The Unforeseen Delights of The Addams Family

How a movie tie-in confounded my expectations and became my first gaming love

Growing up in Melbourne, Australia in the dark, lonely years before the internet, I learned about new videogames via schoolyard gossip and borrowings from friends, and by poring obsessively over articles in the games magazines that were usually found neatly arranged on the shelf at the back of the newsagents, next to the pornography.

Every Saturday I would do a lap of our local stores. If I was lucky, I would pick up a copy of Amiga Power. I would buy The One or Zero if they had a good cover disk. I would pick up Amiga Action if I was absolutely desperate.

Being young and wide-eyed, the amount of games that I saw, liked and wanted to own far outnumbered the amount of games I had the means to afford. Selecting the right one was crucial, and so I developed a method to help me sort the wheat from the chaff: I canvassed opinions; I built charts to show the review scores; I carefully compared screenshots. The attention to detail was painstaking. And occasionally, my method would throw up surprising results; none more so than in the summer of 1992, when I ran the numbers and came to the unexpected conclusion that I desperately wanted to own The Addams Family.

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Acquiring games back then involved a more quaint process than today’s click on Amazon, although I suspect that the first step, namely convincing my mother to let me use her credit card, might still be a familiar one to young gamers. But this is where the similarities end: the next step was to fax the order to a UK mail order company, before waiting several months for the (usually squashed) box to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, I wondered about what I had signed myself up for.

Festering Doubts

The Addams Family was a licensed movie tie-in from Ocean Software. Founded in Manchester in 1984, they were among the first game developers to realise there was money to be made from the excitement that followed in the wake of popular movies. This was especially true in the days before the internet, when it could take months for people to figure out which games were – like The Untouchables – destined for solid reviews, and which were like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and destined to be landfill.

In 1985 alone, Ocean Software gathered up the licenses for Rambo, Short Circuit, Miami Vice, Cobra and Robocop, soon to be followed by everything from Darkman to Batman to Knight Rider. In short, they were a company that no self-respecting ’90s hardcore gamer could love. And yet … the wall-to-wall positive reviews for The Addams Family had overcome my initial scepticism.

Gary Bracey was then vice president of Ocean of America, Inc. (as Ocean Software was known in the US). He recalls spending the period flitting between Europe and the US, with the occasional Japan trip thrown in for good measure. At the time, as he explains:

‘The Hollywood studios were just realising that a successful game license could be quite lucrative, and this created a new area of exploitation for their merchandising divisions. So they were very keen to license out their properties whenever there was an appropriate opportunity. I was probably away two weeks of every six visiting the film studios to evaluate scripts, and watching production to acquire visual materials and negotiate properties. If I had to do that today I’d be dead in a month, but it was a great life at the time.’

Jamie Higgins, lead programmer and co-designer on The Addams Family, has a similar recollection of this hectic period:

‘Ocean had pretty good relationships with all of the major film studios of the day and Gary was always flying back and forth between the UK and US, returning with scripts. Some were gems like Total Recall or Robocop and some were turds like Radio Flyer or Hudson Hawk.’

The Addams Family wasn’t built by a giant team, it didn’t have a comfortable schedule, and it was based on a license that had no business morphing into a videogame.

Gary Bracey’s jet-setting had already resulted in scores of games about travelling from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen, sometimes shooting things, sometimes leaping on things, sometimes leaping over things while shooting things, all of them differentiated by their licensed protagonist and little else. Solid games but nothing outstanding. And then, in 1992, Ocean released a game based on a movie theatre resurrection of a niche TV show from the 1960s which nobody cared about anymore, which somehow, 20 years later would become one of my favourite games of all time and, now that I look back on it, one of the games that taught me an important lesson I would later come to appreciate as a designer: the player should drive the story, make the important choices and forge their own path.

What’s more, The Addams Family wasn’t built by a giant team, it didn’t have a comfortable schedule, and it was based on a license that had no business morphing into a videogame. It was created by three people in three months in a single room in Manchester. It shouldn’t have been possible.

‘It was a perfect storm of talent,’ says Bracey, ‘I think the chemistry between Warren [Lancashire, designer and artist], James [Higgins] and Simon [Butler, artist] was quite special. As the game evolved and took shape, it became a labour of love and I really believe every screen and puzzle is testament to that.’

Higgins recalls the breakneck pace of development, from inception to release:

‘Initially, the only clear goal was that we were making a platform game. We started development on the Amiga, working with a bunch of half-baked level ideas and some basic player control mechanics. We were then told that the recently launched Super Nintendo, a machine we knew nothing about, would be our lead platform. Nintendo’s dev kits soon turned up and we started the project again from scratch – it was at this juncture that we took the opportunity to rework the game into what it eventually became. In total we had three full months on the SNES version after which we had to rapidly port the game to the Mega Drive/Genesis, Amiga and Atari ST using SNES machine code.’

In terms of working conditions, it was a long way from today’s multi-million dollar productions. By way of comparison, on both Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4, we grew from teams of only a few dozen early in conception and pre-production to in excess of 500 at full production: this massive ramp up enabled us to create the huge quantity of content we needed without having to extend development by several years once our initial designs were ready. But on The Addams Family, the development team’s small size and the intimate nature of the workspace did have its advantages, as Higgins notes:

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‘Warren and I had worked together at that point on a few titles and we both had a good sense of what it took to assemble a game. We had a fairly clear idea from management that we were making a game in the vein of Mario. Our previous games – Navy Seals and Total Recall – were both platformers but without any of the refinement of a Mario title, so we had a good idea of what each of us had to do. We also shared a room – sitting just a few feet apart, so the entire day-to-day was about as collaborative as it could be. Warren would have lots of ideas about what he wanted in the levels, to which I’d say ‘No’ – and then ‘Yes’ once I’d thought about it for a bit. It was very easy to look over each other’s shoulders and pick up the controls to see if the latest level test worked well.’

Simon Butler, the game’s artist, didn’t see the deadlines as being aggressively tight at the time: ‘It’s only now, when you have development taking two years or more that you can look back in horror at the pace things were done in those early years. But it’s all relative; teams were smaller, designs simpler and the machines didn’t really lend themselves to anything overly complex.’

Addams Family Values

Back in 1992, on the day my copy of the game arrived at the post office, I had to catch a bus, then a tram, then walk to get there. On the long journey home, I was tortured by anticipation, nothing but the back of the box to keep me company. It was a surprisingly full load: the box was the same size as three stacked pizza boxes despite the fact that all it contained was a single 3.5” floppy disk and an eight page black and white manual.

But when I got that box home, I discovered that the game inside was something unique. Which family member would I save first? Every screen seemed to offer me choices. Which doors in the mansion would I open? Each one led to a completely different first level. It was a special gaming experience: it filled my head with questions, and offered me genuine opportunities for exploration and reward, not pre-determined plot points and scripted events.

According to Higgins, the team were determined to make the game less linear than Mario, and more maze-like. Zelda certainly played a huge part in influencing the level design and free-form level approach. As he recalls:

‘We played A Link to the Past every day in the office during the development, probably adding a month to the schedule. I’m fairly sure Gomez’s expanding heart meter was inspired by that game.’

It was a special gaming experience: it filled my head with questions, and offered me genuine opportunities for exploration and reward.

What I enjoyed at the time, and what I still like today, is how abilities were cleverly integrated into level design, to reward players who fully understood how to use the more esoteric combinations of inputs: the fez hat adorned with a propeller that enabled Gomez to fly up and around the exterior of the house instead of just walking through the front door; the inertia on the run after you duck that allowed you to slide into otherwise impenetrable areas; the sword bounce à la Zelda II that let you hop from one enemy to another above a pit of instant death.

The Addams Family was ahead of its time in many ways. In the modern era, good games often tease players with the need for a feature before they provide it, then reward players who think about its potential depth by unlocking secrets and secondary paths. In Assassin’s Creed III, we always placed an example of each feature or mission type in the main path so that players would be introduced to it, before unlocking more similar content for players who liked it.

As a player, I’m much happier with features and systems that I can choose to engage with or ignore, because I have some control over my experience and don’t feel like I’m in a button tunnel between cut scenes. But this type of design was rare in the ’90s, found only in Nintendo titles and a few rare PC houses like Looking Glass, and it was almost unheard of in a licensed game.

The Addams Family endlessly rewards experimentation and clever use of features. ‘I like the sword power-up as it’s the only way to reach a few of the pick-ups,’ recalls Higgins, ‘I like the duck and reverse slide – again the only way to reach a few items. Secrets, lots of secrets – but my favourite is on the Quit or Continue screen – walk left to a secret room to get some extra 1-ups.’

And the secret rooms fit together smoothly in the context of the game, thanks to an ingenious bit of camera tuning that is still a marvel of thoughtfulness and execution. To get a feel for how satisfying it was at the time, you need to remember that most side-scrollers evolved from single screen games – there was literally nothing above, below or on either side of the screen – and that when Super Mario Bros. arrived, it was a marvel just to be able to get off that single screen and find an ‘end’ to the level. But in The Addams Family, these expectations were used to hide secret room after secret room and to reward an inquisitive player: power-ups, secret doors, extra health hearts and more were placed just outside of camera range, challenging a player to scrutinise their environment for clues. Can I get to that platform way up there? How could I do it? Should I use an enemy to jump higher? Maybe that switch earlier in the level creates something here?

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All of it is wrapped up in some truly charming artwork. ‘It’s quite possibly the most fun I have ever had in thirty years of game development; the artistic freedom I was given meant it never felt like work at any point’, enthuses Simon Butler, ‘My only brief from Warren was to “draw spooky stuff”, so alongside the clichéd vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein’s monsters I created off-the-wall characters such as walking goldfish bowls, beakless birds and, for reasons now lost to time, big-nosed men in rotating teacups.’

‘Warren had played Super Mario World to death on its release and set out to match, if not surpass it. I had a whale of a time developing graphics for it and remember having just as much fun testing it and then playing it many times upon release. I can’t thank Warren and Jamie enough for allowing me to be part of it.’

The Thing The Addams Family Got Right

It’s interesting to look back at a game I loved purely as a player from my older, more cynical, but hopefully wiser game developer’s perspective. For the games I’ve helped build that have worked, there’s always been a magical moment where a set of disparate mechanics and systems have finally coalesced into an actual game; where all the little pieces people have been working on in isolation come together to make a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. When it happens, you are quietly confident that the player will experience a similar revelation; that the player’s appreciation of the game’s disparate elements will be elevated to an active love of the world and what it allows them to do.

On Far Cry 4 we worked on many features and systems in isolation for a long time: the new animal behaviours; the new vehicles; co-op; the new weapons and AI tweaks, but until they’re working enough to drop them into the same environment, you’re never sure it’s going to work. Right before E3 2014 we were deep in daily reviews of the game, trying to polish everything enough to show the world it was worth their cash. We were desperately tired of the predictable and relentless bugs and problems of game development. Then in one meeting we finally saw two players in our world simultaneously, flying gyrocopters, scaring elephants, dodging mortar fire and assaulting a fortress. The features were strong, which was a step in the right direction; but it was the fact that the two players were laughing and making up new strategies on the fly that showed me it was going to come together and be something special.

As a player, I loved The Addams Family: not for its connection to the TV show, or the movies – I was actually never a huge fan of either – but for the game inside the Addams Family wrapper. Yes, I loved being in the world of the creaky old house; but even more I loved the feeling of opportunity and exploration the game afforded me; I loved the little secrets, that showed me the developers had cared enough about the world they had built to hide some elements just out of sight, so that I would then feel rewarded when I found them; and I loved the control I felt I had over how and when I tackled the challenges, which was almost unheard of in a platformer. But most of all I loved the sense that the people who made the game cared. That made me care too; and I still care, almost 25 years later.