Hal Barwood interview
Hal Barwood is a game designer at LucasArts, where he was project leader on a number of projects including the classic graphic adventure Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, the PC action-adventure Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and most recently, a 3D action-adventure game for next-generation consoles called RTX Red Rock. AdventureGamers had an opportunity to interview Hal about his projects, both present and past, and ask him about recent trends in the game industry.
I'm sure a lot of readers will recognize your name, but could you briefly introduce yourself and your professional background?
I'm a game designer & project leader at LucasArts, where I've been working for the past 12 years. My academic background is in Art & Cinema, but long ago, in the days when silicon first emerged from volcanic vents, I taught myself to be an assembly language programmer on the 6502 and 68000, and before that I spent 20 years in Hollywood as a screenwriter (Sugarland Express), screenwriter-producer (Dragonslayer), and screenwriter-director (Warning Sign).
Your goal probably never was to have a career in computer gaming. How exactly did you end up working at LucasArts?
Not quite true. I started designing games while in junior high school, and alternately tortured and entertained my friends with several different games I cooked up. Trouble was, those things were all wood and cardboard, and I didn't see doing them as a career, so I followed another dream to USC Cinema School and Hollywood. As it happens, I grew up in Hanover, NH, home of Dartmouth College, where John Kemeny & Thomas Kurtz developed BASIC. One summer I got a chance to sit down in a room full of clattering Teletypes and teach Dartmouth's GE time-sharing mainframe to play Paper Rock Scissors. Many years later, computers came out of their air-conditioned holy places and shrank onto desktops. I bought an Apple 2 and created a sprawling action-adventure game. About that time George was starting up what was then called Lucasfilm Games. He introduced me to some of the first employees, and many years after that, they tapped me to do a follow-up to their Last Crusade adventure game.
In The Secret Of Monkey Island, you are credited as "Special Guest Film Director". Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the classic adventure titles such as Monkey Island?
The original Monkey Island is one of my favorite games, but I wasn't involved at all. I guess they thought they were hiring a Hollywood guy and were surprised to find I actually knew something about games and didn't mind offering advice now and then (only when requested, you understand!).
Fate of Atlantis was widely acknowledged to be a game with a strong cinematic atmosphere. How does your background in screenwriting affect your approach to game design?
Cinematic atmosphere? I wish! Except for the fact that it has characters and an actual story, Fate of Atlantis doesn't seem the least bit cinematic to me. As to my movie background's impact on my current job: knowing how to scribble never hurt anyone, of course, and here's something you learn from dramatic writing: compression! Make everything as taut as a drumhead. Use as few words and scenes as possible, and make them all count!
What is your opinion on the writing in the game industry?
In general, it's dismal. Not dialogue -- that's superficial. But story construction, how to lay out a plot, how to make characters propel it -- that's hard to find. Now and then there's an exception: ICO, for example. It's nearly wordless, the words themselves are gibberish in any language, yet there's a powerful story unfolding.
Next: Hal talks about his Indiana Jones games
Fate of Atlantis was also acclaimed for its high replayability value, thanks to the three different 'paths' of the game. Did this structure pose any difficulties as far as game design goes?
I loved the concept of the three paths, and hated the months of wretched labor involved in making them work. Asset and budget limitations forced us to re-use a lot of material, and figuring out how to weave three paths through (mostly) the same locations was a big challenge. Replayability wasn't the only reason for the idea. Many in the company were worried about an adventure game with the slightest hint of combat, and we had fist-fighting. In those days, there was another factor: good games were few, and when a player stumbled upon one, he/she wanted to have the experience go on and on. I think the situation has changed completely: there are a lot of good games, and not that much time to work through them all. Novels, plays, movies, symphonies -- they don't have paths, why should we?
Do you have any special memories or 'war stories' on the Fate of Atlantis project? It's still one of my personal favorites.
Camel racing! Our scripting language had no concept of arrays, and we needed them to do tile-based action stuff, so I taught the script system to think of really long strings as arrays. My colleagues were kind of offended that I added action elements to an adventure game -- doing so was a social error, like eating with the wrong fork.
What prompted you to make Infernal Machine, your next Indiana Jones game, more of an action-oriented game? Was it because of the change in the marketplace or a personal choice?
I much prefer character-action or action-adventure games to pure adventure games, and always have. And it's not just combat. When you think about it, exploring a world is almost irrelevant in an adventure game.
Reviews of Infernal Machine were pretty polarized. Looking back on that now, how do you feel that game turned out?
As a design, I think it's a big success. It enables Indy to be Indy -- a man of action. It contains some of the finest level design I've ever played, and the story is Indy-sized and feels authentic. As a commercial venture, it's a solid money-maker, and moved a lot of units, especially outside North America. On the other hand, we tried to borrow an engine designed for shooters, and it never matured, so the player experience is marred by glitches. Can you imagine a third-person action-adventure without a quaternion blending animation system? Neither can I, but I had to use one.
Working on a popular franchise such as Indiana Jones, there must be some pressure during game development to keep things in the spirit of the films. Did you receive any guidance and/or instructions from The Powers That Be?
Basically, no. I presented a story outline, The Powers approved it, and I went to work.
The next game in the series, Emperor's Tomb, is currently in development. What part did you play in getting the project running?
I was consulted about some story questions, and that's about it. God speed!
Next: Hal Barwood's latest project, RTX Red Rock ... and what he had for breakfast
You are currently working on a title called RTX Red Rock. How did the idea for that game develop?
I felt an urge to do some science fiction. I'm a Mars nut. I believe in heroes...and villains. As much contrast as possible. I like the idea of sending the player up against a group of strange and daunting space aliens that have their own purposes, and also their own weaknesses. I like the idea of getting into the game with a vague notion of the victory conditions (reconquer our colony on Mars), and also discovering, little by little, the deeper currents that run through the story.
The game obviously has to have a look and feel very different from Star Wars. What instructions, in terms of art and sound direction, did you give to the team?
If it didn't look very different, I would have to slap that SW label on... and make the names of my planets harder to pronounce, too.
Technology changes fast, but it also changes slowly. Yesterday's computer is an antique from the stone age. On the other hand, 747s are still operating 30 years after their introduction. The Blue Angels fly FA-18 Hornets, and they look futuristic, kind of like X-Wing fighters from a galaxy far, far away -- but instead they entered Navy service in 1983, almost 20 years ago. We're going for a semi-realistic NASA-of-the-future look. Maybe the best way to understand our approach is to notice that when our hero, E.Z. Wheeler, steps out onto the surface of Mars, he has to put on a space suit. When did you ever see that in a Star Wars episode?
What gameplay aspects of the game will adventure fans like most?
The story, I hope, and the puzzling that goes with it. And, of course, I'd like to persuade large numbers of adventure game addicts that zapping evil 3-eyed space aliens is a lot of fun!
Will there be interaction with other characters in RTX? Can you give us examples?
You bet. One of the reasons for the remote setting is loneliness. Yet our hero abandons his assigned post on Phobos and shuttles down to the Martian surface when he discovers some people are holding out against the alien onslaught. The player interacts with them, especially the Chief Colony Officer, Cimmeria Rajan, and a crazy old colonist named Boris. Wheeler also has a companion who travels with him wherever he goes, and that's IRIS -- his Independent Removeable Information System. She's like a super-sharp PDA. Our story is set a hundred years in the future, and technology has adapted to these things. There are standard kiosks all over the colony where you can plug her in for hints and guidance on the local situation. Most machines contain standard ports for IRIS as well. As a result, you can operate lots of robots and vehicles as secondary avatars. Best of all, IRIS has a personality. She's hopelessly in love with our hero -- programmed that way -- and longs for the day when she'll actually become the bodacious babe she always dreamed of. Late in the game, her dreams come true!
Please tell us about the main character, E.Z. Wheeler. I understand that LucasArts has preliminary plans for an E.Z. Wheeler game franchise.
Wheeler is young, smart, tough, restless, self-reliant. At home nowhere, and yet everywhere. He got hurt bailing out of a space station before the game begins. As a result, one arm and one eye are synthetic. In the late 21st Century, this isn't as bad as it seems -- his artificial replacements give him superpowers. He's a dude! Is he a franchise? I think we better wait until Red Rock hits the shelves.
Do you have anything planned beyond RTX Red Rock?
Whenever I get into a project far enough, the pain of development -- this is hard work we do having fun building games -- causes my mind to rebel and start fantasizing about other possibilities. So sure, I'm musing and planning new projects. One of them is another chapter in the RTX saga. The other ones are too vague to talk about yet.
To conclude our RTX questions, is the use of the word "radical" a concious effort to appeal to the MTV audience?
It's a military term. In the future, we imagine the current trend toward ever-more-specialized commando units -- groups like the SEALS, the Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Delta Force -- reaches its limit with the inauguration of an Army Radical Tactics Unit to select and train specially qualified personnel in the fine art of one-man warfare. Our hero is such a man, a Radical Tactics Expert. Think of him as a samurai of the future.
Do you foresee any particular trends in the industry that you find
interesting or worrying?
The establishment of consoles as the predominant way to play games is heartening. The costs that go up as a result of this trend are worrisome. The ever-longer schedules we must endure to develop games are punishment. The way storytelling has infiltrated just about every genre -- however imperfectly -- is deeply satisfying.
I'm sure many of our readers are interested in knowing whether you will create another traditional graphic adventure someday. Also, have you played any adventure games recently and if yes, which ones and how did you like them?
I can't imagine, but never say never. It's been a while since I plowed through an entire adventure, yet I had a good time with the "advergame" on LEGO's Bionicle web site. Go, Shockwave! Go, Flash! And of course I found the latest Monkey Island to be hilarious fun.
And finally, what did you have for breakfast this morning and, in
retrospect, was it a good choice?
Coffee. At least I'm awake.
RTX Red Rock will be out on PS2 and Gamecube early next year. Have a look at the official website for more information on the game, as well as some amazing concept art.