Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
When juxtaposed alongside the computer game developers of my childhood, LucasArts was the house of ideas. Sure, Sierra On-Line could brag about its diverse portfolio of Quest franchises. Microprose staked their rep on a self-serious catalog of flight simulations and strategy games. LucasArts, however, was the weird kid who eventually stopped showing up to class reunions.
Yet when the Walt Disney Company, the same company oft-admired by George Lucas himself, acquired the developer along with the rest of the consolidated holdings of LucasFilm, LLC, no one expected its dissolution in less than a year. LucasArts was quite obviously, the red-headed stepchild: a long-time developer of triple-A titles now adopted by a corporate family that recently decided it didn’t want anything to do with the triple-A space.
Still, my feelings were rather surprising: ambivalence tempered by the brief stirrings of an inner child crying out in despair, then silenced. A dramatic description I know, but it’s a deliberate choice of words, which I shall parse in the following paragraphs.
My ambivalence (as opposed to nostalgia) comes from a growing indifference to adventure games. They were the bread and butter of LucasArts in its heyday and the source of nostalgia for most people my age. Sure, I spent an entire childhood devouring these kinds of games. I fiddled with boot configurations to free up memory, set up wavetable and OPL synthesis. I wrote briefly for an adventure game webzine, and even ran my own fansite dedicated to Sierra’s Gabriel Knight. Yet these days, adventure games are like an old flannel sweater – a lot of good memories, but I’d be too embarrassed to wear it.
My inner child’s tears come from a time when the notion of acquiring the entire LucasArts library, including their game-related collectibles, was some kind of ‘When I grow up and I have money’ ideal. I dreamed of one day being able to visit their then-headquarters in San Rafael. I pawed through multiple issues of The Adventurer, the company’s in-house pamphlet magazine which introduced me to names like Lawrence Holland, Justin Chin, Aric Wilmunder and Gwen Musengwa. These names are such that I would have collected trading cards of their likenesses if they existed.
The part in which this long forgotten aspect of my psyche is ‘silenced’ comes from the recognition that those tears are ultimately for an entity that long ago ceased to exist, and I say that with no intention of disrespecting those people who were working at LucasArts at the time that Disney shuttered the place. It wasn’t just a company that had a claim on our collective childhoods, but was a wellspring of creativity at a time when computer games were unencumbered by focus groups and feature creep. And that’s really what people are lamenting, even if they don’t know it.
The Secret of Monkey Island and the rest of its sequels weren’t saddled by some meaningless collectibles. Full Throttle didn’t try to compensate for its short length with motorcycle combat achievements and leaderboards. Maniac Mansion didn’t try to shoehorn a co-op mode to go with its multi-character setup. Most interestingly, Star Wars games like Dark Forces and TIE Fighter were free to explore their designated corners of the long ago galaxy of far away without incorporating lightsaber measuring contests.
More importantly, LucasArts games were inclusive. They didn’t need bro-fist camaraderie to pander to everyone or use self-conscious deprecation to lampshade their way into our hearts. So certain were they of the charms of their worlds and characters, that each game was produced with sheer aplomb. It didn’t matter that Afterlife ran contrary to the serious subject matter of a conventional strategy builder game, or that the anthropomorphic sociopaths of Sam & Max: Hit the Road made for some far-out adventure game protagonists.
But by the time LucasArts dropped off the radar for most my age, several things changed: Technology grew robust enough to explore the Star Wars intellectual property in multiple directions. Adventure games no longer had the premium on storytelling and worldbuilding. The financial size of the industry grew meant that games had to mature as ‘products.’ I don’t lament that, but certainly these changes meant there was little room for eclectic properties with no marquee value, and much of the self-referential company humor that linked many of their games together had to go.
So what is the ultimate takeaway from all this? That this is euthanasia for a company that has long been on life support? No. What I’m really saying that this is finally the end of an era. Or more accurately, the definitive end to the ending of an era. That has come to an end.
You’d think I’m being utterly facetious, but I’m not. LucasArts was one of the last companies remaining from a very early time in computer gaming. Some of them, like Electronic Arts and Activision mutated into larger entities that in turn absorbed smaller companies, much like cannibal warriors devouring their young in order to gain strength. Others like Sierra On-Line and Interplay developed unchecked ambition resulting in mismanagement and eventual self-destruction. LucasArts was basically the last of its kind: a 20th-century developer-publisher struggling to find its way in the 21st.
Make no mistake: this is the natural order of things. Some might think that Disney, the company that puts a premium on the preservation and care of properties both new and old, would recognize that there is more value in the Lucas group than just Star Wars and Indiana Jones. After all, the House of Mouse sees more to Marvel than just the Avengers. But the truth is that while Disney may have bought LucasFilm, LLC for its intellectual and technical assets, properties like Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders are a drop in the bucket when compared to even lower tier Marvel heroes like Doctor Strange or Black Panther.
Still, I take a small measure of comfort knowing that though it’s unlikely Disney will never give us a Full Throttle 2 or Maniac Mansion 3, somewhere down the line is the possibility of a handheld/HD remake of Loom.