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Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman are returning to Monkey Island with (the appropriately named) Return to Monkey Island.
The two worked together to make the original, 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, one of the funniest games of all time. They then topped that effort with 1992’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Now they’re looking to tap back into that grog-flavored secret sauce with RMI’s release later this year.
Ahead of that, I had a chance to talk with the two about this intimidating undertaking. I asked them about what it’s like making a modern Monkey Island experience, and I also took the opportunity to learn a bit about their adventure game design philosophies.
GamesBeat: Is it relatively easy to jump back into the franchise? Did you replay the older games before working on RMI?
Gilbert: I played Monkey Island 1 and Monkey Island 2 as we started to look at the new design. Looking at the old game can be frustrating because there are so many little things that I wish I could change. Adventure game design was a lot more forgiving back then. Beating your head against obscure puzzles was acceptable. It’s not anymore.
Grossman: It’s easier to return to something of your own than it is to start work on something originally created by someone else, but I definitely still needed to do the research to get my brain in the right place. By coincidence I was already playing through the early Monkey Island games with my son, who was 5 at the time and had finished all the Humongous titles, so we just kept on doing that with a little more focus from dad. And then during production I continued to revisit them, often because I was about to write dialog for a returning character and wanted to remember their particular tone and cadence.
GamesBeat: There are a lot of recurring elements that fans expect to see in a new Monkey Island — characters like Stan, locations like Monkey Island. Is it a fun challenge or a burden to have to work with those expectations?
Gilbert: Both. We revisited some locations and characters, but you have to be careful that it’s more than just a trip down nostalgia lane. The game is not a remake or remaster, it’s a whole new game. We rev isited locations and characters when it was important to our new story.
Grossman: Yes, it’s a nice head start to have a character who’s already been developed a bit, which can help guide your decisions about what they should do and say. But it also creates limitations. Someone written in support of a particular theme thirty years ago might not have much to say about whatever’s going on 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 joy I had working with them, it’s a mix of new ones and returning ones.
GamesBeat: What are some of the starkest differences between working on a new Monkey Island today compared to the development of the original?
Gilbert: For me one of the big things is looking out for a modern and more casual audience while making fans happy. It’s a tightrope to walk. There is also the element of nostalgia. Monkey Island has had 35 years to build it into something that it wasn’t back then. Back then it was just a game we made. It’s more than that now. We were careful to honor that but also not be afraid to move it forward. We were also young and naive. Everything was bright and shiny.
Grossman: We’ve developed this whole game during a global pandemic, that’s certainly been significant. Ron and I had one face-to-face meeting in January 2020, and it’s all been remote since then, with the team spread all over various hunks of geography and time zones. In 1989 it was like we were a bunch of kids at a summer camp spending all of our time together; in 2022 communication is something we have to focus on and put work into. We even schedule time to “hang out by the watercooler” with coworkers, because it’s – surprise surprise – important to be able to relate to each other as people if you’re going to make stuff together. On the other hand, the team is generally older and more experienced now, and we waste less time playing Tempest and Millipede.
Gilbert: Marble Madness for me. I almost got fired over that game.
GamesBeat: What were your influences on Secret of Monkey Island’s writing? It was self-referential and satirical at a time when that felt rare for a video game.
Grossman: We referenced things a lot, not meaning like aping a particular style but more like romping through a meadow and gleefully pointing at all of the other media that we ourselves had grown up with. Being at Lucasfilm, there are nods to Star Wars and Indiana Jones all over the place, as well as to people and things around the office. You can also spot us leaning on TV shows and movies, used car commercials, and so on. In terms of style, I’d always been a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, there’s probably some influence there, but then the rest of the team had their own backgrounds and I think we all influenced each other to a large degree.
Gilbert: I’ve always been a fan of parody. For me Monkey Island was about making fun of stuff.
GamesBeat: Does the advent of the internet and easy access to guides change the way you develop puzzles?
Grossman: Mainly it motivates us to embed a hint guide in the game itself, so when players do decide they want a hint they don’t have to risk the muscle strain that could be caused by taking their smart phone out of their pocket.
Gilbert: I try to ignore that. If people want a walkthrough or spoilers there is no way to prevent it, so I pretend it’s not there. As Dave says, the hint guide is the main place to combat that. I feel that if the player leaves the game to look something up, we’ve lost. Giving them a built-in hint system helps. They stay in the game.
GamesBeat: Are there any puzzles from the original games that you regret making too difficult/too easy?
Gilbert: Two words: Monkey Wrench.
Grossman: The Monkey Wrench puzzle from LeChuck’s Revenge is notoriously unsolvable and was not a good design on several levels. Even if you are an English speaker from a location where the tool in question is commonly called a “monkey wrench,” and you realize that that’s what you need, you still have to make an astonishing predictive leap about how your actions will create that tool. Nothing in the game sets any of it up adequately. I use it to this day as my go-to example of what not to do with puzzle design, and it has influenced my thinking ever since. The player has to be able to somehow visualize what to do, and if they do give up and look at a hint, I want their response to be, “Oh, that makes sense, I should have thought of that!” rather than “How on earth was I ever supposed to think of that, you ridiculous, unfair clowns?!”
Conversely, I can’t think of anything I regret making too easy. The consequences are much less severe for that. It doesn’t bring the game to a grinding halt, at worst it’s just not very interesting, and you forget about that as soon as you start thinking about the next puzzle after it.
GamesBeat: Do the puzzles exist to service the story, or does the story exist to service the puzzles?
Gilbert: I’ve always looked at it as ‘puzzle serves the story.’ Story comes first and then puzzles are layered in.
Grossman: With an adventure game, it can be a little bit hard to separate story from puzzles in those terms. We begin by thinking about things like theme and tone, and when we start breaking down the story, we do it in terms of player character goals and actions to reach those goals. Those goals and actions are the puzzles, and they provide the mechanisms by which the player drives the story. In that sense you could say that the puzzles are serving the story, but they aren’t separate from the story by any means, they’re a structural element, like plot. And the story is built with them in mind from the beginning, it’s a story that you do, rather than one you see and hear. It would be a different story if it weren’t, and that is one of the things that makes adaptations from other media challenging.
GamesBeat: Do you feel obligated to tie up loose ends or connect threads from previous games, or are you more interested in creating something new that can stand on its own?
Gilbert: I feel no desire to tie up loose ends unless it serves our new story. It can be more fun to have them dangling out there. Let someone else tie them up in a future game. Why should we have all the fun?
Grossman: A good page-turner novel is constantly tying up loose ends and creating new ones. Like the tension and release in a musical score, there’s a curiosity dynamic at work that makes them very satisfying. I don’t feel any particular obligation to follow that, but it’s certainly something I think about.
GamesBeat: Monkey Island was inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean. Now Disney is directly involved with the franchise. Does that 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. It was also heavily inspired by the book On Stranger Tides. They were both inspirations but very much different things.
Grossman: If anyone is planning on redesigning the theme park ride, they haven’t told me about it. But I think I’d be delighted to see it.