Dave Grossman interview

Dave Grossman interview
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.’”

Dave Grossman

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.”

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