Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman are ready to Return to Monkey Island

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Returning to Monkey Island with Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman (aptly named).

The two worked together to create The 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, one of the funniest games ever. They then topped the effort with 1992’s Monkey Island 2: Revenge of the Leach. Now they are looking to tap back into that grog-flavored secret sauce with the release of RMI later this year.

Before that, I had the opportunity to talk to both of them about this intimidating guarantee. I asked them what it was like to experience the modern Monkey Island, and I took the opportunity to learn a little about their adventure game design philosophy.

What an evil, demonic skull.
What an evil, demonic skull.

Gamesbeat: Is it relatively easy to get back into the franchise? Did you replay old games before working on RMI?

Gilbert: I played Monkey Island 1 and Monkey Island 2 when we started seeing new designs. Watching an old game can be frustrating because there are so many little things I wish I could change. Adventure game design was much more forgiving at the time. Hitting your head against obscure puzzles was acceptable. It’s not anymore.

Grossman: Getting back to something of your own is easier than starting work on something originally created by someone else, but I still need to do some research to get my brain in the right place. Coincidentally I was already playing Monkey Island games with my son, who was 5 years old at the time and had finished all the Humangs titles, so we continued to do it with a little more attention from Dad. And then during production I continued to visit them again, often because I wanted to write a dialogue for the returning character and remember their exact tone and mood.

Gamesbeat: There are a lot of recurring elements that fans expect to see in the new Monkey Island – characters like Stan, places like Monkey Island. Is it a fun challenge or a burden to deal with those expectations?

Gilbert: Both. We revisited some of the locations and characters, but you need to be careful that it’s no more than a trip down the nostalgia lane. This game is not a remake or remaster, it is a whole new game. We retrieved locations and characters when it was important for our new story.

Grossman: Yes, a character that has already developed a bit is a great start, which can help guide your decisions about what to do and what to say. But it also creates limitations. Someone written thirty years ago in support of a particular theme could not be more to say about everything that is happening in your current game. If I try to list my favorite characters from Return to Monkey Island, in terms of both the end result and the pleasure I got from working with them, it’s a mix of new and returning characters.

I remember that street!
I remember that street!

Gamesbeat: What are some of the biggest differences between working on the new Monkey Island today compared to the original development?

Gilbert: One big thing for me is to find a modern and more casual audience while pleasing the fans. It’s a tight walk. There is also the element of nostalgia. It took Monkey Island 35 years to create something that was not there at the time. It was just a game we made at the time. It’s more than that now. We were careful to honor him but were not afraid to take him forward. We were also young and naive. Everything was bright and shiny.

Grossman: We have developed this whole game during the global epidemic, it is certainly remarkable. Ron and I had a face-to-face meeting in January 2020, and it’s all been remote since then, with the team scattered across different parts of the geography and time zone. It was in 1989 that we had a group of kids at summer camp and spent all our time together; Communication in 2022 is something we need to focus on and work on. We also schedule time to “hang out with coolers” with coworkers, because if you’re going to create content together it’s important to be able to relate to each other as people – surprisingly surprising. The team, on the other hand, is now generally older and more experienced, and we spend less time playing Tempest and Millipedes.

Gilbert: Marble Madness for me. I was almost fired at that game.

Gamesbeat: What was your influence on the writing of Secret of Monkey Island? It was self-contained and satirical at a time when it seemed rare for a video game.

Grossman: We have referred to a lot of things, which does not mean using a particular style, but more like walking in a meadow and happily pointing to all the other means we have grown up ourselves. Being in Lucasfilm is a nod to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, as well as the people and things around the office. You can also see us tilting at TV shows and movies, used car ads, etc. In terms of style, I’ve always been a fan of PG Woodhouse, Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, maybe there’s a little bit of influence, but then the rest of the team had their own backgrounds and I think we all impressed each other. Degree

Gilbert: I’ve always been a fan of parody. For me Monkey Island was a joke of stuff.

Lock making shop.
Lock making shop.

Gamesbeat: Does the advent of the Internet and easy access to guides change the way you develop puzzles?

Grossman: It primarily encourages us to embed a signal guide into the game itself, so players don’t have to risk muscle tension by pulling their smart phones out of their pockets when they decide they need a signal.

Gilbert: I try to ignore it. If people want walkthroughs or spoilers there is no way to stop it, so I pretend it’s not there. As Dave says, signal guidance is the key to dealing with it. I think if the player leaves the game to see something, we lose. Giving them a built-in hint system helps. They stay in the game.

Gamesbeat: Are there any puzzles from the original games that you are sorry for making too difficult / too easy?

Gilbert: Two words: Monkey Ranch.

Grossman: The Monkey Ranch puzzle from LeChuck’s Revenge is notoriously unsolved and not well-designed on many levels. Even if you are an English speaker from a place where the tool in question is commonly called a “monkey wrench” and you realize that you need it, you will have to make a surprising guess about how your actions will make that tool. Nothing in the game sets any of them up properly. I still use it as an example of what not to do with puzzle design and it has influenced my thinking ever since. The player must somehow be able to imagine what to do, and if they give up and look at a signal, I want their response to be, “Oh, that makes sense, I should think about it!” Instead of “How on earth would I ever think of that, you ridiculous, unjust clowns ?!”

On the contrary, I can’t think of anything I can do to make it so easy. The consequences are far less serious. It does not bring the game to a grinding stop, at worst it is not very interesting, and you start thinking about the next puzzle that you will soon forget.

Leach's ship.
Leach’s ship.

Gamesbeat: Do puzzles exist to serve the story, or does the story exist to serve puzzles?

Gilbert: I’ve always seen it as ‘serving the riddle story’. The story comes first and then the puzzles are layered.

Grossman: With an adventure game, it can be a little difficult to separate the story from the puzzles in those words. We start by thinking about things like theme and tone, and when we start breaking down the story, we do it in terms of the player character’s goals and actions to reach those goals. Those goals and actions are puzzles, and they provide the mechanisms by which the player drives the story. In that sense you can say that the puzzles serve the story, but it is in no way different from the story, it is a structural element like the plot. And the story is made with them in mind from the beginning, it’s a story you do more than you see and hear. It would be a different story if it weren’t, and that’s one of the things that challenges the adaptation of other media.

Gamesbeat: Do you feel responsible for breaking up or connecting threads from previous games, or are you more interested in creating something new that can stand on its own?

Gilbert: I have no desire to break up until he completes our new story. Hanging them there can be more fun. Let someone else bind them in a future game. Why should we all have fun?

Grossman: A good page-turner novel constantly builds loose ends and creates new ones. Like the stresses and releases in a musical score, there is a curiosity dynamic at work that makes them very satisfying. I don’t feel any particular obligation to follow it, but it’s definitely something I think about.

Gamesbeat: Monkey Island was inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney is now directly involved with the franchise. Does it open up any interesting possibilities? Are you able to maintain creative freedom?

Gilbert: Monkey Island was inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride of my youth. He was also heavily inspired by the book On Stranger TidesThey were both inspiring but had many different things.

Grossman: If someone is planning to redesign a theme park ride, they haven’t told me about it. But I think I will enjoy watching it.

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