It would be pleasing if Ron Gilbert‘s career path was as capricious and convoluted as the plots of the games created with his ground-breaking SCUMM engine. Instead, it seems slightly conservative: his time at school spent creating small games lead up to a C64 BASIC extension for advanced graphics manipulation that earnt him a six-month stint at Human Engineered Software (HESware), programming games that would never see the light of day. Through an acquaintance there, he progressed to Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts) and a job porting the company’s early Atari 800 games to the C64. But his first commercial product – Maniac Mansion – was anything but conservative. Reshaping the very core of the prolific adventure game genre, its specifically designed Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion engine evolved such a charismatic, inimitably creative vibe that it would invent a new subgenre defined by many simply as ‘LucasArts adventures’.
“The story and original idea,” recalls Gilbert, “came from both Gary Winnick [the game’s celebrated artist] and I. We both liked strange humour and were big fans of campy horror movies.” Winnick concurs, narrowing the field to, “teenage horror movies where the kids always split up and go off into the dark recesses of a scary location on their own. I remember the first inspirational picture I drew – an exterior of a scary house with the sign ‘WARNING: TRESPASSERS WILL BE HORRIBLY MUTILATED’ out front as a joke – actually made it into the final game.”
A fully playable version of Maniac Mansion was included in Day Of The Tentacle
Though singular credit for the game’s conception is often given to Gilbert, it’s more properly shared between Gilbert, WInnick and programmers David Fox (author of Rescue On Fractalus) and Aric Wilmunder. “I was between projects,” says Fox, “having recently completed working on Labyrinth. Ron asked me if I could help out for about a month, figuring that was how long it would take to script the game. It turned out this was an overly optimistic estimate. I think I was on the project for about six months, and Ron continued polishing the game after I left.”
“SCUMM was a bit of an afterthought,” Gilbert reveals. “I started to program the gameplay in 6502 assembly language, but soon realised that it was just too complex and I needed a scripting language. I spent a good year just working on that, before the game started to come together.”
The (somewhat neutered) NES version
“The brilliance of SCUMM”, adds Fox, “was that it allowed us to control the characters onscreen, the game logic, multitasking and more, while still working with a high-level language, one that let us write using near-English commands. And because we were working in a high-level language, it was much easier to port to other platforms.” Easier, perhaps, but while its engine was undoubtedly a port engineer’s dream, some would argue that the game itself was no simple conversion (see: ‘SCUMM bags’).
Maniac Mansion, then, is a tale of two achievements: one of the engine that would go on, in true Purple Tentacle style, to take on and momentarily conquer the gaming world, the other being an onscreen escapade that would fire the imaginations of all who embraced it, later inspiring a TV sitcom and proving the perfect application, unsurprisingly, for its tailor-made technology. It chronicles the adventures of three teenagers, chosen from a variously skilled cast of seven but invariably led by class presidential candidate Dave Miller – the organiser of a mission to rescue his girlfriend Sandy from the clutches of Dr Fred Edison and his extended family of perverts, mutant freaks and, in the case of their Cousin Ted, a mummified, bespectacled corpse.
“Having multiple kids,” says Fox, “and multiple combinations of kids, made the game exponentially more complex to program, test, and debug. When I designed Zak [McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders – his second LucasArts adventure] I kept Ron’s idea of multiple characters, but I only had one combination of characters that would appear in the game. Mansion, on the other hand, can be played multiple times using the different combinations of kids, with many more outcomes.”
Falling somewhere between Revenge Of The Nerds, Porky’s and anything prefixed with the word Troma, Mansion was the early but accomplished blueprint for many a parodical SCUMM classic, one of which may justifiably be your all time favourite game: The Secret Of Monkey Island, perhaps, or Day Of The Tentacle, Full Throttle or, indeed, Mansion itself.
The seven selectable characters. Bernard (third from left) returned in Day Of The Tentacle
Bad horror movies, Gilbert identifies, were the game’s spiritual origin. “Gary and I tried to pull every cliché we could think of into the game and really make fun of the genre. Everyone in it was a stereotype. A little known fact is that most of the characters in the game are based on real people Gary and I know, but I’m not saying who for fear of reprisals.” Consider it a necessary breach of the journalist code, then, that when we reveal that Razor was inspired by Winnick’s girlfriend and that Dr Fred’s deviant nurse wife Edna was based on Gilbert’s mother, we also withhold the source of that information, saving that person the inconvenience of joining a witness protection programme even though we may now have to do so ourselves.
“Gary and I did a very complete design upfront,” explains Gilbert, “but once programming started it was a big free-for-all. He would be doing the art and David and I would program it in, and the writing was happening as we programmed.” Maniac Mansion, he admits, is not a model for how a project should be run. “Because I had to create the entire SCUMM system, it was about a year late, and I was not a very popular person with management for several months, but I think they believed in the project. It was also the first game that LucasArts published themselves. Before that, they were just the developer and all their games were published by companies like Activision, Atari, and Epyx, so this was a big step. A lot was riding on it.”
The game’s interface was far more user friendly than traditional text parsers
“Initially,” recalls Winnick, “Ron and I actually developed a very basic, board game-style version of the game that was playable on paper. Ron figured that if we could get that to work and it was entertaining, we could translate that over to the computer. I don’t remember all the nuances of the paper version – I mainly remember the floorplan of the mansion we developed as the ‘game board’. We had a basic outline of the walls and I created acetate overlays for each level of the mansion with details of the rooms. I believe we may have also had cards representing the characters and events.”
“Ron and Gary’s design,” Fox elaborates, “laid out the overall flow of the game. But none of the dialogue was written yet – just a rough outline of which scenes needed to happen when, and how the story was to move forward. When Ron and I began coding, we also wrote the dialogue for the characters, and choreographed their movement on the screen. I saw the art that Gary drew, and sick ideas came into my head about what to do with the objects in the rooms. My favourite was the hamster in the microwave oven. I didn’t tell Ron about it ahead of time – just programmed it in and showed it to him. He loved it.”
As the team’s innovation crossed the boundary between storytelling and game scripting, however, one boundary in particular was shattered – that of the existing adventure game parser interface. Granting the player an essential but limited dictionary of on-screen verbs, it inspired its sub-genre’s other, more defining moniker: point and click. “Soon after [writing the story],” reveals Gilbert, “I decided that I was sick and tired of text parsers”.
“Ron was definitely the driving force,” asserts Fox. “He’d gather all of us game designers around a computer and demonstrate the Sierra games. He’d then lead us in a discussion on their user interface and gameplay problems. It was his idea that a game should be fun to play, and shouldn’t punish you for trying something you might do in the real world. For example, in one of those games, picking up a piece of broken mirror would kill you – you’d bleed to death. I know that in the real world I can successfully pick up a broken piece of mirror without dying. Designing this type of gameplay struck Ron as sadistic behaviour on the part of the programmers, who were also artificially trying to lengthen the game by having lots of non-obvious ways to die.”
Although it was possible to die, Maniac Mansion was considerate in its use of such scenarios
“Although you were in a complete fantasy world,” adds Winnick, “Ron felt that its internal logic still had to support the suspension of disbelief based on a consistent set of rules. Stupid, adventure game surprise death, where you just had to expect it around every corner, then learn by dying not to do that again when you loaded your saved game didn’t make any sense to us. It was one thing if you stood under the exhaust of a rocket as a countdown was clicking away, it was another thing entirely if you’re walking along minding your own business and a 16-ton weight randomly drops out of the sky onto your head.”
Was there a concern that, by limiting the player to the new system’s tight folio of actions, the game would become over-simplified? “Not really,” says Gilbert, “I knew from playing a lot of adventure games that true complexity did not come from second-guessing the parser, but from how the objects could be applied to each other. If you compare Maniac Mansion to Monkey Island, though, it’s a lot cruder and there are a lot more places where you die and the game can end in a no-win state. Those were lessons learned.”
By the time the game’s many platform iterations had hit their markets, the original Mansion team were already advancing both the engine and its application, following different but complementary paths that now equally decorate the LucasArts legend. “The sequel for Maniac Mansion” says Gilbert, “didn’t happen for years after the original was released. David Fox wanted to do a game [McKracken], so that became the next one and I focused on the SCUMM system. I think I worked on the Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade adventure game because it was a rush project that the company needed. By that time I was thinking about Monkey Island. I had always had this story idea for Maniac Mansion II that involved going back in time.”
Though it would fall upon Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman to tell that story, few would argue that the ensuing tale (this time of two tentacles) wasn’t of a calibre worthy of another hallowed place in LucasArts’ hall of adventuring treasures.