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March 17th, 2006


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12:47 am - Loom (Retro gaming geekery and wishful thinking)
Does anybody else remember Loom?


Loom is a Lucasarts game which was released originally in 1989. It was a pretty successful and popular game at the time, but it fell quickly into obscurity because it wasn't fun to pirate. Loom's plot relied heavily on a rich background story which was provided in 30-minute audiodrama on cassette that came packaged with the game. On top of that, the game has an experimental interface which is very easy to use, but which I can't imagine anybody figuring out on their own. These days Loom is underappreciated by retro gaming aficionados because the rudiments of the game are hard to figure out without the original documentation. It's not really a problem of poor design; it's more like a copy protection scheme that works a little too well.

Anyway, here's why I bring up Loom: A recent discussion with agaysexicon and fuzzyinthehead brought up old Lucasarts games like Day of the Tentacle, and Sam and Max Hit the Road. I played through both of those recently, and then around 10:00 on Tuesday night I remembered my old CD copy Loom. I installed it, played through it, spent longer than I probably should have on making the user icon attached to this post (viewable only if you're reading this from your Friends page), and went to bed at like, 2:00 in the morning. That last part was probably a bad idea.

I mention that I was playing the CD version of the game because (according to Wikipedia) it differs significantly from the floppy version. For those who don't pay attention to such things, it was fairly common in the early '90s to release a game both on CD and on floppies. The floppy release usually came out first and was a bare-bones version of the full-scale multimedia experience which would later be released on CD. Loom is typical of this phenomenon: the floppy version has MIDI music and 16-color EGA graphics, while the CD has CD-audio sound and unusually gorgeous graphics, given the limitations of low-resolution, 256-color VGA.

Last night was the first time that I've played through the game in seven years, and I was struck by how good it was, and how much I'd like to see it overhauled and remade. Sure, it would be easy enough to do a state-of-the-art literal remake, but the background story and world of Loom are so interesting that I think they could make a beautiful basis for a MMORPG.

People who are uninterested have already stopped reading, but if you're curious about Loom, it's plot, that crazy interface I mentioned earlier, and how I think it could be updated, read on:

Loom's backstory isn't as convoluted as I probably made it sound earlier, but the game is a narrative mess without it. A modern remake could handle it easily through cutscenes, and I'm guessing storage space is what prevented that in the original version. Here's an oversimplified summary of the premise:
It's the year 8004. The apocalypse happened waaaaaay back when, and when the human race picked up the pieces they formed guilds -- citystates devoted to the control and distillation of the arts and sciences. There's a Guild of Blacksmiths, a Guild of Cheesemakers, a Guild of Glassmakers, a Guild of Chicken-Pluckers... You get the idea.

Uninterested in the worldly affairs of war and politics, the Guild of Weavers focused entirely on the perfection of their craft. They became insular, eventually forbidding marriage outside of the Guild and entrance into it by outsiders. Inbreeding purified the Guild's natural talents but ruined their social standing. It didn't help that they were being accused of witchcraft, having perfected their abilities to the point that they could alter the very fabric of reality. To avoid persecution, the Weavers packed up and moved to a small island, secluded called Loom.

Eventually the Weavers inbred themselves into sterility, and the Great Loom which they used to foresee and shape the future offered no help. A woman named Cygna Threadbare gave birth to a child not foretold by the Loom. Cygna died in labor and the kid (whose name was Bobbin, hence all the Bobbin Threadbare jokes in other Lucasarts games) was raised by a midwife. The the high council forbade Bobbin to learn the art of weaving. As he reached adulthood, the powers of the Great Loom began to fail. The high council declared the failure Bobbin's doing, and summoned him to be executed on his seventeenth birthday. Guess which character you play.

Here's what happens in the game. Skip if you want to avoid spoilers. When Bobbin comes before the council, the Loom transforms them inexplicably into swans. Bobbin is the last Weaver (at least the last human Weaver), so he goes out looking for his flock. He meets folks from other guilds and learns that Bishop Mandible of the Celestial Conclave of Clerics has placed suspiciously large orders from the guilds of Glassmakers, Blacksmiths, and Shepherds. As it turns out, Mandible is preparing to equip an army of the dead to take over the world. When he opens a rift between the worlds he is horrified to learn that he has unwittingly played directly into the hands of Chaos. Chaos kills Mandible as legions of the dead stream in and create general havoc. Bobbin is unable to repair the rift so he destroys the Loom which is instrumental to Chaos' plans. The story sets itself up for completion in another episode.
Two sequels were planned for Loom which would have tied up the loose ends of the story, but neither of them happened. International House of Mojo (usually a definitive Lucasarts resource) reports that this was because Loom sold poorly, but in fact it sold very, very well. The real reason that the story ended with the first game is that by the time Lucasarts was ready to put together a sequel, the entire design team were involved in different projects. The style of Loom fell outside Lucasarts' usual focus and consumers weren't clamoring for Loom II because the piracy that usually helps fuel demand for a sequel was lower than usual. Eventually interest petered out, and nobody who noticed wanted to do anything about it.

I'm going to shift gears very clumsily now and discuss the interface. Loom's interface wasn't at all difficult to master, but you needed to be shown how to use it.


See that? It's called a distaff. It is the first and only thing Bobbin picks up over the course of the game. There are a few objects and people to interact with, but almost every action you perform (other than walking) is spell casting. The spells in Loom are comprised of four-note musical phrases which are played by clicking the corresponding note on the distaff. You pick up spells by exploring your environment. The opening spell, for example, is played on the notes ECED. You learn it by watching an egg as it hatches. You might figure this out on your own if you played the game long enough, but there aren't many people who would realize that the closing spell is DECE -- the opening spell played in reverse. The distaff you see above appears only on the easiest skill level of the game. The expert level shows only the wooden staff itself, and you have to figure out where the corresponding notes are.

The lack of traditional verb-noun commands ("open door", "get bent", "go easy", etc.) doesn't make Loom easy. If you don't figure out the distaff quickly, you can't do anything and a lot of people without legitimate copies of Loom find that incredibly frustrating. In Space Quest IV, you can visit a software store and buy a game called Boom which describes itself as a post-apocalyptic journey through a world with "no interface, no conflicts, no puzzles, no other characters and no chance of dying." That's not a correct assessment at all, but I can imagine that it might have felt that way in 1989, when the most popular adventure games were type-till-you-bleed affairs from Sierra On-Line.

So how could this interfaceless, conflictless, puzzleless monstrosity with no characters and no chance of dying work for a modern gaming audience? The game would have to be heavily revised, and the update I'm picturing reminds me a lot of the Diablo games ('cept generally happier). I think the original plot of Loom would translate beautifully to that sort of game engine, especially if it could be padded out with more story and extra quests.

Of course, Loom as originally presented is pretty linear and linear plots are kind of out right now. My solution -- speaking entirely as somebody whose experience with role-playing games and especially MMOPRGs is a whole lot of "meh" -- is that the end of the first Loom game would make a great launching point for an MMORPG. I was talking about this today with spidermoon77 and he seems to agree with me.

I see Loom as an MMORPG because the original game ends at the point where most MMORPGs begin -- namely, a major, world-encompassing catastrophe that's bad enough to make things difficult for everybody, but not bad enough to cause mass extinction. Beyond that you don't really need a plot, per se, just a few major quest arcs (how about the two aborted sequels?). The original game completely lacks any justification for combat, but the end of the game creates all kinds of possibilities. Additionally, the character classes in most RPGs are merely a way to level the playing field by limiting the player's stats, but the character classes in Loom already come equipped with different motivations, responsibilities, and social mores. In Diablo, your class determines which weapons and spells you can use, but the classes in Loom are so fundamentally different as to seriously alter the way the game is played from class to class.

And hey, why not include a remake of the original game which would be playble offline? The original CD version -- with all of its audio encoded a higher bitrate than most games -- is just over 50 megs. Almost all of the animation you'd need to remake the game would already be present for other characters. If you inserted the backstory from the audiodrama as cutscenes and new dialogue, and then further compressed the audio to a lower bitrate, an update of the original Loom could be playable from within the new RPG, almost as an extended tutorial.

I have ideas for this game. Lots and lots of ideas. And of course they'll never reach any level of fruition because I have little interest in securing the rights to Loom, and I don't really care about designing an MMORPG which I'd never play. Still though, with minor tweaks to the premise a developer could definitely make the game I'm talking about (minus the "includes remake of Loom!" part) and be legally in the clear. I wouldn't pay retail for it, but gullible people who aren't already playing World of Warcraft probably would. I might be willing to snag it out of the bargain bin and Half-Price Books.
Current Mood: nostalgicnostalgic
Current Music: Loom: The Audiodrama

(56 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:tlhinganhom
Date:March 17th, 2006 06:57 am (UTC)
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Uhhh, that header image is stretching out my friends page like nobody's business.
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From:sacredspud
Date:March 17th, 2006 07:01 am (UTC)
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Yeah, it's supposed scale to your browser window. On some LJ styles it does, but on others it displays in its entirety. Must be an LJ bug because I've checked it out some of my friends' Friends pages. It works on some, not on others.
[User Picture]
From:tlhinganhom
Date:March 17th, 2006 07:46 am (UTC)
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It's going to drive me crazy.
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From:defaultlisa
Date:March 17th, 2006 01:23 pm (UTC)
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You mean back in 1989, when I owned my (previous) Apple and a Nintendo?

One of the reasons I wanted to own a PC was because of all of the cool PC games.

Then a number of years later I had a PC (and then a second PC), but did not play games on it because it was an out-of-date, underpowered machine.

So now I have an Apple again, but Apple is different and cooler now than it was in 1989.

P.S. I really like the user icon.
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From:sacredspud
Date:March 17th, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC)
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Wait... you're one of those creepy Mac people? How did I not know that? Oh, well. My bias against Macs comes from the fact that Back In The Day the MacOS was rigid and barely customizable. I gather this has changed. It also can't help that every Mac I've ever used has been prone to frequent crashes, which was the result of being owned by somebody who doesn't know the first thing about maintaining a Mac.

Anyway, I'm pretty positive that Lucasarts made a Mac version of Loom, but I'm guessing that the Apple you had in 1989 wasn't a Mac.

Incidentally, that icon you like is the bad guy from Loom. Well, actually, it's the bad gal because the icon was made from screenshots of the CD version where the character's gender was changed because so that a woman could voice him. Her. Hir. Whatever.
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From:defaultlisa
Date:March 17th, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)
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Correct, the Apple I had in 1989 was NOT a Mac. Hell, it didn't even have a hard drive, although that may have been pretty normal back in '89. However, I used that computer for the most part as my main desktop until ... 1997, I think. Wow. It worked fine for college and most of my first year of grad school, all of which were writing-intensive, to say the least. Never needed replacement parts. Probably still boots fine when you pop in a 3.5. Never had a CD drive for that thing. Never tried to get a modem for it.

Now I have an iMac, which I purchased about 10 months ago. Hands down the best computer I have ever owned. OS X could be part of the reason for that. I have had so many problems with various versions of Windows on other computers ... so glad I don't have to deal with that crap at home anymore. Let's see? Microsoft makes an OS that has problems running its Office products?! No freaking excuse for that. Plus: bugs, crashing, freeze-ups ... bleh.

As long as Apple makes good choices about its parts that are contracted out, I will continue buying Apple computers. I like the products. I like the company politics (at least in general-- not the personal bits that are often quite nasty at any corporation). It's the right choice for me.
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From:seanorange
Date:March 17th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)
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Dude, confluence! I've been thinking about this game a lot lately, mostly about how much I love it, but partly wondering why the sequel(s) never materialized.

I see your point on the MMORPGS idea. I'm not terribly big on MMORPGS either (and I laugh at anyone who says that single, non-PC-interactive games are soon to be a thing of the past), and yet somehow I spent a lot of time in City of Heroes.

And if it seems like I ended that train of through abruptly, it's because it just exploded into a rant about MMORPGS, which was not in the slightest what I wanted to be the focus of this reply.

What I meant was that I really like your idea.

It reminds me of something; I've had this idea for a "branching" storyline RPG thing for a while, and now that you've brought this all up I'd love to have the chance to talk to you about it.

~Sean
[User Picture]
From:defaultlisa
Date:March 17th, 2006 05:05 pm (UTC)
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I see your point on the MMORPGS idea. I'm not terribly big on MMORPGS either (and I laugh at anyone who says that single, non-PC-interactive games are soon to be a thing of the past), and yet somehow I spent a lot of time in City of Heroes.

I think it's a really great time for developers of MMORPGs, considering the tremendous popularity of WoW and City of Heroes. More and more people are becoming aware of this type of gaming. You're totally right, though. The single-player (and multi-player non-online) games will always be around. People enjoy them.
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From:seanorange
Date:March 17th, 2006 05:33 pm (UTC)
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MMORPGS can be so much better if they don't keep falling into the same traps. My experience with CoH might have turned me off to this type of game forever.

They tend to rely more on new users than trying to keep the existing user base. Since these games are content-driven, they don't "end" in the traditional sense -- you just have to make your own fun once there's no more content. The problem I faced as I leveled up (which is another story entirely) is that a lot of the developers are in this constant struggle with these high-level players, deliberately finding ways to ban or make difficult the practices that keep these users in the game.

Usually this is done in the name of "balance", which can mean pretty much anything. In CoH they do a lot of weird stuff in the name of team dynamics. More recent changes have to do with incorporating PvP, something that wasn't part of the game's original design, and it totally changed the way the PvE game was played. What's terribly humorous is that these two "balancing" drives are actually in opposition of each other.

These games can't be sequelized in the traditional sense. They either have to release expansions or sister-games (like CoV). Trouble is that the latter case requires all the incredible overhead of server arrays and the (potentially) disgruntled employees who run them. In other words, it's not cheap, which is one big reason why I don't think "traditional" gaming will be phased out.

At the point where the content ends on these subscription-based services (which is really what they are), it stops being a game and becomes something else. Unless these companies can cater to this "something else", either by letting high-level players create their own content without fear of repercussion, or some other mechanism(s), they're gonna burn through their potential user base sooner rather than later, and then NO ONE will ever get to play the game again.

That's the biggest gripe -- the game exists only so long as a company feels like maintaining the experience. I'm sure that's how some companies/shareholders like it, but that sort of relegates the experience again outside of "game" and more to the area of "potentially archaeologically intriguing social phenomenon". Someone could still play Tetris 1000 years from now, but I doubt anyone at that distant point in the future will remember World of Warcraft.

~Sean
From:poriginal
Date:March 17th, 2006 06:33 pm (UTC)

PLEASE CHOOSE YOUR SKILL LEVEL!

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be careful that you check your sound settings prior to loading up this game. If you should, for example, have the volume set a little high you will be treated to a very abusive voice demanding that you choose your skill level (no consquence of failing to do so is mentioned, but I fear it to be a fate worse than High School).

Loved this game.
[User Picture]
From:sacredspud
Date:March 17th, 2006 11:45 pm (UTC)

Re: PLEASE CHOOSE YOUR SKILL LEVEL!

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Congrats! Out of 50 comments (admittedly, they're about 40% mine), this is the only one that's actually about Loom!

I didn't play Loom until the late '90s, but I'd wanted to because I'd read positive reviews when it was new. I really enjoyed it, but had a hard time getting any of my friends -- most of whom were into old Lucasarts games -- interested in it. Did you have the CD version, or the floppy version? I have both but have never played the floppy version. I didn't realize until I looked the game up on Wikipedia the other day that the floppy has much more dialogue than the CD.
From:poriginal
Date:March 21st, 2006 01:28 pm (UTC)

Re: PLEASE CHOOSE YOUR SKILL LEVEL!

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I dont know if you'll actually read this seeing as I'm posting it so late and all, but the correct answer is I -still have- my CD copy. I'm pretty sure I turned off the subtitles at some point. I never did listen to the audio CD but I'm pretty sure I still have it.

I have a bunch of LA games installed somewhere that can be access by SCUMMVM i'm sure.
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From:agaysexicon
Date:March 18th, 2006 02:01 am (UTC)
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I'm trying not to read the majority, since I attempted to play Loom, and managed to get *nearly* struck by lightening before I managed to get a job. Then I stopped playing for some unknown reason. Probably free time.

It's interesting, but I don't know if I screwed up when I accidentally opened a clam with music. "Wait, what does that first one do again?" I didn't manage to turn it green, however.

Can you actually attack the sky, or did the game just get my hopes up in order to crush them later?
[User Picture]
From:sacredspud
Date:March 18th, 2006 06:07 pm (UTC)
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Yes, you can attack the sky in Loom. Well, that's not actually what you're doing. My guess is that you didn't read the tomestone bearing the prophecy first. There's a prophecy which says something about the sky being split asunder, and you open the sky to fulfill that. I swear it makes sense in context.

I can't remember if opening the clam is necessary to completing the game or not. I've always done it, but it might just be practice to show you how the interface works. I don't remember if it does anything for you other than feeding those hungry birds.

Anyway, what you have is the floppy disk version of Loom, which is done in 16 colors and MIDI sound. I also have the CD version which has 256 colors and voice acting. That's the version I recommend, but I didn't give it to you because the sound is encoded as CD audio (rather than a data file), and you need the CD to play it. I only just found out that ScummVM will let you rip the audio to MP3s and play entirely off your hard drive, so I'll give you a copy of the prettier version if you like. The trade-off, I guess, is that the CD version contains significantly less dialogue because it wouldn't all fit on the disc.

It's a game I highly recommend, and I almost recommend using a walkthru to beat it. In most games using a walkthru makes you miss a lot of important material, but um, I got bored yesterday at work and listened to the audio track with all the dialogue. I can verify that the only thing you'd miss if you followed a walkthru is repetative dialogue that chides you for performing incorrect actions (i.e., "I guess I can't open that.", "Please wizard, you're not helping.", "I don't think she wants me to bother her anymore.", "Maybe there's a different way to fix it.", etc.).
[User Picture]
From:agaysexicon
Date:March 20th, 2006 08:06 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I did the "opening of the sky" thingy. But it felt like I was attacking the sky. Or, maybe, I was atttacking the darkness.
Loom (Retro gaming geekery and wishful thinking) - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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