By Dennis Scimeca
Ron Gilbert’s postmortem on Maniac Mansion was less a classic postmortem and more a collection of memories about the game and a trip down memory lane. “How many people in this room weren’t even alive 25 years ago?” he asked. It looked like at least half the arms in the conference room went up.
Maniac Mansion was one of the defining graphic adventure games of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. It popularized the point and click interface that LucasArts became famous for, and coined the word “cutscene.” The inspiration for the title came from Gilbert and colleague Gary Winter’s love for horror films like Reanimator and Creepshow (the purple meteor in Maniac Mansion was inspired by Stephen King’s chapter in the film), and the humorous influences of the play Little Shop of Horrors. Gilbert and Winter were based at the Skywalker Ranch while they developed the game, and much of the inspiration for the Mansion itself came from the Main house at the Ranch where George Lucas’s offices were located.
For a while, Gilbert and Winter didn’t have much else other than a concept of kids going into a weird house. “We figured the story would just write itself,” Gilbert said. And they hadn’t conceived of it as an adventure game. “We really had no idea what the players were going to do.” Then Gilbert saw his 8-year-old cousin playing King’s Quest. “All these disconnected ideas Gary and I had instantly fell into place.”
King’s Quest was Gilbert’s first exposure to a text adventure game that had graphics, but Gilbert hated the parsing system. He would see something on the screen that looked like a plant, but the game didn’t recognize the noun “plant.” Was it pick up bush, or shrub? “This was not gameplay,” Gilbert said. “This was not fun. Why can’t I just point at this thing?” Hence the point and click system was born.
Some other tales of Maniac Mansion’s development:
- The game originally had the insult “shit head” as dialogue. When Gilbert and Winter were told they had to either justify or remove the line, in a fit of frustration Gilbert changed it to “Tuna head,” thinking he was being cleverly sarcastic. The phrase caught on with fans to the point where they can identify each other by its use to this very day.
- Writing the game with seven unique characters, each of whom had their own, specific puzzles to solve, resulted in quite a few ways to render the game unwinnable.
- Gary Winter and David Fox, a programmer they brought on to help with the coding, created the “hamster in the microwave” gag by way of demonstrating the power of the SCUMM engine (Script Creation Utility Maniac Mansion) to rapidly create new game events.
- When they ported the game to the Nintendo Entertainment System, and in the final credits included the line “NES SCUMM System by,” Nintendo wanted to know why Gilbert and crew felt the need to insult their console, so they had to remove the line.
- Nintendo had no problem putting a hamster in the microwave, however.
- Toys R Us, LucasFilm Games’s largest distributor of Maniac Mansion, pulled the game from their shelves several weeks after release, based on an irate letter from a customer complaining about the word “Lust” on the back of the box, so they had to redesign the box art.
Gilbert concluded the session by musing about the strict, planned nature of modern game development. For him and his team, Maniac Mansion was just a game that they loved, and their only dream was that it wouldn’t run the company out of business. “If there’s anything to learn from this talk, it’s that we had no idea what we were doing. None whatsoever,” he said. “And I think that’s an important lesson, because sometimes you just need to do things.”