I've been playing a lot of adventure games lately and it has made me yearn for some of the classics of my youth, particularly with the impending release of The Secret of Monkey Island SE. So it was that I resolved to play LOOM again for the first time in probably seventeen years. I had no idea that LucasArts would be giving players who did not already have the experience a new opportunity but I'm ecstatic at the timing of their announcement coming so close to my own excitement at revisiting this game.
LOOM is a unique title in adventure gaming. I recall the level of interaction being somewhat sparse but that everything you could touch had the potential to surprise and delight. It was a rich world with memorable characters. The game is also surprisingly grim and, at a few points, shockingly gruesome for a story which seems so targeted towards children.
Read on to find out more about this beautiful, musical journey.
LOOM is, simply put, a fairy tale. Set in a fantasy world held in balance by the Guilds which perform specific functions, it is the story of Bobbin Threadbare, a child of the Weaver's Guild. The Weavers' unique gift is the ability to weave the fabric of reality, bending it to their will. To do this, they perform musical sequences with their magical distaffs.
Bobbin, however, is not formally trained and the Guild elders make it clear in the beginning of the game that they do not ever wish him to learn their skills. Fate has other designs and, on his seventeenth birthday, Bobbin finds himself abandoned by his people and at the center of a cataclysmic event which threatens to tear apart the very world. Alone, he seeks to be reunited with his people and travels across the sea in search of them.
One of the best things about a great book, film or videogame are the new observations that you make. As a child of twelve playing the game, I somehow overlooked the double-meaning of the title, for example. LOOM refers specifically to the Great Loom, a powerful artifact used by the Weavers to weave major change into the world. It also, however, functions neatly as a verb asserting the state of an impending Third Shadow destined to overtake all things. Silly, I know, but I find that absolutely charming.
Visually, the game is striking, especially considering the resources available at the time. The images you see in this article are from the DOS/EGA release of LOOM. A VGA version on CD-ROM also exists which, admittedly, looks a lot better but has been extremely hard to find and the occasional re-releases over the years have always consisted of the more antiquated version (the upcoming re-release, however, will be the VGA one).
Of all the games made by LucasArts using the SCUMM engine, LOOM is totally unique. The usual interface containing verbs to instruct your character in performing tasks is gone, replaced instead with Bobbin's distaff on the left and the thing Bobbin is looking at (if anything) on the right. Across the distaff is a musical scale and clicking along this tool plays the musical notes which make up the "drafts" (spells) which he weaves. Gone, too, is any sort of inventory as the distaff is all Bobbin needs to complete his quest.
The game also features something else no other LucasArts game of the time had ever included: Multiple difficulty settings. While there is little more than a minor aesthetic change between the two easier settings, the "Expert" difficulty is much more challenging. Instead of displaying the notes across the distaff, it is left blank. And, when drafts are heard, there is no graphical way to distinguish between notes, requiring the player to discern the proper sequence entirely by ear.
All of the drafts Bobbin can learn -- over a dozen of them -- are constructed using four notes. Apart from the very first he uses, a draft which opens things, and a draft demonstrated by the Elders in the beginning minutes of the game, these are all randomly determined with every new play session. Bobbin must learn all of the drafts individually, as no prior experience playing the game will assist the player in this regard.
Learning spells is incredibly easy, though it does require a bit of bookkeeping. Objects that you can interact with often have musical notes that they resonate with. This could be representative of its purpose or, in the case of some living creatures, its desires. Once they are known -- even if their purpose is not yet -- they can be applied to other objects. Of course, the player will have to write them down as they are found because there is no way to access them from within the game's interface.
In addition, many drafts can serve a dual purpose. Any draft Bobbin learns which is not a palindrome can be woven backwards to cause an inverse effect. The "Open" draft becomes "Close," gold can be spun back into straw and the silent can be given speech once more. It really expands the very basic system of magic to provide for some entertaining puzzle-solving opportunities.
The puzzles are not difficult to solve, either. They are expertly-crafted at a level where, so long as the player can discern the potential functions of the various drafts, many of which can have a little bit of range in their interpretation, solutions are obvious. Sometimes it may be necessary to take a small step back and look at a problem from another perspective, but there's never a sense that the designers are out to get the player and the lack of an inventory eliminates the possibility of annoying, item-combination puzzles.
Preventing players from simply weaving every draft they come across as soon as they are discovered is a basic experience system. Bobbin, being untrained in the art of Weaving, can not make use of notes high on the distaff from the beginning of the game. By weaving drafts on objects, even ones that hold no real bearing on his mission, he becomes more skilled and can weave more complex drafts.
LOOM has some really interesting characters and it's something of a shame that we don't get to spend more time with them. On the whole, this is a rather short game, capable of being completed in only a few hours. But even though you don't get much opportunity to get to know them, their dialogue is written in such a way that it is easy to have an emotional connection to them. Their stories and the involvement they have with Bobbin's are highly enjoyable.
There's also an excellent sense that there are consequences for the actions Bobbin takes during his quest. Things he must do to progress will have an effect on others, sometimes tragically so. This gives the world a real sense of being alive, as well as demonstrating the awesome level of power Bobbin actually possess to make changes to it.
Now that I've gushed at great length about LOOM, there is one complaint I have: Bobbin walks painfully slow. This is particularly irritating during a maze sequence at the midway point, where you have a limited field of vision in a network of caves. Navigating Bobbin through this feels like it takes forever, especially if you take a wrong turn or two.
One barely significant gripe, however, should not be enough to dissuade you from buying LOOM. And you really should go and buy it. The tale is heartwarming and beautiful on many levels and will leave you with something to think about. It is about as close to perfection as adventure games get.
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