First posted on 15 September 2006. Last updated on 10 July 2011.
To adventure game fans, Brian Moriarty is a legend who needs no introduction. He is best known as the creator of Loom, a graphical adventure game released by Lucasfilm Games in 1990. Fans of interactive fiction, however, may better remember him as the author of Trinity, Wishbringer, and Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor. To his fans, he is also known as "Professor" Moriarty—a nickname given to him as a young boy, in homage to the arch-nemesis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character. Born in 1956, Moriarty joined Infocom in 1984 where he began his career as a game designer. More than 20 years later, Moriarty still maintains an active connection with his fan base, who continues to reminisce about playing his games. We are extremely privileged to have this exclusive interview with the famed game designer. In the interview, Moriarty speaks of his past with Infocom and Lucasfilm Games, his work on Loom and its lost sequels, his current view of adventure games, and what holds for him in the future.
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- In 1978, you were studying English at Southeastern Massachusetts University. What career aspiration did you have at that time?
- I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I graduated. Typography and graphics were interesting to me, and I almost dropped out of my senior year when a local printer offered me a job. Luckily, my family and friends talked me out of it.
Computer gaming didn't exist yet as an industry. I was certainly interested in computers — I actually designed and built some toy computers when I was still in grade school — but, aside from pocket calculators, I never set eyes on a real computer throughout my college years.
- When and how did your career in the game industry begin?
- My first job out of college was as a sales clerk at an old Radio Shack store in Worcester, Massachusetts. On my first day of work, they brought in a carton containing a TRS-80 Model I, the first mass-market microcomputer. Within a few days, I had learned to program the thing in BASIC and wrote a crude fortune-telling game. Then I taught myself Z-80 assembler and experimented with animated ASCII graphics. But when I left the job, my interest in micros faded for a few years.
Later, in 1981, I was working as a technical writer at Bose Corporation (the loudspeaker manufacturer). One of my co-workers brought in an Atari 800 micro to run VisiCalc. During a lunch break, he showed me Star Raiders. From that moment, I became a hopeless computer game fanatic.
Looking around for a place to buy my own Atari 800, I learned about a small dealer nearby. It turned out that this dealer was also publishing a hobbyist magazine about the Atari system. Within a few months, I took a huge cut in pay to become the technical editor of the little magazine, which was called ANALOG Computing. (ANALOG was a silly acronym for Atari Newsletter And Lots Of Games.) One of my co-workers there was Tom Hudson, who later went on to create 3D Studio MAX.
ANALOG rather quickly became the world's biggest Atari magazine. That meant, among other things, that I got to play and review "Lots Of Games." One of the first I tried was a Scott Adams text adventure called Strange Odyssey. Although the writing and parser were very crude, the possibilities of the genre got me very excited. As an English major, I could imagine a whole new form of interactive literature; and as a programmer, the potential for improving the technology was obvious.
Soon thereafter, I came across Infocom's Deadline, Suspended and Starcross, with their sophisticated parsers and classy packaging. Infocom was located in Cambridge, just an hour away. I knew I had to get a job there, somehow.
My earliest adventure games appeared in the pages of ANALOG. The first, Adventure in the 5th Dimension, was written in Atari BASIC with a bit of 6502 assembly. The second, Crash Dive!, was entirely in assembly. These titles were quite rudimentary, but they helped me land that job at Infocom I was dreaming about. They hired me in spring of 1984 as a microcomputer engineer, writing and improving game interpreters for the Atari, Apple, Commodore and Tandy machines. Within six months, I was promoted to Implementor, which is what they called their game authors.
It was a tradition at Infocom to have an Implementors Lunch every Tuesday. The first one I attended was rather intimidating. Seated at the table around me were Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, co-authors of the original Zork; Michael Berlyn, author of Suspended and Infidel; Stu Galley, author of The Witness and Seastalker; Steve Meretzky, author of Planetfall and Sorcerer; and Douglas Adams, who was working with Steve on the soon-to-be-released game based on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. To an avid gamer like me, this was like being invited to tea at Abbey Road with the Beatles!
- You left Infocom in 1988 to join Lucasfilm Games. What games had you authored and co-authored up to that time? How different was the work experience at Lucasfilm Games as compared to Infocom?
- My first Infocom game, Wishbringer, came out in 1985 and was very successful. I wrote two other fantasies for Infocom, Trinity (1986) and Beyond Zork (1987), and also worked on Bureaucracy a bit.
In retrospect, Infocom was the best work experience I have ever had. (I'll bet many of the others who worked there would agree.) My co-workers were frighteningly intelligent, well-read, articulate and witty. Most of them were MIT graduates, and many were experts in computer languages and compiler design. Their standards were high, and their taste in matters technical and artistic was often impeccable.
They also knew how to have a good time. Back in those days, companies weren't afraid to have office parties with alcohol. Infocom threw one every Friday, with major events once a month and on holidays. There was also a dark, greasy Polynesian restaurant nearby that served fruity cocktails like Mai Tais and Zombies, vile but potent. I fear some of those gatherings may have gotten out of hand. Most of us were still in our twenties, unmarried and foolish. There were no arrests.
But all good things come to an end, and so did Infocom. By the time I left, it was a struggling division of a hostile corporate parent, housed in a tall, bland building in an anonymous office complex. Imagine the shock of moving from there to the rolling hills and conspicuous wealth of Skywalker Ranch!
In summer of 1988, Lucasfilm Games had only about twenty employees. The company had attracted a team of clever designers, including Ron Gilbert, David Fox, Noah Falstein and Larry Holland, among others. Lucasfilm didn't party as hard as Infocom, but there was a relaxed, easygoing attitude that I soon learned was typical of Marin County, California.
Ron had devised a development platform for graphic adventure games — the SCUMM system — that was very advanced for its time. It wasn't long before I started learning SCUMM to see what I could do with it.
- Your first project at Lucasfilm Games was Loom. How did you come up with the fantasy storyline in Loom? Where did you draw your inspiration for the game?
- The fundamental inspiration for the game was the title itself. "Loom" is a luscious word with many diverse meanings. It suggests weaving, but also "looming" in the sense of towering over something, evoking mountains, power and menace. It also shares the sound of words that bring to mind feelings of darkness and secrecy, such as gloom, womb and tomb.
Out of this line of thought came the Weavers, an ancient craft guild secretly managing the fabric of reality. Throw in a dose of Mythology 101, an undead bad guy and my trademark fondness for extra dimensions, and you get what eventually became Loom, the game.
Once the basic concept was settled, I discussed it with Gary Winnick, the lead animator, and Mark Ferrari, the background artist. We found ourselves gravitating towards Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a model for the look and feel of the game. Sleeping Beauty has a very distinct aesthetic, unlike any other Disney film. The production designer for the film was Eyvand Earle, a painter known for his flat, stylized shapes and planes. Mark did an amazing job adapting this look to the 16-color EGA pallette.
The other major influence was Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. It's one of my favorite pieces of music. The majestic sweep and melancholy atmosphere seemed perfect for a wistful story like Loom. All of the music for the game was transcribed note-by-note from Tchaikovsky's score. I also borrowed the swans, the owls and a few other elements from the scenario of the ballet.
- You had previously said that Loom was the first game of a planned trilogy adventure, followed by Forge and The Fold. What were the supposed storylines in these sequels? What tie over in the characters (such as Bobbin Threadbare) would exist in the sequels?
- Loom wasn't actually written with a trilogy in mind. But after it was finished, there was vague interest in continuing the story. In discussing this possibility, I imagined two sequels. The first was tentatively called Forge. It tells the story of Bobbin's friend Rusty Nailbender, whose home city (the Forge of the Blacksmiths) was enslaved by Chaos near the end of Loom. Rusty becomes the leader of an underground movement to overthrow Chaos, together with Fleece Firmflanks of the Shepherds and new characters from the other Guilds. Bobbin appears every now and then as a ghostly swan dispensing mystical advice, an obvious nod to Obi-Wan Kanobi of Star Wars. The story climaxes in a terrible battle that nearly destroys the world.
The third game, The Fold, is about Fleece Firmflanks and her attempt to unite the shattered Guilds in a final, desperate effort to banish Chaos. Near the end of the game, when the cause appears hopeless, Bobbin and the Weavers swoop in like the proverbial cavalry to save the day. The Loom of the Weavers is remade, reality is healed, and peace is restored to the Guilds.
But this was all just talk. I was busy with other projects, and nobody else felt strongly enough about the games to make a commitment. So Forge and The Fold never got made.
- How likely is it in the future that you or LucasArts be involved in making a sequel to Loom or even a remake of the original Loom? What may it take for a revival of the franchise to occur?
- Some years after I left LucasArts, I had a conversation with the then-current president of the division about the possibility of a remake and/or sequel to Loom. But he left soon afterward in a corporate upheaval, a Lucasfilm specialty. At this point, the franchise seems unlikely to be revived.
- What is an interesting tidbit about Loom that is least known by its fans?
- While Gary Winnick developed most of the animation in the game, a few choice bits were created by other artists. Steve Purcell, the creator of Sam and Max, was asked to produce the scene in which Bishop Mandible is killed by Chaos. He responded with the hilarious, over-the-top sequence in which the Bishop's body is blown to pieces, and his severed head flies directly into the camera!
Another terrific artist, Ken Macklin, created the amazing special effect where a flock of swans soars away from Loom Island holding a shred of reality in their beaks. I was blown away when he showed it to me. It was a simple, economical and beautiful way to express an almost indescribable event.
- There are now at least two fan-made sequels of Loom in the making. What do you think of these fan-based efforts to revive the series? Have you ever been involved in any fan-based project related to Loom?
- Over the years, I've been contacted by a number of people interested in continuing the story. Some of them have emailed me concept art. But I don't control the property, so they are free to take it wherever they want, as long as they are respectful towards Lucasfilm's copyrights. Lawsuits are another Lucasfilm specialty.
- Your other work with LucasArts (to which Lucasfilm Games had changed its name by then) was The Dig, but you left the company in 1993 while still doing preliminary work for the game. What were the circumstances that led to your decision to leave the company? Over the years, what discussions had you had with Sean Clark (who overtook the project after your departure) about your credits given in the game?
- The Dig was made during a period of rapid change in LucasArts. The early SCUMM games, including Loom, were made by very small teams of two or three programmers and a handful of artists, who sketched out a vague story at the beginning and basically made up the rest as they went along. But as production values rose, team sizes and budgets began to soar. The informal, improvisational approach was no longer practical; design, code and art requirements had to be defined in advance, negotiated in meetings, and tracked on spreadsheets. The Dig was started using the old methodology, but ended up using the new. The transition was very difficult, and there were casualties. I was one of them.
Luckily, Sean Clark and his team of heroes were able to complete the game, and the resulting product did very well indeed, so the drama had a happy ending.
The little credit they gave me in the end was a wry joke, just the sort of thing Sean likes.
- Orson Scott Card is a prolific and bestselling author who has been credited in several games from Lucasfilm Games or LucasArts. What is his relationship to the company and what is your relationship to him?
- Scott is one of my favorite fantasy writers; his Alvin Maker series is especially strange and wonderful. I met him at Skywalker Ranch during the production of Loom. He really liked the audio drama when I played it for him. Later, he gave the game a very kind review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
After Loom was finished, Lucasfilm invited Scott to cut and revise the original dialog to make it fit in the CD-ROM "talkie" version. I believe he also wrote some dialog for Sean's version of The Dig.
- Interest in the adventure genre has greatly diminished over the past few years. Do you believe that games that are built on the traditional adventure game model or framework can still enjoy a commercial revival someday, rather than remaining as remnants best left for classic gaming? Why?
- I think it's a problem of managing expectations.
The audience for old-style adventure games is small right now, so budgets and production values must be modest. But my gut tells me that there are still enough adventure fanatics out there to support a small but creatively vital mini-industry. Companies like Telltale are hoping to prove me right.
The challenge will be circumventing the mass-market sales and distribution channels that eat "small" games alive. Who knows? Maybe someday, gifted designers like Steve Meretsky and Ron Gilbert will be able to make a living writing adventure games again.
- After you left LucasArts, you had worked with other game developers (such as Rocket Science and Skotos Tech), and even formed your own game company, Mpath, that later became HearMe. What lessons had you learned from these ventures which you could share for the benefits of fans wanting to enter the game industry?
- In the old days, when people asked me what they should study to become a game designer, I suggested literature, art and/or programming. Today, I recommend an undergraduate degree in professional management, followed by an MBA.
- Among all the games you have designed or co-designed in your career, which game are you most proud of? Why?
- In my second adventure for Infocom, Trinity, I actually managed to accomplish 80% of what I hoped to achieve. This is as close as I have ever come.
- What are you doing nowadays? What adventure games are you now playing? What can we look forward in you over the next 5 years?
- I've been privately working on prose-based interactive fiction on and off for over ten years now. I doubt if I'll ever post any of it. Few people care to read or type anymore, and it takes a lot of experienced playtesting to polish a game to presentable standards. Still, I enjoy working with the form, and fussing with the underlying technology.
The only adventure-like game I've actually paid for recently is Eve Online. I had to cancel my subscription after a week because it was eating all of my free time.
- Thank you so much for this interview. We all look forward to hear more about you and your endeavor in the future!
- Thanks for inviting me to participate. It's fun to remember the good old days, "when dragons ruled the twilight skies, and the stars were bright and numerous."