Articles

 
Thumb

Aaron Giles Interview Page Two

Since they were distributed on such an unheralded and irregular basis, it’s hard to nail down the facts, but as I understand it, re-releases of the SCUMM games equipped with your interpreters were gradually released over three, er, “incidents”:

Thumb The packaging of the Entertainment Pack, posted on the Old School Game Blog. You can relive Benny's contemporary efforts to analyze its contents here.
  1. The updated Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road made their way into the UK-exclusive “LucasArts Entertainment Pack” in 2002, alongside an un-updated version of The Dig, plus Grim Fandango.
  2. To help build hype for the soon-to-be-cancelled sequel, the updated Hit the Road appeared again as an extra on a pre-order bonus disc for Armed & Dangerous (a December 2003 release), albeit with an unfortunate authoring bug that killed the voice acting once you entered the circus tent location.
  3. Many years later, your upgraded versions of the two Indiana Jones adventure games, Loom (CD Talkie version) and The Dig appeared on Steam in 2009. However, when the rest of the adventure catalog eventually made its way to Steam (which took another several years, as I recall), they were bundled with ScummVM instead of native interpreters, and I believe on GOG.com all the SCUMM games use ScummVM. (The exceptions would be the games that received remakes, namely the first two Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, all of which are sold only in their remake/remastered form which obviously don’t require ScummVM.)

As far as I know, none of your other updates ever saw the light of day.* Is this your understanding as well?

I think you got it right. There was more planned, but the projects seemed to be cursed with bad luck. Of the official releases, the Entertainment Pack was the only one that actually happened with my direct involvement while I was under contract. Everything else fell squarely into the “bonus” category.

For example, the Armed & Dangerous CD came out of nowhere—I learned about it from an announcement on Mixnmojo! Not sure how that happened except that the producer on that game also was the producer I was working with on some eventually-scuttled European releases, so maybe he came up with the idea to throw Sam & Max on the CD as a bonus. And yes, there was an authoring error with the voice files that killed the sound after a bit (cue sad trombone).

The Steam releases were again a surprise, and a pleasant one after all the frustrating past attempts to get the games released. They apparently were a bit modified from my initial ports, having gone through some bugfix cycles and actual QA prior to release, but were pretty much my work.

Thumb In addition to misspelling Dan Pettit's name, the copyright information found in the About dialog for the Steam versions of the updated launchers would seem to support that conclusion.

I had no involvement with any of the special editions, and don’t know if they went back to use my code at all or just started from scratch. I didn’t see my name in lights in any of the credits, so I’m guessing they were fresh projects.

I can’t help but wonder if your work ended up being one of the numerous casualties of a major transition period at the studio in the 2000s. The Sam & Max material on the Armed & Dangerous preview disc was meant to raise awareness for the sequel that would be cancelled only months later. Do you think any further SCUMM re-releases got scuttled as part of the studio’s general abandonment of adventure games at this time?

You’re almost certainly right about that. I had very little insight into what was going on with the company at the time, since I was doing this as a side passion project. But there were several unreleased projects that never saw the light of day.

As I mentioned earlier, the initial interest was to make a downloadable version of Full Throttle, which was a huge challenge because it took up most of a CD, and download sizes of 200MB were mostly unheard of at the time. This effort involved lots of shenanigans around audio compression to get all that music and voice data down to a downloadable size, plus some additional work to break Full Throttle into sequential “levels” so that you could download a smaller initial chunk and then stream the rest in the background as you were playing. Ultimately, this project never saw the light of day, with interest plummeting once the Full Throttle 2 project was cancelled.

While that was going on, a second producer contacted me saying there was interest in re-releasing some of the games in Europe with Windows compatibility. The Entertainment Pack was to be the first of several releases. I also was explicitly asked to work on getting Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, plus the two Monkey Islands and The Dig ready for a German release. It looked set to happen toward the end of 2003 but then there was some shuffle with international distribution and things seemed to die shortly afterwards.

Another angle on that same subject: I did an interview with Dan Connors several years back, and he spoke of how the cancelled Sam & Max 2 was meant to be launched with a streaming download system for post-release content. It always seemed to me that if LucasArts had actually committed to that investment, it would have really paid off for them, not to mention been a perfect portal for selling the old adventure games at a time when the studio was clearly reluctant to keep them in print as retail packages, especially in the U.S. (International distributors always seemed to see a little more life in that market, hence those overseas compilation packs.) Maybe I’m connecting too many dots here, but is it reasonable to think that what we saw in 2009 on Steam was basically the remnants of an in-house ambition that LucasArts pulled the plug on earlier in the decade?

I actually think you’ve connected the dots perfectly. We were working pretty hard on getting Full Throttle into downloadable shape, and I think that’s an approach that LucasArts was strongly interested in. I also fielded some inquiries about getting Day of the Tentacle into downloadable shape as well. Ultimately, I think it was just too early to be viable for games that large. Obviously, things changed quickly in that realm, and by 2009 it was no big deal to download a few hundred megabytes to play a game.

There’s a certain irony to me that today Lucasfilm/Disney sells the games with ScummVM replacing the native interpreters. You can understand the logic – here’s an open source solution that not only works out the box, but allows the games to run on all kinds of non-native platforms – but it’s quite the twist given that LucasArts’ initial relationship with the emulator came in the form of litigation. As an emulation guru yourself, what are your thoughts about these fan-based efforts to keep old games standing up, and how they end up sometimes being the only viable solution because the actual rights owners don’t seem to think an official one is a justifiable investment?

I’ll be honest, the ScummVM thing kills me, when they have the original source code and my demonstrably working ports sitting in their hands. This is not a slight at all against ScummVM, which is an impressive work of reverse engineering, and has built a sterling reputation for accuracy and detail. But if you have the option of using the actual original code, why would you fail to use it?

Ultimately, to the average end user, it probably makes little difference. But for purists like myself, I always prefer to see the original code running wherever possible. In terms of fidelity, my preferences in order would actually be:

  • Good: a reverse engineered engine (e.g., ScummVM)
  • Better: recompiled source code ports
  • Best: an emulator running the original EXE code directly

In theory, the recompiled source ports should be 100% equivalent to running the originals. But in practice, there’s always a possibility of exposing bugs, either because newer compilers uncover existing bugs through more aggressive (or just different) optimizations, or because of differences between new and old compilers, or just simple errors in porting the code. So you’re always at risk of ending up with a result that’s not quite true to the original.

"I honestly don’t know why they won’t just release the updated .exes and get some brownie points from the original owners."

Unfortunately, running the games in an emulator has its share of problems as well. Emulators are by their nature not particularly user friendly. They are designed to simulate a generic hardware platform running a broad array of software, which typically results in a lot of complexity that the user is exposed to. For example, to run the SCUMM games in an emulator, you need to understand enough about DOS to get it set up, how to get data into and out of the emulator, etc. And since the emulator doesn’t know anything about the game you’re running, it becomes challenging to do things like integrate mouse movement between the hosting machine and the game, or sync video updates to the game’s logic, or give time back to the system when the game is idling.

In fact, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to these specific issues recently and have created a new SCUMM-specific DOS emulator called DREAMM, whose goal is to combine the fidelity of an emulator with a more approachable and simpler interface tailored to how the SCUMM games work. I hope to be able to share it more broadly in the coming months.

It’s a little bit troublesome to me from a preservation perspective that selling the games this way has the effect of disappearing the original interpreters, especially since ScummVM, for all its merits, isn’t always utterly successful at faithfully replicating the original behavior. For example, it seems they haven’t quite figured out how to replicate The Curse of Monkey Island’s implementation of iMUSE**, and I’m familiar with complaints from “purists” about various other little inaccuracies in the games, how the original menus are lost, etc. I have unsettled opinions on this while at the same time being grateful to be able to run these games at all. I was curious about your perspective on this – in the context of the SCUMM games, or in general.

I can totally understand your opinions on that matter. For each solution there are limitations, and I think it comes down to balancing these limitations against accuracy.

For a system like ScummVM you might find some subtle (or not-so-subtle) issues that aren’t 100% true to the original game. But on the other hand, because they wrote a clean and modern engine, you get benefits like being able to run scripts from various platforms, not just DOS, or having your save games appear in a proper location. For the end user, these benefits might very well outweigh any small incompatibilities.

But for others, running the original games in an emulator might be the preferred approach. In that case, you may well have all the glitches and bugs that were in the original games, but also have access to all the keyboard shortcuts directly the way they were. Saved games will appear in the virtual hard or floppy disk you are running from, not easily accessible from the hosting system. But maybe that’s fine, because you know you’re playing in an environment that is faithful to the original platform.

In the end, offering the users a choice in how to approach the games is probably the best bet. We’re fortunate that we have both ScummVM and DOSBox (and eventually my own emulator), so there is a breadth of options available.

The first two Monkey Island games are only legally available as the Special Editions. While the original versions are putatively preserved via “Classic Mode,” there are asterisks. In LeChuck’s Revenge, for example, the MIDI playback is faulty (the custom instruments were lost), and a vertical scrolling effect (when Guybrush dives to the ocean bed, or gazes down a cliff face) has been entirely removed. Assuming your updates included the first two Monkey Island games, I’m wondering if your versions were less compromised?

For The Secret of Monkey Island port, I focused on the 256-color CD-ROM version with Redbook audio background tracks. The audio tracks were ripped to raw data files and stored in a cdda.sou file which my Windows ports knew how to parse and play from. This version sounds fantastic, but I haven’t done any detailed comparison as to how it compares gameplay-wise against the earlier releases or the non-CD-ROM-based audio.

I actually did try to port the floppy version of the first Monkey Island to my system but was limited by the fact that my Windows libraries only had support for the Tandy/PCjr sounds and not the FM-based Adlib/SoundBlaster sounds. There was of course Roland MT-32-based sound available as well, but the best I could do was attempt to translate this on the fly to General MIDI, which is an imperfect procedure at best. This meant that the music quality was compromised regardless, so focusing on the CD-ROM-based tracks for background music made the most sense.

For Monkey Island 2, it was pretty much the same situation, except we didn’t have a CD-ROM version to fall back on, so I made do the best I could with the MT-32 tracks translated to General MIDI. So unfortunately, I would say that yes, both Monkey Island games were compromised a bit in my porting.

Related question: Do your .exe’s for the other SCUMM games still exist?

Yes, I have backups of everything I did. Plus, after contacting me for this interview, I went back and got them all building again on 2022-era compilers. It took a little effort, but the code still lives.

In the case of games that had multiple versions, did you update all of them or only “the latest and greatest”? For example, the original EGA floppy version of Loom is quite different in content than the VGA CD release.

Pretty much just the “Latest and Greatest” of each. While I had access to a number of versions of the SCUMM engine, I didn’t have quite everything, so I focused on what was most convenient. Also, as I explained earlier with the Monkey Island situation, the sound engine limitations dictated a bit what was viable. In summary, here’s what I was working with by the end of things:

  • Maniac Mansion, high resolution (320×200), Tandy/PCjr sound
  • Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, high resolution (320×200), Tandy/PCjr sound
    • I did get the 256-color version with CD audio working, but unfortunately, we found a bug or two in that version so backed off of working on it in favor of the classic 16-color edition
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 256-color version, Tandy/PCjr sound
  • Loom, 256-color CD-ROM version, CD audio
  • Secret of Monkey Island, 256-color CD-ROM version, CD audio
  • Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: 256-color version, MT-32 audio via GMIDI fakery
  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis: 256-color CD-ROM talkie version, MT-32 audio via GMIDI
  • Day of the Tentacle: CD-ROM talkie version, General MIDI audio
  • Sam & Max Hit the Road: CD-ROM talkie version, General MIDI audio
  • Full Throttle: CD-ROM version, digital audio
  • The Dig: CD-ROM version, digital audio

Now that your updated .exe’s are twenty years old themselves, do you imagine they would work on today’s Windows? How difficult an undertaking do you think it would be for Disney/Lucasfilm to do a similar round of updates for today’s operating systems, presuming they cared to?

They actually work fine on modern Windows (hooray for Microsoft’s backward compatibility efforts). The big hang-up of course is just testing, though with modern games it seems testing is left to the end user, so I honestly don’t know why they won’t just release the updated .exes and get some brownie points from the original owners.

There’s a few things I could do to modernize the .exes more, but since there’s apparently no interest in ever releasing them, it’s hard to get any enthusiasm for doing so.

While we’re most interested in your dalliance with LucasArts, I know it represents only a small part of your career. What made you decide to leave LucasArts, and what have you been up to since?

I grew up in the golden age of arcade games, and to me the best games ever created were made from 1979-1984. They were done by 1 or 2 programmers burning the midnight oil trying to create something unique, pushing the hardware to its limits, writing mostly in assembly language, drawing simple art to look good in low resolutions. This to me is the kind of game I wanted to work on, not a giant project involving dozens of artists, musicians, programmers, and a massive marketing department.

There was a certain “wild west” frontier feeling to gaming in those early days that was gone by the time I finally got to work in the games industry. And while I fully appreciate the talent of the artists and musicians and programmers I worked with, I was ultimately left unfulfilled by the reality of creating games in the late 1990s.

Instead, I found my passion in emulation, first by porting the Atari 2600 emulator Stella to the Mac, then by jumping into the MAME project, which I worked on for 15 solid years (and headed up for 6) in my spare time. Here I found the low-level, hard-core coding and optimization I sought, with each collaborator working on their own aspect of the project trying to make something cool happen.

Thumb Involved in various capacities for over twenty years, Aaron was an instrumental part of the MAME project.

Then I got the opportunity to join a small company called Connectix in Silicon Valley, who was doing commercial emulation projects and other neat low-level utilities. I signed on initially to help with Virtual PC, their project to run DOS/Windows on a System 7-based Macintosh, but soon came up with the idea to create Connectix Virtual GameStation: a Sony PlayStation emulator that ran first-generation PlayStation games on the original iMac. We built that program over a grueling 6-month period and released it to great fanfare: a keynote demo by Steve Jobs and a lawsuit from Sony.

Eventually I went back to work on Virtual PC, and helped create Virtual Server, which attracted interest from Microsoft, who ultimately ended up buying the company’s engineering team. At Microsoft, I helped to develop the Microsoft releases of Virtual PC and Virtual Server, then went on to co-design the first release of Hyper-V, before moving on to the Windows team and working on ARM-related porting activities for the final 10 or so years of my career there.

I finally “retired” back in December, after 18 years at Microsoft, leaving the corporate world behind in favor of focusing on smaller, more personal projects that don’t need to have billion-dollar potential to be interesting.

Anything else you’d care to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to chat about these mostly-never-released projects. I’m still a bit salty that so much of my work got shoved in the bin, so it’s nice to give them a little attention. I’m hoping that my new project will serve as a new alternative that satisfies the purists!


You can visit Aaron's online home at AaronGiles.com, and of course we'll keep you abreast of all developments related to his upcoming project DREAMM.

*After this article was published, it was brought to our attention (with proof screenshots) by reader "AndywinXp" that Aaron's update of Day of the Tentacle did in fact sneak its way to retail via another European exclusive: this two-pack with Sam & Max Hit the Road.

**This complaint may be outdated in the wake of the latest version of ScummVM, though customers on Steam and GOG would have to be knowledgeable enough to seek it out, as those purchases are permanently bundled with whatever version was grabbed by Lucasfilm at the time.