To be a video game based on a movie property is all too often a sad fate, compounded by the fact that these days, it’s just about a mandatory part of merchandising for many films. Mandatory, perhaps… but that doesn’t mean anyone involved gives two shits about the production values involved: most are churned out with about the same care as is put into the plastic Happy Meal toys (disclaimer here: there may be souls in the development process who do give two shits, but they will be crushed, and probably spend the rest of their lives trying tearfully to explain themselves or, alternately, grumbling in between the downing of another pint that they got a paycheck out of it, at least, so fuck off).
And yet, there are exceptions. Exceptions that may be few and far between, but they somehow re-bottle the lightning that made us love the movie(s) so much. They have story. They have soul. They might even provide us with some risk-taking innovations in game play, which is hard enough to come by as it is without adding the pressure of staying true to an established property.
As one example, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay was offered up as a prequel of sorts to the movie Pitch Black. It rocked beyond all possible expectations, combining great atmosphere with great gameplay, and recapturing the film’s moral ambiguity of a future society where a complete psychopath might just turn out to be the most sympathetic character. And that without having to inject any fantasy elements about Furians and ancient prophecies; so in my opinion, it made a much better follow-up to the Riddick mythos than the Chronicles of Riddick film released the same year.
Speaking of which, after the one-two gut punch of Episode I and Episode II I was just about ready to put Star Wars aside forever, forgetting what I ever saw in the whole thing… until Knights of the Old Republic debuted in 2003. It took a video game to defibrilate my love affair with the property, as Bioware brought back everything I’d been missing and then some. Sure, it was a setting thousands of years before the events of A New Hope, but the feel was there again. It didn’t hurt there was a kickass story involved, plus satisfying elements like an explanation of the Sith and Sith philosophy that made a thousand times more sense than the “Always two there are” bullshit.
But a long time ago, in a LucasArts far, far away, there was another famous adventure series that spawned a computer game far surpassing what anyone might have expected. Hearken, ladies and gentlemen, to the excellence that was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
As has become tradition, I’ll include a youtube link to the first part of the game at the end of this article, but for now let’s just say LucasArts was at it again with the innovations. The underlying game interface was solidly SCUMM, but this was the first “interactive introduction” I ever remember playing through. The credits and music continued through at least four stages, in between which you had to navigate Indy through a perilous unknown that, very cleverly, turns out to be the museum archives of Marshall College. And yes, if you know your Jones lore, that means the above screenshot is showing Indy crashing through the window of a place he works at. I think he says something droll about the stairs being out.
In the best Jones tradition he ends up fairly wrecking the place in the course of his attempts to find what he’s looking for, but it’s okay, you know… because it’s Indy. Still, it’s a knowingly tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that the Jones school of archaeology tends to be a rather destructive one, hearkening back both to the old pulp magazines and a historical reality where they bloody well used to use dynamite to blow open tombs.
But although the game takes painstaking care to keep to the core of the Indy mythos and the elements that make it great (humor, exotic locales, snappy dialogue, and a fedora that always finds its way back to its master), its most impressive feat is how goddamn smart it is at getting to the real essence of a Jones story that makes it so appealing to folklore nerds the world over. Yes, there are inaccuracies and oddities throughout all three movies, but especially with the first and third, the artifact sought is rooted in the rich, real-world legends surrounding something lost, sacred, and powerful.
Raiders centered around The Ark of the Covenant. Last Crusade sought the truth behind the Holy Grail. And this game, as you might have guessed, goes right for the motherlode of a legend thousands of years old and allegedly permeating cultures from Iceland to Minoa to Tikal: the lost city of Atlantis.
Writers Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein really pulled out the stops for this, weaving in a wealth of existing lore that as you progressed just kept giving you the sense of how possible all this could be. From the Wikipedia:
“Writing the story involved extensive research on a plethora of pseudo-scientific books. Inspiration for the mythology in the game, like the description of the city and the appearance of the metal orichalcum, was primarily drawn from Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, and from Ignatius Loyola Donnelly’s book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World that revived interest in the myth during the nineteenth century. The magical properties of orichalcum and the Atlantean technology depicted in the game were partly adopted from Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky’s publications on the force vril, and the giant colossus producing gods was based on a power-concentrating device called “firestone” formerly described by American psychic Edgar Cayce. “
Fate of Atlantis takes all these elements and runs with them, up to and including the invention of a “Lost Dialogue” of Plato beyond Timaeus and Critias which Jones finds to guide his quest. The result is an adventure that captures that Jones spirit of ancient supernatural power lurking just beyond the fringes of “modern” world of the 20th century — oh, and of course, Nazis trying to get at that power for their own evil purposes. I believe empirically that the best Jones stories always have Nazis in them. Fate of Atlantis sets itself in 1939, on the very eve of WWII, perhaps even contrasting the destruction of Atlantis with the destruction mankind would be visiting on itself for the next six years. I wouldn’t put it past the designers — like I said, this is a smart, smart game.
It is also, however, a fun game. In fact, LucasArts innovated on the gaming side here in providing the player early on with three different “paths” of play to take, depending on their proclivities. If you liked action, you chose the path of Fists, and your progression would often be hinged upon beating up badguys rather than solving puzzles. On the other track, if you chose the path of Wits, you could get around the fisticuffs in favor of rubbing your chin and arranging tiles in the proper patterns and sequences. Finally, there was the Team path, which is the path I recollect choosing. There, you depended on, as Marion Ravenwood once so daintily put it, “Your GODDAMN PARTNER!”
Your spunky female companion for this adventure is not Marion, but one Sophia Hapgood, a feisty redhead and former colleague of Indy’s whose archaeological ethics were somewhat questionable in his eyes, leading to a falling out. For instance, on an Icelandic dig, Hapgood ended up pocketing several artifacts for herself and later sales on the black market… and then later still set herself up as a professional psychic claiming one of the medallions she discovered allowed her communication with the long dead Atlantean King, Nur-Ab-Sal.
Still, after discovering that the Nazis are on a worldwide drive to collect all things Atlantean, Indy heads out to warn Sophia, in the process gleefully interrupting one of her speaking seminars by activating a ghost prop before its cue. That’s right, Sophia is a fraud (or at least, she is until it turns out her medallion claims may not be entirely false after all). The thing is, this all not only ties her into the source material, but gives her an instant measure of depth. She’s a smart woman who was making her own way in the world, even if that way happens to be one Indy disagrees with, and this makes for great banter between the two, plus gives her distinct personality and a flair for charlatan show(wo)manship that Jones sorely lacks. Thus the Team path isn’t just predicated on guiding one person through a door while the other holds a lever (a la Maniac Mansion), but for instance getting certain people to talk who would want nothing to do with Jones on his own.
Add to that the fact that she trades in her evening dress for a very sensible outfit when it’s time to go adventuring, and Sophia is a real winner of a character in my purview. Marion is still the queen of the Jones companions (I won’t call them the Doctor’s companions for fear of Erik dropping a TARDIS on my head), but despite the fact she never made it to film, I run Sophia as a very close second. Then Elsa, and then I suppose there’s that other one… her name almost floats to my memory but then is buried in a screeching cavalcade of whining.
I really wish Fate of Atlantis had somehow been adapted as the fourth movie, back around the time it came out. It really was just that good of a story, that good of a product. It was a truly epic, globetrotting, humorous, terrifying, and most of all solidly Jones adventure in the way it recaptured the magic that made the best of the films the classics they are.
Now then, as promised, a Youtube excerpt of the opening. This is from a later release of the game around the period LucasArts started adding actual audio dialogue. My playthrough was silent except for music and sound effects, and if there’s one complaint I have about the game, it’s that I believe the later addition of spoken dialogue actually weakened it due to some spotty quality in the voice acting. It was certainly no Day of the Tentacle in that respect, but I shan’t speak further of DotT until it’s own day comes. For now, enjoy some Jones!