Grim Fandango & Indiana Jones
LucasArts treats the dying adventure genre with a dose of 3D
Shot One Glottis and Manny confer in chic art deco surroundings
Last year, we saw so few traditional point-and-click adventures that it became evident that the genre was dying out. Then there was the passing of Blizzard’s Warcraft Adventures. One of the last hold-outs seemed to be LucasArts, whose lifetime contribution to the adventure genre has been unrivaled. A visit to LucasArts revealed, however, that even they have succumbed to the 3D rage. But wait—let us not say "succumbed." Let us instead say that Lucas has embraced 3D technology, fully establishing that adventure games are not in demise… at least not within their walls. Their two latest products, Grim Fandango and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, may just show that true adventure can live on, even in (fully jargonized) "highly immersive, action-packed 3D worlds."

Shot Two Guybrush Threepwood spent many years wandering through SCUMM
From SCUMM, they come
The LucasArts SCUMM system (Script Creating Utility for Maniac Mansion) has become a much-emulated game development tool, setting the industry standard, and making application programming and hard-coding (which necessitated starting from scratch for each new game) a thing of the past. It has been ported to the Commodore 64, Apple II, IBM PC/XT, Amiga, MacOS, Sega CD-ROM, 8-bit Nintendo, Turbo Graphix 16, and Fujitsu TOWNS—to name just a handful. First used in Maniac Mansion, this versatile system has become the foundation upon which all of Lucas’ adventures were built, until now. Aric Wilmunder, father of SCUMM, was once quoted as saying, "Ahhh, this 3D stuff is a fad." While he acknowledges at this point that this is probably not the case, he still believes that we have a long way to go to realize maturity in 3D technology.

Wilmunder likens our industry to the film industry, indicating that on the technology timeline, we are probably somewhere between The Great Train Robbery and Birth of a Nation. He considers, "If you place several monitors side by side and run a bunch of 3D shooters on them, you are unlikely to be able to [quickly] tell one from the other. In cinema, if you were to screen six films with 3D effects side by side, it would be completely evident that they are distinctly different." He believes that over the next 30 years things are going to change dramatically and we’ll look back at our adventure history—at text adventures—and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Shot Three Tim Schafer’s last adventure, Full Throttle, shows further evolution in the genre
Night of the Living Day of the Dead
Lucas’ first adventure to dabble in 3D is Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango, which should be out in the coming months. Based on the Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead, this title is probably one of the most original and bizarre-looking games in development. Schafer (Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle) became intrigued with The Day of the Dead when he took a folklore class in college. "Day of the Dead used to be a quiet somber event, but the Mexican government, in order to promote tourism, decided to ‘beef it up.’ Kids now run through the street and try to force people to come and see their family shrine, and perhaps solicit a donation. And in the cemeteries where at night there used to be a quiet vigil, now we have camera crews and noise and interviews."

Fandango sports a beautifully stylized post-depression looking city straight out of film noir, and a cast of well dressed skeletons relating a tale of deception, crime and intrigue, all done with Schafer’s inimitable tongue-in-cheek subtle humor. A lover of real-time strategy, he toyed with the idea of designing an RTS game right after Full Throttle. After a rude dose of "what-was-I-thinking?" medication, he returned to his area of expertise.

Shot Four Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, together again
Schafer seems to take the nuts-and-bolts approach to game design. "At first I had the environment in my head, then when I realized that you couldn’t just walk around and look at stuff, I had to come up with a character. So who would be the coolest guy to be in the Land of the Dead? So it would probably be some Grim Reaper type guy—Death itself. So what would his job be? He’d be a limo or taxi driver transporting people into the Land of the Dead.

"Then I needed a plot. So… who would be opposing him? I delved deeply into many different movies that I was ripping off at the time, like Chinatown, which has a big real estate scam in it, and wanted to come up with a real estate scam of my own. This is hard to do in the Land of the Dead, because no one wants to buy a house there and live there for very long. So I finally came up with the idea that he would be a travel agent trying to get out of the Land of the Dead."

Dem bones, dem Spanish bones…
Death is personified (paradoxical as that may be) by Manuel Calavera, Manny for short, who is something of a bare-bones, dashing, Latin Humphrey Bogart in a double breasted suit. They had not initially planned on Spanish or Mexican accents, but after hearing the casting tapes, the choice became evident. Actor Tony Plana (JFK and Havana) provides Manny with a jaunty south-of-the-border accent, and ambient voices provide subtle commentary and "background hum" with English and Spanish interspersed. Manny’s sidekick, Glottis, is a difficult-to-describe blob of something that may have escaped from Ghostbusters; he takes a pedal to the metal approach to problem solving.

Mercedes Colomar is the femme fatale. She is one of Manny’s clients, stolen from nemesis Hector LeMans, in an attempt to fill Manny’s travel agent sales quota. In a four-act excursion, Manny and Mercedes traverse the underworld’s underworld, in an attempt to foil Hector and get the hell out of hell.

Shot Five The lush skyscape sings in 2D texture
Texturing vs. full 3D
Grim Fandango is developing technologically on the fly, which has made it a much more strenuous process than was, say, Curse of Monkey Island, which used SCUMM. With Grim Fandango, they opted to go with full 3D characters with 2D backgrounds, and this integration has been the biggest challenge.

"This is [potentially] a full 3D engine," Schafer says. "I would like to go full 3D. I want to see full 3D adventure games. And this engine is a transitory step. At this point in 3D, I don’t think we could have done the textured backgrounds that we’ve done in Grim. The backgrounds here are very detailed and very rich. And if we had tried to go full 3D, it would have looked like a Doom clone. We’ve learned a lot here about what to do with 3D, though."

Indiana Jones bids farewell to Nazi resistance
The adventure group at LucasArts that has jumped fully into 3D space is the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine team, slated to release its game next year. Headed by Hal Barwood (a principle commodity around Lucas for quite a while now), the design team is crafting something that looks quite a bit like Tomb Raider, but retains a greater sense of the classic adventure.

The story has to do with what exactly happened during the time of the Tower of Babel (once believed to be the main cause of your inability to speak Greek). We will finally see Indy in a post WW II world. "I simply got tired of dealing with those Nazis," said Barwood. Set during the Cold War in 1947, the game begins as the CIA has found out that the Russians have mounted an expedition to start digging up the ruins of Babylon, especially in the vicinity of the legendary Tower.

Shot Six 3D modeling allows Manny to glance around and focus on his surroundings
Sophia Hapgood is back, assisting Jones in infiltrating the Soviet dig site. What they find really happened 2500 years ago was not the Babylonians’ rather elementary attempt to reach heaven, but the construction of a machine to bridge the gap between two parallel worlds—between the Babylonians and Marduk, an entity that they believed to be a god. Unfortunately (or not) when the tower blew up, they destroyed it.

The Russians are intrigued because they believe there may exist here a weapon that would swing the balance of power in favor of the Soviets and against the Western alliance. Indy’s antagonist, Gennadi Volodnikov, is unable to reassemble the machine, but eventually they reach an area where an inscription explains that there were four disciples of Marduk who grabbed significant parts of the machine and fled. With this knowledge, Indy begins an around-the-world odyssey to gather the parts. In addition to ancient Babylon, Indy will explore the Tian Shan Mountain region in Kazakstan, the Aztec pyramids in Teotihuacan, Palawan in the Philippines, the Kingdom of Kush, and beyond. The Russians are Indy’s main adversaries through the first three quarters of the game, but then, as in the other Indy titles, something a little bit weird creeps in. We won’t spoil it by telling you what. Actually, Barwood made sure of this by not telling us what.

Shot Seven Is that E.T. on the ceiling?
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Hal Barwood
Barwood’s first game with Lucas was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis some years ago, and since then he has since spawned what some call Little Indy and Little Yoda (Desktop Adventures denizens). Now he is working on expanding the horizons of the genre.

"When you have that mouse in your hand and you’re stuck on this one puzzle, it seems to be a little too limiting, and I’m trying to move away from that. The element that will most directly effect this is immersive exploration. This means real-time 3D with worlds that are actually coherent, that you can run around in, and puzzles that pertain to the manipulation of those worlds, and… action. For example, Indy. Indy is an action guy." He knows, however, that many adventurers are hard-pressed to accept action elements—the mere thought of them makes many become immediately fumble-fingered, slack-jawed and glassy eyed. "Even in Fate," he continues, "the action elements shocked and annoyed all my colleagues here, so it is taking a bit of a chance. But I just couldn’t stand having a character like Jones who is a swashbuckling guy suddenly just standing there looking for a way to use the wax lips with the rhinoceros."

Shot Eight Death on the Bounty
Action-arcade wimps, take heart
If you don’t have optimum action skills, you’re not necessarily stuck—they are crafting the game as more of an intellectual challenge than anything else. Learning to do the sophisticated things you must do to physically explore the world is not really a matter of dexterity. For instance tossing Indy across a 10 meter gap and having him hold on by his fingernails is simply a question of being able to gauge the distance and figure out what to do. If you do want a first-person shooter, however, you may switch to first-person mode during combat sequences. But after combat, play automatically shifts back into third-person.

"Because the world we’re building is more intricate and complicated than anything we’ve done before, it’s unlikely that players would be able to negotiate it in first-person mode," says Barwood. "You would most likely stumble over things and fall into pits."

Basically, you have the control. If you don’t like to kill things, you can bump down the difficulty slider and suddenly they’ll be dropping like gnats. You can change difficulty on the fly even during combat. Beware, however, the "Indy quotient." A little monitor will know whether or not you wimped out, and will deduct points from your final score.

Shot Nine Glottis and Manny have quite the hot rig
It’s not only the difficulty level that determines the quotient. High-score seekers will have to play in maximum difficulty, solve everything and find all the secrets. Secrets include not only "touch this wall" secret places, but (since Indy is such a lusty treasure hunter) a great many tradable antiquities. Dozens of other puzzles exist as well. "There are elements with which, as in any 3D world, you need to interact in order to manipulate the world," says Barwood. "But it’s not a real world… so there’s a certain abstract quality to how you do the manipulation. We try as hard as we can to make it intriguing, but to still offer sufficient internal clues. There will be a fair number of the ‘flip-the-switch’ variety of puzzles, but also more complicated ones."

They haven’t forgotten how…
The thing about LucasArts’ adventure games is that you can grab one of their dust-covered products from a number of years ago off the shelf and still have a wonderful evening with it. On the other hand, you might pull out several of their competitors’ newer "slicker" adventures from the last year or so and be bored to tears. The soul of an adventure game has little to do with its externals, and this is something LucasArts continues to remember—something we hope it will always remember. And if they can do it in 3D, all the better.

by Cindy Yans
DEMO: Grim Fandango
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