The fact that it was a black van should have been my first clue. They are always smiling, those Lucasarts press folks, and you genuinely feel as if they’re your friends. And then the van shows up, and it’s black.
We’d been asked by the mighty and powerful media giant to visit their San Francisco-based offices in order to see … something. They wouldn’t tell us what, exactly. We knew Bioware was involved and that it would have something to do with the forthcoming (no release date has been announced) MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Sometimes you turn down invitations, but never from Lucasarts. Never from the house Star Wars built. They could ask you to come over and have cookies and be unwilling to promise they wouldn’t be laced with cyanide (contents of cookies under embargo until Tuesday) and you would still have to accept. Because it’s Lucasarts, and because that’s just the way it is.
So when the van pulled up, and it was black, there was no question whether we’d be getting inside – we would. End of line. Settling down and buckling in we even realized we had no exact idea where we were being taken. We assumed, of course. Everyone knows Lucasarts recently purchased and rehabilitated the sprawling military complex at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge called The Presidio. So that’s where we were going, right? Right? They wouldn’t say. These are not the answers you are looking for. Move along.
It was a tense ride. The van, being black, was warm. We were not alone, but no one knew any more than we. There was speculation about what we’d be seeing (A new character class? More Jedi powers?), but no one knew, and the speculation soon became grating. Even an educated guess is still just a guess when it’s anyone’s guess, after all. May as well shut up and enjoy the ride and worry about where the black van has taken you after it stops.
Luckily, it stopped inside The Presidio. Standing at the curb, an attractive (smiling) blonde waited, fists clutching what looked to be temporary visitor badges. Our names were printed on them. They were assigned, handed out, clipped to clothing and we were deemed cleared to proceed.
Looking around The Presidio, it was almost bizarre how pristine the place looked. The grass had been freshly cut, lending the earthy aroma to the warm Spring air. Hedges had been pruned immaculately. The sidewalks were clean. The vast expanse of The Presidio looked like the estate gardens of a madly wealthy man, which, in fact, they are. Yet none of this was done merely on our account. It always looks like this. This is the world of Lucasarts, where everything is perfect, and none of it is to be touched.
In fact, scanning the grounds it appeared as if there wasn’t a single soul anywhere to be seen. Surely we’d seen one or two persons causally strolling the campus, but looking again – no. Not a soul. For a beautiful, sunny, warm day in early spring the lush, spacious, wonderful natural environs of this company of over 300 people were surprisingly devoid of life. As if it really all is for show.
We were ushered into a nearby building and waved through a security checkpoint to the wailing cry of a person detecting device that seemed painfully aware that we had invaded sacred space. Our badges, rather than being coded to soothe the sensor’s concerns, seemed to have been coded for just the opposite effect. It knew we didn’t belong, and announced as much. There would be no anonymity here. This was Lucasarts, and we clearly didn’t belong. The alarm was to remind us of the fact.
A short elevator ride took us to another floor where we were warned that picture taking would not be allowed. A shame, too, since the walls of this space were adorned with some of the most striking art ever seen. Oil paintings inspired by the many products Lucas has helped bring to life. One massive painting was of a Star Destroyer in flight, a moon just off the bow. Another of Indiana Jones standing on the grounds of The Presido, gazing at a half-finished Golden Gate Bridge. Some of the paintings were whimsical, some serious, but they were all hauntingly beautiful. Worth sharing. If only.
I will say this: everyone was nice. There was no vanity, no rancor. Our hosts didn’t need to posture to remind us of our place – the grounds and buildings themselves had accomplished that – they all seemed genuinely interested in having us over for the show, if a bit perfunctory.
We were shown to a plain room in which a number of workstations had been assembled. It was here we learned what we’d been invited to see: A single, short demo of The Old Republic in which we’d be playing as the Trooper class of character. We would not be allowed to take pictures. We would not be allowed to shoot video. The game was not finished, but we were not allowed to ask what else remained to be added. There was very little, in fact, we were to be told about the game, other than what was presented in the demo – a single class, level 6, with a few abilities.
At one point in playing the demo I actually exceeded the scope of the day’s programming, having ventured “off the path,” as one Lucasarts employee said. I’d encountered an NPC who hadn’t yet been given a voice, and was being offered a mission to which there was not yet any resolution. Pieces were missing. I asked what they were. No answer was given. I was asked not to ask, and to get back in line.
Feeling a need for some air, I asked where I could find a restroom, and was informed that I’d need to be escorted there. It was around a corner and down a hallway. It was clearly marked. It was a restroom, same as any. And yet, this was Lucasarts. I didn’t belong in that hallway, around that corner, at that urinal, any more than I belonged on those sacred grounds. Heaven knows what kind of foolishness I may have gotten up to had I been left to my own devices in there.
The demo finished without a hitch. You’ll be able to read our official impression of it shortly, and we’ll have a video interview with one of the game’s producers up in the next few days.
After our hour was up, we were brusquely asked to proceed back the way we came, but not before our badges were confiscated, leaving us to return to the elevator, down to the lobby of the screeching sirens and out onto the grounds and back to the curb badge-less, naked before the probing eyes of Lucas security. It was as close to a humiliating experience as I can imagine enduring as an invited guest. This is not how the creators of joyous entertainment products are supposed to make one feel.
Granted, one experiences this tension in almost any development studio. We are, after all, journalists – professional intruders. We write about things we see, whether the people doing those things want for us to or not. That has to make one uncomfortable or guarded for sure. Lucasarts, however, has notoriously taken this guardedness to a completely new dimension.
Earlier this week, we interviewed Chris Taylor, the creator of the Supreme Commander games. He asked us point blank if we’d been yet to see Lucasarts. When we told him we hadn’t, but that we had an appointment, he told us to beware.
“You think you’re going into NORAD or something,” he said. “You think ‘God, you make movies and games. You don’t make nuclear missile guidance systems.'”
It’s a fair point. Lucasarts makes games. These days mainly games based on an existing franchise, Star Wars. What could they possibly be hiding? What are they so afraid of? Someone discovering the next game may have Jedi? Surely that wouldn’t be the end of the world by any measure. One understands the need for secrecy, the requirement to protect one’s investments and safeguard ideas in their infancy. But at what point does the need for secrecy impinge upon common sense?
“Nothing is so oppressive as a secret,” said the French poet Fontaine. Reading those words now, hundreds of years since they were written, I can’t help but wonder if he hadn’t been casting into the future, imagining Lucasarts.
Oh, they did ask us to tell you that the Trooper class character uses a gun, not a lightsaber. Tito’s write up has more information (but not much more). Look for the game at some point in the future. They wouldn’t even tell us how long it had been in development.