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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH NOAH FALSTEIN

THE GENESIS
By Santiago Mendez

Noah Falstein, a computer game industry veteran who was co-creator of LucasArts's Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis. Before that game and after Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (co-created with Ron Gilbert and David Fox) he was The Dig's first project leader.
He is actually the head of The Inspiracy, a company that provides solutions and consultation for all kinds of interactive projetcs. In a revealing interview we found out a lot about the origins of a game with a really long development.

For those who don't know you can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you get into the game industry?

I began in 1980, straight out of college. I'd gone to an unusual college (Hampshire College in Massachusetts) that let me design my own curriculum, and I chose to demonstrate my mastery of Physics, Astronomy, and Computer Programming by writing a computer game that simulated mining in the Asteroid Belt. Noah Falstein. Working hard or hardly working?That got me a job at Milton Bradley, a toy company that was just getting into computer and electronic games at the time. Since then I've worked at many companies - in addition to LucasArts I was also one of the first employees at The 3DO Company and at Dreamworks Interactive.

We know that Steven Spielberg brought the basic concepts for The Dig in 1989. What can you tell us about the very first day you heard about it?

I had co-created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Ron Gilbert and David Fox. Steven was editing a movie called Always around that time, and was a passionate computer game player, so he asked George Lucas to drop by and see what we were doing. He was pleased with our work on the Last Crusade game and asked if he could have a copy when it came out. We sent him a beta version and he even ended up finding a bug for us, and we gave him our direct phone numbers so he could reach us if he needed help. He made use of that frequently, sometimes playing the game while on the phone with one or another of us so we could give him hints as he went along.

Ron was on the phone with him for one of those sessions when Steven told him he had an idea for a game that he thought might be fun, and wondered if he might bring it along the next time he came up to Skywalker Ranch. We were thrilled of course. Actually, that idea was NOT the one that became The Dig, but was based on a movie that was never made. But once we had begun discussions he brought up the concept for The Dig (which was his original working title, so we just kept it, to answer your later question). His high concept was to make a game that was based in part on an idea he had for an Amazing Stories episode that was never filmed, and in part on a hybrid plot based on the films Forbidden Planet and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The core idea was always two archaeological teams (we ended up cutting back to single people due to the current game technology) who were digging up ruins of an advanced civilization on an alien planet (like Forbidden Planet) who, under the influence of what they find, gradually came to mistrust each other and fight among each other (Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

I was chosen to be the project leader, a combination designer/producer title we had at LucasArts. My first design was quite different from what was made eventually - that story came from the second project leader, Brian Moriarty. In my concept, the aliens were still alive, but living as primitives in the ruins of their civilization. The game took place in four environments on the planet near four ruined cities - one in the desert, one high in the mountains, one half-submerged by the sea, and one in a jungle. The last city was actually inside a gigantic living creature that had been genetically engineered to host the aliens. That idea came from Dave Grossman, who was a designer/writer/programmer on my team and later became the 3rd project leader for a short while after Brian, later passing the game to Sean Clark, the fourth and last project leader, who eventually finished the game.

What can you tell us about the experience of having brainstorming sessions with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas? Where did you meet them?

The beautiful Skywalker RanchThere were two meetings with both of them, both at Skywalker Ranch, and two additional meetings with just Spielberg, one at his Amblin headquarters on the Universal lot, and one at his home office next to his LA house. The Skywalker meetings were a lot of fun because I got to see the two of them work together, and there were a lot of fun creative ideas thrown around. Ron Gilbert was at those two meetings as well, and he is still my favorite brainstorming partner I've ever had, very creative and funny. The meetings were very open-ended with everyone contributing. Steven and George joked with each other like the good friends they were - at the time they were both divorced and single, and there were several jokes about that as we discussed the love interest in the game.

What where the ideas or concepts that both Lucas and Spielberg had?

It's been a long time so I don't remember too much specifically - they had a lot of ideas about the storyline, how the archaeologists would get stranded on the planet, what skills the different team members would have. Like many good brainstorming meetings there were ideas being thrown out all the time, and often one person would say something and another would follow up, so I don't remember what they said and what was said by Ron or myself or the couple of other people at the meeting (like my boss Steve Arnold).

Was the project always called "The Dig" or there was other tentative names?

Sleeping Beauty's CastleAlways The Dig. Spielberg's original Amazing Stories episode involved an archaeological dig in the far future on what you assume is an alien planet. They are unearthing a large castle, and at the end of the episode you see that they've unearthed a statue in front of the castle that at first seems to be a big-headed alien, but the final shot reveals it is Mickey Mouse, the castle is Sleeping Beauty's Castle, and they're digging up Disneyland.

When you worked in LucasFilm Games where you located at the Skywalker Ranch?

I was at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts from February 1984 to February 1992. From about 1986 to 1990 we were at Skywalker Ranch, the first group to move into the newly completed "Stable House" that was built to look like it had been a ranch stable for horses converted into office space.

Before talking about your version of The Dig I want you to help us solve this sort of puzzle issue. Exactly how many project leaders was? We know that you where the first one, Brian Moriarty was the second one. But then we have Dave Grossman and Hal Barwood. And Finally the last project leader was Sean Clark. (that give us five project leaders) Can you help us with this mess?

Hal Barwood was never a project leader for The Dig. The sequence was first me for about 18 months (Dave Grossman was a writer/designer/programmer on my version), then Brian Moriarty (I think also for a year or two - I served for a few months as producer on his version), Dave Grossman took over for a short while, just a few months I think, then Sean Clark for the last three years or so.

With that problem solved its time to talk about The Dig that you had in mind. What was the plot? We have read in The Dig strategy guide the following about your version: "two alien races were waging interstellar war." Is there any truth about this?

No. I am enclosing a file with an early story description from my version, it should answer several questions for you. I know there were later, cleaner revisions of the story but I don't think I have copies. [You can find that file in the Downloads section]

We also know that the character(s) had to collect and consume food and water in order to stay alive. Was this your idea?

Yes, although that was not meant to be as unpleasant as it sounds. Early in the game the player would learn to get enough food and water so it was no longer a problem. There were two main characters, and the player chose one to control and the other became their adversary. Each had different ways to solve the problem of food and water - one was good with machines, and could learn to fix or make machines to purify water and catch animals. The other was a biologist and would find it easier to live off the land. The idea was to introduce some roleplaying elements so it was not a pure Adventure game, but even the roleplaying elements had a puzzle-solving adventure kind of flavor. I think the food and water aspect of the gameplay was singled out later because it was one piece of the game that was not well understood by the other people at Lucasarts, who were not RPG enthusiasts for the most part.

Did you developed characters? How were you going to name them?

We just had some placeholder names that weren't very good, as you can see in the document. The man was Terasov (the engineer) and the woman was Fox (the biologist). As you can see the name "Fredericks" appears instead of Terasov, I think that was an earlier name for him.

Did your version ever reached the programming stage?

There was a little bit of SCUMM coding done on one of the more interesting puzzles, but not much.

Since you were in the middle of The Dig project why did you leave LucasArts at that time?

I left The Dig to become Assistant Creative Director for the group (Howard Phillips was Creative Director) - then the management of the division changes, Howard left, and I was given the option of becoming a Producer and working with Brian on The Dig. But not long after that the company had a large layoff and as I was no longer an essential part of a team (Brian didn't really need a producer), I was one of the people laid off.

We know that almost everything was discarded. But did any of your ideas or concepts remained in the final version?

Not really. I did work with Brian some on his version of the story which was about 80% of the story that was in the version that shipped, including all the characters and the basic plot line, but none of that was from my version of the game.

As a player. What do you think of the released version of The Dig? Have you played it?

I played it. I was not too impressed, the puzzles were often what Ron Gilbert calls backwards puzzles where you find the things you need to solve it long before you know what the problem you have to solve even exists. I also thought that by the time it came out it didn't look like state of the art graphics, although it did look better than what I had worked on six years earlier. One little bit of trivia about that - I tried doing some rotoscoped images of animation, a kind of primitive motion capture, by filming some other employees in the parking lot. Our version of Fox in a spacesuit, the woman in the game, was Lucy Bradshaw wearing a wetsuit - she most recently produced Sims 2.

Would you like to see Steven Spielberg's The Dig movie?

As long as he started from scratch with his own original concept of two competing teams. I wouldn't expect him to start from where any version of the game left off.

December 27, 2004
Interview © 2005 Santiago Méndez.

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