The Adventures of LucasArts

For most game genres, there are usually a handful of dominant influences, usually games or studios that held a formative role in the creation of the genre. In no genre is this more prominent than adventure games, with the legacy of Sierra and LucasArts casting an immense shadow, even to this day.

One would expect that with two studios releasing so many games in the same genre, there would be a significant level of competition, but that wasn’t the case for the adventure genre. LucasArts and Sierra embraced two distinct game design philosophies, and the huge demand for adventure games between 1989 and 1997 ensured that there were plenty of potential customers.

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Adventure games were often referred to as “point and click” adventure games, referring to the typical control method of using the mouse to interact with various scenes. This terminology possibly evolved from the ambiguity of the term “adventure game” — almost any game could technically be considered an “adventure”, after all. These games, however, typically consisted of a main protagonist or cast of protagonists who were required to interact with characters, collect miscellaneous items and solve obscure puzzles with the ultimate aim of solving a case, foiling a plot or defeating a bad guy. Abstract puzzles eventually became a core feature of the genre, and many games were infamous for the fiendishly absurd reasoning required to reach a solution; the Rumplestiltskin puzzle from Sierra’s King’s Quest (1984) comes to mind.

Another common feature of adventure games during the 1990s golden era was humour. They were famous for their offbeat plots, silly characters and endless gags. This wasn’t always the case, and there are several notable exceptions, such as The Dig (1995) and Gabriel Knight (1993); but regardless, adventure games in general became famous for their levity of tone and characterisation.

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Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993)

The two titans of the genre, Sierra and LucasArts, took distinctly different directions in their style, and most fans of 90s adventure games would be able to clearly identify the studio responsible for a given game at a glance. Sierra took a much more “gamey” approach to their titles — there were several ways for the character to die or for the plot to reach a dead end, and there was the ever-present “Score”, tracking how successfully the player was proceeding through the game.

In 1989, game designer Ron Gilbert wrote an article called “Why Adventure Games Suck”. Gilbert was the creator of Maniac Mansion (1987), one of the first games from LucasArts (then known as Lucasfilm Games), as well as lead designer of several more prominent LucasArts adventure games like the Monkey Island (1990 –) series and Day of the Tentacle (1993). In the article, written during the creation of The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) Gilbert lays out his major critcisms of the genre, many of them highlighting issues with some of Sierra’s most well-known titles. I doubt that Gilbert was directly criticising Sierra, but it seems that it was after this point that LucasArts games struck off in their own distinct direction.

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Day of the Tentacle (1993)

LucasArts adventure games were different to Sierra’s in several notable ways. First and foremost, there was the budget. LucasArts was able to draw on the significant cash reserves of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm, and thanks to the huge success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, these the funds were plentiful. Along with the Lucasfilm budget came Lucasfilm intellectual property — Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) is widely considered to be the “real” fourth instalment in the Indiana Jones saga.

However, it wasn’t the budget that defined LucasArts adventure games — it was the design. LucasArts adventure games were generally more light-hearted in tone, and there were no dead ends or player deaths. Puzzles were (usually) well-conceived and not overly cryptic, and the story and dialogue always took front and centre.

My first experience of adventure games was 1993’s Sam & Max Hit the Road. The protagonists are the anthropomorphic dog and rabbit duo of Sam and Max, freelance police. The plot parodied classic detective and buddy-cop stories, as well as several elements of American pop culture. Sam & Max was a delight to play from start to finish. Many years after I first played it, and long after I memorised the solution to every puzzle and the fastest route through the game, I still play it for its dark humour and biting satire of popular culture.

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Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993)

1993 was a big year for LucasArts with both Sam & Max Hit the Road and Day of the Tentacle both winning over critics all over the world. The games used the iconic SCUMM engine (first used for Maniac Mansion), and had an aesthetic that resembled work from a high-end animation studio.

I didn’t end up playing Day of the Tentacle until many years later, but I could instantly see why the game had won so much acclaim. Like Sam & Max, it featured the iconic LucasArts artistic style, humour and game design methodology. Day of the Tentacle was also an excellent take on the concept of time travel. The three main characters, Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie, become separated through time, and the solutions to some puzzles require changing things in the past so that the solution is possible in the future.

Central to the LucasArts legacy is, of course, the Monkey Island series. The core series began in 1990 with The Secret of Monkey Island, and was followed by Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge in 1991, The Curse of Monkey Island in 1997 and finally Escape from Monkey Island in 2000. The plot followed the adventures of the eternally clueless Guybrush Threepwood in his quest to become a “mighty pirate”, and his endless battles with his arch-nemesis, the ghost pirate LeChuck. Filling out the cast of characters is a menagerie of the finest from the creative minds of LucasArts — Guybrush’s significantly more competent girlfriend Elaine Marley, the Voodoo Lady, Herman Toothrot, Murray the Skull and Guybrush’s apathetic crew members, Otis, Carla and Meathook.

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Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

Monkey Island endeared LucasArts to gamers for its fantastic characters and brilliant humour, and the series is referenced multiple times in other LucasArts games. One unforgettable part of the series is the art of “insult swordfighting” — a pirate duel where the clash of tongues is even more important than the clash of blades.

After their seemingly unstoppable successes between 1990 and 1993 with Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max, LucasArts adventure games went quiet for a couple of years. Then, in 1995, they surged back into the spotlight with two brilliant games that challenged every notion of what people had come to expect from them. In April, they released the sci-fi biker game Full Throttle, followed by The Dig in November.

What was immediately apparent was the significant shift in budget. Both games employed professional voice actors, rather than the in-house actors previously used. Full Throttle’s cast notably starred Mark Hammill and Roy Conrad, while The Dig featured Robert Patrick and Mari Weiss. Joining them were other highly regarded voice actors, such as Steve Blum and Kath Soucie. Production values for both games were enormous — these were without a doubt some of the most expensive games the LucasArts had made to date.

In the case of Full Throttle, that investment paid out several times over. Expectations for LucasArts adventure games sales sat at around the 100,000 units mark — Full Throttle was the first LucasArts game to sell 1 million units. Despite criticisms that the game was overly short, it was nonetheless widely praised for its mature storytelling, excellent characters and exceptional voice acting. It also represented somewhat of a departure from the traditional formula employed by LucasArts — the tone, while still retaining some comedic elements, was notably darker and more serious.

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Full Throttle (1995)

As with Full Throttle, The Dig was another major departure from the humour that LucasArts was so well known for. This was a sci-fi tale from the mind of none other than Steven Spielberg. The Dig was initially conceived as an episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and was at one point considered as a possible movie. It was eventually decided to make the story into a game, and the initial design meeting included Ron Gilbert, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Noah Falstein — way back in 1989. That’s right — The Dig, finally released in November 1995, had first entered development six years earlier.

Development was fraught with budget overruns and script rewrites, and costs for The Dig soared. When it was finally released (long after the initially planned release date of 1992), it managed to pull some impressive sales figures — 300,000 by 1998 — but the huge budget meant that this was a commercially disappointing release. Unfortunately, critics also held mixed feelings about the game, and it didn’t manage to achieve anywhere near the critical response of other LucasArts games.

For what its worth, The Dig did eventually achieve somewhat of a cult classic status, and it is probably one of my personal favourite LucasArts adventures. The music, voice acting and art are all spectacular, and the plot is an excellent if occasionally cliched rumination on the nature of existence, life and survival. When it was released, some critics panned the graphics for appearing somewhat dated — however, 25 years later, this criticism is hardly relevant. The SCUMM engine games are timeless works of digital art.

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The Dig (1995)

In 1997, LucasArts released the last game to use their iconic SCUMM engine, The Curse of Monkey Island. As good as it was, interest in the adventure genre was beginning to wane, and adventure releases were becoming less and less frequent. They followed The Curse of Monkey Island in 1998 with another game using the new GrimE engine — Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango was a huge critical success, with some praising it as one of the best adventure games they had ever played. The plot followed Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a skeleton travel agent for recently deceased souls who were on their way from the Land of the Dead to The Land of Eternal Rest. The plot is based on Central American beliefs about the journey of a soul after death; one of the most recognisable examples of these beliefs is the famous Mexican festival Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

Grim Fandango’s ingenious interpretation of Central American culture was made further distinct by the aesthetic — the game is a neo-noir art deco masterpiece. The beautifully illustrated scenes are filled with loving details evoking aspects of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as 1920s and 30s architecture.

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Grim Fandango (1998)

What I find notable about Grim Fandango, particularly as an Australian, is that it highlighted Latin American culture, rather than the forever ubiquitous North American English-speaking culture that was so prominent in every game since the industry’s earliest days. Grim Fandango is by no means an exercise in cultural education, and the depiction of Latin American culture was more for the purposes of the plot rather than the other way around — but it was a refreshing change nonetheless.

Grim Fandango would also turn out to be the beginning of the end for LucasArts. In 2000, they released Escape from Monkey Island, the fourth in the series. Like Grim Fandango, it used the GrimE engine, and the game was both a critical and commercial success, although praise from the game was notably more muted. Some gamers also felt that something was lost in the transition from the hand-drawn illustrations of previous titles to the 3D rendered style of the GrimE engine.

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(2000)

In the early 2000s, LucasArts’ financial performance was poor, and they were beginning to show signs of not being able to keep pace with the rapid changes in the industry as it modernised into a more professional, shareholder-driven corporate beast. Several planned titles were stalled and then cancelled, and finally LucasArts decided to stop making games in the no longer profitable adventure genre. LucasArts was eventually downsized, and then downsized many more times before being acquired by Disney. With only a handful of employees, LucasArts now exists as little more than a licensor, buried somewhere within the juggernaut that is The Walt Disney Corporation.

Despite this sad end, the legacy of LucasArts lives on stronger than ever. The Sam & Max series saw several more releases under Telltale Games, who also released Tales from Monkey Island in 2009. LucasArts veteran Tim Schafer founded Double Fine Productions in 2000, where he was joined by another LucasArts veteran, Ron Gilbert, in 2010. The LucasArts DNA is readily apparent Double Fine’s excellent adventure-platformer, The Cave.

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Thimbleweed Park (Terrible Toybox, 2017)

The early 2010s saw significantly revived interest in the adventure game genre. Double Fine released remasters of Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, while LucasArts released remasters of the first two Monkey Island games. Meanwhile, in the midst of the indie game boom, dozens of independent game designers began paying homage to the LucasArts adventures they had played in their youth. The Journey Down series, Deponia, Primordia — all these games wore their influences on their sleeves, while many other developers took the genre in bold new directions on the roads that LucasArts had helped to lay in the 1990s. In 2017, Ron Gilbert returned to the scene at Terrible Toybox with the critically lauded spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion, Thimbleweed Park.

Though LucasArts is but a shadow of its former self today, it is important to remember that LucasArts is only a name — the creative minds that made it great have continued to shape the industry to this day, while inspiring a new generation of game designers that have ushered in a second golden age of adventure games. Today, the choice and diversity in the genre is far beyond what it ever was before.

The puzzles are still damn frustrating, though.

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At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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