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Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix: The Lost Sequel to Fate of Atlantis: Design Interrupted

09 Jul, 2016

The first major setback came when Joe Pinney abruptly left the studio at some point early on in the process. The circumstances of Pinney’s departure are murky, but the threat his absence had on the project was clear enough. Management was left scrambling for a replacement to prevent the game’s collapse.

There was not a deep bench of proven project leaders available. By now Ron Gilbert had moved on to founding Humongous Entertainment, Dave Grossman followed Gilbert on the new venture, and Tim Schafer was onto his post-Day of the Tentacle project. (What that was, I’m not sure; Full Throttle was his next published game, of course, but Tim has also claimed he briefly kicked around the idea of doing a WarCraft-inspired game around this time.) Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark would also have been pre-occupied with the shipping of their first game as project leaders, Sam & Max Hit the Road.

It was Aric Wilmunder, a name ubiquitous in the credits of the studio’s adventure output, who was ultimately tapped to fill the vacuum. Wilmunder had joined LucasArts in its early days, back when the studio was still called Lucasfilm Games and even before it self-published; his first credited title is the 1985 Atari release Koronis Rift. After the release of Maniac Mansion, his role at the company was multi-faceted but summarized by his affectionate moniker of the “SCUMM Lord,” the engineer in charge of enhancing the story engine originated by Gilbert and Chip Morningstar. Fans can trace the evolution of SCUMM with each passing game from 1987 to its final outing in 1997; Wilmunder was instrumental in those efforts.

Thumb Aric Wilmunder: Never not in the credits.

Beyond that, Wilmunder contributed to the design of a number of cancelled games, Iron Phoenix ultimately among them. He belongs in a category with Kalani Streicher, Mike Ebert and Joe Pinney as the unknown SCUMM project leaders, the folks who designed the LucasArts adventure games we never got to play.

By the time Iron Phoenix was in crisis, managing the SCUMM system was no longer Wilmunder’s burden to shoulder alone. Confident in the talents of his fellow engineers to keep that plane in the air, he volunteered to helm the Indy sequel alongside Bill Stoneham, already on the team. Wilmunder would focus on the design and tech while Stoneham would lead on the art side. The project was in capable hands and could now pick up where Pinney left off. As Wilmunder recalls, he began his new role with three months of heavy writing and design work, as this phase was not yet finished:

Joe’s work on the story laid out the fundamentals. He had covered a broad area, but what was missing was the depth that would let you take the story and do the deep dive that could be used to build the locations and puzzles needed to build the actual game.

- Aric Wilmunder

Wilmunder emerged with his long-form design, which included the puzzle outline and cutscene descriptions, in late 1993. It was in fact a larger document than the usual, as Aric was aware that the higher level of detail would be of benefit to the external team assigned to the project (more on that later).

The sixty-page document, a blue-print of a terrific Indy game we never got, is a must-read, laying out among other elements a complete synopsis of the game’s plotline. It also teases some enhancements the SCUMM engine would have boasted, like multi-dimension scrolling rooms and some impressive-sounding action sequences sprinkled throughout. Some of the new features would have been shown off in a prologue sequence with limited interactivity, which one imagines would have been just as memorable as the intro to Fate of Atlantis, where the player directs a stumbling Indy through the opening credits at Barnett College.

Wilmunder recalls the creative process as heavily collaborative, with input invited even from developers on other teams. He actually credits Mike Stemmle with the final title, noting that the game was at first called Indiana Jones and the Philospher's Stone.

We kicked around ideas and Phoenix came up to describe the notion of rebirth, and when we looked for terms to describe the Nazis, ‘Iron Cross’ was suggested and I think that it was Mike who combined the terms and came up with ‘Iron Phoenix’.

- Aric Wilmunder

Anson Jew also has memories of design meetings in which the three-man team wailed away on puzzle ideas:

Aric Wilmunder and Bill Stoneham were co-leads on this project, and I was the lead animator, so most of the final decisions were made by them. But we had meetings--lots of meetings trying to figure this thing out. I remember there was a part of the story where Indy was locked up in a supply room in a ship or submarine. He had to escape but could only use the few items that were in the room. I recalled a story my high school shop teacher had relayed about a student who somehow knocked the valve off of a pressurized tank, and how the tank shot off like a torpedo and went through a few walls. So I suggested we have Indy knock the valve off a pressurized tank and have it blow through the door. That was the puzzle for a short while. Later, the puzzle was changed to Indy using the tank to melt out the rivets around the door.
[...]
As the project was being developed by the leads, there wasn't really anything for me to animate, so I took it upon myself to do some animation and puzzle tests. One thing I wanted the game to do was break out of the idea that every scene had to be a single locked-off environment at a wide, flat angle with a character walking around in it. I wanted to do a few puzzles that played more like Dragon's Lair or Space Ace--that cut from shot to shot--with insert reaction shots and whatnot. So I devised this puzzle of Indy inside the cockpit a small plane getting battered by a huge Nazi on top of him. You would punch and punch this guy, and barely feeling it, he would simply return your punches. You could try to do different things to defeat this Nazi--trying to hit him with various objects in the plane. But in the end, the solution was to grab the wheel and turn the plane upside down. Then, suddenly Indy is on top of the Nazi and can defeat him.

- Anson Jew

Though the largely linear design wouldn’t repeat the ambitious (and schedule-ruining) “Three Paths” feature that Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein concocted for Fate of Atlantis, a bulky segment of the game in which Indy would collect the three pieces of the Philosopher’s Stone could be solved in any order, recalling the opening act of Fate and the Three Map Pieces section of Monkey Island 2.

Filled with exotic locations, classic Indy escapes, hissable baddies, ambiguous allies, and the welcome return of Marcus Brody (who serves as a contact for Indy when he rendezvouses in Berlin), it seems clear that what the team had laboriously prepared was a recipe for a highly satisfying sequel to Indy’s best game.

Now they had to actually build the thing.

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