Dave Grossman interview
2014 was a year of big changes for Dave Grossman. Over the summer he left Telltale Games after a decade as the company’s design director, having contributed to every series from Bone and Sam & Max to The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. He also became a dad to a baby boy named Max (named after a relative, not everyone’s favorite lagomorph).
Dave's Twitter photo first teased his greatest adventure ever
“‘Why’ is complicated,” Dave responds to the obvious question about leaving Telltale at the height of its success. “Two big factors are [that] Telltale’s matured now—it’s all grown up and it’s got a lot of institutional knowledge. It doesn’t really need me anymore. And the other is, I do have a kid now, who does need me, and it’s really convenient to work part time from home and take care of him. My life is just different now. So I want to work professionally under different terms, which is similar to what happened when I left LucasArts back in ’94. It was just like, I like this, but there are certain things about it that didn’t work [for me].”
Then, in keeping with the spirit of Monkey Island’s three trials, a third Big Thing happened: Dave heard from Jonathon Myers, CEO of the Boston-based startup Reactive Studios, with whom he had chatted about interactive narrative at various trade shows over the years. In 2013, Reactive had a successful Kickstarter for Codename Cygnus, an interactive radio drama. “It was before I had made any kind of announcement [about leaving Telltale]; he got in touch with me and was like, ‘Hey, can we talk about something? I don’t have enough bandwidth to be the creative director of this enterprise and CEO, so why don’t you come?’ And I was like, ‘That actually sounds kind of cool, let’s see if we can work that out.’”
Because Reactive is set up as a remote studio—besides Myers in Boston and Grossman in California, the VP of Operations is in Maine and the entire technical team in Croatia—the new gig shouldn’t encroach on his daddy duties. At least initially, Dave will be the lead designer and writer while also overseeing the company’s creative direction. “The main idea is to work with authors who have stuff and bring their work to a new medium. And the piece that I provide is mainly going to be about narrative design and that part where the audience gets involved in your story, which is a little bit alien to a lot of authors. But authors in general are used to working out of their [houses], working remotely, and they don’t actually even want to be on staff.”
Reactive’s debut app, Codename Cygnus, which is already available for iOS and Android devices, puts you in the role of a secret agent communicating with the home office via a hidden microphone. As events unfold around you—all presented through dialogue, like in an old-timey radio serial—you give voice commands to direct the agent’s actions and hear the resulting drama unfold. For example, at one point you have to extract yourself from a high-stakes poker game without blowing your cover. Your handler at Cygnus HQ assesses the situation and suggests two options: accuse another player of cheating [“bold”], or make an excuse and cash out [“secretive”]. The handler reiterates your choices—bold, or secretive?—and you must say one of these words to make the narrative continue. The app does have a simple on-screen UI, so you can tap buttons instead of speaking commands if you choose, but listening and talking (as opposed to the reading and typing of a text adventure) is the intended format.
Though inspired by an old medium, it’s a new form of interactive narrative conceived for the smart phones and tablets that are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in our daily lives. Of course, these devices have already changed the way we consume media, with ebooks, podcasts, and mobile games evolving as portable, easy-to-interrupt forms of our favorite timewasters. “I listen to audio books frequently, and I do it because I’m in a space where I don’t want to be focusing my eyeballs on a book. That is the advantage [of an interactive audio drama like Codename Cygnus]: you stick it in your hip pocket and you’re walking along, and you just talk to it,” Dave says. The fact that their listeners are probably multitasking impacts Reactive’s design decisions: “When you’re making something that’s going to be completely done by audio and it’s going to have voice control—so [users] don’t have to look at it even to interact with it—you have to get used to the idea that the audience is almost certainly going to be doing something else while they’re using this thing. We actually have a little bit of data back from Codename Cygnus, and what we suspected is true: people are using it while they’re exercising, and while they’re cooking dinner, and while they’re minding the kids, and while they’re walking the dog, and all the things that you would imagine you’d be doing while you might be listening to podcasts or audio books.”
Reactive CEO Jonathon Myers communicates with Codename Cygnus
The audio drama concept may seem vastly different from the point-and-clicks Grossman helped pioneer at LucasArts (like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle) and even from the “gameplay lite” style Telltale has evolved, but like all of his previous work, story is at the core. “The focus is certainly going to be on narrative. I think that includes some of that [LucasArts-style] puzzle-based stuff, and it’s definitely something I want to try,” Dave says. “As I was investigating the technology and what I have to work with, I noticed that the voice recognition stuff is set up already in a really convenient way for giving simple commands with a verb and a noun—[I thought] wow, this is just like those old parsers from text adventures, and we really could easily, from a technological standpoint anyway, put together an audio version of an old text adventure. And [former Infocom implementer] Brian Moriarty is on our advisory board, so I would be inclined to let him do that. [laughs] It’s not at the absolute top of my list of priorities, for reasons that those games are a little bit nichey, and we are primarily after the audience of audio book people, but it’s really interesting so I do want to try it.” That being said, “We’re not really competing with games so much as we’re competing with audio books and radio dramas. The people who have those things in their lives will be the people who are most interested in this.”
Though Reactive does plan to pursue known authors and properties—Grossman says they already have a New York Times best-selling author “semi-signed,” and if J.K. Rowling happens to be reading this she should give him a call—their releases will ultimately be a mix of licensed work and new concepts. “We want to do some internal stuff too, just because it’s fun, and because we can,” Dave says. “It’s not going to be super expensive to produce these things. Jon likes writing and I like writing, so as much as we can spare the bandwidth to do that, we’re going to do some stuff of our own.”
The flow of Dave's first Codename Cygnus episode, laid out in an old-school Post-It window map
In addition to new installments of Codename Cygnus, which is releasing episodically on the App Store and Google Play, Dave is already tinkering with some new ideas. “I love the old style of radio [serials], and I want to do some things in that style, maybe even adding some scratchiness to the audio and making it sound like it’s coming out of an AM radio. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde idea that I want to do that way,” he explains. “This would be a thing where the audience is responsible for a very specific part of the narrative; in this case it would be that you are Henry Jekyll’s addiction, and all you do as the audience is to put the idea into Jekyll’s head to turn into Hyde, and vice versa. So any time you can say ‘become Jekyll’ or ‘become Hyde,’ and the story would be listening to you all the time, and it would then take the responsibility of responding to that as soon as possible. And so it becomes a sort of exploratory fun thing where you probably go back and try, what if I did the other thing, what if I was Hyde here, how would this scene play out differently? Or, what if so-and-so finds out, what if I turn into Hyde in front of that person? So a lot of the fun is in the repetition there. And it’s a little bit gamey—you can make goals for yourself and encounter problems and stuff—and a little bit lite entertainment I think, just by its nature.”
His second idea is for a Sherlock Holmes audio drama based on an existing story in the public domain. For this one, “we’re beefing up what the voice controls can do to respond to a much wider variety of [commands],” he explains, pointing out that Codename Cygnus’s binary choices are only an early example of what Reactive’s tech can do. “[Codename Cygnus is] expecting some very specific responses—it sets you up and it often gives you a specific cue of, are you going to do, X or Y? That was done for reasons of economy because they had to make the thing really fast, and training the voice recognition modules is one of the hardest parts; it takes a while to do that. So you’ll notice in Cygnus there’s some repetition of what it’s looking for [you to say]. But there’s [also] a directed narrative where the audience isn’t responsible for the specific same thing all the time; it’s situational.”
“What we want to do [with Sherlock Holmes] is expand this to allow the audience to be a lot more free with what they’re going to say at any given time, so the game could ask a question like ‘What do you think it means?’—a question like Holmes would be asking Watson—and that means the moments can be a lot more engaging; you don’t feel that artificiality that’s being imposed. That’s where I think we’re going to get things that are more directed narrative-wise, but a lot more dramatically and emotionally compelling, because the audience gets sucked in a bit more.” As for puzzling through the mystery, “Holmes is going to figure it out sooner or later, but there’s going to be a lot of intrinsic stuff giving you the opportunity to figure it out for yourself. And also your interactions with Holmes, who’s kind of annoying—how are you going to take that? And you’ll respond if you’re asked a question, that kind of thing. [It’ll be] about feeling the choice in the moment and managing your relationship with Holmes.”
Jennifer Bean records in Reactive's own sound booth
Being choice-driven and episodic, the audio dramas do have some similarities to the games Dave made at Telltale. “I definitely think there are elements of narrative design, about setting up and paying off a moment of choice, that are intrinsic to both studios. That’s more going to come across in projects where the audience is specifically playing a character in the story, where it’s a little more free-form and engaging,” such as the proposed Sherlock Holmes game. As for the episodic format, “When radio serials are your model, it’s sort of obvious where that comes in. Leave Pauline dangling from a cliff, and tune in next week, and buy Weetabix, and all that stuff.” But because Reactive’s apps lack graphics and are fairly simple to program, they may be able to pull off the elusive episodic schedule more easily than even Telltale has in the past. “Another thing we’ve got going for us is quick turnaround,” Dave says. “We already have some back end in place so that it’s really easy for us to modify the content and put up the new stuff with hours of turnaround. And because we’re not trying to do visuals, that also means that we cut a lot of production time, so we can make a schedule that’s pretty aggressive and put things out every week or two.”
One issue that has emerged in Telltale’s games and other choice-driven adventures like Heavy Rain is that what seem to be major choices (should I save Doug or Carley?) turn out not to have a big impact on the overall story. When each story branch requires additional art and programming resources, it’s understandably prohibitive to develop a lot of them, especially for scenarios few players will end up in. “I remember in the last episode of the first season of The Walking Dead, at the beginning there are all kinds of ways that scene can be set up depending on who’s there with you, and my favorite versions of the scene were the ones that were statistically the least likely to occur,” Dave recalls. “You there with just Ben is really fun, and nobody ends up there, and I think just Kenny was the other one that was quite good. So I was kind of disappointed that more people didn’t see those, but I was really happy that they were in there, because some people do see them, and I want to support that.”
Doug or Carley? Key choices in The Walking Dead impacted which characters you rescued from trouble, though they had little impact on the overall story.
In Reactive’s audio dramas, “Because of the relatively constant amount of effort that goes into producing any particular piece of it—you basically do a little writing, and then you need to do a little audio work, and maybe some sound effects—that means we can do stories that are really branchy,” Dave explains. “The Jekyll and Hyde thing would probably be like that, and I imagine there will be all kinds of wild things happening, that would be too art-intensive to do three or four or six different versions of, if you were trying to do graphics. But if you’re doing something that’s audio only, then you can. So we actually can allow the stories to go to crazier places than we would be able to do otherwise.”
Codename Cygnus lets you easily rewind the story at will
Not only will story branches be easier to produce, but he hopes they’ll also be easier to explore: “That’s kind of a design thing. [Replaying to see all the optional content is] not how you’re supposed to enjoy [Telltale’s games]. But if we’re doing something where a lot of the fun is in that back and forth exploration, you just need to provide a little support for that thing you do when you read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which is ‘I’ll stick my finger in the page here and come back to it’—I just need a rewind function so I can go back ten minutes. I want all that stuff anyway because the nature of the distracted audience is, ‘I was cooking dinner while I was messing with this thing, and something boiled over so I wasn’t paying attention for the last five minutes, can you repeat the last five minutes?’”
Voice recognition software has been around for years—in 2012, Adventure Gamers even posted an editorial about its potential use in adventure games—but applications like the iPhone’s Siri have shown that conversing with your so-called smart device often has dumb results. How will Reactive improve on this experience? “Siri is an interesting example; you can see the sparkly ‘hey wow’ parts where it’s working well, and the seams where it’s not working well,” Dave says. “We have a bit of an advantage because what we will be asking it to look for [is] narrower than anything you might say to your phone. There’s a narrative going on … there’s a subset of all human speech that makes sense for you to say here, and we can concentrate on that. So the hope is that we’ll have something [with] a higher rate of success of interpreting what you’re trying to say.”
Simple voice commands allow player freedom without being overly demanding technologically
Then again, typing unexpected commands (and naughty words!) into a text parser to see how it will respond is more or less a requirement when you’re playing a text adventure. Can Reactive’s technology deal gracefully with these scenarios? “I think if we do go and do something that’s a lot like an old text adventure, and it’s very free-form and expecting you, the audience, to make decisions about what you’re going to pick up and where you’re going to use things, and all these puzzley things, then we do reintroduce some of the problems that parsers had back then,” Dave agrees. “There’s a lot of empty space in between things that are valid for you to say, and getting the voice recognition system to respond in an intelligent and fun way when you either haven’t done the right thing, or when it hasn’t understood what you were trying to tell it to do because it was too complicated; that’s part of the challenge. That’s where the work becomes harder.”
Should non-native speakers of English be concerned about their words being understood? Grossman says no—so far, dialects and accents haven’t been an issue, thanks to “lots and lots of aggregate data of many different people recorded saying the same thing. It just gets better and better over time. We get all that data, it comes through and it will report to us, ‘Here are things we thought people were saying to the game’, and we can look and go, ‘Oh, well that’s not right, can you play me the audio of that? Okay here’s what this actually should be.’ So it gets better and better. As part of the training we go through a beta phase where the game’s done, you train it up with people just playing the game and testing it and stuff, and this can keep going after the game is live.” And if the game just doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say? “The fallback is that there are going to be buttons on the screen, if you notice that it’s really having trouble with your particular version of English, you can [use those]. But hopefully we don’t have that problem.”
With their Kickstarter promises delivered and Codename Cygnus underway episodically, Reactive is now pursuing venture funding so they can continue to grow. Dave’s first release with the company is a Codename Cygnus holiday special, which can be accessed as free DLC from within the (also free to download) app. Set at a holiday party with the Cygnus agents competing in a contest to take each other down, Grossman’s trademark humor is in full effect and the fun of figuring out how to be the last agent standing gives an encouraging glimpse of the sort of narrative puzzles we can expect in Reactive’s future releases.
While there are no firm release plans yet for either the Jekyll and Hyde or Sherlock Holmes projects Dave talked about, we can expect developments in 2015. “I’m excited about it because it’s new and it’s going to be fun,” he says of his new career adventure. “It’s going to be fun for me to do, and it’s going to be fun for people to play, too. Some of the audience that came along for the Telltale ride and is enjoying those things, I think there will be similar stuff about [Reactive’s games] that they’ll like, but under different circumstances.”
Read on for Dave’s thoughts on the current state of adventure games, Kickstarter, and how he’s seen the industry change since he started at LucasArts.
Emily Morganti: Have you played any good adventure games lately?
Dave Grossman: I don’t know if things that I have played lately count as adventure games. I played DEVICE 6, that doesn’t count at all. It’s a weird interactive novel thing, which I loved. But that would be a pretty broad definition.
Emily: You don’t think so? Adventure Gamers considered it one.
Dave: Oh yeah? Okay, well if Adventure Gamers called that an adventure game, then probably the stuff Reactive is making, you would like in a similar way. And yeah, DEVICE 6 was terrific. It does have those kind of almost Myst-like adventure puzzles, kind of abstract things with weird things to look at, but it’s just so elegantly designed it’s ridiculous. I played Gunpoint recently, which is not an adventure game at all, but it’s a little puzzley game; it was pretty good too.
Emily: Are you mostly playing mobile games?
Dave: Yeah. I’ve bought a bunch of stuff on Steam and it’s all backlogged, it’s just sitting there. Whenever I’m in that room I’m working. I try to make time for them, but I’m addicted to my iPad. It’s attached to me.
Emily: Of course you’re going to play all of Telltale’s new stuff?
Telltale's Game of Thrones
Dave: I’m super looking forward to Game of Thrones, actually. I know very little about it; it was still in genesis when I was getting out of there, but I was in on an early playtest session, where [designer Ryan] Kaufman and a bunch of people on the team were talking through it. He was the narrator, and I was the player, and it was really fun. They were doing some really good things about involving me in the problems right away. So assuming they haven’t changed any of that stuff, I think it’s going to be good.
Emily: What do you think of the state of adventure games now—the shift that we’ve seen with Telltale over time, and how that has defined what some other studios are doing?
Dave: I think it’s great. I think the stuff Telltale is doing is fantastic, I like interacting with it and I’m looking forward to getting to do that without having been on the production floor while we were making it. Curse of Monkey Island was really fun for me because it was the first time I got to play one of those Monkey Island games without really [knowing] what was going to happen; I hadn’t been there for all the grueling business of setting it up, and I feel the same way about Telltale. It’s a great evolution of interactive narrative that I’m happy to see.
It’s not the only thing I see in the world of adventure games right now. There are lots of indie adventure games and Kickstarted adventure games that are more focused on “Let’s have some crazy puzzles”—I like that too. And it seems like there’s a resurgence of that; lots of people are trying to do what Telltale does, but lots of people are also trying to do [more traditional adventures].
Emily: You know, some fans are really angry at Telltale for betraying their roots and going away from that format.
Dave: [deadpan] I’m not sorry about that at all. It needed to be done.
Emily: Are you also working with Bill Tiller on Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler?
Dave is contributing as a design consultant on Bill Tiller's Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler!
Dave: A little. I have done a little review work on his design, I gave him some feedback, and when he gets back to me I’m going to do that again. Bill basically called me up and said, “Hey, you want to have some fun with me on this thing?” And I was like, “I don’t have a lot of time, but maybe we could work on a little trade,” so actually I’ve been doing a little design review work for him, and he’s been doing some art for me on a totally-not-games-related project that I’ve got going on the side. So yeah, I’ve been consulting here and there. That’s actually not even the only adventure game I’m working on, but I can’t talk about the other one.
Emily: Has it been announced?
Dave: It had a Kickstarter, so I guess people are aware that it’s going on, but they don’t know anything about how it’s progressing.
Emily: What do you think of Kickstarter?
Dave: It certainly has worked very well, on the surface, for some people. I thought about trying to launch a Kickstarter and do something that way, and I went and talked to a bunch of my friends who have done it, and almost all of them advised against it. I think it’s great, the way it has allowed kind of weird niche projects to get themselves into existence, that old-style patronage thing. If you can find some people who will back you from the get-go, you don’t have to convince a publisher with a very specific property, you just get people who are into it for being into it and don’t have to put up a lot of money, then that’s fantastic. What I have heard from people is it becomes a huge responsibility on the back end; you wind up with a lot less money than you were hoping that you would have after people take their cuts, and you have to ship a bunch of prizes to people for backing you, and you’re sort of indebted to your backers for the life of the project, and you have to spend some of your time thinking about that all the while you’re making your game. The other thing is, it does really rely on making a play with the force of your personality, and that works really well for some people, but I don’t think I’m one of them. [laughs]
That said, Codename Cygnus was on the back of a Kickstarter, so there you go.
Emily: This is the third time you’ve signed on with a small studio in its early days. From LucasArts to Telltale to Reactive, how has that experience changed over the years?
Day of the Tentacle received numerous translations as it was published around the world
Dave: The experiences certainly have been different for me. LucasArts is a weird thing; it felt like a start-up because the group was really small—it was maybe a couple dozen when I joined there—but it was part of a much larger company that had really deep pockets, and so we didn’t have that [feeling of] “Nobody’s going to eat next week if we don’t finish this.” It was very free in terms of, we’re just here to make fun stuff, so let’s go do that, and have a good time doing it, and put it out on the marketplace and we’ll see if anybody buys it. At least at the beginning it was like that. Eventually they did decide we had to make a profit, but that was a couple of years into my tenure there. And that actually resulted in… like, there are all these different translations of Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island, and the reason that those exist is that we could get money up front for them, and we were trying to make numbers for the year. So the guy who was in charge of the division at that time went out and made a bunch of crazy deals and was like, “Okay, the division is saved, they’re not going to shut us down, but we have to translate the game into Swedish and Hebrew and Korean.”
Telltale was sort of on its feet [when I started] and they already had a deal with Ubisoft to make CSI games, which was kind of keeping the doors open while we did other stuff. So it had that lean and mean start-up feel, which was good, but it did sort of feel like, “Okay, we’re over the first hurdle and we might make it a year or two.” I was feeling kind of footloose and fancy free in those days, too. I didn’t really expect to stay this long, but I didn’t actually want to have a different job. I had been freelancing for eleven years at that point and it was nice to have a home for a while, and not always have to be looking for that next gig. Here were some people who were going to be making games that I was going to enjoy working on; why [shouldn’t] I just go do that all the time?
And by then… I guess in the LucasArts days the games industry in general was just so small that doing a start-up there—it was cheap, but you couldn’t get investment money, or that kind of thing. By the 2000s, Hollywood had sort of come and gone and come again to the industry and that was a time when you could find [venture capital] money for things, you could get angel investors to prop stuff up, so there was a lot more awareness of what constituted good talent and what was a good idea for a company. So you could go out with something novel like Telltale and say, “Look, this digital thing is going to be really big, and we want to take advantage of it,” and you could find people who would see the wisdom in it and invest in it.
Emily: Adventure Gamers interviewed Dan Connors in 2005 and he talked about how delivering games like iTunes delivered music would be the next big thing. Turns out he was right.
Telltale's Sam & Max series helped popularize the now-ubiquitous digital distribution model
Dave: And to be fair, Ron Gilbert’s company previous to that, Hulabee, had already tried to do that. I wrote a couple of games with them that were intended to be digitally distributed, and the marketplace for it was just too small still, then. This was about five years earlier, so it was just at the end of the time when people were like, “We can’t do that.” Telltale broke the mold open.
Emily: And now, ten years later, there’s a saturation of indie games and mobile games—there’s so much competition—and it’s become really hard for games to get noticed. Because Reactive isn’t strictly in the game category, do you feel that will help you get attention as you go after funding?
Dave: The people we talk to aren’t like, “Oh, here’s another indie game studio.” They’re like, “Oh, you have a really interesting thing that’s outside that space, that’s potentially going to be huge.” We have big dreams of kicking off a whole new platform and a whole new medium for doing interactive entertainment.
Emily: Thanks for chatting with us, Dave! We’ll keep our ears open (heh, get it?) for news on what you and Reactive are working on in 2015.