LucasArts: The SCUMM of the Gaming World
In 2014, legendary video game creator Tim Schafer announced a remastered Grim Fandango to a cheering crowd at gaming’s annual E3 convention. Sixteen years after its original release, players had a chance to experience an enhanced version of a critical darling so many had ignored. How could a game played by so few get such an enthusiastic response? The answer lies in the innovative minds at LucasArts and in Schafer’s own mad creativity.
Sierra Entertainment was the first company to enhance adventure games with imagery. Text-based adventures, for years the only game in town, had players typing keyboard commands and reading descriptions of environments, but Sierra now visually presented scenes and objects to interact with. After two simple games, Sierra designer and co-owner Roberta Williams began one of the most ambitious projects of the early 1980s: King’s Quest, a massive, complex adventure that became a genre template.
King’s Quest was the first to display a character, Sir Graham, on-screen. Players still typed commands to control him, but now they could watch him perform them. It strongly influenced Maniac Mansion, the first adventure game from LucasArts (known until 1990 as Lucasfilm Games). After developer Ron Gilbert watched his nephew play King’s Quest, he decided to make his upcoming B-horror game a graphic adventure too. But Gilbert hated the limited vocabulary of Quest’s text parser: He’d see a bush on-screen, but typing check the bush yielded nothing. Nor did trying plant, shrubbery or, in frustration, fuck you (the correct term? Bushes). So Gilbert built an interface around a joystick, allowing players to simply click on an object and select an action from an on-screen list.
The programming tool used to create Lucas’s Maniac Mansion was called, rather specifically, SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). Reducing the manual coding, it let developers quickly insert objects, locations and dialogue into games, permitting greater experimentation and improvisation. In Maniac Mansion, for example, a gag involving a character’s hamster that explodes in a microwave took only minutes to design and script. Developers were soon inserting whole puzzles and story elements on the fly. LucasArts exploited SCUMM’s flexibility for years, evolving the tool to suit each game’s needs.
In the early 1990s, gamers were excited about flashy 3-D shooters, such as Duke Nukem and the Wolfenstein series. In 1998 LucasArts’ Tim Schafer released a game featuring Mexican calaca figures, thinking the creepy look of the skeletons perfectly suited a 3-D graphic adventure. He set Grim Fandango in the Aztec land of the dead, a Mexican-inspired art deco landscape whose inhabitants embark on a long journey to their eternal rest. LucasArts built a new engine for 3-D graphics, abandoning the now old-fashioned point-and-click and lists of verbs; instead, players directly controlled characters’ movements by using the keyboard. LucasArts called its new engine GrimE (for, you guessed it, Grim Engine).
Tim Schafer began writing adventure games nearly a decade before Grim Fandango’s release. In 1989, Lucasfilm Games designer Ron Gilbert enlisted Schafer and programmer Dave Grossman to help with a pirate adventure that became The Secret of Monkey Island. Schafer’s over-the-top sense of humor generated the sillier gags, such as a fourth-wall-breaking circus sequence and a hell environment populated with mushrooms (because of course hell would have mushrooms). Grossman brought a drier humor, expressed in continual sarcastic asides and a Graduate parody in which protagonist Guybrush Threepwood prevents his love interest, Elaine, from marrying villainous zombie pirate LeChuck. The combination of slapstick and sarcasm became a quintessential series trait—further exemplified by its witty, Errol Flynn–inspired, insult-based swordfights.
Although the original creative team didn’t work on all the Monkey Island installments, Schafer nonetheless left his mark on the fourth volume, Escape From Monkey Island (2000), which used Grim Fandango’s GrimE programming engine. Escape ironically nods to this development during a sequence set in the grog-serving SCUMM Bar. Players learn the game’s iconic dive has been turned into the touristy, tropical Lua Bar. Threepwood’s irritated response to the change mimicked that of many fans toward the new engine.
Sierra’s early adventures were notoriously difficult. Death lurked around every corner, punishing players who moved in the wrong direction or failed to solve a puzzle they didn’t know existed. Players were killed simply for not noticing an item or clicking on the wrong pixel, and traps sometimes forced them to restart the game altogether. The continuous, often gruesome deaths caused some players to accuse designer Roberta Williams of sadism.
Like those in most LucasArts adventures, Grim Fandango’s puzzles are plenty difficult even though they don’t punish players with death. Yet death itself is still inescapable in Grim: In a story that draws from film noir and Mexican folklore, players control Manny Calavera, travel agent and Grim Reaper in the land of the dead, who sells travel packages to the recently departed. When Manny notices something fishy about one client, he uncovers evidence that his boss is in league with an afterlife Mob kingpin. Critics praised Grim for its intriguing, darkly humorous story. Jokes about mortality even appear in the game’s manual: While the instructions note that having many characters who smoke is true to Grim’s noir atmosphere, players are also reminded that “everybody in the game who smokes is DEAD.”
Grim Fandango enjoyed massive critical success, but unfortunately most players had tired of adventure games by the time it came out, and Grim was a commercial failure. The Escapist, a web magazine that profiled role-playing games, called Grim the “game you meant to play but didn’t.” After it flopped, Tim Schafer left LucasArts and formed the studio Double Fine. There, he created more action-oriented games that still featured his trademark humor and imaginative settings—e.g., a summer camp for psychic children (Psychonauts) and a fantasy world based on heavy-metal album covers (Brütal Legend).
Not until 2012 did Schafer announce a new point-and-click adventure game, when Double Fine launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. One of the most successful Kickstarter projects to date, it raised $3.45 million, and Broken Age: Act 1, Schafer’s first adventure since Grim, came out in early 2014; the second act was released the following year. Broken Age is about a boy and girl from different worlds. The boy lives alone on a spaceship with an omnipresent mothering computer; inhabitants of the girl’s planet perform human sacrifices to appease a monster. How the two are connected makes for the genuinely surprising reveal that closes Act 1.
Escape From Monkey Island (2000) was LucasArts’ final graphic adventure. Again, critics liked it, but gamers didn’t. This, along with Grim Fandango’s poor sales, caused LucasArts to abandon the genre and cancel sequels to its earlier hits Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle. Some Sam & Max developers left to form their own studio: Telltale Games, which acquired the rights to develop a new Sam & Max game. Continuing the adventures of the beloved bantering buddies—sarcastic PI Sam and his sadistic partner, Max—Sam & Max Save the World (2006) attracted old-school adventure gamers, and although players complained about its thin story lines and simplistic puzzles, the game reignited interest in a genre many had presumed dead. Telltale’s first success came from reviving another LucasArts classic: Tales of Monkey Island (2009) continues the story of Guybrush Threepwood as he tries to find the cure for a pox he accidentally releases on the Gulf of Melange. Tales marked the series’ return to point-and-click gameplay, though updated for a contemporary audience. The puzzle design was also a huge improvement over Telltale’s Sam & Max games, providing challenges without being as frustratingly obtuse as older adventure games could be.
Telltale recognized that gamers hated obtuse puzzles. One egregious example, from Sierra’s Gabriel Knight 3, had players collecting cat hair with masking tape to make a mustache…all to impersonate a character who doesn’t have a mustache. To avoid such craziness, Telltale kept puzzles simple and eventually eliminated them. In 2012, Telltale released The Walking Dead, based on the zombie comic book and TV series. Instead of solving puzzles, players faced moral dilemmas—choosing who gets to eat that day or whether to kill an infected companion. These decisions changed the game’s plot, and Telltale continued this pattern in later titles, creating distinctive Telltale-style adventures.
When Tim Schafer returned to adventure games with Broken Age, he knew old-school gameplay wouldn’t cut it. “We realized there really was always one verb, which was interact with, and a lot of it was context-based,” he said. Broken Age resembles Telltale’s Sam & Max Save the World, using classic point-and-click controls but eliminating on-screen lists. Critics and players praised its hand-painted look, absurd humor and deep story line. The stage was set for Schafer’s next big announcement: Grim Fandango: Remastered (2015), a second chance for the masterpiece almost no one played. Finally, Grim triumphed.