Interviewer: Hans Frank
Hal Barwood ist a glowing game designer who currently works - together with Noah Falstein - on Mata Hari, a spy thriller developed by the German 4Head Studios. Hal got famous for his work as an hollywood screenplay writer (including Sugarland Express) and as a designer of computer games at LucasArts (including Indiana Jones 4 - Fate of Atlantis and Indiana Jones - The Infernal Machine).
Adventure-Treff: Hello Hal! Most of the adventure game fans would probably remember you from your time at LucasArts, especially as a designer of two Indiana Jones games, Fate of Atlantis and The Infernal Machine. Meanwhile, your own company - Finite Arts - has come to the fore. Please tell us about your current projects and what you are planning for the future.
Hal Barwood: Finite Arts is a California Corporation, a holdover from my days as a Hollywood screenwriter. It's just a respectable way of dodging taxes legally. Through Finite I'm currently working on several projects, most of them small and quick assignments. But a project with dtp Entertainment, an honest-to-God adventure game, is a major undertaking.
Adventure-Treff: The news about you and Noah Falstein working on a new adventure project with the topic "Mata Hari" became a real zinger - not only in adventure related circles. The game is being developed by the German studio "4Head Studios". How did this cooperation become true? Who seized the initiative?
Hal Barwood: Well, dtp has announced it, so the news is out. Marc Buro, a producer at dtp approached Noah and me separately. We're friends, we compared notes, and we thought, "this is right up our alley." So we went back to Marc wondering if dtp would be interested in having us collaborate on the project, and he was pretty enthusiastic. So that's what we're doing.
Adventure-Treff: Was it your idea to pick up the topic "Mata Hari" or did the developers respectively the publisher make that choice?
Hal Barwood: The barebones idea came from dtp. It was cooked up by Christopher Kellner and Marc -- a spy game with Mata Hari at the turn of the last century.
Adventure-Treff: Are you and Noah Falstein writing the script on your own or is it a teamwork between you and the developers?
Hal Barwood: Noah and I are the designers of record, and we've done a lot of hard work turning the basic concept into a story idea fleshed out with complex and tricky game play. And I'm writing the dialog. But these things are always collaborative, not only between Noah and me, but also with Marc at dtp and Tobias Severin, Matthias Meyer, and Oliver Specht and the gang at 4Head Studios.
Adventure-Treff: Generally speaking, how do we have to imagine the teamwork between you, Noah Falstein and the developers? Do you meet from time to time or do you just send over your draft of the script and receive comments via e-mail or phone? Have you already been to Germany for that reason?
Hal Barwood: We've just finished up an exhausting series of meetings in Hannover to review and fine-tune the design. That was my second trip. Noah and I both live in Marin County, California (just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco) so we can meet at our houses or in cafes in the same time zone. But most of the time we put on our headsets for long, long Skype conferences between California, Hannover and Hamburg. And, if this project is like most others I've worked on, I'll be wearing that headset for months to come.
Adventure-Treff: Assuming the script is in a well advanced state (after the game is to be released in early 2008) - are you (and if yes: how are you) involved in the development of the game?
Hal Barwood: Noah and I are veteran designers, we've collaborated before, and we're well-versed in adventure-gaming. So our voices get
heard when we raise them. It's wonderful, we're all involved.
Adventure-Treff: Fate of Atlantis is famous for offering several completely different ways to solve the game, including different dialogues and end sequences. Will "Mata Hari" be similarly complex?
Hal Barwood: Mata Hari will be innovative, we think, but it's impossible to make it as complex as Fate. We're introducing a new dialog system, for example, and we have incorporated some Personal Advancement ideas usually found in RPGs. Back in the nineties we were working with pixel paintings, 640x400 dots, the whole thing running on anemic old DOS PCs. Those limitations meant we simply couldn't invest the game with the graphic sophistication everyone now demands, so we put a lot of our effort elsewhere -- the 3 paths, the pursuit minigames, the fist-fights, and so on. Fate would of necessity be a much different game if we were developing it today.
Adventure-Treff: Because of the complexity, Fate of Atlantis had a very long playing time. Is it at all possible to develop such long games nowadays?
Hal Barwood: Mata will probably be quicker than Fate. We're squeezing every ounce of play out of the game materials that we can, but tastes change. When Fate was released, I would play any game I happened to like forever, because I suspected the next one I picked up wouldn't be very good. That was the situation then -- the average game wasn't very high quality. Nowadays we're swamped with excellent titles on multiple platforms, so for people like me at least, a good experience that I can finish is what's important. Then I want to move on to the next cool thing. Mata is my kind of game!
Adventure-Treff: In Fate of Atlantis the idea of action sequences was extended (camel racing, fights, submarine cruise). Back then, were there any protests against this progress at LucasArts?
Hal Barwood: Oh yes. Oh my yes. LucasArts had developed a philosophy of keeping the player safe. It was a reaction to Sierra games where puzzles often bit you unexpectedly. We didn't want an experience that depended on dying and re-loading to make progress. On the other hand, Indiana Jones is a man of action, and we didn't think we could be true to his character if he was too well-protected.
Adventure-Treff: Do some of the background graphics in Fate of Atlantis base on real photos?
Hal Barwood: It's been 15 years, so to tell you the truth, I can't remember. The layout of Atlantis itself is certainly based on
descriptions in Plato, however.
Adventure-Treff: Why had the character Henry Jones no appearance in Fate of Atlantis?
Hal Barwood: You mean Indy's father? We never gave him a thought. Instead, we wanted to concentrate on Indy's relationship with his ex-colleague and companion, Sophia Hapgood, whose strange necklace holds the key to the entire adventure.
Adventure-Treff: During the development of The Infernal Machine you said in several interviews that you don't find the classic adventure genre very interesting anymore. How do you think about this statement now that you are working on one of those?
Hal Barwood: I take it all back.
Adventure-Treff: Was it ever planned to develop The Infernal Machine as a game with classic puzzles and dialogues? Or was it clear from the beginning to do an action oriented 3D game?
Hal Barwood: It was always planned as action-adventure: a combination of fighting and thinking. Lots of puzzles, lots of platform stunts, lots of fighting. Triple threat.
Adventure-Treff: When looking back to Fate of Atlantis and Infernal Machine after all the years - What would you do different?
Hal Barwood: Well, Fate was the first LucasArts title published in as many as 256 colors. Wow. Looking back, the graphics seem awfully crude. I'd love to apply current graphic standards and practices. Other than that, I still like it just fine as is. Infernal Machine was LucasArts' first 3rd-person realtime 3D game, and Indy himself is pretty crude. I'd go back and introduce a modern quaternion-based blending animation system and lose some of Indy's incredibly annoying stiffness. Otherwise, I love this game: it has some of the best level design EVAR.
Adventure-Treff: Some time ago, a secret room has been discovered in Fate of Atlantis which has not been used in the final version of the game. It lies next to Sophias apartment and there are walkable areas defined. Do you remember the original reason for including this room and why it has not been used in the final version?
Hal Barwood: Really? I'm sure I knew about this once, before my Alzheimer's was diagnosed, but now I have no idea.
Adventure-Treff: Instead of Fate of Atlantis, an Indiana Jones game named Garden of Life was to be developed. Can you tell us a bit more about the development and about the change to Fate of Atlantis?
Hal Barwood: Sure. That's the game LucasArts hired me to make. Last Crusade was a success, and the company wanted to follow it up with another game. Chris Columbus had written a screenplay for another Jones movie, and the idea was to turn that story concept into a game. Only Noah and I didn't think the story worked as a game. It was about Chinese exploration of Africa. Come to think of it, there's probably a reason why it was rejected as a movie as well. So we put on our thinking caps, started researching famous mysteries from the past, and hit on Atlantis. We saw a diagram in a book showing the city divided into 3 concentric rings, and it just looked like it belonged in a game. That, and the mysterious metal called orichalcum.
Adventure-Treff: In which stadium - made it? Is there any published material?
Hal Barwood: To my knowledge the material has never been allowed outside the Lucasfilm archives.
The Sequel to Fate of Atlantis, The Iron Phoenix has not been released after a long development, too. In an interview with The Indy Experience
you mention the problems with a German release as the main reason for that. How far has the development of this game already gone and were there any other reasons for not releasing it, too?
Hal Barwood: Germany has always been a big market for adventure games and for LucasArts in particular, and when the company's German partners discovered that the Iron Phoenix story dealt with Nazis that persisted after World War II, they warned us that it couldn't be marketed in your country. After some serious number-crunching, the powers at LucasArts felt that, without German support, revenues could not be recouped, and it was cancelled. Had we thought harder about the story beforehand, I think we would have realized it was insensitive, so its loss has given me no regrets.
Adventure-Treff: At ECTS (European Computer Trade Show) some outtakes of Iron Phoenix were shown. Are they still published somewhere so we can take a look?
Hal Barwood: I have no direct knowledge of any of this; LucasArts has gone through several upheavals since that game got underway, so I doubt anything can be found, or if found, would be released to public view. I think there's a Dark Horse comic book series very loosely based on the story, however. The storytelling is incoherent, but maybe you should track it down and take a look.
William "Bill" Stoneham, who already worked as an artist at LucasArts, Sierra and Cyan Worlds (amongst others) was project leader and lead artist at The Iron Phoenix. He provided us with to concept drawings of the never released Indiana Jones game.
Additional art of Bill Stoneham can be viewed at his homepage Stoneham Studios.
Adventure-Treff: Another never released Indy-Game is The Spear of Destiny. What can you tell us about that one?
Hal Barwood: It was set up to be one of LucasArts' very first external productions. The company did not have any good methodology to deal with external developers, however, and when the project failed to jell on its own by some miracle, it was cancelled.
Adventure-Treff: Are you still in contact with other former LucasArts employees apart from Noah Falstein?
Hal Barwood: Sure, there are quite a few of us.
Adventure-Treff: Back then at LucasArts - how was the relationship to other adventure companies like Sierra? Were there any collegial contacts or just competition?
Hal Barwood: We invited them down to Skywalker Ranch for a softball game once. Relations were cordial, but the two companies did their work 300 kilometers apart, so contact was intermittent. They invented the modern graphic adventure genre, so I guess they thought of us as upstarts, and we perfected it, heh heh, so we thought of them as yesterday's heroes. Looking back, we were both wrong: the two companies had a lot in common, and both had a lot of design and writing talent in the house.
Adventure-Treff: For sure you have been playing Sierra adventures at LucasArts, too. What did you think about them?
Hal Barwood: I pretty much covered this in previous questions. We didn't like getting killed arbitrarily, as often happened in their games. We developed a point-and-click approach that we thought superseded parsers. Now, I'm thinking, parsers could make a comeback.
Adventure-Treff: Did you know that the original boxes of classic LucasArts games from the 80s and 90s are rare collectors' items today? People pay a lot of money to get them. Do you own all the boxes of "your" games?
Hal Barwood: I suppose I do. I better post them on eBay before it's too late.
Adventure-Treff: How do you feel today when you see your old games? Do you feel nostalgia or is this just a former chapter of your life?
Hal Barwood: I suppose I feel like people who made a lot of silent movies. They were wonderful, but because they happened before the necessary technology was fully mature, it's difficult to enjoy them today. Only historians and hobbyists have the time and inclination. It's taken a lot longer for games to grow up than cinema, however, and we're still waiting for many important breakthroughs. I won't be the last generation to turn out a bunch of curiosities.
Adventure-Treff: Other former LucasArts employees are successful with related projects right now. Dave Grossman celebrates the resurrection of Sam & Max along with Telltale Games, Bill Tiller seems to get successful with his company Autumn Moon Entertainment and the game A Vampyre Story. Do you track these developments?
Hal Barwood: Of course. Go, guys! Adventure games forever!
Adventure-Treff: Let's talk about the adventure genre in general. Do you track the current development? Do you play any titles?
Hal Barwood: I'm sort of aware, but not especially so. There's a lot happening in the small world of game development.
Adventure-Treff: Apart from the adventure genre - what games do you like at the moment and what are your alltime favorites?
Hal Barwood: Like many others, I'm playing Puzzle Quest on my DS every free moment I get. Over the last year or so, I guess my favorite game was Okami on PS2. To tell you the truth, I made most of my favorite games, as you might guess. More modestly, I'm a huge Miyamoto fan: Ocarina of Time is probably my favorite from Nintendo, but there are dozens of others as weirdly various as Area 51, Sly Cooper, and Mummy Maze.
Adventure-Treff: Apart from your career in the gaming industry you worked on films in the past. You even received the "Best Screenplay" award in the film festival of Cannes for "Sugarland Express" (as Matthew Robbins and Steven Spielberg did). Are you still interested in this genre? Do you still know those people (Spielberg, Lucas...)?
Hal Barwood: These are some of my oldest friends. I still love to write, but no more screenplays.
Adventure-Treff: Why don't you want to write screenplays any more?
Hal Barwood: Two reasons -- first, I love working on games more than on movies, and second, I like to be productive: it's a common story in Hollywood, even among very successful writers, that most of their stuff will not be produced, and will wind up sitting in a trunk. The percentage is dropping in the world of games as the production stakes escalate, but it's still much more likely that a game I work on will get produced than was ever the case with movies.
Adventure-Treff: Are you already looking forward to the new Indiana Jones movie which is being shot at the moment?
Hal Barwood: You bet I am! I know something about it (sorry, can't tell), so I'm particularly excited by the setting in the 1950s and what that means. And, I can relax, knowing that my Jones-game days are over, and just anticipate the fun.
Adventure-Treff: To round off, any funny anecdote from the time at LucasArts or as a game developer at all?
Hal Barwood: I think it's all been funny, but the joke's on us!
Adventure-Treff: Thank you very much for the interview!