Interviews

Dave Grossman Talks Monkey Island

When people think about Monkey Island, there are usually three names coming to their minds: Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman...mostly in this particular order. Dave Grossman however has been just as important for the developing of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2:LeChuck's Revenge as the other two. Read this interview to learn more about his role as a LucasArts employee and find out about his current life - an interview by Junior.

Hello Mr.Grossman. Thank you for taking the time to answer our question. Let's just start, shall we? Please tell us a little bit about yourself and in what way you're associated with LucasArts.

I'm just some guy who, at least part of the time, writes and designs computer games, particularly graphic adventures or other kinds of titles that rely heavily on story and characters, or puzzles, or all of those. I'm not associated with LucasArts at all these days, but I was working there in what some would call they heyday of graphic adventures, from the end of the 1980s through the mid 90s. I was one of the principal hooligans on three games from that era - Monkey Island 1 and 2 and Day of the Tentacle - first as an assistant designer/programmer, later as a project leader, and always as a writer.

What made you want to become a game-designer and how did you become one in the end?

It was sort of an accident. I had taken notice of computer games in the late 70s and thought they were great fun, and I'd even written one or two simple ones, but I didn't really think of that as a career until a decade later when I was fresh out of graduate school and looking for something interesting to do. I answered an ad and somehow managed to get hired. Everything important that I know about game design I learned on the job, just trying things out or watching people who were already doing it.

How did you end up doing the programming on The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge?

I was hired partly because I had a computer science degree, but when you got right down to it the day-to-day programming on those games was really simple, so I don't think actual talent in that area had anything to do with it. Ron Gilbert picked Tim Schafer and I out of a group to do Monkey with him after watching us play around with the development system for a while, probably because we seemed to have the right sense of humor. He must have liked my Sam and Max "The Fly" scene....

You were one of the three masterminds behind The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, working side by side with Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer. Please describe what an ordinary day at work looked like for you.

Masterminds! Oo, I like that. Well, I usually began my work day in the shower, which is where I've always gotten some of my best thinking done. I might be trying to figure out the dynamics of some puzzle we were designing, like "let's see, you could find a monkey and lure him with bananas and teach him to pull the lever," or maybe I'd be thinking about some characters I was going to have to write dialog for later in the day. I'd keep thinking about this stuff on my drive to work, and my commute out to Skywalker was about an hour so by the time I got there I was all full of ideas and enthusiasm.

Then I might try to find Ron to give him my latest brilliant thoughts on the banana puzzle so he could tell me how it REALLY ought to work (Ron is an excellent guy to learn things from because if he thinks something isn't quite right he can always tell you why, and he can usually tell you how to improve it). He was almost never in his office so it would take maybe a half-hour just to locate him (at one point it was suggested that we implant a chip in his skull), and after a brief chat I might actually sit down at my desk and get to work. That meant writing some computer code to get Guybrush to walk from point A to point B and thinking of three or four choices for fun things for him to say when he got there. Over on the other side of the office, Tim would be busy doing pretty much the same thing and being generally hilarious. Whenever I got stuck I'd get up and go refill my coffee cup. I drank a lot of coffee in those days.

Eventually a group of us would go out to lunch and stay away for a long time. On my return I would resume telling characters where to go and what to say, but in the afternoons it was sometimes difficult to get much done. There was always a toy gun fight happening or someone was giving a whip demonstration outside. Sometimes I would do research - I remember one time I walked around the building asking people what was the worst pickup line they'd ever heard, because one of the characters had to use one. And at the time I remember thinking that I couldn't imagine a better job. Yeah.

Around five o'clock people would start to go home, and in the resultant quiet I could start to be productive again. As we got closer to our deadline some of us often stayed well past the dinner hour, munching leftovers from lunch. We were young. And the project budget was picking up our candy and soda tab, so I thrived on Skor bars and Coke (did I mention we were young?). A lot of the good stuff in those games got written in the middle of the night....

When Ron Gilbert told you about the main plot of The Secret of Monkey Island what were your first reactions? Did you expect the series to become as successful as it is today?

My first reactions? I thought it seemed fun, and thank goodness we've got something to do, because immediately beforehand we'd all been playtesting Battle of Britain, and I am about the worst sim pilot you will ever encounter in your life. Really.

As for its success, I get asked that a lot, and no, nobody had any idea we'd be talking about it fifteen years later. You just can't tell about stuff like that. I could see we were making something fun right away, but whether anybody else would actually like it I had no idea.

Is there anything about the first two Monkey Island games that didn't turn out the way it was originally planned?

Planned? *ahem* cough cough cough. Well, sure. Almost everything. We did a bit more on the spur of the moment in those days than you would now. For example, there was this idea that in order to become a pirate, Guybrush was going to have to exhibit pilfering skills by stealing a sacred idol from the governor's mansion, and it came time to draw the mansion and we still hadn't designed the puzzles for it. We spent days going back and forth about them. There were ants and syrup and a guard and so forth. It wasn't working. At one point, somebody (some say it was me) suggested that the acquisition of the idol be accomplished entirely behind a wall, as a cut scene. We tried it, and it turned out to be funny - but it wasn't at all what we had initially intended.

Can you tell us anything about any original Monkey Island
characters/jokes/puzzles etc. that didn't make it into the final version for one reason or another?

There was going to be a battle at the end where LeChuck's ship transformed into a big robot and you fought him in a giant robot monkey. I think the head on Monkey Island originally had some controls drawn in it for that. But then, I hear that idea or something like it eventually got used in a sequel, didn't it?

What's your favourite character/joke/puzzle etc. you thought of?

I find it hard to play favorites, and I think I answer that question differently every time someone asks it. This time maybe I'll go with the puzzle sequence about Captain Kate and the wanted poster, I'm pretty sure that one was actually my idea. Rigging it so that somebody gets thrown in jail just so you can rifle through their stuff seems like the perfect example of what I find so charming about the adventure game mentality - you gleefully create whatever chaos is necessary to further your own goals, in fact, the more chaos the better. Hopefully players get that out of their systems before returning to their real lives....

Since you worked together with Ron Gilbert you must know this: What is the secret of Monkey Island? Did you guys actually have something in mind or did you just like the sound of the title?

Oh, no, make no mistake: there's a secret all right. But if I were to even imply that I might tell you what it is they would - ACK! NO! HELP! MONKEYS! RABID MONKEYS!

When you have a look at fan web-sites today you'll notice that the first two games of the Monkey Island series still are the fans' favourites. Does this make you proud or aren't you interested in your former jobs anymore?

I'm proud when anything I've done or helped do makes people happy.

What were the main differences between The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as far as the actual programming is concerned? Did the improvements in computer technologies make your job easier or harder?

As far as programming was concerned, the difference was virtually nil. I think maybe the characters' dialog lines printed over their own heads automatically in the second one, but technically it was pretty much the same.

When you think about the Monkey Island games you worked on today, are you completely satisfied with what you've done or are there a few things you would like to change if you had a chance?

I'm never completely satisfied with anything I do. The constant desire to revise seems to me to be an essential, unavoidable part of the creative process. However, another essential part seems to be the ability to let go of things when the time calls for it, so I would have to say that although I'm not a hundred percent satisfied, I still wouldn't change a word of it.

What did you enjoy more: Working on The Secret of Monkey Island or Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge? Any particular reasons for this preference?

We had a much nicer office during Monkey 1. The windows opened.

The Monkey Island games were not the only adventures you created for LucasArts. There's also Day of the Tentacle, the sequel for Maniac Mansion. When you compare those two series which has been more fun to work on?

Tentacle was definitely more fun to make. I felt empowered. I like being the boss. I also think it turned out more, I don't know, cohesive or something - it felt like all the pieces fit together neatly.

When you worked on Day of the Tentacle Ron Gilbert had already left LucasArts. Did it put you under a certain pressure to be responsible for a game which has originally been created by another person? And according to that do you think that Jonathan Ackley, Larry Ahern, Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle felt the same way about doing the sequels for Monkey Island?

Good question. Usually there is that pressure whenever you're working with an established property, but with Tentacle Tim and I were specifically told not to worry about making it feel like the original, just to make the best game we could think of. Also, I'll point out that Ron and Gary Winnick actually were both still there at the very beginning and helped us get the design rolling. I'm sure Jonathan, Larry, Sean and Mike had it tougher.

Did you ever play Curse of Monkey Island or Escape From Monkey Island? And if so, how did you like those games?

I played Curse, but not Escape. It was really fun! I hadn't had the experience, mind you, of playing a Monkey Island game and not knowing what was going to happen....

You left LucasArts after Day of the Tentacle has been completed. What were the main reasons for this decision?

After five years it was time to leave the nest and go out into the world. I never took another job, because it was less about leaving LucasArts in particular than it was about leaving a way of working that didn't suit me very well. I like making games, but I think life's too short to focus on them, or anything else, exclusively. As a freelance pen I don't have to. I can spend three months designing a game, and then take the next three to work on a book. On Fridays I write poetry. Ten years later I'm deliriously happy and consider it one of the best decisions I have ever made.

If Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer called you to ask if you would like to do another Monkey Island game with them would you gladly accept or pass on this one?

Strange, I wonder why people keep asking that lately? Well, I'll tell you, if both Ron and Tim were in then I'd probably be on board as well, but I can't figure out why the three of us would be getting together to work on a property that none of us owns instead of coming up with something new.

Many people talk about adventure games as a dead genre. At the same time however a lot of LucasArts adventures are listed in several "best-games-ever" rankings. Furthermore the most recent adventure games like Escape From Monkey Island sold a whole lot of copies, infact more than most of LucasArts' StarWars games. Why do you think aren't there more adventures in production these days? And what did you think about LucasArts recent decisions on the cancellation of the sequels for Sam'n'Max and Full Throttle?

The main reason there aren't more adventure games is economic. They tend to be expensive to make compared to other kinds of games, so you take a bigger risk and you have to sell a lot more copies to make good on that risk. It's also trickier to market something without an adrenaline factor since it's not immediately apparent why it's fun if you've never played one before - "What, you just walk around and pick stuff up? What's so interesting about that?" Much easier and safer to make money with a simple shooter based on a movie license.

As for the recent cancellations you mentioned, I'm sorry to see them go but can't really argue with decisions made by people who have more information than I do. I have to assume that they didn't feel confident that they'd make enough money to cover what they would have to spend to finish and market those games (marketing budgets, by the way, are a lot bigger than you probably think they are). And I don't know enough of the story to say confidently whether that was a good decision or a bad one.

When I have a look at your web-site (phrenopolis.com) I notice that your interests have changed over the years. You're now mainly into writing. Do you prefer this kind of creative work to the one of a game-designer?

I don't think my interests have changed all that much, I just like to jump around between different media. I learn more that way, and it helps keep things fresh. I can't say as I like designing games more or less than writing for print or any other creative pursuit, at least not in the long run. I guess it's a bit like asking if I prefer my hammer to my screwdriver - neither is better, I just use them in different situations, and the most interesting situations are ones that call for them both.

What you're seeing with the web site - and thanks for mentioning it, by the way - is the result of my interest in an altogether different area: publishing. A while back I decided I wanted to try publishing a book myself and selling it online. Phrenopolis was initially set up to support this, so there is naturally more of a focus on writing there, even though it has since ballooned up to include non-literary things like the Pumpkin House of Horrors and may ultimately even include games. Someday I hope to become a cottage industry, but I think I might be too lazy....

What projects are you currently working on?

I'm in the early stages of developing a couple of graphic adventures - for grown-ups this time, in contrast to the children's games I've mostly been doing in recent years. Did I mention adventure games aren't dead? I'm also gearing up for a couple of scrap-sculpture events (there I go switching media again) and failing to work on my next book.

One last question: Does it annoy you when people keep asking questions about jobs you did almost 15 years ago?

I choose to see it as a sign that I did something particularly good back then, rather than as a sign that I haven't done anything noteworthy since.

Thanks again for the interview, Mr.Grossman. I hope you had nearly as much fun answering the questions as I had thinking of them. Is there anything left you would like the visitors of LegendOfMI.com to know? Any final words or such?

I would just like to state clearly for the record that it wasn't my fault.

Junior • June 28, 2004 • 3 Comments

Carla

Great interview.. and very funny.
And now I am really looking forward to these mentioned adventure games.

June 28, 2004 • 14:34 GMT

goldguysaffe

Whow, an absolutely great interview you done. I love Dave Grossman - thank you for squeeze out that funny answers of him.

June 29, 2004 • 8:57 GMT

jack

ron gilbert , tim schafer & mr.grossman what with the fifth game of monkey island ? someone sad that it will be no doubt on it... , three of u like gods please , u can't go on like that!...

July 3, 2004 • 14:02 GMT

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