Dave Grossman interview

Whether it's a guy called Guybrush who really wants to be a pirate, or an evil mutant tentacle bent on world domination, LucasArts has created some of the most memorable moments and greatest characters of adventure gaming. We recently had the oppertunity to interview Dave Grossman, one of the lesser known creative forces behind some of the early classics cherished by so many gamers.

Monkey Island and Ron Gilbert are often mentioned in one breath, but under Gilbert's leadership Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer created much of the witty dialogue and wealth of detail that are part of the LucasArts magic. As a SCUMM programmer, Dave Grossman was responsible for implementing the puzzle logic and interactions for The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. He later went on to design half of Day of the Tentacle. Since then he's written and designed numerous award-winning graphic adventures for kids.

Hi Dave. Could you first introduce yourself to those who might not know you?

I'm a recluse who spends most of his time in a small upstairs room, thinking of things for imaginary people to say and do. I make up stories, puzzles, and dialog for games like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Pajama Sam, Moop and Dreadly, and so on. Sometimes people pay me to think about toys or newspapers or children's books, and I do that, too. On Fridays I usually go to a coffee shop and write silly poems.

Do you consider yourself mainly a writer or a programmer?

A writer. But having a background in computer programming is pretty helpful when it comes to doing scripts for an interactive medium—as you might imagine.

How did the design of The Secret of Monkey Island evolve over time?

There's a children's story called "Stone Soup," where the characters make a huge cauldron of soup starting with just water and rocks—gradually they add all sorts of vegetables that everybody has tucked away somewhere, and they wind up with a really terrific meal by the end. Monkey Island was put together a little like that. The basic plot and structure were laid out early, but we started production on the game long before the design was finished, and we kept on tweaking it and adding vegetables right up to the end. Whole sections sometimes wouldn't be designed until it was time to build them, and things we'd done that didn't work well would be cut and re-thought. We could get away with that mainly because the animation was both limited and generic, so it didn't cost too much to change things. None of the dialog was written in advance, either. Tim or I, or sometimes Ron, would come up with it as we were putting the scene together. And I think one of the reasons the games turned out as good as they did was that several people spent an entire year tinkering and refining the design and the script—nowadays you don't generally have that kind of luxury.

What's your favorite scene from the Monkey Island games you worked on, and why?

I have difficulty even picking a favorite color, and I definitely don't think I can do it with Monkey scenes. But since I was just talking about designing on the fly, I'm reminded of the "behind the wall" scene in Governor Marley's mansion in Monkey 1. The time had come to build the mansion, and we hadn't designed the puzzles for stealing the idol. We were brainstorming away, but couldn't come up with anything we really liked. I remember something about a guard and some ants and a trail of honey that just didn't quite work. The way the scene wound up playing was something I suggested as a joke, but Ron really liked the idea. I kept saying, "No, come on, we can't really do that," but Ron talked me into putting it together just to see—and it was fun, and we kept it. You never know when something's going to turn out a lot better than you thought it would, and that scene helps me keep that in mind.

Who came up with the highly controversial ending to MI2? What do you have to say to those who hate it so much?

I blame society.

You'll probably think we're insane after asking this, but... when you blow up the dam in the Amiga version of MI1, a small chest comes flying over Guybrush's head. In the PC version, it's a rock instead. Do you know why the chest was replaced and was it supposed to be used for anything?

Oh, that was the chest containing the secret—you know, the Secret of Monkey Island.

Did you play The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape From Monkey Island? If so, what do you think of them?

I was a little leery about playing "Curse" at first, because it's kind of like re-meeting a child you've given up for adoption, years later, and you don't know what strange ideas it may have picked up from its new family. But I liked it—it was fun, the style seemed right, and I thought they did a good job. And of course I had never had the experience of playing a Monkey Island game without knowing what was going to happen next, so that was kind of neat. And I'm sure I would have done things differently, but so what? I laughed.

"Escape" I never played—just never wound up with a copy—so I can't offer any opinions there.

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