Rogue Leaders book

Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts book review

LucasArts.

The mere mention of this name is sure to elicit an involuntary emotional response from countless adventure gamers. With the exception of Sierra, no other company has come close to the kind of intense, almost personal connection longtime genre fans have shared with LucasArts. But almost a decade after their last adventure, those feelings are not what they once were. Many who adored the developer as a pioneer and champion in the glory days of adventure games now feel like a jilted lover seething from betrayal and unrequited affection. LucasArts broke player hearts in turning its back on the genre and never looking back. Some have never forgiven them.

Yet still we care, don’t we? For better and worse, the company who brought us such enduring classics as Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango will always be synonymous with the genre’s heyday, and many of their games remain benchmarks of quality even years after release. There may be no foreseeable future together, which is truly lamentable, but there’s no denying the rich adventure legacy LucasArts has left for us to fondly remember forever.

This legacy is front and center in Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, a new hardcover released this month by Chronicle Books. Written by industry veteran Rob Smith, the book sets out to explore the first 25 years (and counting) of game production by the company once known as Lucasfilm Games. Including titles both internally and externally developed, LucasArts’ extensive catalogue extends well beyond adventures, of course, dating right back to its inception, and the genre represents only a proportionate segment of the book. Still, it’s an interesting, if rather abbreviated, historical overview of one of gaming’s most prestigious and recognizable contributors.

At first glance, you’ll probably be impressed by the book’s size, measuring 9 x 11 inches and weighing in at 256 pages… Actually, at first glance you’re likely to go a bit cross-eyed making out the cover, which is a 4-layered lenticular image – you know, the optical illusion-like blending of images that only comes into focus from one particular angle. If you close one eye and squint, then, you can make out a triumphant pose from Purple Tentacle against its bold, primary-coloured backdrop. The rest of the time it looks mainly like Indianabrush Vaderwood. Not the most aesthetically pleasing of covers, but certainly an attention getter, which should zest up your coffee table if nothing else.

And make no mistake: Rogue Leaders is a coffee table book. Despite early marketing promises of being “the first substantive survey of a videogame company”, the only thing particularly substantive about Rogue Leaders is its heft. That’s by no means an outright condemnation of it, simply an observation to help shape expectations. Covering over a hundred different games all told is no small feat, but the fact remains that the book is essentially a fly-by look at the company’s history.

 

 
Concept art for Maniac Mansion

But what a history it’s been. Few game companies have even lasted a quarter century, so it’s no surprise that the years have brought both highs and lows, innovation and stagnation, risk and retreat, plus light and dark sides of the Force. Oh yes, there are more than a few pages devoted to the most pervasive of brands, that little trifle called Star Wars. But while it’s true that LucasArts has increasingly favoured its space-faring cash cow in recent years, at times to company and gamer detriment alike, that wasn’t always the case, and fortunately Rogue Leaders devotes attention to the full range of platforms, genres, and individual titles that made the company what it is today.

Another niche audience, for example, might be equally interested in Rogue Leaders, as the early LucasArts flight sims were every bit as accomplished as their adventure counterparts, and the achievements of these games were instrumental in getting the once-fledgling company itself off the ground. Over the years, however, LucasArts has pretty much done it all in one form or another: strategy, RPGs, shooters, platformers, MMOs, even puzzle games and children’s titles. Whatever one’s personal gaming flavour, there’s a little something here for everybody.

The operative word is once again “little”, mind you. No game is given much in-depth analysis, often providing little more than a production synopsis before moving right along. Fortunately (and entirely justifiably), the classic LucasArts adventures get a fair degree of focus, at least relatively speaking. With particular emphasis on Ron Gilbert’s now-famous script creation utility, followed by the formation of SCUMM-U, the one-month “university training facility” for designer “Scummlets” like Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, the genre’s importance in the early ‘90s is firmly established in Rogue Leaders, touching not only on hit titles like Sam & Max Hit the Road and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis but even on the lesser lights like Loom and The Dig. Echoing the company’s own changing attitudes, however, the later adventures are given shorter shrift than their predecessors. They aren’t overlooked entirely, but somehow the latter two Monkey Island games and Grim Fandango merit little more combined content than Secret Weapons Over Normandy. Yeah, I can’t figure it out, either.

 

 

 

 

What Day of the Tentacle might have been

Still, there are some nice behind-the-scenes anecdotes offered to balance the factual details, if once again rather few and far between. From Gilbert’s hiring as a summer temp (and simply never leaving) to Schafer and Grossman’s friendly rivalry about who started first (arriving on the same day and mere minutes apart), there’s just enough personal touch to make the read more accessible. One of the highlights is the story of Schafer’s botched phone interview, in which he unwittingly confessed to pirating one of the company’s first games, only to cleverly recover by submitting his resume in the form of a cartoon with a text adventure cover letter. It’s not only an amusing story in its own right, but it’s a revealing glimpse into a different era of the industry, when image scanners still cost as much as cars.

Sprinkled throughout the chronicle are interview quotes reportedly published for the first time. Many are from corporate types detailing company perspectives over the years, but you’ll also hear from such designers as Hal Barwood (Indiana Jones), Gary Winnick (Maniac Mansion), and David Fox (Zak McKracken), as well as those mentioned above. Never probing too deeply, there are nevertheless some nuggets to be found, such as Grossman comparing graphic adventures to “puppet theater” rather than the “film-quality cinematic extravaganza” they’re often expected to be today, or an explanation of the Gilbert-coined “funativity scale” by which early projects were internally measured.

Continued on the next page...



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