RIP LucasArts: An Obituary

It’s always genuinely sad when a game developer closes down. People lose jobs, many lives are affected, and the industry as a whole loses a degree of potential. But before now no news of a studio closing has brought me close to tears. The death of LucasArts, while perhaps inevitable to anyone following closely enough, has made me very sad indeed.

No developer has ever had such a wide-reaching, hobby-defining impact on my life.

It’s certainly sadly the case that the studio has made little I’ve cared about in a very long while. The Monkey Island remakes were as close as they got to me in the last, what, decade probably. But even they were emblematic of what the studio was capable of, of how much the people working there cared about their projects, no matter how successful they might have been.

At a GDC gathering last week, I was chatting to a LucasArts employee I’ll obviously not name. For me, he captured the sense that so many had at LucasArts – he loved it there, and he loved the people he worked with there, but he was planning to hand in his notice in a couple of weeks. He was working on a project he couldn’t mention, but was incredibly excited about. Thrilled to be working on. (A game we’ll likely of course never even know the name of now.) But still feeling like his time there was done.

Churning through CEOs, constantly horrendously mismanaged, and cancelling so many projects as to become farcical, it’s a wonder that LucasArts kept going until 2013. Cranking out Star Wars licenses, or indeed cancelling numerous Star Wars licenses, it had certainly lost a significant portion of its heritage. But it never seemed to lose its potential. Whomever you spoke to there, they still had the drive, the sense of a history that pushed them forward. They had some of the best in the business in many areas, especially sound and voice recording, and it always felt like they could at any time turn themselves around.

But of course no matter their recent state, they were and always will be the studio that brought us Day Of The Tentacle, Sam & Max: Hit The Road, X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter, Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis, The Secret Of Monkey Island, Dark Forces, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Jedi Knight: Mysteries Of Sith, Maniac Mansion…

God, that’s a list of games.

The same studio in the same year gave us the incredible FPS Dark Forces, Tim Schafer classic Full Throttle, and adventure epic The Dig. That was some of 1995 for LucasArts. It’s a lineage the like of which gaming has never known since. This is who we’re losing.

These are games that defined my teenage years, and without question, defined gaming for me. I loved Dark Forces so much more than Doom – hell, you could talk to the monsters. Full Throttle may have been relatively short, and may have had racing sections, but it was an exceptional adventure game, packed with brilliant writing the likes of which the genre hadn’t seen before. And The Dig – I implore you to go back and play it again now. While its ending doesn’t quite match its potential, it’s an incredibly thoughtful, gentle and brilliantly paced game.

And clearly anyone alive for enough years will have a LucasArts game they wish to celebrate at immense length. Whether it’s the original X-Wing, or the peculiar god game Afterlife, or idiotic time wasted away on Indiana Jones Desktop Adventures, their genre-spanning genius reached everyone. It’s this that we’re losing now.

In the last few years I went back to many of their games for Eurogamer, finding that so many of them still stand out today. Here are my thoughts on Dark Forces, The Dig, Jedi Knight, Zak McKracken, Day Of The Tentacle, Armed & Dangerous, The Curse Of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis, and Escape From Monkey Island.

Yes, a look at their recent releases isn’t the most cheerful sight. A string of Star Wars prefixed titles stretches back for a decade, interrupted only by the peculiar misfire of Lucidity, an experimental platformer that never quite came together. For a new generation of gamers, that’s who LucasArts were – the Star Wars people, occasionally seeming to stumble on something decent, but mostly cashing in on the success of Clone Wars. And it seems their final release, their swansong, shall be Kinect Star Wars. It couldn’t be a more degrading end.

But I swear that they were still a company bursting with the potential to revive themselves. Everyone I spoke to there believed it. If only, it was said, there could be management who’d let it happen. Management confident enough to let a non-Star Wars licence make it through to release, and then remember to promote it when it got there. Management not resentful of a more successful past, willing to make the incredibly obvious moves of releasing their extraordinary catalogue of games for tablets and phones. Day Of The Tentacle on iOS is so stupidly clearly a sensible move, and yet one that was never taken. Damn, even getting their classic games onto Steam seemed to require juggernauts to drive them – and they absolutely always refused to speak about what they were hoping to get on there next, as if they were determined to flatten any excited buzz.

And now, in the hands of Disney – a company that couldn’t prove itself incapable of managing gaming more – LucasArts is gone forever. In a time when the adventure has revived itself, when digital distribution allows far smaller scale games to achieve big success, when people are desperate for that personal touch on the FPS, a studio – that with the correct management, the correct downscaling, and the important freeing of staff – could have taken such strong advantage of it all, is gone. No, of course they don’t have Schafer, Gilbert, Grossman, or Stemmle. But with their heritage, their IPs, and the passion of those still working there, it’s hard to believe the magic couldn’t be revived.

So goodbye, LucasArts. I bloody loved you. You were so damned important to me. You helped make 1988 to 1998 some of the most special years in gaming, and provided my childhood and teenage years with genuine joy. In truth, I was already missing you. I’ll miss you more now.

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