Today's 'Playing Catch-Up', a new regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell. Purcell now works at Pixar, but is best known, naturally, for his art work at LucasArts (then LucasFilm Games) on titles including The Secret Of Monkey Island, before he parlayed his long-running comic book characters Sam & Max, whom he now owns the rights to, into the classic LucasArts 2D graphic adventure Sam & Max Hit The Road.
But in fact, after graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts in the early 1980s, Steve did freelance illustration and comic books for Marvel in the San Francisco area for years
before he succumbed to the alleged allure of the video game industry, and went to work for LucasFilm Games.
As for his entry into the industry and his career as part of the 'golden age' of LucasArts, Purcell explains: "I was hired by LucasFilm Games to work on a role-playing game with cat-head babes that was immediately cancelled shortly after I was hired. Since I could paint, I got called back to do the Zak McKracken cover. I worked on game art and animation for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and then for The Secret Of Monkey Island, which I also painted the cover for. I also did game art for The Secret Of Monkey 2, Loom, Pipedream, and was doing a bunch of painted Sam & Max strips for [internal LucasArts magazine] 'The Adventurer' along the way."
Purcell also has the unique privilege of being credited for 'whip research' on the Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade game, and explains how that came about: "When we were making Last Crusade, LucasFilm Games was located on Skywalker Ranch. In one of the display cases in the main house were a bunch of artifacts including an authentic Indy bullwhip. I asked the research librarians where those whips were made and I ordered one. A little old man in Seattle weaved them by hand out of kangaroo hide. It was a lot of money at the time, 300 bucks, but I bought it under the dodgy pretense of "reference" but actually because I always wanted a real bullwhip. I spent the summer out back of the stable house learning to crack it and I actually got to where I could clip the tops off weeds."
As for his continuing LucasArts involvement into the early '90s, Purcell explains that it was a little more abstract than some people might presume: "After The Secret Of Monkey Island 2, I sort of drifted away from LucasArts, but came back to do Sam & Max Hit the Road which I tried to be involved with at every level. After that, I stuck around for a bit and worked on a kid's game, Mortimer with my wife Collette Michaud." From there, Purcell branched out into freelance work again, producing a bunch of character designs for ToeJam & Earl, and characters for other game companies, including what he describes as "reams of concept art of various never-to-be-seen action game characters."
Further into the '90s, and following his work on the Sam & Max animated series, produced in Toronto and the winner of a Gemini (the Canadian Emmy), Purcell next went to Industrial Light and Magic to work on the story crew for a Frankenstein animated feature. When the movie was cancelled, according to Steve: "They kept a few of us around to develop stories for animated features. That was fun for a while, but when they shrank the group down to a skeleton crew I had the chance to go to Pixar to work in story and that's where I am today."
Regarding the recent kerfuffle over a new Sam & Max title in development at LucasArts but subsequently cancelled, Purcell is relatively sanguine: "While at Pixar I was consulting on Sam & Max 2 after hours. I got word that it was cancelled from the team but the subsequent fan backlash was an unexpected side effect. Thirty thousand people signed the online petition protesting the decision. I had no idea there had been that level of anticipation for the game."
Finally, Steve concludes his comments with equivocation about whether his involvement in the game industry is completely behind him: "Would I get back into games? Sure. The [Sam & Max] license is back in in my hands now so we'll see what happens in the near future. In the meantime, when I'm not working at Pixar, I'm exploring other bizarre concepts, doing some painting, and cobbling together material for my website which will be called Spudvision.com."