Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memoriam LucasArts (1982-2013)

At this time of writing, it’s easy to assume how most people have woken up to the disastrous news about one of the most iconic studios in gaming history. Dubbed as ‘just another foul move in the shit-spewing scheme of the vile company that is Disney’ and ‘a thing we all saw coming’, among others, it stands to reason that this is a departure that strikes deep in the hearts of many old-school gamers out there. Me included.

I am, of course, talking about the recent closure of LucasArts (LA), dead by the hands of Disney.
It’s tempting to put on your rose-tinted glasses and go on a melancholic killing spree throughout this article; yet I’ve been thinking about this move a lot in the last 12 hours and realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, fellow adventure gamers, my frustration and sadness is equally big, and I frankly feel like watching my favorite childhood tree being demolished for an apartment complex. Let’s start out by reminiscing; get to the good parts first.

It struck me today that LA is, in fact, just about as old as I am and that is a beautiful symbolism for something that has had such a huge impact on my life, even to this day. To the uninitiated, LA has blessed us all with a long series of great adventure games all throughout the 80’es and 90’es, mostly remembered for such awesome titles as Monkey Island, Loom, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road, just to mention a few. Some of the young kids might say “NUH-UH!! Telltale does Monkey Island, nub!” but no, Telltale took up Sam and Max and Monkey Island both and developed them onwards, which in my eyes was a wise move and resulted in some rather decent games (hey, at least compared to that Monkey Island 4 that we don’t talk about…). For me, when thinking back on the things LA has provided me with, there are so many places to begin. My days were still young, when I sat down with a couple of friends and started playing Day of Tentacle for the first time. As I have mentioned before, English isn’t my primary language, but I honestly owe LA a lot for helping me on the way.

Why?

Because they gave every.single.edutainment publisher in school the rear wheel and drove off into the horizon with games that made it interesting to learn English. Some of the jokes in, say, Day of the Tentacle were easy enough to laugh at with minimal language-skill (invisible ink+rare stamps, anyone?). Whereas the Monkey Island games wouldn’t let you progress beyond sword fighting 101, unless you could go beyond what it meant to fight like a cow. How many hours did we spend, heads buried in dictionaries, to find out what it meant to be as ‘repulsive as a monkey in a negligee’ which ‘looks that much like your fiancée’?

Edutainment aside, these games also offered some extremely imaginative stories. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the one, single best desription for LucasArts storytelling. And I’ve ended up with ‘clever’. They were smart, well-thought of and truly came from so creative minds that managed to think out simple, yet appealing, universes that to this day keep inspiring me for my own surreal fantasy world of Heureka. One would think a twisted Caribbean with a Guy.Brush character and comical zombie pirate could only go so long, as storytelling went. Only it spawned three insanely good and funny games with memorable characters who people quote even to this day.

The thing with LA games is that everyone sort of seems to have his or her own favorite. While Day of the Tentacle will remain the uncrowned champion to me, several others cling to Threepwood and Co. Then I have a handful of friends who were into the Full Throttle rough environment, the even more absurd universe of Sam and Max (another close favorite of mine) and I could go on. Barely even mention all the Star Wars games that I sadly had very little chance to try out back in the day.

All that being said and done, I believe it’s important to include the often overlooked ‘Zombies ate my Neighbors’; a game that perhaps didn’t offer much in terms of edutainment, but sure as hell made it funny to blast up zombies throughout 55 levels of ghoulish delight. Again, I must say - clever thinking. Making such a basic and strange concept work is, for me at least, a hallmark of art.

But all good things come to an end.
I’d like to be outraged about seeing the end of such a great studio. I still play the first three Monkey Island games and have my Day of the Tentacle discs (and the obnoxious copy protection!!) around. Seeing the little, golden man on the logo gives me the thrill of nostalgia; a reminder of when times were simpler, the future looked brighter and the world generally a better place. In a psychological sense, the closure of LA strikes close to home to several of us, because it’s a powerful symbolic for previous, great times; who could blame us for getting upset? We do too, when we hear the old owner of our favorite childhood candy store died, even though we haven’t spoken to him for 10 years.

To me, that’s what LA eventually became. I suppose I should’ve shown them more interest, perhaps I owed it to them, over the last couple of years. Only I didn’t. When the adventure game genre started dying out (ironically, around Grim Fandango, a game about…death?) so diminished the perhaps biggest cardinal trait of LA. I’ll admit I never played Grim Fandango; at that time I still stuck to the old favorites of ‘Pick Up’, ‘Talk To’ etc. And I just assumed LA would stand tall and mighty, like a weather-beaten mastodon of a mountain that’d endure even the mightiest challenge. Because, that’s what childhood memories do, right?

Sadly, no.

I’m no expert in marketing, neither am I in any position to say what is right or how LA could possibly have survived. IF it could have survived at all. Perhaps times demanded a change that LA couldn’t provide? Perhaps it really has outlived its time and purpose; perhaps it was simply meant for another decade, when games came in cardboard boxes and you could call hotlines for help. A time when designers dared play, fool around and due to the simple nature of games could easily make changes and improvisations late in the process.


I think it was.

In these days, where most creative thinking seems to be done in terms of obnoxious ways to improve DRM, I believe we should pause to look back on LA that represents not only a developer, but a special era of gaming. It is something we could perhaps all take lessons from; developer and consumer alike. Perhaps the time isn’t right for a resurrection of the genre at the present time; perhaps we will see something grand rise from the ashes like a zombie pirate, in a distant future. But for now, the innovation, boldness and sense of immersion is something a lot of modern games, gamers and developers could take lessons from.
That, and first and foremost, cleverness.

Join me tonight, and play YOUR favorite LA-game. And remember the better times.

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