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05 April 2015 @ 05:19 pm
Game Review: Loom  
I honestly think that some of the reason I love roguelikes so much, why I mod games like Oblivion and Skyrim and Fallout 3 and XCom to be much harder, and why I'm so excited to play Dark Souls is because I grew up on Sierra adventure games. You have died isn't exactly something I'm unfamiliar with. Neither is permadeath, really--realizing that you forgot to do something or pick up an item six hours ago and have been playing in an unwinnable state since then and all your saves are worthless is pretty much adventure game permadeath.

There was one LucasArts adventure game I played that bucked these trends, though. Loom.

There's a kind of poignant mood over the beginning that this line sums up.

I never played any other LucasArts games even though I loved X-Wing to death, but Loom really affected me as a child. We had the PC CD version with the voices and the CD quality music, and while the version I played now was the FM Towns version, which has the enhanced graphics of the CD version but the unabridged script of the EGA version, I could often hear the lines in my head when the text appeared. If you want to hear what I did, there's a Loom Longplay on YouTube. I still get a little shiver when she says "Welcome to the age of the Great Guilds."

I actually dressed up as Bobbin Threadbare for Hallowe'en when I was nine or ten. My mother made me a blue robe, and I got a walking staff and attached a glowstick to the end of it. I wore that robe for years as essentially a bathrobe, if I didn't want to get dressed on Sunday mornings, until I grew too small for me and eventually I got rid of it. The staff was in the corner of my room at least until high school, but I think I threw it away when I left for university. It barely came up to the chest at that point anyway.

Loom was unique among the point-and-click adventures I played in that there isn't any inventory or combining of inventory items. The only item Bobbin ever picks up in the game is the distaff that allows him to weave drafts, and drafts take the place of inventory items. You start off learning how to Open--which is a net cast as widely as possible, since while you can open doors and cages and so on, there's an early puzzle that requires you to Open the sky, and trying to cast Open on your mother's grave goes almost all the way to ending very poorly--and over the course of the single day that Loom takes place on, Bobbin learns how to Reflect others' appearances onto himself, turn Straw into Gold, become Invisible, Untwist twisted objects from a spiral stair to a tornado, and Unmake the fabric of reality.

Here's Bobbin changing those awful green bits of cloth into white.

The distaff is at the bottom of the screenshot, and the notes there are musical notes. Each draft is a series of four notes, and some of them can be reversed by playing the notes backward. In the game I just played--there's three or four variants and it could be any of them--was CCCD, with DCCC as the way to Undye. There's no way in the game to remember them, so the game shipped with a Book of Patterns that had a list of all the drafts in the game, plus a couple more that you see used but never actually learn, and another dozen that never appear anywhere but are included just for lorebuilding. That's the kind of thing that the demise of physical manuals full of lore has people like me lamenting for.

Sure, there are codex entries for games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but it's not quite the same. It might just be that the circumstances that led to actually reading lore books are mostly gone. The best time for reading them used to be when the game was installing, while you were eagerly watching the progress bar and looking for every scrap of information you could find in the meantime. Nowadays, I can just install games in the background while I do something else, and while that is objectively superior, I love those little lore books.

Including notes from smaller me.

For Loom specifically, there was even an audio drama that shipped with the game, though I don't think it came with the CD version. It has a half-hour of backstory, telling you who the Guild of Weavers are, why there's barely a handful of them left (spoiler: "Thou Shalt Not Marry an Outsider" doesn't work over the long term), why they're living alone on a tiny island, and why it is that everyone seems to hate Bobbin Threadbare. I didn't have that, so Loom had an incredible sense of mystery for me. Was this supposed to be the future of our world, and that's why the dates are all set in the far future (it's the year 8000-something in the game)? What was it that caused the world to divide themselves into the Guilds? Is that sense of loss and isolation, somewhat remnant of the elves in The Lord of the Rings, an intentional feeling? None of that ever comes up in the game, but it kept my interest.

You probably could have guessed that.

I wasn't as fond of the FM Towns version as I was of the PC version, and I'm having some trouble teasing out whether it's just nostalgia for the old version or whether I have actual legitimate criticisms. The unabridged script is nice, but I feel like the language in the CD version flows a lot better and sounds better too. You can see an example of some of the differences here, as well as examples of graphical differences. I do think missing the full-screen portraits is a loss, and it was nice to see those. Elder Atropos has some fantastic eyebrows in his full-screen shot.

Another thing I didn't like is the music. That's not phrased quite right, because I love Loom's music, which means what I actually love is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake because all the music is directly adapted from it. However, on the PC version, the music is used quite sparingly and the notes of the drafts that Bobbin has to learn are pretty easy to pick out. This is important because the difficulty level at the beginning of the game determines the interface. On the hardest difficulty, the notes aren't visible and there's no feedback for the drafts other than listening, but in the FM Towns version there's music playing constantly throughout the whole game and the notes of the distaff are barely audible. I can't imagine how annoying it would be to try to play Loom on Expert that way.

That's why I didn't try it. I was fine going through the story I remember so well, which is only a couple hours long and where it's impossible to ever put yourself in an unwinnable state. Considering I failed several games of King's Quest back in the day because I forgot something in the beginning of the game and then arrived at the end only to find myself unable to proceed, that's nice. I really need to play more LucasArts games, and now that there's remastered versions of Grim Fandango out and Day of the Tentacle coming, they just need to announce Full Throttle remastered and I'll hit the games I really want to play that I missed back in the day.

When I was very young, we were at the store and I wanted an NES game. I don't even remember what it was, but my father suggested that I get Maniac Mansion instead. I didn't listen to him, but now I'm pretty sure I should have.

This will obviously end in tears.

Loom ends on one of the most obvious cliffhangers I've ever seen, but there was never a sequel, apparently because no one at LucasArts was really interested in working on one. I've learned quite recently that there's a fan-made sequel called Forge, the first part of part of which is playable, and that Brian Moriarty said he's finally up to making a sequel at GDC, but apparently the rights are so hopelessly tangled that Forge is probably all we're likely to get. There is a the Loom postmortem that he did at GDC that's up for free, though.

The game wasn't as affecting for me now as it was when I was a pre-teen, but it's still a good game, even though it's pretty short and not even remotely challenging. I love worldbuilding and I have a fan's obsessive need to know more and more about the worlds I'm interested in, but I still realize that what's left unsaid can be as or more important as what is said. On that score, Loom does quite well. It's been available on Steam for a while if you want to play it (as the PC CD version), and if you don't want to play it yourself, that longplay is about as long as a movie and at least as interesting.
Current Mood: nostalgicnostalgic
Current Music: Tchaikovsky - Dance of the Four Little Swans