LucasArts' Secret History #8: Day of the Tentacle Historical Accuracies
"Historical accuracy of Day of the Tentacle" by Mathew Mullen
As I prepared this essay, I thought I'd look up a script to the game, to give me an idea of what goes on in this scene... but then I remembered I have the entire game memorized. I cannot tell you how many times I've played this game... easily 50. I love this game. In my mind, it is the PERFECT adventure game: a silly yet engaging concept, tons of great jokes, great art/animation, and loveable tentacles. As a historian, this game hit an even deeper chord, and it was a game that got even funnier later in life the more I studied the Founding Fathers. The historical humor in this game is what makes it a classic in my mind. What is so great about it is that you "get" the jokes whatever age you are... but you don't really UNDERSTAND them until you get older.
Part of the fun with any historical reference is the "OH, I've heard that story before" concept. Whether intentional or not, Day of the Tentacle takes that idea a step further by having the historical jokes everyone would recognize, but getting the references entirely wrong.
My absolute favorite joke from this sequence in the game is John Hancock's signature. When I first played this game when I was 12, I knew he wrote it big, but I didn't know why. The game said that he wrote it big to impress chicks. Which... made sense to my early-puberty controlled mind. I later learned that that was only the half-truth. He wrote his name so large because he wanted King George III to know who he was without having to put on his glasses. This is a case of "getting" the joke when I was a kid, but not "understanding" it.
Hoagie's part of the game is set in roughly 1787, while the "debate" over the Constitution is taking place. However, there are some historical anomilies right from the start. The major characters in this sequence are: George Washington, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Betsy Ross.
- Thomas Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention, he was in France. He also appears egotistical and outspoken in the game. In real life, he was quiet and subdued in politics, despite his brilliance (especially at this stage of his life).
- John Hancock was President of the Continental Congress, but was too sick to be involved with the Constitutional Convention. He stayed home and died later. Turns out, everyone at the Convention died eventually. Imagine that.
- George Washington was President of the convention, not just some dude looking out a window. That said, Washington's character is the closest out of any of the Founding Fathers in this game -- he is stoic. His wooden teeth were actually made out of whale-bone, and barely fit in his mouth. He had pockmarks on his face from a small bout with smallpox, and some historians say one leg was longer than the other. When he walked into a room, he looked like a misshapen oaf, more than anything else. Still, as John Adams said, he was elected for everything because, "He was the tallest man in the room."
- Franklin's attitude is pretty spot on as well. However, by this point in his life, Franklin could hardly walk due to gout. The young, vibrant and quirky Franklin had passed. His character in the game closely resembles his character in the movie/musical 1776.
- There were, however, 55 people at the convention, not 4.
- In the game, Betsy Ross is making the American flag during the Constitutional Convention, and she becomes upset at the many revisions. In reality, no one knows for certain if she did make the first "stars and stripes" flag. We do know, however, that she met with Washington to prove how easy it would be to make a five-pointed star.
- George Washington never cut down a cherry tree... or a painted Kumquat tree, for that matter.
- There was no "suggestion box" for the Convention. And, sadly, the vacuum clause never made it to the Final document.
- The word time capsule did not come into the lexicon until 1937, and there is no historical record of the Congress or Jefferson having an affinity towards them.
- The famous kite experiment in the game was done 30 years before the Constitutional Convention. In fact, the kite experiment was actually done by a French dude, first.
No one knows for sure where the Edison Mansion is. I personally believe that it is somewhere in New England, which would match up with the times. It is unclear if they are drafting a Constitution or just coming up with ideas (a la the Annapolis convention). Either way, the wrong historical figures are there. The Constitution was drafted at the Pennsylvania State House.
As much as I hate Lucas Arts sometimes for cancelling Sam and Max 2, I really do love them for this game. It introduced me to adventure games, and I have been playing them ever since. Look for my next article, the historical accuracy of Sam and Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die, sometime in the future.
The following essay was submitted to a first-year history class at the University of Gloucestershire, by Mix'n'mojo staff writer elTee. He was given a First-Class mark.
HS120 – Writing And Representing History
Choose a 'fictional' representation of an event, development, or person in literature or film or painting or television programme or computer game and analyse it with reference to historians' accounts of the same subject.
The Source: Day Of The Tentacle (Computer Game, © LucasArts Entertainment Company1993)
Events Represented: Benjamin Franklin's 'kite experiment' regarding electricity. Drafting of the constitution of the United States of America.
Day Of The Tentacle was released by LucasArts Entertainment Company in 1993 to critical acclaim and enormous commercial success. It enjoys a large fanbase to this day, and frequently appears in polls to find the 'greatest' computer games of all time. It is perhaps the most accomplished traditional 'point-and-click' adventure ever made – made by a George Lucas owned company, the production values were unheard of and even thirteen years after release the game still boasts some of the best voice-acting ever heard in a computer game. The tongue-in-cheek plot is based around a malfunctioning time machine which deposits one of three playable characters two-hundred years in the past, one two-hundred years in the future, and one in the present. It is the first of these characters story arcs that I will look at in this essay, as it involves some major events from early American history – namely, the drafting of the constitution and Benjamin Franklins famous 'kite experiment'.
It is apparent from the very beginning that this is not a serious representation of history. The accompanying manual states simply; 'Our historical accuracy policy: we don't have one'[sup][a href="#3" name="3b"]3[/sup][/a] but even such a blatant admission is unnecessary after the comedic opening credits sequence – in which the titular tentacle (a genetically engineered 'pet' belonging to a mad scientist called Fred Edison[sup][a href="#*" name="*b"]*[/a][/sup][/a]) drinks some toxic waste and decides to take over the world. That this cyclopic beast who lacks even the most basic of human tools (fingers) actually succeeds in his world domination is testament to the absurdity of the story, and perhaps says more than intended about the representation of human beings. That is to say; a world in which such a limited creature can assume global control must be populated by incredibly inept humans, and this perhaps goes some way towards explaining the representation of one of the most lauded men in American – indeed, world – history: Benjamin Franklin.
The eponymous Mr. Franklin is first encountered in a field outside the Edison family mansion, flying a kite. He introduces himself as "Ben Franklin – soon to be known as the inventor of electricity!" and thus he is revealed to be something of an eccentric madman (he also refers to his kite as the "Frank-ocopter".) Of course, Franklin's kite experiment was a pioneering one; it proved once and for all that lightning was electrical energy – and it should therefore be rather self-evident that the kite experiment would need to be performed during a storm, which in the game, it isn't. To prove the fictional Franklin's madness, when a storm does come along, he retreats inside saying "even science sometimes gets cold on account of rain". All told, this is a rather different picture of Franklin than historians would have you believe – consider Joseph J. Ellis in 'Founding Brothers': 'The greatest American scientist, the most deft diplomat, the most accomplished prose stylist, the sharpest wit, Franklin defied all the categories by inhabiting them all with… distinction and nonchalant grace.'
Putting character observations aside for now (as at the end of the day, no modern historian actually met Franklin) I will look purely at the facts of the experiment. According to 'Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography And Other Writings' edited by Ormond Seavey, Franklin performed various electrical experiments between 1746 and 1751, and other sources place the precise date of the kite experiment in June 1752. Franklin had observed that '"common Matter is a Kind of Spunge [sic] to the Electrical Fluid"' and so understood the fundamental danger of the experiment he was performing – basically, that electricity has a current and would thus flow down the kitestring when struck by lightning and electrocute the operator. Accordingly, he took measures to ensure that he was grounded when he performed the experiment, and this way survived without injury. He used his discoveries to invent the lightning rod, which has been in use in tall buildings for over twohundred- and-fifty years and saved countless lives and property damage. In contrast, the fictional Franklin takes no measures to ground himself, and when lightning strikes his kite he exclaims in terror; "run for your lives!" He also insinuates that he is seeking glorification from his 'invention' by saying "no-one will care who's President once I've harnessed the ultimate power... of electricity!" which puts him in a slightly different light to the real Franklin, who used the discovery to improve public safety.
This issue also raises another important point – the precise time and location of the fictional representation of these events. The entire game, across all three time periods, is located at the same mansion, owned by the Edison family. The location of the mansion is never defined, and neither is the exact time period – it is only stated that one character is transported twohundred years back in time from the present, and one two-hundred years forward in time – the precise start date is not revealed. Assuming that the present refers to the year of the games release, this would place the fictitious version of Franklin's experiment in 1793 – twenty-one years too late. Furthermore, Franklin actually died in April 1790, making his appearance in 1793 altogether impossible. However, Day Of The Tentacle is actually a sequel to an earlier game called Maniac Mansion which was released in 1987 – it is thus plausible that 'the present' is 1987, making the date of the fictitious Franklin's experiment 1787. This is still fifteen years overdue, but at least within the real Franklin's lifetime. However, Franklin performed his experiments in Philadelphia and although the game doesn't state its location, Franklin does at one point say that he has to return to his "lab in Philly" which essentially implies that he is not there already. As such, the fictional representation of Franklin and his experiment is considerably different from documented accounts by historians.
To further add to this confusion, whilst Franklin is in a field flying his kite George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock are all inside the mansion drafting the constitution of the United States. This actually did occur around the time of the game, with constitutional conventions taking place between 1786 and 1787. However, as Robert E. Cushman put it, 'The political maturity and statesmanship necessary to achieve ratification [of the constitution] were not limited to a few outstanding leaders, but were exhibited by… men all the way from New Hampshire to Georgia'. That is to say; three men alone simply could not write a document such as the constitution. In its own way, the game acknowledges this fact when Jefferson says "We hit a slight creative block right after the preamble. That's why we've set up a suggestion box." Of course the idea of using a suggestion box to create the fundamental laws of a nation is inherently absurd, but this is merely a reflection of how heavily caricatured the three 'founding fathers' are in this representation. Without delving too deeply into characterisation, we are given an egotistical Washington ("I was just admiring my reflection in the window - striking, aren't I?") and two rather pathetic figures in Jefferson and Hancock – the former idolising Washington, and the latter explaining his legendary signature with "A friend once told me that women go crazy over guys with a big signature".
When examined purely in terms of facts this portrayal of the drafting of the constitution is fundamentally incorrect. A constitution for a nation as large as the United States requires input from people across the spectrum in order to reflect the diversity of culture within the nation – in a perverse way, it's almost as though there was a suggestion box, as politicians from every state came to the table with their own demands and expectations for the constitution. These various delegations drafted the constitution over a course of four months9 from May 1787 before it was finally ratified – a lengthy process whereby nine states had to agree by majority vote with the document. Despite this, the constitutional conventions were all secret meetings, and there is no direct evidence that Washington, Jefferson and Hancock didn't spend time together coming up with ideas for it outside of the principal channels.
All of these things, combined with numerous anachronisms and the absurd nature of the entire story, go some way towards explaining why Day Of The Tentacle is so inaccurate from a historian's point of view. The historical figures encountered in the game are parodies of their real selves, gross exaggerations who only exist for comedic value. The fact that the time and location of the events is so distorted is purely because the events are only present in the game to provide solutions to puzzles – Franklin is performing electrical experiments because it allows the player to use his discoveries to power their time machine, which in turn allows them to return to the present. The constitution is there so that the player can amend it using the suggestion box, adding clauses such as "every American should have a vacuum cleaner in their basement" in order to affect the present and future scenarios. Is this an inherently bad thing? Should 'history' be restricted to the facts alone or should film makers, novelists and game designers have free reign over their warped interpretations of the past?
Ultimately, by using historical characters in a fictional game, Day Of The Tentacle helps preserve history. It can never take the place of a factual account, but the blatant comedic style in which it is presented tells the player that it isn't serious. No-one will ever walk away from the game thinking they've experienced an interactive history lesson, but those whose interest is aroused will have numerous names to look up in the real history books afterwards.
If nothing else, Day Of The Tentacle is proof that history is all around us, even in the most unlikely places. Despite lampooning historical figures, the game ensures that the legends of the 'founding fathers' of the United States of America live on to this day.
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