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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.

Even though Day of the Tentacle was a sequel to Maniac Mansion, it was radically different from its predecessor. How did the idea for DOTT develop?

We started with the thought that we wanted to make a sequel to Maniac, which gave us a particular set of characters and a location to work with, but we really couldn't imitate the style of the original in the way you normally would with a sequel—too much time had passed and the state of the art was radically different. We stopped thinking of it as a sequel almost immediately and just did our own thing, slathering our own personalities on top of that of Maniac Mansion. But we refered back to the original whenever we could, and I think DOTT still resembles it a lot more than that TV show did.

Many regard DOTT as one of the most non-linear adventure games due to the time travel element and the multiple characters. Was it difficult keeping the puzzle logic on track?

I don't think so, not more than usual. I mean, it's complicated, and you always have to consider how the thing you're adding will affect the stuff already in place. But hey, we're professionals.

Can you think of any jokes or unused ideas that for some reason never made it into the games?

No joke was ever too weak for the likes of us, but how about unused characters? DOTT originally had SIX kids, and you were going to get to choose three, just like in Maniac Mansion, with different puzzles and stuff depending on who you chose. We cut it down to three in order to maintain our sanity, mainly from an animation standpoint. Razor, from the original Maniac, did not make the final cut, along with two of the new kids: Chester, a cadaverous poet/artiste, and Moonglow, an earthy girl with sandals. Chester, with a bit of makeup, was eventually recast as Red Edison's twin sons, but poor Moonglow wound up robbing 7-11s in a low-rent action game.

How do you look back on the projects you did at LucasArts? Any great memories you can share with us?

I don't actually remember which game this was for, even, but one day some character or other needed a selection of atrocious pick-up lines, and I went around the building asking people "What's the worst pick-up line you've ever had used on you?" And I remember thinking I must be pretty lucky to have a job where I get paid to do this.

What circumstances led to change your career into making kids games and toys?

I didn't actually do that on purpose, it was a combination of opportunity and laziness. I wrote my first script for kids (Pajama Sam) just because someone asked me to. I really enjoyed doing it, and it turned out well, so we did a couple more, by which time I was getting a reputation as a "children's game guy." So people call me about these sorts of projects and I do them because I like to, but I never made any sort of conscious decision to take my career in that direction—it just sort of happened.

How do you approach a creative project? Where do you get your ideas from?

I approach all creative projects with a cup of coffee in one hand, a pencil in the other, and a large eraser held between my teeth. As for the ideas, let me describe that in rhyme:

Ideas are like dust and lint

They ceaselessly appear

Churned out dirty from the mint

They choke the atmosphere

It's easy to detect them

They are coating every surface

The trick is to collect them

And to make them serve a purpose

To separate the choicest bits

To pound and sand and scrape them

To wad them up and make them stick

To polish and reshape them

Peeling, padding, painting, poking

Pressure, glue and heat

Strongarm tactics, gentle coaxing

Charges and retreats

To add, subtract, adjust, combine

To trim but not diminish

And most of all, to draw the line

That says the thing is finished

Do you see yourself working on games for 'grown-ups' again in the future? I seem to recall you mentioning a project with Ron Gilbert a few years ago.

Absolutely. The particular project I think you're talking about vanished when Cavedog shut (mostly) down, but even now there are some other trees that may yet bear fruit. Stay tuned.

Do you foresee any particular trends in the games industry that you find interesting or worrying?

My foresight goggles appear to be broken, but I do think the multi-player online games we're seeing right now are pretty interesting. I like hearing about the sociology—economies and languages and other things that crop up without any deliberate action on the part of the designers. Of course, the tricky bit is for a writer/designer like me to figure out how to approach his job in order to be useful in an environment like that.

Tell us about your poem mailinglist. Where can people sign up for it?

The Poem of the Week is one of my favorite and longest-lasting side projects, ongoing since 1995. I sit down once a week and write some sort of a goofy, rhyming poem about, say, toast, hats, zombies, or the number 12, and then I email it to the people on the list (it's one of a dwindling number of things on the web that's still free). It started as a public service and a way to force myself to keep writing all the time, but has now led to one book and I'm currently working on a second.

People can see the current poem and sign up if they wish at my web site.

Do you have any advice for those aspiring to become game designer? (And is there anything else you want to say to our readers?)

The first thing I always tell aspiring game designers is this: study computers and games but pay attention to other media as well. I always hear guitarists talking about how they learned things by listening to saxophone players. Game designers can learn from music, comic books, theater, literature, film, stand-up comedy, even politics. Game design is like building a robot out of things you find in your neighbor's trash—it requires imagination, flexibility, and as many tools as you can lay your hands on, because you never know what you might need.

Oh, and definitely buy my book. It won't help you make games, but it's fun.


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