Posted on Friday, March 31st, 2017 by Alex Riviello
The list of truly effective video game jump scares is a short but powerful one. The dogs bursting through the windows in Resident Evil. The woman with the broken neck in Fatal Frame. Freddy Fazbear in Five Nights at Freddy’s. The aliens in Rescue on Fractalus! Wait…what’s that last one?
Yes, it turns out that an 8-bit LucasArts game originally released for the Atari 800 contains what may be the first (and still most effective!) jump scare in video game history…and George Lucas is partially responsible.
A LucasArts Without Star Wars
Back when LucasArts was Lucasfilm Games, and even before it became beloved for its adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Loom, they had the whole universe open to them. The early employees were allowed to work on any kind of game they wanted with one notable exception, and that was any Star Wars games. It seems unthinkable now, but Lucas had already sold the game rights to Parker Brothers and Atari and was making too much money from it to give it to his own team.
I was recently able to speak with David Fox, programmer of trendsetting games such as Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and Maniac Mansion, about working at the company in its early days. Fox was the third employee at Lucasfilm and joined it excited to get to work on a video game of their most famous franchise. He immediately started designing a first-person space simulator, drawing up a cockpit that mimicked the interior of an X-Wing, but it was not to be.
“I was disappointed, yeah,” admits Fox. “I wanted it to be Star Wars. When I realized we couldn’t do that, then it was ok, since we kept the game design the same, just not in the same universe any more.”
Thus was born Rescue on Fractalus!
Behind Jaggi Lines, No One Can Hear You Scream
Rescue on Fractalus seems fairly innocuous at the beginning. You fly a spaceship called the Valkyrie (“Don’t call it a V-Wing,” the instruction booklet humorously notes) in the middle of a war against the Jaggies, an alien race whose name is a nice nod to the game’s jagged, aliased graphics. The war has claimed many fellow pilots and it’s your mission to venture to alien planets and rescue any survivors. After landing near a pilot, you have to turn off the ship’s shields and open up the airlock for them to board and be whisked away to safety. This is an easy task at first, as you shoot down enemy saucers and gun emplacements and collect a number of stranded people, but then there’s a pretty big twist – once in a while, the pilot is an alien in disguise attempting to get in your ship and murder you.
See, if you don’t open the airlock right away the pilot will knock on the door. The banging sound is unsetting in the void of space, but also reassuring, as only humans knock. Jaggies rear up in front of the windshield with a synthetic screech and pound at it with their fists, smashing through and killing you if you don’t get the shields up in time to fry it.
It’s utterly terrifying for a first-time player, and Fox did this all by design.
“If you’re playing a horror game then you’re probably bracing yourself at all times,” says Fox. “But a true jump scare has to be during a time where nothing’s being telegraphed, you’re not expecting it and it happens.”
But it turns out that the whole concept for the alien attack came from none other than George Lucas.
“We were showing [Lucas] the game for the first time and he had some feedback. One of the things was that we had to add some suspense by making one of those pilots you pick up not be a pilot, make it something else like an alien. So we had the aliens already in terms of the story and we decided to figure out a way that we could pull it off within the constraints of the memory and everything else.”
This led to the creation of this monstrosity by Gary Winnick, who was hired on as an artist and animator on LucasFilm Games’ first titles before moving on to design titles like Maniac Mansion.
It may not seem like much in this age of bloody, mind-bending titles (and VR experiences), but the very nature of its surprise left impressionable minds with life-long scars. I can attest to this because I am one of them. I played the game as a child on my aunt’s Commodore 64, which was conveniently located in her basement, a dark and cold place that, from that point forward, I was always afraid to visit.
Fox had no idea of the impact of his work until years later, when people found his email address and started sending him stories about falling off of their chairs in horror and waking up their loved ones with shrieks.
“I knew it was powerful but I didn’t know how much it would traumatize people or stick with them,” says Fox. “People would remember the first time it happened. A women who we were working with said her five-year-old kid came out screaming ‘Mommy there’s a monster in my computer!’”