I have been aware of the existence of Loom ever since meeting the pirate in Monkey Island wearing an “Ask Me About Loom” badge who is otherwise monosyllabic, but who spouts flowery ad copy for the game at you if you Ask Him About Loom. A more serious, fantasy-themed adventure game from the same people who made one of my favourite games ever? Sounds great, sign me up! Unfortunately despite first hearing about Loom in 1995, I was not actually in a position to play Loom until 2009, as the game had almost immediately disappeared from UK shops and wasn’t available on digital distribution for another twenty years, and by that point I had all but forgotten Loom existed. Not only that, but so did nearly everyone else; it seems that despite the generous advertising plug, the release of Monkey Island in the same year massively overshadowed that of Loom. LucasArts were known as the Monkey Island studio afterwards, not the Loom studio1, and while Loom is more fondly remembered than, say, Zak McKracken, it remains little more than a footnote at the bottom of the list of LucasArts’ greatest achievements. Yet there remains a cult following of people who talk fondly about Loom, and not just because they’re characters in a game who have been explicitly written to advertise Loom, and so I was genuinely interested in experiencing Loom for the first time as part of this series just so that I could see what it was about.
(But before we get into the meat of what Loom is about, I should talk about the various versions of Loom that are available because it’s actually a little important. As with most of these early LucasArts titles there is the original EGA release and a later VGA rerelease, but Loom is the first one to also receive a fully-voiced CD-ROM rerelease. This voiced, “talkie” version is the one that’s available on GOG, but there’s an absolutely huge catch to it: because there were limits to how much uncompressed audio could be stored on a CD-ROM at the time, and because Loom has far more dialogue in it than previous games despite being only three hours long, they couldn’t voice all of it. And because you can’t have some voiced bits and some non-voiced bits in a product whose major selling point is providing a Full Multimedia Experience (very popular in the early 90s), the talkie version of Loom simply removes the bits of the game that it doesn’t have voice lines for. So if you are going to play Loom, my recommendation is the same as that of the game’s creator: buy the GOG or Steam versions, and then separately track down the EGA version — it’s still very available with a quick Google search — and play that instead, since you’ll be getting the full game and not a truncated version of it.)
Anyway, Loom. Loom is the story of Bobbin Threadbare, a young member of the Guild of Weavers situated on the island of Loom. The Guild of Weavers do work with cloth, but are apparently so good at their jobs that they have also figured out how to weave the very fabric of reality — something they call the Pattern — and so they’re wizards in all but name. As it is Bobbin’s seventeenth birthday and he’s coming of age, it is obviously time for an ancient prophecy to come nigh and for the rest of the Guild of Weavers to get absolutely wrecked by a mysterious force leaving Bobbin as the only survivor. Bobbin wanders into their council chamber after they’re all dead and picks up the Distaff that they’ve helpfully dropped, which is exactly what it sounds like: a staff used to weave magic spells via the power of… uh, music? He then spends the rest of the game learning how to use it, while also trying to thwart the prophecy and save the world in the process.
Loom is a big step up over Last Crusade in terms of visuals. This is thanks to LucasArts figuring out how to efficiently compress dithered artwork (single blocks of colour are much easier to compress than checkerboard patterns that alternate colours at different frequencies), and so basically the entirety of Loom uses dithering to the point where it’s quicker and easier to look for the things that don’t in a given screen. The opening area, Loom at nighttime, is a dry-run for what they later did in Monkey Island that leverages what they learned about how to draw lighting in Last Crusade; it’s picked out entirely in shades of blue and is a wonderfully moody, foreboding environment. There’s some striking tapestries at the start that are essentially a big flex, a way for the artists to say “We might still only have 16 colours but look at these colour gradients”, and there’s one area in particular that really pushes the technique as far as it can go; a city made of green glass where the dithering effect is used to produce a sort of see-through effect as Bobbin passes behind the glass. It doesn’t quite have the resolution to work as well as it should, but it’s ambitious and memorable and a damn sight more attractive than anything else I’ve seen from this period. It’s really no surprise that Loom won awards for its artwork; it fully deserved them. The only flaw is that, given how short the game is, it feels like there’s only four locations in the game and so it doesn’t have a huge amount of variety.
But while Loom’s major lasting achievement might be its visuals, it’s just as imaginative when it comes to the gameplay. You’ll doubtless have noticed that Loom doesn’t have the now-standard collection of action verbs (OPEN, CLOSE, GIVE etc.) along the bottom of the screen. Instead, all it has is a picture of the Distaff along with a selection of musical notes; you play sequences of notes on the Distaff to cast various spells called Drafts on objects in place of verbs. Since it’s the first game to finally, finally ditch WHAT IS, Loom is also the first game to have the standard mouse-over tooltip behaviour I’ve been sorely missing up until now, as hovering the cursor over an interactable object will throw up a bloody great icon of it in the bottom right of the screen; clicking on the object locks it in as the target of your spell, while clicking on the icon will cause Bobbin to make observations about it just as if you’d commanded him to LOOK at it. Once you have a target you can then click on the musical notes in order to weave your draft; for example, the first draft I learned, Open, required me to play E-C-D-E, and a nice idea Loom has is that playing a draft backwards achieves the opposite effect, so E-D-C-E would be Close. You learn new drafts by observing things with the property or effect you want to mimic — this resonates with the Distaff and shows you the required notes — so encountering a sea-spout teaches you Twist/Untwist, while examining a scythe lets you learn Sharpen/Blunt.
While it might sound like this is just a different way of doing verbs, it’s not really. Most of the drafts are so incredibly specific that you only use them once, so they’re really more like items — especially because you have no actual inventory in Loom. There’s far fewer interactive objects in Loom than there are in other LucasArts titles, and this makes most of the “puzzle” solutions incredibly simple; when you have a giant pile of gold sitting in front of you, and you have a draft for turning straw into gold (and thus gold into straw), what else can you do, really? There is a little bit of overhead involved as Loom gives you zero in-game help for what your learned drafts are or what they do, so I finished Loom with a page or so of notes detailing draft sequences along with their functions, some of which were occasionally crossed out and replaced as I realised I’d misunderstood them. (You can’t simply look it up on the internet because, just as with the Grails in Last Crusade, the note sequences associated with each draft change from game to game.) This keeping track of your drafts and what they do is the only really difficult part of Loom though; otherwise, despite the unorthodox basis of its interface, Loom is a surprisingly straightforward game, especially for someone who has just played through three of the most obtuse adventure games he’s ever experienced. That’s why Loom took me just over two hours to play from start to finish — and I didn’t even need a walkthrough.
Still, there’s some welcome consequences of Loom’s simplified design. It’s impossible to dead-end yourself in Loom because you have no inventory and the spell progression is so structured. Higher notes on the Distaff will be locked off to begin with, and the Draft you need to progress to the next area will require the next one up from your current range; it won’t unlock until you have learned and cast all of the Drafts available in the current one, so you can’t miss anything. It’s also the first LucasArts adventure game where it’s impossible to get a hard game over by having Bobbin die or otherwise be incapacitated — incredibly, this was something that Loom apparently caught some flak for from adventure gamers who thought this made the game too easy; I can only assume they were suffering from the adventure game equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. And while I think the idea of the Distaff and the Drafts is sadly a little bit wasted here, it’s also a little bit much to expect an adventure game from 1990 to explore it to its full potential. Having seen Loom’s take on it now, I think there’s a lot of promise in it and I would very much like to play a modern adventure game where you use spells and cantrips in place of verbs and items.
As the drafts are a bit of a bust, Loom has to fall back on its visuals, its audio and its story. The visuals are, as already covered, an absolute treat, while Loom again ups the amount of music present in the game, with maybe 40-50% of it having aural accompaniment. Most of it is a MIDI arrangement of Tchaikovksy’s Swan Lake, which is thematically appropriate but suffers for being a piece of music I’ve already heard six or seven million times; it’s not something that particularly gives Loom its own identity the way the pirate reggae of Monkey Island does. I’m going to have to go ahead and say that Loom’s story is actually kind of bad, though, with a lot of “and now this is happening” storytelling with little time taken for any setup or denouement, and at least one literal deus ex machina to get Bobbin out of a sticky situation. Bobbin himself is kind of a prick; they’ve tried to write him as a bit of a wisecracking protagonist, but he just comes off as an asshole, especially when he actively gets people killed and doesn’t show a single shred of remorse over it. There is at least enough dialogue in the game to bring this characterisation across, and major characters are introduced with an early version of the large talking-head close-ups that were used to great effect in Monkey Island. I do also like the feel of Loom’s world, which reminds me a lot of Wizard Of Earthsea; it seems to be set in an archipelago, and all of the people Bobbin meets are members of Guilds — Glassmakers, Shepherds, Blacksmiths — each of whom have refined their profession to the point where it’s literal magic, just like the Weavers, and just like Earthsea’s wizard Masters. What little we see of them is used to great effect, but unfortunately Loom is too short to really get your teeth into it, with a very abrupt ending that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense and which certainly left me rather nonplussed.
And that goes for Loom in general, really; having played through it now I understand why it seems to have fallen by the wayside when the lists of great adventure games are compiled. It has interesting mechanical ideas that it can’t leverage properly and which end up being just a slightly more fiddly form of standard adventure game gameplay, and while its art and world are certainly striking it’s such a brief experience that it doesn’t stick around for long enough to really get into your head. I feel like its real legacy is the number of times I have mentioned the words “Monkey Island” in this review; Loom essentially functions as a testing ground for many of the techniques and mechanics that would come to full fruition there, and without Loom I suspect Monkey Island would have been a lesser game. Otherwise I can’t say I’m really disappointed in Loom as such since I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, but I was certainly hoping for more than what I got here.
- Now, you might wonder why LucasArts weren’t known as the Star Wars studio at this point since they were part of Lucasfilm and should have had easy access to the IP. The answer is very simple: the rights to make Star Wars video games had been sold to Atari years earlier, and so the first titles from LucasArts had to be based on original IP — this is why we got Maniac Mansion, Zac McKracken, Loom and Monkey Island instead of a cavalcade of Star Wars tie-ins. LucasArts didn’t get the rights back until 1992, with X-Wing appearing the following year. ↩