Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

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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.
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