Matt's Review of Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts

Matt Barton's picture

When I first about Rob Smith's new book Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, I knew almost instantly that it'd be a valuable book for those of us concerned with videogame history. LucasArts (known earlier as LucasFilm Games) is one of the most important and influential of all videogame developers. While many, many people fell in love with classic graphic adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and my personal favorite, The Dig, earlier aficionados will remember the equally revolutionary Koronis Rift and Ballblazer. The task Rob Smith set for himself with Rogue Leaders was to give us an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at how all these games got made--and, without question, the man succeeded brilliantly. The only way you could immerse yourself more deeply in this topic would be to jump in a time machine and get a job at LucasArts Games yourself!

"When you want to publish the first announcement of a new LucasArts game, you pull out all the stops," writes the author in his introduction. One might very well apply that to "the first book about LucasArts." Smith has pulled out all the stops to create one of the best books I've seen yet on my favorite topic: videogames!

Smith is primarily concerned with game development, offering frequent quotations from members of the team and all sorts of extra material that document almost every stage of the process. Smith shows us the team brainstorming ideas, working through the implementations, and reacting to new technology and trends in the gaming market. The scope of the book is comprehensive--Smith takes us from the foundation of the company all the way up to the new Star Wars games for the Wii.

We might contrast Smith's focus with that of other gaming books, including our own, in which we focus almost entirely on playing games (and putting them in their historical context). Smith takes a different (and definitely more work-intensive approach!) by interviewing almost every member of the LucasArts team, delving into the development of every LucasArts game (at least all I can think of), and limiting his treatment to that one company. Rival companies and products (Sierra On-Line's King's Quest, for instance) are not mentioned. Although some might find this something to criticize, I think it works well for Smith's project: this is a book about one company and its projects, not a work of general history.

The story is told with a variety of means; the text is heavily supplemented (or overshadowed, even) by hundreds of full-color, often full-page illustrations and scans. Smith has stuffed his book full of concept art, packaging, screenshots, photographs, scans of design documents and notes, and even quirky things like the codewheels for the Monkey Island games. The design of the book is top-notch, with the kind of visual appeal that sucks you in for hours. On one page, you're looking at a storyboard for The Curse of Monkey Island; turn a few pages, and you're looking at a drawing of an octopus-powered submarine for Grim Fandango. If you have any interest whatsoever in how these games were made, you're going to find all these images and scans absolutely fascinating. Smith is to be commended for putting together such an excellent package; he has spoiled his readers rotten by setting himself such an incredibly high standard. If this isn't a labor of love, I don't what is.

Naysayers might dismiss Smith's work as a scrapbook rather than a coherent narrative. However, while Smith's text is minimal (he wants to show rather than tell!), it is well written, incorporating countless quotations seamlessly. Here's a good snippet that should give you a good idea of how Smith likes to tell his story:

Wannabe-pirate Guybrush Threepwood stumbled into the gaming spotlight as the hero of Monkey Island, ingratiating his carefully crafted demeanor into the consciousness of every player who followed his exploits. "The pirate theme came from one place: I hated fantasy," explains Gilbert.

Smith's desire is to show rather than tell the story of this company, but that's not to say you won't learn a lot just by reading the text. Even a rudimentary scan of the pages reveals all sorts of insights. For instance, while I knew that the scripting engine behind Maniac Mansion was called SCUMM, I didn't realize that there were many more programs involved, such as MMUCUS, FLEM, SPU, BYLE, and SPIT. How great is that?

The book is organized chronologically, starting with the early games and progressing through the decades to modern times. Roughly speaking, the book is broken into eight chapters and appendices. The chapters span across three to five years; Chapter Two "Adventure and Simulation" covers 1986-1990, for instance. Important games get their own sections in these chapters, making it fairly easy to zip right to your favorite game and read all about it.

Smith writes clearly and concisely, in a matter-of-fact style that draws little attention to itself. Smith seems to want to stay in the background, letting his characters (the developers) get all the best lines. One possible objection people might have to the book is that it's fairly difficult to read linearly. The discrete sections and all the images easily distract you from the textual narrative. This didn't bother me at all, but it does make it all-too-easy to flip through the book, skipping around, and not really giving the text its due attention. In short, this is a visually-oriented book, almost like a documentary in print.

Obviously, this book is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in LucasArts history. I mean, come on, how could any real fan of games like Monkey Island and Fate of Atlantis live without it? The old cliche "drinking from a firehose" certainly works here: you're going to be treated to all manner of materials that tell the story of LucasArts like never before. It's like personally going through the file cabinets of LucasArts, opening up manila folders jam packed with never-before-seen content for each of your favorite games. Indeed, Smith's text exists primarily to tie all this external material together; the lines between captions and main text tend to blur as you progress. While some might object, I enjoyed drawing my own conclusions about all this material.

The only issues I can imagine anyone taking with the book is its exclusive focus on LucasArts and lack of criticism or analysis. While Smith doesn't shy away from covering the occasional commercial failure, he obviously loves this company and wants us to as well. In short, he sounds more like a company spokesman than an independent critic, and he's not going to do anything to put the company in a bad light. Bad games such as Force Commander are mentioned briefly and quickly swept under the rug. Smith is content to let the developers tell their own story, painting a bright and rosy picture of the venerable company. As for analysis; again, we have to remember the focus and purpose of the book. This is a straightforward documentary-style history of one of the best and most influential software developers of all time, and Smith pays it homage with the sincerity of a true believer. While Smith doesn't write much or peer too closely at individual games, he does provide a wealth of wonderful images and other materials that I haven't seen anywhere else.

In short, I strongly recommend this book to all readers of this site, though particularly to fans of LucasArts. There is plenty here to interest adventure game fans, though of course the book also covers the company's many action and strategy games as well. The book's production values are sky high; this is a book you'll either want on your coffee table or displayed prominently on your bookshelf. I really enjoyed it and hope you will soon experience that pleasure yourself!