Interview with Hal Barwood

By Eddie Mishan

Interview with Hal Barwood

Considered by most fans to be the greatest Indiana Jones video game creators, Hal Barwood has brought us some of the most popular Indy games over the years. Hal's accomplishments throughout his video game career include, Indiana Jones and the Infernal machine and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, considered by most fans to be the quintessential Indiana Jones gaming experience. We were very fortunate that Mr. Barwood agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about his work throughout the years on the Indiana Jones video games as well as a look into what goes on behind the scenes in creating an Indiana Jones video game.

What was the first game you ever created?

I’ve been designing and making games since I was a kid, and that was a long time ago. Back then there were no computers available to the average Joe, and certainly not to the average kid, so everything was paper or mechanical. I guess my first real game was an electrical football machine, where throwing concealed switches selected plays & defenses, and visible switches were used to set formations. My school friends used to borrow the thing and play for hours.

Did you have a passion for video games or was this just a career that you enjoyed?

Yes, I have been excited by video games since the moment they came into existence. I once drove all the way from LA to Barstow in order to play Computer Space, for example. That excitement eventually turned into a career I have thoroughly enjoyed. Or, to be more precise, to use an analogy I learned while writing MacArthur – as the wildcat said to the polecat after mistakenly mating with it, I’ve enjoyed as much of it as I could stand.

When did you first start working at LucasArts? What was the experience like?

1990. The company was then called Lucasfilm Games. I was invited to join up, because management wanted to do a follow up adventure to The Last Crusade, but no one then employed wanted to tackle the project. Some of the folks there knew me and knew I was working on some computer games, so they thought, give me a try. In those days the company was small. Eight years later I had more members on my team building The Infernal Machine than were in the entire organization back then.

Have there ever been any Indy game storylines that were considered but never went into development? If so, what kinds of stories were considered and can you tell us about them?

Well yes, several. The first one I’m aware of was what I was originally hired to design and build. I’ve forgotten the actual title, but Chris Columbus had written a screenplay for a 4th Jones movie, and it had been rejected. Management thought it might work as a game, but I thought it was substandard. I guess everyone else did too, but I was the only real screenwriter in the company, and when I turned up my nose everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The narrative took Indy to Africa and had him pursuing Chinese artifacts there.

Much later, when I was starting what turned out to become The Infernal Machine, I wanted to do a game based on a story that George and Steve were rumored to have concocted. The next movie wasn’t happening, so I was hopeful. Instead, I was told, “don’t go there,” because the story might still become the basis of a movie. Aside from mentioning that the subject was science fiction and the setting was America in the 1950’s, I can’t talk about it.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was your first Indiana Jones game, how did that project come about?

Following on from above... I was brought into Lucasfilm Games specifically to design & build a Jones game, following on the success of The Last Crusade. The story I was handed, in the form of a Chris Columbus screenplay, had already been rejected for a Jones movie, and it didn’t seem very interesting as a game either. So Noah Falstein (who worked with me on the initial design) and I, desperate to come up with an alternative, hurried over to the Skywalker Ranch research library and started leafing through some cheap Mysteries-of-the-Pasttype books. And when we cracked the pages of the Time-Life volume, we found ourselves staring at a diagram of Atlantis laid out in three concentric circles. The shapes just looked like a game, and we seized upon the idea. Soon thereafter I learned about a precious metal alloy invented by the Atlanteans -- orichalcum -- and that provided the basis for competition with the Nazis.

Could you describe the kind of work you did during the production of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis?

I was a jack-of-all-trades. I fleshed out the design even as production got underway, wrote a screenplay, oversaw the art and SCUMM-coding teams, and even did a little art plus a lot of the coding myself.

Did George Lucas have any direct involvement in the production of Fate of Atlantis?

No, he didn’t. He’s pretty much always been an avuncular presence at the game company. A steadfast supporter, but always in the background.

Was there any research done for the game? That is, was there research on both the subject of Atlantis and the character of Indiana Jones?

The research was extensive, but as mentioned above, it consisted largely of reading through crazy books by strange authors who were true believers in the reality of Atlantis and thought they knew where to find it. Some placed it in the Americas, some off Spain, and others near the volcanic island of Santorini in the Mediterranean. Out of it all came the plot-driving notion of inventing a mythical book written by Plato that pinpoints the city’s whereabouts. The most important parts of the story -- I made them up. We all have more fun that way.

As to research on Jones... well, I watched the movies again and again, and I read the Lucasfilm “bible” that annotated important dates and times in Indy’s fictional life. Injecting Jones into a game requires extending his abilities and tendencies into the world of interactivity, but it’s crucial to stay true to what everyone already knows about him.

Were there any major production problems that you were faced with during the creation Indiana Jones Fate of Atlantis?

There were two of note. First, Noah Falstein and I set up three paths (wits, team, and fists) to take the player through the game on his or her own terms, depending on preference for lonely puzzle-solving, companionable cooperation, or bare-knuckled action. This attractive feature took immense amounts of labor to implement, even after we limited the idea to the first two-thirds of the game. It added about six months to the production schedule and earned me a lot of scowls from management along the way.

Second, Fate was conceived during a carefree era when production was pretty free form and resources were brought on as needed without much ado. It was completed two years later when the company had experienced the first of many regime changes and was counting every penny. During the middle of it all I suddenly found myself squeezed for the animation and coding I desperately needed to finish. What started out as fun ended up as a grueling experience.

From start to finish, how long did it take to create Fate of Atlantis?

Just about 2 years. I began designing and writing in the spring of 1990, and we published in 1992.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is considered by a lot of fans to be the greatest Indiana Jones game in history. What do you attribute to the success of Fate of Atlantis?

I don’t have a real good answer. I like it because it’s dense, has a variety of game play mechanics, and tells a pretty good tall tale.

Has it ever been considered to remake Fate of Atlantis and make it a 3D game in the style of Emperor’s Tomb? Would you want to do something like that?

No thanks. Enough is enough.

Back in the early 90’s, LucasArts was working on a sequel to Fate of Atlantis called Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix. What can you tell us about the project and why it was dropped?

I had a hand in this one as a story consultant. It was my idea to find some artifact that would allow post-war Nazis hiding in Bolivia to resurrect Der Fuehrer from his ashes. Everyone got excited and started building the game. Fifteen months into production the company showed some of it at ECTS, the European trade show. There they were told that selling a game depicting post-war Nazi revival, no matter how negatively would be illegal in Germany. We should have known. Without sales there, one of our most important overseas territories, LucasArts couldn’t hope to recoup their investment, so the game was canceled. Joe Pinney, the project leader, was crushed. Eventually, a toned-down version of the story was published by Dark Horse Comics.

Also, what can you tell us about the so-called canceled Indy game called, Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny?

Not sure, but my guess is, this is the game Aric Wilmunder, a fellow who was working on Iron Phoenix, wanted to do. It almost happened with a small studio in Canada, but we couldn’t perfect the internal supervision / external work model at the time, and it fell apart.

Indiana Jones and his Desktop Adventures is a pure gem when it comes to Indy gaming. When did the idea of Desktop Adventures first arise?

I like storytelling, and I also like classical, rhythmic, replayable games, like Stratego or chess. It occurred to me that I might be able to split story and game elements into small chunks and find ways of algorithmically assembling them into replayable action adventures. So I did. I built a working prototype on a Mac in HyperCard, using the scripting language called HyperTalk. The prototype story had nothing to do with Jones. It took place in a post-apocalyptic future where only an elite few know how to repair and maintain the few vital machines that preserve some semblance of human civilization. It was called, Tools of the Tinker’s Trade.

Could you tell us about the production of the game? Was the randomly created worlds an already established concept or did you have to start from scratch?

I’m hardly the first to figure out how to recombine game elements, but the Desktop Adventure idea was the first to concentrate on replayable storylines. And yup, I started from scratch (see above).

LucasArts sales people couldn’t figure out how to sell the idea, even though Solitaire and Hearts and their ilk were already popular on PC desktops. So eventually I was forced to drop the Tinker’s Trade concept and reach for marketplace security in the form of Dr. Jones. It didn’t really work -- the game generated negative reviews (from people who expected cutting edge graphics and sound from Lucas, not desktop toys) and barely sold.

Personally, I much prefer the second version of the game, Yoda Stories. We improved the engine quite a bit to make predicting outcomes a little less trivial, and not only that, it sold really well. Too bad we didn’t make some more of these things.

Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine was revolutionary in that it was the first game to put Indiana Jones in a full 3D world. How did this project first come about?

I’m not a fan of first person shooters, but I certainly admired the 3D worlds that were being created for them as 3D got going. It has always seemed to me that Jones is by nature an action kind of guy, and I wanted to exploit that characteristic by turning him loose in a 3D environment, whip, gun, fists, exotic locales, and all.

What inspired the move from 2D to 3D when Infernal Machine was made? Was it ever considered to do Infernal Machine as a 2D game like Fate of Atlantis?

2D was never considered for The Infernal Machine. 3D was in the air, it was becoming popular; we all saw it as the natural evolution of our biz. I wanted Jones to take part in the new era. The premise of the game was, “Jones action in 3D.” Once I got the company to commit to that, then I thought up the story.

It would seem as though putting Indiana Jones in a 3D game environment and still making it a true Indiana Jones adventure would be difficult. Was this ever an issue?

That’s true; and The Infernal Machine isn’t a “true adventure,” which is not my favorite kind of game, to play or build, anyway. It’s an action-adventure, a popular genre on consoles, but not as common on PCs. Changing the game genre was never an issue – in fact, doing so was crucial; no one wanted to do another puzzly adventure game like Fate of Atlantis. We had combat, we had stunts, and we also had puzzles. The puzzles seemed like an extension of exploration to most, though, simply how you would normally interact with a world of mysterious archeological ruins and magical artifacts.

What was your reason for bringing back Sophia Hapgood in Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine?

I think she was an alluring, exciting, tricky character, very much Indy’s match in spirit and resourcefulness. And I didn’t think Indy would ever join up with a spy organization unless invited by someone he knew, no matter how intriguing the mystery that awaited. Of course he had long since learned not to trust her, but he was always attracted.

Some fans of the game would have preferred a more action based game rather than the platform jumping and puzzle solving. Was the puzzle aspect a new concept or was it something that had been done before?

I’ve never played an action game that didn’t include stunts and a few puzzles, but we emphasized them, and partly because that’s what Jones does: he gets his hands on ancient artifacts by means of his physical daring and puzzle-solving skills.

How do the supernatural elements in Fate of Atlantis and Infernal Machine compare to the supernatural elements in the Indiana Jones films?

Not that different in nature, but in expression, a lot. The Indy movies last, what, two hours? In that brief space of time the fictional world goes from ordinary to spooky, and then the lights come up and, whew, it’s over. My Indy games were designed to take 15-20 hours to complete, and that raises a fundamental story problem. Delaying the arrival of supernatural elements until 15 hours of game play have been accomplished is a surefire way to bore Jones fans, so I elected to construct the story in rhythmic segments, each going from ordinary to weird, and in the case of The Infernal Machine, each culminating in an encounter with a supernatural boss monster.

We heard that you were involved in the production of Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb early on. Can you tell us more about this and how you were involved?

My involvement was limited to a brief story review, without much effect, I’m afraid.

Have you ever considered doing another Indiana Jones game?

I loved working on Jones games. Jones doesn’t exist in his own universe, but right here in the real world, at some historical remove. And that means each adventure is a brand new story, a wonderful opportunity to be creative. But my Jones period is over.

Would you ever like to do an adaptation of the Indiana Jones trilogy as a 3D game series and do you think it would work?

I think the license is getting tired. And I think the best way to keep it alive is to be as original as possible in the storytelling. I don’t want to be involved with the trilogy.

If you had whatever technology you needed at your fingertips, had unlimited funding, and could do anything you wanted, what would be your dream Indiana Jones game?

The game that management warned me away from, the mysterious “don’t go there” game.

Can you tell us about your new company, Finite Arts?

It’s not really new. Finite Arts was, for nearly twenty years, my “personal service company” in Hollywood, my way of legally dodging taxes as a freelance screenwriter. Now that I’ve left LucasArts, I’m reviving it for a freelance whirl in game design and writing.

What do you consider your all time favorite video game?

That’s like asking a composer about his favorite chord -- I love many, many games that I have played over the long years (and have often been irritated beyond measure by the very same games). To pick one out of the crowd is tough. The first one that I thought demonstrated creative charm was Rogue. It combined a vague narrative with minimalist x & y geometry good enough to make me feel like I was exploring a world. The title that encouraged me to actively pursue a career in games was the original Castle Wolfenstein. I thought it was fun, and it’s many little conceptual errors flattered me into thinking I could do better. The more you learn, though, the harder your heart becomes, and in more recent times less stands out from the crowd, even though the average game is of much higher quality today than when I got started. I guess one of my favorites is the N64 Zelda action-adventure, Ocarina of Time. My favorite plat former is a toss-up between Tomb Raider II and Rayman 2. For sense of humor, I vote for Vice City. For sports, I’m an EA NHL Name-the-Year fan. And don’t wince; I’m also partial to Spyro the Dragon.

From your point of view, what do you see happening in the future of games?

I’m lousy at predicting sunrise, let alone anything else. There is no 4D, so an important revolution, the transition from 2D to 3D, has already been accomplished. I look for more and more sophistication in visual expression over the next few years until it will hardly be possible to differentiate a game from a movie on our TV sets. The online phenomenon will continue to grow, but I believe massive-multiplayer-online-games are lifestyles rather than entertainment, and I think success will be confined to very few titles. On the other hand, I expect online contest games, in the mode of Counterstrike, to proliferate with the next generation of consoles. Longer term, I hope that natural language production combined with expert systems will completely revolutionize how we interact with computers themselves and the artificial characters inside computer games.

Do you have any advice or tips to someone looking to get into the video game industry?

Like the movie business, the book trade, Broadway musicals, like any of the so-called “arts” you care to name, the sad truth is, there’s no rational way to get into the business of electronic games. It’s not like becoming a lawyer, where you go to school, pass the bar, and voila, hold off the recruiters.

My advice is: look at the ingredients of games -- design, art, programming, production, marketing, sales, and so on; think what attracts you -- and then get good at it! Put your ideas into action by building some games. Learn Flash or Director, or pick up a level editor and start cranking out mods.

Thank you very much for your time Mr. Barwood!

Thanks. It's a very nice site you have. Let's hope someone continues the Indy gaming tradition with some punch and polish, so you guys will have some more grist for your well-tuned mill. - Hal

Interview conducted on: October 10th, 2004