculus were to theirs." 

Maybe we’ll meet more Freeks yet. As Roth advised in his later years, if you can’t do it yourself, get help. And with Double Fine’s sale to Microsoft in June, the prospect of a big budget sequel to Brütal Legend no longer seems as fanciful as it once did. 

“They all as slow as you?" Eddie once asked Fletus of his missing army. "You’ll find out someday,” snarled the speed demon, punching a huge green fist into his palm. "For now, I’ll just have to beat you myself."