Taking a look back at the 1992 LucasArts classic.
One need only look at the astonishing jump in quality and innovation between the early Lucasfilm movie tie-in adventure Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and its much more highly regarded – and fondly remembered – sequel, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), to see just how quickly and substantially gaming managed to evolve as a medium in the early ‘90s.
LucasArts Entertainment, the legendary development studio behind the now-25-year-old Fate of Atlantis and many other classics, are hailed even today as one of the biggest names in video game history (along with Sierra On-Line) when it comes to adventure games and the sublime marriage of passion and creativity in the early gaming market. A staggering chunk of their early adventure games is held with such high regard and affection that you’d be hard-pressed to find a single PC gamer from the early ‘90s without fond memories of at least one Lucasarts classic; and designers Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein’s Fate of Atlantis is one such beast, having aged so well in the minds of gamers that it is, as of today, placed above all other games of its kind at #18 in IGDb’s Top 100 list with an exceptionally high user rating of 93 out of 100.
A Teeny Bit of Historical Context
In the late ‘80s, Lucasfilm Games was known for such lesser-known adventure titles as the movie tie-in Labyrinth and Maniac Mansion, the latter of which being the game to get LucasArts noticed and introduce the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine created by designer Ron Gilbert, which ended up being used in every LucasArts adventure from 1987 up to 1998. The Last Crusade and Loom (1990) followed close behind, the former being the game that really got LucasArts noticed with its critical acclaim and sales figures, until Gilbert and his colleagues changed everything with their seminal work The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), which was hailed upon release as an excessively imaginative work, oozing charm and character out of every corner of its brilliant design and unique visuals. It was such a large turning point for the company that they changed their brand name to “LucasArts,” which is the name we hold so dear to our hearts today.
After the equally-acclaimed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991), LucasArts decided to take another shot at the Indiana Jones brand, but being an evolved company of innovators and artists, decided to use the brandname in a wholly original new adventure. Therefore, they handed the license to the capable hands of project director Barwood and his team and allowed them all the resources required to make something truly special. They even went so far as to invent an interactive music system by the name of iMUSE (Interactive Music Streaming Engine), predecessor to later interactive music systems like in Banjo-Kazooie (1998) and Red Dead Redemption (2010), for the game, with the intent to really nail the atmosphere and creative vision for this exciting new endeavour.
Our main character Indy would go on a quest, accompanied by his seemingly delusional protégé Sophia, to find what remained of Atlantis, however skeptical he might have been about the very existance of such a mythical place. The equal parts lovable, charismatic and jaded archeology professor embarked upon his journey in 1992, which took him all across the Mediterranean in order to search for the cold trail of the city of gold by meeting interesting characters, solving ancient puzzles and engaging in fistfights with Nazi – ahem – “SCUMM.”
A Riveting Start to a Riveting Adventure
The credits and prologue segments to Fate of Atlantis very subtly manage to encapsulate everything the game is about: Indy very epically crashes through a window to enter the Caswell Hall building, only to accidentally walk onto a trap door and find himself a level below with a terrible back ache. The rest of the sequence also serves to further contrast the dramatic whip-swinging entrance by showing Indy goof around and fall from even more high places in order to find a priceless golden statue in a regular old metal school locker down in the furnace room, effectively setting up the charm and wit we so commonly associate with such LucasArts adventures.
Then the prologue starts proper, and introduces the player to the main storyline of uncovering the path to Atlantis before the Nazis do, as well as to Indy’s companion through his journey, Sophia. The problem solving mechanics of the game, comprising the SCUMM verb system, are introduced when Indy is forced to fool the lighting guy at Sophia’s seminar to taking a short break so that Indy can mess around with the levers and ruin the talk.
I’ll elaborate, because I believe this to be important: You ask the lighting guy about his hobbies to find out that he enjoys reading, then hand him a newspaper to distract him while you fiddle around with the levers to shove a cardboard ghost Viking onto the stage, and that’s the way you gain access to Sophia.
Of course, this kind of creative writing, problem solving and puzzle design is precisely how LucasArts made a name for themselves, and you are safe to expect the imaginative puzzles to expand and escalate throughout your adventure. The game’s story – and, in turn, the game itself – follows a 3-act structure, with the aforementioned prologue and an added epilogue segment rounding out the experience nicely. The game’s innovations know no bounds even within this tried-and-true structure, however, because the way you can get through these segments can differ in a major way thanks to the brilliant – and, in 1992, highly innovative – “branching paths” system.
Team, Wits, Fists and Other Such Nouns
As we discussed, the structure of the game is pretty standard: Introductory prologue, 1st act comprised of clue hunts, then acts 2 and 3 with the epilogue cherry on top. However, starting at the beginning of act 2, Fate of Atlantis did things with its structure that no adventure game did before it: it introduced diverging – and later converging – paths to the genre.
There are 3 paths to take in the case of Fate of Atlantis, being named Team, Wits and Fists. Each of these paths offer all-new puzzles as well as ways of solving them that aren’t present in the other paths: The Team path has you travelling with Sophia and using her help to solve problems or saving her in her times of need. She is absent in the other paths, however, with the Wits path offering more substantial brainteasers and the Fists path containing a tonne of… well… fistfights. Against Nazis, no less.
Take, for example, Algiers, the North African settlement filled with colourful personalities and exciting activities – although what personalities and activities you come across depends on what path you chose. The player goes there in search of merchant Omar Al-Jabbar, and depending on your path, you will interact with him in different circumstances and on different grounds.
If you went with the Team path, you’ll meet him directly and trade items; you’ll also run into a knife thrower and a greengrocer in the market area. The Wits path has you meet Omar’s servant, convince him to go ask Omar if you can drop by, then through a complicated process involving a bright red fez, get into Omar’s house uninvited, lock him in his own closet and steal his treasure map. The Fists path Indy plays much more nicely, ironically, saving Omar from the meddling Nazi soldier harassing him in his house by way of following Omar’s servant through the city streets and delivering swift judgment upon the Nazi through your thunderous punches. So if you go through each path, you get to interact with Omar on 3 different levels: As his customer, his savior and his enemy.
All Good Things Must Come to One of Two Ends
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for you that you wouldn’t have figured out on your own anyway. Sadly, there is an ending to this great story – two endings, actually! After trotting about the Mediterranean region for a while, Indy finds all the stone disks required to enter Atlantis – the Sunstone, Moonstone and Worldstone – and using the hints inside Plato’s lost dialogue and the help of the cunning player (or their walkthrough guide), gains entry to the ruins of the fabled island. Sound complicated? Well don’t worry, this stuff is business as usual for Dr. Indiana Jones, it will be no trouble at all to get through!
Fate of Atlantis wasn’t satisfied with simply having 3 paths that converge in the final act, being made by LucasArts and all, it had to have 2 endings as well! These endings depended on whether you freed Sophia from her encampment or not, and slightly altered the way the epilogue played out, as well as making the short ending cinematic either a happy or sad one – thus leading to the scenario where Sophia is freed being labeled the “good ending” and the other, obviously, being the “not as good ending.” This wasn’t exactly as innovative as the path thing, with many before having done the same thing, including LucasArts’ very own Secret of Monkey Island.
It does, however, show the dedication of Barwood and his team in pushing the boundaries of gaming as far as they can. Artistic integrity, after all, is what puts works like Fate of Atlantis so far above their peers and elevates them to a status of timeless remembrance — if your game is remembered and loved after 25 years, after all, you must have done something right. People like Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein and games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis are the reasons why we regard LucasArts so highly today, and list them among other ‘90s greats like Id Software, Interplay Entertainment and Looking Glass Studios.
Now, let’s stop milking the Star Wars license and focus on becoming as influential and beloved as all these guys, eh, today’s LucasArts?