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Maniac Mansion design doc highlights a simpler, funnier era

Today, Ron Gilbert, the mad genius behind countless classic LucasArts adventure games posted the original 1986 pitch document for Maniac Mansion on his blog.

Maniac Mansion revolutionized the point and click adventure genre and spawned a number of hits for LucasArts (then LucasFilm), like Secret of Monkey Island and direct sequel Day of the Tentacle.

Given that it's from a distant era, when all concept art was hand-drawn (as it is here), you'd be forgiven for thinking it reads like a piece of ancient video game lore. Interesting, perhaps, but a little crusty.

But it isn’t.

In fact, reading it feels almost like checking out a text adventure from that time. It's funny, bursting with ideas and more than a little weird.

Visual elements are described in great detail, like the lavish staircase in the center of the mansion, the camera work and the look and feel of the overall game, which is described as a "zany comedy cartoon." And ideas for interactions are noted with vivid examples. I never thought I’d be entertained by a low-level description of how an adventure inventory works.

Throughout, Gilbert and co-designer Gary Winnick were laying down what would become the rules for an entire, much-beloved genre.

"The player is not really controlling the Kids directly," one passage states. "He is just telling them what to do."

With that humble pronouncement, an entire style of game was born.

The document is an entertaining artifact from a bygone and much simpler era. As Gilbert states in his blog, the project was never really pitched officially. "I don't remember a point where the game was 'OK'd'."

"It felt that Gary and I just started working on it and assumed we could. It was just the two of us for a long time, so it's not like we were using up company resources. Eventually David Fox would come on to help with SCUMM scripting," where SCUMM was the engine the game (and many subsequent LucasArts projects) was built on.

"Three people," he states. "The way games were meant to be made."

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