‘Bout time for another recollection. Brian Moriarty has been back on my brain of late, in part because I had to choke down a knee-jerk sense of bewilderment and betrayal when I found he had recently spoken up in support of Roger Ebert’s “video games can never be art” stance.
That link will take you to a very long essay, but I myself scoured over every word of it. Why? Because Brian Moriarty created the computer game I still consider to be such a work of art that to this day I’m still procrastinating on its Recollection entry. I want to be able to do it justice. If the creator of that game declares video games cannot be art, I will listen, albeit not without a certain amount of heartbreak. I’m still not sure I agree with his thesis, but in reading his apologia I am still reminded all over again what a fine, deep thinker resided behind several of my most pinnacled pieces of computer entertainment.
Now, that game I’m so intimidated of even revisiting, because it was just that damn good? Loom is not that game. Loom in fact comes after that game, but its uniqueness may well stem from the fact that after 1986, Moriarty felt he’d achieved just about all he could with a pure text adventure game format. That’s pure (and no doubt prejudiced) speculation on my part, but his next game after… okay, fuck it, I’ll say the name… his next game after Trinity (oh sweet, sweet Trinity… your time will come, I promise) was Beyond Zork, which experimented wildly with the standard Infocom text adventure model by injecting such things as colored text, an on-screen map, and even a crude CRPG system.
Infocom closed shop not too long after (for largely unrelated causes), but the boundary-pushing bug didn’t quite seem to be out of Moriarty’s system yet. On the one hand, he still had great stories in mind to tell, but on the other hand, he wanted to tell those stories in new ways. The result was the game Loom, where in 1990 (forgive the metaphoric indulgence) the strands of fate conspired to weave Brian Moriarty and a still up-and-coming LucasArts together for Moriarty’s first foray into graphical adventure.
I already said my piece about LucasArts (then still Lucasfilm Games) when I discussed Maniac Mansion. That revolutionary SCUMM interface I went on and on about? Not revolutionary enough for Moriarty. Loom was released to the public with one of the most minimalistic adventure game interfaces ever, not out of laziness but its opposite, a careful intent of design. Loom remembered when it was all about the music, man.
Which is actually a silly thing to declare, given that there was no real precedent for what Loom brought to adventure gaming. At this point, let’s go ahead and have a gander at a screenshot:
This is an actual gameplay screen. Certain elements were still very much in common with others of its type: you moved your avatar around the screen(s) and hunted for objects to interact with. The major difference was how you interacted, which was… a stick.
To be more precise, a representation of the distaff your protagonist, Bobbin Threadbare, carries. Loom takes place in an original fantasy setting known as the “Age of Great Guilds”, where a fractured humanity has isolated themselves into city-states centered upon certain classic trades of civilization: the Glassmakers, the Blacksmiths, the Shepherds, and the Weavers. As you might guess from the game’s title, it’s the last Guild that your character, Bobbin Threadbare, happens to be a part of. You might notice from the screenshot that your outfit doesn’t seem particularly fancy, and that’s probably because the Weavers of Loom at some point in the past graduated from making clothes to working the fabric of destiny and reality itself. Naturally they were persecuted and exiled for this, so fled to some offshore property where they could muck around with everyone’s lives in peace.
All of this and more was explained in a 30-minute(!) audio cassette that accompanied the game in “radio drama” form. I honestly don’t remember if I ever listened to it, but fortunately enjoyment and understanding of the game doesn’t hinge on doing so. It was just one of the earliest forms of what we might know now as a Collector’s Edition extra. All the events on the tape…
…occur before or shortly after Bobbin is born, so in the game itself Bobbin is as blissfully ignorant at the start as a player who just wanted to get to adventuring. Or, uh, pirated the software.
Those who pirated Loom, though, were in for a tricksy surprise. Let’s get back to that interface. Everything you did in Loom was a result of casting spells… because I suppose when you can bend reality to your whim, your ability to just open something with your hands atrophies a tad. You cast spells by clicking parts of your distaff that corresponded to certain musical notes in a certain order. The screenshot thankfully only represents the Expert mode where the staff wasn’t helpfully labeled for you, but finding out what spells were available either took quite a bit of trial and error, or reading the handy guide included in the box. Beyond that, though, there were other spells you would literally learn by paying attention to the environment around you and the “music” it made.
And that was it. Every problem, every encounter in the game, was solved by clicking parts of that staff to generate musical notes, and thus, spells. Sometimes you’d need to get creative and play a spell ‘backwards’, which rather than having John Lennon tell you to kill the President would mean that some object might be made to close rather than open.
What does music have to do with weaving? Shhhh. Look at the pretty swans.
In any case, even if Loom didn’t have the level of narrative polish of one of Moriarty’s earlier text games, it was still a satisfying tale, with very impressive and creative visuals for its time and a lot of revolutionary design features. For example, again in my Maniac Mansion recollection I mentioned that LucasArts would be the first game company to come up with the idea that “maybe we can craft a thrilling adventure game without having the player get stuck or die in random and frustrating ways”, and Loom was the first of their games to publish with that philosophy in full effect. The interface was a successful exercise in minimalism, and also, Loom would eventually represent the first real “talkie” amongst adventure games.
You only got that last bit if you waited until the CD re-release of the game in 1992 (and had the capability to play it, for that matter! I don’t remember having a CD drive on my computer until 1995), but for a lot of gamers it was a first taste of what that could mean. The graphics weren’t all that much different, but the audio was worlds apart from all but the best MIDI sound cards of the day. And for better or worse, you got to hear the characters speaking their dialogue instead of just reading it on screen.
Like I said, I didn’t have the capability to play games off CDs until 1995, so this last isn’t really part of my recollections, but it’s still important to note. LucasArts was always striving to create great musical experiences (within the constraints of space and technology), and you’d figure a game all about music like Loom better have some good stuff to offer, especially once it went to CD. Loom not only decided to pull in some of the greatest hits of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, but its own original score is no slouch on the ears. The linked video at the end will give you a listen.
In the end, Loom was a great experiment, and actually did enjoy a good amount of commercial and critical success. According to Moriarty it was meant to be the first of a trilogy, with subsequent offerings continuing to tell the story arc from the viewpoints of members of other Guilds that Bobbin befriended in his travels. Alas, they never materialized, because I really wonder what the interface would have been like for the Blacksmith. Or the Shepherd, for that matter.