This was the first published LucasArts game on which you served as lead artist, and it is to my knowledge your first major project at the company. How did you get assigned to Fate of Atlantis?
I actually hired at Lucasland to work on the sequel to Loom, called Forge. That was put on hold (I don't remember why) so they moved me onto doing 256 color conversion of Monkey Island with James Dollar and Avril Harrison. By the end of that (about a month) Hal Barwood was looking for a lead artist for Indiana Jones. Forge still hadn't gotten a green light. Hal and I got along and I think that's mostly how it happened.
Fate of Atlantis was one of the first LucasArts adventure games to use 256 color backgrounds, which remain gorgeous and atmospheric. How did this make your job easier/harder?
I thought it was a lot easier than the 16 color stuff. We worked in Deluxe Paint (DP) back then, mostly with the mouse rather than tablet. We didn't have the nice Wacom tablets like we have now. It was a whole new way of drawing and painting, and I kind of liked the weirdness of it. In fact, I only started using a tablet about three years ago.
Describe the production process for creating a background screen for the game.
At first we sketched it out in DP and filled it in. But later we scanned drawings. Drawing with pencil is just quicker, that's all. I think Avril, James, and I all worked a little differently. I would lay it out with strait colored lines, and everything else black. Then I would drop-fill color on all the planes to get a sense of lighting. Then I would refill the flat planes with gradient fills, again to get a sense of lighting. Then I had some way of blurring the outlines so they got absorbed by all the tones next to them. I don't remember how. That was the easy part. After that we would have to painstakingly doodle all the details in. For example, a wall may look just right, with the right lighting and color, but it doesn't look like an old decaying brick wall in Atlantis. So, while leaving the light and color alone, we would have to render brickwork, chips and decay, color variations to make it look organic and natural.
Even though DP was a powerful tool, it was only 256 colors. It didn't mix colors for you the way Photoshop does. If you blended, it would pick from the closest available in the palette, rather than making the correct color for you, so a lot of thinking ahead was necessary. Also, half the palette had to be left alone for the animations, so it was sometimes frustrating. Fortunately, the era of 256 colors and low resolution lasted a short time. In fact, I think that was the only project we did entirely in DP. After that, scanning came into use and made it a lot easier.
What were your inspirations in creating the style for the game's artwork? What kind of research did you do? How big an influence were the films themselves on your work?
I don't recall the films helping much, only because they themselves were inspired by historical sources. We just used the same historical sources, like old photos, etc., rather than the films. A lot of the research for the Atlantis style came from Minoan art. Hal wanted to imply that the Minoans got their style from the Atlantians. So we had to backwards-engineer a style for a civilization. Our screen resolution was something like 240 by 300 pixels so we were limited in how far we could push things. So we had to stylize and simplify a lot.
Did you ever consult or meet with Spielberg or Lucas during the process of bringing the game's visuals to life?
Hal did, but I don't think I was ever in on it.
Like any good Indy adventure, the storyline takes characters all over the globe, from New York to the Mediterranean to the lost city. Is there a particular segment of the game that you prefer, stylistically?
That's a good question. I don't really remember anymore. I liked the historical stuff in the 1940's. I liked doing it, even though it's probably the least interesting to look at.
Fate of Atlantis has a huge amount of locations, even for an epic-sized adventure game. How many artists were on the project and how constrictive was the schedule on you guys?
Hah! There were only three of us! Time was murder. Hal tended to change his mind a lot, too. He's one of these guys who gets it down, then moves on, then comes back to refine it. I do that too when I'm painting. Block it in, then keep working it. But we would often rework a background dozens of times. Time restrictions were so bad that Hal would give the backgrounds to rework by whoever was free. So every single background in that game was probably worked on by all three of us at some point in its life. Today, I don't think any of us can remember who worked on what. I can remember several I started so I think of them as mine. But that's about it.
Was it difficult to manage so many artists? How was the work spread out between the lot of you?
See above. It was like juggling. Fortunately there was only three of us. Anymore would have helped with time, but made it more confusing. This was back in the day before servers that kept track of the latest version of something. So sometimes an artist would work on a background that was not the latest version! It got crazy at times. Actually, most of the time during the last several months.
It's my understanding that drawing the background art entirely on paper and then scanning them was not a technique that was available to the Fate of Atlantis team, though it was employed with the simultaneously developed Monkey Island 2. What's the story behind that?
Towards the end of the project we were able to scan drawings. But I'm sure that was only about 10% of the backgrounds. Monkey 2 started after Atlantis started so we didn't get to use the scanning technology at first. And when we could we were already too committed to the stuff already done. No way to start over. And even when they were experimenting with using the scanner, I was never happy with the results. Too much speckling and pixel artifacts. I suppose the game players didn't notice it because they didn't see the original artwork that got scanned. It took some time before we had software that could take a scanned image and reduce it down to around 150 colors and have it look good.
There was a moment in time, about two years, where the technology jumped. Atlantis was right in the middle of that jump. By the time I got to work on The Dig, I figured out how to scan black and white paintings and colorize them to totally eliminate the ugly speckling. But by the end of that project Bill Tiller was doing the backgrounds in Photoshop and they looked just as good. My clever invention became irrelevant in less than a year. It really was a weird and wonderful moment in time as far as the technology
Were there ever scenarios in which the artists had a hand in gameplay decisions, such as contributing to puzzle design?
Yes. In fact, those are some of my favorite memories. Hal would sometimes get stuck on an idea and ask us to help out, especially ones that required visual design within the puzzle itself. For example, there's a puzzle in Atlantis where you had to repair a broken door robot and configure some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption to get the door open. Hal knew what he wanted, but it was so visual that it really required the artist to design it. James Dollar and I went for a walk in San Rafael and just looked in windows of shops. Slowly, but surely, lateral thinking started revealing some ideas and pretty soon we had a plan. Hal liked it and I still think it's a fun puzzle in the game (given our graphics limitations). I would love to see more games with puzzles like that, too. I hate puzzles that are hard, then when you finally figure them out you say, "How stupid, no wonder I couldn't get it." But when it's hard and you finally solve it, and it's a clever puzzle, you feel clever and satisfied and enjoy the gaming experience better. I won't say our Rube Goldberg puzzle was one of the better ones, but I just like puzzles like that.
"And when you pull it off, all that went into it is sensed by the player and enjoyed on some deeper level. There's a feeling of order and sophistication that you don't quite get in a 3D game."
Despite the age of the game, the background art continues to stun. Why do you think time is kinder to a game like Fate of Atlantis than most others?
That, I don't know. I cringe when I look at it, myself. I tried letting my son play it and he could never get into it because of the animation. He's growing up in the Xbox universe! But one of the things I like about Atlantis is that we had so many limitations, including that it had to be realistic like the movies (as opposed to Monkey Island which could be highly stylized and cute) that we were forced to use traditional painting to pull it off. What you end up with is a little bit more of a natural feel to everything. I still like the scene inside the Mayan tomb. I can almost feel the coolness of the stone and smell the humidity. What can I say? James and Avril are very talented traditional painters and maybe that's what comes through in Atlantis, as opposed to cartooning that can be beautiful, but doesn't have as much tangible atmosphere.
With the game's excellent cover painting (a homemade poster of which hangs in my room!), you approximated the style of Drew Struzan. Did he ever give you any feedback?
No. I would have loved that because I always loved his work. It was a ton of fun to imitate him, although I feel I fell a little short. I did that painting in three days! I really needed a week. I still like the design, though.
How would you compare the work environment at LucasArts in the glory days with your experiences in modern game development?
There was a lot of good and bad back then. We had so much freedom, and that made for an exciting working environment. We were treated almost like a think tank. George didn't care if we made any money (even though we usually did). He just wanted us to push the envelope because he imagined it was all leading somewhere. However, too much freedom tends to breed a lot of BS. People lose sight of their objectives. I didn't care too much about computer games. I just liked being really creative, and getting paid to do it! Tell me the parameters, then get out of the way and let my try to impress you with it.
Politics is something I seem to be immune to, or perhaps too stupid to play along. So it was often frustrating when I would see people with a little too much creative freedom go to pieces. Atlantis was way over budget and schedule, for example. It could have been just as good, maybe better, with some clearly defined parameters. You know that old saying, "The time required to finish a task always expands to fill the amount of time available," or something like that. I'm not sure I'm saying that right, but maybe you get the idea. Flexibility is a tool for creativity, not an end in itself. Too much freedom produces a lot of creativity, but a lot of weirdness, too.
On a similar note, how has the role of art in games changed over the years from your perspective? Has it been a positive change?
Yes. Back in the day, programmers imagined themselves to be the creative leaders. Nonsense! Anyone can be creative, even we little artists. I enjoy brainstorming sessions. But I do not like uncreative people who don't seem to know they aren't. Nowadays it just seems the less creative types know it and back down. Also, everyone, including managers, seem to pay more attention to good ideas, no matter where they come from. Don't get me wrong, it's not perfect. But back at Lucasland I remember having programmers who weren't even good programmers critiquing my art... and what they were saying was wrong! There was a kind of turf war back then. They were literally trying to keep the artists from getting too much creative authority because it might make them look bad, or cause them to lose "power." It's something the artists still, to this day, look back and shake our heads about. Today is much better in that sense.
You're still involved with adventure games to this day, and I believe you're currently working with Bill Tiller on Autumn Moon's gorgeous-looking A Vampyre Story. What is it about the genre that's made it such an attractive place to devote your talents to for so long?
I'm not on "A Vampyre Story" at the moment. I did a lot of design, and some background art for it, but I'm now off painting and working on my own projects. I like the adventure games because they're just more visually attractive. I think of them as interactive illustrated books. Or maybe interactive films, but they seem more like living, interactive books to me. I enjoy the puzzle part of it most of all. Running around shooting monsters that pretty much look like every other monster in every other Xbox game, doesn't give me much of a thrill. I'm usually too busy looking at the designs everywhere, anyway. I like Halo mostly because it looks so cool. And there's another one, I think it was Bioshock, that just looks great.
I got my son to play Curse of Monkey Island (of which I did a few of the backgrounds) and he loved it. He wanted to get his friends to play it. It's the atmosphere and sense of art taking you to a place. Those games are "experiences," not merely something to kill time (or monsters) with. A good story, good artwork that helps tell it, enjoyable characters that, again, rely on artwork to come alive, are what it's all about for me. I like a good arcade game now and then, too. But if that's all there is, I'm too busy working on my projects to waste hours killing monsters.
What do you believe the advantages are for hand-drawn 2D artwork over 3D environments?
2D art relies more on composition for its appeal to the eye and brain. 3D art can be really fun, but for different reasons; it's more like a playground experience than an aesthetic one (in games, I mean). I like living in a world where we get to enjoy both. But in 2D art there has to be good composition, good sense of light to direct the eye around, yet still have staging for the action. The elements of good composition are wired into the brain so that well designed 2D satisfies the senses in special ways that 3D doesn't (but often can). And in adventure games it's harder to design backgrounds than for animated films, because in a film you see it for maybe a second, and the action is in one specific place.
In a game, you might find yourself staring at it for hours (God forbid!). So it has to have all the qualities of traditional painting, while giving the player plenty of things to explore with the eye, and allow space for lots of different action to move around in. And all the while it has to conceal elements of puzzles without giving them away. Now that is a tall order! And when you pull it off, all that went into it is sensed by the player and enjoyed on some deeper level. There's a feeling of order and sophistication that you don't quite get in a 3D game. Maybe it's not as fun to play for our modern generation. I don't know. But it's much more fun to create.
As someone who played a substantial role in an Indiana Jones project that many consider to be on par with the films themselves, what'd you think of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
Oops. I was afraid of that question. I never saw it. Maybe I will when it's out on DVD. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is about as good an adventure film as they come. That was my only inspiration while working on Atlantis. I ignored that the others even existed. And I'm told the latest film is equally, if not more, ignorable (is that a word?). Remember how funny, yet suspenseful, Raiders was? They've tried to copy that in other films, like Sahara, but it never works quite the same way (with the possible exception of the first "Romancing the Stone" movie) because it looks like they're TRYING too hard.
In Raiders, Indy rises to the occasion to deal with trouble he's innocently pulled into, that he'd really rather avoid. There was magic with that first Indiana Jones movie, mostly because they were paying tribute to the old cliff-hangers they loved as kids. Everything since is just paying tribute to Raiders. Bad formula. But the kind that happens in Hollywood all too often (and in games). I give Hal credit that he loved those old cliff-hangers too, and I think he was bring a lot of that into Atlantis. And maybe with a little bit of Lawrence of Arabia.
Any anecdote or production story you'd care to share?
Let's see... You know, we had a terrible time coming up with the name. "Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis" now seems okay, but we thought it was awkward and spent hours in brainstorming meetings trying to think of something else. It just didn't quite work. I've had people ask me, "So, what was the fate of Atlantis?" "Well, it sank." The story wasn't exactly about the fate of Atlantis... not really. So there just HAD to be something better, but we could never find it. I think for a while some of us leaned toward "Indiana Jones and the Secret of Atlantis," but that doesn't satisfy, either. All our weekly project meetings would end with trying to come up with something else, and it always degenerated into silliness like, "Indiana Jones Does Atlantis," and "Indiana Jones and the Game With No Name."
I saw an interview with Jack Black where he said they had trouble deciding on the title for "School of Rock." They couldn't make up there minds if it should be "THE School of Rock," or just "School of Rock." I thought that was funny after having gone through it with Fate of Atlantis. The truth is, it probably doesn't matter. But when you're trying to make the decision you can get so close to the problem that you lose perspective. And all that's left is a collapse into goofiness. See if you can't come up with something better than "Fate of Atlantis." Send it to Hal. And trust me, he's heard them all. I wonder if anyone kept all those stupid titles we came up with. In the end, it's probably perfect as it is. So I still laugh to think we struggled so much with it.