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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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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

This blog has become, among other things, an examination of good and bad game-design practices down through the years, particularly within the genre of adventure games. I’ve always tried to take the subject seriously, and have even dared to hope that some of these writings might be of practical use to someone — might help designers of the present or future make better games. But, for reasons that I hope everyone can understand, I’ve spent much more time illuminating negative than positive examples of puzzle design. The fact is, I don’t feel much compunction about spoiling bad puzzles. Spoiling the great puzzles, however, is something I’m always loath to do. I want my readers to have the thrill of tackling those for themselves.

Unfortunately, this leaves the situation rather unbalanced. If you’re a designer looking for tips from the games of the past, it certainly helps to have some positive as well as negative examples to look at. And even if you just read this blog to experience (or re-experience) these old games through the sensibility of your humble author here, you’re missing out if all you ever hear about are the puzzles that don’t work. So, when my reader and supporter Casey Muratori wrote to me to suggest an article that singles out some great puzzles for detailed explication and analysis, it sounded like a fine idea to me.

It’s not overly difficult to generalize what makes for fair or merely “good” puzzles. They should be reasonably soluble by any reasonably intelligent, careful player, without having to fall back on the tedium of brute-forcing them or the pointlessness of playing from a walkthrough. As such, the craft of making merely good or fair puzzles is largely subsumed in lists of what not to do — yes, yet more negative reinforcements! — such as Graham Nelson’s “Bill of Player’s Rights” or Ron Gilbert’s “Why Adventure Games Suck and What We Can Do About It.” It’s much more difficult, however, to explain what makes a brilliant, magical puzzle. In any creative discipline, rules will only get you so far; at some point, codification must make way for the ineffable. Still, we’ll do the best we can today, and see if we can’t tease some design lessons out of ten corking puzzles from adventure games of yore.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers galore in what follows, so if you haven’t played these games, and you think you might ever want to, you should absolutely do so before reading about them here. All ten games are found in my personal Hall of Fame and come with my highest recommendation. As that statement would indicate, I’ve restricted this list to games I’ve already written about, meaning that none of those found here were published after 1992. I’ve split the field evenly between parser-driven text adventures and point-and-click graphic adventures. If you readers enjoy and/or find this article useful, then perhaps it can become a semi-regular series going forward.

And now, with all that said, let’s accentuate the positive for once and relive some classic puzzles that have been delighting their players for decades.


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

By Will Crowther and Don Woods, public domain, 1977.

How it works: Deep within the bowels of Colossal Cave, “a huge green dragon bars the way!” Your objective, naturally, is to get past him to explore the area beyond. But how to get him out of the way? If you throw your axe at him, it “bounces harmlessly off the dragon’s thick scales.” If you unleash your fierce bird friend on him, who earlier cleared a similarly troublesome snake out of your way, “the little bird attacks the green dragon, and in an astounding flurry gets burnt to a cinder.” If you simply try to “attack dragon,” the game mocks you: “With what? Your bare hands?” You continue on in this way until, frustrated and thoroughly pissed off, you type, “Yes,” in response to that last rhetorical question. And guess what? It wasn’t a rhetorical question: “Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! (Unbelievable, isn’t it?)”

Why it works: In many ways, this is the most dubious puzzle in this article. (I do know how to make an entrance, don’t I?) It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people who have “solved” it have done so by accident, which is not normally a sign of good puzzle design. Yet classic text adventures especially were largely about exploring the possibility space, seeing what responses you could elicit. The game asks you a question; why not answer it, just to see what it does?

This is an early example of a puzzle that could never have worked absent the parser — absent its approach to interactivity as a conversation between game and player. How could you possibly implement something like this using point and click? I’m afraid a dialog box with a “YES” and “NO” just wouldn’t work. In text, though, the puzzle rewards the player’s sense of whimsy — rewards the player, one might even say, for playing in the right spirit. Interactions like these are the reason some of us continue to love text adventures even in our modern era of photo-realistic graphics and surround sound.

Our puzzling design lesson: A puzzle need not be complicated to delight — need barely be a puzzle at all! — if it’s executed with wit and a certain joie de vivre.


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

How it works: As you’re exploring the castle of the mad wizard Krill, you come upon a maze of eight identical rooms in the basement. Each location is “a peculiar room, whose cream-colored walls are thin and translucent.” All of the rooms are empty, the whole area seemingly superfluous. How strange.

Elsewhere in the castle, you’ve discovered (or will discover) a few other interesting items. One is an old book containing “The Legend of the Unseen Terror”:

This legend, written in an ancient tongue, goes something like this: At one time a shapeless and formless manifestation of evil was disturbed from millennia of sleep. It was so powerful that it required the combined wisdom of the leading enchanters of that age to conquer it. The legend tells how the enchanters lured the Terror "to a recess deep within the earth" by placing there a powerful spell scroll. When it had reached the scroll, the enchanters trapped it there with a spell that encased it in the living rock. The Terror was so horrible that none would dare speak of it. A comment at the end of the narration indicates that the story is considered to be quite fanciful; no other chronicles of the age mention the Terror in any form.

And you’ve found a map, drawn in pencil. With a start, you realize that it corresponds exactly to the map you’ve drawn of the translucent maze, albeit with an additional, apparently inaccessible room located at point P:

B       J
!      / \
!     /   \
!    /     \
!   K       V
!          / \
!         /   \
!        /     \
R-------M       F
 \     /
  \   /
   \ /
    H       P


Finally, you’ve found a badly worn pencil, with a point and an eraser good for just two uses each.

And so you put the pieces together. The Terror and the “powerful spell scroll” mentioned in the book are encased in the “living rock” of the maze in room P. The pencil creates and removes interconnections between the rooms. You need to get to room P to recover the scroll, which you’ll need to defeat Krill. But you can’t allow the Terror to escape and join forces with Krill. A little experimentation — which also causes you to doom the world to endless darkness a few times, but there’s always the restore command, right? — reveals that the Terror moves one room per turn, just as you do. So, your objective must be to let him out of room P, but trap him in another part of the maze before he can get to room B and freedom. You need to give him a path to freedom to get him moving out of room P, then cut it off.

There are many possible solutions. One is to go to room H, then draw a line connecting P and F. Sensing a path to freedom, the Terror will move to room F, whereupon you erase the connection you just drew. As you do that, the Terror moves to room V, but you erase the line between V and M before he can go further, trapping him once again. Now, you have just enough pencil lead left to draw a line between H and P and recover the scroll.

Why it works: Solving this puzzle comes down to working out how a system functions, then exploiting it to do your bidding. (Small wonder so many hackers have found text adventures so appealing over the years!) First comes the great mental leap of connecting these four disparate elements which you’ve found scattered about: an empty maze, a book of legends, a map, and a pencil. Then, after that great “a-ha!” moment, you get the pleasure of working out the mechanics of the Terror’s movements and finally of putting together your plan and carrying it out. Once you understand how everything works, this final exercise is hardly a brain burner, but it’s nevertheless made much more enjoyable by the environment’s dynamism. You feel encouraged to sit down with your map and work out your unique approach, and the game responds as you expect it to.  This simulational aspect, if you will, stands in marked contrast to so many static adventure-game puzzles of the “use X on Y because the designer wants you to” variety.

It’s worth taking note as well of the technology required to implement something like this. It demands a parser capable of understanding a construction as complicated as “draw line from H to P,” a game engine capable of re-jiggering map connections and rewriting room descriptions on the fly, and even a measure of artificial intelligence, including a path-finding algorithm, for the Terror. Nobody other than Infocom could have implemented a puzzle of this dynamic complexity in 1983. I’ve often noted that the keystone of Infocom’s design genius was their subtly advanced technology in comparison to anyone else working in their field; this puzzle provides fine proof of what I mean by that.

Our puzzling design lesson: Technology isn’t everything in game design, but it isn’t nothing either; the tools you choose to work with have a direct impact on the types of puzzles you can attempt. A corollary to this statement is that the technology which goes into design affordances is often far more subtle than that which allows whiz-bang graphics and sound.


3. Getting the babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

How it works: You’ve escaped planet Earth just seconds before its destruction at the hands of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. You’re now in the hold of one of the Vogon ships:

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.

There is a satchel here.

In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

That dispensing machine contains babel fish, which, when inserted into your ear, will allow you to understand the many strange alien languages you’ll soon be encountering. Rather than belabor this famously extended puzzle point by point, I’ll just provide you with a transcript of the steps you need to go through to solve it. In real life, of course, you would spend much more time bumbling and fumbling than does our ideal player here.

>examine machine
The dispenser is tall, has a button at around eye-level, and says "Babel Fish" in large letters. Anything dispensed would probably come out the slot at around knee-level. It bears a small label which reads "Another fine product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation."

>i
You have:
no tea
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a towel
It looks like your gown contains:
pocket fluff
The Hitchhiker's Guide
an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device
a loose pile of junk mail
a toothbrush
a flathead screwdriver

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

>remove gown
Okay, you're no longer wearing your gown.

>hang gown on hook
The gown is now hanging from the hook, covering a tiny hole.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain.

>put towel on drain
The towel completely covers the drain.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.

>cover panel with satchel
Okay, the satchel is lying on its side in front of the tiny robot panel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

>put mail on satchel
Okay, the loose pile of junk mail is now sitting on the satchel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.

Why it works: This is easily the most famous text-adventure puzzle of all time, one whose reputation for difficulty was so extreme in the 1980s that Infocom took to selling tee-shirts emblazoned with “I got the babel fish!” In truth, though, its reputation is rather exaggerated. There are other puzzles in Hitchhiker’s which rely heavily — perhaps a little too heavily — on the ability to think with the skewed logic of Douglas Adams. This puzzle, however, really isn’t one of them. It’s certainly convoluted and time-consuming, but it’s also both logical in a non-skewed sense and thoroughly satisfying to work out step by step. From the standpoint of the modern player, its only really objectionable aspects are the facts that you can easily arrive at it without having everything you need to solve it, and that you have a limited amount of tries — i.e., a limited number of spare babel fish — at your disposal. But if you have made sure to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down in the early part of the game, and if you use the save system wisely, there’s no reason you can’t solve this on your own and have immense fun doing so. It’s simply a matter of saving at each stage and experimenting to find out how to progress further. The fact that it can be comfortably solved in stages makes it far less infuriating than it might otherwise be. You always feel like you’re making progress — coming closer, step by step, to the ultimate solution. There’s something of a life lesson here: most big problems can be solved by first breaking them down into smaller problems and solving those one at a time.

Importantly, this puzzle is also funny, fitting in perfectly with Douglas Adams’s comedic conception of a universe not out so much to swat you dead all at once as to slowly annoy you to death with a thousand little passive-aggressive cuts.

Our puzzling design lesson: Too many adventure-game designers think that making a comedy gives them a blank check to indulge in moon logic when it comes to their puzzles. The babel fish illustrates that a puzzle can be both funny and fair.


4. Using the T-removing machine in Leather Goddesses of Phobos

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

How it works: While exploring this ribald science-fiction comedy, Infocom’s last big hit, you come upon a salesman who wants to trade you something for the “odd machine” he carries. When you finally find the item he’s looking for and take possession of the machine, he gives you only the most cryptic description of its function: “‘It’s a TEE remover,’ he explains. You ponder what it removes — tea stains, hall T-intersections — even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it’s only 1936.”

Experimentation will eventually reveal that this “tee-remover” is actually a T-remover. If you put something inside it and turn it on, said something becomes itself minus all of the letter Ts in its name. You need to use the machine to solve one clever and rather hilarious puzzle, turning a jar of untangling cream into unangling cream, thereby to save poor King Mitre’s daughter from a tragic fate:

In the diseased version of the legend commonly transmitted on Earth, Mitre is called Midas. The King was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. His greed caught up with him when he transformed even his own daughter into gold.

King Mitre's wish was, in fact, that everything he touched would turn to forty-five degree angles. No one has ever explained this strange wish; the most likely hypothesis is a sexual fetish. In any case, the tale has a similar climax, with Mitre turning his own daughter into a forty-five degree angle.

This is pretty funny in itself, but the greatest fun offered by the T-remover is in all the other places you can use it: on a tray (“It looks a little like Ray whatsisname from second grade.”); on a rabbit (“A bearded rabbi wearing a prayer shawl leaps out of the machine, recites a Torah blessing, and dashes off in search of a minyan.”); a raft (“It sinks like a stone. I guess a raf doesn’t float nearly as well as a raft.”); a pair of cotton balls (“Let’s just say that some poor male raccoon is speaking in a particularly high-pitched voice.”).

Why it works: The T-removing machine is sometimes held up as another puzzle concept that couldn’t possibly work in any other medium than text. I’m not sure if that’s literally true — later in this very list we’ll see another funny wordplay-based puzzle that does work inside a graphic adventure — but it certainly is true that no responsible producer would agree to pay for all the work required to implement all those one-off, just-for-fun responses in graphics. In text, though, they’re just a matter of an additional sentence or two.

Adventure designer Bob Bates likes to point out that the vast majority of what the player attempts to do will always be wrong; that’s just the nature of the endeavor. When she does one of these wrong things, the designer needs to do as much as possible to entertain her. A later generation would dub this the “juicy” approach to game design: rewarding curiosity and creativity, even if none of it contributes directly to the prosaic task of finishing the game. Steve Meretzky had a great puzzle already with the T-remover, King Mitre, and the untangling/unangling cream. He could have left it at that by coming up with excuses for why you couldn’t put other things in the T-remover. Instead he stayed faithful to his invention and implemented many alternatives alongside the “correct” use of the machine.

Our puzzling design lesson: Don’t ignore the “else” in the “if, then, else” of an adventure game. It makes your game feel like a living world rather than an arbitrary collection of logic gates to be navigated, and shows that you respect your player’s creativity.


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

How it works: Would I be engaging in too much gender stereotyping if I noted that the puzzles in the only Infocom game to be written by a woman often deal in social intelligence rather than abstract logic? This is another fairly lengthy sequence, so it’s best if I once again just show you what happens if you do everything correctly.

"Welcome, ma petite." Lafond bows you in.

Lafond's Bedroom
Lafond's bedroom shows all the outpourings of his megalomania. Royal hues of
purple and gold weigh down the hangings on the bed and the eastward window, as if trying to smother the moonbeam shining in.

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

A lace-covered table crouches beside a wing-backed chair in one corner. Sitting on the table is a green goblet, a blue goblet and a flagon.

"Have some wine." Lafond pours wine into two glasses, giving a blue one to you. "Drink this down. We have a long night ahead of us." He drains his own.

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says, "Let's see more cooperation of this sort."

Suddenly, the door slams open. It is Jamison, coatless, sword bared, his shirt ripped. "Thank God I am not too late. Leave, darling, before I skewer this dog to his bedposts," he cries. The scar on his cheek gleams coldly.

With a yell, Crulley and the butler jump out of the darkness behind him. Nicholas struggles, but soon lies unconscious on the floor.

"Take him to the dungeon," Lafond says, setting down his glass. "You, butler, stay nearby. I do not wish to be disturbed again.

"Now that we are rid of that intrusion, cherie, I will change into something more comfortable. Pour me more wine." He crosses to the wardrobe removing his coat and vest, turned slightly away from you.

>pour wine into green goblet
You fill the green goblet with wine.

"In private, call me Jean, or whatever endearment you choose, once I have approved it." Lafond is looking into the wardrobe.

>squeeze bottle into green goblet
You squeeze three colorless drops into the green goblet. You sense Lafond
hesitate, then continue primping.

The butler enters, laying a silver tray of cold chicken on the table. "The kitchen wench has gone, your grace. I took the liberty of fetching these
myself." He bows and leaves the room.

"Sprinkle some spices on the fowl, ma petite," Lafond says, donning a long brocade robe, his back to you. "They are hot, but delicious."

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

"Tsk. The cook has gone too far. She shall be 'leaving us' tomorrow." Lafond adjusts the lace at his neck.

>put spices on chicken
You sprinkle some spices on a wing and nibble it. The peppery heat hits you like a wave, leaving you gasping, eyes watering.

Lafond strolls to the table smiling slyly. "But you haven't finished pouring the wine." He tops off both glasses. "Which glass was mine? I seem to have forgotten." He points at the green goblet and smiles in a way that does not grant you confidence. "Is this it?"

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

"Ah yes, of course." Lafond obligingly takes the blue goblet.

He inhales deeply of the bouquet of his wine, then turns to you. "You must think me very naive to fall for such a trick. I saw you pour something into one of these glasses -- although I cannot smell it." He switches goblets, setting the blue goblet into your nerveless grasp and taking up the other, smiling evilly. "Now you will drink from the cup intended for me."

>drink from blue goblet
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says. Lafond takes the leather bottle and drops it out the window. "You shall not need this. You may suffer no headaches in my employ."

He lifts his glass to drink, but stops. "Your father, for all his idiotic meddling in other people's business, is not a fool. I doubt you are, either." He calls in the butler, ordering him to empty the green goblet. The man reports no odd taste and returns to his post.

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

Lafond draws near, whispering indecencies. He caresses your lily white neck, his fingers ice-cold despite the tropic heat.

>throw spices at lafond
You blow the spices off your fingertips, directly into Lafond's face. He
sneezes, his eyes watering from the heat of the peppers. Reaching blindly for some wine, he instead upsets the table, shattering a glass. Lafond stumbles cursing out of the room, in search of relief.

>s
You run out -- into the butler's barrel chest and leering grin. You return to the bedroom, the butler following. "The governor said you were not to leave this room."

>z
Time passes...

The butler seems to be having some problems stifling a yawn.

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

Why it works: Plundered Hearts is an unusually driven text adventure, in which the plucky heroine you play is constantly forced to improvise her way around the dangers that come at her from every direction. In that spirit, one can almost imagine a player bluffing her way through this puzzle on the first try by thinking on her feet and using her social intuition. Most probably won’t, mark you, but it’s conceivable, and that’s what makes it such a good fit with the game that hosts it. This death-defying tale doesn’t have time to slow down for complicated mechanical puzzles. This puzzle, on the other hand, fits perfectly with the kind of high-wire adventure story — adventure story in the classic sense — which this game wants to be.

Our puzzling design lesson: Do-or-die choke point should be used sparingly, but can serve a plot-heavy game well as occasional, exciting punctuations. Just make sure that they feel inseparable from the narrative unfolding around the player — not, as is the case with so many adventure-game puzzles, like the arbitrary thing the player has to do so that the game will feed her the next bit of story.


6. Getting into Weird Ed’s room in Maniac Mansion

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

How it works: In Ron Gilbert’s first adventure game, you control not one but three characters, a trio of teenage stereotypes who enter the creepy mansion of Dr. Fred one hot summer night. Each has a unique skill set, and each can move about the grounds independently. Far from being just a gimmick, this has a huge effect on the nature of the game’s puzzles. Instead of confining yourself to one room at a time, as in most adventure games, your thinking has to span the environment; you must coordinate the actions of characters located far apart. Couple this with real-time gameplay and an unusually responsive and dynamic environment, and the whole game starts to feel wonderfully amenable to player creativity, full of emergent possibilities.

In this example of a Maniac Mansion puzzle, you need to search the bedroom of Weird Ed, the son of the mad scientist Fred and his bonkers wife Edna. If you enter while he’s in there, he’ll march you off to the house’s dungeon. Thus you have to find a way to get rid of him. In the sequence below, we’ve placed the kid named Dave in the room adjacent to Ed’s. Meanwhile Bernard is on the house’s front porch. (This being a comedy game, we won’t question how these two are actually communicating with each other.)

Dave is poised to spring into action in the room next to Weird Ed’s.

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

Dave makes his move as soon as Ed clears the area.

Dave searches Ed’s room.

But he has to hurry because Ed, after telling off Bernard, will return to his room.

Why it works: As graphics fidelity increases in an adventure game, the possibility space tends to decrease. Graphics are, after all, expensive to create, and beautiful high-resolution graphics all the more expensive. By the late 1990s, the twilight of the traditional adventure game as more than a niche interest among gamers, the graphics would be very beautiful indeed, but the interactivity would often be distressingly arbitrary, with little to no implementation of anything beyond the One True Path through the game.

Maniac Mansion, by contrast, makes a strong argument for the value of primitive graphics. This game that was originally designed for the 8-bit Commodore 64 uses its crude bobble-headed imagery in the service of the most flexible and player-responsive adventure design Lucasfilm Games would ever publish over a long and storied history in graphic adventures. Situations like the one shown above feel like just that — situations with flexible solutions — rather than set-piece puzzles. You might never have to do any of the above if you take a different approach. (You could, for instance, find a way to befriend Weird Ed instead of tricking him…) The whole environmental simulation — and a simulation really is what it feels like — is of remarkable complexity, especially considering the primitive hardware on which it was implemented.

Our puzzling design lesson: Try thinking holistically instead of in terms of set-piece roadblocks, and try thinking of your game world as a responsive simulated environment for the player to wander in instead of as a mere container for your puzzles and story. You might be surprised at what’s possible, and your players might even discover emergent solutions to their problems which you never thought of.


7. Getting the healer’s ring back in Hero’s Quest (later known as Quest for Glory I)

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

How it works: Hero’s Quest is another game which strains against the constrained norms in adventure-game design. Here you create and develop a character over the course of the game, CRPG-style. His statistics largely define what he can do, but your own choices define how those statistics develop. This symbiosis results in an experience which is truly yours. Virtually every puzzle in the game admits of multiple approaches, only some (or none) of which may be made possible by your character’s current abilities. The healer’s lost ring is a fine example of how this works in practice.

The bulletin board at the Guild of Adventurers tells you about the missing ring.

You go to inquire with the healer. Outside her hut is a tree, and on the tree is the nest of a sort of flying lizard.

Hmm, there’s another of these flying lizards inside.

I’ll reveal now that the ring is in the nest. But how to get at it? The answer will depend on the kind of character you’ve built up. If your “throwing” skill is sufficient, you can throw rocks at the nest to drive off the lizard and knock it off the tree. If your “magic” skill is sufficient and you’ve bought the “fetch” spell, you can cast it to bring the nest to you. Or, if your “climb” skill is sufficient, you can climb the tree. If you can’t yet manage any of this, you can continue to develop your character and come back later. Or not: the puzzle is completely optional. The healer rewards you only with six extra gold pieces and two healing potions, both of which you can earn through other means if necessary.

Why it works: This puzzle would be somewhat problematic if solving it was required to finish the game. Although several lateral nudges are provided that the ring is in the nest, it strikes me as dubious to absolutely demand that the player put all the pieces together — or, for that matter, to even demand that the player notice the nest, which is sitting there rather inconspicuously in the tree branch. Because solving the puzzle isn’t an absolute requirement, however, it becomes just another fun little thing to discover in a game that’s full of such generosity. Some players will notice the nest and become suspicious, and some won’t. Some players will find a way to see what’s in it, and some won’t. And those that do find a way will do so using disparate methods at different points in the game. Even more so than Maniac Mansion, Hero’s Quest gives you the flexibility to make your own story out of its raw materials. No two players will come away with quite the same memories.

This melding of CRPG mechanics with adventure-game elements is still an underexplored area in a genre which has tended to become less rather than more formally ambitious as it’s aged. (See also Origin’s brief-lived Worlds of Ultima series for an example of games which approach the question from the other direction — adding adventure-game elements to the CRPG rather than the other way around — with equally worthy results.) Anything adventures can do to break out of the static state-machine paradigm in favor of flexibility and dynamism is generally worth doing. It can be the difference between a dead museum exhibition and a living world.

Our puzzling design lesson: You can get away with pushing the boundaries of fairness in optional puzzles, which you can use to reward the hardcore without alienating your more casual players. (Also, go read Maniac Mansion‘s design lesson one more time.)


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: Games like Hero’s Quest succeed by being generously expansive, while others, like Loom, succeed by boiling themselves down to a bare essence. To accompany its simple storyline, which has the rarefied sparseness of allegory, Loom eliminates most of what we expect out of an adventure game. Bobbin Threadbare, the hero of the piece, can carry exactly one object with him: a “distaff,” which he can use to “spin” a variety of magical “drafts” out of notes by tapping them out on an onscreen musical staff. Gameplay revolves almost entirely around discovering new drafts and using them to solve puzzles.

The ancestor of Loom‘s drafts is the spell book the player added to in Infocom’s Enchanter series. There as well you cast spells to solve puzzles — and, in keeping with the “juicy” approach, also got to enjoy many amusing effects when you cast them in the wrong places. But, as we saw in our earlier explication of one of Enchanter‘s puzzles, you can’t always rely on your spell book in that game. In Loom, on the other hand, your distaff and your Book of Patterns — i.e., drafts — is all you have. And yet there’s a lot you can do with them, as the following will illustrate.

Bobbin eavesdrops from the gallery as Bishop Mandible discusses his plan for world domination with one of his lackeys. His chief smith is just sharpening the last of the swords that will be required. Bobbin has a pattern for “sharpen.” That’s obviously not what we want to do here, but maybe he could cast it in reverse…

Unfortunately, he can’t spin drafts as long as the smith is beating away at the sword.

Luckily, the smith pauses from time to time to show off his handwork.

Why it works: Loom‘s minimalist mechanics might seem to allow little scope for clever puzzle design. Yet, as this puzzle indicates, such isn’t the case at all. Indeed, there’s a certain interactive magic, found by no means only in adventures games, to the re-purposing of simple mechanics in clever new ways. Loom isn’t a difficult game, but it isn’t entirely trivial either. When the flash of inspiration comes that a draft might be cast backward, it’s as thrilling as the thrills that accompany any other puzzle on this list.

It’s also important to note the spirit of this puzzle, the way it’s of a piece with the mythic dignity of the game as a whole. One can’t help but be reminded of that famous passage from the Book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Our puzzling design lesson: Wonderful games can be and have been built around a single mechanic. If you’ve got a great one, don’t hesitate to milk it for all it’s worth. Also: puzzles can illuminate — or undermine — a game’s theme as well as any other of its aspects can.


9. Teaching the cannibals how to get a head in The Secret of Monkey Island

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: For many of us, the first Monkey Island game is the Platonic ideal of a comedic graphic adventure: consistently inventive, painstakingly fair, endlessly good-natured, and really, truly funny. Given this, I could have chosen to feature any of a dozen or more of its puzzles here. But what I’ve chosen — yes, even over the beloved insult sword-fighting — is something that still makes me smile every time I think about it today, a quarter-century after I first played this game. Just how does a young and ambitious, up-and-coming sort of cannibal get a head?

Hapless hero Guybrush Threepwood needs the human head that the friendly local cannibals are carrying around with them.

Wait! He’s been carrying a certain leaflet around for quite some time now.

What’s the saying? “If you teach a man to fish…”

Why it works: One might call this the graphic-adventure equivalent of the text-adventure puzzle that opened this list. More than that, though, this puzzle is pure Ron Gilbert at his best: dumb but smart, unpretentious and unaffected, effortlessly likable. When you look through your inventory, trying to figure out where you’re going to find a head on this accursed island, and come upon that useless old leaflet you’ve been toting around all this time, you can’t help but laugh out loud.

Our puzzling design lesson: A comedic adventure game should be, to state the obvious, funny. And the comedy should live as much in the puzzles as anywhere else.


10. Tracking down the pendant in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

By Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg, Electronic Arts, 1992

How it works: This interactive mystery, one of if not the finest game ever to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, is notable for its relative disinterest in the physical puzzles that are the typical adventure game’s stock in trade. Instead it has you collecting more abstract clues about means, motive, and opportunity, and piecing them together to reveal the complicated murder plot at the heart of the story.

It all begins when Holmes and Watson get called to the scene of the murder of an actress named Sarah Carroway: a dark alley just outside the Regency Theatre, where she was a star performer. Was it a mugging gone bad? Was it the work of Jack the Ripper? Or was it something else? A mysterious pendant becomes one of the keys to the case…

We first learn about Sarah Carroway’s odd pendent when we interview her understudy at the theater. It was a recent gift from Sarah’s sister, and she had always worn it since receiving it. Yet it’s missing from her body.

We find the workplace of Sarah’s sister Anna. She’s also in show biz, a singer at the Chancery Opera House. The woman who shared a box with Sarah during Anna’s performances confirms the understudy’s story about the pendant. More ominously, we learn that Anna too has disappeared.

We track down Anna’s solicitor and surrogate father-figure, a kindly old chap named Jacob Farthington. He tells us that Anna bore a child to one Lord Brumwell some years ago, but was forced to give him up to Brumwell without revealing his parentage. Now, she’s been trying to assert her rights as the boy’s mother.

More sleuthing and a little bit of sneaking leads us at last to Anna’s bedroom. There we find her diary. It states that she’s hired a detective following Sarah’s murder — not, regrettably, Sherlock Holmes — to find out what became of the pendant. It seems that it contained something unbelievably important. “A humble sheet of foolscap, depending on what’s written upon it, can be more precious than diamonds,” muses Holmes.

Yet more detecting on our part reveals that a rather dense blackguard named Blackwood pawned the pendant. Soon he confesses to Sarah’s murder: “I got overexcited. I sliced her to make her stop screaming.” He admits that he was hired to recover a letter by any means necessary by “an old gent, very high tone,” but he doesn’t know his name. (Lord Brumwell, perhaps?) It seems he killed the wrong Carroway — Anna rather than Sarah should have been his target — but blundered onto just the thing he was sent to recover anyway. But then, having no idea what the pendant contained, he pawned it to make a little extra dough out of the affair. Stupid is as stupid does…

So where is the pendant — and the proof of parentage it must have contained — now? We visit the pawn shop where Blackwood unloaded it. The owner tells us that it was bought by an “inquiry agent” named Moorehead. Wait… there’s a Moorehead & Gardner Detective Agency listed in the directory. This must be the detective Anna hired! Unfortunately, we are the second to ask about the purchaser of the pendant. The first was a bit of “rough trade” named Robert Hunt.

We’re too late. Hunt has already killed Gardner, and we find him just as he’s pushing Moorehead in front of a train. We manage to nick Hunt after the deed is done, but he refuses to say who hired him or why — not that we don’t have a pretty strong suspicion by this point.

Luckily for our case, neither Gardner nor Moorehead had the pendant on him at the time of his death. We find it at last in their safe. Inside the pendant, as we suspected, is definitive proof of the boy’s parentage. Now we must pay an urgent visit to Lord Brumwell. Is Anna still alive, or has she already met the same fate as her sister? Will Brumwell go peacefully? We’ll have to play further to find out…

Why it works: Even most allegedly “serious” interactive mysteries are weirdly bifurcated affairs. The game pretty much solves the mystery for you as you jump through a bunch of unrelated hoops in the form of arbitrary object-oriented puzzles that often aren’t all that far removed from the comedic likes of Monkey Island. Even some pretty good Sherlock Holmes games, like Infocom’s Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, wind up falling into this trap partially or entirely. Yet The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes stands out for the way it really does ask you to think like a detective, making connections across its considerable length and breadth. While you could, I suppose, brute-force your way through even the multifaceted puzzle above by visiting all of the locations and showing everything to every suspect, it’s so much more satisfying to go back through Watson’s journal, to muse over what you’ve discovered so far, and to make these connections yourself. Lost Files refuses to take the easy way out, choosing instead to take your role as the great detective seriously. For that, it can only be applauded.

Our puzzling design lesson: Graham Nelson once indelibly described an adventure game as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” I would say in response that it really need not be that way. A game need not be a story with puzzles grafted on; the two can harmonize. If you’re making an interactive mystery, in other words, don’t force your player to fiddle with sliding blocks while the plot rolls along without any other sort of input from her; let your player actually, you know, solve a mystery.


(Once again, my thanks to Casey Muratori for suggesting this article. And thank you to Mike Taylor and Alex Freeman for suggesting some of the featured puzzles.)

 
 

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Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (or, Of Movies and Games and Whether the Twain Shall Meet)

You ask why there are movements in movie history. Why all of a sudden there are great Japanese films, or great Italian films, or great Australian films, or whatever. And it’s usually because there are a number of people that cross-pollinated each other.

— Francis Ford Coppola

Over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg remade the very business of film-making for better or for worse, shifting its focus from message movies and character dramas to the special-effects-heavy, escapist blockbusters that still drive Hollywood’s profits to this day. These events, which we might call the rise of the culture of the blockbuster, have long since been enshrined into the canonical history of film, filed under the names of these two leading lights.

Yet no two personalities could possibly have brought about such a dramatic shift on their own. Orbiting around Lucas and Spielberg was an entire galaxy of less prominent talents whose professional lives were profoundly affected by their association with these two new faces of modern Hollywood. They were the fellow travelers who helped Lucas and Spielberg to change the movie industry, all without ever quite being aware that they were part of any particular movement at all. Among the group were names like John Milius, Walter Murch, Willard Huyck, Randall Kleiser, Matthew Robbins, and Hal Barwood. “I can’t speak for the others,” says Robbins, “but it was my impression that nobody had the foggiest idea that there was any ‘next wave’ coming. Nobody had set their sights — except perhaps for George [Lucas].”

Out of this group of slightly lesser but undeniably accomplished lights, Hal Barwood is our special person of interest for today. He first met George Lucas in the mid-1960s, when the two were students together in the University of Southern California’s film program. Lucas, who had only recently abandoned his original dream of driving race cars in favor of this new one of making movies, was shy almost to the point of complete inarticulateness, and was far more comfortable futzing over a Moviola editing machine than he was trying to cajole live actors into doing his bidding. Nevertheless, there was a drive to this awkward young man that gradually revealed itself over the course of a longer acquaintance, and Barwood — on the surface, a far more assertive, impressive personality — soon joined Lucas’s loose clique in the role of follower rather than leader. Flying in the face of a Hollywood culture which valued realistic character dramas above all else, Lucas, Barwood, and their pals loved science fiction and fantasy, didn’t consider escapism to be a dirty word, and found the visual aesthetics of film to be every bit as interesting as their actors’ performances.

The bond thus forged would remain strong for many years. When Lucas, through the intermediation of his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, got the chance to direct an actual feature film, Barwood added the first professional film credit to his own CV by helping out with the special effects on what became THX-1138, a foreboding, low-budget work of dystopic science fiction that was released to little attention in 1971. When Lucas hit it big two years later with his very different second film, the warmly nostalgic coming-of-age story American Graffiti, he bought a big old ramshackle mansion in San Anselmo, California, with the first of the proceeds, and Barwood became one of several fellow travelers who joined him and his wife in this first headquarters of a nascent corporate entity called Lucasfilm.

George Lucas, standing at far right, discusses Star Wars with his sounding board in the mid-1970s. Steve Spielberg is wearing the orange cap, and Hal Barwood sits on the fence behind him.

Working together with his good friend Matthew Robbins, Barwood wrote a science-fiction script called Star Dancing during the same period. The two commissioned a former Boeing technical illustrator and CBS animator named Ralph McQuarrie to paint some concept art, thereby to help them pitch the project to the studios. In the end, though, Star Dancing never went anywhere — until Lucas, who was toying with ideas for a second, more crowd-pleasing science-fiction movie of his own, saw McQuarrie’s paintings and was greatly inspired by them, hiring him to develop the vision further for what would become Star Wars. McQuarrie’s concept art had much to do with the eventual green-lighting of Star Wars by 20th Century Fox, and he would continue to shape the look of that film and its two sequels over the long course of their production.

Barwood and Robbins, for their part, became two of the eight people entrusted to read the first draft of the film’s script. He and the others in that San Anselmo house then proceeded to slowly shape the Star Wars script we know today over the course of draft after draft.

Even as they helped Lucas with Star Wars, Barwood and Robbins were still trying to make it as screenwriters in their own right. They sold their first script, a chase caper called The Sugarland Express, to George Lucas’s up-and-coming pal Steven Spielberg, a more recently arrived member of the San Anselmo collective; he turned it into his feature-film directorial debut in 1974. More screenwriting followed, including an uncredited rewrite of the 1977 Spielberg blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first film to benefit in a big way commercially from the new interest in science fiction ignited by Star Wars, which had been released about six months prior to it.

Yet the pair found screenwriting to be an inherently frustrating profession in an industry which regarded the director as a movie’s ultimate creative voice. “In writing, you’re always watching directors ruin your stuff,” says Barwood. “As a writer, you have a certain flavor, style, and emphasis in mind when you write the script, and you’re always shocked when the director comes back with something else. There’s a tendency to want to get your hands on the controls and do it yourself.” Accordingly, Matthew Robbins personally directed the duo’s 1978 comedy Corvette Summer, starring Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in his first big post-Star Wars role. The film was a commercial success, even if the reviews weren’t great; it turned out that there was only so much you could do with Hamill, the very archetype of an actor who’s good in one role and one role only.

The duo’s next big project that was their most ambitious, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking yet. Dragonslayer was a fantasy epic based loosely on the legend of St. George and the dragon, and was once again directed by Robbins. The special effects were provided by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. In fact, Dragonslayer became the very first outside, non-Star Wars project the famous effects house took on. Being at least as challenging as anything in any of the Star Wars films, the Dragonslayer effects took them some eighteen months to complete.

Dragonslayer‘s pedigree was such that it was widely heralded in the Hollywood trade press as a “surefire success” prior to its release. But it had the misfortune to arrive in theaters on June 26, 1981, two weeks after Lucas and Spielberg’s new blockbuster collaboration, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter film shared with Dragonslayer the distributor Paramount Pictures. “Paramount was quite satisfied to go through the summer with the money they were going to get from Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Barwood, “and paid no attention to our movie. They just dropped it. They just forgot about it.” Dragonslayer flopped utterly, badly damaging the duo’s reputation inside Hollywood as purveyors of marketable cinema.

Barwood got his one and only chance to direct a feature film in 1985, when he took the reins of Warning Sign, yet another screenplay by himself and Robbins. In a telling sign of the damage Dragonslayer‘s failure had done to their careers, this latest film, a fairly predictable thriller about a genetic-engineering project run amok, had a budget of about one-quarter what the duo had had to work with on their fantasy epic. It garnered mediocre reviews and box-office receipts, and no one seemed eager to entrust its first-time director with more movies. Barwood and Robbins, both frustrated by the directions their careers had taken since Corvette Summer, decided their long creative partnership had run its course.

George Lucas (far left) and some of his old compatriots at Skywalker Ranch in the mid-1980s. Matthew Robbins is third from left, Hal Barwood fourth from left.

So, Hal Barwood found himself at something of a loose end as the 1980s drew to a close. He was still friendly with George Lucas, if perhaps not quite the bosom buddy he once had been, and he still knew many of the most powerful people in the movie industry, starting with Steven Spielberg — who had gradually shown himself to be, even more so than Lucas, the personification of the new, blockbuster-oriented Hollywood, his prolific career cruising along with hit after hit. But, as Spielberg basked in his success, Barwood had parted ways with his partner and seen his directorial debut become a bust. He hadn’t had a hand in a real hit since 1978, and he hadn’t sold a script at all in quite some time. Just to rub salt into the wounds, his old compatriot Matthew Robbins managed to score another modest hit of his own at last just after the breakup, with the distinctly Spielbergian science-fiction comedy Batteries Not Included, which he directed and whose screenplay he had written with others.

Perhaps it was time for Hal Barwood to try something completely different. He had actually been mulling over his future in this cutthroat industry for some time already. During the promotional tour for Warning Sign, he had made a rather odd comment to Starlog magazine, accompanied by what his interviewer described as a “nervous laugh”: “If movies don’t pan out for me, I have a second career lurking around the corner in entertainment software, working on animated computer games, which I’m doing right now. They’re very sophisticated, animated adventure games.”

Barwood had in fact been fascinated by computers for a long time, ever since he had first encountered the hulking number-crunching monstrosities of the 1960s at university. In 1980, while hanging around the set of Dragonslayer, he had programmed his first game on a state-of-the-art HP-41C calculator as a way of passing the time between takes. Soon after, he joined the PC Revolution, buying an Apple II and starting to tinker. He worked for years on a CRPG for that machine in his spare time — worked for so long that it was still in progress when the Apple II games market began to collapse. Undaunted, he moved on to a Macintosh, where he programmed a storyboarding system for movie makers like himself in HyperCard, selling it as shareware under the name of StoryCard.

With all this experience behind him, it was natural for Barwood now to consider a future in games instead of movies — a future in an industry where the budgets were smaller, the competitors were fewer, and it was much easier to come up with an idea and actually see it through from beginning to end in something like its original form. All of this made quite a contrast to the industry where he had cut his teeth. “The movie business is very difficult for most of us,” he says. “We don’t usually get a majority of our projects to completion. Most of our dreams turn into screenplays, but they stall out at that stage.”

Given his long association with George Lucas, Barwood decided to talk to Lucasfilm Games. They were more than happy to have him, and could certainly relate to the reasons that brought him to their doorstep — for, like Barwood, they had had a somewhat complicated life of it to date in the long shadow cast by Lucas.


Before there was Lucasfilm Games, there was the Lucasfilm Computer Division, founded in 1979 to experiment with computer animation and digital effects, technologies with obvious applications for the making of special-effects-heavy films. Lucasfilm Games had been almost literally an afterthought, an outgrowth of the Computer Division that was formed in 1982, a time when George Lucas and Lucasfilm were flying high and throwing money about willy-nilly.

In those days, a hit computer game, one into which Lucasfilm Games had poured their hearts and souls, might be worth about as much to the parent company’s bottom line as a single Jawa action figure — such was the difference in scale between the computer-games industry of the early 1980s and the other markets where Lucasfilm was a player. George Lucas personally had absolutely no interest in or understanding of games, which didn’t do much for the games division’s profile inside his company. And, most frustrating of all for the young developers who came to work for The House That Star Wars Built, they weren’t allowed to make Star Wars games — nor, for that matter, even Indiana Jones games — thanks to Lucas having signed away those rights to others at the height of the Atari VCS fad. Noah Falstein, one of those young developers, would later characterize this situation as “the best thing that could have happened” to them, as it forced them to develop original fictions instead — leading, he believes, to better, more original games. At the time, however, it couldn’t help but frustrate that the only Lucasfilm properties the games division had access to were middling fare like Labyrinth.

Still, somebody inside Lucasfilm apparently believed in the low-profile division’s potential, for it survived the great bloodletting of the mid-1980s. In response to George Lucas’s expensive divorce settlement and the realization that, with the Star Wars trilogy now completed, there would be no more enormous guaranteed paydays in the future, the company’s executives, with Lucas’s tacit blessing, took an axe to many of their more uncertain or idealistic ventures at that time. Among the divisions that were sold off was the rest of the Computer Division that had indirectly spawned Lucasfilm Games; it would go on to worldwide fame and fortune under the name of Pixar. As for the games people: in 1986, they got to move into some of the vacant space all the downsizing had opened up at Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm’s sprawling summer camp cum corporate campus in Marin County, California.

The wall separating Lucasfilm Games from the parent company’s most desirable intellectual properties finally began to fall at the end of the 1980s, when the games people were given access to… no, not yet to Star Wars, but to the next best thing: Indiana Jones, George Lucas’s other great cinematic success story. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first breakneck tale of the adventurous 1930s archaeologist, as conceived by Lucas and passed on to Steven Spielberg to direct, had become the highest-grossing film of 1981 by nearly a factor of two over its nearest competitor; as we’ve seen, it had trampled less fortunate rivals like poor Hal Barwood’s Dragonslayer into the dust during that year’s summer-blockbuster season. A 1984 sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had done nearly as well. Now a third and presumably final film, to be called Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was in the offing. With the earlier licensing deals they had made for the property now expired, the parent company wanted their games division to make an adventure game out of it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure [1]An Action Game was also published under the auspices of Lucasfilm Games, but its development was outsourced to a British house. was designed by Noah Falstein, David Fox, and Ron Gilbert, all of whom had worked on previous Lucasfilm adventure games, and written using the division’s established SCUMM adventuring engine. This committee approach to the game’s design is typical of the workaday nature of the project as a whole. The designers were given a copy of the movie’s shooting script, and were expected not to deviate too much from it. Ron Gilbert, a comedy writer by disposition and talent, found the need to play it relatively straight particularly frustrating, but it seems safe to say that all of the designers’ creative instincts were somewhat hemmed in by the project’s fixed rules. The end result, while competently executed, hasn’t the same vim and vinegar as Maniac Mansion, the first SCUMM adventure, nor even Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, the rather less satisfying second SCUMM game.

The boxing scene which opens the game of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a part of the film’s original script which was cut in the editing room. Scenes like these make the game almost of more interest to film historians than game historians, serving as a window into the movie as it was conceived by its screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game arises from the fact that its designers were adapting from the shooting script rather than the finished movie, which they got to see in the Skywalker Ranch theater only when their own project was in the final stages of bug-swatting and polishing. They actually implemented parts of Jeffrey Boam’s script for the movie far more faithfully than Steven Spielberg wound up doing, including numerous scenes — like the boxing sequence at the very beginning of the game — that wound up being cut from the movie. Nevertheless, the game suffers from the fundamental problem of all such overly faithful adaptations from other media: if you’ve seen the movie — and it seemed safe to assume that just about everybody who played the game had seen the movie — what’s the point in walking through the same story again in game form? The designers went to considerable lengths to accommodate curious (or cantankerous) players who make different choices from those of Indiana Jones in the movie, turning their choices into viable alternative pathways rather than mere game overs. But there was only so much they could do in even that respect, given the constraints under which they labored.

Of course, licensed games exist first and foremost because licenses sell games, not because they lead to better ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade became the cinematic blockbuster of the year upon its release in May of 1989, and the game also did extremely well when it hit stores a few weeks later. Having taken this first step into the territory of Lucasfilm’s biggest franchises and been so amply rewarded for it, the people at the games division naturally wanted to keep the good times going. There were likely to be no more Indiana Jones movies; Harrison Ford, the series’s famously prickly star, was publicly declaring himself to be through with playing the character. But did that necessarily mean that there couldn’t be more Indiana Jones games? With the license now free and clear for their use, no one at Lucasfilm Games saw any reason to assume so.


It was at this juncture that Hal Barwood entered the picture, interested in trying a new career in games on for size. Just about any developer in the industry would have jumped at the chance to bring someone like him aboard. Talk of a merger of games with cinema to create a whole new genre of mass-media entertainment — the interactive movie, preferably published on CD-ROM complete with voice acting and perhaps even real-world video footage — dominated games-industry conferences and magazine editorials alike as the 1990s began. But for all their grandiose talk, the game developers clustered in Northern California were all too aware that they lacked the artistic respectability necessary to tempt most of those working with traditional film and video in the southern part of the state into working with them on interactive projects. Hal Barwood might have been no more than a mid-tier Hollywood player at best, but suffice to say that there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of other Hollywood veterans of any stripe who were willing to work on games.

In an online CompuServe conference involving many prominent adventure-game designers that was held on August 24, 1990, not long after Barwood’s arrival at Lucasfilm Games, Noah Falstein could hardly keep himself from openly taunting his competitors about what he had and they didn’t:

One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.

Falstein was in a position to learn so much from Barwood because he had been assigned to work with him as his design partner on his first project — the idea being that Barwood would take care of all the “basic” cinematic techniques Falstein enthuses about above, while Falstein would keep the project on track and make sure it worked as a playable adventure game, with soluble puzzles and all the rest.

Ironically given what Raiders of the Lost Ark had done to Dragonslayer, Hal Barwood’s one big chance to become a truly major Hollywood player, the game in question was to be another Indiana Jones game — albeit one with an original story, not bound to any movie. The initial plan had been to sift through the pile of rejected scripts for the third Indiana Jones film and select a likely candidate from them for adaptation into a game. But it turned out that the scripts were all pretty bad, or at least not terribly suitable for interactive adaptation.

The Azores is one of the many exotic locations Indy visits in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, all of which are brought to life with aplomb by Lucasfilm Games’s accomplished art team.

So, Barwood and Falstein decided to invent their own story, and thus went looking for legends of lost civilizations that might be worthy of an intrepid archeologist who had already found the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. “George [Lucas] has established a criterion for Indiana Jones adventures,” said Barwood, “and it’s basically that he should only find things that actually existed — or at least could have existed.” The fabled sunken island of Atlantis seemed the right mixture of myth and history. Barwood:

Our eyes fell upon Atlantis because not only is it an ancient myth known by almost everyone, but it also has wonderful credentials, in that it was first mentioned by Plato a couple thousand years ago. In addition to that, in the early part of this century, the idea was taken over by spiritualists and mystics, who attributed to the Atlanteans this fantastic technology, with airships flying 100 milers per hour, powered by vrill and firestone. When we found this out, we thought to ourselves, “Does this sound as interesting as the Holy Grail? Yes, it does.” Even though it’s a myth, the myth is grounded in a wonderful collection of lore.

The legend’s wide-ranging wellsprings would allow them to send Indy traipsing between exotic locations scattered over much of the world: New York City, Iceland, Guatemala, the Azores, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Crete, Santorini, finally ending up under the ocean at the site of Atlantis itself.

The game known as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis hits all the notes familiar to anyone who has seen an Indiana Jones film. It seems that the mythical Atlanteans were quite a clever lot, having harnessed energies inconceivable to modern scientists. The Nazis have gotten wind of this, and are fast piecing together the clues that will let them find the undersea site of Atlantis, enter it, and take the technology for themselves, thereby to conquer the world. It’s a fine premise for a globetrotting story of thrills and spills — silly but no more silly than any of those that got made into movies. There’s even a female sparring partner/love interest for Indy, just like in the films. This time her name is Sophia, and she’s a former archaeologist who’s become a professional psychic, much to the scientific-minded Indy’s dismay. Let the battle of barbs begin!

Barwood’s first interactive script really is a good one, with deftly drawn plot beats and characters that, if not exactly deep, nobly fulfill their genre-story purposes as engines of action, tension, or comic relief. Other game writers of the early 1990s weren’t always or even usually all that adept at such basic techniques of fiction as “pacing, tension, and character.” To see how painful a game can be that wants to be like the Indiana Jones movies but lacks the writers to pull it off, one need look no further than Dynamix’s Heart of China, with its humor that lands with the most leaden of thuds, its hero who wants to be a charming rogue but misplaced his charm, and its dull supporting characters who are little more than crude ethnic stereotypes. When you play Fate of Atlantis, by contrast, you feel yourself to be in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The game is full of callbacks to the movies’ most famous catchphrases.

That said, the degree to which Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is truly cinematic can be and too often is overstated. Games are not movies — an obvious point that game developers of the early 1990s frequently lost sight of in their rush to make their interactive movies. Hal Barwood, the Hollywood veteran brought into Lucasfilm Games to apply his cinematic expertise, was ironically far more aware of this fact than were many other game designers who lacked his experience in the medium they were all so eager to ape. Speaking to the science-fiction writer and frequent games-industry commentator Orson Scott Card in 1990, Barwood made some telling observations:

“The companies making animated games keep talking as if games resembled movies,” he [Barwood] said. “But they don’t resemble movies all that much.”

He granted some resemblances, of course, especially with animated film. The dependence on artists; the trickle rate of production, where you’re producing the game or film at the rate of only minutes, or even seconds, of usable footage a day; and the dominant role of the editing process.

Still, though, when it comes to the art of composing a game, inventing it, he said, “What it really resembles is theater. Plays.”

Why? Because as with a play, you have only a few settings you can work with, and they can usually be viewed from only a single angle and at the same distance. You can’t do any meaningful work with closeups (to design and program genuine realistic facial expressions just isn’t worth the huge investment in time and disk space). It’s so hard to make actions clear that you must either rely on dialogue, like most plays, or show only the simplest, most obvious actions.

In movies, it’s just the opposite. You control the pace and rhythm of film by cutting and shifting the action from place to place. The camera never gazes at any one thing for long.

The computer games of this era which most clearly did understand the kinetic language of cinema — the language of a roving camera and a keen-eyed editor — weren’t any of the avowed interactive movies that were being presented in the form of plot- and dialog-heavy adventure games, but rather the comparatively minimalist action games Prince of Persia and Another World, both essentially one-man productions that employed few to no words. Both of these games were aesthetically masterful, but somewhat more problematic in terms of providing their players with interesting forms of interactivity, thus inadvertently illustrating some of the drawbacks of fetishizing movies as the ideal aesthetic model for games.

All the other people who thought they were making interactive movies were “filming” their productions the way only the very earliest movie directors had filmed, before a proper language of film had been created: through a single static “camera.” The end results were anything but cinematic in the way a fellow like Hal Barwood, steeped throughout his life in the language of film, understood that term. His long experience in film-making allowed him to see the essential fact that games were not movies. They might borrow the occasional technique from cinema, but games were a medium — or, perhaps better stated, a matrix of mediums, only one of which was the point-and-click adventure game — with their own unique sets of aesthetic affordances. Countless game developers seemed to be using the term “interactive movie” to designate any game that had a lot of story, but the qualities of being cinematic and being narrative-oriented were really orthogonal to one another.

As in the first Indiana Jones movie, a Nazi submarine features prominently in Fate of Atlantis.

In later years, Hal Barwood would describe a narrative-driven game as more akin to a vintage Russian novel than a movie, a “continuous experience in a fictional world”: something the player lives with over a period of days or weeks, working through it at her own pace, mulling it over even when she isn’t actively sitting in front of the computer. The control or lack thereof of pacing is a critical distinction: a game which leaves any reasonable scope of agency to its player must necessarily cede much or all of the control of pacing to her. And yet pacing is absolutely key to the final effect of any movie, so much so that the director may very well spend months in the editing room after all the shooting is done, trying to get the pacing just right. The game designer doesn’t have anything like the same measure of direct control over the player’s experience, and so must deliver a very different sort of fiction.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis works because it understands these differences in media. It plays with the settings, characters, and themes of the Indiana Jones movies to fine effect, but never forgets that it’s an adventure game. The driving mechanic of an adventure game — the solving of intellectual puzzles — is quite distinct from that which drives the movies, and the plot points must be adapted to match. Can you imagine the cinematic Indy sticking wads of chewing gum to the soles of his shoes so as to climb up a coal chute? Or using a bathroom plunger as a handy replacement for a missing control lever inside a Nazi submarine? Puzzles of this nature inevitably make Indy himself into a rather different sort of personality — one a little less cool and collected, a little more prone to be the butt of the joke rather than the source of it. It’s clear from the very opening scenes of Fate of Atlantis, an innovative interactive credits sequence in which poor Indy must endure pratfall after pratfall, that this isn’t quite the same character we thrilled to in the movies. Harrison Ford would have walked out if asked to play a series of scenes like these.

This phenomenon, which we might called the Guybrush Threepwoodization of the hero, is very common in adventure games adapted from other media, given that the point-and-click adventure game as a medium wants always to collapse back into comedy as its default setting. (See, for example, the Neuromancer game, which similarly turns the cool cat Case from its source novel into a put-upon loser, and winds up becoming a pretty great game in the process.) Barwood and Falstein as well decided that Indiana Jones must adapt to the adventure-game genre rather than the adventure-game genre adapting to Indiana Jones. This was most definitely the right approach to take, and is the overarching reason why this game succeeds when so many other interactive adaptations fail.

The one place where the otherwise traditionalist Fate of Atlantis clearly does try to do something new has nothing directly to do with its source material. It rather takes the form of three possible narrative through lines, depending on the player’s individual predilections. After playing through the introductory stages of the game, you’re given a choice between a “Team” path, where Indy and Sophia travel together and cooperate to solve problems; a “Wits” path, where Indy travels largely alone and solves problems using his noggin; and a “Fists” path, where Indy travels alone and solves some though by no means all of his problems using more, shall we say, active measures, which translate into little action-oriented minigames for the player. The last is seemingly the closest to the spirit of the films, but is, tellingly, almost universally agreed to be the least interesting way to play the game.

The Team path, like all of them, has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to have Sophia around to help out with things — until she falls down a pit and needs your help getting out.

Although the message would get a little muddled once the game reached stores — “three games in one!” was a tagline few marketers could resist — Barwood and Falstein’s primary motivation in making these separate paths wasn’t to create a more replayable game, but rather a more accessible one. Lucasfilm Games always placed great emphasis on giving their players a positive, non-frustrating experience. Different players would prefer to play in different ways, Barwood and Falstein reasoned, and their game should adapt to that. “Socially-oriented” players — possibly including the female players they were always hoping to reach — would enjoy the Team path with its constant banter and pronounced romantic tension between Indy and Sophia; the stereotypically hardcore, cerebral adventure gamers would enjoy the Wits path; those who just wanted to get through the story and check out all the exotic destinations could go for the Fists path.

Falstein liked to call Fate of Atlantis a “self-tuning game.” In this spirit, until very late in development the branching pathways were presented not as an explicit choice but rather as a more subtle in-game personality test. Early on, Indy needs to get into a theater even though he doesn’t have a ticket. There are three ways to accomplish this: talking his way past the guard at the door; puzzling his way through a maze of boxes to find a hidden fire-escape ladder; or simply sucker-punching the guard. Thus would the player’s predilections be determined. In the interest of transparency and as a sop to replayability, however, the personality test wound up being replaced by a simple menu for choosing your pathway.

The first substantial interactive scene in the game, taking place outside and inside a theater in New York City where Indy’s adventuring partner-to-be Sophia is giving a lecture, was intended to function as a personality test of sorts, determining whether the player was sent down the Team, Wits, or Fists path. In the end, though, its finding were softened to a mere recommendation preceding an explicit choice of paths which is offered to the player at its conclusion.

The idea of multiple pathways turned out not to be as compelling in practice as in theory. Most players did take it more as an invitation to play the game three times than an opportunity to play it once their way, and were disappointed to discover that the branching pathways encompass only about 60 percent of the game as a whole; the first 10 percent or so, as well as the lengthy climax, are the same no matter which pathway you choose. Nor are the Team and Wits pathways different enough from one another to give the game all that much of a different flavor; they both ultimately come down to solving a series of logic puzzles. The designers’ time would probably have been better spent making one pathway through the game that combined elements of the Team and Wits pathways. Lucasfilm Games never tried anything similar again. The branching pathways were an experiment, and in that sense at least they served their purpose.

A substantial but by no means enormous game, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis nevertheless spent some two years in development, a lengthy span of time indeed by the standards of the early 1990s, being at least three times as long as it had taken to make the Last Crusade game. The protracted development cycle wasn’t a symptom of acrimony, lack of focus, or disorganization, as such things so often tend to be. It was rather a byproduct of the three pathways and, most of all, of Lucasfilm Games’s steadfast commitment to getting everything right, prioritizing quality and polish over release dates in that way that always set them apart from the majority of their peers.

Shortly before the belated release of Fate of Atlantis in the summer of 1992, Lucasfilm Games became LucasArts. The slicker, less subservient appellation was a sign of their rising status within the hierarchy of their parent company, as their games sold in bigger quantities and became a substantial revenue stream in their own right, less and less dwarfed by the money that could be made in movies. Those changing circumstances would prove a not-unmixed blessing for them, forcing them to move out of the rustic environs of Skywalker Ranch and shed much of the personality of a quirky artists’ collective for that of a more hard-nosed media enterprise. On the other hand, at least they’d finally get to make Star Wars games…

But that’s an article for another day. I should conclude this one by noting that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis [2]Once again, there was also a Fate of Atlantis action game, made in Britain with a particular eye to the 8-bit machines in Europe which couldn’t run the adventure game. And once again, it garnered little attention in comparison to its big brother. was greeted with superlative reviews and equally strong sales; even Steven Spielberg, who unlike his friend George Lucas was a big fan of games, played through it and reportedly enjoyed it very much. A year after the original floppy-disk-based release, LucasArts made a “talkie” version for CD-ROM. Getting Harrison Ford to play Indiana Jones was, as you might imagine, out of the question, but they found a credible soundalike, and handled the voice acting as a whole with their usual commitment to quality, recruiting professional voice talent in Hollywood and recording them in the state-of-the-art facilities of Skywalker Sound.

While hard sales numbers for LucasArts’s adventure games have never surfaced to my knowledge, Noah Falstein claims that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis sold the most of all of them — a claim I can easily imagine to be correct, given its rapturous critical reception and the intrinsic appeal of its license. Today, it tends to be placed just half a step down from the most-loved of the LucasArts adventures, lacking perhaps some of the manic inspiration of the studio’s completely original creations. Nonetheless, it’s a fine, fine game, well worth playing through twice or thrice — at least its middle section, where the pathways diverge — to experience all it has to offer. This game adapted from a movie franchise, which succeeds by not trying to be a movie, marked a fine start for Hal Barwood’s new career.

(Sources: the books The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski and Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; LucasArts’s Adventurer magazine of Fall 1991, Spring 1992, and Spring 1993; Starlog of July 1981, September 1981, August 1982, May 1985, September 1985, November 1985, December 1985, and February 1988; Amiga Format of February 1992; Compute! of February 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1992; CU Amiga of June 1992; Electronic Games of October 1992; MacWorld of June 1989; Next Generation of October 1998; PC Review of September 1992; PC Zone of January 2000; Questbusters of September 1992; Zero of August 1991 and March 1992. Online sources include Arcade Attack‘s interviews with Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood; Noah Falstein’s Reddit AMA; MCV‘s articles on “The Early Days of LucasArts”; Noah Falstein’s presentation on LucasArts at Øredev 2017.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is available for purchase on GOG.com.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 An Action Game was also published under the auspices of Lucasfilm Games, but its development was outsourced to a British house.
2 Once again, there was also a Fate of Atlantis action game, made in Britain with a particular eye to the 8-bit machines in Europe which couldn’t run the adventure game. And once again, it garnered little attention in comparison to its big brother.
 
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Posted by on September 28, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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