Loom

Loom - DOS, Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, TurboGrafx-16, FM Towns, Windows (1990)


Out of all of LucasArts’ adventure games, only one is rooted in the genre of high fantasy (not counting their very first adventure based off of the film Labyrinth). This game is Loom, the invention of Brian Moriarty, a former employee of Infocom. Moriarty was responsible for some of Infocom’s better titles, including Wishbringer, Trinity, and Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor. Loom was the first game in LucasArts’ graphic adventure library to institute the company’s unofficial policy of no deaths or unwinnable situations. This made Loom notable for its time, not to mention the gorgeous graphics, fantastic sound quality, and the original plotline which made for an engrossing fantasy epic.

There is a fair amount of backstory that doesn’t appear in the game, but can be found in a half-hour audio drama that was included on cassette tape with the original releases. It’s mostly gravy, as you can figure out most of what’s going on in the game itself, but it explains a few things that help to better understand the context. Loom is about the Guild of Weavers, who have grown powerful and moved on from simple cloth to sewing patterns into time and space itself. The Weavers have been ostracized for their reality-manipulating powers, cast out into a small island from the rest of the Guilds for their fearsome witchcraft. They have named their island “Loom”, after the great multicolored loom which is the focal point of their powers. Cut off from the rest of the world, the Weavers suffer and dwindle in numbers.

A troubled Weaver, Lady Cygna Threadbare, decides to use the great loom to help by planting a gray thread into the loom. This thread causes an infant to appear out of the loom, an unforeseen event that earns Cygna the wrath of the Guild’s Elders. Her punishment is to be transformed into a swan and be banished from the “pattern”, the universe as the Weavers had made it, essentially condemning her to an existence in between dimensions. Kindly Dame Hetchel takes in the loom infant and names him Bobbin Threadbare, but she is forbidden by the Elders from teaching Bobbin any of the Weavers’ techniques. The Elders are jerks and they fear that Bobbin will eventually unravel the pattern of existence, but Hetchel believes in young Bobbin and decides to teach him about weaving nonetheless.

That’s quite a mouthful, and while the “devil child cast away from society” story is not the most original plotline around, it’s the most developed story LucasArts had made up until this point. Despite the company’s tendencies to write their stories with a lot of humor, Loom’s story is relatively serious (though not bereft of funny moments) and starts out on a grave note. Bobbin, the dreaded “loom child”, is summoned to the Elders on his seventeenth birthday, but when he gets to the main hall, he finds his adopted mother, Dame Hetchel, being chewed out by the Elders. They found out that she taught Bobbin about weaving despite strict orders to not do so. For her intransigence, she is subject to the same fate inflicted upon Lady Cygna; however, she is mysteriously transformed into an egg instead of a swan. On that note, a swan flies in from a dimensional pocket and plays the draft of “transcendence” on the great loom, transforming all of the Elders into swans themselves! All of the swans fly off into the blue yonder, leaving the village empty and Bobbin thoroughly confused after having beheld this inexplicable event.

Loom is a distinct oddity in the graphic adventure genre, as it shows no commands on the lower half of the screen, nor does it display an inventory. There is only one item Bobbin carries with him throughout the majority of the game: The distaff, a magical stick which has the power to manipulate the physical properties of objects. All you have to do is click upon an object and play a four-note tune on the distaff to cast a “draft”, a spell from his clan’s Book of Patterns. This musical mechanic is similar to the ocarina from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but Loom predates Nintendo’s classic by nearly a decade.

After acquiring the staff, the first order of business is to look at the egg into which Hetchel was transformed. Doing so causes four notes to ring out from the loom, and astute observers will notice the graphic of the distaff on the lower part of the screen and the three sections of the staff with the notes of “c”, “d”, and “e” below them. The notes on the loom play out with colored sparkles, and these colors are also coded with the notes beneath the distaff. The four notes that resonate with the egg form the draft of Opening, which is always e/c/e/d, and will open up any door or container like the egg. Bobbin learns many other drafts later, but each new game alters the notes of most drafts, except for the Opening draft and a few others which are vital to the storyline. Some drafts can be played backwards to achieve their reverse affect; playing the Opening draft in reverse (d/e/c/e) makes it the draft of Closing and seals off open passages. However, some drafts are palindromes (like f/g/g/f for example) and cannot be reversed. Loom’s primary gameplay consists of finding drafts and applying them to solve puzzles. Drafts are usually acquired by looking at key objects and listening to the four-note tune if they have a draft to teach. On the highest selectable difficulty level, you need to recognize them strictly by sound.

It’s an innovative mechanic that lends the game a unique identity, but it does have a somewhat frustrating old-school problem. The instant a draft is learned, it is not stored in any sort of menu that can be referred to for later use. They have to be memorized or ideally written down. (To aid this, the original release came with a book to record them.) There are a few drafts that Bobbin learns early in the game that will be used much later, and by then there is no way to relearn those drafts from their appropriate objects. Also, many drafts are randomized on each play, so drafts cannot be recorded for one playthrough and be applied to all subsequent playthroughs.

Despite this problem, the adventure itself is actually quite short, and players who know what they are doing could conceivably beat the game in about an hour. Bobbin’s goal is to find out to where the Elders and the mystery swan disappeared. His adventure starts on Loom Island, which is completely barren after he frees Hetchel from her eggshell prison and she goes off to find the swans.

Bobbin’s journey takes him to the mainland where he comes across three other Guilds: The protective and agricultural Guild of Shepherds, the artistic and pacifistic Guild of Glassmakers, and the reclusive warmongering Guild of Blacksmiths. The Glassmakers reside in Crystalgard where the hospitable Master Goodmold shows off the radiance of their crystal city. The Shepherds live in the Fold, a once-peaceful pasture of sheep where the livestock is constantly terrorized by a fearsome black dragon. Fleece Firmflanks, a gorgeous maiden of the Shepherds, laments that she cannot defend the sheep, but Bobbin just might have the ticket. The Blacksmiths constantly toil in the Forge, their massive anvil-shaped fortress. He finds a loafing young Blacksmith named Rusty Nailbender sleeping around an iron graveyard, and the only way Bobbin is going to get into the Forge is by committing a severe case of identity theft.

The one responsible for the disruptions in the pattern is Bishop Mandible, a callous cretin hailing from the Guild of anti-secular Clerics who wishes to (guess what) take over the world. He somehow manages to harness Bobbin’s distaff for his own evil needs and summon the forces of the dead to rip the pattern asunder. The bastard brings Chaos, the high demon of the dead, into the world and causes… well, chaos. It all falls on Bobbin to mend the damage done by the dead and confront Chaos to try and restore order to the threads of reality. How does it all end? Rather suddenly. Loom becomes painfully easy after Mandible summons Chaos, and figuring out what to do takes an almost insultingly small amount of effort. The “final battle” against Chaos has the game practically shoving the correct drafts into your face, and it all culminates in a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger. It’s almost as if the game was only two-thirds finished when the developers decided to attempt an experimental method of programming the last third while sleepwalking.

Loom may be a bit light on the gameplay department, which was amusingly mocked in Sierra’s Space Quest IV, where a parody game called “Boom” described as having “no conflict, no puzzles, no chance of dying, and no interface [that] make this the easiest-to-finish game yet!” But it does excel in aesthetics with some of the finest visuals to be found in any adventure game of the time. The graphics give the game’s world a whimsical appearance that reaches just about across the range of the color spectrum.

Space Quest IV

As was the case for most of LucasArts’ earlier releases, the graphics come in two distinct flavors: 16-color EGA for the original computer releases, and 256-color VGA for the others. Specifically, the 16-color palette is used for the original PC release, as well as the Atari ST, Amiga, and Macintosh versions, with only subtle differences between the versions. The bright EGA color scheme actually works in Loom’s favor and really adds to the world’s surreal fantasy appearance. The Turbografx-16 CD version uses the EGA graphics as a basis, but improves them slightly with more color and detail. The VGA graphics are still preferable, and can be found on only two of the releases: The 1991 release for the Japanese FM Towns CD home computer (which is still playable in English), and the 1992 IBM PC CD-ROM re-release.

EGA

This was the first LucasArts game to prominently feature music, as opposed to their previous titles, which mostly played in silence. All of Loom’s music consists of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, which is not only fitting for most situations, but also symbolic for the overall theme, what with the swans being a vital plot point. In the EGA versions, as well as the IBM PC CD version, the music plays once before it fades into silence, but the Turbografx-16 and FM Towns versions have the music running throughout the entire game.

Naturally, the music on the CD versions is the best, and while it’s not recorded with a full orchestra like you’d find on most classical CDs, the synthesized renditions still sound excellent. The IBM PC CD version is the only one that features voice acting, technically making it the first dubbed LucasArts adventure, pre-dating Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis by a few months. The voice acting is decent for its time, with most of the characters speaking with classy British accents, but does not add a lot of impact to the game. The problem is that all of the voices are recorded on the CD’s redbook audio tracks, rather than being compressed as samples like most other dubbed games. Since this technique takes up a monumental amount of space, a good deal of the original dialogue needed to be cut short and altered. Furthermore, many of the character closeups were removed, since the developers had problems lip-synching the dialogue. The FM Towns version lacks the voice acting, but it has the 256-color graphics, the CD music, the full dialogue, and the closeups. Thankfully, this version is easily playable on ScummVM, even though finding a legitimate copy is extremely difficult and overwhelmingly expensive.

While Loom is an overall short game lacking in substance, it is still an entertaining and visually alluring adventure game certainly worth a playthrough. It may be over too soon and it ends unceremoniously, but Loom is a fine game that adventure aficionados will likely enjoy.

However, while it met with moderate critical success for its time and became a veritable cult classic in later years, LucasArts unfortunately decided to not follow up on the game’s story. Loom’s dire cliffhanger ending is the result of plans that eventually fell through due to lack of developer and audience interest, but what could have been would have tied up the loose threads of the story (pun slightly intended). The second game, Forge, would have starred Rusty Nailbender, Bobbin’s blacksmith pal, fighting to regain control of the Blacksmith’s stronghold after Chaos and the forces of the dead wrested control of it. The trilogy’s end, The Fold, would focus on Fleece Firmflanks of the Shepherds, joining forces with Rusty and Bobbin to ultimately obliterate Chaos and restore peace to all the land, uniting all Guilds in harmony. It could have been an adventure epic in the making, but the developers of Loom were already focused on other projects at the time, and Bobbin’s quest remained the only game of its kind.

The Secret of Monkey Island

Loom is also notable for its reference in The Secret of Monkey Island. Here, a minor character from Loom named Cobb appears sitting in a bar. He’s dressed as a pirate and wears a button that reads “Ask me about Loom”. When spoken to, he’ll reluctantly reply to nearly every dialogue option with a succinct “Aye”, but when asked about Loom, he goes off on a long winded spiel about how amazing it is, while the word “ADVERTISEMENT” flashes at the top of the screen.

 

Screenshot Comparisons

IBM PC (EGA)

Atari ST

TurboGrafx-16

IBM PC (CD VGA)