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The Dig

As you would imagine, a lot of the things you can do in a comedy game just don’t work when trying to remain serious. You can’t cover up a bad puzzle with a funny line of self-referential dialog. Er, not that I ever did that. But anyway, it was also a challenge to maintain the tone and some semblance of a dramatic arc. Another challenge was cultural — we were trying to build this game in an environment where everyone else was building funny games, telling jokes, and being pretty outlandish. It was like trying to cram for a physics final during a dorm party. It would have been a lot easier to join the party.

— Sean Clark, fifth (and last) project lead on The Dig

On October 17, 1989, the senior staff of LucasArts[1]LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article. assembled in the Main House of Skywalker Ranch for one of their regular planning meetings. In the course of proceedings, Noah Falstein, a designer and programmer who had been with the studio almost from the beginning, learned that he was to be given stewardship of an exciting new project called The Dig, born from an idea for an adventure game that had been presented to LucasArts by none other than Steven Spielberg. Soon after that bit of business was taken care of, remembers Falstein, “we felt the room start to shake — not too unusual, we’d been through many earthquakes in California — but then suddenly it got much stronger, and we started to hear someone scream, and some glass crash to the floor somewhere, and most of us dived under the mahogany conference table to ride it out.” It was the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which would kill 63 people, seriously injure another 400, and do untold amounts of property damage all around Northern California.

Perhaps Falstein and his colleagues should have taken it as an omen. The Dig would turn into a slow-motion fiasco that crushed experienced game developers under its weight with the same assiduity with which the earthquake collapsed Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway. When a finished version of the game finally appeared on store shelves in late 1995, one rather ungenerous question would be hard to avoid asking: it took you six years to make this?



In order to tell the full story of The Dig, the most famously troubled project in the history of LucasArts, we have to wind the clock back yet further: all the way back to the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg was flying high on the strength of blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. During this period, many years before the advent of Prestige TV, Spielberg approached NBC with a proposal for a new anthology series named Amazing Stories, after the pulp magazine that had been such an incubator of printed science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. He would direct the occasional episode himself, he promised, but would mostly just throw out outlines which could be turned into reality by other screenwriters and directors. Among those willing to direct episodes were some of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood: people like Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Robert Zemeckis, and Clint Eastwood. Naturally, NBC was all over it; nowhere else on the television of the 1980s could you hope to see a roster of big-screen talent anything like that. The new series debuted with much hype on September 29, 1985.

But somehow it just never came together for Amazing Stories; right from the first episodes, the dominant reaction from both critics and the public was one of vague disappointment. Part of the problem was each episode’s running time of just half an hour, or 22 minutes once commercials and credits were factored in; there wasn’t much scope for story or character development in that paltry span of time. But another, even bigger problem was that what story and characters were there weren’t often all that interesting or original. Spielberg kept his promise to serve as the show’s idea man, personally providing the genesis of some 80 percent of the 45 episodes that were completed, but the outlines he tossed off were too often retreads of things that others had already done better. When he had an idea he really liked — such as the one about a group of miniature aliens who help the residents of an earthbound apartment block with their very earthbound problems — he tended to shop it elsewhere. The aforementioned idea, for example, led to the film Batteries Not Included.

The episode idea that would become the computer game The Dig after many torturous twists and turns was less original than that one. It involved a team of futuristic archaeologists digging in the ruins of what the audience would be led to assume was a lost alien civilization. Until, that is, the final shot set up the big reveal: the strange statue the archaeologists had been uncovering would be shown to be Mickey Mouse, while the enormous building behind it was the Sleeping Beauty Castle. They were digging at Disneyland, right here on Planet Earth!

The problem here was that we had seen all of this before, most notably at the end of Planet of the Apes, whose own climax had come when its own trio of astronauts stranded on its own apparently alien world had discovered the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Thus it was no great loss to posterity when this particular idea was judged too expensive for Amazing Stories to produce. But the core concept of archaeology in the future got stuck in Spielberg’s craw, to be trotted out again later in a very different context.

In the meantime, the show’s ratings were falling off quickly. As soon as the initial contract for two seasons had been fulfilled, Amazing Stories quietly disappeared from the airwaves. It became an object lesson that nothing is guaranteed in commercial media, not even Steven Spielberg’s Midas touch.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to when Spielberg was in the post-production phase of his latest cinematic blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which he was making in partnership with his good friend George Lucas. Noah Falstein of the latter’s very own games studio had been drafted to design an adventure game of the movie. Despite his lack of a games studio of his own, Spielberg was ironically far more personally interested in computer games than Lucas; he followed Falstein’s project quite closely, to the point of serving as a sort of unofficial beta tester. Even after the movie and game were released, Spielberg would ring up LucasArts from time to time to beg for hints for their other adventures, or sometimes just to shoot the breeze; he was clearly intrigued by the rapidly evolving world of interactive media. During one of these conversations, he said he had a concept whose origins dated back to Amazing Stories, one which he believed might work well as a game. And then he asked if he could bring it over to Skywalker Ranch. He didn’t have to ask twice.

The story that Spielberg outlined retained futuristic archaeology as its core motif, but wisely abandoned the clichéd reveal of Mickey Mouse. Instead the archaeologists would be on an actual alien planet, discovering impossibly advanced technology in what Spielberg conceived as an homage to the 1950s science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Over time, the individual archaeologists would come to distrust and eventually go to war with one another; this part of the plot hearkened back to another film that Spielberg loved, the classic Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Over to you, Noah Falstein — after the unpleasant business of the earthquake was behind everybody, that is.

Noah Falstein

The offices of LucasArts were filled with young men who had grown up worshiping at the shrines of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and who now found themselves in the completely unexpected position of going to work every day at Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by the memorabilia of their gods and sometimes by the deities themselves. Their stories of divine contact are always entertaining, not least for the way that they tend to sound more like a plot from one of Spielberg’s films than any plausible reality; surely ordinary middle-class kids in the real world don’t just stumble into a job working for the mastermind of Star Wars, do they? Well, it turns out that in some cases they do. Dave Grossman, an aspiring LucasArts game designer at the time, was present at a follow-up meeting with Spielberg that also included Lucas, Falstein, and game designer Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame. His account so magnificently captures what it was like to be a starstruck youngster in those circumstances that I want to quote it in full here.

The Main House at Skywalker is a pretty swanky place, and the meeting is in a boardroom with a table the size of a railroad car, made of oak or mahogany or some other sort of expensive wood. I’m a fidgety young kid with clothes that come pre-wrinkled, and this room makes me feel about as out of place as a cigarette butt in a soufflé. I’m a little on edge just being in here.

Then George and Steven show up and we all say hello. Now, I’ve been playing it cool like it’s no big deal, and I know they’re just people who sneeze and drop forks like everybody else, but… it’s Lucas and Spielberg! These guys are famous and powerful and rich and, although they don’t act like any of those things, I’m totally intimidated. (I should mention that although I’ve been working for George for a year or so at this point, this is only the second time I’ve met him.) I realize I’m really fairly nervous now.

George and Steven chit-chat with each other for a little bit. They’ve been friends a long time and it shows. George seems particularly excited to tell Steven about his new car, an Acura I think – they’re not even available to the public yet, but he’s managed to get the first one off the boat, and it’s parked conspicuously right in front of the building.

Pretty soon they start talking about ideas for The Dig, and they are Rapid-Fire Machine Guns of Creativity. Clearly they do this a lot. It’s all very high-concept and all over the map, and I have no idea how we’re going to make any of it into a game, but that’s kind of what brainstorming sessions are all about. Ron and Noah offer up a few thoughts. I have a few myself, but somehow I don’t feel worthy enough to break in with them. So I sit and listen, and gradually my nervousness is joined by embarrassment that I’m not saying anything.

A snack has been provided for the gathering, some sort of crumbly carbohydrate item, corn bread, if I remember correctly. So I take a piece – I’m kind of hungry, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I take a bite. Normally, the food at Skywalker Ranch is absolutely amazing, but this particular corn bread has been made extra dry. Chalk dry. My mouth is already parched from being nervous, so it takes me a while before I’m able to swallow the bite, and as I chomp and smack at it I’m sure I’m making more noise than a dozen weasels in a paper bag, even though everyone pretends not to notice. There are drinks in the room, but they have been placed out of the way, approximately a quarter-mile from where we’re sitting, and I can’t get up to get one without disrupting everything, and I’m sure by now George and Steven are wondering why I’m in the meeting in the first place.

I want to abandon the corn bread, but it’s begun falling apart, and I can’t put it down on my tiny napkin without making a huge mess. So I eat the whole piece. It takes about twenty minutes. I myself am covered with tiny crumbs, but at least there aren’t any on the gorgeous table.

By now the stakes are quite high. Because I’ve been quiet so long, the mere fact of my speaking up will be a noteworthy event, and anything I say has to measure up to that noteworthiness. You can’t break a long silence with a throwaway comment, it has to be a weighty, breathtaking observation that causes each person in the room to re-examine himself in its light. While I’m waiting for a thought that good, more time goes by and raises the bar even higher. I spend the rest of the meeting in a state of near-total paralysis, trying to figure out how I can get out of the room without anyone noticing, or, better yet, how I can go back in time and arrange not to be there in the first place.

So, yes, I did technically get to meet Steven Spielberg face-to-face once while we were working on The Dig. I actually talked to him later on, when he called to get hints on one of our other games (I think it was Day of the Tentacle), which he was playing with his son. (One of the lesser-known perks of being a famous filmmaker is that you can talk directly to the game designers for hints instead of calling the hint line.) Nice guy.

The broader world of computer gaming’s reaction to Spielberg’s involvement in The Dig would parallel the behavior of Dave Grossman at this meeting. At the same time that some bold industry scribes were beginning to call games a more exciting medium than cinema, destined for even more popularity thanks to the special sauce of interactivity, the press that surrounded The Dig would point out with merciless clarity just how shallow their bravado was, how deep gaming’s inferiority complex really ran: Spielberg’s name was guaranteed to show up in the first paragraph of every advertisement, preview, or, eventually, review. “Steven Spielberg is deigning to show an interest in little old us!” ran the implicit message.

It must be said that the hype was somewhat out of proportion to his actual contribution. After providing the initial idea for the game — an idea that would be transformed beyond all recognition by the time the game was released — Spielberg continued to make himself available for occasional consultations; he met with Falstein and his colleagues for four brainstorming sessions, two of which also included his buddy George Lucas, over the course of about eighteen months. (Thanks no doubt to the prompting of his friend, Lucas’s own involvement with The Dig was as hands-on as he ever got with one of his games studio’s creations.) Yet it’s rather less clear whether these conversations were of much real, practical use to the developers down in the trenches. Neither Spielberg nor Lucas was, to state the obvious, a game designer, and thus they tended to focus on things that might yield watchable movies but were less helpful for making a playable game. Noah Falstein soon discovered that heading a project which involved two such high-profile figures was a less enviable role than he had envisioned it to be; he has since circumspectly described a project where “everyone wanted to put their two cents in, and that can be extremely hard to manage.”

In his quest for a game that could be implemented within the strictures of SCUMM, LucasArts’s in-house point-and-click adventure engine, Falstein whittled away at Spielberg’s idea of two teams of archaeologists who enter into open war with one another. His final design document, last updated on January 30, 1991, takes place in “the future, nearly 80 years since the McKillip Drive made faster-than-light travel a possibility, and only 50 years since the first star colonies were founded.” In another nod back to Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories outline that got the ball rolling, an unmanned probe has recently discovered an immense statue towering amidst other alien ruins on the surface of a heretofore unexplored planet; in a nod to the most famous poem by Percy Shelley, the planet has been named Ozymandias. Three humans have now come to Ozymandias to investigate the probe’s findings — but they’re no longer proper archaeologists, only opportunistic treasure hunters, led by a sketchy character named Major Tom (presumably a nod to David Bowie). The player can choose either of Major Tom’s two subordinates as her avatar.

A series of unfortunate events ensues shortly after the humans make their landing, over the course of which Major Tom is killed and their spaceship damaged beyond any obvious possibility of repair. The two survivors have an argument and go their separate ways, but in this version of the script theirs is a cold rather than a hot war. As the game goes on, the player discovers that a primitive race of aliens living amidst the ruins are in fact the descendants of far more advanced ancestors, who long ago destroyed their civilization and almost wiped out their entire species with internecine germ warfare. But, the player goes on to learn, there are survivors of both factions who fought the apocalyptic final war suspended in cryogenic sleep beneath the surface of the planet. Her ultimate goal becomes to awaken these survivors and negotiate a peace between them, both because it’s simply the right thing to do and because these aliens should have the knowledge and tools she needs to repair her damaged spaceship.

This image by Ken Macklin is one of the few pieces of concept art to have survived from Noah Falstein’s version of The Dig.

For better or for worse, this pared-down but still ambitious vision for The Dig never developed much beyond that final design document and a considerable amount of accompanying concept art. “There was a little bit of SCUMM programming done on one of the more interesting puzzles, but not much [more],” says Falstein. He was pulled off the project very early in 1991, assigned instead to help Hal Barwood with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. And when this, his second Indiana Jones game, was finished, he was laid off despite a long and largely exemplary track record.

Meanwhile The Dig spent a year or more in limbo, until it was passed to Brian Moriarty, the writer and designer of three games for the 1980s text-adventure giant Infocom and of LucasArts’s own lovely, lyrical Loom. Of late, he’d been drafting a plan for a game based on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the franchise’s slightly disappointing foray into television, but a lack of personal enthusiasm for the project had led to a frustrating lack of progress. Moriarty was known as one of the most “literary” of game designers by temperament; his old colleagues at Infocom had called him “Professor Moriarty,” more as a nod to his general disposition than to the milieu of Sherlock Holmes. And indeed, his Trinity is as close as Infocom ever got to publishing a work of high literature, while his Loom possesses almost an equally haunting beauty. Seeing himself with some justification as a genuine interactive auteur, he demanded total control of every aspect of The Dig as a condition of taking it on. Bowing to his stellar reputation, LucasArts’s management agreed.

Brian Moriarty

Much of of what went on during the eighteen months that Moriarty spent working on The Dig remains obscure, but it plainly turned into a very troubled, acrimonious project. He got off on the wrong foot with many on his team by summarily binning Falstein’s vision — a vision which they had liked or even in some cases actively contributed to. Instead he devised an entirely new framing plot.

Rather than the far future, The Dig would now take place in 1998; in fact, its beginning would prominently feature the Atlantis, a Space Shuttle that was currently being flown by NASA. A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Humanity’s only hope is to meet it in space and plant a set of nuclear bombs on its surface. Once exploded, they will hopefully deflect the asteroid just enough to avoid the Earth. (The similarity with not one but two terrible 1998 movies is presumably coincidental.) You play Boston Low, the commander of the mission.

But carrying the mission out successfully and saving the Earth is only a prelude to the real plot. Once you have the leisure to explore the asteroid, you and your crew begin to discover a number of oddities about it, evidence that another form of intelligent being has been here before you. In the midst of your investigations, you set off a booby trap which whisks you and three other crew members light years away to a mysterious world littered with remnants of alien technology but bereft of any living specimens. Yet it’s certainly not bereft of danger: one crew member gets killed in gruesome fashion almost immediately when he bumbles into a rain of acid. Having thus established its bona fides as a serious story, a million light years away from the typical LucasArts cartoon comedy, the game now begins to show a closer resemblance to Falstein’s concept. You must explore this alien world, solve its puzzles, and ferret out the secrets of the civilization that once existed here if you ever hope to see Earth again. In doing so, you’re challenged not only by the environment itself but by bickering dissension in your own ranks.

This last element of the plot corresponded uncomfortably with the mood inside the project. LucasArts had now moved out of the idyllic environs of Skywalker Ranch and into a sprawling, anonymous office complex, where the designers and programmers working on The Dig found themselves in a completely separate building from the artists and administrators. Reading just slightly between the lines here, the root of the project’s troubles seems to have been a marked disconnect between the two buildings. Moriarty, who felt compelled to create meaningful, thematically ambitious games, became every accountant and project planner’s nightmare, piling on element after element, flying without a net (or a definitive design document). He imagined an interface where you would be able to carry ideas around with you like physical inventory items, a maze that would reconfigure itself every time you entered it, a Klein bottle your characters would pass through with strange metaphysical and audiovisual effects. To make all this happen, his programmers would need to create a whole new game engine of their own rather than relying on SCUMM. They named it StoryDroid.

A screenshot from Moriarty’s version of The Dig. Note the menu of verb icons at the bottom of the screen. These would disappear from later versions in favor of the more streamlined style of interface which LucasArts had begun to employ with Sam and Max Hit the Road.

There were some good days on Moriarty’s Dig, especially early on. Bill Tiller, an artist on the project, recalls their one in-person meeting with Steven Spielberg, in his office just behind the Universal Studios Theme Park. Moriarty brought a demo of the work-in-progress, along with a “portable” computer the size of a suitcase to run it. And he also brought a special treat for Spielberg, who continued to genuinely enjoy games in all the ways George Lucas didn’t. Tiller:

Brian brought an expansion disk for one of the aerial battle games Larry Holland was making. Spielberg was a big computer-game geek! He was waiting for this upgrade/mission expansion thing. He called his assistant in and just mentioned what it was. She immediately knew what he meant and said she’d send it home and tell someone to have it installed and running for him when he arrived. I decided at that moment I would have an assistant like that someday.

Anyway, when we were through we told him we had a few hours to kill and wondered what rides we should get on back at the theme park. He said the E.T. ride, since he helped design it. It was brand new at the time. His people said that he was really crazy about it and wanted to show it off to everyone. One of his assistants took us there on a back-lot golf cart. We didn’t have to get another taxi. We didn’t even have to stand in line! They took us straight to the ride and cut us in the line in front of everyone, like real V.I.P.s. Everyone had to stand back and watch, probably trying to figure out who we were. All I remember is Brian with the stupid giant suitcase going through the ride.

But the best part of the whole thing for me was [Spielberg’s] enthusiasm. He really likes games. This wasn’t work to him to have to hear us go on about The Dig.

Brian Moriarty’s version of The Dig was more violent than later versions, a quality which Steven Spielberg reportedly encouraged. Here an astronaut meets a gruesome end after being exposed to an alien acid rain.

But the bonhomie of the Universal Studios visit faded as the months wore on. Moriarty’s highfalutin aspirations began to strike others on the team — especially the artists who were trying to realize his ever-expanding vision — as prima-donna-ish; at the end of the day, after all, it was just a computer game they were making. “I used to tell Brian, when he got all excited about what people would think of our creation, that in ten years no one will even remember The Dig,” recalls Bill Eaken, the first head artist to work under him. He believes that Moriarty may even have imagined Spielberg giving him a screenwriting or directing job if The Dig sufficiently impressed him. Eaken:

I liked Brian. Brian is a smart and creative guy. I still have good memories of sitting in his office and just brainstorming. The sky was the limit. That’s how it should be. Those were good times. But I think as time went on he had stars in his eyes. I think he wanted to show Spielberg what he could do and it became too much pressure on him. After a while he just seemed to bog down under the pressure. When all the politics and Hollywood drama started to impede us, when it wasn’t even a Hollywood gig, I [got] temperamental.

The programming was a complete disaster. I had been working for several years at LucasArts at that time and had a very good feel for the programming. I taught programming in college, and though I wasn’t a programmer on any games, I understood programming enough to know something was amiss on The Dig. I went to one of my friends at the company who was a great programmer and told him my concerns. He went and tried to chat with the programmers about this or that to get a look at their code, but whenever he walked into the room they would shut off their monitors, things like that. What he could see confirmed my worries: the code was way too long, and mostly not working.

The project was “completely out of control and management wouldn’t listen to me about it,” Eaken claims today. So, he quit LucasArts, whereupon his role fell to his erstwhile second-in-command, the aforementioned Bill Tiller. The latter says that he “liked and disliked” Moriarty.

Brian was fun to talk with and was very energetic and was full of good ideas, but he and I started to rub each other the wrong way due to our disagreement over how the art should be done. I wanted the art organized in a tight budget and have it all planned out, just like in a typical animation production, and so did my boss, who mandated I push for an organized art schedule. Brian bristled at being restricted with his creativity. He felt that the creative process was hindered by art schedules and strict budgets. And he was right. But the days of just two or three people making a game were over, and the days of large productions and big budgets were dawning, and I feel Brian had a hard time adjusting to this new age.

Games were going through a transition at that time, from games done by a few programmers with little art, to becoming full-blown animated productions where the artists outnumber the programmers four to one. Add to the mix the enormous pressure of what a Spielberg/Lucas project should be like [and] internal jealousy about the hype, and you have a recipe for disaster.

He wanted to do as much of the game by himself as possible so that it was truly his vision, but I think he felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the game, which required so much graphics programming and asset creation. He was used to low-res graphics and a small intimate team of maybe four people or less. Then there is the pressure of doing the first Spielberg/Lucas game. I mean, come on! That is a tough, tough position for one guy to be in.

One of LucasArt’s longstanding traditions was the “pizza orgy,” in which everyone was invited to drop whatever they were doing, come to the main conference room, eat some pizza, and play a game that had reached a significant milestone in its development. The first Dig pizza orgy, which took place in the fall of 1993, was accompanied by an unusual amount of drama. As folks shuffled in to play the game for the very first time, they were told that Moriarty had quit that very morning.

We’re unlikely ever to know exactly what was going through Moriarty’s head at this juncture; he’s an intensely private individual, as it is of course his right to be, and is not at all given to baring his soul in public. What does seem clear, however, is that The Dig drained from him some fragile reservoir of heedless self-belief which every creative person needs in order to keep creating. Although he’s remained active in the games industry in various roles, those have tended to be managerial rather than creative; Brian Moriarty, one of the best pure writers ever to explore the potential of interactive narratives, never seriously attempted to write another one of them after The Dig. In an interview he did in 2006 for Jason Scott’s film Get Lamp, he mused vaguely during a pensive interlude that “I’m always looking for another Infocom. But sometimes I think we won’t give ourselves permission.” (Who precisely is the “we” here?) This statement may, I would suggest, reveal more than Moriarty intended, about more of his career than just his time at Infocom.

At any rate, Moriarty left LucasArts with one very unwieldy, confused, overambitious project to try to sort out. It struck someone there as wise to give The Dig to Hal Barwood, a former filmmaker himself who had been friends with Steven Spielberg for two decades. But Barwood proved less than enthusiastic about it — which was not terribly surprising in light of how badly The Dig had already derailed the careers of two of LucasArts’s other designers. Following one fluffy interview where he dutifully played up the involvement of Spielberg for all it was worth — “We’re doing our best to capture the essence of the experience he wants to create” — he finagled a way off the project.

At this point, the hot potato was passed to Dave Grossman, who had, as noted above, worked for a time with Noah Falstein on its first incarnation. “I was basically a hedge trimmer,” he says. “There was a general feeling, which I shared, that the design needed more work, and I was asked to fix it up while retaining as much as possible of what had been been done so far — starting over yet again would have been prohibitively expensive. So I went in with my editing scissors, snip snip snip, and held a lot of brainstorming meetings with the team to try to iron out the kinks.” But Grosssman too found something better to do as quickly as possible, whereupon the game lay neglected for the better part of a year while much of Moriarty’s old team went to work on Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle: “a project that the company loved,” says Bill Tiller, drawing an implicit comparison with this other, unloved one.

In late 1994, The Dig was resurrected for the last time, being passed to Sean Clark, a long-serving LucasArts programmer who had moved up to become the producer and co-designer of Sam and Max Hit the Road, and who now saw becoming the man who finally shepherded this infamously vexed project to completion as a good way to continue his ascent. “My plan when I came in on the final incarnation was to take a game that was in production and finish it,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of pressure or specific objectives from management. I think they were mainly interested in getting the project done so they could have a product plan that didn’t have The Dig listed on it.” Clark has admitted that, when he realized what a sorry state the game was actually in, he went to his bosses and recommended that they simply cancel it once and for all. “I got a lot of resistance, which surprised me,” he says. “It was hard to resist the potential [of having] a game out there with a name like Spielberg’s on it.” In a way, George Lucas was a bigger problem than Spielberg in this context: no one wanted to go to the boss of bosses at LucasArts and tell him they had just cancelled his close friend’s game.

Sean Clark with a hot slice. Pizza was a way of life at LucasArts, as at most games studios. Asked about the negative aspects of his job, one poor tester said that he was “getting really, really tired of pizza. I just can’t look at pizza anymore.”

So, Clark rolled up his sleeves and got to work instead. His first major decision was to ditch the half-finished StoryDroid engine and move the project back to SCUMM. He stuck to Brian Moriarty’s basic plot and characters, but excised without a trace of hesitation or regret anything that was too difficult to implement in SCUMM or too philosophically esoteric. His goal was not to create Art, not to stretch the boundaries of what adventure games could be, but just to get ‘er done. Bill Tiller and many others from the old team returned to the project with the same frame of reference. By now, LucasArts had moved offices yet again, to a chic new space where the programmers and artists could mingle: “Feedback was quick and all-encompassing,” says Tiller. If there still wasn’t a lot of love for the game in the air, there was at least a measure of esprit de corps. LucasArts even sprang for a couple more (reasonably) big names to add to The Dig‘s star-studded marque, hiring the science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, author of the much-admired Ender’s Game among other novels, to write the dialogue, and Robert Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s principal antagonist from Terminator 2, to head up the cast of voice actors. Remarkably in light of how long the project had gone on and how far it had strayed from his original vision, Steven Spielberg took several more meetings with the team. “He actually called me at home one evening as he was playing through a release candidate,” says Sean Clark. “He was all excited and having fun, but was frustrated because he had gotten stuck on a puzzle and needed a hint.”

Clark’s practicality and pragmatism won the day where the more rarefied visions of Falstein and Moriarty had failed: The Dig finally shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1995. LucasArts gave it the full-court press in terms of promotion, going so far as to call it their “highest-profile product yet.” They arranged for a licensed strategy guide, a novelization by the king of tie-in novelists Alan Dean Foster, an “audio drama” of his book, and even a CD version of Michael Land’s haunting soundtrack to be available within weeks of the game itself. And of course they hyped the Spielberg connection for all it was worth, despite the fact that the finished game betrayed only the slightest similarity to the proposal he had pitched six years before.

Composer Michael Land plays a timpani for The Dig soundtrack. One can make a strong argument that his intensely atmospheric, almost avant-garde score is the best thing about the finished game. Much of it is built from heavily processed, sometimes even backwards-playing samples of Beethoven and Wagner. Sean Clark has described, accurately, how it sounds “strange and yet slightly familiar.”


But the reaction on the street proved somewhat less effusive than LucasArts might have wished. Reviews were surprisingly lukewarm, and gamers were less excited by the involvement of Steven Spielberg than the marketers had so confidently predicted. Bill Tiller feels that the Spielberg connection may have been more of a hindrance than a help in the end: “Spielberg’s name was a tough thing to have attached to this project because people have expectations associated with him. The general public thought this was going to be a live-action [and/or] 3D interactive movie, not an adventure game.” The game wasn’t a commercial disaster, but sold at less than a third the pace of Full Throttle, its immediate predecessor among LucasArts adventures. Within a few months, the marketers had moved on from their “highest-profile product yet” to redouble their focus on the Star Wars games that were accounting for more and more of LucasArts’s profits.

One can certainly chalk up some of the nonplussed reaction to The Dig to its rather comprehensive failure to match the public’s expectations of a LucasArts adventure game. In a catalog that consisted almost exclusively of cartoon comedies, it was a serious, even gloomy game. In a catalog of anarchically social, dialog-driven adventures that were seen by many gamers as the necessary antithesis to the sterile, solitary Myst-style adventure games that were now coming out by the handful, it forced you to spend most of its length all alone, solving mechanical puzzles that struck many as painfully reminiscent of Myst. Additionally, The Dig‘s graphics, although well-composed and well-drawn, reflected the extended saga of its creation; they ran in low-resolution VGA at a time when virtually the whole industry had moved to higher-resolution Super VGA, and they reflected as well the limitations of the paint programs and 3D-rendering software that had been used to create them, in many cases literally years before the game shipped. In the technology-obsessed gaming milieu of the mid-1990s, when flash meant a heck of a lot, such things could be ruinous to a new release’s prospects.

But today, we can presumably look past such concerns to the fundamentals of the game that lives underneath its surface technology. Unfortunately, The Dig proves far from a satisfying experience even on these terms.

An adventure game needs to be, if nothing else, reasonably good company, but The Dig fails this test. In an effort to create “dramatic” characters, it falls into the trap of merely making its leads unlikable. All of them are walking, talking clichés: the unflappable Chuck Yeager-type who’s in charge, the female overachiever with a chip on her shoulder who bickers with his every order, the arrogant German scientist who transforms into the villain of the piece. Orson Scott Card’s dialog is shockingly clunky, full of tired retreads of action-movie one-liners; one would never imagine that it comes from the pen of an award-winning novelist if it didn’t say so in the credits. And, even more unusually for LucasArts, the voice acting is little more inspired. All of which is to say that it comes as something of a relief when everyone else just goes away and leaves Boston Low alone to solve puzzles, although even then you still have to tolerate Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the stoic mission commander; he approaches an unknown alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy with all the enthusiasm of a gourmand with a full belly reading aloud from a McDonald’s menu.

Alas, one soon discovers that the puzzle design isn’t any better than the writing or acting. While the puzzles may have some of the flavor of Myst, they evince none of that game’s rigorous commitment to internal logic and environmental coherence. In contrast to the free exploration offered by Myst, The Dig turns out to be a quite rigidly linear game, with only a single path through its puzzles. Most of these require you just to poke at things rather than to truly enter into the logic of the world, meaning you frequently find yourself “solving” them without knowing how or why.

But this will definitely not happen in at least two grievous cases. At one point, you’re expected to piece together an alien skeleton from stray bones when you have no idea what said alien is even supposed to look like. And another puzzle, involving a cryptic alien control panel, is even more impossible to figure out absent hours of mind-numbing trial and error. “I had no clue that was such a hard puzzle,” says Bill Tiller. “We all thought it was simple. Boy, were we wrong.” And so we learn the ugly truth: despite the six years it spent in development, nobody ever tried to play The Dig cold before it was sent out the door. It was the second LucasArts game in a row of which this was true, indicative of a worrisome decline in quality control from a studio that had made a name for themselves by emphasizing good design.

At the end of The Dig, the resolution of the alien mystery is as banal as it is nonsensical, a 2001: A Space Odyssey with a lobotomy. It most definitely isn’t “an in-depth story in which the exploration of human emotion plays as important a role as the exploration of a game world,” as LucasArts breathlessly promised.

So, The Dig still manages to come across today as simultaneously overstuffed and threadbare. It broaches a lot of Big Ideas (a legacy of Falstein and Moriarty’s expansive visions), but few of them really go anywhere (a legacy of Grossman and Clark’s pragmatic trimming). It winds up just another extended exercise in object manipulation, but it doesn’t do even this particularly well. Although its audiovisuals can create an evocative atmosphere at times, even they come across too often as disjointed, being a hodgepodge of too many different technologies and aesthetics. Long experience has taught many of us to beware of creative expressions of any stripe that take too long to make and pass through too many hands in the process. The Dig only proves this rule: it’s no better than its tortured creation story makes you think it will be. Its neutered final version is put together competently, but not always well, and never with inspiration. And so it winds up being the one thing a game should never be: it’s just kind of… well, boring.

As regular readers of this site are doubtless well aware, I’m a big fan of LucasArts’s earlier adventures of the 1990s. The one complaint I’ve tended to ding them with is a certain failure of ambition — specifically, a failure to leave their designers’ wheelhouse of cartoon comedy. And yet The Dig, LucasArts’s one concerted attempt to break that mold, ironically winds up conveying the opposite message: that sometimes it’s best just to continue to do what you do best. The last of their charmingly pixelated “classic-look” adventure games, The Dig is sadly among the least satisfying of the lot, with a development history far more interesting than either its gameplay or its fiction. A number of people looked at it with stars in their eyes over the six years it remained on LucasArts’s list of ongoing projects, but it proved a stubbornly ill-starred proposition for all of them in the end.

(Sources: the book The Dig: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, September 1994, September 1995, October 1995, December 1995, and February 1996; Starlog of October 1985; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Spring 1993, Winter 1994, Summer 1994, Summer 1995, and Winter 1995. Online sources include Noah Falstein’s 2017 interview on Celebrity Interview, Falstein’s presentation on his history with Lucasfilm Games for Øredev 2017, the “secret history” of The Dig at International House of Mojo, the same site’s now-defunct Dig Museum,” ATMachine’s now-defunct pages on the game, Brian Moriarty’s 2006 interview for Adventure Classic Gaming, and Moriarty’s Loom postmortem at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. Finally, thank you to Jason Scott for sharing his full Get Lamp interview archives with me years ago.

The Dig is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article.
 

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Full Throttle

The adventure makers at LucasArts had a banner 1993. One of the two games they released that year, Day of the Tentacle, was the veritable Platonic ideal of a cartoon-comedy graphic adventure; the other, Sam and Max Hit the Road, was merely very, very good.

Following a quiet 1994 on the adventure front, LucasArts came roaring back in the spring of 1995 with Full Throttle, a game that seemed to have everything going for it: it was helmed by Tim Schafer, one of the two lead designers from Day of the Tentacle, and boasted many familiar names on the art and sound front as well. Yet it wasn’t just a retread of what had come before. This interactive biker movie had a personality very much its own. Many soon added it to the ranks of LucasArts’s most hallowed classics.

Sadly, though, I’m not one of these people…



It’s easy — perhaps a bit too easy — to read LucasArts’s first post-DOOM adventure game as a sign of the changes that id Software’s shareware shooter wrought on the industry after its debut in December of 1993. Action and attitude were increasingly in, complexity and cerebration more and more out. One can sense throughout Full Throttle its makers’ restlessness with the traditional adventure form — their impatience with convoluted puzzles, bulging inventories, and all of the other adventure staples. They just want to have some loud, brash fun. What other approach could they possibly bring to a game about outlaw motorcycle gangs?

The new attitude is initially bracing. Consider: after a rollicking credits sequence that plays out behind over-driven, grungy rock and roll, you gain control of your biker avatar outside a locked bar. Your first significant task is to get inside the bar. Experimenting with the controls, you discover that you have just three verb icons at your disposal: a skull (which encompasses eyes for seeing and a mouth for talking), a raised fist, and a leather boot. Nevertheless, the overly adventure-indoctrinated among you may well spend quite some time trying to be clever before you realize that the solution to this first “puzzle” is simply to kick the door in. Full Throttle is a balm for anyone who’s ever seethed with frustration at being told by an adventure game that “violence isn’t the answer to this one.” In this game, violence — flagrant, simple-minded, completely non-proportional violence — very often is the answer.

But let’s review the full premise of the game before we go further. Full Throttle takes place in the deserts of the American Southwest during a vaguely dystopian future — albeit not, Tim Schafer has always been at pains to insist, a post-apocalyptic one. You play Ben, a stoic tough guy of few words in the Clint Eastwood mold, the leader of a biker gang who call themselves the Polecats. “The reason bikers leaped out at me is that they have a whole world associated with them,” said Schafer in a contemporary interview, “but it’s not a commonplace environment. It’s a fantastic, bizarre, wild, larger-than-life environment.” And indeed, everything and everyone in this game are nothing if not larger than life.

Ben, the hero of Full Throttle.

The plot hinges on Corley Motors, the last manufacturer of real motorcycles in the country — for the moment, anyway: a scheming vice president named Adrian Ripburger is plotting to seize control of the company from old Malcolm Corley and start making minivans instead. When the Polecats get drawn into Ripburger’s web, Ben has to find a way to stop him in order to save his gang, his favorite model of motorcycle, and the free-wheeling lifestyle he loves. The story plays out as a series of boisterous set-pieces, a (somewhat) interactive Mad Max mixed with liberal lashings of The Wild One. Although I’m the farthest thing from a member of the cult of Harley Davidson — I’m one of those tree huggers who wonders why it’s even legal to noise-pollute like some of those things to do — I can recognize and enjoy a well-done pastiche when I see one, and Full Throttle definitely qualifies.

Certainly none of this game’s faults are failures of presentation. As one might expect of the gaming subsidiary of Lucasfilm, LucasArt’s audiovisual people were among the best in the industry. They demonstrated repeatedly that the label “cartoon-comedy graphic adventure” could encompass a broader spectrum of aesthetics than one might first assume. While Day of the Tentacle was inspired by the classic Looney Tunes shorts, and Sam and Max Hit the Road by the underground comic books of the 1980s, Full Throttle‘s inspirations were the post-Watchmen world of graphic novels and trendy television: the game’s hyperactive jump cuts, oblique camera angles, and muddy color palette were all the rage on the MTV of Generation Grunge.


In fact, Schafer tried to convince Soundgarden, one of the biggest rock bands of the time, to let him use their music for the soundtrack — only to be rejected when their record company realized that “we weren’t going to give them any money” for the privilege, as he wryly puts it. Instead he recruited a San Francisco band known as the Gone Jackals, who were capable of a reasonable facsimile of Soundgarden’s style, to write and perform several original songs for the game. Bone to Pick, their 1995 album which included the Full Throttle tracks, would sell several hundred thousand copies in its own right on the back of the game’s success. All of this marked a significant moment in the mainstreaming of games, a demonstration that they were no longer siloed off in their own nerdy pop-culture ghetto but were becoming a part of the broader media landscape. The days when big pop-music acts would lobby ferociously to have their work selected for a big game’s in-world radio station were not that far away.

The Gone Jackals. Like so many rock bands who haven’t quite made it, they always seem to be trying just a bit too hard in their photographs…

Full Throttle‘s writing too has all the energy and personality one could ask for. If the humor is a bit broad and obvious, that’s only appropriate; Biker Ben is not exactly the subtle type. The voice acting and audio production in general are superb, as was the norm for LucasArts thanks to their connections to Hollywood and Skywalker Sound. Particular props must go to a little-known character actor named Roy Conrad, who delivers Ben’s lines in a perfect gravelly deadpan, and to Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, who, twelve years removed from his last gig as Luke Skywalker, was enjoying a modest career renaissance in cartoons and an ever-increasing number of videogames. He shows why he was so in-demand as a voice actor here, tearing into the role of the villain Ripburger with a relish that belies his oft-wooden performances as an actor in front of cameras.

The sweetest story connected with Full Throttle is that of Roy Conrad, a mild-mannered advertising executive who decided to reconnect with his boyhood dream of becoming an actor at age 45 in 1985, and went on to secure bit parts in various television shows and movies. As you can see, he looked nothing like a leader of a motorcycle gang, but his voice was so perfect for the role of Ben that LucasArts knew they’d found their man as soon as they heard his audition tape. Conrad died in 2002.

But for all its considerable strengths, Full Throttle pales in comparison to the LucasArts games that came immediately before it. It serves as a demonstration that presentation can only get you so far in a game — that a game is meant to be played, not watched. And alas, actually playing Full Throttle is too often not much fun at all.

The heart of Full Throttle‘s problem is a mismatch between the type of game it wants to be and the type of game its technology allows it to be. To be sure, LucasArts tried mightily to adapt said technology to Tim Schafer’s rambunctious rock-and-roll vision. They grafted onto SCUMM (“Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion“), their usual adventure-game engine, a second, action-oriented engine called INSANE (“INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine”), which had been developed for 1993’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a 3D vehicular rail shooter. This allowed them to interrupt the staid walking-around-talking-and-solving-puzzles parts of Full Throttle with blasts of pure action. “We didn’t think it would fly if we told players they were a bad-ass biker,” says LucasArts animator Larry Ahern, “and then made them sit back and watch every time Ben did a cool motorcycle stunt, and then gave them back the cursor when it was time for him to run errands. With Full Throttle, I think the combination [of action and traditional adventure elements] made a lot of sense, but I think the implementation just didn’t live up to the idea.”

It most definitely did not: the action mini-games range from tedious to excruciating. Schafer elected to partially reverse LucasArts’s longstanding “no deaths and no dead ends” policy, sacrosanct since 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, by allowing the former if not the latter in Full Throttle. This decision was perhaps defensible in light of the experience he was hoping to create, but boy, can it get exhausting in practice. The second-to-worst mini-game is an interminable sequence inspired by the 1991 console hit Road Rash, in which you’re riding on your motorcycle trying to take out other bikers by using exactly the right weapon on each of them, wielded with perfect timing. Failure on either count results in having to start all over from the beginning. To be fair, the mini-game looks and sounds great, with electric guitars squealing in the background and your chopper’s straight pipes throbbing under you like a 21-gun salute every few seconds. It’s just no fun to play.

LucasArts sound man Clint Bajakian captures the sound of a straight-piped Harley. Full Throttle was the first LucasArts game, and one of the first in general, to have an “all-digital” soundtrack: i.e., all of the sound in the game, including all of the music, was sampled from the real world rather than being synthesized on the computer. This was another significant moment in the evolution of computer games.

The very worst of the action mini-games, on the other hand, is a rare moment where even Full Throttle‘s aesthetics fail it. Near the end of the game, you find yourself in a demolition derby that for my money is the worst single thing ever to appear in any LucasArts adventure. The controls, which are apparently meant to simulate slipping and sliding in the mud of a fairground arena, are indeed impossible to come to grips with. Worse, you have no idea what you’re even trying to accomplish. The whole thing is an elaborate exercise in reading the designers’ mind to set up an ultra-specific, ultra-unlikely chain of happenstance. I shudder to think how long one would have to wrestle with this thing to stumble onto the correct ordering of events. (Personally, I used a walkthrough — and it still took me quite some time even once I knew what I was trying to do.) Most bizarrely of all, the mini-game looks like a game from five or eight years prior to this one, as if someone pulled an old demo down off the shelf and just threw it on the CD. It’s a failure on every level.

The demolition derby, also known as The Worst LucasArts Thing Ever. No, really: it’s incomprehensibly, flabbergastingly bad.

All told, the action mini-games manage to accomplish the exact opposite of what they were intended to do: instead of speeding the story along and making it that much more exciting, they kill its momentum dead.

What, then, of the more traditional adventure-game sections threaded between the action mini-games and the many lengthy cut-scenes? Therein lies a somewhat more complicated tale.

Some parts of Full Throttle are competently, even cleverly designed. The afore-described opening sequence, for example, is a textbook lesson in conveying theme and expectation to the player through interactivity. It teaches her that any convoluted solutions she might conceive to the dilemmas she encounters are not likely to be the correct ones, and that this will be an unusually two-fisted style of adventure game, admitting of possibilities that its more cerebral cousins would never even consider. The first extended adventure section in the game sends you into a dead-ender town in search of a welding torch, a set of handlebars, and some gasoline, all of which you need to get your damaged bike back on the road after Ripburger’s goons have sabotaged it. The game literally tells you that you need these things and waits for you to go out and find them; it doesn’t attempt to be any trickier than that. And this is fine, being thoroughly in keeping with its ethos.

But threaded among the straightforward puzzles are a smattering that fail to live up to LucasArts’s hard-won reputation for always giving their players a fair shake. At one point in that first town, you have to trigger an event, then run and hide behind a piece of scenery. But said scenery isn’t implemented as an object that might bring it to your attention, and it’s very difficult to discover that you can walk behind it at all. In some adventure games, the ones that promise to challenge you at every turn and make you poke around to discover every single possibility, this puzzle might fit the design brief. Here, however, it’s so at odds with the rest of the game that it strikes me more as a design oversight than a product of even a mistaken design intent. Such niggles continue to crop up as you play further, and continue to pull you out of the fiction. One particularly infamous “puzzle” demands that Ben kick a wall over and over at random to discover the one tiny spot that makes something happen.

Do you see that thing shaped a bit like a gravestone just where the streetlight is pointing? It turns out you can walk behind that. Crazy world, isn’t it?

As time goes on, Full Throttle comes to rely more and more on one of my least favorite kinds of adventure puzzles: the pseudo-action sequence, where the designer has a series of death-defying action-movie events, improvisations, and coincidences in mind, and you have to muddle your way through by figuring just how he wants his bravura scene to play out. In other words, you have to fail again and again, using your failures as a way to slowly deduce what the designer has in mind. Fail-until-you-succeed gameplay can feel rewarding in some circumstances, but not when it’s just an exercise in methodically trying absolutely everything until something works, as it tends to be here. The final scene of the game, involving a gigantic cargo plane teetering on the edge of a cliff with a staggering quantity of explosives inside, becomes the worst of all of them by adding tricky timing to the equation.

It’s in places like this one that the mismatch between the available technology and the desired experience really comes to the fore. In a free-roaming 3D engine with the possibility of emergent behavior, the finale could be every bit as rousing as Schafer intended it to be. But in a point-and-click adventure engine whose world simulation goes little deeper than the contents of your inventory… not so much. Executing, say, a death-defying leap out of the teetering plane’s cargo hold on your motorcycle rather loses its thrill when said leap is the only thing the designer has planned for you to do — the only thing you’re allowed to do other than getting yourself killed. The leap in question is the designer’s exciting last-minute gambit, not yours; you’re just the stooge bumbling and stumbling to recreate it. So, you begin to wish that all of the game’s action sequences were proper action sequences — but then you remember how very bad the action-oriented mini-games that do exist actually are, and you have no idea what you want, other than to be playing a different, better game.



What happened? How did a game with such a promising pedigree turn out to be so underwhelming? There is no single answer, but rather a number of probable contributing factors.

One is simply the way that games were sold in 1995. Without its more annoying bits, Full Throttle would offer little more than two hours of entertainment. There’s room for such a game today — a game that could be sold for a small price but in big quantities through digital storefronts. In 1995, however, a game that cost this much to make could reach consumers only as a premium-priced boxed product; other methods of distribution just didn’t exist yet. And consumers who paid $30, $40, or $50 for a game had certain expectations as to how long it should occupy them, as was only reasonable. Thus the need to pad its length to make it suit the realities of the contemporary marketplace probably had more than a little something to do with Full Throttle‘s failings.

Then there’s the Star Wars factor. Many of the people who worked for LucasArts prior to 1993 have commented on what a blessing in disguise it was for George Lucas’s own games studio not to be able to make Star Wars games, a happenstance whose roots can be found in the very first contract Lucas signed to make Star Wars toys just before the release of the very first film in 1977. When another series of accidents finally brought the rights back to Lucasfilm, and by extension to LucasArts, in 1992, the latter jumped on Star Wars with a vengeance, releasing multiple games under the license every year thereafter. This was by no means an unmitigatedly bad thing; at least one of their early Star Wars games, TIE Fighter, is an unimpeachable classic, on par in its own way with any LucasArts adventure game, while many of them evince a free-spirited joie de vivre that’s rather been lost from the franchise’s current over-saturated, overly Disneyfied personification. But it did lead in time to a decline in attention to the non-Star Wars graphic adventures that had previously been the biggest part of LucasArts’s identity. So, it was probably not entirely a coincidence that the LucasArts adventure arm peaked in 1993, just as the Star Wars arm was getting off the ground. In the time between Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle, adventure games suddenly became a sideline for LucasArts, with perhaps a proportional drop-off in their motivation to make everything in a game like Full Throttle just exactly perfect.

Another factor, one which I alluded to earlier, was the general sense in the industry that the market was now demanding faster paced, more immediate and visceral experiences. And, I rush to add, games with those qualities are fine in themselves. It’s just that that set of design goals may not have been a good pairing with an engine and a genre known for a rather different set of qualities.

These generalized factors were accompanied by more specific collisions of circumstance. When studying the development history of Day of the Tentacle, one comes away with the strong impression that Tim Schafer was the creator most enamored with the jokes and the goofy fiction of the game, while his partner Dave Grossman obsessed mostly over its interactive structure and puzzle design. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Schafer struck out on his own we got a game with a sparkling fictional presentation and lousy interactive elements.

Full Throttle was not made on the cheap. Far from it: it was the first LucasArts adventure to cost over $1 million to produce. But the money that was thrown at it wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding commitment to the process of making good games. Its development was instead chaotic, improvised rather than planned; Tim Schafer personally took on the titles of Writer, Designer, and Project Leader, and seems to have been well out of his depth on at least the last of them. As a result, the game, which had originally been slated for a Christmas 1994 release, fell badly behind schedule and over budget, and what Larry Ahern describes as a “huge section” of it had to be cut out before all was said and done. (Another result of Full Throttle‘s protracted creation was its use of vanilla VGA graphics, which made it something of an anachronism in the spring of 1995, what with the rest of the industry’s shift to higher-resolution SVGA; fortunately, LucasArts’s artists were so talented that their work couldn’t be spoiled even by giant pixels.) During the making of Day of the Tentacle, the design team had regularly brought ordinary folks in off the street to play the latest build and give their invaluable feedback. This didn’t happen for Full Throttle. Instead there was just a mad rush to complete and release a game that nobody had ever really tried to play cold. Alas, this is an old story in the history of adventure games, and a more depressingly typical one than that of the carefully built, meticulously tested game. The only difference on this occasion was that it hadn’t used to be a story set in LucasArts’s offices.

Still, LucasArts paid little price at this time for departing from their old ethos that Design Matters. Full Throttle was greeted by glowing reviews from magazine scribes who were dazzled by its slick, hip presentation, so different from anything else on the gaming scene. For example, the usually thoughtful Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World gave it four and a half out of five stars even as he acknowledged that “its weakest point is its gameplay.” For all that this might strike us today as the very definition of judging a book by its cover, such formulations were par for the course during the madcap multimedia frenzy of the mid-1990s. Tim Schafer claims that the game sold an eventual 1 million copies, enough to make MTV seriously consider turning it into a television cartoon.

Many of those buyers remember Full Throttle fondly today, although a considerable number of naysayers with complaints similar to the ones I’ve aired in this article have also joined the discussion since the game was remastered and re-released in 2017. It seems to me that attitudes toward this game in particular tend to neatly delineate two broad categories of adventure players. There are those who aren’t overly chuffed about puzzles and other issues of design, who consider a modicum of obtuseness to be almost an intrinsic part of the genre, and who thus don’t hesitate to reach for a walkthrough at the first sign of trouble. This is fair enough in itself; as I’ve said many times, there is no wrong way to play any game as long as you’re having fun. I, however, don’t tend to have much fun playing this way. I consider a good interactive design to be a prerequisite to a good game of any stripe. And when I reach for a walkthrough, I do so knowing I’m going to be angry afterward at either myself or the game. If it turns out to be a case of the latter… well, I’d rather just watch a movie.

And indeed, that has to be my final verdict on Full Throttle for those of you who share my own adventure-game predilections: just find yourself a video playthrough to watch, thereby to enjoy its buckets of style and personality without having to wrestle with all of the annoyances. If nothing else, Full Throttle makes for a fun cartoon. Pity about the gameplay.

(Sources: the book Full Throttle: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of November 1994 and August 1995; LucasArts customer newsletter The Adventurer of Winter 1994/1995 and Summer 1995; Retro Gamer 62; the “director’s commentary” from the 2017 re-release of Full Throttle. Online sources include interview with Tim Schafer by Celia Pearce and Chris Suellentrop.

A “remastered” version of Full Throttle is available for digital purchase.)

 

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The Second Coming of Star Wars

It’s all but impossible to overstate the influence that Star Wars had on the first generation of microcomputer games. The fact is, Star Wars and early home computers were almost inseparable — in some odd sense part of the same larger cultural movement, if you will.

The first film in George Lucas’s blockbuster trilogy debuted on May 25, 1977, just days before the Apple II, the first pre-assembled personal computer to be marketed to everyday consumers, reached store shelves. If not everyone who loved Star Wars had the money and the desire to buy a computer in the months and years that followed, it did seem that everyone who bought a computer loved Star Wars. And that love in turn fueled many of the games those early adopters made. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels and, perhaps more arguably, the Star Trek television and movie franchise are the only other traditional-media properties whose impact on the fictions and even mechanics of early computer games can be compared to that of Star Wars.

And yet licensed takes on all three properties were much less prominent than one might expect from the degree of passion the home-computer demographic had for them. The British/Australian publisher Melbourne House had a huge worldwide hit with their rather strange 1982 text-adventure adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but never scaled similar heights with any of their mediocre follow-ups. Meanwhile Star Trek wound up in the hands of the software arm of the print publisher Simon & Schuster, who released a series of obtuse, largely text-based games that went absolutely nowhere. And as for Star Wars, the hottest property of them all… ah, therein lies a tale.



Like The Lord of the Rings before it, Star Wars was a victim of the times in which its first licensing deals were signed. In the months before the first movie was released, both George Lucas himself and 20th Century Fox, the studio that distributed the film, sought after someone — anyone — who would be willing to make a line of toys to accompany it. They were turned down again and again. Finally, Marc Pevers, Fox’s president of licensing, got a nibble from a small toy maker called Kenner Products.

Kenner was owned at that time by the big corporate conglomerate General Mills, who also happened to own Parker Brothers, the maker of such family-board-game staples as Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry!. Thus when Kenner negotiated with Lucas and Fox, they requested that the license cover “toys and [emphasis mine] games,” with responsibility for the latter to be kicked over to Parker Brothers. For at this early date, before the release of the Atari VCS videogame console, before even the arrival of Space Invaders in American arcades, “games” meant board games in the minds of everyone negotiating the deal. Indeed, Kenner explicitly promised that at a minimum they would produce four action figures and a “family game” to help prime the pump of a film whose commercial prospects struck just about everyone as highly dubious.

There are conflicting reports as to the other terms of the deal, but it seems most likely that Kenner agreed to pay Lucas and Fox either a 5-percent royalty or a flat $100,000 per year, whichever amount was greater. If Kenner ever failed to pay at least $100,000 in any given year, the arrangement would end immediately. Otherwise, it would go on in perpetuity. It was quite a sweet deal for Kenner by any standard, very much a reflection of the position of weakness from which Fox and Lucas were negotiating; one Kenner employee later joked that they had gotten Star Wars for “$50 and a handshake.”

Of course, we all know what happened with that first Star Wars film upon its release a few months after the contract was signed. After a slow start in 1977 while they tooled up to meet the completely unexpected level of demand, Kenner sold 42 million pieces of Star Wars-branded merchandise in 1978 alone; by 1985, the worldwide population of Star Wars action figures was larger than the United States’s population of real human beings. Lucas publicly excoriated Marc Pevers for a deal that had cost him “tens of millions,” and the two wound up in libel court, the former eventually forced to pay the latter an unspecified sum for his overheated remarks by a settlement arrangement.

Lucas’s anger was understandable if not terribly dignified. As if the deal for the toy rights alone wasn’t bad enough, Pevers had blithely sold off the videogame rights for a song as well, simply by not demanding more specific language about what kinds of games the phrase “toys and games” referred to. Kenner’s first attempt at a Star Wars videogame came already in 1978, in the form of a single-purpose handheld gadget subtitled Electronic Laser Battle. When that didn’t do well, the field was abandoned until 1982, when, with the Atari-VCS-fueled first wave of digital gaming at its height, Parker Brothers released three simple action games for the console. Then they sub-contracted a few coin-op arcade games to Atari, who ported them to home consoles and computers as well.

But by the time the last of these appeared, it was 1985, the Great Videogame Crash was two years in the past, and it seemed to the hidebound executives at General Mills that the fad for videogames was over and done with, permanently. Their Star Wars games had done pretty well for themselves, but had come out just a little too late in the day to really clean up. So be it; they saw little reason to continue making them now. It would be six years before another all-new, officially licensed Star Wars videogame would appear in North America, even as the virtual worlds of countless non-licensed games would continue to be filled with ersatz Han Solos and Death Stars.

This state of affairs was made doubly ironic by the fact that Lucasfilm, George Lucas’s production company, had started its own games studio already in 1982. For most of its first ten years, the subsidiary known as Lucasfilm Games was strictly barred from making Star Wars games, even as its employees worked on Skywalker Ranch, surrounded with props and paraphernalia from the films. Said employees have often remarked in the years since that their inability to use their corporate parent’s most famous intellectual property was really a blessing in disguise, in that it forced them to define themselves in other ways, namely by creating one of the most innovative and interesting bodies of work of the entire 1980s gaming scene. “Not being able to make Star Wars games freed us, freed us in a way that I don’t think we understood at the time,” says Ron Gilbert, the designer of the Lucasfilm classics Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. “We always felt we had to be making games that were different and pushed the creative edges. We felt we had to live up to the Lucasfilm name.” For all that, though, having the Lucasfilm name but not the Star Wars license that ought to go with it remained a frustrating position to be in, especially knowing that the situation was all down to a legal accident, all thanks to that single vaguely worded contract.

If the sequence of events which barred Lucasfilm from making games based on their own supreme leader’s universe was a tad bizarre, the way in which the Star Wars rights were finally freed up again was even stranger. By the end of 1980s, sales of Star Wars toys were no longer what they once had been. The Return of the Jedi, the third and presumably last of the Star Wars films, was receding further and further into the rear-view mirror, with nothing new on the horizon to reignite the old excitement for the next generation of children. For the first time, Kenner found themselves paying the guaranteed $100,000 licensing fee to Lucas and Fox instead of the 5-percent royalty.

At the beginning of 1991, Kenner failed to send the aforementioned parties their $100,000 check for the previous year, thereby nullifying the fourteen-year-old contract for Star Wars “toys and games.” Fan folklore would have it that the missing check was the result of an accounting oversight; Kenner was about to be acquired by Hasbro, and there was much chaos about the place. A more likely explanation, however, is that Kenner simply decided that the contract wasn’t worth maintaining anymore. The Star Wars gravy train had been great while it lasted, but it had run its course.

There was jubilation inside Lucasfilm Games when the staff was informed that at long last they were to be allowed to play in the universe of Star Wars. They quickly turned out a few simple action-oriented titles for consoles, but their real allegiance as a studio was to personal computers. Thus they poured the most effort by far into X-Wing, the first Star Wars game ever to be made first, foremost, and exclusively for computers, with all the extra complexity and extra scope for design ambition which that description implied in those days.


Lawrence Holland, circa 1992.

The mastermind of X-Wing was a soft-spoken, unassuming fellow named Lawrence Holland, whose path into the industry had been anything but straightforward. His first passion in life had been archaeology and anthropology; he’d spent much of his early twenties working in the field in remote regions of East Africa and India. In 1981, he came to the University of California, Berkeley to study for a doctorate in anthropology. He had never even seen a personal computer, much less played a computer game, until he became roommates with someone who had one. Holland:

I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Berkeley — and I realized I didn’t particularly want to do that for the next six years while I worked on my doctorate. At the time, my roommate had an Atari 800, and he was into programming. I thought, “Hey, what a cool machine!” So I finally got a Commodore 64 and spent all my spare time teaching myself how to use it. I’d always wanted to build something, but I just hadn’t found the right medium. Computers seemed to me to be the perfect combination of engineering and creativity.

The barriers to entry in the software industry were much lower then than they are today; a bright young mind like Holland with an aptitude and passion for programming could walk into a job with no formal qualifications whatsoever. He eventually dropped out of his PhD track in favor of becoming a staff programmer at HESWare, a darling of the venture capitalists during that brief post-Great Videogame Crash era when home computers were widely expected to become the Next Big Thing after the console flame-out.

While working for HESWare in 1985, Holland was responsible for designing and programming a rather remarkable if not quite fully-realized game called Project: Space Station, a combination of simulation and strategy depicting the construction and operation of its namesake in low Earth orbit. But soon after its release HESWare collapsed, and Holland moved on to Lucasfilm Games. Throughout his many years there, he would work as an independent contractor rather than an employee, by his own choice. This allowed him, as he once joked, to “take classes and keep learning about history and anthropology in my copious spare time.”

In writing about the LucasFilm Games of the late 1980s and early 1990s in previous articles, I’ve focused primarily on the line of graphic adventures which they began in 1987 with Maniac Mansion, stressing how these games’ emphasis on fairness made them a welcome and even visionary alternative to the brutality being inflicted upon players by other adventure developers at the time. But the studio was never content to do or be just one thing. Thus at the same time that Ron Gilbert was working on Maniac Mansion, another designer named Noah Falstein was making a bid for the vehicular-simulation market, one of the most lucrative corners of the industry. Lawrence Holland came to Lucasfilm Games to help out with that — to be the technical guy who made Falstein’s design briefs come to life on the monitor screen. The first fruit of that partnership was 1987’s PHM Pegasus, a simulation of a hydrofoil attack boat; it was followed by a slightly more elaborate real-time naval simulation called Strike Fleet the following year.

With that apprenticeship behind him, Holland was allowed to take sole charge of Battlehawks 1942, a simulation of World War II aerial combat in the Pacific Theater. He designed and programmed the game in barely six months, in time to see it released before the end of 1988, whereupon it was promptly named “action game of the year” by Computer Gaming World magazine. Battlehawks 1942 was followed in 1989 by Their Finest Hour, another winner of the same award, a simulation of the early air war in Europe; it was in turn followed by 1991’s Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, a simulation of the later years of war there. Each simulator raised the ante over what had come before in terms of budget, development time, and design ambition.

The Early Works of Lawrence Holland


Project: Space Station (1985) is an amazingly complex simulation and strategy game for the humble Commodore 64. Holland took the project over after an earlier version that was to have been helmed by a literal rocket scientist fell apart, scaling down the grandiose ideas of his predecessor just enough to fit them into 64 K of memory.

PHM Pegasus (1987) was designed by Noah Falstein and implemented by Holland. It simulates a military hydrofoil — sort of the modern equivalent to the famous PT Boats of World War II.

Strike Fleet (1988), Holland’s second and last game working with Falstein as lead designer, expands on the concept of PHM Pegasus to let the player lead multiple ships into fast-paced real-time battles.

Battlehawks 1942 (1988) was Holland’s first flight simulator, his first project for LucasArts on which he served as lead designer as well as programmer, and the first which he coded on MS-DOS machines rather than the Commodore 64. A simulation of carrier-based aviation during the fraught early months of World War II in the Pacific, it was implemented in barely six months from start to finish. Dick Best, the leader of the first dive-bomber attack on the Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway — and thus the tip of the spear which changed the course of the war — served as a technical advisor. “I am thinking about buying an IBM just so I can play the game at home,” said the 78-year-old pilot to journalists.

Their Finest Hour (1989) was the second game in what would later become known as Holland’s “air-combat trilogy.” A portrayal of the Battle of Britain, it added a campaign mode, a selection of set-piece historical missions to fly, and even a mission builder for making more scenarios of your own to share with others.

Holland’s ambition ran wild in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (1991). Beginning as a simulation of such oddball latter-war German aircraft as the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane and the Me-262 jet fighter, it wound up encompassing the entire second half of the air war in Europe, including a strategy game about the Allied strategic-bombing campaign that was detailed enough to have been put in a separate box and sold alone. As much a gaming toolbox as a game, it was supported with no fewer than four separate expansion packs. Holland and Edward Kilham, his programming partner for the project, crunched for a solid year to finish it, but nevertheless ended a good twelve months behind schedule. With this object lesson to think back on, Holland would rein in his design ambitions a bit more in the future.



As I described at some length in a recent article, flight simulators in general tend to age more like unpasteurized milk than fine wine, and by no means is Holland’s work in this vein entirely exempt from this rule. Still, in an age when most simulators were emphasizing cutting-edge graphics and ever more complexity over the fundamentals of game design, Holland’s efforts do stand out for their interest in conveying historical texture rather than a painstakingly perfect flight model. They were very much in the spirit of what designer Michael Bate, who used a similar approach at a slightly earlier date in games he made for Accolade Software, liked to call “aesthetic simulations of history.” Holland:

Flight simulators [had] really focused on the planes, rather than the times, the people, and how the battles influenced the course of the war. [The latter is] what I set out to do. It’s become my philosophy for all the sims I’ve done.

We get letters from former pilots, who say, “Wow! This is great! This is just like I remember it.” They’re talking about a gut, sensory impression about the realism of flying and interacting with other planes — not the hardcore mathematical models. I’ve focused on that gut feeling of realism rather than the hardcore mathematical stuff. I’ve emphasized plane-to-plane engagement, seat-of-the-pants flying. I like to keep the controls as simple as possible, so someone can jump in and enjoy the game. Of course, the more technically accurate the flight model, the more difficult it is to fly. Unless they’re really familiar with flight simulators, people tend to be intimidated by having to learn the uses of a bunch of different keys. That makes a game hard to get into. I want them to be able to hop into the cockpit and fly.

In some ways at least, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe remains to this day the most ambitious game Lawrence Holland has ever made. At a time when rival flight simulators like Falcon were going micro, attempting to capture a single aircraft with a pedant’s obsession for detail, Secret Weapons provided a macro-level overview of the entire European air war following the entry of the United States into the conflict. Holland called it a “kitchen-sink” game: “It’s fun and challenging to keep thinking of different ways for the player to interact with the product on different levels.” In Secret Weapons, you could pilot any of eight different airplanes, including the experimental German rocket planes and jets that gave the game its misleadingly narrow-sounding name, or even fly as a gunner or bombardier instead of a pilot in a B-17. You could go through flight school, fly a single random mission, a historical mission, or fly a whole tour of duty in career mode. Or you could play Secret Weapons as a strategy game of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, flying the missions yourself if you liked or letting the computer handle that for you; this part of the game alone was detailed enough that, had it been released as a standalone strategy title by a company like SSI, no one would have batted an eye. And then there were the four (!) expansion packs LucasArts put together, adding yet more airplanes and things to do with them…

Of course, ambition can be a double-edged sword in game design. Although Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe came together much better in the end than many other kitchen-sink games, it also came in a year late and way over budget. As it happened, its release in late 1991 came right on the heels of the news that Lucasfilm Games was finally going to be allowed to charge into the Star Wars universe. Lawrence Holland’s life was about to take another unexpected twist.



It isn’t hard to figure out why LucasArts — the old Lucasfilm Games adopted the new name in 1992 — might have wished to create a “simulation” of Star Wars space battles. At the time, the biggest franchise in gaming was Origin Systems’s Wing Commander series, which itself owed more than a little to George Lucas’s films. Players loved the action in those games, but they loved at least equally the storytelling which the series had begun to embrace with gusto in 1991’s Wing Commander II. A “real” Star Wars game offered the chance to do both things as well or better, by incorporating both the spacecraft and weapons of the films and the established characters and plot lore of the Star Wars universe.

Meanwhile the creative and technical leap from a simulation of World War II aerial combat to a pseudo-simulation of fictional space combat was shorter than one might initially imagine. The label of space simulator was obviously a misnomer in the strictly literal sense; you cannot simulate something which has never existed and never will. (If at some point wars do move into outer space, they will definitely not be fought anything like this.) Nevertheless, X-Wing would strive to convey that feeling of realism that is the hallmark of a good aesthetic simulation. It wouldn’t, in other words, be an arcade game like the Star Wars games of the previous decade.

In point of fact, George Lucas had aimed to capture the feel of World War II dogfighting in his movies’ action sequences, to the point of basing some shots on vintage gun-camera footage. It was thus quite natural to build X-Wing upon the technology last seen in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. You would have to plan your attacks with a degree of care, would have to practice some of the same tactics that World War II fighter pilots employed, would even have to manage the energy reserves of your craft, deciding how much to allocate to guns, shields, and engines at any given juncture.

Still working with LucasArts as an independent contractor, Holland hired additional programmers Peter Lincroft and Edward Kilham — the former had also worked on Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe — to help him out with the project. LucasArts’s in-house staff of artists and composers saw to the audiovisual assets, and their in-house designers developed most of the missions. With the struggle that his last game had been still high in his memory, and knowing all too well that LucasArts’s first Star Wars computer game needed to be released in a timely fashion if it was to compete with the Wing Commander juggernaut, Holland abandoned any thoughts of dynamic campaigns or overarching strategic layers in favor of a simple series of set-piece missions linked together by a pre-crafted story line — exactly the approach that had won so much commercial success for Wing Commander. In fact, Holland simplified the Wing Commander approach even further, by abandoning its branching mission tree in favor of a keep-trying-each-mission-until-you-win-it methodology. (To be fair, market research proved that most people played Wing Commander this way anyway…)


Smoke ’em if you got ’em: X-Wing in action.

X-Wing‘s not-so-secret weapon over its great rival franchise was and is, to state it purely and simply, Star Wars. Right from the iconic flattened text crawl that opens the game, accompanied by the first stirring chords of John Williams’s unforgettable theme music, it looks like Star Wars, sounds like Star Wars, feels like Star Wars. The story it tells is interwoven quite deftly with the plot of the first film. It avoids the slightly ham-handed soap-opera story lines which Wing Commander loves to indulge in in favor of a laser focus on the real business at hand: the destruction of the Death Star. Whereas Wing Commander, with its killer alien cats and all the rest, never rises much above the level of earnest fan fiction, X-Wing is… well, it certainly isn’t great literature, any more than the films upon which it’s based are profound drama, but it is solidly crafted pulp fiction for the kid in all of us, and this quality makes it exactly like the aforementioned films. Playing it really does feel like jumping into one of them.

But X-Wing also has an Achilles heel that undoes much of what it does so well, a failing that’s serious enough that I have trouble recommending the game at all: its absolutely absurd level of difficulty. As you advance further in the game, its missions slowly reveal themselves to be static puzzles to be solved rather than dynamic experiences. There’s just one way to succeed in the later missions in particular, just one “correct” sequence of actions which you must carry out perfectly. You can expect to fly each mission over and over while you work out what that sequence is. This rote endeavor is the polar opposite of the fast-paced excitement of a Star Wars film. As you fail again and again, X-Wing gradually becomes the one thing Star Wars should never be: it becomes boring.

There’s a supreme irony here: LucasArts made their name in adventure games by rejecting the idea that the genre must necessarily entail dying over and over and, even worse, stumbling down blind alleys from which you can never return without restoring or restarting. But with X-Wing, the company famous for “no deaths and no dead ends” delivered a game where you could effectively lock yourself out of victory in the first minute of a mission. It’s hard to conceive of why anyone at LucasArts might have thought this a good approach. Yet Computer Gaming World‘s Chris Lombardi was able to confirm in his eventual review of the game that the punishing mission design wasn’t down to some colossal oversight; it was all part of the plan from the beginning.

Through an exchange with LucasArts, I’ve learned from them that the missions were designed as puzzles to be figured out and solved. This is entirely accurate. The tougher missions have a very specific “solution” that must be executed with heroic precision. Fly to point A, knock out fighters with inhuman accuracy, race to point B, knock out bombers with same, race to point C, to nip off a second bomber squadron at the last possible second. While this is extremely challenging and will make for many hours of play, I’m not convinced that it’s the most effective design possible. It yanks [the player] out of the fiction of the game when he has to play a mission five times just to figure out what his true objective is, and then to play the next dozen times trying to execute the path perfectly.

Often, success requires [the player] to anticipate the arrival of enemy units and unrealistically race out into space to meet a “surprise” attack from the Empire. It’s all a matter of balance, young Jedi, and on the sliding scale of Trivially Easy to Joystick-Flinging Frustration, X-Wing often stumbles awkwardly toward the latter. From the reviewer’s high ground of hindsight, it seems a player-controlled difficulty setting might have been a good solution.

Despite this tragic flaw lurking at its mushy center, X-Wing was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews and strong sales upon its release in March of 1993. For, if X-Wing left something to be desired as a piece of game design, the timing of its release was simply perfect.

The game hit the scene in tandem with a modest but palpable resurgence of interest in Star Wars as a whole. In 1991 — just as Kenner Products was deciding that the whole Star Wars thing had run its course — Timothy Zahn had published Heir to the Empire, the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars novels. There had been Star Wars books before, of course, but Zahn’s trilogy was unique in that, rather than having to confine himself to side stories so as not to interfere with cinematic canon, its author had been given permission by George Lucas to pick up the main thread of what happened after Return of the Jedi. Everyone who read the trilogy seemed to agree that it represented a very credible continuation indeed, coming complete with an arch-villain, one Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was almost as compelling as Darth Vader. All three books — the last of them came out in 1993, just after X-Wing — topped genre-fiction bestseller lists. Star Wars was suddenly having a moment again, and X-Wing became a part of that, both as beneficiary and benefactor. Many of the kids who had seen the films multiple times each in theaters and carried Star Wars lunchboxes with them to school were now in their early twenties, the sweet spot of the 1993 computer-game demographic, and were now feeling the first bittersweet breaths of nostalgia to blow through their young lives, even as they were newly awakened to the potential of space simulators in general by the Wing Commander games. How could X-Wing not have become a hit?

The people who had made the game weren’t much different from the people who were now buying it in such gratifying numbers. Zahn’s novels were great favorites of Holland and his colleagues as well, so much so that, when the time came to plan the inevitable sequel to X-Wing, they incorporated Admiral Thrawn into the plot. In the vastly superior game known as TIE Fighter, which takes places concurrently with the second Star Wars film, a younger Thrawn appears in the uneasy role of subordinate to Darth Vader.



Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine TIE Fighter, which dares to place you in the role of a pilot for the “evil” Empire, ever coming to exist at all without the Zahn novels. For it was Zahn’s nuanced, even sympathetic portrayal of Thrawn, and with it his articulation of an ideology for the Empire that went beyond doing evil for the sake of it, that first broadened the moral palette of the Star Wars universe to include shades of gray in addition to black and white. Zahn’s version of the Empire is a rather fussily bureaucratic entity that sees itself as tamping down sectarianism and maintaining law and order in the galaxy in the interest of the greater good, even if the methods it is sometimes forced to employ can be regrettably violent. The game took that interpretation and ran with it. Holland:

Our approach is that the propaganda machines are always running full-blast during warfare. So far, the propaganda we’ve been exposed to has been from the Rebels. But in warfare, neither side is always clean, and both sides can take the moral high ground. So we’re trying to blur the moral line a little bit and give the Empire a soapbox to communicate its mission: the restoration of peace and order.

For instance, there’s a lot of civil war going on. The fighting planets are lost in their hate and don’t have the galactic perspective the Empire can provide. In this regard, the Empire feels it can serve to stop these conflicts. Within the Empire there are a lot of people — like the pilot the player portrays — who have an honorable objective.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it: I would hardly be the first Internet scribe to note that the established hegemony of developed Western nations in our own world resembles the Empire far more than the Rebel Alliance, nor that the Rebel freedom fighters bear a distinct similarity to some of the real-world folks we generally prefer to call terrorists.

TIE Fighter casts you as a pilot of good faith who earnestly believes in the Empire’s professed objective of an orderly peace and prosperity that will benefit everyone. In order to capture some of the murderous infighting that marks the highest levels of the Imperial bureaucracy in both the movies and Zahn’s novels, as well as to convey some of the moral rot taking cover beneath the Empire’s professed ideology, the game introduces a mysterious agent of the emperor himself who lurks in the shadows during your mission briefings, to pull you aside afterward and give you secret objectives that hint of machinations and conspiracies that are otherwise beyond your ken. In the end, you find yourself spending almost as much time fighting other factions of the Empire as you do Rebels — which does rather put the lie to the Empire’s claim that only it can provide a harmonious, orderly galaxy, but so be it.

What really makes TIE Fighter so much better than its predecessor is not the switch in perspective, brave and interesting though it may be, but rather the fact that it so comprehensively improves on X-Wing at the level of the nuts and bolts of game design. It’s a fine example of a development team actually listening to players and reviewers, and then going out and methodically addressing their complaints. In the broad strokes, TIE Fighter is the same game as X-Wing: the same linear series of missions to work through, the same basic set of flight controls, a different but similarly varied selection of spacecraft to learn how to employ successfully. It just does everything that both games do that much better than its predecessor.

Take, for example, the question of coordinating your tactics with your wingmen and other allies. On the surface, the presence of friends as well as foes in the battles you fight is a hallmark not just of X-Wing but of the Wing Commander games that came before it, being embedded into the very name of the latter series. Yet your helpmates in all of those games are, as Chris Lombardi put it in his review of X-Wing, “about as useful as a rowboat on Tatooine.” Players can expect to rack up a kill tally ten times that of their nearest comrade-in-arms.

TIE Fighter changes all that. It presents space battles that are far more complex than anything seen in a space simulator before it, battles where everyone else flies and fights with independent agency and intelligence. You can’t do everything all by yourself anymore; you have to issue real, substantive orders to the pilots you command, and obey those orders that are issued to you. Many reviewers of TIE Fighter have pointed out how well this ethos fits into that of a hyper-organized, hyper-disciplined Imperial military, as opposed to the ramshackle individual heroism of the Rebel Alliance. And it’s certainly a fair point, even if I suspect that the thematic resonance may be more a happy accident than a conscious design choice. But whatever the reasons behind it, it lends TIE Fighter a different personality. Instead of being the lone hero who has to get everything done for yourself, you feel like a part of a larger whole.

For the developers, the necessary prerequisites to success with this new philosophy were an improved technical implementation and improved mission design in comparison to those of X-Wing. In addition to the audiovisual evolution that was par for the course during this fast-evolving era of computing — the 3D models are now rendered using Gouraud shading — TIE Fighter gives you a whole range of new views and commands to make keeping track of the overall flow of battle, keeping tabs on your allies, and orienting yourself to your enemies much easier than in X-Wing. Best of all, it abandons the old puzzle-style missions in favor of the unfolding, dynamic battlescapes we were missing so keenly last time. It does you the small but vital kindness of telling you which mission objectives have been completed and which still need to be fulfilled, as well as telling you when a mission is irrevocably failed. It also introduces optional objectives, so that casual players can keep the story going while completists try to collect every last point. And it has three difficulty levels to choose from rather than being permanently stuck on “Hard.”

TIE Fighter was released in July of 1994, five months before the long-awaited Wing Commander III, a four-CD extravaganza featuring a slate of established actors onscreen, among them Mark Hamill, Mr. Luke Skywalker himself. LucasArts’s game might have seemed scanty, even old-fashioned by comparison; it didn’t even ship on the wundermedium of CD at first, but rather on just five ordinary floppy disks. Yet it sold very well, and time has been much kinder to it than it has to Origins’s trendier production, which now seems somehow more dated than the likes of Pong. TIE Fighter, on the other hand, remains what it has always been: bright, pulpy, immersive, exciting, Star Warsy fun. It’s still my favorite space simulator of all time.

TIE Fighter


How could it be Star Wars without that iconic opening text crawl? TIE Fighter and its predecessor succeed brilliantly in feeling like these movies that define the adjective “iconic.” This extends to the sound design: the whoosh of passing spacecraft and closing pneumatic doors, the chatter of droids, the various themes of John Williams’s soundtrack… it’s all captured here with remarkable fidelity to the original. Of course, there are some differences: the sequence above is initially jarring because it’s accompanied by Williams’s ominous Imperial theme rather than the heroic main Rebel theme which we’ve been conditioned to expect.

One of the many places where TIE Fighter borrows from Wing Commander is in its commitment to a diegetic interface. You don’t choose what to do from a conventional menu; you decide whether you want to walk to the training simulator, briefing room, film room, etc.

The staff of LucasArts were big fans of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels. Thus Grand Admiral Thrawn, the books’ most memorable character, shows up as a younger Imperial officer here.

TIE Fighter‘s in-flight graphics weren’t all that spectacular to look at even by the standards of their day, given that they were implemented in standard VGA rather than higher-resolution SVGA. Wing Commander III, which appeared the same year, did embrace SVGA, and looked much better for it. Luckily, TIE Fighter had other things working in its favor…

Having decided to present the most complex battles yet seen in a space simulator, TIE Fighter needed to provide new ways of keeping track of them if it was to remain playable. Thankfully, the developers were up to the task, devising a whole array of clever command-and-control tools for your use.

You wind up spending almost as much time fighting other Imperial factions as “Rebel scum.” Call it a cop-out if you must…

You fly the climactic final mission side by side with Darth Vader. Unable to secure the services of James Earl Jones to voice the role, LucasArts had to settle for a credible soundalike. (Ironically, Jones did agree to provide voice acting for a game in 1994, but it wasn’t this one: it was Access Software’s adventure game Under a Killing Moon. He reportedly took that gig at a discount because his son was a fan of Access’s games.)



Both X-Wing and TIE Fighter later received a “collector’s edition” on CD-ROM, which added voice acting everywhere and support for higher-resolution Super VGA graphics cards, and also bundled in a lot of additional content, in the form of the two expansions that had already been released for X-Wing, the single TIE Fighter expansion, and some brand new missions. These are the versions you’ll find on the digital storefronts of today.

Time has added a unique strain of nostalgia to these and the other early LucasArts Star Wars games. During their era there was still an innocent purity to Star Wars which would be lost forever when George Lucas decided to revive the franchise on the big screen at decade’s end. Those “prequel” films replaced swashbuckling adventure with parliamentary politics, whilst displaying to painful effect Lucas’s limitations as a director and screenwriter. In so thoroughly failing to recapture the magic of what had come before, they have only made memories of the freer, breezier Star Wars of old burn that much brighter in the souls of old-timers like me. LucasArts’s 1990s Star Wars games were among the last great manifestations of that old spirit. The best few of them at least — a group which most certainly includes TIE Fighter — remain well worth savoring today.

(Sources: the books How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin, and the X-Wing and TIE Fighter Collector’s Edition strategy guides by Rusel DeMaria, David Wessman, and David Maxwell; Game Developer of February/March 1995 and April/May 1995; Compute! of March 1990; Computer Gaming World of April 1988, November 1988, October 1989, January 1990, September 1990, December 1990, November 1991, February 1992, September 1992, June 1993, October 1993, February 1994, October 1994, and July 1995; PC Zone of April 1993; Retro Gamer 116; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Spring 1993, and Summer 1994; Seattle Times of December 25 2017; Fortune of August 18 1997. Also useful was the Dev Game Club podcast’s interview with Lawrence Holland on January 11, 2017.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter are available as digital purchases on GOG.com.)

 
 

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Sam and Max Hit the Road

Day of the Tentacle wasn’t the only splendid adventure game which LucasArts released in 1993. Some five months after that classic, just in time for Christmas, they unveiled Sam & Max Hit the Road.

At first glance, the two games may seem disarmingly, even dismayingly similar; Sam and Max is yet another cartoon comedy in an oeuvre fairly bursting with the things. Look a little harder, though, and some pronounced differences in the two games’ personalities quickly start to emerge. Day of the Tentacle is clever and funny in a mildly subversive but family-friendly way, very much of a piece with the old Warner Bros. cartoons its aesthetic presentation so consciously emulates. Sam & Max, however, is something else entirely, more in tune with an early 1990s wave of boundary-pushing prime-time cartoons for an older audience — think The Simpsons and Beavis & Butt-Head — than the Saturday morning reels of yore. Certainly there are no life lessons to be derived herein; steeped in postmodern cynicism, this game has a moral foundation that is, as its principal creator once put, “built on quicksand.” Yet it has a saving grace: it’s really, really funny. If anything, it’s even funnier than Day of the Tentacle, which is quite a high bar to clear. This is a game with some real bite to it — and I’m not just talking about the prominent incisors on Max, the violently unhinged rabbit who so often steals the show.

Max’s partner Sam is a modestly more stable Irish wolfhound in a rumpled three-piece suit who walks and talks like a cross between Joe Friday and Maxwell Smart. Together, the two of them solve crimes in the tradition of hard-bitten detectives like Sam Spade. Or, as Sam the dog prefers to put it, they’re “freelance police,” working “to protect the rights of all those whose rights seem to require protecting at whatever particular time seems appropriate or convenient to all involved parties.” As for Max, he just likes to beat, blow, shoot, and generally eff stuff up.

Sam and Max first made their names as the stars of an indie comic book, and carried a certain indie sensibility with them when they strolled onto our monitor screens. The safe suburban world of gaming had never seen anything quite like this duo — boldly but also smartly written, aggressively confrontational, and absolutely hilarious as they wandered a landscape built out of junk media and decrepit Americana.

This not-so-cuddly duo of anthropomorphized animals was the brainchild of one Steve Purcell, a San Francisco artist who invented them with a little help from his brother while both were still children. When he enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts circa 1980, he started drawing them for the student newspaper there. They fell by the wayside, however, when Purcell graduated and started taking work as an independent illustrator wherever he could find it, drawing everything from computer-game boxes to Marvel comics.

While Purcell was making ends meet thusly, a friend of his named Steve Moncuse was enjoying considerable buzz within the San Francisco hipster scene for his self-published series of Fish Police comics, which bore some obvious conceptual similarities to Sam and Max. Eager to add some mammals to his stable of marine investigators, Moncuse convinced Purcell to make a full-fledged Sam & Max comic book for his own Fishwrap Productions. “I had never written, penciled, and inked my own comic book before that,” remembers Purcell — but he was up for the challenge. In 1987, the first issue of Sam & Max: Freelance Police was published, containing two stories in its 32 pages. Over the next six years or so, more showcases for the animal detectives appeared intermittently under a variety of formats and imprints, whenever Purcell could spare enough time from his paying gigs — there was very little money at all in independent comics — to draw them. By 1993, their scattered canon was enough to fill perhaps half a dozen traditional comic books.

Said canon was marked not only by conventional comics storytelling — if anything involving the pair could ever be described as conventional — but also by a number of more interactive “activities” for the reader: Sam and Max paper dolls, puppets, etc., all sketchily described and sketchily implemented in cheap black-and-white newsprint. (The sketchiness of it all was, of course, part of the joke.) There was even a Sam & Max On the Road Official Board Game, a roll-and-move exercise in random happenstance: “Go back 2 spaces for dried-up donuts and soda”; “Kids unconscious from poisoned hamburgers. Zoom 3 spaces past Santa’s village without a tantrum”; “Get gas — lose a turn and don’t touch anything in the rest room.”

In the meanwhile, Steve Purcell the respectable above-ground commercial artist found himself working for none other than LucasArts. Shortly after the publication of the first Sam & Max comic, he was hired by them to illustrate what he intriguingly describes as “a role-playing game with cat-head babes.” When that project rather unsurprisingly got cancelled, he was laid off, but was soon brought back on again to draw the box art for the second SCUMM adventure game, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. That work won him a full-time job, upon which there followed much more in-game and box art for more adventures: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Loom, the first two Monkey Island games.

Steve Purcell circa 1988.

Purcell didn’t come to LucasArts alone: a certain dog and rabbit accompanied him to his new job. The place was filled with bright young men, with young men’s taste for humor that might not always pass muster with the censors in the executive suites. (For proof, one need only look to the acronyms associated with key components of the SCUMM engine, which were tortured into conformance with various forms of bodily fluid: SPIT, FLEM, BYLE, MMUCUS.) Sam and Max fit right into this milieu. Indeed, the pair began to infiltrate LucasArts’s computers almost immediately, as, bowing to his colleagues’ demands, Purcell conjured up some graphics of them for everyone to play around with. Already by the time a couple of new hires named Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer were enrolled in the so-called “SCUMM University” in late 1989, Purcell’s creations had become fixtures of office life. Schafer:

Every afternoon Ron [Gilbert] would come up and tell us how to do one thing, like, “Here’s how you add a room to the game” or “Here’s how you add a character.” We had this Sam & Max art that Steve Purcell had made just for SCUMM U, which was Sam and Max’s office, which I don’t think ever saw the light of day. It had a few animation states — a staticy television set, rabbit ears made out of a coat hanger that could be in two different positions, and we’d go, “I’m gonna make the static on the TV animate,” and then we’d spend all day doing that, and by the end of it we were pooling in art assets from Indiana Jones, and all the Scummlets started making their own crazy, weird, improvisational SCUMM games set partially in the Sam & Max universe. I had a remote-control car in mine that would drive through a mouse hole in their office and then would come out of a filing cabinet in Nazi Germany…

Except for Nazi Germany, most of these things — including the office, the television with a coat-hanger antenna, and even the mouse hole — would later appear in the official Sam & Max game, albeit with dramatically upgraded graphics.

But even well before that came to be, Sam and Max were already getting a form of official recognition from LucasArts, one that the people in the executive suites probably weren’t really aware of. The first two Monkey Island games, the first two Indiana Jones games, and Day of the Tentacle all found somewhere to shoehorn in a mention of the LucasArts staff’s favorite comics characters. When in 1990 LucasArts instituted a newsletter for their fans in the tradition of Infocom’s old New Zork Times, they asked Purcell to provide a Sam & Max comic strip for each issue.

Still, there’s a considerable distance between such sly insertions as these and a full-fledged Sam & Max computer game. The latter may well owe its existence to expediency as much as anything else. In 1992, LucasArts’s management wanted a second adventure to join Day of the Tentacle on their release docket for 1993, but had yet to approve a project plan for same. As time ran short, Sam and Max had virtually the entire creative staff pulling for them, along with a wealth of rough art and design ideas that had been kicked around through the likes of SCUMM University for years by that point. So, Sam and Max got to make an unlikely transition from indie comics characters to the stars of a very mainstream, very mass-market computer game from The House That Star Wars Built.


Ironically, the Sam & Max game got the green light just as Purcell himself was pulling back a bit from LucasArts. After some three years of full-time employment there, he’d just elected to return to freelancing, sometimes for LucasArts but sometimes for others. Thus the official designers for the game became a heretofore unheralded pair named Sean Clark and Mike Stemmle, who had worked as programmers on earlier SCUMM games. One can all too easily imagine such an arrangement going horribly wrong, missing the unique tone of the comics entirely. But thankfully, Clark and Stemmle proved to have a gift of their own for that trademark Sam & Max form of comedic mayhem, while Purcell himself and his soon-to-be wife Collette Michaud — another LucasArts artist, whom he had met on the job — made time to write or at least to edit most of the dialog.

Another obvious risk to the project was that of bowdlerization by nervous managers and marketers. Here again, though, it got lucky. Purcell:

I think the game is really close to the spirit of the comics. There’s violence, mild cursing, and a commendable lack of respect for authority, not to mention circus freaks and yetis. There’s less gunplay in the game simply because a gun is a terrible object to give someone to use in an adventure game unless you carefully guide the player to use it in a more interesting way. I don’t remember anything getting cut by management. Much to their credit, I think they trusted our judgment.

The theme of the game whose full title became Sam & Max Hit the Road was drawn from that old joke of a board game, as well as from kitschy roadside America more generally. By 1993, the cozy tradition of the cross-country family road trip — Route 66 and all that jazz — was starting to feel a little shabby in a post-oil embargo, post-interstate highway, postmodern America. Sam & Max steers into that shabbiness with a gonzo sensibility that’s more Hunter S. Thompson than Jack Kerouac; none of that romance-of-the-open-road nonsense for this duo! Instead they take us to pathetic would-be tourist traps like “The World’s Largest Ball of Twine!”, “Gator Golf,” “The Mystery Vortex,” “The Celebrity Vegetable Museum,” and “Frog Rock” (which doesn’t look much like a frog at all). The game tempers any sepia-toned nostalgia it might be tempted to evoke with an awareness that, really, all of this stuff was pretty tacky and stupid even in its heyday. And I haven’t even mentioned the spot-on parody of Graceland — presented here as Bumpusville, home of Conroy Bumpus, singer of the country classic “Let’s Get Drunk and Shoot Things.”

Smuckey’s convenience store, a monument to a homogeneous junk-food culture that stretches from sea to shining sea; there are several Smuckey’s in the game, and they all look exactly the same. “Max, crack open the Tang and those little cereal boxes with the perforated backs. I love that crap!”

And the reason for all this cross-country travel? Well, Sam and Max themselves never seem all that interested in the central mystery of the game, so why should we be? For the record, though, it’s something about a Sasquatch or yeti or something who’s escaped — or been kidnapped — from a carnival show. Jump through enough hoops and you’ll be rewarded with a bizarre denouement involving, as Sam puts it, “the wholesale destruction of the modern symbols of civilization in the western United States. You bet we’re proud!”

Suffice to say that you don’t play this game for the plot; you play it for the humor. A quarter century on from its creation, the latter has lost none of its sharpness. Sam & Max Hits the Road remains a veritable master class in comedy writing, with a sense of effortlessness about it that many another adventure game, huffing and puffing all too visibly in its own desperate efforts to be funny, could stand to learn from. Writing this game wasn’t truly effortless, of course, but rather involved countless hours of careful honing; as any of the great comedians working in any medium will tell you, being funny is first and foremost hard work. Yet the end result ought to feel spontaneous and easy, as it does here. The verbal jokes and visual gags are never belabored, never beat into the ground. On the contrary: they come so thick and fast that they can sometimes be a bit difficult to catch and appreciate. This is one of the few games I can think of that benefit from replaying just in order to savor all of the layers of its writing and presentation.


A Brief, Unsatisfying Interview with Sam and Max

Could you introduce yourselves?

Sam: I’m Sam. He’s Max. He’s a bunny. I’m a dog. We’re dangerous, but we work cheap.

How did you two form the Freelance Police?

Max: It was easy once we filed the monolithic heap o’ documents with the local government. They didn’t even notice that in the paperwork I claimed to be a nine-foot hamster and referred to myself as The Scatman.

Sam: Did you know that anybody can walk into a store and buy a real police badge? It really comes in handy when you want to enter the homes of people you don’t know.

What’s the toughest case you’ve ever cracked?

Sam: I guess the toughest case we cracked was when I lost the car keys and went as far as to have Max’s stomach pumped before I realized they fell down behind the radiator.

What special skills do each of you bring to the job?

Sam: Well, I have the ability to drive a car, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and get lost in a good book simultaneously.

Max: I can open a can of tuna fish with my own face.



In the best spirit of postmodern comedy, Sam and Max unleash a constant stream of blatant or subtle meta-textual commentary. When other games try to do this sort of thing, they tend to overplay their hand, with the result coming off as nervous tics on the part of creators who lack confidence in the integrity of their own fictions. Sam & Max Hit the Road, however, knows its fiction has no integrity, and revels in it. Likewise, it knows that we know how the highly artificial guide rails of genre-based storytelling run, and acknowledges that shared understanding. The selection of media tropes the game riffs off of is deep and broad, placing high and low culture on an equal footing, as any good postmodernist should. (“Every time I catch enough fish to fill a net, the helicopter swoops down and carries the fish to the Ball of Twine diner,” says one poor Sisyphus of a fisherman. “It’s like being stuck in a Norman Mailer novel.”)

But the greatest comedy goldmine here is always Max, who’s fun to watch even when he’s not really doing anything. He prowls restlessly about every area you visit, a perpetual live wire who looks likely to do something highly inappropriate and profoundly dangerous at every moment. LucasArts took an interesting approach to controlling the two protagonists. Rather than being able to switch direct control between Sam and Max, as in their previous multi-protagonist games Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, you ostensibly control Sam alone, but can “use” Max upon things in the world like you might an inventory object. It’s a brilliant choice. Max’s greatest comedic virtue is his sheer unpredictability, and this approach preserves that; even when you’re consciously “using” Max on something, you never know quite what he’s going to do.

Dialog works the same way; instead of presenting you with a cut-and-dried menu of questions or statements to make in conversations, the game lets you choose between the abstract options of a question, an exclamation, or the always worthwhile choice of the complete non sequitur. For “nothing would kill a joke worse than reading it before you hear it,” as Steve Purcell puts it.

In other ways as well, Sam and Max became a field for considerable experimentation with what had been the standard LucasArts adventure interface ever since Maniac Mansion: an interactive picture of your surroundings filling the top three-quarters or so of the screen, a menu of verbs filling the bottom of the screen. Sam and Max‘s design team eliminated the latter entirely for the first time since Loom; instead of clicking a verb on a menu here, you right-click to cycle the mouse cursor through them. Although welcome in the sense that it gave LucasArts’s talented artists more room to paint their scenes, the new approach can be just a little awkward to work with, requiring an awful lot of repetitive clicking even once you’ve managed to cement in your mind what each of the cursor icons actually means.

One can make vaguely similar complaint about other aspects of Sam & Max. Certainly in comparison to Day of the Tentacle, a game which LucasArts polished to a well-nigh unprecedented sheen, Sam & Max can come across as ever so slightly ramshackle. Its scenes are often designed to scroll as the protagonists move across them. This is fair enough in itself, but it’s sometimes difficult to identify what is and isn’t a hard edge, especially in certain scenes where you must click in just the right vertical spot on one edge or the other to progress further to the left or right. This was such a problem for me when I played the game recently that I wound up consulting a walkthrough on a few occasions when I thought I was completely stumped, only to find that I simply hadn’t fully explored a location due to this interface confusion. These sorts of issues — sometimes referred to as “fake difficulty” in that they’re fundamentally external to the world being explored — were admittedly par for the course in the games from LucasArts’s contemporaries. But LucasArts themselves had made their name by rising above them to a perhaps greater extent than they manage here.

A particularly hard-nosed critic might also find reason to complain about some of the individual puzzles. Although the game does stay scrupulously true to the letter of the LucasArts design philosophy of no deaths and no dead ends, quite a few of the puzzles here are so warped that they can really only be solved via the tried-and-true “use everything on everything else” approach. While this feels thoroughly true to the anarchic spirit of the game’s source material, it’s much more debatable in the context of good adventure design in the abstract.

But then again, the whole game is so lively, and so full of funny responses and hilarious Easter eggs, that it’s usually more entertaining than tedious to lawn-mower through its scenes in this way. And there is a smattering of really good set-piece puzzles to enjoy as well. The “Gator Golf” scene, in which Sam gets to play golf on an alligator-infested swamp of a course, is an example of a puzzle that’s both intellectually stimulating and absolutely hilarious, the sort of thing that could only have appeared in Sam & Max Hit the Road. To alleviate the tension when you aren’t sure how to proceed, there’s also a few superfluous action games, like the rather grisly take on Battleship that’s known here as Car Bomb and a concoction known as Highway Surfin’ which combines a speeding automobile, Max on the roof of said automobile, and a bunch of low-hanging road signs. If not exactly good in the way we conventionally define such things, the mini-games are, like just about everything else about Sam & Max Hit the Road, really, really funny.

But the game’s rougher edges perhaps aren’t all down to the gleefully low-rent nature of its source material. Once again, a comparison with Sam & Max‘s immediate predecessor on the LucasArts release docket can be instructive in this context. Superlative though Day of the Tentacle‘s execution was, that game was also at the end of the day a thoroughly safe choice for LucasArts — the sequel to a beloved game, built around a style of cartoon humor with which Middle America was long-acquainted. Sam & Max, on the other hand, was a more dangerous proposition in more than one sense of the word. Even as we laud LucasArts’s management for the real bravery it took to let their creative staff make and release it at all, we can also see signs that they weren’t willing to pour quite the same amount of time and money into such a relatively risky concept. Tellingly, they didn’t pull out all the stops to release a CD-ROM-based “talkie” version of Sam & Max at the same time as the floppy-disk-based version, as they had for Day of the Tentacle. Instead they decided to wait a bit, to make sure there was in fact a market out there worthy of the additional investment.

Some of the first reviews would actually seem to confirm any suspicions LucasArts’s management might have had that Sam & Max could be more of a niche taste than a crowd pleaser. Charles Ardai, writing for Computer Gaming World, found all of the “self-referential jokes, sneering remarks, deadpan derision, sarcasm, and ridicule” — even the “unnerving” jazz-influenced soundtrack — to be decidedly off-putting. “Sarcastic New York intellectuals like [some of] my friends will find its tone wholly agreeable,” he concluded, “but whether it plays in Peoria remains to be seen” — thereby echoing a question that was doubtless much on the mind of some at LucasArts.

But, happily for everyone concerned, Sam & Max didn’t prove the commercial disaster which some of the Nervous Nellies at LucasArts might have feared. Right from the beginning, significant numbers of gamers responded strongly to the same edgy humor that seemed to leave some reviewers a little nonplussed. And, make no mistake, some reviewers loved it as well. Certainly Rick Barba, writing for Electronic Entertainment, loved it unreservedly: “It’s hip, funny, adult, and well-written. It’s what literate adventure gamers have been craving for years.” Interestingly, the early British reviews were much more uniformly positive than the American ones, perhaps reflecting the longstanding British taste for a drier, less literal stripe of humor — or perhaps just reflecting the longstanding British fascination with the weirder aspects of Americana.

With the game’s sales and very positive reception in at least some quarters having sufficiently allayed any doubts at LucasArts, the CD-ROM version appeared about six months after the floppy-based version. It was well worth the wait. The same production team that had made Day of the Tentacle such a lesson to the rest of the industry in how to do a talkie right took charge of Sam & Max as well, with similarly stellar results. Sam and Max themselves were voiced by a pair of cartoon veterans named Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson respectively, both of whom were perfect for their roles. After hearing its stars for the first time, it becomes almost impossible to imagine playing Sam & Max without their voices. And this, of course, is just the reaction a talkie ought to provoke.

Since Sam & Max Hit the Road, the titular pair have continued their exploits in the pages of more comic books, in a brief-lived and sadly bowdlerized television series, and eventually in a string of episodic adventure games from Telltale Games, who positioned themselves as the post-millennial heirs apparent to the LucasArts adventure tradition. Yet I’m not sure whether they’ve ever again been quite as sharp and funny as they were here, in their very first computer game. I can certainly write that, despite the competition from all of these other iterations of what’s developed into a minor media franchise in its own right, the stature of the original Sam & Max computer game has only grown over the years. Today it continues to stand out from the field of its contemporaries as a harbinger of a gaming future that would admit more diverse voices to the dialog, drawing from a more sophisticated palette of non-ludic cultural influences. Most of all, however, it remains what it has always been: one of the funniest games ever made. What better reason could you need to play it?

(Sources: the omnibus comic Sam & Max Surfin’ the Highway by Steve Purcell; Computer Gaming World of April 1991, January 1992, August 1993, and February 1994; Retro Gamer 22, 28, 70, 110, and 116; CD-ROM Today of August/September 1994; Edge of February 1994; Electronic Entertainment of March 1994; Game Developer of March 2006; LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Spring 1993, and Winter 1994. Also “The History of Sam & Max,” as presented on the old Telltale Games home page.

Sam & Max Hit the Road is available for purchase from GOG.com and other digital storefronts.)

 

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Day of the Tentacle

Although they didn’t know one another at the time, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer both found themselves at a similar place in life in the summer of 1989: just out of university and uncertain what to do next. Both saw the same unusual advertisement in the newspaper: an advertisement for programmers who could also write. Both applied, both were shocked when they were called out to George Lucas’s beautiful Skywalker Ranch for an interview, and both were fortunate enough to be hired to work for a division of Lucas’s empire that was still known at the time as Lucasfilm Games rather than LucasArts. It was quite a stroke of luck for two innately funny and creative souls who had never before seriously considered applying their talents to game development. “If I hadn’t seen that job listing,” says Schafer, “I would have ended up a database engineer, I think.” Similar in age and background as they were, Grossman and Schafer would remain all but inseparable for the next four years.

They spent the first weeks of that time working intermittently as play testers while they also attended what their new colleagues had dubbed “SCUMM University,” a combination technical boot camp and creative proving ground for potential adventure-game designers. Schafer:

A group of us were thrown into SCUMM University, because all of the LucasArts games used SCUMM [Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion]. The four of us were messing around with it, writing our own dialogue. They gave us some old art to work with, so we were just writing goofy stuff and joking around, trying to make each other laugh. I think LucasArts was watching us the whole time, and they picked me and [Grossman] out and said that they liked the writing.

Grossman and Schafer were assigned to work as understudies to Ron Gilbert on the first two Monkey Island games. Here they got to hone their writing and puzzle-making chops, even as they absorbed the LucasArts philosophy of saner, fairer adventure-game design from the man most responsible for codifying and promoting it. In early 1992, shortly after the completion of Monkey Island 2, Gilbert announced that he was quitting LucasArts to start a company of his own specializing in children’s software. He left behind as a parting gift an outline of what would have been his next project had he stayed: the long-awaited, much-asked-for sequel to his very first adventure game, 1987’s Maniac Mansion. The understudies now got to step into the role of the stars; Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle became Grossman and Schafer’s baby.

Times were changing quickly inside LucasArts, keeping pace with changes in the industry around them. After first conceiving of Day of the Tentacle as a floppy-disk-based game without voice acting, LucasArts’s management decided midway through its development that it should be a real technological showpiece in all respects — the first adventure game to be released simultaneously on floppy disk and CD-ROM. Along with X-Wing, the first actual Star Wars game LucasArts had ever been allowed to make, it would be one of their two really big, high-profile releases for 1993.

It was a lot of responsibility to heap on two young pairs of shoulders, but the end result  demonstrates that Grossman and Schafer had learned their craft well as understudies. Day of the Tentacle is a spectacularly good adventure game; if not the undisputed cream of the LucasArts crop, it’s certainly in the conversation for the crown of their best single game ever. It achieves what it sets out to do so thoroughly that it can be very difficult for a diligent critic like yours truly to identify any weaknesses at all that don’t sound like the pettiest of nitpicking. The graphics are as good as any ever created under the limitations of VGA; the voice acting is simply superb; the puzzle design is airtight; the writing is sharp and genuinely, consistently laugh-out-loud funny; and the whole thing is polished to a meticulous sheen seldom seen in the games of today, much less those of 1993. It’s a piece of work which makes it hard for a critic to avoid gushing like a moon-eyed fanboy, as Evan Dickens of Adventure Gamers did when that site declared it to be the best game of its genre ever made:

The 1993 CD “talkie” version of Day of the Tentacle is a perfectly flawless adventure, the rarest of rare games, that which did nothing wrong. Nothing. There is no weakness in this game, no sieve. Stop waiting for the “but” because it won’t come. This is the perfect adventure game, the one adventure that brought every aspect of great adventures together and created such an enjoyable masterpiece, it almost seems to transcend the level of computer games.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. If you loathe cartoons, perhaps you might not like this game. If you prefer more serious plots or more rigorously cerebral puzzles, perhaps you won’t love it. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine very many people not being charmed by its gloriously cracked introductory movie and wanting to play further.

One of the few negative things I can say about Day of the Tentacle is that it’s more fun than it is truly innovative; it doesn’t break any new formal or thematic ground, being content to work entirely within a template which LucasArts and others had long since established by the point of its release. It remains at the end of the day a slapstick cartoon comedy, always the lowest-hanging fruit for an adventure-game design. Within that template, though, it executes everything so well that it’s almost annoying. This is the cartoon-comedy graphic adventure perfected, serving as the ultimate proof that much of what is sometimes forgiven or dismissed as “just the way adventure games are” is really the product of poor adventure-game design. Most of the problems that so many players consider to be intractable ones for the genre simply don’t exist here. The puzzles are goofy but always soluble, the dreaded sudden deaths and dead ends are nonexistent, and pixel hunts aren’t a problem amidst the game’s bright, clearly delineated scenes.



Day of the Tentacle‘s predecessor Maniac Mansion stood out from other adventure games in 1987, as it still does today, for allowing the player to select her own “party” of three characters, each with his or her own special skills, from a total of seven possibilities. The result was an unusual amount of replayability for the adventure-game genre; every possible combination of characters was capable of solving the game, but each would have to do so in a different way. Although this made Maniac Mansion a much more interesting game than it might otherwise have been, it was all nightmarishly complex for the game’s designer Ron Gilbert to map out. He would later state that only sheer naivete could ever have prompted him to expose himself to such pain — and, indeed, his first statement after finishing the game was, “I’m never doing anything like that again!” He held to that resolution throughout the rest of his time at LucasArts; his 1990 game The Secret of Monkey Island was at least as good as Maniac Mansion, but it owed its goodness to its writing, humor, art direction, and puzzle design, not to a similar formal ambition.

Against Gilbert’s advice, Grossman and Schafer first envisioned Day of the Tentacle operating along the same lines as Maniac Mansion, with another group of a half-dozen or so kids from which to choose a team. But the escalating cost of art and sound in the multimedia age played as big a role in nixing those plans as did the additional design complications; the two soon settled for giving the player control of a fixed group of three characters — which, they didn’t hesitate to point out, was still two more than most adventure games.

As this anecdote illustrates, Day of the Tentacle was never overly concerned with aping the details of its predecessor. Certainly if you play it without having played Maniac Mansion before, you’ll hardly be lost. Grossman:

We really couldn’t imitate the style of the original in the way you normally would with a sequel. Too much time had passed and the state of the art was radically different. We stopped thinking of it as a sequel almost immediately and just did our own thing, slathering our own personalities on top of that of Maniac Mansion.

Grossman and Schafer did reuse those elements of the earlier game that amused them most: the mad scientist Doctor Fred and his equally insane wife and son; the rambling old mansion where they all live; a memorable gag involving a hamster and a microwave; a pair of wise-cracking sentient tentacles, one of whom became the centerpiece of their plot and provided their sequel with its name. But of the kids the player got to control in Maniac Mansion, only Bernard, the über-nerd of the bunch, shows up again here. (Not coincidentally, Bernard had always been the favorite of the original game’s players, perhaps because of his range of unusual technical skills, perhaps because — if we’re being totally honest here — he was the teenage archetype who most resembled the typical young player.) Notably, Dave, the oddly bland default protagonist of the earlier game — he’s the only one you have to take with you, even though he’s the dullest of the lot — doesn’t show up at all here. In the place of Dave and the other kids, Grossman and Schafer augmented Bernard with two new creations of their own: a bro-dude “MegaBreth” roadie named Hoagie and a terminally nervous medical student named Laverne.

The story here does follow up on that of Maniac Mansion, but, once again, it doesn’t really matter whether you realize it or not. Five years after his previous adventure, Bernard receives a plea for help from Green Tentacle, informing him that Purple Tentacle has drunk some toxic sludge, which has instilled in him superhuman (supertentacle?) intelligence and a burning desire to enslave the world. Now, Doctor Fred has decided to deal with the problem by killing both tentacles; this is an obviously problematic plan from Green Tentacle’s perspective. Bernard convinces his two reluctant pals Hoagie and Laverne to head out to Doctor Fred’s mansion and stage an intervention. In attempting to do so, they unwittingly help Purple Tentacle to escape, and he sets out to take over the world. And so, just like that, we’re off to save the world.

It doesn’t take Day of the Tentacle long to introduce its secret puzzling weapon: time travel. Doctor Fred, you see, just happens to have some time machines handy; known as “Chron-O-Johns,” they’re made from outdoor port-a-potties. With his plan for summary tentacle execution having failed, he hatches an alternative plan: to send the kids one day back in time, where they’ll prevent Purple Tentacle from ever drinking the toxic waste in the first place. But the time machines turn out to work about as well as most of Doctor Fred’s inventions. One sends Hoagie back 200 years instead of one day into the past, where he finds Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers in the midst of writing the American Constitution in what will someday become Doctor Fred’s mansion; another sends Laverne 200 years into the future, when Purple Tentacle has in fact taken over the world and the mansion is serving as the dictatorial palace for him, his tentacle minions, and their human slaves; and the last time machine leaves Bernard right where (when?) he started.

You can switch between the kids at any time, and many of the more elaborate puzzles require you to make changes in one time to pave the way for solving them in another. In some instances, the kids can “flush” objects through time to one another using the Chron-O-John. On other occasions, a kid must find a way to hide objects inside the mansion, to be collected by another kid two or four centuries further down the time stream. “It was really fun to think about the effects of large amounts of time on things like wine bottles and sweaters in dryers,” remembers Grossman, “and to imagine how altering fundamentals of history like the Constitution and the flag could be used to accomplish petty, selfish goals like the acquisition of a vacuum and a tentacle costume.” Of course, just like in Maniac Mansion, it doesn’t pay to question how the kids are communicating their intentions to one another over such gulfs. Just go with it! This is, after all, a cartoon adventure.

Hoagie’s part of the plot coincidentally shares a setting and to some extent a tone with another clever and funny time-traveling adventure game that was released in 1993: Sierra’s Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Both games even feature a cartoon Ben Franklin in important roles. Yet it must be said that LucasArts’s effort is even sharper and funnier, its wit and gameplay polished to a fine sheen, with none of the wooliness that tends to cling even to Sierra’s best games. The inability to die or get yourself irrevocably stuck means that you’re free to just enjoy the ride — free, for instance, to choose the funniest line of dialog in any conversation without hesitation, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to do it over again if it all goes horribly wrong. “The player is never, ever punished for doing something funny,” wrote Charles Ardai, the best writer ever to work for Computer Gaming World magazine, in his typically perceptive review of the game. “Doing funny things is the whole point of Day of the Tentacle.”

Although Grossman and Schafer were and are bright, funny guys, their game’s sparkle didn’t come from its designers’ innate brilliance alone. By 1993, LucasArts had claimed Infocom’s old place as makers of the most consistently excellent adventure games you could buy. And as with the Infocom of old, their games’ quality was largely down to a commitment to process, including a willingness to work through the hard, unfun aspects of game development which so many of their peers tended to neglect. Throughout the development of Day of the Tentacle, Grossman and Schafer hosted periodic “pizza orgies,” first for LucasArts’s in-house employees, later for people they quite literally nabbed off the street. They watched these people play their game — always a humbling and useful experience for any designer — and solicited as much feedback thereafter as their guinea pigs could be convinced to give. Which parts of the game were most fun? Which parts were less fun? Which puzzles felt too trivial? Which puzzles felt too hard? They asked their focus groups what they had tried to do that hadn’t worked, and made sure to code in responses to these actions. As Bob Bates, another superb adventure-game designer, put it to me recently, most of what the player tries to do in an adventure game is wrong in terms of advancing her toward victory. A game’s handling of these situations — the elses in the “if, then, else” model of game logic — can make or break it. It can spell the difference between a lively, “juicy” game that feels engaging and interesting and a stubbornly inscrutable blank wall — the sort of game that tells you things don’t work but never tells you why. And of course these else scenarios are a great place to embed subtle hints as to the correct course of action.

Indeed, Grossman and Schafer continually asked themselves the same question in the context of every single puzzle in the game: “How is the player supposed to figure this out?” Grossman:

That [question] has stuck with me as a hallmark of good versus bad adventure-game design. Lots of people design games that make the designer seem clever — or they’re doing it to make themselves feel clever. They’ve forgotten that they’re in the entertainment business. The player should be involved in this thing too. We always went to great lengths to make sure all the information was in there. At these “pizza orgies,” one of the things we were always looking for was, are people getting stuck? And why?

The use of three different characters in three completely different environments also helps the game to avoid that sensation every adventurer dreads: that of being absolutely stuck, unable to jog anything loose because of one stubborn roadblock of a puzzle. If a puzzle stumps you in Day of the Tentacle, there’s almost always another one to go work on instead while the old one is relegated to the brain’s background processing, as it were.

And yet, as in everything, there is a balance to strike here as well: gating in adventure design is an art in itself. Grossman:

We were very focused on making things non-linear, but what we weren’t thinking about was that it’s possible to take that too far. Then you get a paralysis of choice. There’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle between the player being lost because they have too much to do and the player feeling railroaded because you’re telling them what to do. People don’t like either of those extremes very much, but somewhere in the middle, it’s like, “I’ve got enough stuff to think about, and I’m accomplishing some things, and I’ve got some new challenges.” That’s the right spot.

Day of the Tentacle nails this particular sweet spot, as it does so many others. It could never have done so absent extensive testing and — just as importantly — an open-mindedness on the part of its designers about what the testers were saying. It’s due to a lack of these two things that the adventure games of LucasArts’s rivals tended to go off the rails more often than not.

In addition to the superb puzzle design, Day of the Tentacle looks and sounds great — even today, even in its non-remastered version. The graphics are not only technically excellent but also evince an aesthetic sophistication rare in games of this era. The art department was greatly inspired by the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of Chuck Jones — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile. E. Coyote and the Road Runner, etc. One day near the beginning of the project, the entire team made a field trip to sit at the feet of the 80-year-old Jones for a day and absorb some of his wisdom. Warner Bros. cartoons were always more visually skewed, more manic, and more deviously subversive than the straighter, more wholesome reels of Disney, and both the visuals and writing in Day of the Tentacle consciously mimic their style. Just as in the cartoons, there isn’t a straight line or right angle to be seen anywhere in the game. Everything, right down to the font in which text is printed, is bent, leaning, crooked, a fun-house world viewed through a fish-eye lens.

The art team, the unsung heroes of Day of the Tentacle. Standing from left to right are Lela Dowling, Sean Turner, Larry Ahern, and Peter Chan. Kneeling in front are Jesse Clark and Purple Tentacle. One additional artist, Kyle Balda, wasn’t present for this photograph.

Peter Chan, one of the artists on the team, notes that Grossman and Schafer “really trusted us and just let us go to town with what we believed would look best. If anybody on the art team had a good idea or suggestion, it was considered.” Here’s Schafer, speaking in an interview at the time of the game’s release, and obviously somewhat in awe himself at what LucasArts’s animators have come up with:

The kids have all kinds of grimaces and gestures and facial twists and contortions while they’re talking. They smile and their mouths open bigger than their heads and their tongues can hang out. They don’t just stand there. They blink, tap their feet, sigh, and even scratch their butts.

As soon as a character appears, you laugh, and that’s really important. You stare at the main characters for about thirty hours when you play the game, so they’d better be entertaining. With Bernard, as soon as you see him walking around for the first time, before he even says or does anything, you laugh. He walks goofy, he talks goofy, he’s even entertaining when he stands still. Walking Hoagie around is like piloting a blimp through a china shop, and Laverne is fun just to walk around because she seems to have a mind of her own — like she might do something dangerous at any moment.

The sound effects are drawn from the same well of classic animation. LucasArts actually bought many of them from a “major cartoon house,” resulting in all of the good old “boings” and “ka-pows” you might expect.

Tamlynn Barra in the production booth at Studio 222.

And the voice acting too is strikingly good. LucasArts was better equipped than almost any of the other game studios to adapt to the brave new world of CD-ROM audio, thanks to the connections which went along with being a subsidiary of a major film-production company. The actors’ dialog, totaling more than 4500 lines in all, was recorded at Hollywood’s Studio 222 under the supervision of a LucasArts associate producer named Tamlynn Barra. Although still in her twenties at the time, she had previously worked with many stage and video productions. She was thus experienced enough to recognize and find ways to counteract the most fundamental challenge of recording voice work for a computer game: the fact that the actors are expected to voice their lines alone in a production box, with no other actors to play off of and, too often, little notion of the real nature of the scene being voiced. “Getting the actors into character is very difficult,” she acknowledged. “Half the studio [time] is spent cueing up the actor for the scene.” And yet the fact that she knew she had to do this cueing was in a way half the battle. In contrast to many other computer-game productions — even those featuring a stellar cast of experienced actors, such as Interplay’s two contemporaneous Star Trek adventuresDay of the Tentacle has an auditory liveliness to it. It rarely feels as if the actor is merely reading lines off a page in a sound-proof booth, even if that’s exactly what she’s doing in reality.

Jane Jacobs, who voiced the Irish maid found inside the past-tense version of the mansion, performs before the microphone.

Unsurprisingly given LucasArts’s connections, the voice actors, while not household names, were seasoned professionals who arrived with their union cards in hand. The most recognizable among them was Richard Sanders, best known for playing the lovable but inept newscaster Les Nessman on the classic television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. During their initial discussions with Barra, Grossman and Schafer had actually suggested Les as the specific role model for Bernard, whereupon Barra made inquiries and found that Sanders was in fact available. He really was a perfect fit for Bernard; the character was “a bit of a stretch” for him, he said with a wink, because he was used to playing “more manly sorts of roles.”

Barra found the other voice talent using a process typical of television and radio productions but not so much of computer games: she sent sketches and descriptions of the characters out to Hollywood agents, who called their clients in to record audition tapes of their impressions. Then she and the rest of the development team chose their favorites. Many another game studio, by contrast, was recruiting its voice talent from its secretarial pool.

All of it led to an end result that feels today like it’s come unstuck from the time which spawned it. Certainly my own feeling upon firing up Day of the Tentacle for the first time in preparation for this article was that I had crossed some threshold into modernity after living in the ancient past for all of the years I’d previously been writing this blog. This impression is undoubtedly aided by the way that LucasArts steered clear of the approaches that generally date a game indelibly to the mid-1990s. Just to name the most obvious dubious trend they managed to resist: there are no digitized images of real actors shoehorned into this game via once cutting-edge, now aesthetically disastrous full-motion-video sequences.

Yet the impression of modernity encompasses more than the game’s audiovisual qualities; it really does encompass the sum total of the experience of playing it. The interface too just works the way a modern player would expect it to; no need to pick up a manual here to figure out how to play, even if you’ve never played an adventure game before. (The sole exception to this rule is the save system, which still requires you to know to press the F5 key in order to access it. On the other hand, keeping it hidden away does allow the game to avoid cluttering up its carefully honed aesthetic impression with a big old disk icon or the like.) Polish is a difficult quality to quantify, but I nevertheless feel fairly confident in calling Day of the Tentacle the most polished computer game made up to its release date of mid-1993. It looks and feels like a professional media production in every way.

The most telling sign in Day of the Tentacle of how far computer gaming had come in a very short time is found on an in-game computer in the present-day mansion. There you’ll find a complete and fully functional version of the original Maniac Mansion in all its blocky, pixelated, bobble-headed glory. This game within a game was inspired by an off-hand comment which Grossman and Schafer had heard Ron Gilbert make during the Monkey Island 2 project: that the entirety of Maniac Mansion had been smaller than some of the individual animation sequences in this, LucasArts’s latest game. Placed in such direct proximity to its progeny, Maniac Mansion did indeed look “downright primitive,” wrote Charles Ardai in his review of Day of the Tentacle. “Only nostalgia or curiosity will permit today’s gamers to suffer through what was once state-of-the-art but is by today’s standards crude.” And yet it had only been six years…

Ardai concluded his review by writing that “it may not hold up for fifty years, like the cartoons that inspired it, but I expect that this game will keep entertaining people for quite some time to come.” And it’s here that I must beg to differ with his otherwise perceptive review. From the perspective of today, halfway already to the game’s 50th anniversary, Day of the Tentacle still holds up perfectly well as one of the finest examples ever of the subtle art of the adventure game. I see no reason why that should change in the next quarter-century and beyond.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and September 1993; LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1992 and Spring 1993; Play of April 2005; Retro Gamer 22 and 81; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of July 1993. Online sources include Dev Game Club podcast 19; Celia Pearce’s conversation with Tim Schafer for Game Studies; 1Up‘s interview with Tim Schafer; The Dig Museum‘s interview with Dave Grossman; Adventure Gamers‘s interview with Dave Grossman.

A remastered version of Day of the Tentacle is available for purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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