Thursday, December 11, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

The recent rash of studio shutterings prompts undue pessimism in my mind, along with moments of undue panic – Suddenly, it seems tragic that I will never play another Factor 5 Rouge Squadron game. But oddly enough, nostalgia comes hand in hand with thoughts of doom, and I find myself remembering other now-defunct studios, buried by history. If I’m dragged into the cluttered attic of video game past, I’m taking you with me. Enter Looking Glass Studios.

To get it out of the way: Looking Glass did not go quietly, nor was their death natural. More on that sordid story later – in this post, I intend to pay homage to their peerless lineage of titles, each with legacies that run long and deep.

Looking Glass Technologies formed in 1990 in Lexington, Ma. With a number of MIT grads on staff, the company moved to Cambridge in 1994 and set up shop as Looking Glass Studios. Among the Looking Glass crew were some names you might recognize: Ken Levine, co-founder of 2K (I mean, 2K Boston). Warren Spector, father of the superlative Deus Ex.

By the time of their Cambridge relocation, they had already put out Ultima Underworld I and II. These games have their fans, but I know nothing about them, so forgive my glossing them over. For me, Looking Glass is just getting started.

1994 saw the release of System Shock, a genre-defining game whose legacy would outreach DOOM, the First Person Shooter to beat in the early 90s. System Shock put you in the boots of a hacker who wakes up in the infirmary of the space station Citadel with one hell of a headache. Surprise – SHODAN, the station’s AI, has gone rouge, massacring the crew. It plans to use the station’s laser to destroy the Earth. Luckily, you’ve been filled to the gills with cybernetic implants during your coma – hence, your headache. If you take down SHODAN, your rap sheet goes away, and you save the earth. Or something.

If you’re one of the many who played Bioshock, your enjoyment is indebted to System Shock. Did you think the name was just a funny coincidence? Looking Glass’ ’94 game was the archetype not just for 2K’s (I’m sorry – 2K Boston’s) award-winner, but for its entire school of thought – brains over brawn, tactics over firepower, crazy cybernetic/biological powers over guns. System Shock was, well, a shock to the industry. It required you do something more than gather keys and pump rockets into robot goats. Anyone who played System Shock as if it were DOOM was quickly dispatched, the game all but scoffing. Its 1999 sequel, co-developed with Irrational Games, was even better; but it deserves its own post.

The game’s cerebral take on the genre, still in its diapers in ’94, was a critical smash. It garnered multiple awards, was a near-instant classic, and sold an insulting 170,000 copies. It would not be Looking Glass’ first commercial disappointment.

No qualifiers or equivocations: Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, released by Looking Glass in 1996, invented the goddamned squad-based shooter. You commanded a squad of commandos encased in power armor and kicked a ton of ass, but tactically – demolitions, electronics and medical experts were more than feature-filler, they were crucial. You couldn’t beat the missions without using them. And using them was easy: simply click their pixilated mug on your heads-up display and issue the move order.

One mission required you to disable a moon-based laser poised to totally blow away the good guys. If you went in guns blazing, you were dog meat in minutes, chewed to pieces by withering turret fire and unusually bright enemy AI. If, however, you used your electronics expert to commandeer the turrets, you had the edge. And if you allowed your repair specialist time to patch up holes in your armor, you were much better off. And guess what? You didn’t have to blow the laser right away. You could order your hacker take it over, and use it to blast an enemy satellite. It’s this depth of game play that made Terra Nova stand out among a typically dull crop of shooters. Also, its terrain wasn’t swallowed by a fog bank within 100 meters – it extended to the horizon, becoming less and less detailed (like in real life!) as the distance increased. If this sounds familiar, it’s because every game since has done exactly this.

Like System Shock, Terra Nova scored with the critics. And like System Shock, it bombed on the shelves. Plans for a sequel were bitterly scrapped. The cash just wasn’t there.

Like a metronome, Looking Glass released their next trademark game two years later. While Thief: The Dark Project didn’t invent the stealth game, it certainly took the sub-genre more seriously than its peers. In Metal Gear Solid, you could shoot your way out of most sticky situations. In Thief, when your thief Garret was made, he had to find concealment, and quick, or be riven with arrows and rent by swords. Brawling was not an option. Quick, silent kills, yes; but don’t stick around, and be sure to hide the body.

In Thief, and its sequel Thief II: The Metal Age, the player needed to make full use of darkness. A gem at the bottom of the screen alerted the player to their degree of concealment: a dull green, and you were safe; a bright emerald, and you might as well be wearing a sign reading “CHECK MY POCKETS!” Enemies were alert to sound, and would investigate the sound of your footsteps. For each hazard there was an arrow: A water arrow extinguished torches, and a moss arrow deployed a carpet of fuzzy green stuff to muffle your footsteps.

An intriguing medieval-noir storyline drew the player in through illustrated cutscenes and excellent voice acting. Garret’s gruff voice gloated privately when purloining a string of jems, or a shiny golden cup. The atmosphere was dim, dank and claustrophobic. The sense of isolation was unnerving. You were fragile, and very, very alone.

Thief and Thief II were critical darlings, praise flung around their necks like wreaths of flowers. Unlike their predecessors, however, the Thief games secured spots on bestseller lists and stayed there. For once, Looking Glass made money.

Thief II was released on March 21, 2000. Hardly two months later, Looking Glass Studios was gone. Dissolved. Out-of-business. Its incomparable corps of innovators were scattered to the four winds, drifting off to Irrational, Ion Storm, and tellingly, Valve. It was, and remains, one of the best collections of minds to ever develop games, and its dissolution was cruel and damaging to the industry – more on that next. Get a head start by reading this article.