Aside from perhaps Nintendo, there are few video game studios that have ever been home to so many of the industry's best and brightest as Looking Glass managed.
Founded in 1990, Looking Glass was not only responsible for some of that decade's most innovative and memorable games, but was also a place where people like Ken Levine (BioShock), Warren Spector (Deus Ex) and Seamus Blackley (Xbox) all worked under the one roof.
The product of a merger between two companies, Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research, Looking Glass Studios was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Developing mostly for the PC, Looking Glass' first few games were published by PC gaming giant Origin (Wing Commander, Ultima), but by 1995 the studio was developing and publishing its own titles.
And what titles they were. I've always believed the truly great studios are the ones which can excel in multiple genres, and in their ten years Looking Glass mastered everything from role-playing games to action titles to flight simulators, with stops at first-person shooters, football and golf games along the way.
Looking Glass' first game (well, while its development side was still known as Blue Sky) was 1992's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a first-person role-playing game that not only broke from the traditions of conventional Ultima games, but in many ways blew right past them, its immersive setting and (for the time) amazing 3D graphics making it a critical success.
The games which came next read like a "greatest hits collection" of PC gaming in the 1990s. Some of the classics released by Looking Glass during that time include:
1993 - Ultima Underworld II
1994 - System Shock
1995 - Flight Unlimited
1997 - Flight Unlimited II
1998 - Thief: The Dark Project
1999 - System Shock 2 (co-developed with Irrational Games)
2000 - Thief II: The Metal Age
Yet those weren't the only games. Looking Glass also ran a little business on the side developing (and sometimes porting) console games, and worked on titles like Madden 93 (on the Genesis), Command & Conquer on the Nintendo 64 and even the N64's Destruction Derby game.
How did so many amazing games come out of the one place in such a relatively short space of time? Looking Glass had one of the most impressive rosters of talent this business has ever seen. Some of the developers who worked at the studio include:
Ken Levine - System Shock 2, BioShock
Warren Spector - Deus Ex, Epic Mickey
Seamus Blackley - The "Father" of the Xbox
Harvey Smith - Deus Ex Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows
While others like Valve artist and designer Iikka Keränen (Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2), Blue Sky founder Paul Neurath (now a creative director at Zynga) and Fallout 3 lead designer Emil Pagliarulo also worked at Looking Glass.
So why do all these great names now work somewhere else, and not still at Looking Glass? While the studio's games were nearly always well-received critically, they were also often commercial disappointments, at least relative to the review scores they'd be getting.
By the time the year 2000 rolled around, Looking Glass' publishing partner of the time, Eidos, was in a world of financial trouble, and saddled with debts was forced to shut Looking Glass down. The studio's final game would prove to be, strangely, Jane's Attack Squadron, a game that was mostly developed by Looking Glass but which was later scooped up, finished off by Mad Doc Software and released two years after Looking Glass was no more.
Spanning the 1990's almost poetically, Looking Glass showed us the wonderful things that were possible when a bunch of talented people get together and make PC games, and looking at that list of games and developers above, there'd be few of you who don't owe at least part of your favourite gaming experiences to the people who worked at Looking Glass Studios.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.