Two Gentlemen Converse on the Subject of Monkeys


by Jan Jacob Mekes

The year 2010 AD had only just begun, when I had the extraordinary pleasure of conversing with a brilliant mind, instantly making that year unforgettable. The mind I speak of is that of Dave Grossman, the genius behind such electronic games as the Monkey Island series. The interview below must be read while keeping in mind that it took place when said series was just resurrected. I am confident though that the reader will find much pleasure in perusing these questions and answers, so I now present you with the questions asked by myself, and answered by Dave Grossman, who displays himself, through his words and actions, to be a true Renaissance man.

When you heard Monkey Island was to make a grand return from the grave, did you shed tears of joy or sorrow?
Neither, my good man: my tears were those of abject terror. Resurrecting a beloved series is ever fraught with peril, for the faithful have had much time to dwell upon their expectations, and if one fails to produce something which is both entirely familiar and scintillatingly new, one faces the wrath of the disappointed. A thorny tightrope to walk, indeed. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, as the good people here at Telltale & Company proved valiantly up to the task.

You were employed at LucasArts during the heyday of the two-dimensional point-and-click adventure. Currently, you are crafting three-dimensional, episodic adventure games. How have things changed? Does Telltale recall your days at LucasArts in any way?
The atmosphere at Telltale does recall somewhat the halcyon days at Lucasfilm Limited, with its lively group of spirited craftspeople, collaborating openly on products about which they feel passionately. But there is also a certain maturity, with many of these professionals being older, having lives outside of the walls of the studio, gym memberships, even offspring. The audience has undergone a similar transformation, and so the games, too, have changed, to align with modern sensibilities and schedule requirements. Our revolutionary Episodic Format has been designed by top scientists with these elements in mind, calculated to bring you the maximum enjoyment with a minimum of fuss.

Not to step on the toes of those fine people you have just admirably described, but did Ron Gilbert play an important part in letting these episodes come to fruition? And how was it to work side by side with your former associate?
Indeed, the inimitable Mister Gilbert paid us a visit early on, whilst we were engaged in the planning of the season, and we discussed the project for several days before he was whisked away to attend to other responsibilities. His input was decidedly helpful, and I make particular note of his comments on the treatment of Elaine as a character. In our early drafts she was a bit more of a pawn, and it was his opinion that she generally should have a firmer grasp of what’s really going on than do most of the other participants. We rectified this and the story is better for it. And, since you asked, I will add that Ron was his usual insightful, engaging and very humorous self, and was a delight to collaborate with, as always.

Now that Tales of Monkey Island has seen its conclusion, what are your feelings about this product, that has been added to Telltale & Company's already impressive and varied spectrum of electronic entertainment?
If Telltale and its numerous subsidiaries last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” Or actually probably not, but it is surely our finest work to date. Which is not surprising, as it stands on the shoulders of its predecessors in so many ways. It is certainly our most adept use of the episodic form thus far, and I think it stands as a worthy heir in the proud lineage of Monkey Island games. I couldn’t be more pleased unless someone brought me a coconut pop.

Does any of the five chapters particularly strike your fancy?
The chapters are all somewhat different from one another, and are specifically designed to be so, in fact, which makes it difficult to play favorites among them. All have their moments, and they strike my fancy in different ways. Were you to pressure me, or to ply me with sugary treats, I would be tempted to settle upon the middle chapter, Lair of the Leviathan, as noteworthy for having been the one most effectively devoted to the development of a nuanced character relationship – that between Guybrush and Morgan. We received a great deal of positive feedback over events concerning those two characters in the subsequent episode, but the reason those events resonate as well as they do has much to do with the fact that Lair caused one to care about the relationship.

In the third episode of Tales of Monkey Island, we met an adventurer called Coronado DeCava. He reminded me – and some others – of Don Quixote, with his eternal questing for a mysterious lady. Was this intentional, or am I seeing a Fata Morgana?
DeCava is meant as a reflection of Guybrush himself, taken to extremes. His obsessive questing on behalf of the Voodoo Lady, as well as his preposterously elaborate puzzle-solving schemes, warn us that even our most charming proclivities can acquire a weight which is unwieldy. No particular reference to Don Quixote is intended, but it pleases me to hear that literary comparisons are drawn.

From what sources do you generally draw inspiration?
Why, all of them, of course. Sometimes from other media, for example, I read, watch tele-vision and moving pictures, play parlor games, and so forth. But I’m equally likely to draw upon a chance encounter with a stranger had while walking Faithful Gomez, or something my father told me in my youth (did you know that washing your automobile will cause it to rain?). Inspiration can be found everywhere, and is too vitally important to leave any potential sources unplumbed.

If you were to compare writing and designing games with another art form, which one would it be?
Conversation, perhaps. At least with the sorts of games with which I am typically involved. An imaginary conversation with an imaginary person who will later be replaced with a real person after I’ve finished.

You are not just a game designer, but also an accomplished poet. What attracts you in writing a weekly poem? Would you like to include poetry in future games of your design, in any shape, way, or form?
Your familiarity with my humble humorous scribblings indicates a discerning eye on your part, for which I commend you. I began the Poem of the Week nearly fifteen years ago, simply as an excuse to write regularly, with public display included so as to create a responsibility which would be more difficult for me to avoid. I have found much value in the poetic form; its brevity keeps the author focused and honest, as each stanza, each line, each beat must contribute usefully to the scene, the mood, the lyrical quality, the evolution of the idea – therein lie fine lessons to be learned for work in any medium, including that of computer gaming entertainments. As to including poetry within such games, I have already done so on several occasions, perhaps most notably in The Great Cow Race, an early Telltale title which boasts a puzzle in which the protagonist must compose an effective love poem by choosing and arranging ideas which he gleans from conversations with other characters throughout the village. Indeed, if you have yet to play The Great Cow Race, then I fear I must call you charlatan and retract what I said regarding your discerning eye.

Indeed, how could I forget that fine game? On account of those adaptations of the Bone graphic novels lying so far in the past, they have managed to evade my otherwise fine memory. Continuing on this question, do you feel that an adventure game that focuses entirely on poetry would work?
Certainly such a thing would be feasible, and probably quite enjoyable. What I’m unsure about is whether we would actually be able to persuade the public at large to purchase a game of that nature – it is a well known aspect of the life of the typical poet that the audience for one’s efforts tends to be small, and remuneration absurdly minimal.

Rest assured that our culturally inclined readership would gladly count itself among the audience for such a game, if that is any comfort. I would like to thank you for this agreeable tête-à-tête, and I hope that you found it as enjoyable as I have.
Thank you, it has been delightful.

Dave Grossman on The Adventurer #5