The Making Of: Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders

Stuck between Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, wedged in beside Halloween monsters and leather-skinned pirates, you’ll find Zak McKracken, tabloid correspondent for all things paranormal, providing a jolt of Judge Reinhold-styled white-collar graft to a genre otherwise synonymous with tough guys, teenagers and freaks. Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders is perhaps the most grown-up of the Lucasfilm adventures: it may hinge on UFOs and Groucho Marx nose-glasses, but with its day jobs, cash cards and phone bills, it has some thoroughly adult trappings. It’s also one of the least exploited: most of its neighbours became franchises, yet Zak, despite its smart script and Elvis sightings, would have to make do with a motley group of hot-blooded fan projects. Lacking an official sequel, the heroic reporter would remain frozen in a single ’80s moment, exploring the fringes of new-age philosophy with a smile and a wink.

David Fox, Zak’s lead designer, already had experience building adventure games by the time he started thinking about the project in the mid-’80s, having led development on Lucasfilm’s Labyrinth before co-scripting Ron Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion. For Zak, Fox settled on a concept that seemed like a reaction to the tight confines of Gilbert’s game, with its closely wound narrative and single location. “With Maniac, one of Ron’s reasons for putting it into one house was that he wanted an environment where the limitations made sense. I probably felt claustrophobic: I wanted something much bigger.”

Zak would certainly be bigger, with a globe-trotting plot hinging on a journalist’s attempts to discover the truth behind a worldwide epidemic of stupidity, unmasking the aliens responsible while travelling between locations as varied as the jungles of South America and the canyons of Mars, where a team of college coeds in a spaceship built from a VW camper van find mysterious artefacts in the rusty ground. Given Fox’s long-term interest in new-age mysticism, the nature of the plot was never in doubt, but it was a two-day ideas session with author and spiritualist David Spangler that pushed a lot of the specific pins into Zak’s map. “I flew up to the Seattle area where David lives, and most of the locations came from that meeting,” remembers Fox. “He had a great sense of humour, given what we were doing. Looking at the Earth, the new-agey locations were all over the place. Because of the scope, the globe-trotting structure just felt right. I wanted to feature all the mysteries on Earth, and I needed to get there, so the idea of using airports as doorways came about.”

Fox returned from his weekend with Spangler with a laundry list of concepts to put into the final game, ranging from African shamen to telepathy. Turning all that into a satisfying adventure game would not be an easy task, however. “After my time with David, I spent a couple of months laying out the design,” remembers Fox. “There was probably a brainstorming session with other Lucasfilm Games designers, and then I think I came up with a document laying out the flow of the game and the characters.”

It was a complex outline, and the process wasn’t always smooth. “Ron felt it wasn’t funny enough at first. There was humour, but it didn’t go far enough. We ended up meeting with all the designers and the programmers, spending a few hours looking at possible tweaks. The key thing that came out of that was changing Zak from a mainstream to a tabloid reporter. The names of the characters and aliens, a lot of that came out of that meeting too. These elements were already in the game, but the meeting gave me the push to make things crazier. That’s when Zak McKracken came right out of the Marin County phonebook, too – one guy’s first name, someone else’s surname.”

As Zak headed for full production, Fox found an ally in Matthew Alan Kane, a fellow Lucasfilm employee co-opted from the company’s learning group. “Matthew came on because we knew how big a project this would be, and I knew I couldn’t do it myself. He became my co-designer and co-scripter.” The pair clicked quickly: “It’s hard to say who thought up what,” remembers Fox. “We’d both say the same thing at once. We had mind-link crystals, I guess.”

Kane, who would be responsible for, among other things, crafting Zak’s cult opening theme, suggests a key component of the relationship was balance. “David is spiritual and reflective, as opposed to my more irreverent nature,” he argues. “I kept him from being too serious, and he kept me from being too silly. It was one of the great creative pairings of my career.”

Piecing the game’s puzzles together was still a daunting task, however. “You’re working it from both ends,” suggests Fox. “At some point, I knew what the solution to the game would be, so you could work backwards. You need this crystal, where do you get it? You have a bunch of objects, and a bunch of places you want to use, and it all fits together neatly.”

In order to keep games on track, Lucasfilm had taken to using a scheduling program to keep tabs on the design. “It was designed to chart manufacturing steps, and it was a perfect tool,” says Fox. “You could print out a flowchart and see choke-points for the puzzles, places where the flow of the game wasn’t working: a nice graphic way of seeing the entire thing, 30 sheets of paper taped together. There were usually multiple things you could be doing at once in these games, so if you got stuck on one puzzle, you could generally do something else at the same time.”

Despite the tight structure, there was room for elements to evolve organically, not least in the case of the protagonist. “I’m sure there’s some aspect of myself in Zak,” muses Fox. “His facing the camera and coming up with the headlines? That happened once, and we noticed it would be a great running gag. The idea of him being in this dead-end job and stumbling on to this huge multi-planetary conspiracy was fun, too. Star Wars is like that: this average person who ends up stumbling into something huge.”

With a journalist as the lead, and a more complex investigative narrative than Maniac Mansion, Zak was a crucial stepping-stone towards the verbal cleverness that would define dialogue-heavy games like Monkey Island. “In Maniac, most of the dialogue happened in cutscenes,” says Fox. “In Zak, because he’d face the camera, you got more of him speaking. The constraining factor remained, however: both Zak and Maniac Mansion were developed for the C64, and therefore we were limited by how much text we could display: two lines of 40 characters. In later games, you had way more text, and then talkies, removing the straitjacket of telling the story in a comic-book style.”

Zak took around nine months to develop, and although crunch only kicked in during the last third of production, the team’s lifestyles suffered as the project ground to a close. “At one point I realised that if I stopped shaving, it would save five minutes per day,” says Fox. “Over six months, how much time would that be? It seemed worth it.”

“It was an exciting, but exhausting, project to work on,” agrees Kane. “I was often at Skywalker Ranch from noon until two in the morning. I had to get back there by noon, of course, in order to eat the amazing lunch they served. I don’t know if I’ve ever had as much fun on any project, though.

“Of all the games I did during that period, it was definitely my favourite. I loved the humour,
and I loved the team. It’s like having a baby: if women remembered the discomfort, everyone would only have one kid. There’s something about the bad stuff that blends with the good.”

And although Fox played fast and loose with Zak’s more spiritual concerns, they still struck a chord. “Part of me wanted to do new-agey stuff with Zak, and there was always another motive besides being funny,” he says. “I still have a serious interest in a lot of that stuff. I don’t think there are gurus floating around somewhere, but the idea that telepathy might be real, and other things we might be able to develop to help people – a hidden agenda for me was introducing those ideas to people, but to do it in a fun way.”

Ultimately, the main reason that Zak never got a sequel may simply be that the team had moved on. “In the case of other games, it was almost always the same designer kicking off a sequel. But after we did Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, that was pretty much the last game I did there.” At the request of Lucasfilm Games manager Steve Arnold, Fox spent a year as director of operations, before moving on to his dream project, working with much more elaborate technology. “We started a small group called Rebel Arts and Technology within Lucasfilm, and we had a joint venture with Hughes Simulation, working on immersive, high-end location-based entertainment. Before the project was closed, we had a prototype called the Mirage Project: a flight simulator-type system using three video projectors on a screen, bouncing off a curved mirror: you feel like you’re looking at a huge terrain in front of you.”

Fox left Lucasfilm after ten years, hoping to do more virtual reality, but the market never materialised. Instead, he became involved in the internet, beta-testing a community for Apple and creating online content for teenagers. Today, while Kane runs the design outfit LaMa Media, dividing his free time between family, golf and the piano, Fox and his wife head Electric Eggplant, a crossplatform developer that’s tilted towards education.

He hasn’t left behind his desire to improve people’s lives, though. A side project is Newstrust.net, a community that reviews news media for accuracy, balance and sourcing. It’s an attempt to clean up reporting, and even though he was a bit of a hack, Zak McKracken, who clocked up so many air miles uncovering the truth for himself, would be proud.