A History Of Games Developer And Publisher LucasArts

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A Genre 20 years in the Making

Greetings again retro-enthusiasts. Welcome to the first episode of a multi-part series exploring one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) adventure game developer in the history of PC gaming. For those familiar with consoles and perhaps even only modern PC gaming, here is a primer about adventure games:

In the early 1990s, a new genre of PC gaming was just approaching its prime. Based on the earlier text adventures of the 1980s, wherein you played what was essentially an interactive novel with different branching paths, the adventure game of the 90s added to the text-adventure formula some impressive graphics and a fleshed out story. Because developers in the 90s no longer needed to describe everything that was happening in text (thanks to graphical advances that came with the evolution of the microchip in the 90s), developers were now free to make their stories much more interesting.

Considered by many to be the father of the modern adventure game, LucasArts, a relatively small company at the time produced a first in the gaming world - a graphical adventure game called Labyrinth in 1986. This would be the springboard for the company’s best forays into the adventure genre - including Day of the Tentacle, Curse of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango (all of which will be covered in this series).

LucasArts then went and upped the ante even further by developing a scripting language called SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), which became the basis for the future games created by the company. Everything from Day of the Tentacle to Curse of Monkey Island ran on a version of the SCUMM.

Shortly after having completed Day of the Tentacle however, things took a turn for the worse in the adventure genre. The year was 1993 and both Nintendo and Sony had changed the landscape of the gaming industry by introducing 3D gaming to the public. Once people caught a glance of Mario 64 and all its blocky glory, they were in love. PC graphics card makers, who had worked with Nintendo and Sony were now ready to release their newest cards that rendered in 3D. With this change from 2D to 3D, the company who had ushered in a revolution in story telling would see their games be pushed to the back of the shelves.

LucasArts managed to release Full Throttle, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango after this schism in the PC games industry. Full Throttle was critically acclaimed for its story and fresh ideas, but the graphics prevented this overlooked classic from being ushered into the hall of fame at the time, the same became the case for the Curse of Monkey Island. Grim Fandango had to be changed however, to adapt to the changing market.

Released in 1998, Grim Fandango no longer retained LucasArts' traditional 2D interface and graphics, instead, it was rendered in 3D. The reviews at the time thought the graphics were good, but that the gameplay suffered from the change, becoming far more cumbersome than it had ever been. However, this still didn’t prevent Fandango from snatching a Game of the Year award for its excellent narrative and dialog.

From 1998 until 2005, adventure games underwent a “Dark Age”, as the consumer market became increasingly more interested in the FPS and Action genres. Games were fast-paced, darker, and had less story than ever, the complete antithesis of the LucasArts product. To make matters even worse, Tim Schafer, the visionary behind all the games listed in this article, abandoned ship after Grim Fandango because of the company’s policies and with him went a good portion of the adventure game developers.

Two good things came from this internal split at LucasArts. The first is that Tim Schafer went on to found a company called Double-Fine Productions which released an amazing sleeper called Psychonauts in 2005, and is now looking to release Brutal Legend this year. The second is that the team behind Sam&Max founded a company called TellTale Games, which has thus far found immense success releasing episodic games in the Sam&Max Universe.

Perhaps we are on the verge of an adventure gaming renaissance, now with the games having evolved to suit a 3D medium, rather than resisting it as they did in the 90s. Come back next time, when we take a look at one of LucasArts first games, Day of the Tentacle.

This post is part of the series: Commentary on LucasArts

This series explores some of greatest games to come out of LucasArts. Enjoy!

  1. LucasArts Retro Part 1 - A Primer
  2. LucasArts Retro Part 5: Outlaws
  3. LucasArts Retro Part 4: Full Throttle
  4. LucasArts Retro Part 3: The Curse of Monkey Island
  5. LucasArts Retro Part 2: Day of the Tentacle