Through The Looking Glass Into The Real World
An obituary for Looking Glass Studios
from "Through The Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll
After nearly a decade of creating revolutionary and classic games, Looking Glass Studios recently fell on some very hard times. And even though they recently released three critically acclaimed titles, the company died as instantly as if struck by lightning.
I think that is what is still so hard to grasp - the quickness and sudden finality of it. This wasn't supposed to happen to a company that treated its employees like family, a company that actually cared about each individual.
I had a brief encounter with Looking Glass Studios last year, working on the Thief 2 level design team along with Mike Chrzanowski, Mike Ryan, Randy Smith, Sara Verrilli, Rob Caminos, Terri Brosius, Emil Pagliarulo, Iikka Keränen and Rafael Brown. The level design team was like a buzzing beehive of activity, and the buzzing never stopped until the game was gold. It was a remarkable experience that I will never forget.
Tim, Randy and Sara handled most of the technical and design issues. Tim had been a tester on Ultima Underworld, while Sara did design work on Terra Nova, and all of them were veterans of "Thief : The Dark Project" - I was in amazing company.
Steve Pearsall, project leader, handled the scheduling and press, made really tough decisions, and generally beefed up morale if things got tedious or low-spirited, which was actually rare. Oh yes, he supplied us all with plenty of rubber insects too.
I will never forget talking to Paul Neurath for the first time at a company meeting. I was, as usual, gushing about Ultima Underworld, which is still my favorite computer game of all time.
Paul humbly noted that he had designed the first two levels of Underworld. I was flabbergasted. It was about then that it penetrated my thick skull that not only was Paul our boss, he was one of the first 'architects of 3D gaming', as we know it today.
Many of the same people who created revolutionary titles like the Ultima Underworlds, the original System Shock, the Flight Unlimited series, and the vastly underrated Terra Nova, still worked there, carefully tending that legacy of quality and fun like grand high viziers working their magic from nine to five every day. I kid you not, that is what it was like.
There was a term at Looking Glass for when a team was really cooking and in their stride, I think it came from Con and the Flight Combat area. "Psyched and cranking!" was what you said if anyone ever asked you how you were doing. And you had better mean it!
For a Quake-fried ex-Texas mappie to encounter this level of enthusiasm and intensity was a mind blower, and believe me, I barely kept up with what was one of the fastest, tightest teams that ever finished a game on time.
I had always wondered if the legacy of Looking Glass' early games was still alive. I soon understood, after working for only a couple of weeks with the Thief 2 team, the answer to that question...
The Looking Glass Way
There were three things that struck me as singularly unique about Looking Glass.
As a company, it was humble, polite, cautious, ethical; it seemed never to hype its products or its employees. It wasn't really about the individual at Looking Glass, but the team, and the strategy of letting product quality speak for itself was one that Looking Glass stuck to, for better or for worse.
Looking Glass was made up of artists and intellectuals making action adventure games for people who like to think. Who would have thought that they would snare half of the first person shooter players in their attempts too.
Lastly, Looking Glass was a family, a tribe.
When you add it all up, you get a combination which is very rare and special. This combination, dubbed 'the Looking Glass way', will be remembered by all who encountered it first hand, and by everyone who still enjoys their incredible games.
(Pictures taken from "Final Days : A Photographic Tribute To Looking Glass Studios" by Mike Chrzanowski) "Oh, I've had such a curious dream!" said Alice. And she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and, when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, "It was a curious dream, dear, certainly; but now run in to your tea: it's getting late." So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well as she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.