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Back In The Water: The Monkey Island Interview

As the much-beloved Monkey Island series returns, Gamasutra sits down with Telltale design director (and original LucasArts Secret Of Monkey Island writer) Dave Grossman to discuss the series' heritage, the evolution of adventure games, and Telltale's long-term plans.

Chris Remo, Blogger

July 6, 2009

15 Min Read

The Monkey Island series of pirate adventure games has lain dormant since 2000's Escape From Monkey Island, but the adventures of ostensible pirate Guybrush Threepwood continue this week in episodic form with Telltale Games' Tales of Monkey Island.

Tales is Telltale's fifth main episodic franchise, and it's one that the company has been seeking since its formation in 2004. All of the company's core founding members are veterans of LucasArts' adventure game days, and over the years Telltale has attracted even more former members of that crew.

Design director Dave Grossman, one of the three writers and designers of 1990's original The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge along with Tim Schafer and creator Ron Gilbert, heads up the new project, and Gilbert took some time off from his day job at Hothead Games to provide some input.

Also on board are Michael Stemmle, a lead on Escape; Chuck Jordan, who worked on 1997's Curse of Monkey Island; and Michael Land, the series' main composer from the beginning.

With the first episode coming tomorrow, only five weeks after the series was announced, Telltale won't have to wait long to find out if its interpretation of the franchise will pay off.

As with most of Telltale's series, five games will be released on a monthly basis going forward. In advance of the kickoff, Gamasutra sat down with Grossman to discuss the series' heritage, the evolution of adventure games, and Telltale's long-term plans.

How did Telltale get the Monkey Island license? It's been a while since there's been a new Monkey Island game.

Dave Grossman: It has been quite a while since there's been a new Monkey Island game.

Really, as long as our company has been around, we've been pinging LucasArts about the possibility of doing Monkey Island or some other franchise they own. You know, we did Sam & Max, but we didn't actually go through them to do that, because that belonged to Steve Purcell. There was always somebody over there who was interested in that, but not always the right people at the right places at the right time.

This is fortuitous that we asked the right questions and they had the right answers at the right particular time. They're also doing their own revamp of The Secret of Monkey Island, and I guess they thought the idea of having some new games coming out at the same time would be good, so all of the sudden there was some agreement. It just became legal wrangling from that point.

Telltale always works on an accelerated development schedule, but you just announced this game [last month] and it's already coming out. How has that worked?

DG: Well, we really wanted to be able to announce it and be able to say, not only are we working on this, but you can preorder it now and it will be out next month.

And we've had great preorder deals, where you get the DVD copy, and there's a limited edition Steve Purcell painted cover that only the preorder people will get. There's a special forum only viewable by preorder people that various members of the design team are on.

It does seem like suddenly LucasArts is acknowledging that they made adventure games one time, with the remake, your game, and the Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis unloackable in the new Indiana Jones game. Do you have any idea if that's part of a broader plan?

DG: Well, I haven't actually personally talked to any people over there who are directly involved with that. I know some of the producers, but nobody at a really high decision-making level. So, I don't quite know what it is, but I imagine somebody finally said, "Oh hey, why are we letting all this stuff languish when we could be using it quite easily to enrich ourselves fabulously?"

But Telltale is the actual publisher of this game, the company assuming the risk, right?

DG: It is, yeah. We are publishing Tales of Monkey Island. We are paying LucasArts money for the use of their character and license. They are giving us some feedback on how the art looks and stuff like that, but it's basically our show. LucasArts is publishing its own [remake].

You were telling me earlier this isn't actually so much Monkey Island 5 as much as it is Monkey Island 6, with this game picking up where a hypothetical Monkey Island 5 might have left off. What do you mean by that?

DG: We've left a little bit of mental space between the four games that have come before and this series, basically because we wanted people to take that space themselves to think about it in a slightly different way than they would about something that was meant to come directly after Escape from Monkey Island. They might be expecting one story in three acts, with eight billion puzzles that take 20 hours, whereas what we're actually doing is a series.

It's more one story in 15 acts; each episode really has a beginning, middle, and an end to it. Then we parcel that out over five episodes in five months, so the mental space is really quite different. It makes the story seem a lot more epic and a lot longer, but it's not quite what people are used to.

How would you compare it with other Telltale series like Sam & Max or Wallace & Gromit? Do you think of this the same way you think of those from the design side?

DG: It's a little bit different than what we've done with series before. Earlier in the company's history, we had to worry about fear on the part of the consumer that we were going to try and trick them into buying five games instead of just buying one.

[Our fear] was that they were really worried about that, so we designed them a little bit differently where, with each one, you could stop at the end of it, and that would be that, and you would be perfectly satisfied and could never go on.

They were a lot more separate just in story terms, and from a gameplay perspective that's still true -- you start at the beginning of each episode with a goal, and you will wrap that up by the end of the episode, but we have always wanted to tie the stories together more closely to get more of a miniseries feel. It's an ongoing drama rather than a series of loosely-connected episodes.

Have you found that relatively few people pick up a given series in the middle? I remember when Telltale was formed, one of the claims was that you could pick up an episode from any point in the series.

DG: Yeah, that doesn't happen very often. People tend to start at the beginning no matter what, and that's part of what has changed our thinking about what we really can let ourselves do now and what aspects of the form can we take advantage of.

Speaking of Monkey Island as an overall series, which games have you looked to in particular? The series changed in tone and look a lot. Is Curse of Monkey Island a touchstone?

DG: Yeah, somewhat. We've actually got, around the office and mostly on the team itself, people who worked on all of the previous games -- specifically, people who wrote for all of them. My own personal perspective is from Monkey 1 and Monkey 2, because those are the ones that I understand best. Chuck Jordan is around, and Mike Stemmle is actually doing a lot of heavily lifting on this project. He worked on Monkey 4; he was one of the leads on that.

So we all have slightly different angles on things, which is part of what makes it interesting. I'm just trying to make sure we stay true to Guybrush's core nature. He's a bit selfish, flippant, and unaffected by things, but he's very much in love with Elaine, and their relationship is actually very important over the course of the season. We want to stay true to the things that are critical.

I should mention Ron Gilbert actually came down. He's the creative director as Hothead, and he's making his own game Deathspank, which also looks very cool. But we borrowed him for a week, and he came down because he cares very passionately about this franchise. He brainstormed with us and let us bounce a bunch of ideas off him, and he gave us a lot of important insight.

On the visuals, there were a lot of concepts for Guybrush, and we wound up combining all of our favorite stuff. You see he's got a coat reminiscent to the one that he was wearing in, I think, the second game. Everybody said, "We love that coat. We should bring that back."

He's tall and thin, like he is in the third game, but not quite so gawky; his beard looks pointy and cool. It is a little bit closer probably to the art from the third one than any of the others. It's very painterly.

It's interesting that you're heading it up, and Ron consulted to an extent, because you're two thirds of the original design team on the first two games. Those two always seemed much different to the third and fourth to me -- more muted and surreal, in a way. Maybe the addition of voice acting was part of what changed it. Do you have any thoughts on the shift in tone, and the impact on Tales?

DG: Well, I'm sure those things do affect it. Something that I always thought was true about the Monkey series was that, while moment-by-moment it's quite silly and there's lots of slapstick, verbal humor, and ironic pointing out of social dysfunctions, the broad strokes of the story there are actually quite serious.

The first one is about this young man who's come to this island to realize his life's dream, and in the quest of doing that, he falls in love and he finds out, "This is more important to me than my life's dream."

It's actually quite a serious story, despite being a pretty silly experience overall. I've been pushing the team to try and capture that aspect, and when they try and do things in the series that seem baldfacedly hugely ridiculous, I call that into question -- whereas, when the smaller points are ridiculous, that's what I love.

Did you guys have an internal concrete interpretation of the end of Monkey Island 2? That was probably the most interestingly surreal moment of the whole series.

DG: Yes, and it was somewhat vague and paradoxical, but there was an internal interpretation thereof. Maybe someday Ron will actually make the theoretical Monkey 3A, and we'll follow that up. I'm not going to do it. I'll leave that to him.

That just might be slightly off the page for what we've got planned for this season anyway. I mean, there's some weird stuff, but it may stop short of being that weird.

From a personal perspective, how does it feel to be working on Monkey Island again after nearly two decades?

DG: It's almost twenty years, yeah. My last chapter in this saga came out in 1991, so that's been 18 years.

It's been good actually. It was a little weird. At first, it was like my old girlfriend just called me out of the blue and wants to see me again, wants to meet for dinner, or whatever.

But as we've been working on it, I've been remembering what's fun about these characters and that world -- and it really is. Now it's like hanging out with old friends, and it's pretty nice.

On the mechanical side, inventory item combinations are in a Telltale game for the first time. In a genre that's so mechanically stripped-down, how do you decide to take steps like that? I know you've had fan requests.

DG: Well, let's just say that it's a feature people have repeatedly asked for. I've always been resistant to that, actually, because it's easy to put it in a game and not use it, and have it just generate a lot of, "Well, I can't use those two things together."

But, this being a revamp of the series that's been running for 20 years, there are some things that feel good in it that might not feel good in something else. So, there's that. Then, there's the ability to read all your dialogue choices and text on the screen, which just seemed critical to do, so we're doing that again.

Where do you see adventure game design going? Telltale takes a fairly deliberate traditional approach to adventure game mechanics. Do you think much about pushing that further?

DG: I think what it really comes down to is whether [a particular] aspect of the game is something that's going to affect how the characters in this story feel, and what the moment-by-moment experience is like. Is it something that's going to affect your kind of broader experience with the form?

Where we've been trying to go with adventures games -- maybe someday we won't even call them that anymore, but this style of game storytelling that we do --is towards something that is a more casual experience.

The "sofa experience" is the way I like to think of it. You're going to be sitting on your couch or with your browser, browsing through stuff. You go, "Oh, look. The new Monkey Island is out. I'm going to play that right now."

You download it, play it right away. You might even finish it right in one sitting. And then you move on to something else. You probably have your family there with you. It's a little bit different from the old experience.

I remember my own childhood playing these kinds of games -- you know, I'm alone, stuck up in my bedroom, and I'm just thinking a lot and banging my head against the wall. "Curse those designers! What do they mean by this puzzle?"

Whereas with this, there are some puzzles in the episodes that I think are hard, but they're not cruel. I think that lack of cruelty is an important feature if adventure games are going to be palatable to large audience. You just can't be that mean. I'm trying to give people a little fun and let them do some things to make them feel clever, but let them get through the game so that they will be ready for the next one when it comes down.

That really brings to mind OnLive and other services in that vein.

DG: Yeah. That seems cool on the surface. I'm not sure precisely how their whole business structure works, but on the surface, it seems like something we might eventually want to look at.

How long have you guys been working on Monkey Island?

DG: We started the design late last year, and production started at the beginning of this year. It's slightly accelerated from our usual schedule, but not very much. It's pretty much par for the course for us.

Last time I talked to [Telltale CEO] Dan Connors, he talked a lot about adventure games being less of a specific genre and more of a broad canvas -- general interactive entertainment that you tune into for a certain kind of experience. That sounds similar to what you just described.

DG: Yeah, I think adventure games are an aspect of games and narrative that have been separated out into their own little nodule, but they're almost like games without any gameplay.

The stuff you're interacting with is the stuff you do with your frontal lobe, while when you're playing another kind of game you might be focused minute-by-minute on where you're standing and who you're aiming at, and that kind of physical action.

In an adventure game, we take care of most of the physical action for you, so it lets you concentrate more closely on the frontal lobe stuff. What might be ideal is something in the middle where you do the physical things that are interesting, and that kind of gives you that certain sensation.

But there are also some broader "thinkier" elements with what's going on in the story, and who these characters are, and how you should be interacting with them. That's more the adventure game design.

It's interesting to hear you discuss those long-term goals, because something like Monkey Island, almost more than anything you've developed to date, basically seems aimed at longtime gamers who know this genre and its traditional components very well.

DG: Oh, we're always thinking about the future, and I love to think of the future several years down the line, but the reality is I mostly have to think of the future three months down the line: What is the next series going to be? What are the small steps that we're going to take between where we are now and where we eventually want to be?

A lot of those elements with this series are in the narrative approach, and how we approach the series in itself, and how the games work together to create an experience, as opposed to the second-by-second side of what are you doing.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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