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Help Support Features Interviews Hal Barwood
Hal Barwood
by Mike French - posted on Dec. 15, 2008
Hal Barwood

Once a student at USC with George Lucas, Hal Barwood began a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter with credits that include Steven Spielberg's first feature The Sugarland Express, uncredited work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his fantasy adventure Dragonslayer.
Hal later moved to LucasArts where he worked as a writer, designer and project leader on video games including Star Wars: Yoda Stories, RTX Red Rock, Indy's Desktop Adventures, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, and one of the best point-and-click adventures ever made: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis!

How did you become interested in video games and video game design?

The short answer is, I was always interested in games, but because I grew up in an era before personal computers existed, I followed another dream instead -- making movies. When the Apple 2 arrived, I taught myself assembly language in order to build a game -- a long, complex RPG/adventure called Space Snatchers. Eventually some people at what became LucasArts, who knew about my Apple game, invited me to lead a Jones project. Well, my latest script hadn't sold, and it sounded like the time was ripe.

What is the major difference between writing for a film and writing for video games?

Major difference? I dunno, there must be ten or more. First, games are interactive, so dialog must have multiple variations. Next, movies are like short stories and games are like long Russian novels, so the plots have more twists and turns and scenes, and you have to work a lot harder to get them done. Then, a moviegoer doesn't absolutely have to know what's going on -- movies pull you through the climax automatically, so writers obey all the rules about minimizing and concealing exposition; but games demand that players work through the narrative, and if they don't understand it, they get lost and it never ends. So some of the writing has to be instructive. There's more, but it's like magic tricks -- when you reveal how things work, you bore people.

You have written a variety of films, from Spielberg's earliest dramatic work in The Sugarland Express to high fantasy in Dragonslayer and even light comedy in the case of Corvette Summer. What did you learn from these experiences and did you bring any of that legacy into your video game career?

'Dragonslayer' poster
Dragonslayer film poster (1981).

Screenwriting is a great teacher. I learned how to compress story material, how to squash it until it yields up the strong elixir of expressivity, like pressing grapes to get wine. I learned how to think about plot and character and conflict. I learned that being creative in a commercial environment is a rocky road. And, maybe most important, I learned how to be a professional.

How did the gaming industry differ when you began working versus today?

The worst of the past? Everything was primitive then. Computers were slow, graphics were crude, most developers that were attracted into the business had fewer skills. As Will Wright often puts it, more of a game was in your head than in the computer. And the best? Well, those games all sold pretty well. Developers didn't have to worry as much about hits back then: if you made something and did a decent job, it would find a paying audience. More important, I think, is how little the underlying forms and genres from those days have changed.

Point and click adventures dominated computer-based gaming for so many years, and with titles like Fate of Atlantis and Don Bluth's Circle of Blood, seemed to be getting better and better into the mid-1990s. Why did point and click fade at its zenith and what are your feelings about this shift?

Judging from my experience at LucasArts, I suppose they faded because they didn't sell very well, especially compared to rapidly rising costs as graphics and audio became more and more sophisticated.

What are the demands placed on game designers today?

Well, you're always trying to dream up the ingredients for a hit. But beyond that, design has become a job category, and it's rare that the designer is also the director or producer of a project. So fitting into a team has become all important. That's both good and bad; it means we take advantage of the "hive mind," but it also means a loss of personality in the games we make.

Do games now have to cater to shorter attention spans?

Don't I wish! Four hours, max! Unfortunately, games are generally priced higher than an impulse buy, so players (or their shopping mothers) look for play value of many, many hours. Personally, I'm almost always bored with games by the time I finish them -- generally speaking, they don't seem to have enough oomph to actually fill those long hours with continuous creativity. There's a lot of fodder. Maybe that's why, in contrast to the way they tackle books and movies, few players finish what they start. But oddly, games are also better now on average. Back in the early days, if you found a good game you wanted it to last eternally, because you strongly suspected that what came next would be a gobbling turkey. Nowadays, I see a lot of good games I want to play, and length gets in the way.

What are the new "design trends," mandates and challenges?

I'm lost on this one. I don't think they've changed much over time, except 3D graphics and multiplayer opportunities have opened up a lot of new possibilities to explore. I guess I wish for more change than I see: if no one ever made another first-person shooter, I wouldn't mourn.

In recent years, point and click style adventures have slipped back into game store shelves with titles like Runaway and Broken Sword 3, the latter of which combines 3-D game play with point and click-style puzzle solving. Is there a chance "point and click" style adventure gaming could make a comeback?

Hooray! Yes, we see something of a renaissance in Europe, and a few titles here in the states as well -- go, Sam 'n' Max! Why this is, I have no clue. I'm guessing it may be tied to the rise of casual games -- there's a large demographic out there eager to play games, but not with the intensity needed for what some call "AAA titles." Maybe they're migrating over to the new adventures. I hope so.

What is the most satisfying project you have worked on?

click to enlarge
Yoda Stories game screenshot.

I love 'em all. But I guess a little "desktop diversion" called Yoda Stories is right up there: it was a casual game before that term was invented, a replayable story/action/adventure game system that still amuses me to this very day, in spite of its dated graphics.

What is your favorite game style to design for?

Action-adventure, character-action, whatever you want to call it: games with real danger, real exploratory components, combat, and a strong dramatic storyline.

When you begin work on a game, what is your creative process like?

The real answer is, it's never the same way twice. Sometimes I've been given a character (e.g., Indiana Jones and Mata Hari), sometimes I've thought of a narrative premise that looked promising, sometimes a mechanic has suggested a game wrapper. It's like driving in the rain at night: you have to be alert for surprises, and hope you arrive safely.

When you started work on Fate of Atlantis, what was your biggest challenge throughout the design process?

'Fate of Atlantis' poster
Fate of Atlantis poster.

On-the-job training! It was my first pro gig. Thanks to help from Steve Arnold, Ron Gilbert, David Fox and especially Noah Falstein, things went well. Once I got going, I think the toughest challenges were to execute the three-path structure Noah and I agreed on, and to convince the LucasArts elders that allowing the hero to get killed, although contrary to their House Design Rules, was absolutely essential to an Indiana Jones game.

Was there any part of the process where you felt too constrained, either by technological limitations or narrative challenges?

All the time. Technical limitations 'r' us -- hey! -- Fate was both the first LucasArts game to employ as many as 256 colors, and the first to make use of practical, if primitive, voice technology. Ooooh. And, Fate was the first LucasArts game to be produced in a modern accounting regime, with budgets under scrutiny and much-needed resources often withheld by management, bless their wicked souls.

What was your knowledge of Indiana Jones up until that point and what inspirations did you draw from to construct the game?

Sophia Hapgood
Fate of Atlantis game screenshot.

Well, I saw all the movies. I went to film school with George Lucas, I wrote Steven Spielberg's first feature film, so I was up on all the Jones lore. That is little help in designing a game, however. It was really up to me to translate this swashbuckling character's adventures into game form. The only example I had -- a good one -- was LucasFilm Games' previous adventure based on the movie, The Last Crusade. I spent a lot of time analyzing how my pals Ron and Dave and Noah made it work, and then pushed things a little bit further in directions I liked.

Was there any feeling of pressure on Fate of Atlantis, knowing that it was based on a Spielberg series of films, given that you had previously written a film he directed?

No, none at all.

How much creative license and control were you allowed on Fate of Atlantis and what was working with Lucasarts like at that time? Was there an approval process for each stage of the game, lines of dialogue or even specific types of puzzles?

I had no formal control; theoretically Noah had approval rights, but we worked together long enough for him to gain confidence in me, and the issue never arose. I introduced action-y minigame puzzles like car racing and camel riding, and my new colleagues were doubtful, but supportive. I guess the best way to look at it is this: when they hired me, the company had an idea they wanted me to use, based on a rejected script for another Jones movie. When I read it, I thought it was rejected for a reason, and together with Noah, came up with the completely original idea for Fate. The company was overjoyed.

Sophia Hapgood has become the most beloved character in the Indiana Jones series that is not in a film. How did you set about creating her? Give us some background into her genesis, if you don't mind, and how you managed to set her apart from Indy's film heroines.

Sophia Hapgood
Sophia Hapgood in the
Fate of Atlantis comic.

Well, Sophia is also one of my all-time favorite characters. I like her slightly subversive personality, her secrets, her toughness, her glamor. She's a good match for Indy. I cooked her up because we needed someone to interact with Indy on a continuing basis. That's writing -- often ideas are very nuts-and-bolts solutions to narrative problems. I thought we could have her bear the central key to the story in her mind-bending medallion and also be his not-quite-trustworthy companion (and possible lover). She's more of a driver of action than any of the film heroines, but she's cut from the same cloth as Marion Ravenwood, I think.

Do you have a particularly strong or funny memory from your work on Fate of Atlantis?

Well, nope, aside from the painful memory of a lot of all-nighters.

There have been rumors circulating for years that there was to be a sequel to Fate of Atlantis called The Spear of Destiny. Can you confirm this and, if true, tell us a little about what this game would have looked like and been about?

No Jones adventures are sequels, they all stand on their own, in the same way that Sherlock Holmes stories do. There's a continuing strong central character of well-fixed attributes, and we see him tested in a variety of circumstances. Spear of Destiny was going to be one of these, directed from inside the company but built by an outside studio. LucasArts hadn't yet figured out how to make that arrangement work, and the project was cancelled. Didn't Dark Horse publish a comic book?

Infernal Machine is quite different in format and feel from Fate of Atlantis. What are your feelings on that change in format?

'Infernal Machine' poster
Infernal Machine poster.

Well, I had something to do with that: it's action-adventure, my kind of game! So, I loved it, of course.

Did you like the game engine advancement or not?

Well, sometimes I learn lessons the hard way: never build an engine and a game at the same time with the same team. We did, and it was a painful experience. The results, though, are good, I think, even though the pre-quaternion animation looks hideously dated and we could only render something like 5000 polys per frame.

How did you arrive at the story for Infernal Machine and what was different about its development compared to Fate of Atlantis?

I chafed at the idea of doing another Jones game with Nazis. They seemed stale after much overuse. So I vaulted Jones forward into the cold war and set him against the Russians. Originally I wanted to have Jones go after flying saucers, but word came back to me from on high -- "don't go there." I wonder why not? So I kept the cold war, kept the Russians, but veered the prize away from UFOs toward Babylon and an imagined technological marvel hidden in the biblical Tower of Babel. Oh yeah, and I brought back Sophia as a CIA agent -- perfect!

Fate of Atlantis continues to rank at the top of Indiana Jones gaming charts and also at the top of the best adventure games charts for years and years. What are your thoughts on the longevity of this title and do you know if we'll ever see it adapted to run on modern operating systems?

I'm enormously flattered by the prolonged interest in this creaky old thing. I hope fans can find ways to keep it running as operating systems change, but I doubt anyone at LucasArts would ever want to bring it up to speed. It is what it is -- a wonderful example of almost pre-historic electronic gaming. I Wince when I stare at those pixels, but I'm still proud of it.

Can you tell us anything about what you are working on today and tell us your thoughts on how gaming has changed from the days of Fate of Atlantis to now? Which era do you like working in more – the games of today or are you at all wistful for the days gone by?

For the first time since Fate, I've been working on an adventure game -- Mata Hari. It's a thoroughly modern point-and-click title about the not-quite-so-modern era of espionage in the First World War. A melodrama. Aside from glancing at the history books for research purposes, I don't look back.

What did you think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?

I thought it was great fun. I just finished watching it again on DVD. I only wish it were darker and spookier.

And finally, when you're not designing video games, what do you like to do for fun?

I read, I play with my grandchildren, I ride my bike a lot...and then I get bored and start working on little Flash games. It's a disease.

Mike French would like to extend his sincerest thanks to Hal Barwood for taking time out and providing us with this amazing Interview.
Be sure to visit Hal's Finite Arts website, and the official Mata Hari website for more information on his new espionage adventure game!


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