A hallmark of many of Westwood Studios' games from the early '90s is impeccable, hand-drawn 2D pixel artwork. Via the likes of Eye of the Beholder, Lands of Lore, and Legend of Kyrandia, the company established itself as one of the most talented outfits working in the realm of home computer gaming – and one of the driving forces behind that amazing art was Rick Parks.
Born Robert Richter Parks, his career as an artist began long before he was employed by Westwood. He joined Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1969 as an art major, and would later study at the Fine Arts Academy of Vienna. Parks would be commissioned by celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and future United States president Donald Trump – the latter crossing paths with Parks following his work as a mural painter in Las Vegas.
Parks was supremely talented with traditional media, but also dabbled in the Amiga graphics scene, creating super-realistic pieces of digital artwork and portraits of famous world leaders using the powerful Deluxe Paint program. This interest in digital art is what would lead to Parks and Westwood co-founder Louis Castle crossing paths; the pair would meet at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and while Castle and fellow Westwood boss Brett Sperry acknowledged his talent immediately, both were fearful that it would cost far too much for them to employ him. Parks would counter this by asking for an arrangement where he could continue painting alongside his full-time role at Westwood.
At Westwood, Parks' signature style would make itself known in many of the company's most acclaimed titles. His first contribution was 1990's DragonStrike, set in the AD&D world of Dragonlance. He'd also work on BattleTech: The Crescent Hawks' Revenge in the same year before moving on to another Dungeons & Dragons licence, 1991's Eye of the Beholder. Inspired by Dungeon Master and boasting some of the most eye-catching visuals yet seen on home computers, it was a critical and commercial success, with Japanese giant Capcom going as far as to license it for release on the SNES. Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon would follow in the same year.
Next would be Westwood's attempt to muscle in on the Lucasarts' territory with 1992's Fables & Fiends: The Legend of Kyrandia - Book One, a point-and-click adventure which boasted sumptuous visuals – then he served as lead artist on 1993's Lands of Lore, a spiritual successor to Westwood's Eye of the Beholder titles that earned the studio even more acclaim, and would use the vocal talents of Patrick Stewart for its CD-ROM version.
"We liked to pick on Rick and call him the centre of the universe," former Westwood Studios staffer Joseph Hewitt, who worked alongside Parks on several key titles, told Retro Gamer back in 2008. "He was one of the greatest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet, let alone work with and learn from. When he started at Westwood, he single-handedly got us to step up our quality simply by being there. We were all in awe of his talent and pushed ourselves harder to just try and be as good as he was."
"Rick was certainly the aesthetic soul of Westwood," adds Rick 'Coco' Gush, speaking in the same 2008 interview. "We were all a bit in awe of his artistic capacities, but he was just one of the guys, and really enjoyed participating in all the usual office hilarity. In the following years, I would hear many stories of his legendary artwork on the Amiga, and it was fairly regularly that we would go up to the rustic restaurant on the mountain behind Las Vegas, where one huge wall was filled by a mural he had done years before."
Parks returned as lead artist on 1997's Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny, a title which abandoned the pure 2D visuals of the original for a 3D graphics engine – but, thanks to his work in Lightwave 3D, Parks was capable of making the leap (indeed, his mocked-up trailer for Blade Runner is reportedly one of the reasons why Westwood was given the licence to create the video game).
Sadly, Parks passed away from leukaemia on December 15th, 1996 – just ten months before the release of Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny. A special video was included with the game, while its manual carries a dedication. More recently, 2020's Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection has an "in memory of" credit for Parks, showing just how deeply he was respected and admired within the industry.
"At the wake held in his home, I remember seeing a seemingly endless slide show of hundreds of his canvases and murals," Gush said back in 2008. "It was a bit like reviewing the contents of a highly respected museum. Although I was not a close friend of his, Rick’s passing hit me hard, and I was motivated to make some major changes in my own life."