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Dave Grossman On Tales Of Monkey Island

Guybrush is back for the first time in almost ten years, and with Tales of Monkey Island rapidly approaching its conclusion, Tim McDonald sat down with Telltale design director and Monkey Island alumnus Dave Grossman to talk about how the series has gone and where it’s going.
First of all, huge congratulations, really. The series has gone from strength to strength. I think each episode’s been better than the last, so very well done.Thanks!How did all of this come about? You’ve presumably got good relations with LucasArts from past work with them, but how did you convince them to actually give you the Monkey Island license in the first place?I think it was less a question of us convincing them than it was of them sort of being ready to be convinced. They did get a new president in between – we’d been talking to them, on and off, as long as we’d been a company. Dan [Connors], particularly, has been quite interested in doing more Monkey games, and I think what really happened was Darrell Rodriguez, LucasArts’ CEO – he has been vocally supporting of the old adventure game licenses there, and they did the Special Edition, and so all of a sudden they had some plans that really fit in with what we wanted to do. And it was pretty easy after that point.It’s been ten years since the last game. How has it been getting back to it?Sometimes it’s good to take a little break, I think. We’ve sort of had the opportunity to think about the strengths of the series, what makes the humour work and what makes the characters work, and what kind of things sort of happen at a deeper level. One of the things I note about it is that although Monkey is really funny on the surface, the underlying stories are usually kind of series, and so on it was good to have a little time to sort of pause and reflect on that. Take another fly at it, and make it available to a new audience. That’s the hard part.How was it trying to get it set up for a new audience? You’ve got a lot of old characters, old plotlines and so on that all of the old fans want to see again, but the new audience wouldn’t be so familiar with them. How’s that been?There’s a bit of a balancing act with that, obviously. You want to include enough of that stuff that the people who’ve been following the series all along sort of feel like that’s been worth something, like they’re inside of something, but you also don’t want to make that important enough that new people coming to the series feel confused. So, again, it’s kind of… focus on the strengths and not on the lore, I guess?Do you think you’ve succeeded?I do! I hear from people who are picking it up for the first time. There’s a whole new generation of people playing these things now. Obviously, the best thing is they play it and they get interested, they pick up on the fact that there are threads being referred to that are from the past games, and then they go and they get those and they play them as well.Was the audience part of your decision to put Tales of Monkey Island on the Wii rather than the 360? Did you think the Wii audience would respond better to Tales of Monkey Island?It seemed like a good place for it. It’s kind of playful, and whimsical, in a way that… I think you see that kind of thing on Wii more a little bit more than on other platforms, somehow.Has it been scary actually going back to Monkey Island again, and trying to relive the past successes?For me it was, yeah. Very scary. I don’t think everyone would say the same – for a lot of people it’s just exciting to revisit it. For me, though, it was partly because it had been ten years since the last game, and people have had that ten years to build up whatever expectations they were going to build up about what a new game would be like, and of course, not all of those expectations are going to be the same as each. No matter what you do, if it’s different than the old thing, people will be unhappy about that, and if it’s the same as the old thing, people will feel like you haven’t gone anywhere. So yeah, I had a little trepidation about that, but actually I think we’ve struck a really good balance and made something good, and people are responding to it. So I’m less scared now. With one episode to go.I imagine it must’ve felt a bit like walking a tightrope between the old and the new.Yeah, a little bit.Do you think Monkey Island in particular, then, works as an episodic series? The previous Telltale games have all been episodic, pretty much, and previous Monkey Island games were all divided into chapters. Did that impact the development in any way, shape, or form?I do think it works particularly well for something like Monkey Island. We’re only just now taking advantage of the real strengths of the form, and that’s partly because it took awhile to gain the trust of the audience that we weren’t going to just sort of abandon things in the middle, or take forever to come out with episodes, as has happened sometimes in the past with episodic development. And so, for that reason, some of our earlier series… the episodes are much more separate from each other, so that each one is kind of an individual little piece that you play. But really, where the strength comes in is when you do kind of string them together in a mini-series way, sort of like a saga, and there’s lots of stuff for you to think about in the intervening time between the episodes, and you really are sort of engaging the audience in one story over the course of about half a year, real time. When you do that, it has the effect of making the thing feel really very epic, which is exactly what you want when you want for something like Monkey Island where it’s a great big pirate adventure, and you want it to feel kind of like “Oh my gosh, there’s more and there’s more and there’s more!”How has that impacted sales? The fact that each episode ends on a cliffhanger and follows on from the last one means that it’s a lot harder to jump into the middle of a series than it was with previous Telltale titles. Have you seen any difficulty with the sales towards the middle of the series?No, people tend to not jump into the middle anyway. If they become aware of the series in the middle – a thing that we do often is we’ll take one of the episodes of a series and make it free, as a promo, and that’s usually when people see it and go “Wow, this is really cool,” and then they’ll go back to the beginning and buy the whole series, and play from beginning to end.{PAGE TITLE=Dave Grossman On Tales Of Monkey Island Page 2}I’ve been wondering a bit about how the episodic format actually works from a developer standpoint. How much do you tend to have done and worked out before you actually release the first episode? What point are you usually at when the first episode comes out?*laughs* I’m not sure if we would be surprisingly far along, or surprisingly not far along by that point! We usually work out the broad strokes of the season, and how the story is generally going to go, before we start work on anything. Then we’ll build out the main characters and some of the principle environments, and they we’ll start working on episodes in an interleaved format. We’re always designing one, and writing another, and working on production of a third, and so when the first one comes out, we’re probably in the middle of design on, like, the fourth one. Others are in recording and in various stages of production, so depending on which one you’re talking about we might be far along, or we might not be. *laughs*In that case, have you had any – and I can’t think of a way to phrase this eloquently, so we’ll call them “Oh shit” moments – where you’ve released the first episode, and you realise something doesn’t actually work and needs to be changed hugely?Not hugely. There are small inconsistencies and we catch lots of those before they go out, partly because by the time we release the first episode, the next couple have been done, and a lot of times it’s not something that doesn’t work, but it’s something that we want to foreshadow for an upcoming episode, so someone’s working on episode three and he says “Wow, this would be really cool if X happened in episode one,” and because we haven’t released episode one yet, we can make X happen.No huge moments of blind panic in the middle of a series, then?Not about that kind of thing. We’re panicking about something all the time over here, but it’s more about “Oh my God, the deadline is coming up, how are we going to finish this thing?” *laughs*How much does the criticism, both from fans and journalists, actually impact the development in the middle of the series?More than you might expect, given how far ahead we tend to be working. We read the forums and we listen to the fans and we do whatever we can to respond to what they say, and sometimes it’s big things, like we change direction on elements, and sometimes it’s more peripheral things, like… there was a character, Reginald van Winslow, who was introduced in Monkey as a minor character and fan response to him was good, so he’s kind of gotten more screen time than he would have otherwise. “Hey, let’s make a little part for Winslow in this one!” when he wasn’t going to be there before.What’ve you learned from the previous Telltale games? What’ve you brought over to Tales from Sam & Max, Strong Bad, and the rest?Wow. It’s a constant learning process – I don’t know if I can split anything out. We’re learning to wrestle with things, from production side things (about how we’re actually going to get episodes out on a schedule at all) to how to tell a story in that format. What kind of things is it good to leave hanging between episodes, and what kind of things is it better to wrap up? How does the gameplay relate to all of that? How does that evolve?Speaking of Winslow – who is, indeed, brilliant – how has it been creating new characters to try and “compete” with the old ones that everyone wants to see back?It doesn’t actually feel any different to me than what we always do. Every episode of Monkey Island has a bunch of new characters in it, and certainly there are some favourites, and we picked a couple of those and brought them back. Murray is back, and Stan is in, and judging by fan reaction, those were two of the right ones to revisit. Of course, we need Guybrush and Elaine and LeChuck, and possibly the Voodoo Lady. They were so central it was a no-brainer to include them. Once you’ve got those six people involved, it feels good to create new characters.Any particular favourites in the office?Winslow is popular in the office as well. In fact, if you can find a recent picture of Mark Darrin, who’s one of the lead designers on this, online, he’s actually wearing the Winslow chops. He grew them out for Halloween but he’s kept them on, and they actually look pretty good on him, I’ve gotta say.[SPOILERS FOR THE END OF EPISODE FOUR BEGIN HERE.]I’ll dig that up and put it in the article by that quote! Let’s talk about episode five for a bit, though. We’ve got LeChuck back at full power, everything’s coming to a head – what’s new in episode five?What’s new? My goodness. Well, what can I say without spilling the beans? As you know, Guybrush is deceased, which is rather an interesting twist, and it seems like everything has really gone to seed as much as possible. LeChuck has really gained a leverage over things that he hasn’t had before, and that’s going to colour the whole experience, so it’s LeChuck’s ball game now, all of a sudden, and… what’s going to happen, and who’s going to deal with that, I kinda want to leave hanging for people.At the risk of spoiling things for myself, is there any chance we might take control of another character for a little while in episode five?Another character, other than Guybrush? Why would you want to do that? *laughs*Well, he is dead.Even when he’s dead, Guybrush is more fun to control than the other characters.*laughs* Fair enough. Killing off Guybrush, I have to say… that must have taken some balls. How on earth did you actually come up with that and what sort of reaction were you anticipating from the end of that, at episode four? Much as this is presumably temporary.Yeah, well I don’t think anyone was really going to expect that we would just kill off Guybrush and that he’d be gone forever. Obviously, there are plans to deal with that, and I think LucasArts might not have been very happy with us had we done that, but it did seem like the title of the episode –  I knew we were going to release the titles early, and just that sort of beguiling “The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood” – I thought that was going to make people think, long ahead of time, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen here?” It just seemed like that was where the story wanted to go.{PAGE TITLE=Dave Grossman On Tales Of Monkey Island Page 3}Even ignoring that, there was a much darker tone in episode four, and Morgan LeFlay’s apparent death was also quite shocking. What triggered the darker tone? Was this also just following the lead of where the story took you?That was a fairly deliberate intention up front. As I said, although the moment-to-moment stuff is usually pretty funny, the underlying stories in Monkey are kind of serious, and we really did take that as a challenge to do something that people were going to take things away from, that they were going to feel something. Again, that kind of goes back to the episodic model as well. We want people to be feeling things between the episodes, and it was a challenge for us to build up a character over time and make you like her – although I imagine people have conflicted feelings about Morgan; she’s not always the nicest person – but just to put you in a position where you were going to feel something when she died, and I’d consider it a success that people did. I think the darker and more serious tone about the fourth episode is one of the things I like best about it.Is that something that might carry on for a little way into episode five, then?Yeah, you can’t just jump right back into being goofy again. Things have gotten serious, so we sort of have to pick up the threads and carry them to their natural conclusion.I look forward to it. Morgan’s death scene in episode four was something that really made me feel quite bad so if that was your objective, well done.Thanks. We feel good about making you feel bad! *laughs*I presume this isn’t going to be – or at least, you hope this isn’t going to be – the end of Monkey Island. Fan reaction has been very good, critical reaction has been very good. Has LucasArts been happy with what you’ve done?It seems like. I don’t really have much to say about that – I assume that they’re happy. I think we sent them a royalty cheque.No huge complaints, then?No, no.Anyway: I presume this isn’t the end of Monkey Island, but assuming LucasArts is happy with it, can we expect to see another Tales of Monkey Island series in the future, or -I cannot comment on that.Full, stand-alone game, possibly?Not commenting!Is that something that you’d like to do?Uh… maybe. Sure! I’m easy. I actually really like the episodic approach for Monkey. I think it does actually work better than making a stand-alone game.So it’s safe to assume you’re working on something else as you’re wrapping up episode five. Are you -We’re working on all kinds of stuff over here! It’s a beehive of activity.Anything you’d care to tell us?Umm, no, not really. Keeping it all under the hat for now.Any announcements we can -Chris says you’ll be hearing something soon.Soon?[Chris Schmidt shouts from the distance] Soon!We’re running out of time, so -Yeah, someone’ll come in here and use a shepherd’s crook to drag me out of the room by my neck.One last thing, then. Anything you want to get out there and say to people?If you haven’t tried this game already, please buy it today!Excellent. Thank you very much!

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