The Maniac in the Mansion (Book Excerpt)

Matt Barton's picture

There are few computer games that evoke such poignant nostalgia as the early adventure games from LucasArts--or, as it was known in the late 1980s, Lucasfilm Games. The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Grim Fandango are all masterworks that have stood the test of time. Their brilliant dialog, clever stories, zany puzzles, and unforgettable characters make them true classics: they are as enjoyable to play now as they were when they were first released. The internet is full of sites dedicated to preserving and celebrating their memory, and well-supported endeavors such as ScummVM ensure that today's gamers will continue to enjoy these revered games on modern platforms.

What is about these games that warrant such attention? The best of the Lucasfilm and LucasArts games embody the spirit and capture the magic of cult classic B-movies and popular 80s movies like Steven Spielburg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987). They are laden with references and allusions to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books and movies--some popular, some wonderfully obscure and often terrifically geeky. It is hard to play one of these games without coming to feel like an insider, a member of a select group who recognizes Chuck the Plant as an old friend. These games resonate with the so many people because they are so deeply rooted in 80s and 90s pop culture. They show us ourselves and make us feel good about who we are.

However, above all else, the Lucasfilm games are tongue-in-cheek, always willing to poke fun at themselves and the gamer, to satirize and valorize the unique society they celebrate and helped create. In this chapter, we'll explore the early Lucasfilm games, the ones that laid the foundations for the breakthrough hits of the 1990s. While games such as Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders are lesser known today than The Secret of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, there is no question that these later games owe the bulk of their inspiration to these earlier projects.

The Magic Dance
The first Lucasfilm game we'll discuss is Labyrinth: The Computer Game, a work published by Activision in 1986. The game is based on Jim Henson's Labyrinth, a film produced by George Lucas. The Lucasfilm game team knew that the movie would generate tremendous publicity, and any game that licensed its content would do well in the market. However, nowadays the movie connection seems all but irrelevant; what is more important is that Labyrinth is the first true adventure game designed by Lucasfilm. While it looks and feels much different than the greater games that followed, we can see how the developers were already headed down the path that would lead to some of the best computer games ever made: accessibility.

Labryinth: The Computer Game (henceforth Labryinth) was originally developed for the Commodore 64, but a conversion was available for the Apple II platform. It was designed by a distinguished team that included contributions from Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Brenda Laurel, an interface guru who would write some of the most important books on human-computer-interaction (HCI). The goal of the game is to navigate a complex maze and confront the Goblin King, Jareth (played by David Bowie in the film). As with the movie, all of this must be achieved before the "clock tolls thirteen."

The game's manual sets the tone with a speech from the player's nemesis, Jareth: "You! You there! Yes, you. The one getting dirty fingerprints all over this nice, clean book." Even before the game begins, Jareth is already taunting the player. Unlike the villains in so many other adventure and role-playing games, Jareth is developed enough to elicit a personal reaction; he is not just another megalomaniacal wizard in a far-off tower that the player will not confront until the very end of the game. Instead, he is personal and omnipresent, always watching and trying to intimidate the player. Of course, players who have seen the movie will likely have a stronger reaction.

Although there are many interesting aspects we could discuss about this game, the interface warrants the most attention. Labyrinth is truly a tour-de-force in terms of interface design, showing off the skill of the Lucasfilm team. The first part of the game presents us with what looks like a simple text-based interface, reminiscent of much earlier games such as Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure, which we covered in earlier chapters. However, what the player will notice almost immediately is that commands are not entered by typing them into a parser, but rather by selecting them from a pre-defined menu. For instance, when a loud-mouthed nerd tries to distract the player's character and an attractive young girl at the theater, the player can select the option to "complain," driving him away. This system makes the game more accessible to most players, especially those unfamiliar with text adventures.
David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King.David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King.

The commands are varied and not always applicable. For instance, the player can try to go to the theater, but the game will respond that there is no theater in sight--the command only works in a certain location. Nevertheless, this system greatly diminishes the frustration of conventional text adventure games, where the player might literally try spend hours typing all sorts of futile commands to a parser that can only understand a tiny fraction of the English language.

What happens next is comparable to the switch from black and white to color in the film Wizard of Oz. After the player has bought a ticket, ate some popcorn, and settled in to watch the film version of Labyrinth, the game takes a startling turn--the text goes away, replaced by an image of David Bowie as Jareth. From this point forward, the game becomes a graphical adventure. There is also a subtle connection here to the movie, in which the main character is transported from the real world to Jareth's fantastic realm. Here, that fantastic realm is the world of graphical adventure games.

After Jareth is done taunting the player, the interface changes yet again, and now the player can control his or her character east, west, north, or south using the joystick. Much like King's Quest, which we discussed in an earlier chapter, Labyrinth presents a faux 3D-world, in which characters can move freely across the X axis, but the Y and Z axes are merged. To put it simply, objects moving "in and out" of the picture simply become smaller or larger, but can still move in front or behind each other. This setup presents some interesting possibilities for Labyrinth with its many mazes. To make navigation easier, a radar-like device below the graphic window shows the location of other characters. This information helps players track down helpful characters while avoiding Jareth's goblins.

Labyrinth sports a hybrid interface of text and graphics.Labyrinth blends text and graphics.Below the radar is the same text-based selection menu from the previous segment of the game. From this point forward, the players will navigate the maze with the joystick while interacting with objects and characters using this pre-defined menu. The combination of the two offers an intuitive if not always efficient system; it takes time to scroll through all the possible commands, and controlling the character with the joystick feels odd to gamers more accustomed to mouse-driven "point and click" interfaces.

Superficially, Labyrinth resembles Lucasfilm's pioneering online role-playing game Habitat, one of the earliest incarnations of what would later become the "MMO," of massively multiplayer online game. Although Habitat was not a commercial success, it seems plain that the team was able to learn from the experience and apply those lessons to single-player, standalone games like Labyrinth.

While few players wax on about Labyrinth as they do about later Lucasfilm games, it's an important game that established many of their conventions. Perhaps above all, though, it was a bold experiment in interface design.

The SCUMM Under the Mansion
The first true cult classic Lucasfilm adventure game is Maniac Mansion, a game designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick and released in 1987, a year after Labyrinth. Maniac Mansion is a marvelous game that introduced countless innovations and conventions that would become staples in later Lucasfilm hits. It was a very successful game that was ported to a wide variety of platforms, including the powerful Commodore Amiga and Atari ST as well as the NES game console. Like Labyrinth, however, it was originally developed for the Commodore 64, which still enjoyed an immense user base in the late 80s.

Maniac Mansion is primarily the vision of Ron Gilbert, who led the project. Gilbert had strong opinions about what made adventure games fun, and decried the tendencies of rival developers. In a 1989 manifesto entitled "Why Adventure Games Suck," Gilbert laid out several design principles that he felt were indispensable for adventure game developers. Although we will talk more about this document in the next chapter, it is evident that Gilbert intended Maniac Mansion as a testbed for what must have seemed radical ideas at the time, ideas that balked at the received wisdom about what made adventure games so compelling. Much to Gilbert's delight, his precepts proved quite sound.

Maniac Mansion has seven playable characters.There are seven playable characters.As with Labyrinth, the developers of Maniac Mansion were not content to tread the familiar paths established by such games as King's Quest. Instead, they introduced wild innovations, such as allowing the player to control more than one character--two others in addition to Dave, the protagonist. Each of these seven characters has his or her own unique personality and skills, which will in turn determine what the player can do in the course of the game. This variety, coupled with the many possible endings, gives the game much greater replay value than the typical adventure game.

The game's interface refines that of Labyrinth's, simplifying the command set to a list that can be displayed on a single screen (three rows and five columns; fifteen in total). Although the commands (or "verbs") would be simplified and consolidated further in future games, they still radically delimit the player's possible actions. Now players had a constant on-screen reminder of all of the tasks they could assign their characters. One of these verbs is "What is," which allows players to discover the names of viewable objects by scrolling the pointer over them. The pointer, by the way, is controlled by the joystick on the Commodore 64, since mice were not customary on that platform.

Although Labyrinth had contained cut scenes, such as the introduction of Jareth, Maniac Mansion took this aspect much further. There are many cut scenes sprinkled throughout the game, some of which are unique to a character. The cut scenes utilize the game's default engine, however, the only real difference is that the commands temporarily vanish from the bottom of the screen.

The cut scenes provide much needed exposition for a game with a rather unusual story, which seems derived at least in part from the 1960s TV-sitcom The Addams Family and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jim Sharman's bizarre musical of 1975. Maniac Mansion is loaded with allusions and references to the great Hollywood B-movies, and takes place in a surreal mansion inhabited by very strange and flamboyant people. The manual is worth quoting here:

There are weird people living in Maniac Mansion: Dr. Fred, a "retired" physician turned mad scientist; Nurse Edna, a former health care professional whose hobbies would make a sailor blush; Weird Ed, a teenage commando with a hamster fetish; and then there's Dead Cousin Ted, and the Tentacle, and somebody--or something--else...And what's a sweet young cheerleader named Sandy doing in Dr. Fred's basement?

Again like the film, the protagonists are teenagers who must confront all of this craziness. However, unlike Brad and Janet, the innocent young couple from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the teenagers of Maniac Mansion are often just as eccentric and aggressive as Dr. Fred and his family.

For instance, in most versions of the game, the characters Razor (a female punk rocker) and Syd (a new age musician) can steal Weird Ed's hamster, microwave it, watch it explode, and then give the remains to Ed, who promptly kills her (the player is merely shown a tombstone). Somehow, this episode somehow managed to evade Nintendo, who had a strict censorship policy regulating games for its game console. The company later expressed outrage over the scene, and the later European release excised it. The fiasco has made the hamster incident one of the most oft-discussed features of the game.

The goal of the game is to rescue Sandy, Dave's girlfriend who has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred. Dr. Fred has a maniacal plot to take over the world, though it is unclear at first how abducting teenagers will assist in this endeavor. Eventually, a twisted tale unfolds of mad science and disembodied tentacles from outer space. Nevertheless, though occasionally edgy, the game is far more silly than sinister.

This interface served Lucasfilm well for many years.This interface was used in later games.Although it is possible for the player's characters to die, death is far less frequent or punishing than in contemporary adventure games like King's Quest or Space Quest. "We don't want you to get killed all the time," Doug Glen, Lucasfilm's marketing director, told Don Clark of the San Francisco Chronicle. It is also more difficult to get the game into an unwinnable state, another common frustration. An "unwinnable state" exists when the player can no longer complete the game and must restart or reload to earlier saved position. Gilbert would refine his formula more in future games, many of which did away with death and unwinnable states altogether.

When the Lucasfilm team developed the code for Maniac Mansion, they did it with a custom-made scripting language called the script creation utility for Maniac Mansion, or SCUMM. Like Infocom's Z-code, SCUMM allowed Lucasfilm to easily port their adventure games to other platforms. All it took to release an entire library of adventure games to a new platform was to develop a single interpreter. It also made it easier to create new adventure games, since the bulk of the engine could be recycled for future projects.

Maniac Mansion met with critical acclaim from the mainstream and gaming press. Positive reviews ran in the Columbia Daily Tribune and The New York Times, and Computer Gaming World's Charles Ardai called it "clever and imaginative" and described the interface as "one of the most comfortable ever devised."2 It was clear that Gilbert's ideas were golden, and all of the great Lucasfilm games to follow owe a massive debt to Maniac Mansion.

Zak Gets Bent
The final Lucasfilm games we'll discuss in this chapter are Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, released in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Neither game achieved the fame of Maniac Mansion, but are still solid games that are well worth playing today. They were the first two games after Maniac Mansion to use the SCUMM engine.

Zak McCracken was quite ambitious.Zak McCracken was quite ambitious.Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders (henceforth Zak McCracken) was the last of the Lucasfilm games to originate on the Commodore 64, which by 1988 was certainly an aging platform. Probably the most interesting part of the game is its storyline, which puts the player in the shoes of a tabloid journalist, and the game seems inspired by the campy newspaper Weekly World News. Like the Weekly World News, the world of Zak McCracken is full of aliens and conspiracy theories come to life. The goal of the game is to help Zak stop aliens from "dumbifying" the public using the telephone system. The tabloid theme was superbly incorporated into the game, and the box even included a copy of the The National Inquisitor, the tabloid where Zak works. In addition to lots of funny articles, the newspaper also has hints to help players in the game.

As with Maniac Mansion, there are moments in Zak McCracken when the player can switch among protagonists, in this case Zak and four women and three animals. This convention was dropped in later Lucasfilm games, but perhaps the developers thought it was a key part of Maniac Mansion's appeal and thought it best to keep it in.

There are many references and allusions to Maniac Mansion throughout Zak McCracken, such as a gas tank that contains fuel for "for chainsaws only." In Maniac Mansion, players can find a chainsaw, but no fuel to operate it. Such inside-jokes are a nice link between all of the Lucasfilm games, and observant players will find many. For this reason, it is probably best for a modern gamer to play the games chronologically in order of their release--otherwise many of these delightful allusions will go unnoticed.

As contemporary reviewers were quite willing to point out, however, Zak McCracken was not without its flaws. Many objected to a set of randomized mazes. Mazes, while a common feature in ancient mythology, are usually controversial additions to story-based games like Zak McCracken. While some players greatly enjoy mazes, others find them tedious and confusing, and too much time spent wandering about a maze can ruin a game's pace.

Indy Cracks the Whip
After Zak McCracken, Lucasfilm's next adventure game was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (henceforth The Last Crusade). As the name makes clear, this is a licensed game like Labyrinth. However, the developers took substantial liberties with the content, and it is far from a scene-by-scene retelling of the film. It's important not to get this game confused with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game, a 1989 arcade-style game developed by Tiertex Design Studios.

The Last Crusade added action.Now with more action!The Last Crusade was the first of the Lucasfilm games to originate on the PC. By 1989, the IBM PC had become the dominant platform in the United States. The Last Crusade took advantage of the platform's EGA graphics standard to create sharper, more detailed visuals. It was also the first to offer mouse support from the beginning, an ability that makes controlling the game much easier and more precise. The list of verbs was also reduced to 12 and "look" was added, which lets players get lengthier descriptions of objects on the screen.

The game also features action sequences: fistfights and biplane flights. Both sequences use the PC's numeric keypad for control and were quite difficult for players who were unaccustomed to arcade games. However, as the manual notes, "Since many adventure game players prefer solving puzzles to testing their reflexes, we've provided opportunities for you to steer Indy around any and all fighting--if you're clever enough." Orson Scott Card, the best-selling science fiction author, was particularly impressed by this aspect of the game: "Last Crusade does something I've wanted to see for a long time. If you come into the game bent on quick, violent solutions, you'll end up playing a violent game. If you come in with a more clever, puzzle-solving style, you'll end up playing a subtle game of wits. You can win either way. The game becomes what you want it to be." The biplane sequences were based on the popular flight simulation games of the era.

Another interesting feature of the game was the "Indy Quotient," a scoring system reminiscent of the older Infocom and Sierra games. The manual describes it as a way to "improve on the choices Indy made on the big screen." In short, players gained points whenever they solved puzzles or found objects, building up their "Episode IQ."T he key innovation was that players could restart the game and find the many alternative solutions to these puzzles, boosting their "Series IQ." The maximum points for the Series IQ is 800, a score only attainable by either very skillful or very patient players. If nothing else, it was a smart way to make players want to complete the game multiple times. Ardai of Computer Gaming World praised the open-endedness: "You'll want to try out all the possibilities just to see what happens. What if Indy takes the Grail himself? What if he gives it back to the knight? What if he hands it to Elsa? The player becomes writer-director." The Lucasfilm games team had impressed everyone with their attention to detail and superb writing.

However, the best was yet to come.

Comments

Matt Barton
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The Proposal

For those curious about this posting, it's a sample chapter I put together for a book proposal on the history of adventure games. My plan had been to do a book covering the adventure game genre in the fashion of my book Dungeons & Desktops. Sadly, I was never able to interest any publishers in the proposal, so am now releasing this ill-fated sample chapter for your reading pleasure.

Who knows, perhaps some agent or publisher will see it and decide it's worth publishing after all! :)

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Chip Hageman
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Publishers

Looks great Matt. Have you tried to go straight to digital vis-à-vis kindle, ipad or nook? Not the best option from a collectors standpoint, but if sales are good it may open the doors to a future hard-copy release down the road.

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msimplay
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Fantastic

Oh thats's great I got into the Adventure games because of Matt Chat I'd love to read up on it because when it was in its heyday the genre completely passed me by.

Troy Wilkins
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Wow

Thanks for sharing that with us all Matt! Such a shame no publishers snapped it up, because as usual for your work it was well written and exactly the sort of thing I'd have no issue with paying to read. Well done, and I hope it does get taken up by a publisher who recognises it for what it is - nothing short of fantastic work!

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Bill Loguidice
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The present state of publishing
Troy Wilkins wrote:

Thanks for sharing that with us all Matt! Such a shame no publishers snapped it up, because as usual for your work it was well written and exactly the sort of thing I'd have no issue with paying to read. Well done, and I hope it does get taken up by a publisher who recognises it for what it is - nothing short of fantastic work!

The book market with traditional publishers is getting tougher and tougher, even if you're an established author. There was even a recent case where my wife and I were going to do an official Evernote book (with full support from the product's company no less), but we couldn't work out a deal with an interested publisher, and it doesn't get much more slam dunk than that. Matt and I have pitched other ideas that I just know would be more mainstream friendly (though still in the realm of videogames), and still no commitments. The reality is it's not just a good idea that you know would do well, the publisher's "buyer" needs to think along the same lines as you to green light the project. Even our book, Vintage Games, was an offshoot of a DIFFERENT idea we had, and we just went along with what we thought was a tepid premise from the publisher because we felt we could turn it into something special. In any case, since I first got into this around 2005, I can tell you that even in just five years, the publishing market has changed dramatically, with lower profit margins and far less risk taking.

With all the above in mind, once we figure out what's doing with the documentary (and any potential book version of the film), we may very well pursue starting "Armchair Arcade Publishing" to do the types of books that we want to. Naturally it's not easy to go it alone, but there are sufficient resources these days for self publishing where we should have no issue producing something of superior quality for a reasonable cost if we end up going that route.

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Troy Wilkins
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If that was to happen...
Bill Loguidice wrote:

With all the above in mind, once we figure out what's doing with the documentary (and any potential book version of the film), we may very well pursue starting "Armchair Arcade Publishing" to do the types of books that we want to. Naturally it's not easy to go it alone, but there are sufficient resources these days for self publishing where we should have no issue producing something of superior quality for a reasonable cost if we end up going that route.

You'd have my support for sure, and I'd do all I can to help spread the word!

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Matt Barton
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Matt Chat Reviews Lucasfilm/Lucasarts adventures

For those interested, here are my reviews of Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, and The Dig.

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msimplay
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Thanks I've watched all the

Thanks I've watched all the Mattchats so far

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