If I were to create a Mount Rushmore of my favorite video game designers and programmers, David Fox would have to be included. His name is connected to some of the greatest games in the LucasArts catalog: Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (all of which I’ve written about previously). He was the senior designer on Mirage, an ambitious video game project with Hughes Simulation that Fox described as a mix of “Rescue on Fractalus! and Star Wars.” The system was “a large pod with a huge window into the landscape [120° field of view from three video projectors bounced off of a collimating mirror], surround sound, heads down display, and networked to seven other stations.” Sadly, for gamers everywhere, the project never came to fruition. He even had ambitions to create what he termed an “interactive Disneyland” with the idea that, “by doing these experiences you’d be altered in some way. You would either be exposed to new points of view, or you would have new ways of thinking about the world, or you’d adjust your behavior in the world.” Pretty heady stuff.
Fox’s early years are just as fascinating. At age 13, he began collecting discarded animation cels he found behind Hanna-Barbera’s studios. He would take the cels home and experiment with them on his 8mm camera, attempting to understand and dissect what made cartoons work. A few years later, he moved on to creating his own stop-motion animations (a process he found too tedious).
He worked as the project leader, designer, and one of the programmers for Rescue on Fractalus!, one of the early titles for LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts). He’d joined the company shortly after releasing Computer Animation Primer, a book for Byte/McGraw Hill. According to Fox, the concept behind Rescue on Fractalus! began as a conversation between Fox and Loren Carpenter (the man behind the fractal graphics in the legendary Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan). Fox wanted to know if fractals could be used to create mountains for the Atari 800 system. The project grew from there.
The game, for those who don’t remember, was a first person shooter. Players controlled a “Valkyrie” space fighter and had to rescue downed Ethercorps pilots. An alien race known as the Jaggi make things more difficult. Their anti-aircraft guns attempt to destroy your ship. They also perform kamikaze style attacks as the game progresses. The Jaggi could also disguise themselves as human pilots, who would approach your ship and then jump onto the cockpit window, smashing their way in to kill you. As though that weren’t enough, the atmosphere on the planet is toxic, and downed pilots must be rescued within a given amount of time or they will die.
In Fox’s early plans for the game, players would not kill anything. According to Fox, he was, “a peace-loving hippie at heart and didn’t want to create a game in which you had to shoot things.” That feature was added at the insistence of George Lucas, who was also responsible for the Jaggi who disguised themselves as humans.
The game was released in 1984, as was Ballblazer, marking the entry of LucasFilm into the world of video games. Though it wasn’t Fox’s first commercial game (that credit belongs to Mix and Match Muppets, a game designed for the Sesame Place theme park in Pennsylvania) it did mark the beginning of his career with Lucas, a career which would create some of the greatest titles in gaming history.
David Fox was kind enough to share some concept drawings from the game’s development with us.
The above drawing is Gary Winnick’s concept sketch of the Jaggi.
This is Winnick’s concept drawing for the Valkyrie.
For more information on Rescue on Fractalus! and David Fox, you can check out: