Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ron Gilbert, Maniac Mansion and Modern Computer Adventure Game

Ron Gilbert may not have a huge number of adventure games (not for children) to his credit, but his influence in adventure gaming far surpasses the number of games on which he was credited as designer.  He has two bona-fide classics to his name, 1987's Maniac Mansion and 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island, and I would also include Monkey Island 2 : LeChuck's Revenge as a classic.  In this post, I want to talk a little bit about why his first game, Maniac Mansion, is a classic, both from a design perspective and and a thematic perspective.

In Sierra's games, Death is your ever present companion.  He lurks on most screens, ready to frustrate the player who forgot to save within the last five minutes.  In Gilbert's Maniac Mansion, death is possible but its more of an accomplishment to kill one of your characters.  How to figure out another way to kill a character is really akin to solving a puzzle.  And the ways in which you can die are reasonable and make sense in the context of the game.  If you let the reactor go uncooled for too long, there will be a meltdown.  If you show Weird Ed his dead hamster (which can only be killed by certain kids), he will kill you.  Since you have three kids, you may still be able to beat the game if one dies.  In both King's Quest V and Leisure Suit Larry, there are screens that if you enter them, you are guaranteed to die due to a monster or there is a monster there every time ready to kill you.

The worst you can typically expect in Maniac Mansion
Another lazy design issue in other adventure games is putting the game in an unwinnable state.  Typically this is because the player forgot to pick up an item or do something at a timed event and now can no longer do it.  This is a poor way to extend the gameplay and increase the challenge because it is so unfair.  It is difficult to get Maniac Mansion in an unwinnable state unless you are truly careless.  Leisure Suit Larry 2 is particularly cruel in this regard, in more than one part of the game if you fail to do everything you need to do before a time limit, you will lose the game.   

A third, truly lazy design choice in adventure games is the use of maze-like environments.  These were amusing when Zork was king, but Sierra was using them to obnoxious effect twice in King's Quest V. Maniac Mansion has no mazes and no generic or featureless screens.  Each screen has at least some visual interest, and most contain either an item or is part of a puzzle.  In the later Monkey Island games, the maze-like environments were just another puzzle to be solved.

I'm not sure how accurate that map is, but that is the rough number of rooms in the game.
Even so, Gilbert encouraged exploration of the mansion at the player's leisure.  Although the game may seem to have a limited time, this is not the case.  No matter how long you take, the meteor will not possess Sandy.  Only during the end game does a timer countdown.  In the ICOM simulations like Shadowgate and The Uninvited, there always was some limiting factor in the game like the number of torches available or that you will be possessed.  

Random monsters are no fun.  Sierra used them not only to kill but also to cause an unwinnable game state.  If the Dwarf steals one of the three treasures in King's Quest, you cannot win the game.  In Maniac Mansion, the "monsters" have fixed schedules and locations, and at worst they inconvenience you.

The scheduling and cutscenes in the game help to show that this game is a living, breathing world.  In most other games of the time, the game simply reacts to what the player does.  Here cutscenes propel the story forward.  The various actors in the Mansion have clearly defined characteristics, Weird Ed is a commando, Nurse Edna is kinky, Green Tentacle is a wanna-be musician, etc.  The large sprites used for the characters help give each kid and character a unique look.  The heads are big enough to allow for the graphics engine to show them talking, which helps with the immersion.

If this was a Sierra game, the Green Tentacle would have killed you here.
Another terrible design issue is the use of obstacles that you have to climb or cross very carefully.  Stairs in the King's Quest series are serious obstacles, especially in II and IV.  The rock path from Mannanan's house in III is particularly evil.  The whale's tongue in IV is no fun, but the Waterfall Cave must have been designed by the development team after an all-night office party.  Not only is there a random monster, who follows you from screen to screen, the cave is dark and the lantern sheds little light.  Finally, there is a pit you have to cross, and you can easily die trying to find the edge.  Nothing like that exists in any LucasArts game.  In fact, Maniac Mansion includes pathfinding and indirect control of the character by cursor, something that would be ubiquitous in the 1990s.

Gilbert believed the text parser interface to be truly archaic for graphic adventure games.  He despised trying to play "try to guess what the designer wants you to type".  While Maniac Mansion was not the first game to use an icon-based interface, it firmly put paid to the notion that adventure games would be too easy without the text parser.  Although the icons are words, not graphics, nonetheless they serve the same function.

The graphics in the original Maniac Mansion are in a low, 160x200, resolution.  To avoid any need to "guess" what an item is, Maniac Mansion had a "What Is" command that if the pointer hovered over the object, the game would tell you what it is.  In fact, using the What Is command allowed you to identify all the "hot spots" in the room.  Early Sierra games had no generic "look" command, but eventually their AGI games would generally tell you what was important in the room.  The later 16-color SCI games allowed a right click on the mouse to function as a "look at" on the object clicked on. 

Maniac Mansion was one of the first adventure games intended to be replayable.  The different combinations of kids allowed the game to be won in more than one way.  There are also multiple endings, and each combination can access some of the endings.   This helped make up for the relative smallness of the game world.

Choices, choices...
Maniac Mansion is a "funny game".  Funny games are memorable.  Really humorous characters tend to be more memorable over the long run than bland or serious characters.  A goofy 8-bit mansion is more likely to be iconic than a "realistic" 8-bit castle and more memorable.  Games that aren't mean to be taken truly seriously tend to hold up better than a lot the portentous, supposedly-meaninfgul crap of the 1990s and 2000s.  It is also easier to be funny than dramatic on less capable machines.

Gilbert deserves credit for developing Maniac Mansion for the Commodore 64.  The final game shipped on one double sided diskette (340KB) and could be run within the 64KB of RAM of that system.  By contrast, Sierra's AGI games in 1987 took up at least two disks (360KB) and required twice the RAM on an Apple IIe/IIc and four times the RAM on a PC (they didn't run on a Commodore 64).  To be fair, the ports of Maniac Mansion to those systems required the same amount of RAM on the Apple IIe/IIc and PC.  The opening music was unusually good for a US Commodore 64 game, something lost in the Apple & PC versions (except on a Tandy 1000).


notagain001 said...

as a kid my fav games were thexder and black couldron and tetris on the 1000sx.

the 1000sx was better than the iic version they had at school

imperia said...

Ron Gilbert - Maniac Mansion postmortem