All Your History: Adventure Games Part 3
What started as a personal side project had become the king of PC gaming. The adventure game genre consistently topped sales charts, led by the husband-and-wife-run developer, Sierra On-Line. With their signature personality, charm, and puzzles, Sierra’s games delivered high-quality content across a range of franchises. However, even though they were graphical games, the user input was still just text. Other, smaller developers were beginning to innvoate with the brand-new technology of the mouse, which allowed for more intuitive interaction between player and screen. While the first of these were rough, a small team from one of entertainment’s biggest empires would start making a few of their own. And once again, the genre would produce one of the greatest classics in PC history.
SCUMM and Villainy
Lucasfilm Games was the interactive division of George Lucas’ ever-expanding media behemoth. In Nineteen Eighty-Seven, employee Ron Gilbert decided to make an adventure game that parodied the teen-slasher craze sweeping movie theaters at the time. A meteor crashes near a scientist’s house, which forces him to kidnap cheerleaders to suck their brains out. Why? Because!
The game was called Maniac Mansion. Much like Sierra before him, Gilbert wanted to create a scripting language that could help him easily build out the world and its puzzles. With some help from Chip Morningstar, he developed a system he called the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Manison. It was a more creative name than it sounds: the acronym it would be forever known by was SCUMM. SCUMM would prove to be a robust and flexible system that Lucasfilm would use for years to come.
SCUMM took full advantage of the mouse. Players would not have to guess which verb and noun to type in: all the available controls were presented onscreen. All they had to do was click on the action and then on the object. This attention to intuitive gameplay went further into the design as well. Gilbert nearly eliminated player death in the game altogether. Death made sense in more reaction-based games, and didn’t really have a need to be in a puzzle game. Gilbert’s deathless approach was much more accessible to newcomers. To that same end, his game would not punish players who happened to miss one critical item six hours earlier. Sierra games were notorious for forcing players to pay attention to every last detail, since it might be important at some point later in the game. Maniac Mansion, by contrast, put everything players needed to solve a puzzle, near the puzzle. Simple, intuitive, easy, yet brain-bending: the Lucasfilm formula.
And Gilbert had one other idea: to take away interactive control for brief periods to show other parts of the world. Since these interludes “cut” away from players to show “scenes” of action, Gilbert called them: cutscenes. While he wasn’t the first to use them, he was the first to name them, and cutscenes have been a gaming staple ever since.
Throw in the fact that players had multiple characters to choose from with multiple endings, and the heavily replayable game was a hit in the making. There was only one problem: Electronic Arts didn’t think so. Lucasfilm’s publishing partner was not impressed by the idea of a comedy-horror game, and passed. The title should have been dead in the water. But Lucasfilm’s executives believed so strongly in what Gilbert was doing, that they decided to bite the bullet and publish the game themselves. Lucasfilm has been a major gaming publisher ever since. EA had unwittingly created a competitor.
The end result was a critically lauded game that sold decent numbers. It’s most important legacy was its scripting engine, SCUMM. Lucasfilm wanted to make a lot more adventure games, and they knew that the easy and powerful engine was their killer feature. And so Lucasfilm began development on a number of projects, and started staffing up to do so.
Two of these new hires were Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. They were assigned to help Gilbert with his next game. Gilbert wanted to do a whole new adventure, but didn’t want to make it in a generic fantasy like King’s Quest. He had a better idea: pirates! Outside of Disney theme park rides, nobody really did anything with pirates, which made them fertile ground for exploration. So he set Schafer and Grossman to work building out the actual maps, puzzles, and dialogue. And immediately, one thing became clear: the two guys were comedy gold. Like Maniac Mansion, the pirate game was supposded to be lighthearted. But from the minds of Schafer and Grossman came one of the first and only laugh-out-loud funny games ever made.
To make a monkeywrench, players had to find a wrench… and a monkey. One puzzle required an actual red herring. Even the main character’s name was an in-joke from their paint program: the artist just called him ‘guy,’ but the program referred to any sprite as a ‘brush.’ And most famously of all, players would have to win deadly bouts of insult swordfighting, in which the hero must trade sharp barbs with the enemy. Schafer and Grossman went to town on these, and even got some help from science-fiction author Orson Scott Card! The author’s young kids supplied plenty of insults for him to recommend. As if this weren’t enough, Schafer and Grossman also proved that they could make top-notch puzzles, that fit perfectly with Gilbert’s simple-yet-challenging philosophy.
The Secret of Monkey Island released in Nineteen Ninety and was instantly praised as one of the finest adventure games ever crafted. From the artwork, to the music, to the setting, to the puzzles, to the pitch-perfect humor of Schafer and Grossman, players and critics aliked agreed that Lucasfilm — now called LucasArts — had delivered something a cut above anything else on the market. Over time, The Secret of Monkey Island would come to be regarded as one of the defining games of the genre, and continues to hold a special place in the hearts of all who played it. It is telling that that same year, Sierra released King’s Quest V, their first point-and-click game. The biggest name in PC gaming released the newest version of their biggest franchise with brand-new technology — and all anybody wanted to talk about was Monkey Island.
If there was one lingering question, it was: just what was the secret of Monkey Island? The game in no way involved a secret on Monkey Island. Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman claim that they know the answer, but can’t reveal it… for fear of the monkeys.
While Sierra continued to be successful, for the next few years the adventure genre belonged to the rebel scum at LucasArts. Nineteen Ninety-One’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was considered a more-than-worthy follow-up to to the first game. It introduced an audio engine, iMUSE, which allowed for dynamic music changes with smooth transitions. It meant that the game sounded like it had a much bigger soundtrack than it actually did, and set the trend that all other games would follow in the years to come. Sam & Max Hit the Road was a zany cartoon game that was even zanier and cartoonier than LucasArts’ other games. That said, its biting satire of America was aimed at a slightly more adult crowd — though the zaniness kept the kids happy. It was based on a comic book series, although the games quickly became more famous than the comics ever were.
So it was that adventure games of the early Nineties were defined by a lighthearted, cartoony style that made humor and accessibility the cornerstones of their design. Schafer and Grossman went on to be game directors in their own right and stars of the industry. But while Sam & Max had some satire for the grown-ups, it was hardly what you would call a grown-up game. But as the market as a whole began to mature, some people wanted to actually make games for adults, with challenging environments and a more deliberate pace.
The most famous of these was not only one of highest-selling games of all time, but changed computing technology forever.
Tune in next time to figure out what you’re supposed to do in Myst