New year – new adventures! But first, a look back…
Digital interactive fiction is mostly remembered as text-only adventure games, but the physical gamebook might have more in common with the digital point-and-click game-type – since it has a slightly more controlled narrative, illustrations and similar story lines.
A point-and-click game features a graphic scene (which sometimes scrolls if you move your character through it, but in some cases it’s just an image) where you can move around and interact with items and other characters. The bottom third of the screen has a set of words. To pick up an item, you click on “Pick up” (or any similar wording, depending on the game) and then click on the item.
As such, the game itself is somewhat controlled – there are only a few options you can choose from in a specific setting – but this narrative makes the dialogue and effects of certain actions, much more important. A well written game is fun because of the limitations – not despite of them.
The whole point-and-click genre is enormous with tons of fun titles to explore, from many different companies. In this article I will focus on two specific adventures by Lucasfilm Games (today, more widely known as LucasArts) that appear, in my opinion, to have formed the future of comedy and humour in point-and-click games.
Maniac Mansion was Lucasfilm Games’ second point-and-click game. The first one was Labyrinth (1986) based on the movie released the same year. Legend has it that the game made more money in the US than the movie, even though the movie starred Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, and was directed by Jim Henson (The Muppet Show).
The Labyrinth game version (published on Commodore 64, Apple II, MSX 2 and PC-88 computers) wasn’t created using Lucasfilm Games’ now famous SCUMM game engine (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). The first game to utilise that was of course Maniac Mansion.
Be sure to check out ScummVM for a great opportunity to revisit tons of these games, along with that game engine.
Maniac Mansion was created by Ron Gilbert (who also created SCUMM) and graphic artist Gary Winnick. Even though Gilbert was at the time a fairly successful developer, Maniac Mansion was his first original game. The game is famous for its quirky humour, weird tentacle aliens and great narrative. The story revolves around Dave Miller who’s on a mission to rescue his girlfriend Sandy Pantz from a mad scientist.
The fun thing about Maniac Mansion (and what was different to most other games of the time) is that there are several different endings. Not only because of your actions, but also based on who you choose to accompany Dave into the adventure. Some friends of his are more musical or brave than others – and those choices mean that some of the games’ puzzles must be solved with a certain character to be successful.
Maniac Mansion features amazing graphics for its time, with animations by Dave Miller. However, it has rudimentary title-theme music on the Commodore 64 (which is admittedly more fun, since it utilises the filter and white noise a lot) along with mostly just sound effects throughout the rest of the story. The music and sound was created by Chris Grigg and David Lawrence.
The fun is so intense at times that you likely won’t care that it’s missing music. Maniac Mansion is one of those games you have to play to understand the fun of it (and the sequel Day of the Tentacle from 1993 is equally hilarious).
One has to wonder though if Maniac Mansion inspired Peter Jackson’s debut feature film Bad Taste, which was also released in 1987 (but notoriously filmed over several years, on Sundays only) and with an ending that was filmed much later than the rest of the movie. This ending – particularly the set – and the story line overall, is very similar to one of the endings in Maniac Mansion.
Jackson borrowed a scene (the one in the shed) from Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1984), so inspiration might have come from other sources as well.
Maniac Mansion is also famous for featuring “Easter eggs”, or in-game meta-jokes, that tie in with later releases, like Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
Where Dave can find a chainsaw in Maniac Mansion, without gasoline to power it – Zak can find a can of gas, but no chainsaw, on Mars.
Zak was released by Lucasfilm Games in 1988, directly following up on the huge success of Maniac Mansion. Zak is about three times as big, and the new-age story line has Zak travelling all over the planet chasing three crystals that will save humanity from stupidity – planted by aliens into our phone system.
My favorite of the two games is Zak McKracken. Don’t get me wrong – I personally love Maniac Mansion and the bouncing tentacle aliens – but Zak has: a real background (he’s a journalist at the National Inquisitor), a true problem (he’s not very good at his job) and the story is based on his love for a girl he’s only met in his dreams.
As such, both Zak and Dave are trying to locate their love interest – which is probably what makes these two games so great.
But the stakes are higher, since we now have Alien Mindbenders that are making everyone on the whole planet, stupid! (Or rather, stupider.) In fact, humans are so stupid in Zak McKracken, that they believe the aliens are humans, just because they wear nose-glasses as a disguise.
The game also features more music, randomised mazes, some truly fun slapstick puzzles (the egg goes into the micro, on the airplane, so you can safely steal the oxygen mask) and great dialogue.
In Maniac Mansion you can switch between Dave and the two friends you choose to accompany you on the journey. In Zak McKracken that choice is there too – but later in the game, when you have met Zak’s love interest, Annie and the two Yale students Melissa and Leslie, all of them are made playable with their own choices and puzzles to solve.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was developed at Lucasfilm Games by David Fox, who first wanted to create a more serious Indiana Jones-type of story. Ron Gilbert (who was part of the development team together with Matthew Alan Kane and David Spangler) persuaded Fox to make the game more humorous and similar to Maniac Mansion – which it later also became.
Both Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken feature a ton of jokes, greatly themed to the specific genre. In Maniac Mansion the comedy is inspired by B-horror movies and in Zak McKracken, the sci-fi and new-age themes make it possible to even meet Elvis!
This is something that Lucasfilm Games successfully utilised in later games as well, as in The Monkey Island series (also created by Ron Gilbert) with its pirate-themed jokes, and of course, in Day of the Tentacle.
Zak McKracken is also an example of an “open world” game, where you can travel all over the planet and solve the different puzzles in almost any order you want. Of course there are many more limitations in Zak McKracken than in more modern games, but the embryo for a true open world interactive adventure game is definitely there.
And not only can you travel all over the world – the final chapter of Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders takes place on the red planet of Mars – be sure to tape that goldfish bowl and bring that scuba-kit, so you have a spacesuit to explore the galaxy!
Lucasfilm Games’ point-and-click graphic adventures are great examples of interactive fiction that have aged well, now being over three decades old. The linear storyline featured in Jackson’s Bad Taste almost comes to life in Maniac Mansion – and Zak McKracken would’ve made an amazing TV series or movie.
Sadly, there haven’t been any sequels, remakes or other media formats of the Zak McKracken game – even though there are some non-Lucasfilm Games-approved, fan-made sequels out there.
When it comes to Maniac Mansion, it’s a completely different story. Most famous is the sequel, Day of the Tentacle, released in 1993, but there was also a spin-off TV series released as early as 1990, created by Eugene Levy (maybe most famous for his role as Noah Levenstein in the American Pie movies).
The difference between the Maniac Mansion game and the TV version is so vast that it’s almost impossible to see any resemblance. Even the characters are different – the only character from the game is Dr. Fred Edison, the evil scientist that, in the game, abducts Dave’s girlfriend Sandy. The TV series bombed and only a few episodes were released, but the game sequel, Day of the Tentacle, was successful and is probably more famous today than the original Maniac Mansion game.
Both Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken were mainly developed for the Commodore 64 platform – at the time the best selling computer in the world. Both games have formed the future for point-and-click games, a genre that is still in high demand, with some recent successful releases like scriptwelder and Armor Games Studios‘ Don’t Escape: 4 Days to Survive (2019) and new games in the Leisure Suit Larry series from CrazyBunch and Assemble Entertainment.
If you want to dig deeper into the creation of Maniac Mansion, the creator Ron Gilbert has published the pitch documents on his blog, as well as some design notes.