Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman on the making Return to Monkey Island

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The revival of LucasArts’ Monkey Island series with Return to Monkey Island has come as a pleasant surprise. The last game, Tales from Monkey Island, came out in 2009. Its developer Telltale Games, was shuttered in 2018. There’ve been few, if any, signs that the series would make a comeback.

Cut this past April, when Gilbert and series co-writer Dave Grossman announced they’d been clandestinely working on the sixth game in the series for the past two years. The project brings with it the return of many of the team members who had made the original games, including voice actors Dominic Armato, Alexandra Boyd, Danny Delk (Guybrush Threepwood, Elaine, and Murray the Talking Skull), and composers Michael Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian.

Though the Monkey Island games are still beloved by players and developers alike, so much has changed since the series was in its heyday. At PAX West 2022, I sat down with Gilbert and Grossman to discuss this fresh chapter in the Monkey Island world. In making the sequel, the pair chose to update the games’ visuals, add new design techniques, and adapt the point-and-click format to work with controllers.

As they put it, you can still design new games for a classic-loving audience. Here’s how.

Monkey Island fans wanted something fresh and classic at the same time

A screenshot from Return to Monkey Island. Guybrush hails pirates aboard a larger vessel.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I was watching a really interesting GDC talk by some folks at Vicarious Visions, the team who handled Diablo II: Resurrected, who do a lot of remakes and remasters. They were saying that in order to appease a returning fanbase, there needs to be about a 70/30 split between old and new material. 

I found that formula very interesting and wondered how much that resonates with you as you build this new game in a series with so many iconic conventions. What was your approach to the sixth game, knowing that you have an old-school audience with lots of expectations?

Gilbert: I think there is a part of that, that you do need to be conscious of, making a movie or a game or whatever. But [Return to Monkey Island] is not a reboot, it’s not a remaster, we’re not making the same game. It’s a whole new game, right? I think that gives us a lot of latitude because we’re not trying to remake the old thing. We’re trying to make a new thing that continues kind of the legacy of the game. 

I think Monkey Island in particular, it really is a lot about change. When we built the first game, it was not a pixel art game because I don’t think we ever heard the words pixel art at that point. That was a much a later invention to describe that art style, kind of in retrospect. And so it was like every game we did, we were always just pushing forward; we wanted more resolution and much more colors, we wanted more memory, we’re wanting more. 

We were always just pushing those edges on stuff. That’s what Monkey Island 3 did, they had much fewer limitations to the game. So it allowed them to do a very different art style, hand-drawn stuff. And then [Monkey Island 4] after that, and [the] Telltale stuff, they had access to 3D, so they push that forward. So I think it really is just kind of always about pushing stuff forward.

It kind of surprised me when people reacted so poorly to the new art style.

Gilbert: I think we both knew going into this that if we didn’t do pixel art, there was going to be a group of people that weren’t going to be happy with that. But it was a conscious decision not to do that. And that decision, we do not regret at all. 

I think what surprised me was just the veracity of it turned in there went from, you know, we’re unhappy with the choices you made to what you made, and we hope you never make a game again. You die. All the stuff. That is kind of what really kind of caught me a little bit.

Looking over the history of the games, it’s very true that you guys were always pushing forward with every iteration. For example, in the first in the early games, there was the unsightly textbox, which later games were able to move on from. That said, were there any conventions from the first two games that you guys felt defined Monkey Island and had to come along for this game?

Grossman: Talking about the interface thing, I think the way the dialogue has always worked is you get to pick from your choice and funny lines are all floating around in Guybrush’s head, like, we didn’t want to change that. That’s sort of part and parcel of it, Guybrush himself. 

Essentially, you play the game inside Guybrush’s head, that’s your job, to sort of be his frontal lobe and make decisions for him. And so you get exposed to all his thoughts and his sort of can-do can-solve, don’t care about the consequences sort of attitude–all of that is right in the center of any Monkey Island game, you want to give the player that time with this crazy Guybrush character. I think all of those things we’ve preserved.

Another part of the interface where we tried to bring closer into that [idea]—which is that thing talking about where the birds used to be, which is—you know, when you’re solving the puzzle is usually you using this, right? This is your inventory, and you fill this up with all kinds of useful items that you pick up along the way. 

But as you’re picking up those items, you’re doing basic exploration of your world. And you want to do three things, you want to check everything out and find out what it is. You want to pick up everything that’s not nailed down. And then you want to explore the functionality of weird objects that you find the things you can pick up. 

But that’s part of the game: I have my inventory tools, and I’m gonna use them with each other to combine stats. So you do that. But the basic exploration, we took those verbs away, and we went a little more elegant than the [verb] coin that’s used in Monkey Island 3, partly by just making it a little more explicit what’s actually going to happen. 

We let go of “there’s an eyeball” or whatever and went for text description and we gave that flavor to Guybrush’s brain. As soon as you scan over something, you can see what he’s thinking about it. That became a whole other way for us to express character and humor, as a digression, [letting] the player put their hands directly on it.

Monkey Island’s sense of humor is an iconic part of its identity. What’s it like getting part of the dream team back together and trying to recreate that original back and forth that created that humorous dialogue, but without some key members of the team?

Gibert: I mean, anytime anyone is missing, like Mark Ferrari on backgrounds, or Steve Purcell…I kind of looked at Steve Purcell as the wackiest person just in terms of throwing weird ideas at the game, and he was an artist. And I think anytime you’re missing anybody from that thing, there’s a little bit of a gap you have to fill.

Grossman: You make the most of the opportunities you get. I think we’re pleased to find that our own dynamic between the two of us hasn’t changed.

A screenshot from Return to Monkey Island. Guybrush talks to an old man by a campfire.

I was reading another interview you gave where you touched a little bit about the challenges of accommodating the PC point-and-click format on a console controller. Can you elaborate on that?

Gilbert: We [supported] controllers for Thimbleweed Park. And I think we got like 90 percent there. This was a good chance to kind of push it that extra 10 percent on controller. The fact is, it’s very likely more people will play this game with a controller. Just look at how prevalent consoles are. Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation, any of those things are going to be very controller focused. 

Even the people that play Steam games…so [many] of them use a controller. It was important that the controller didn’t feel like something we just kind of bolted on the side. We want the controllers to feel like you’re really playing a point-and-click game. 

We spent a lot of time [asking] “what does the controller notice?” and making sure we didn’t bunch objects too close together. That’s fine with a mouse but not a controller. 

Any specific examples you can share?

Gilbert: I think the big thing is that when you use a controller, you’re actually driving Guybrush. So when you move the stick around, you’re actually controlling him, you’re not controlling your cursor that you then kind of click on [objects], likeThimbleweed Park did. That dramatically changes the game. Once you’re controlling Guybrush, there’s this fluidity as you’re walking through the world. You really feel more like you’re in the world, as opposed to just kind of looking at it.

Grossman: It’s actually quite a bit of work to tailor the walking spaces. With a controller, you have to do things quite differently. If you put pointy edges in there, people will get caught on them. So you think about, “how forgiving are we going to be as you go around this corner?” and how fast [the player] should go. The parameters are different between controller and what you click. So a lot of effort [went] into tuning up every single room.

Gilbert: The other thing is people’s controllers. They’re very fidgety. When you have a controller in your hand, you tend to do…”stuff.” [Grossman mimics a player fidgeting with the analog sticks] So Guybrush tends to be walking around like this [on the display screen, Guybrush is spinning rapidly] when you have a controller. Whereas you don’t see that on point and click. That’s another thing we have to be sure of, is that things worked if people are just moving Guybrush around because their fingers want to do something.

In 2004 when LucasArts stopped making Monkey Island games, the argument at the time was that adventure games were no longer profitable. What would you say about the market today? Do you think it’s more amenable to adventure games now or was the audience always there?

Grossman: I think the market is much better for them now. This is like a, I guess, a brag a bit [laughs], because I was at Telltale for nine years. That kind of paved the way for things. I mean, somebody was gonna do it anyway, right? Ron actually made a stab at doing downloadable, episodic games for a while. But it really opened up the whole download space; people had forgotten that we used to put these things on disks, and that really limited opportunities in terms of what you could make. 

That’s all kind of gone now. We can begin to make billions of games, and they can all go up, and discovery is the real problem. An adventure game can be made and can find its audience, and lots of people are doing that now. So it’s actually a much better space for adventure games in general.

Gilbert: My theory has always been that adventure games never went down. It’s just that the whole rest of the market went up. So it’s like, you know, we were selling the same number of adventure games year after year, while the rest of the market just went through this catastrophic climb…and we never participated in it. And that’s why I think you kind of get that meme that “adventure games are dead.” It’s like, they never die. They just didn’t rise with everything else. 

As Dave said, I think with distribution changes and things like Steam, you’re seeing them find their market now.

Going back to the Telltale stuff—nine years is a long time. Dave, is there anything you feel that you brought from Telltale back over to this project?

Grossman: A little bit—sensibility about designing into a moment and making the sort of momentary choice that you’re making be the compelling thing that’s at the core of kind of newer Telltale Games. And we put a little bit of that into this, but not much because doesn’t fit quite so well. 

[We] want this to fit within the pantheon of all of the other Monkey Island games that came before it. And so there is a certain playstyle that is…most of the storytelling is witches, heroes, some puzzles and that’s the structure we based the story on. That said, there’s a little bit of customization that you can do and pointless decisions that you can make and fun to be had in the middle, which is sort of what you get when you take that gritty Telltale, “you have three choices and they’re all bad” thing and you transfer it to “three choices, and they’re all light-hearted and fun.”

What’s the process been like this time around with such improved technology at your disposal?

Gilbert: I think some things have been a lot easier. Some other things have been a lot harder. When we made the first two games, I don’t think in our wildest imagination we thought of speech that these characters would be saying stuff, and that adds a huge amount of work. 

The writing is different because you’re writing for people to be speaking the words rather than people that are reading the words. And then you have a production problem. And you have 35 actors you’ll have to corral together, and you’ve got these strict deadlines in terms of getting text done. 

On the original Monkey Island, we could noodle text until the day that we sent those discs out. Here, we can’t do that, we noodle text until we go into recording. In that aspect, there are things that are hard. There are a lot more art assets we have to wrangle in animation and all these things. So there’s a much longer production process.

But yeah, some things are easier! For the most part, we don’t ever have to worry about memory. Whereas back in New York, working on Monkey Island 2, we were constantly concerned about memory, how many things to be put into memory at the same time, how many things should be on the disk. We were constantly having to cut rooms out of the game because it had to fit on floppy disks and things like that. We don’t have those problems today. Now, we can just add as much content as we have.

A screenshot from a recent Return to Monkey Island trailer, where Stan's jacket, and its new shader, can be seen in action. On the right, an example of the game's particle effects, a source of pride for Gilbert and Grossman.
A screenshot from a recent Return to Monkey Island trailer, where Stan’s jacket, and its new shader, can be seen in action. On the right, an example of the game’s particle effects, a source of pride for Gilbert and Grossman.

Grossman: The thing that makes me laugh is Stan’s jacket. You know how that jacket pattern stays still while he moves? In the first game, it was just a Pattern Fill in the animation tools—it [looks like that] because it was easier. It just seems to get harder and harder every time we make a Monkey Island game [laughs]. It’s like, oh, how are we going to do Stan’s jacket? We always have to write a special shader.

Gilbert: There are complex shaders going on, making sure the pattern of his jacket doesn’t move.

In terms of technical things that you had to pull off in the game, was there anything you were particularly proud of or impressed with that?

Gilbert: Technically, I really like our use of a particle system. You don’t see particle systems used in 2D vectors very much. We really have used the particle system a lot, especially with Chuck’s crew, a lot of which are ghosts; we have shaders on them and particle systems on them and it just makes the world feel more alive– insects flying around and motes of dust floating in the air. That’s the thing I’m excited about. Particles.

Grossman: Yeah, the particle system is amazing, just thinking about what it is at its core and then how it gets used artistically. It’s a technical feat, but it’s also an artistic feat.

Gilbert: A whole discipline of people who do nothing but particle effects.

As the interview wrapped up, Gilbert and Grossman confirmed that Return to Monkey Island is not the last game in the series, and that the door is open for more games in the future. In the day since the game was released, it has been well-received, with praise for the game’s art direction, point-and-click adaptions, and sense of humor dominating social media. With that, the stage has now been set for a series revival. Will Gilbert and Grossman continue to helm? That remains to be seen. But for now, the verdict is in: change is good. 

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