How Maniac Mansion Made Adventure Games Playable «

Okay, so maybe the classic PC adventure game isn’t dead after all. When a company like Double Fine can put together a kickstarter campaign and meet their one-month goal in just eight hours, even the most cynical among us have to acknowledge the growing demand for point-and-click adventures could make this very particular type of game profitable once again. So, as we (possibly) stand on the brink of an adventure Renaissance, there’s no better time to take a look back at the game that sparked our love in the first place: Maniac Mansion, the Rocky Horror-esque classic that singlehandedly gave birth to Lucasfilm Games’ successful blend of cartoony humor and mind-bending puzzles.Undoubtedly, Maniac Mansion is one of Lucasfilm Games’ (now LucasArts) most popular creations; from the late ’80s to the early ’90s it saw ports on nearly everything capable of producing an image, and even received a cutesy makeover for the Japanese Famicom. But why, you may ask, was this adventure game so much more popular than its contemporaries?

The answer lies in Lucasfilm’s direct competitor, Sierra; while they made their share of impressive titles, their games had a tendency to be downright malicious to the player. Common features of the Sierra line included linguistic trickery via the traditional input of a text parser, instant deaths caused by simple player curiosity, and the always-great situation of “you forgot to pick up item X at the beginning of the game, so tough luck, chump.” Maniac Mansion, while not as forgiving as Lucasfilm’s later games, shook adventure gamers out of their Stockholm Syndrome by giving them an experience uniquely funny and downright playable at the same time.

The fact that Lucasfilm Games diverged so wildly from Seirra’s design philosophy is no happy accident; the basic format for Maniac Mansion originated from co-creator Ron Gilbert’s attempt to grapple with the first King’s Quest, one of Seirra’s most popular titles. “I went to visit my aunt and uncle, and my cousin was playing King’s Quest 1 on his Radio Shack computer. And that was really the first time I’d ever seen a graphic adventure… the first time I’d seen [text adventure games] married with graphics,” says Gilbert. “It was at that moment that it clicked inside of my head, and I knew Maniac Mansion needed to be an adventure game.” Though Gilbert’s epiphany might have led him to borrow from Sierra’s genre of choice, for Ron, the general unfriendliness of King’s Quest stood as an exercise in what not to do.

While Sierra adventures operated in very broad genres (space, fantasy, cop, sex offender), Lucasfilm always had a knack for delivering scenarios far more inspired than their competitors. Maniac Mansion is the earliest example of that outstanding creativity; not only did the game embrace the irony of the then-popular teen slasher films, it also co-opted more than a few tongue-in-cheek ’50s B-Movie cliches to tell the story of a simple country doctor under the control of a meteor forcing him to suck out the brains of cheerleaders for some reason. The titular mansion, though sparsely populated, has its share of standout characters that make the game memorable: the sexually frustrated Nurse Edna (mildly censored in the NES version), survivalist hamster aficionado Weird Ed, and Dead Cousin Ted, an aptly-named mummy rotting away in the Edison’s bathtub.

Even the mansion itself features a shocking amount of personality, especially for the time; each room displays small details that don’t contribute to any puzzles, but fill the player in on happenings that took place before the events of the game. “I felt that somehow we were creating this working world,” says Gilbert. “I wanted the refrigerator to open and I wanted you to be able to take things out of it; I wanted the radio to work; I wanted the phonograph to work. I wanted all of these things to work like [the mansion] was an actual, working world.”

Adding to Maniac Mansion’s strong sense of personality are cut scenes, an entirely new (for 1987) and not-yet-abused device, which often interrupt our heroes. Their purpose: dispensing vital clues about the Edisons and their activities while players snoop around the mansion and fix the family’s broken appliances. While the cut scenes ostensibly exist to fill out the game’s story, they actually have a more utilitarian purpose: to inform the player of where they should be, where they shouldn’t be, and of any major changes happening in the Edison residence. Maniac Mansion marks one of the very few times in which cut scenes are completely necessary, rather than a “because we can” exercise in multimedia abuse.

“[Co-designer Gary Winnick and I] wanted [Maniac Mansion] to be a little bit like an interactive movie. We wanted it to be like you were in this movie, and you were experiencing it, and you were playing along with it,” says Gilbert. “And the cutscenes came a little bit from that. When you’re watching a movie — most movies — it is cutting away to different people, to get different perspectives and different points of view… We didn’t want it to be a game where the camera just stayed locked on this player the entire time, but there were other things that were interesting going on in the mansion, and we wanted to cut away and show those things.”

 

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