This is the eleventh article in the Where We Came From series.
At first there is nothing except the hot, orange glow of the toxic Fractalus atmosphere. A second later, ragged mountains and valleys fill the cockpit window and the player gasps.
Tomorrow, it appears, is already possible.
It Starts With George Lucas
While producing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas felt physical model-based special effects were limiting and established the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 to explore the application of computers to special effects work. State of the art hardware was not good enough for the challenges of the big screen so the division’s goal was to prepare for when technology had caught up with the ambition.
Then in 1982, Atari suggested Lucasfilm should diversify its business into video games. A partnership was forged in which Atari paid Lucasfilm $1M to fund the Computer Division’s Games Group. In return, Lucasfilm would develop games for Atari’s platforms.
Lucasfilm hired UNIX system magician Peter Langston to establish the Games Group. He was hired for more than just his technical skills, as Langston had created well-known games in the text-only UNIX environment (a notable example, which continues to evolve since its conception in 1972, is a title called Empire).
As Atari was expecting something special from the Lucasfilm brand, Langston put the Games Group on a research footing. He set out to find “boy wonders” who were “a little bit visionary” , eschewing experienced game programmers for talent that was more academic in nature. One of Langston’s first hires was David Fox, who had just co-written a book called Computer Animation Primer on Atari graphics techniques.
A Mountain To Climb
Loren Carpenter became a computer graphics celebrity after a short movie he made called Vol Libre, presented to a packed conference hall at the SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) conference in 1980:
He had appropriated fractals – infinitely complex shapes generated from simple mathematical algorithms – and used them to craft realistic, detailed landscapes. This level of graphical realism had never been seen before and the audience erupted in applause. The heads of the Lucasfilm Computer Division, who were also present, offered him a job on the spot.
The Games Group started out sharing offices with its parent, and Fox and Carpenter wound up as office cellmates. Fox lamented to Carpenter that those wonderful fractal landscapes, which required hours and hours of processing, could not be generated real-time in a game. Carpenter said he didn’t see any reason why not.
He took an Atari 800 home, learnt 6502 machine language and experimented. A few days later, Carpenter demonstrated a working prototype of a navigable fractal landscape running on the Atari’s puny 1.79Mhz processor.
With Langston’s approval, Fox and Carpenter sketched out the basis for a game in this fractal world, a challenger to the seminal Star Raiders. It was initially dubbed Rebel Rescue although by release it would be titled Rescue on Fractalus!
Pick Up That Jaw, Soldier
In Rescue, the player’s mission is to fly through enemy territory on a hostile alien world and pick up downed human pilots.
George Lucas played with a prototype. Fox, a pacifist at heart, had designed a game in which the player had no weapons. It didn’t take Lucas long to pick up on this and said Rescue needed a fire button, as he wanted “to shoot at things.”  Also, the pilot rescue sequence was essentially dead time in the game where the player does nothing, and Lucas suggested there could be some tension injected into the scene. Maybe some of the pilots could be aliens in disguise…?
The Rescue alien is the stuff of Atari gaming legend.
Importantly, the alien was a secret and only vaguely hinted at in the manual. Rumours spread that actual live aliens were hidden in the game and could leap out at the player. With no internet back then, a rumour could remain a rumour. On an 8-bit computing platform, it sounded too good to be true and so when, for the first time, an alien literally leapt onto the player’s cockpit window, jaws were dropped and underwear was soiled. The execution of the alien attack was shocking and brilliant, terrifying players.
The alien reveals itself after a nerve-wracking moment of silence between the soft footfalls of the approaching pilot and the expected knock on the airlock door. Veteran players are compelled to hover a finger over the ‘S’ key, ready to flip on the ship’s systems and fry the would-be saboteur. If the player didn’t act fast enough, the alien would smash through the cockpit window and end the game.
Here’s a video demonstrating how Rescue plays, which finishes on a sample alien sequence.
But piracy almost killed the fledgling games of Lucasfilm. Copies of Rescue on Fractalus! and its companion title Ballblazer, were sent to Atari for review. Shortly thereafter, to the team’s horror, these prototypes were being distributed through pirate networks (mainly via exchange of physical media but also through the pre-internet Bulletin Board Systems).
This was compounded by the subsequent collapse of Atari, a dysfunctional, bloated corporation that had been floundering in the wake of the 1983 video game crash. In 1984, Warner Bros sold the loss-making Atari to Jack Tramiel, founder of rival firm Commodore. Tramiel instigated a redundancy bloodbath and also wanted to renegotiate the terms of the Atari-Lucasfilm partnership. Lucasfilm Games decided they couldn’t work with the new Atari and went looking for another publisher.
It took another year before the games were finally released for the Atari home computer through software publisher Epyx.
There are better games than Rescue on Fractalus! now but its polish, scale and technical accomplishment were unparalleled at the time.
Rescue’s early levels are easy and the threat from enemy emplacements and homing missiles is minimal. Aliens do make the occasional appearance but the player can spot them before they get anywhere near the ship as their helmets are coloured green.
Make progress, though, and challenge begins to bite. Turrets infect the landscape like a rash of green measles and become efficient at locking onto the player’s ship. Aliens start donning white helmets and become indistinguishable from real pilots. A day and night cycle plunges Fractalus into a pitch black night, forcing the player to fly by instrument and the light of laser fire. Flying in a straight line is a sure way to get killed quickly and the player has to adopt a strategy of weaving around to throw off target-locks.
Beyond the simple magic of an open three-dimensional environment to explore, the loving attention to detail here is extraordinary.
Nothing on the dashboard is for show as everything has a purpose from the lock-on alert to the airlock indicator. Leaving crashed ships empty can lead to aliens boarding them and turning the distress beacon back on. The player can decide to let an alien board through an open airlock but it’s tantamount to suicide – although there is one way to kill the intruder that only works at a particular time.
The player can’t leave a stranded pilot knocking on the door forever, either. The pilot will get weaker and weaker until the toxic environment kills him. If you open the airlock just before the pilot buys the farm, the pilot will be saved but climbs aboard with slow, weakened footsteps.
Last but not least, the cockpit view is persistent. Between game start and game end, there are no cut scenes nor menus. It’s Gordon Freeman in a flight simulator.
There were three other Atari games to emerge from Lucasfilm Games.
Ballblazer was a futuristic sports game played in a three-dimensional environment designed by Dave Levine. It used anti-aliasing to make the lines of the game field less jagged, a technique hitherto unused in games at the time. It also featured Peter Langston’s awesome theme, “Song of the Grid”, shown in the video below:
It has spawned numerous remixes, my long-time favourite being the “Freon mix”:
The music work throughout Ballblazer is particularly special as it “not only responds to game-play and provides vital status cues, but is also constantly improvised by an algorithmic composition scheme” according to Langston .
Koronis Rift was Noah Falstein’s first Lucasfilm game, in which the player explored ancient rifts containing advanced technology with a scavenger tank; it required careful experimentation with recovered artefacts if the player was to succeed in reaching the final rift. Charlie Kellner’s The Eidolon was a surreal experience that took place in the caves of an alternate dimension that harboured dragons, trolls and other strange beasts.
Ron Gilbert was hired to work on the Commodore 64 versions of these games and he would go on to develop SCUMM, giving birth to the graphical adventure heritage that Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, would become synonymous with.
Of the original quartet, Rescue feels the most accessible. Ballblazer is a bit disconcerting with its automatic 90-degree turns, while Koronis Rift and The Eidolon can be frustrating if the player fails to work out how to make progress. Regardless, all of these were great games for the era, raising the bar beyond the reach of many programmers.
And here is the real promise of tomorrow that Lucasfilm Games represented. They were a sign of the rise of the corporate developer and, inevitably, the slow death of the bedroom programmer. Large diverse teams and expensive infrastructure were to become essential to deliver the high production values of the future.
And They All Lived–
Langston left Lucasfilm Games in 1984, his mission complete. In 1991, he retired from the technology industry completely and has spent much of the last two decades embracing his real love: music. I recommend the original version of Langston’s Songs To Myself performed by Entropy Service the acoustic band he was part of in the early 70s. Here’s Langston more recently:
The Lucasfilm Computer Division was eventually sold to Steve Jobs and became Pixar. Loren Carpenter is the Chief Scientist at Pixar. Incidentally, Vol Libre is not the only time Carpenter has caused a stir at the SIGGRAPH conference. In 1991, he organised a curious audience participation experiment which was touched on by Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.
Lucasfilm Games went on to specialise in military sims and point-and-click adventures and became LucasArts Entertainment in 1988. Still, there is something vital and important about its early research phase under Langston which fostered an environment in which titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango could be made.
Fox’s last project for Lucas was the development of the Mirage pod in 1992, a “multi-player, networked, virtual reality entertainment system … intended for theme parks”  which even supported a game that hearkened back to Fox’s Rescue on Fractalus! Although the project was successful, it was sadly ahead of its technological time and too expensive for mass-production. Fox now works with his wife as Electric Eggplant which specialises in educational content.
In 2011, I show Mrs. HM some footage of the Rescue on Fractalus! alien leaping onto the cockpit window. I tell her that, even after all these years, I still flinch when the alien appears. I still feel the fear.
And she laughs at me.
Next week, Electron Dance has a very long conversation with David Fox in which we discuss the evolution of the Games Group, the hire of Tim Schafer, the mobile app gold rush and what Fox has been trying to accomplish with video games all this time.
 Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, Michael Rubin (2005). Far more material here about the birth of LucasArts than I could possibly cover.
David Fox presentation on “Lucasarts – The Early Years” delivered at Assembly conference, 2004.