In Praise of SCUMM

In perhaps the best gaming news of the year, LucasArts has rereleased a remake of its 1990 game The Secret of Monkey Island for PC and on the Xbox Live Arcade. The original was one of the best adventure games ever; many games tried to be funny, but only a few really pulled it off. Along Guybrush Threepwood’s hero’s journey to becoming a mighty pirate, the game skewers dozens of cliches of adventure gaming and pirate tales—while at the same time being a well-constructed adventure game and pirate tale. The game’s signature twist was probably insult sword-fighting; winning a duel was a matter of coming up with the right witty retort. Thus, if your opponent says:

You fight like a dairy farmer.

The proper reply is:

How appropriate; you fight like a cow.

But I digress. This isn’t a Hollywood-style “remake” in the style of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), or Alfie (2004), in which a formerly distinctive film is industrially cut, bent, and extruded into generic modernized fare. No, this is more like Psycho (1998): a shot-for-shot remake. The puzzles are the same. The dialogue is completely identical, albeit now voice-acted. The art is much nicer, but rarely departs from the colors and layout of the original. Indeed, the areas on each game screen where Guybrush can walk appear to be completely the same as in the original.

As if to show off the literal nature of this remake, there’s even a button you can press to toggle between the original game and the new version. I played most of the game in the new version (Dominic Armato was born to play Guybrush), but I switched over regularly to compare the graphics. You could, if you wanted, play the “remake” beginning to end using the old graphics and interface.

What this says to me is that the new team did something really profound in its simplicity. Monkey Island: Special Edition is not a new game. It is the original game. If you decompiled the bits on the disc, you wouldn’t just find that the new version does the same things as the old one. You wouldn’t even find that the game had been patched and modified a bit. No, you would find that many of the source files were exactly the same.

The reason this works is that the original Monkey Island, along with most of the classic LucasArts adventure games, was written using SCUMM: “Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion.” When creating Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert and his team faced two problems. First, they wanted to make the game run on multiple computers: Apple, Amiga, Commodore 64, and so on. Second, trying to specify how the game would respond to various commands and what it would show in response is a complex task, and hard to debug if you’re writing directly executable code.

The solution—as many game designers have realized—is to write your games not for a particular computer architecture, but for an abstract virtual machine: essentially a computer program that runs on a specific computer but simulates an abstract, easier-to-program-for computer. That way, you solve the porting problem by needing to implement only the client that simulates the virtual machine itself on each new platform, rather than rewriting the game from scratch. (Note that you also only need to implement the client once on each platform, no matter how many games will run on it.) You also (help) solve the complexity problem by designing a virtual machine that enables recurring high-level tasks of particular use for your games. Thus, for example, you could have a simple “walk to position X,Y” command, which, when executed, causes the virtual machine to display the animation of the character walking to that spot. Instead of writing executable code to animate each character walking in every possible way, you just supply some appropriate images of walking, and the client figures out which images to display, where, when, and at what scale.

The SCUMM engine was particular elegant; its assumptions about the graphical or other capabilities of the computer that it’s running on are comparatively few. Thus, Sierra games looked substantially identical for years; its toolkits imposed a standard look across generations of computers and games, but = then took a huge jump in graphical quality when Sierra upgraded to a new toolkit built from scratch, LucasArts games showed a steady improvement over time, with details of the interface changing in small, subtle ways from game to game. All they had to do was improve the SCUMM engine to be capable of taking advantage of the new hardware features that were emerging (VGA graphics! Sound cards!) and include a new, fancier set of art resources.

You see where this is going? Twenty years later, when LucasArts decided to pull Monkey Island out of the vaults, the fact that it was built using SCUMM enormously simplified the task. Porting to the Xbox 360 today is, in essence, just like porting to a computer that existed back in the early 1990s. First, write a SCUMM client that runs on the Xbox 360 and takes advantage of its HD graphics. Second, create some new high-quality art and sound resources — more colors, more pixels, live instruments, and so on. Third, take the original game files, almost as-is, and drop them into your new SCUMM client along with the new art resources. And bingo, you have a new, high-quality remake of the game. Of course it plays like the original game; it IS the original game, just running on a different computer and with better graphics and sound.

And that’s also why The Secret of Monkey Island can toggle back and forth between “old” and “new” modes, even in the middle of a line of dialogue or even as Guybrush strides from one part of the screen to another. The game doesn’t need to keep track of the state of the world separately for “old” and “new” games in order to map between them. There is only one game; the “old” and “new” graphics are just two different ways of showing the player what’s going on in it.

The other, very intriguing possibility that I take from this observation is that now that LucasArts has a fully modern SCUMM client running on Xbox 360 and PC, is that bringing other classic adventure games out of the vault is no more involved a task than making new pretty pictures and fresh sound for them. This is pure speculation on my part, I admit, but it would make complete business sense if we saw a whole set of “Special Edition” re-releases.

Insult sword-fighting was great. If I remember correctly, the game didn’t give you many hints about how to match up questions and answers (you were wandering around for a while “collecting” answers, I think), and when I first played the game it was before the age of online walkthroughs and the like. So when my brother and I figured out what we were supposed to do, it was a moment of revelatory bliss. And the way that each question could go with two answers…brilliant.

James, did it work to play an adventure game on the Xbox? Or did you feel any handicap from not having a mouse?

It works quite well, actually. The pressure-sensitive sticks do a fine job of approximating a mouse, just as trackpoints did.