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These retrospectives are rapidly becoming confessionals for me. Here's this week's: I don't much care for Indiana Jones.
If I ever saw the films as a kid, they washed right over me. As an adult, I find them mostly quite boring. I went out and bought the DVD box set many years back, convinced I'd want such things in my life. But they're not adventurous enough to be adventure movies and not fantastical enough to be fantasy movies. The middleground in which they exist is clearly ideal for the vast majority, but somehow not for me. Once again, I miss out.
However, like wrapping a pill up in tuna so your cat will eat it, putting Dr Jones inside a LucasArts adventure game is the surest way to make me forget my hesitation and happily open wide. (My mouth, you weirdo.)
What's more helpful is making it one of the finest adventure games the studio ever made. Fate of Atlantis really is outstanding, and even more so for being one of very few nineties adventures that hasn't become too infuriating for modern play.
It's a good job the Nazis didn't have access to all the mystical, powerful idols and machinery that gaming would have us believe. Although it's equally odd that our fiction wants to take one of the most horrific and murderous forces ever to have existed, and suggest that had they only got their hands on the Holy Grail or secrets of ancient worlds then they could have caused some real trouble. But such is the way of both gaming and the Indiana Jones franchise, and so once more the good doctor is trekking about the planet trying to beat the Nazis to finding the lost city of Atlantis.
He teams up with Sophia Hapgood, a surrogate Marion Ravenwood, with whom he also had a brief affair in the past, and again with whom he must work in order to succeed. Hapgood was formerly a successful archaeologist, but quit in order to become a psychic, aided by her spirit guide, Atlantean god Nur-Ab-Sal something that disgusts the rationalist Indy. Together they chase down three stone discs that are said to allow access to the sunken city, visiting Iceland, Tikal, the Azores, New York, Crete...
Construction for the Modern Idiot
But before any of that, there's one of the most splendid introduction sequences of any game. You begin controlling Indy with only the mouse cursor, the rest of the SCUMM verb system blanked out at this point. Your attempts to locate a statue see him having a series of clumsy accidents, as he crashes through floor after floor, before the game's intro proper.
There's a strong whiff of precognitive satire as you play, using an interaction system that's pretty much how modern adventures play now one cursor, no choice about how its used and how clumsy this makes Indy. But it's the way this sequence is then later reversed - as you must make your way back to the top of the building that demonstrates quite what splendid structural thinking is going on here.
In fact, the whole game is remarkably well constructed. It never makes you feel restricted to one path, one direction, while also managing to never generate that constant failure of adventures, agoraphobia from too many places to go at once.
Skipping between countries, finding items in one to use in another, constructing solutions it's all splendid fun. And then it whisks you on to the next set, the next collection of choices. And for once they're really choices.
Fate of Atlantis is well known for having three different routes to completion. After the first act you can choose to play the Wits, Team or Combat path. The first is packed with tough puzzles, the second means Sophia accompanies you throughout and you often rely on each other to progress, and the third lets Indy use the game's primitive fisticuffs to punch his way out of trouble. Then all three paths lead to the same point for the game's final act, which offers at least a couple of alternative endings.
But there's choice between as well. In two forms. Some puzzles have multiple solutions, and others change each time you play the game. In fact, a lot does.
So during that sequence where you return to the university buildings and attempt to climb your way back up the floors Indy previously crashed through, I was feeling smug. I never remember what happens in games years on, and yet for once I knew the solution to the puzzle. Get the arrowhead, use the cloth, and unscrew the back of the bookcase. Then you can knock the book down, and you've got the Lost Dialogue Of Plato.
Except it didn't work. Wrong book. But then I remembered! Melt the wax cat. Except, it contained nothing. Instead I had to get the gross mayonnaise from across the road to grease the statue to slide it across the floor to get to the attic to find the key to unlock the chest.
There are some puzzles here that don't make a lot of sense once you've figured out/looked up the solution. But they're few. Compared with The Curse of Monkey Island, which I looked at last week, they are a masterclass in how to design adventure puzzles.
It's extraordinary to learn how small a team made this game. Most of the LucasArts regulars were on The Secret of Monkey Island or The Dig at the time. The lead on this one was Hal Barwood, a film writer and producer who brought a considerable range of skills to the project. He worked on almost every aspect, including writing the splendid script.
Fate of Atlantis is not an overtly comedy game, as many of LucasArts other projects obviously were. But it is still constantly entertaining, with some lovely banter between Jones and Hapgood. The script was so strong, in fact, that many tipped it many times as the plot for the mythical fourth movie. Oh, if only it had been.
Forgive me a ghastly name-dropping anecdote, but I'm old and you can't stop me. A few years back I was lucky enough to be visiting George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, the workplace of many LucasFilm/LucasArts scriptwriters. And we peeked into the extraordinary redwood circular library, with its vast stained glass domed ceiling, spiral redwood staircase, and walls lined with tens of thousands of books. It truly is an extraordinary sight, and it's the place where Barwood researched the plot for this game. It's the place where Lucas's scriptwriters research the plot for all his projects. And when I went inside, the tables were spread with books about 1950s, and mysterious items. They were planning the new Indy film, and while it had yet to be announced, looking at those tables I knew.
If I'd known what they were planning, I'd have accidentally crashed into the table while lighting a match, and while a beautiful room of wonderful books would have been tragically lost, I think it would have been for the greater good.
Orichalcum in a minute
Barwood's efforts were much better applied. Atlantis myths offer huge stretches of possibility, and the game makes a special effort to include a lot of real-world information on the subject. Taking inspiration from Plato and Ignatius L. Donnelly (thanks Wikipedia), embracing the myths but then making them slightly more fantastical, makes for excellent gaming.
The game's final act, set in the three concentric circles of Atlantis, are especially splendid. Puzzles wrapped in puzzles, mixed in with Sophia's gradual decline into possession, on a grand scale. While it would have been a good idea if the game could have at least hinted to you that you need to pick up every single object you've used on the way, or you'll be painfully backtracking all over the place (stones, ladder, wheel, pole...), it feels like such an epic sequence, leading to a decent climax.
It's lovely, I think, that the ending is all based on talking your way out of trouble. Or indeed into it. Perhaps that conversation is a little scrappy the route to success certainly doesn't make as much sense as it could but it remains a fitting finish.
In the end, against the odds, it was the better game of the three LucasArts were making at the time. And it's one that certainly merits a return visit. It comes with the Wii release of Staff of Kings, and is also on Steam for the PC.