The point-and-click gameplay that was predominant in the 1990s has increasingly disappeared from modern adventure games. But adventure games are not dead, contrary to the astonishingly regular assumption. They are not dead, they have only changed. Players want to experience profound and/or intimate stories. Gone Home, Her Story or Firewatch are some examples. Game designer David Fox has not only decisively influenced this genre of graphic adventures with his games, but is also one of its founders. In our interview, David Fox looks back on his years at the legendary game company LucasArts, talks about opportunities for young developers and reveals the best adventure game of all times!
Wall Jump: Rescue on Fractalus! has set new standards in the middle eighties in terms of graphics and immersive gameplay. Did the non-existent genre (respectively the non-existent genre standards) inspire you at the time, or did you feel an increased creative pressure – what might seem a little paradox at first sight, because on paper you had an absolute creative freedom, hadn’t you?
David Fox: Most of the pressure came from knowing we were expected to create the Star Wars of computer games. How could we possibly be that successful and live up to the Lucasfilm name? For Rescue on Fractalus! I actually wanted to do a Star Wars game and was very disappointed when I found out we couldn’t — the license for both home games and arcade games had already been sold, so we had to do original titles (more pressure). I took much of what I wanted to do as a Star Wars game and put it into Rescue, but with a new backstory.
Wall Jump: With Labyrinth: The Game you have not only initiated the great era of LucasArts adventures, you were also one of the pioneers of a whole new genre, the graphic adventures. Why did you choose the genre of graphic adventures for the project?
David Fox: I was already a big fan of text adventure games, and knew about Sierra Online’s graphic adventures. We knew that this would be the best genre for Labyrinth, since the film was already basically an adventure with lots of problem solving. We didn’t have the time (to get the game done when the film released) to do a full text parser, so we came up with the “slot machine interface” where all the verbs and objects appeared in vertically scrolling wheels.
Rescue On Fractalus! was released in 1984. It was a critical success and drew a lot of attention to Atari 8-bit home computers. | Labyrinth: The Computer Game was the first adventure game created by Lucasfilm in 1986.
Wall Jump: How difficult was it to find an inevitably compromise between the creativity and the technical limitations at that time?
David Fox: In some ways, having the technical limitations made our job easier. There were just so many things we couldn’t do on those platforms. So we got creative and whenever possible, used all the hidden features of those computers to make the games sparkle.
Wall Jump: How do you see the chances for young creators in the current gaming business? With all these free dev kits and platforms — do you think it has become easier to make a name for yourself and actually fulfil your projects?
David Fox: Maybe easier to obtain the hardware or dev environments, and maybe easier to actually get a project done. But probably way more difficult to make a name for yourself because of all the competition. That shouldn’t stop anyone from trying, though, since it could be the first step to a much bigger/higher profile game.
Wall Jump: What kind of advices would you give to young creative brains trying to get into the business or standing at the beginning of a possible career?
David Fox: If you’re passionate about it, then go for it. You may not have a successful game first time(s) out there, but you can get loads of experience. Join Meetup groups to find other developers to share ideas with. Take online courses to learn more about the platforms you’re building for. Get feedback as often as possible so you can see how people respond to your game.
Wall Jump: Even a game is naturally created in a team, you have — alongside Al Lowe (Larry), Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island), Dave Grossman (Day of the Tentacle), Charles Cecil (Broken Sword) and Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango) – built your own adventure memorial with Zak McKracken. Do you think that Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is still a good adventure? Are there some things you would want to change from today’s view?
David Fox: I think there’s a lot in the game that I really love. The story, the wackiness, the characters, the New Age kitchen sink quality to it. We’ve come a long way in refining adventure games since then, coming up with rules like no dead ends, don’t kill the player, if it’s not fun in real life it’s not going to be fun in a game (no busy work), avoid arbitrary puzzles. And go easy on the mazes.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was released in 1988.
So if I were to do the same game from scratch today, there would be lots of changes. It might be a more player-friendly game as a result. But when I watch a 1930s or 1940s movie, I have to keep in mind when it was created, what was the audience for at that time, and what were the technical capabilities. And then I have to appreciate the movie’s strengths and flaws with that era in mind. Same goes for old games…
Wall Jump: Tim Schafer once said: „Adventures are dead, except in germany…“ How do you explain the lack of interest in adventure games today?
David Fox: Maybe the adventures of old made the player work too hard, were too frustrating for today’s quick bite audience. And of course, if you’re looking for a shooter instead of a brain twister, you’re not going to like adventures.
Wall Jump: “The problem is, you can only do one deal with the devil and I blew it on a 16-color EGA game.” That’s what Ron Gilbert answered a few years ago — Monkey Island was his “deal with the devil.” Do you feel that Zak was your deal with the devil?
David Fox: Zak wasn’t my deal with the devil. It was a work of passion for me on a topic I really wanted to communicate to my audience. And I’ve had lots of great projects that had various levels of recognition. I’m sure there will be more in the future that will get noticed, maybe even by the devil.
David Fox during his time at LucasArts.
Wall Jump: Would you have liked to do a second Zak game by yourself – or are you satisfied enough with the fan sequel Between Time and Space?
David Fox: I haven’t played any of the Zak fan-made sequels. That’s intentional. If there ever were an opportunity to do an official Zak sequel, and everything lined up properly for this to happen, I wouldn’t want to worry that some idea I came up with was based in someone else’s unofficial sequel.
Wall Jump: In 2017 you released Thimbleweed Park with Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick and everyone could join the development process in a great podcast — which is still an absolute recommendation for listening today! How much do you miss working on Thimbleweed Park? Would you like to get the “boy band” together again for another project?
David Fox: I don’t miss working on Thimbleweed Park — it was an absolute joy to work on, but we were all ready to say goodbye to the game when we finished it. Except for Delores, the short free game that Ron and I worked on last spring. So we did get to revisit that universe.
I’d absolutely love to work with Ron and the rest of the team again at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’m having a lot of fun adapting my Rube Works: The Official Rube Goldberg Invention Game to AR/VR platforms. The game is currently available for desktop and mobile: http://RubeWorks.com
Wall Jump: When I was a little boy I spent hours playing adventure games and I still love Monkey Island the most – for one very simple reason: you couldn’t die! To this day I google if you can die before I start a new adventure game! Was the game over in your adventure games a conscious decision?
David Fox: When we were creating Zak, it was ok (and expected) to have some dead ends and deaths. Most were intentional and pretty obvious (don’t jump out of an airplane without a parachute), and other dead ends were things I wouldn’t do today (don’t end up in the ocean without a kazoo and a flotation seat cushion). Back then, we were thinking more about giving the player their 30-40 hours of gameplay, and starting a game over (or recovering from an earlier saved game) was part of the meta puzzle of solving it all.
Wall Jump: The gaming industry has changed and equally to the music industry the “older” generation often states that “things used to be much better in the old days” – do you agree or disagree?
David Fox: Some things are better, some not. I like that way more people can create games on their systems if they want to do that. There are some great creation tools available that make this a lot easier than it used to be. Back in the 80s, our teams were relatively small, with about 5-10 people on them. You can still do a great game with a small team (e.g., Thimbleweed Park).
And now we have some really awesome tech that’s just becoming better every year. I’ve played some really impressive VR games in the last year and see how rapidly that tech is improving.
“It was an absolute joy to work on Thimbleweed Park!”
Wall Jump: It seems that video games have become serious business,… game developers receive death threats! Did you have similar experience due to the development of your games?
David Fox: I have not had any of these experiences. Maybe those deals with the devil which result in way more exposure than I’ve ever had can have a downside? I’m pretty active and outspoken on social media, but don’t have a big enough following to attract that kind of hate.
Wall Jump: You have been to The Void in Orlando! How was it? Is VR the future of gaming?
David Fox: Yes, it was a lot of fun. I did the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience. I loved how they melded VR with a matching physical environment. Very compelling. In Los Angeles, there’s a more family friendly VR experience at Dreamscape. But all that’s on hold during the pandemic… would you put on a VR headset that someone else wore, even if you know it was totally sterilized beforehand? Not sure if I would.
And I do think all XR experiences is the cutting edge of gaming. But I don’t think consoles or desktop or mobile gaming will go away. It’s just a more immersive experience. Actually I play mostly VR games currently, like Beat Saber, Moss, The Line
Wall Jump: You know,… I have to ask this question: What is the best adventure game of all time?
David Fox: Monkey Island, of course!
Wall Jump: Is there anything else that you always wanted to say but never had the chance to?
David Fox: I probably said this before… I’m still amazed that I ended up working at Lucasfilm. It was a dream come true and it took a few years before I believed I actually deserved to be there (or that I wouldn’t wake up and it was all a dream). The crazy thing, though… if I look back at all the steps I took to end up there, it’s almost as if I had it all planned out ahead of time. Everything just fell into place that I was in the right place at the right time with the right set of qualifications. Magic!
Wall Jump: Thank you so much for your effort!
David Fox: You’re welcome! Stay safe!
Game designer legend David Fox (69) has made a crucial contribution to the success of the adventure games division of LucasArts. In addition to Zak McKracken, he was involved in the development of Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others. Three years ago Thimbleweed Park was released, which brought him back to his adventure game roots. David Fox lives in California with his wife Annie and is still developing video games.
This post is also available in: German