Seeing a Man About a Monkey: An Interview with Dave Grossman
This PAX, I had the opportunity to talk with the Design Director of Telltale Games, Dave Grossman, who is a personal idol of mine. Why’s that you ask? Dave Grossman was one of the core designers of the classic The Secret of Monkey Island, the game I attribute for getting into video games. He also contributed to the development of such titles as Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Day of the Tentacle, and the Pajama Sam series before coming to Telltale Games. Today, he’s busy finishing up the latest episodic epic entry to the Monkey Island series, Tales of Monkey Island. Read on for the full interview.
MediaWhoreNetwork: How exactly did you get into the industry?
Dave Grossman: I pretty much got into the industry by accident actually. I had fiddled around with computer games a little bit as a kid and I even wrote my own version of “Hunt the Wumpus” in EPL (for the language geek), but I never really thought of that as something that you could do for a living. I went to school as a Computer Science major and then I went to grad school in AI. Then I was strolling around looking for a job where I didn’t have to design missile guidance systems or some socially reprehensible kind of thing like that. There was an ad actually that I answered from LucasFilms. They were looking for people to work on computer games and I was like “That sounds cool”, so I answered it and they hired me for some reason.
With the latest iteration, Tales of Monkey Island, the series was brought into an episodic form. Were there any advantages in bringing into a shorter form than previous games?
Actually, there have been some advantages, and its because its not shorter. We’re winding up a season that is probably about a comparable amount of gameplay hours with lines of dialog and so forth to one of the old blockbuster titles, but its because of the way its spread out. We’re telling a story with more pieces but smaller pieces. When you do that it has the effect of making it at once a more casual experience when you’re playing it, but also more of an epic saga because its stressed out in real time. There are more acts to the story, so that works really well for Monkey Island because you want things to feel epic.
Monkey Island has always been a series that is strongly known for its humor. Where there any specific comedic influences with any of the jokes or sight gags?
We’re always referencing something. There definitely is an old Get Smart joke about “thats the second biggest whatever I’ve ever seen”. A lot of people don’t know that’s even a Get Smart reference, they think its a Monkey Island reference now. There’s plenty of (Monty) Python, P.G. Wodehouse, and the name Threepwood even comes from one of his (Wodehouse’s) lesser known stories, which I wasn’t aware of at the time. We pretty much come from all over, a lot of it is referential, and there are different writers working on the series at different times that bring their own spice.
How does the Telltale team size compare to the team size back when making the original games?
It is a little bigger, but we work for less time. Ron Gilbert mentioned in his keynote that the team for The Secret of Monkey Island was only 7 people, which I guess is more of the core team. There were certainly more folks that had their hands on it. If you read the credits you’ll see more than 7, but it definitely was a small team. Ours is probably about twice as big, but once we get into production we’re only working on the season for about half a year, so its a similar amount of effort in terms of man hours going into a season.
Do you have a specific favorite puzzle in the series?
No, the ones that always stick out in my mind are always the ones that are bad, for some reason or another. I did like the whole insult swordfighting thing, that was Ron’s idea, but I don’t really have a particular favorite.
Can you give us an example of a bad puzzle?
Well it took us a while to learn, for example, that you shouldn’t base a puzzle on either a play on words or a cultural idiom that might not be true in other cultures. For example, the red herring puzzle does not hold up or the monkey wrench puzzle from LeChuck’s Revenge. That was impossible to solve for anybody from Europe, where they don’t call a wrench a monkey wrench. They call it a spanner incidentally. So other than the little things like that that go wrong over the years, it’s usually something about the translation or the way the puzzle is going to come across to different audiences. You really want to think about not just “what is the cleverness of this puzzle”, but how are the audience going to make the mental leap that is necessary to solve it. Are they actually all going to be able to do that, or is it only just someone exactly like me?
Why, in some situations are you given a list of dialog choices, but only one true line of dialog?
It’s a nice way to show Guybrush’s character. The interesting difference with the dialog interface that we specifically use where you see the text on the screen, is what you see on the screen is what Guybrush is thinking of saying and what he says afterward is what he actually says. This is why they won’t always match up.
Romance has always played a big part in the story of Monkey Island, and I’m glad to see Tales of Monkey Island brought in new romance. Which love do you think is stronger, Guybrush and Elaine, or Mr. Winslow and the map?
I think Winslow’s feelings for the map are probably stronger, but I’m not sure if you’d call that love or obsession. *laughs* That is a powerful connection that they have.
Are there any past Monkey Island characters that have yet to make a comeback, but are going to?
Murray, the talking skull. People have been asking for that, so he’ll be making an appearance later in the series.
Any advice for aspiring game developers?
Besides run? *laughs* Just get in and do it. I think people tend to think of it more in terms of “how can a get a job making games” as opposed to “how can I make games and maybe that will turn into my job” and it’s worth approaching in that way. The current trend of downloadable channels and casual game space is making it very possible for an independent developer to do something interesting based on just cool ideas and passion, then get it out there, get a little recognition, and make a splash. When I go to some place like PAX, when I get a few minutes I go over to where the independent games are and check them all out. They’re usually a lot more interesting than anything the big players are doing.
Any particular independent games you found to be really awesome this PAX?
There was one called Osmos that I found interesting. The guy who showing it was saying that it was a game that forced you to relax because that was the only way to play it is to be calm. I found myself struggling against that actually *laughs*. There was also another one called Machinarium, a little puzzle-adventure game with an interesting art style.
One last question, and I’m sure you hear it all the time. What is the secret of Donkey Island?
I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the secret.
[We’d like to thank Dave Grossman and Telltale Games for taking the time to speak with us]