Bill Tiller may not be the biggest name in the adventure genre, but his work is surely among the most recognizable. The acclaimed artist and designer broke in with classic LucasArts titles like The Dig and The Curse of Monkey Island before launching an independent career. A close collaboration with Gene Mocsy (who also created 1954: Alcatraz) began with A Vampyre Story and continued on through Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, before the two joined forces once again for a new pirate adventure series named after its main character, Duke Grabowski. With the debut installment now squarely in the rear view mirror, I had the chance to chat with Bill and Gene over Skype a while back to discuss their partnership, the new game, and what the future might might bring – and of course share more than a few laughs while we were at it.
Ingmar: Welcome! In your last interview with Adventure Gamers, our editor said that “the genre needs a new Bill Tiller game.” Today I have finished the first episode of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! and I must say that he was absolutely right…
Bill Tiller: Thanks! It’s not just a Bill Tiller game, though, as it was designed by Gene Mocsy and I. Well, we also had a little help from Dave Grossman… very little help. (Gene laughs) No, no, don’t get me wrong. (Bill starts laughing too) He gave us some tips in the beginning, so his influence was very helpful, but it’s pretty much Gene and I who did the design work on this. I roughed up the story beforehand and the basic plot and puzzles, but Gene and I sat down hashing things out over several meetings, going back and forth on writing the game design document until we came up with the final design. And then Reed Knight [also known as Reed Derleth] helped out a little bit. He was a game designer on Jedi Knight, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and Republic Commando, by the way.
Ingmar: You were too fast for me, Bill! The full version of my opening about needing “a new Bill Tiller game” was supposed to be “and I would add the name Gene Mocsy.”
Gene Mocsy: Oh, thank you! Of course, the art direction is all Bill, and it looks beautiful. Everything he’s worked on is just amped, and increased the quality. The characters and settings and effects are all melded together to a beautiful monkey experience.
Bill: It was a lot of fun to work on it. I think we’re gonna get the effects, the models and the characters working even better in the next episode. I’m one of these people that’s critical of anything I worked on. After working on something for a long time I begin to get sick of it, see all the flaws, and feel like “I never want to see it again!” But, yeah, I look at Duke every now and then, and I’m pretty happy with it.
Ingmar: One thing I particularly liked about the first episode was the interaction between Duke and other characters. I mean, I often felt like people were talking to each other that don’t speak the same language. A lot of that was very funny, and made me realize what a likable character Duke actually is.
Bill: Gene is mostly responsible for that. He did around 80-90% of the dialogue.
Gene: Yeah, but Bill prototyped the idea that instead of a wise-ass, smart kind of hero, Duke is a different kind of guy. He’s just used to fighting and yelling, and he’s not used to negotiating or wooing, so that’s of course a great comic premise, and, you know, a big obstacle to romancing. He’s afraid of even talking to women in the first place, but we force him to. He finds out that women are just as capable of conspiring with him to pull off tricks or go on missions with him. He might have come to the island just thinking “let’s woo some girls,” but then he kind of learns a bit about the way the worlds works.
Bill: Obviously, the pirates he’s with are the true villains of the game. They’re kind of jerks and don’t like him, and you can kind of understand it because he can beat them all up, and does a good job of doing that. So they just want to get rid of him, and give him the task of making three women fall in love with him. They know he’s not very smart; he’s a pretty young guy who never had a girlfriend. They know he is socially awkward, and is not going to do well trying to get three women to fall in love with him. It’s just never going to happen. So they send him on this wild goose chase thinking “oh, get the hell out of here!”
What you realize is that Duke is a really nice guy, actually. He’s got a heart to him, and if he just shows that part of himself, people start to like him. He’s a bit of a brute and has a bit of a temper, but if he’s just helping people out, and being a good guy, he tends to get a lot more accomplished, and the villains underestimate that. He actually has a good moral center, so they don’t understand him at all as they’re just mean jerks who like to steal and rob. They fear Duke, but they don’t understand him.
Ingmar: This game has a very fun and clever way of turning Duke’s “violent behavior” and enormous powers into a puzzle element…
Bill: Thanks! In each game I work on I try to put in some kind of skill or new element. Like the vampire powers in A Vampyre Story or the voojoo spell powers in Ghost Pirates. In Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbucker! we have Duke’s strength. He’s kind of inspired by The Hulk and… what’s the name of the guy from Blazing Saddles?
Bill: Right! I love Mongo! He’s just, like, punching horses, crushing five guys with a piano and stuff like that. He’s kind of cartoony, you know, and Duke was inspired by that guy. So, yeah, that’s kind of a challenge because we have given Duke this strength, and had to make up puzzles for why he can’t just like punch through a door or a wall. We needed enough puzzles that involve his strength to solve them, but at the same time strength alone doesn’t solve everything.
Gene: I think that was one of the reasons why we set up Sheriff Nancy Steele as a foil to that, so Duke can’t just run around rampaging on the island.
Ingmar: (laughs) You know, that’s exactly what I thought Duke was going to do when I started playing, and noticed the option of punching other characters.
Gene: (laughs) Here we go!
Bill: (laughs) Yeah, at the same time we wanted to have fun with the character, so he gets into a good-natured brawl with some rivals, punches some bad guys and tosses them around. We definitely wanted to have some action in, but not overly violent action worse than a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Ingmar: Right. After all, he is a very likable guy.
Gene: I think a lot of that also has to do with [Duke’s voice actor] Erik Braa. He made him really human.
Bill: Yeah! Our biggest struggle was to figure out how to write Duke so that he didn’t sound like a caveman, which initially was what we were going for. After a while, that caveman got on everybody’s nerves, so we decided to make him a little more sophisticated, and thought he should have a little better ability to express himself.
Gene: I think we upgraded him to an orc! (Bill and Ingmar laugh)
Bill: A caveman orc! (everyone laughs)Continued on the next page...