R.I.P. LucasArts (1982 – 2013)

This article originally appeared on ramp.ie on April 8th 2013

LucasArts

In memoriam

Friends and family, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of our beloved LucasArts, taken away from us too soon, just thirty one years young, survived by many millions of fans.

Founded in 1982 by the man himself, LucasArts unsurprisingly set out initially to spread the ever more popular Star Wars brand into the realm of video games. They did that very well, for a time, but their most important creations were wholly original endeavours that have gone on to have a great impact on storytelling within the medium. It’s always a shame to see veteran companies go under, a headline which has become quite common in the last few years with such losses as Studio Liverpool, THQ, Bizarre Creations, and Ensemble Studios. It’s a reality check and reminder that money and profit margins are an unfortunate priority and sign of a changing market.

Maybe more tragic than their now lack of existence is the fact that LucasArts didn’t go out in a blaze of glory or one last hurrah. Instead, its last decade or so was a restless and confused period, one lacking clear focus and purpose. It went through an excessive number of presidents during those years with restructuring and philosophical rethinking always just around the corner, making real progress on any projects difficult. In fairness to LucasArts, constantly coming up with ways of making the Star Wars IP appealing, especially in the wake of the prequel trilogy clusterfuck, must have been an arduous task.

It was this emphasis on and unwillingness to stray from its original mission statement that may have just lead to LucasArts’ demise. This wasn’t always the case. In the nineties, LucasArts experienced a period of creative nourishment, with the go-ahead to make original material eventually given. This resulted in a flurry of terrific adventure games, with the studio deservedly winning much critical and fan acclaim. No doubt the most well known and successful of these is the Monkey Island franchise, which débuted in 1990 with The Secret of Monkey Island. LucasArts themselves made three more games in the series, with the fifth being wisely handed off to Telltale Games, which was formed by ex-employees following the cancellation of the Sam & Max sequel and the company’s refusal to engage in any more adventure game development.

Certainly, LucasArts made plenty of well received Star Wars games (as well as a lot of terrible ones, if we’re being honest) although it’s a tad tragic that the company wasn’t really involved in what turned out to be the pinnacle of Star Wars gaming thus far. But really it’s a shame their direction seemed only to place a minor emphasis on originality. It’s hard not to wonder what the company might have come up with where they freed of their lightsaber shackles for an extended period of time. Alas, we’ll never know.

Mural

Life and death; Peter Chan’s wonderful mural seen on inside of Grim Fandango’s disc sleeve and on the save  game screen. It fills in gradually to represent the player’s progress.

On a personal level, the impact on this writer of LucasArts’ output during that wonderful nineties period was pretty profound. Games like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango were amongst the most cherished of my childhood, the latter in particular helping to shape my love of stories in general. On an industrial level, the company’s prioritisation of storytelling in games has to be commended, a trend which has taken huge strides recently, with the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead proving that gaming does have the potential to tell truly affecting stories. It’s certainly no exaggeration to suggest that without LucasArts’ pioneering of the adventure game genre, we may never have progressed to the level of storytelling currently seen. Hopefully, it will only continue to grow stronger.

Disney have said that since LucasArts will no longer be in a position to develop, they will begin to licence out that task to other studios. It’s sad to see their baby stolen away from them but in another sense, it’s an exciting time; perhaps a fresh pair of hands is exactly what Star Wars needs in order for it to be an exciting gaming property once more. Even more alluring is the possibility that creators like Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer may even have the opportunity to revisit their creations, which have been legally locked up and neglected by LucasArts for all these years. Even if all this only results in people finally being able to buy the adventure game back catalogue on something like Steam, that would still be a huge step giving them the exposure they deserve.

LucasArts didn’t always make the right call but when they did, oh how right they were. You may be gone but you won’t be forgotten, forever preserved in the hearts and minds of the millions of fans who enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy the fruits of your labour. Rest in peace old friend.

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