[13 August 2013]
Back in the halcyon days of Lucas Arts’s adventure game renaissance, specifically the time between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Secret of Monkey Island, came an oft forgotten adventure game based on musical notes. Loom was a one-off project. Originally it was the first of a planned trilogy, but after the game was released, its creator Brian Moriarty was working on another project and no one else wanted to touch it. The game became a standalone title, and it is the better for it.
Loom is rather short by comparison to other games in its genre at the time. Part of this was because of how you solved puzzles. Instead of collecting items, you collected drafts—spells you could perform on your flute. As the game went on, you would unlock more notes that increased the complexity of the drafts. In this manner, your inventory become more of a toolkit rather than a junk drawer. As a consequence, there were fewer items that you could interact with and learn the logic of the game’s universe through. You had to learn through the dialogue and other snippets of world building. The game also had size limitations, which in the end, also worked in the game’s favor.
Loom isn’t what we think of as a fantasy adventure. The game came out before what the definition of that idea had been truly codified. Released just after the 1980s, a time when fantasy was less uniformly defined in culture. Specifically Loom takes its world building inspiration from Dark Crystal. Both movies and the game follow the hero’s journey arc to be sure, but what is more important is how they constructed their world. For starters, the worlds are very empty. No character appears that isn’t necessary to the plot. Fewer characters mean that even with the little information that we get about them, they define themselves that much more easily. Information, then, is almost wholly related to the hero’s adventure. Indeed, what one might think is essential for a fantasy adventure is left out. There are no countries, no cities, and no major cultures that are presented. Instead, what we are given are snippets and suggestions about the nature of the world. This sparseness creates a vacuum for the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
Throughout Loom, we meet several guilds: the Weavers, the Glassmakers, the Shepherds, and the Blacksmiths. We get mention of a great army to the south headed by the Cleric (who incidentally is using items from all the guilds that you encounter to try and take over the world). We get small tale from history about a dragon, which we later meet. We see a small portion of the countryside. Even our own past is more sketched out that it is explained. The entire world is left with an air of mystery and mysticism, even as the credits roll. We are told so little, and yet the world seems so big.
The world’s in so many games nowadays are completely explained, every event in history getting its own entry in a codex. Loom doesn’t have the space for an epic-sized adventure, so it focuses on the relatively small-scale actions of one man. Bobbin hears about grand events and strong armies over the next hill. But his own world is restricted to the places he visits. Everything is hinted at, implying the larger world without ever explaining it. It leaves all the unnecessary information to the player’s imagination. There are surely a dozen stories that could be told about every nook that is revealed in the world and even more beyond what Bobbin sees.
At the beginning of any story, there is so much promise and so much potential. At the beginning, a story could go anywhere. And as the story is told, the potential paths through it are reduced. The more a story is told and the more detail is explained, the more of that wide-eyed, imagination sparking potential is lost. But with so little detail and so much suggestion, Loom retains that wide-eyed imaginative streak the whole way through.
Another benefit for leaving details out, though, is the ability to focus. They say that a story is done when you have taken away everything unnecessary that you can about it. The hero’s journey arc allows a lot to be taken away. By taking a lot away, it reduces the game’s dependency on lore (something far too many fantasies are willing to use as a crutch) and re-centers the game’s focus on the narrative. With so few explicit details, we aren’t worried how each little factoid fits together is some great continuity of world building. Instead we see the artistic purpose for each included element. When Bobbin is turned into a swan at the end, it is representative of his transcendence upon completing the great task and being transformed. Here it’s literal as a mirror. That is what we see. We aren’t worried about Weaver-to-Swan transformation mechanics, the midichlorians of Loom’s universe. The magic still has power. It is still a mystery.
Loom is Bobbin’s story and everything in the game focuses on him. The planned sequels would have focused on two other characters you meet during your travels, a young Blacksmith named Rusty Nailbender and a Shepherd named Fleece Firmflanks. The developers would have wrapped up a number of hanging plot threads and continued on from the cliffhanger ending of Loom. In my eyes, that would have been a travesty. The hanging threads are part of this world’s commitment to the unknown—that which gives it so much character. Every question does not need to be answered in Loom, and the fact that a few things are left unanswered lends the work a kind of beauty. Nothing quite diminishes the greatness of something by sanding off every corner and rough spot. A few rough spots in the fiction give the story a friction that helps it cling to the mind.
As for the cliffhanger, I didn’t need any other ending. Bobbin beat the manifestation of Chaos by foiling its plans. He unmakes the great loom so that Chaos may never get its hands on it before flying off transcendent as a swan. The hero’s journey arc is completed, and while the world may be in danger and the fate of his friends unknown, again the roughness and the glimpse into the unknown give the whole experience an air of beauty. This focus changes the nature of our understanding of their battle. It isn’t a battle between good and evil. The entity is called Chaos. It is a battle of cycles, of push and pull. By leaving the enemy beaten, but not destroyed, yet with a promise of further conflict, the world feels that much larger and that much richer. Anyone can destroy the big bad and go home to a cheering crowd and a medal or two. Few can continue fighting on across the fabric of time and space. The enemy isn’t an evil king or a conquering demon horde. It is an elemental force.
Loom needs to be open ended. It needs the unknown and the promise of what is out there rather than to fulfill its promise, scrapping all the potential of that story. Loom’s power is in its mystery and in its focus. Hints and suggestions are its tools. It answers only what it needs to and only details what will aid it. The game’s power, like Bobbin himself, is in its potential. And ultimately, the work’s worth remains strong because of it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/174420-loom/