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Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman – Return to Monkey Island interview

Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman – Return to Monkey Island interview
Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman – Return to Monkey Island interview

Ron Gilbert hates April Fool’s Day. At least, that’s what he’s led readers of his Grumpy Gamer blog to believe for the past eighteen years. But he’s also a fan of letting ideas gestate. His last release, Thimbleweed Park, was a spiritual successor to his very first, 1987’s Maniac Mansion. The game he made before that, The Cave, spawned from an idea that he’d had even before Maniac Mansion. And he’s been ruminating about returning to Monkey Island ever since Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge came out more than thirty years ago.

So when Ron posted this on his blog on April 1, fans had good reason to hope:

Image #1

Three days later, his offhand announcement was made official. Return to Monkey Island, the sixth installment in the genre-defining franchise that Ron conceived at Lucasfilm Games, will be out later this year, with Ron Gilbert and his Secret of Monkey Island and LeChuck’s Revenge collaborator Dave Grossman at the helm.

I chatted with Ron and Dave in their first interview since Return to Monkey Island was revealed. Here’s what they had to say.


Ron, you have a long history of hating April Fool’s Day. How did this start, and at what point in that long history did the idea of announcing this game become part of it?

Ron: I think I’ve always disliked April Fool’s. It’s mostly a quality issue—there’s so much crap out there on April Fool’s, and the majority of it is just bad. It’s bad humor, it’s bad everything. And so I’ve just always hated it. I can’t think of an example, but I’m sure I’ve gotten sucked into an April Fool’s thing at some point, and you’re like “Arrrggghh” when that happens. I don’t like humor that’s based on practical jokes or making fun of people or putting down people, and it seems like that’s really all April Fool’s is, right? April Fool’s is just making fun of people and trying to dupe them. And so on my blog, all the way back to almost the beginning, I’ve always said, “This blog will always be April Fool’s free.” And it kind of gained a little bit of a cult following; people come to it every year just to be reassured by my statement.

I don’t know when I first thought about announcing Monkey Island on April Fool’s. It was maybe about the time right after I wrote that If I Made Another Monkey Island thing [in 2013], and I just thought, you know—it was a weird fantasy, I was like oh, I’d buy the rights back, and I’d announce it on April 1, and it’d be great. And then when we did the deal for [Return to Monkey Island], I realized these dates might line up. If we get moving on this, April Fool’s actually might line up with when we’re able to announce it. So I kind of stuck the stake in the ground.

Dave: The first phone call that we had about the project included that plan of announcing it on April 1, and at the time I thought, “That’s a terrible idea. Oh no, we can’t do that. That’s the worst idea.” And then I slept on it, and then in the morning I was like, “That’s the greatest idea!”

What did you think of the reaction, first when people didn’t know that it was real, and then when they found out on April 4 that it was real?

Image #2
                                    Ron Gilbert

Ron: I was really pleased with the reaction on the first, because it was exactly what I wanted. Half the people thought, “There’s no way it’s true,” and the other half of the people thought, “It must be true.” People were citing the fact that I’ve always said my blog would be April Fool’s joke free, and so that was proof that this was actually true, which is great, right? And somebody online called it, like, “a wonderfully crafted adventure game puzzle,” which made me feel really good. You know, it was all this kind of weird intrigue.

I think the announcement went really well. The only part of the announcement I was a little disappointed with was that April Fool’s fell on a Friday, which means we really couldn’t announce it for real until Monday. There was more time than I would have liked to let it fester with some people. But other than that, I think it went exactly—better than I could have hoped.

Dave: The discussion over that weekend was great. I did see a poll from somewhere, where the people who said that it was an April Fool’s joke won out two-thirds to one-third.

Luckily polls don’t determine what actually happens! Ron, for a long time you’ve said that you wouldn’t make another Monkey Island game unless you owned the IP. And you’re in a situation now where you’re making the game, but Lucasfilm owns it, and Lucasfilm is owned by Disney. So can you tell us how Return to Monkey Island came to be, and how your thinking has changed around that?

Ron: Well, I bought Disney, that’s how this all happened. [laughter] Yeah, I said I wouldn’t do it unless I owned it, and I certainly kind of poked around Disney trying to figure out whether there was any interest in that. What was very obvious was that they really liked Monkey Island, that Monkey Island meant a lot to the people at least in the Lucasfilm group of Disney. And that was just never going to happen. It’s not like Disney needs the money, and I could slip them some money, and yay, they can make their quarter or something. It’s just not a reasonable possibility for me to do. And I think the more important thing, rather than owning it, was that I really wanted to have creative freedom. I didn’t want to be making a game and having somebody tell me what I should make. It’s not a work-for-hire gig. So that was probably more important than actually owning it, was being able to make the game we wanted to make.

The whole thing came about because I was talking to Nigel [Lowrie] from Devolver. We got together, I think it was at PAX, and we just started talking. He had mentioned that he knew John Drake, that they were friends, and John Drake was in charge of, I think, the licensing at Lucasfilm Games. So he wanted to approach [John] about doing a Monkey Island, and I thought sure, let’s see if anything goes.

Image #3

The courthouse of a chilly new island – Return to Monkey Island

So Nigel approached John Drake, and they had a conversation, and it turned out that Disney was willing to talk about it. How long ago was that?

Ron: Maybe two years ago January was when we started discussions with them.

Early 2020, then? Early pandemic?

Dave: You had to have talked a little bit before then, because you called me about it in December.

Ron: Well, I talked to Nigel about it, probably at the PAX before that. And the thing I told Nigel is, “I need to think about this. I need to make sure that we have a good idea.” It’s obviously—it’s a game that’s just fraught with problems, just because of the historicalness of it, and I just wanted to make sure that we had a good idea. That’s when I called Dave, before that, and Dave flew up here [to Seattle], and we spent a couple of days just hammering out, “Okay, if we were going to make another one, what would it be?” We just thrashed all sorts of ideas and talked about what are the themes, and what do we want to say in the game, all that stuff. And it was after that discussion with Dave that I felt confident—“All right, I think we can make a good game.” And that’s when the discussion started up for real.

That would have been around three years after Thimbleweed Park came out. Were you thinking at that point about doing another adventure game? I remember right after Thimbleweed Park, you had thoughts about experimenting with other genres.

Ron: Yeah, right after Thimbleweed Park, I started working on an RPG. And I worked on that for a while; I worked on that for about a year, but it just wasn’t coming together in a way I was happy with. So when the Monkey Island stuff came about, then I’m like, you know, I think I’m going to focus on this, rather than the RPG thing. I may go back to the RPG thing when [Return to Monkey Island's] over, just because it is a game I really liked and was very interested in.

And Dave, were you still working with Earplay when this all started?

Image #4
                                Dave Grossman

Dave: Sort of. Earplay had gone into a mode where it was mostly doing service work for other companies, and so there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot for me to do. So I had actually been specifically looking for what was my next project going to be, outside of that, and Ron and I had even earlier talked about another thing that we might do together. So lines of communication were open, and he called me up and said, “What do you think about this Monkey Island game; would you want to do that?” And I was like, “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I need right now.”

It was an easy answer, then?

Dave: It was, yeah. You know, a chance to revisit the world and write some funny stuff and work with Ron again. A-plus, I’m in. I’m easy.

Ron: I think Dave was more enthusiastic than I was. I think I was a little more scared about the whole thing, and just thinking about, “Can we really do this? What if we fail?” I think Dave was a little more infectious with his enthusiasm, which really helped me, because it was like, “You know what? Dave thinks this is going to work; Dave is behind this. I can be behind it too; I can do this too.” So I think Dave helped out a lot.

Dave: I had all those same fears and anxieties, but I didn’t want to let them get in the way of the fun.

Ron: Smart move, smart move.

Dave, you had worked on Monkey Island more recently than Ron had, on Tales of Monkey Island.

Dave: Sort of. We both sort of technically worked on that. Tales was… so that was even, how many years is it now?

It launched in 2009.

Dave: Yeah, so that’s certainly been a while, and my role in that was sort of different from what it had been on [Monkey Island 1 and 2], where [on Tales of Monkey Island] I was mostly making sure other people were doing a good job with the stuff that they were doing. And I got to crash a lot of story meetings and poke holes in a lot of pitches, but I didn’t actually write a single word for it. So this has been refreshing.

So, just so we’re all clear here, Devolver’s publishing Return to Monkey Island, you have complete creative control, and Lucasfilm is…?

Ron: They’re the IP rights holder. I think they call themselves the “steward” of the property. I’m sure that probably has some legal meaning; I don’t know. But yeah, Devolver’s publishing it and then Lucasfilm is the IP holder, and that’s how that whole thing works.

And, as Terrible Toybox, you’ve been in charge of picking the team and making all the hires and overseeing everything?

Ron: Yeah, we’re the developer, so we hire the team and figure all that out, do the design, programming, art—all of that other stuff is done [by] us.

How big is the team?

Ron: I think we were twenty-five at its height. We’ve lost a couple people since then, just because we’re winding down, but I think it was about twenty-five.

How does that compare to the Thimbleweed Park team size?

Ron: I think Thimbleweed Park never got above like fourteen or so, so it’s bigger than the Thimbleweed Park team.

Where are the extra people coming from? More art?

Ron: It’s definitely more art; there’s a few more programmers… there might be like one more programmer. But most of it’s art. Just a lot more artists, a lot more animators than we had on Thimbleweed Park.

Is that because you have a bigger budget to play with?

Ron: Yeah, it’s bigger budget. Also it’s a different art style; it’s a lot… harder’s not the right word, but there’s a lot more that has to go into it. So, you know, there’s several animators, several background artists. We have a dedicated storyboard artist; all Sarah [Thomas] does is storyboards for us. So every scene is all storyboarded out. We didn’t have that on Thimbleweed Park.

Image #5

A mysterious and dangerous location on Monkey Island – Return to Monkey Island

How does it compare to the team size or the team breakdown you had on The Secret of Monkey Island?

Ron: [laughs] I think—

Dave: Do you remember back that far?

Ron: I counted it up one time, and I think there were seven core members of that team, not including the test department. So it was a much smaller team.

Speaking of artists, Return to Monkey Island is not a pixel art game. How would you describe the art style?

Ron: We use the word “modern.” But I think that’s just because of the pixel art nature of Monkey 1 and Monkey 2. So we kind of describe it as modern. It’s probably not an accurate description of it, but it’s how we look at it.

Dave: The word “storybook” has been thrown around in conjunction with the art a few times. I could see that.

So far, all we’ve seen is the little teaser that you put out last week, so there’s not a lot to react to yet. The game’s art director, Rex Crowle, has worked on LittleBigPlanet and Double Fine’s Knights and Bikes. Is he also a Monkey Island fan?

Ron: Yeah, he had done a very blocky version of Guybrush, and he sent that to me a long time ago, 2007 or 2008. I remember he sent that to me, and I didn’t know who he was at all, just some guy sending me fan art. And I really liked it, so I made it my desktop for a long time. When I started thinking about this game, I remembered how striking that image was, and I wouldn’t want to make a game like that, but it was a striking image. So I started googling [his name] and he’s around; he did Knights and Bikes and did this other stuff that I didn’t know beforehand he was involved in. Then I just cold emailed him, out of the blue, and said, “Hey! Remember this thing you sent me?” And we had a conversation and we talked about Monkey Island, and his vision for what he saw that the art could be for it, and then we just slowly moved down that path with him.

Would you say that the art style you ended up with evolved from that first idea he had?

Ron: It’s more than an evolution. We didn’t end up going with that style, but I just found it a striking image, and one of the things that I was looking for in the art for this game was to do something that hadn’t really been done before. The pixel art had been done before—we’re now thirty-five years from the last pixel art game version of it—[The Curse of Monkey Island] had its art style, [Escape from Monkey Island] had its own art style, [Tales of Monkey Island] had its own art style. So you really look at these games, and there have been more non-pixel games than there have been pixel games, at this point in time. And I wanted to embrace something new, and to try something new for the art style, and kind of continue that tradition, almost, of reexamining what the art was for [Monkey Island]. And Rex is a brilliant artist. Having him be able to take that and wrap his vision around this stuff has been very exciting.

Did your experience with Thimbleweed Park influence your decision to use pixel art or not use pixel art? Or was pixel art never on the table?

Ron: Dave and I talked about pixel art, when we had that first meeting. Should we do it with pixel art, should we not do it with pixel art? When I wrote that article back in 2013, If I Made Another Monkey Island, I think there was an itch in me to do a pixel art game, and you see that, because I talk a lot about pixel art [in the blog post]. I had not done a pixel art game since Monkey Island. And it wasn’t even pixel art back then. Back then it was just art, and it was state-of-the-art art at the time. And so I think back in 2013, there was that itch to do that pixel art stuff, and I think Thimbleweed Park was really the result of that article, in a way. A lot of the things I talked about in the article manifested in Thimbleweed Park. So I feel like I did what I wanted to do with Thimbleweed Park, so coming on to this I felt a lot freer to really look at, “What do we need to do? What is the right thing we need to do for this?” Evolving things, evolving the franchise, embracing new audiences—all these things, those are the big questions that we needed to ask ourselves. But ultimately it was a personal choice that we made, and we really like this art.

Image #6

Released in 2017 but set in 1987, Thimbleweed Park embraced big heads, chunky pixels, and verbs.

You just mentioned reaching new audiences. Do you feel it was important to choose an art style like this, as opposed to pixel art, to be able to reach a broader audience?

Ron: Yeah, I think it is. Personally I love pixel art, and there are a lot of people who love pixel art, but I think for a lot of people, pixel art does feel like a dated thing. On Thimbleweed Park, I don’t think an article appeared where people didn’t call it a throwback game. And that always stung me a little bit with Thimbleweed, because it’s like, we were trying a lot of new things; there’s a lot of interesting design stuff going on there, and I always thought it was better than a throwback game, but you can’t shake that.

Dave: Of course, in that case your entire marketing angle was that it was a throwback. That’s not the case here.

Ron: Yes.

Dave, do you have any thoughts about pixel art?

Dave: Yeah… I also haven’t made a proper pixel art game since Monkey 2, and I just… I mean, it was good that we thought about using it, but I think our job as creators is to choose all the elements to tell the story that we want to tell, the best we can, and we sort of line them up against each other. Pixel art just didn’t stack up for us, and we’ve got to do what’s best for the game.

Ron, you also said in that 2013 blog post that if you made another Monkey Island game, it would be Monkey Island 3a, and it would be your vision for how the series would have continued if you had stayed at Lucasfilm after LeChuck’s Revenge. Is that what Return to Monkey Island is?

Ron: That’s definitely one of the things that Dave and I talked a lot about when he came up and we hashed through all of this. The honest truth is that neither of us would be able to make the game we would have made back then. We’re different people. The ideas I had floating around in my head for what my Monkey Island 3 would have been, a lot of those ideas have already been done. Monkey Island 3 and 4 and 5 picked [up] a lot of those ideas, not because they stole them from me, but they did them because they were just ideas, and they were natural ideas. So I really couldn’t make the actual game. If I made the actual Monkey Island 3a, people would say, “Oh, you’re just ripping off [Escape from Monkey Island], you’re just ripping off [The Curse of Monkey Island].” I don’t think you can make that game. And Dave and I aren’t the same people either; we’re different people now than we were back then. So I don’t think you can make that. One of the things that was very important to me about this was that I did want the game to start right at the end of Monkey Island 2, when you walk into that amusement park. I wanted the game to start there.

Image #7

This scene in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge has had fans theorizing for more than thirty years.

So Return to Monkey Island starts in the amusement park?

Ron: Yeah, that was kind of my one criteria: we need to start the game there. I don’t want to go into all the details of it, but we do start there, and then it takes lots of weird twists and turns that you would expect from us.

I’ve seen speculation online where people think this will slot in between Monkey Island 2 and Monkey Island 3, but then Murray, a character from the third game, is in the teaser. So how does the chronology work? When is it set?

Ron: How would you describe it, Dave? It’s kind of amorphous. It’s undefinable in a lot of ways.

Dave: And possibly not important, ultimately. Trying to assign specific numbers to the stories will become hard at some point.

Like Murray, can we expect to see nods to Escape from Monkey Island and Tales of Monkey Island in this game?

Ron: We very purposefully don’t do anything to invalidate any of the canon that’s happened in those games. We’re not saying any of those things didn’t happen, we don’t talk down to them at all. We embrace a lot of the things we liked in those games. So we were very, very careful about that. I remember some of those conversations Dave and I had, there was this kind of tendency to just throw everything out, let’s just start over. But the thing we finally came around to is, these are very beloved games. We didn’t make them, but there are still a lot of good things in those games, and we wanted to embrace those, not whisk them away.

Dave: We talked all about canon and these other games, and the fact that we liked them, and the audience liked them, and so we made it our point of philosophy to adhere to canon wherever possible, but with two caveats. One of which is, it’s actually kind of hard to keep track of everything that’s canon, and some of these other games don’t even agree with each other. So a little bit of paradox is necessary and probably healthy for us as creators and as human beings. And the other caveat is that too much canon can get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell, so we decided that we would adhere to canon unless it was going to get in the way, and we would ignore some minor details if we needed to.

Ron: Which I think the other games did as well. You have to be a little flexible in that stuff.

You keep it where it’s convenient, and you ignore it where it’s convenient.

Ron: Yeah, you don’t want to create paradoxes, you don’t want to do things that are so bad that people are like, “What the heck?” But I think the little things, you just have to let the story be what the story is.

Dave: Canon’s kind of a modern idea, isn’t it? If you think about the old myths and things, nothing ever made sense from one story to the next in those. I blame comic books for our slavish adherence to canon.

So you’re not going to tell us how we get from the amusement park into the game. Can you tell us anything about the story?

Ron: I don’t know how much we can go into that, because there are a lot of surprises. I don’t want to ruin a lot of the surprises that go on.

It’s going to be a pirate adventure?

Dave: It is a game about pirates.

Can you talk at all about other characters who will be in the game?

Ron: Well, Elaine is in it—I think that is fairly obvious—Elaine is in it, and we do have some returning cast; obviously Murray is in it. And we just got done recording the lookout; there are some of those kinds of returning characters in the game. And a whole cast of new ones too. This is not a remake, it is a brand new game. So there are returning characters, but there’s a huge slew of brand new characters you’ve never seen before.

I’m assuming from the website that Mêlée Island is a location in the game?

Ron: Yes, it is.

Dave: Good detective work.

Image #8

The iconic High Street of Mêlée Island – Return to Monkey Island

And I hope that Monkey Island is in the game too?

Ron: We might wedge that in.

It’s in the name, Ron. You have to get there by the end.

Ron: Well, in Monkey Island 2, they don’t go to Monkey Island.

Dave: I will say that the title of Monkey Island 2 was not Return to Monkey Island.

Ron: [laughs] That is true.

Do you have returning voice actors?

Ron: We’ve tried to get a lot of the returning voice actors, wherever we could. Some of the roles were voiced by several people in different games, but we did try to go back to the original people as much as we could.

You announced that Dominic Armato is signed on as Guybrush. How about Earl Boen as LeChuck?

Ron: Earl is an interesting one. We really would have loved to have him, but he’s retired. We did approach him, we did talk to him, and we did tell him all about the project. He very unfortunately said he had to decline, just because he’s retired and he’s getting older. But he did give us [his] blessing to recast the role. He said, “Recast the role, you have my full blessing to do that.” So that is one of the things we’ll be doing.

And then you have Murray’s voice actor, Danny Delk, returning?

Ron: Yep.

How about Elaine? Which Elaine are we going to get?

Ron: You’re going to get the Elaine from the original [games].

From Monkey Island 3, right? And Tales? Was she in Tales?

Dave: She was in Tales, but not in [Escape from Monkey Island]. Alexandra [Boyd].

So, interface? Point-and-click?

Ron: There is pointing and clicking. That is true. [laughs] Interface-wise, this one does other things, you know—[we’re] having fun and advancing things. It’s obviously not the seven- or nine-verb interface from Thimbleweed or back in the day. We did a lot of playing around when Delores came out, with interface and stuff, and we just kept looking and evolving. An important part of this, in some ways, is keeping and evolving the genre. Not letting it get static, saying, “Well, that’s what we did thirty years ago, so that’s exactly how we’re going to do it these days.” In some ways, that was Thimbleweed Park. So this game, we really have looked at things we can do that are going to be different and better and more streamlined, and Dave and I spent a lot of time looking at the interface going, “What is important to people? What are people trying to do?” I don’t want to say exactly what we did yet, but it is definitely a really fun evolution of the interface.

Image #9

Released for free a few months into the pandemic, the Delores “mini-adventure” features settings and characters from Thimbleweed Park, but a simpler interface.

You mentioned Delores. I remember that game was an experiment as you were building a new engine. Was that in preparation for this game?

Ron: Yeah, it was actually. I had a bunch of time blocked off in the schedule for this game—this was before we started and before we’d signed contracts and stuff—but I kind of knew I needed a big chunk of time to revamp the Thimbleweed Park engine for this. And then the pandemic started, and I started playing around with Delores, and David Fox and I started working on that. So that became the game where I rebuilt the whole engine that we’re using now.

And David Fox is working on Return to Monkey Island too, right?

Ron: Yeah, he is. He’s the lead game programmer.

Anyone else on the team whose names or past work our readers would recognize?

Dave: They’ll know the composers.

Ron: Yeah, Michael [Land] and Peter [McConnell] and Clint [Bajakian].

What’s it been like working with them?

Ron: It’s been great. It’s been really fun. It’s weird when you get back together with people like that, who you haven’t worked with or seen in thirty years. It’s like, we all look older, but we’re all the same people. The same conversations I remember having with Michael about the music and the Monkey Island theme and all this stuff, it’s the same conversations we have right now. That’s a lot of fun.

Dave: It’s nice, too, to have them around, because we know they already know what they’re doing, right? They’ve done music for several of these; we can just sort of trust them to do something good, and just kind of watch them work.

Ron: It’s really nice to have people like that on the team, because I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. They’re off, and we have quick calls, we’ve hashed out a couple of creative things, but generally they’re just doing what they do, and I have total faith in Peter and Michael and Clint that they’re just going to do what they’re going to do. That’s one of the great things about working with Dave. It’s like, I don’t worry about Dave. Dave’s off writing, and Dave’s doing programming, and Dave’s off doing stuff; I just don’t worry about what Dave is doing, because he can do all this stuff. It’s great to be working with people that you have such a history with, and you can just not worry about them.

Dave: I worry about Ron all the time, but most of what I worry about is that his head’s going to explode from all the stuff he has going on.

I want to talk about that a little. How often have your heads exploded on this project?

Ron: I don’t think anyone’s come to blows yet. It really is an amazing team to work with. Just really fun; the artists are incredible, the programmers are incredible. I don’t think there’s really been any conflict about anything, really. Other than just the normal creative stuff that you go through in a game. So it’s been great working with the team. We instituted in the beginning, there’s no overtime, there’s no crunch mode, there’s forty-hour weeks. And I know people slip in hours, I know people are doing that, but for the most part we try to keep people [from burning out].

So you’ve all been working remotely. Do you have any thoughts about that versus all being in an office together? Would you have preferred to all be in an office together?

Ron: I have not worked in an office since around 2012. Whenever The Cave came out, that’s the last time I worked in an office. So working remotely—I mean, I feel bad in some ways, because this whole pandemic has been meaningless to me. It’s like the same old world; I don’t have kids, I don’t have to deal with school, I don’t have to deal with any of that stuff. I do like working at home. I am somebody that works very well alone, I’m self-motivated, I don’t need that. But I do miss being able to walk into Dave’s office or David’s office and just start chatting about something and hashing out stuff. We kind of do that on Slack calls or whatever, but it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same as being able to just sit down with somebody or walk down to the coffee shop and drink your coffee.

Dave: I’ve spent more than half my career working remotely, and it suits me very well, especially now that I have a kid—I’m glad that I can be in the house when he’s here, and he sees more of me; we have a better relationship. [Working remotely] with a whole team of people works, and we make it work. You need to be really careful about the communication and ideas not getting lost, and I definitely do see some things that do get lost and we pick them up again like a month and a half later. It’s like, oh, if I’d been in an office and I was just walking around to people’s desks all the time, I would have seen this much earlier. There’s just a certain level of interaction that doesn’t get sustained if you’re not in an office. And then one other thing is just that sort of non-worky personal time that you get with people. We don’t have that at all, so we actually artificially recreated it; we have little water cooler meetings that are meant to recreate the experience of bumping into each other at the water cooler, and you sort of have a partner and you just chat for half an hour about not work, hopefully, and then go about your business.

Ron: We also have what we call chill times, which is just a time when anyone on Slack can join in and talk about non-work stuff, to help that socializing aspect that can be really lost in a remote work environment.

And you’re all going to get together at the end to stuff the code wheels into the boxes, right?

Dave: We’ve got to do that! It’s a tradition.

Image #10

The Secret of Monkey Island team and other Lucasfilm employees after an all-nighter stuffing game boxes in the warehouse. (Photo provided by Dave Grossman)

Dave, you mentioned your son. Has he played the Monkey Island games?

Dave: He has played Monkey 1, and we are still working our way through Monkey 2.

The last time Adventure Gamers interviewed you, he was a baby. How old is he now?

Dave: He’s seven, almost eight.

That’s a good age for adventure games. Start them young.

Dave: Uh-huh. Indoctrinate them early.

How did he react when you told him you’re making a Monkey Island game?

Dave: That was priceless. He is a little elementary school kid with a big mouth; he kind of never stops talking, so secrecy was important to this if we were going to make the April Fool’s Day plan work. So I didn’t tell him what I was working on for two years; it’s been like since he was five. And so the day the trailer dropped, I brought him in here [to my office] and I told him, “This is what I’ve been working on,” and I showed him the trailer. And he had various questions, but the funniest one was, he just said [makes a scrunched up face], “YOU made this?” And the way he said it was so incredulous, like, “There’s no way that you made that.” I didn’t know how to take that, but then later on that evening, he was mansplaining the game to my wife, like she’d never heard anything about it.

Back to the game development, I’m curious about the two of you working together after all these years. What is that process like? You’re both designing and both writing?

Dave: We’re kind of doing the design and story stuff all together. We’re talking every week about this stuff, and things come up and we knock them out. We’re both doing writing; I’m doing a little more of the actual words, Ron’s doing a little more of the direction and managing the engine people and stuff like that.

Is it similar to how you worked together on the other Monkey Island games you made together?

Ron: Yeah, it is very similar. I spent a lot of time during Monkey 1 and Monkey 2 doing design work, but I also spent a lot of time working on the SCUMM engine, and working with Aric [Wilmunder] on all of that stuff, and that’s the same here. I spend a lot of my time, probably at least half my time, working on the engine, doing the programming, and all that kind of stuff. Dave is taking on the bulk of the writing. There are sections that I’m doing, characters that are my characters, that I’m taking control of.

Dave: I’m going to be interested, when the game comes out, to see whether people pick out, like, “Ah, that’s a Ron part! And I hate it!” Or “And I love it!”

Ron: The grumpy [characters].

What’s been the most fun thing about working on this game?

Ron: I think working on anything is a lot of fun. There’s Thimbleweed Park, any of this stuff—it’s fun to create things. I like making things up. Dave and I have these standing meetings when we get together for one or two hours every single week on a Slack call, and we just kind of go over everything that’s come up in the game, feedback from testers and feedback from playtesters and stuff, and I really enjoy those. I really enjoy that time of hashing through all of the details with Dave.

Dave: We get to play “What if?” with that a lot. “Oh, this isn’t quite working. Oh, I know! What if…” That’s very creatively satisfying. And I also like the part where I get to go off by myself and invent things for people to say. I personally really enjoy that part.

Image #11

The locksmith shop of Mêlée Island and its proprietor – Return to Monkey Island

What’s been the hardest or least fun part of working on it?

Ron: You know, I think the thing for me that’s been the hardest on this project has been the stress of it being Monkey Island. There’s been so many years for people to build up what Monkey Island is, and it means so much to people, and there’s just been a lot of stress on me because of that. You fear, you know, am I going to [live] up to this? Am I going to do a good game that people feel like, this IS a Monkey Island game? That was one of the things [we talked about], when Dave and I first got together, that I want to make this a real pirate adventure. I don’t want it to be goofy and strange, I just want it to be a good, solid pirate adventure, because that’s what I felt like the first two were. They were good, solid pirate adventures. So that was kind of a cornerstone for me, which just falls into, you know, is this game going to hold up? Are people going to like it? That’s been a huge amount of stress for me.

Dave: I want to say another thing that I like, actually. I think Ron and I have good conflict resolution skills with each other. We don’t agree all the time; that’s insane, that would never happen between two people. But it seems like when we [disagree], we just sort of get together and we talk about stuff, and either we figure out somebody’s right, or we figure out somebody cares more strongly, and we just go that way. And I think that system has only failed us one time on the entire project; it was a casting decision I think, and Ron let me have my way, and then it all became moot anyway because we couldn’t use that person, so… [laughs]

Ron: Yeah, I would agree with that.

When can we expect to hear more about Return to Monkey Island?

Ron: There will be more. We’re not just going to drop the game on Steam one night.

Dave: That would be just like us, though.

But the game will be out in 2022?

Ron: Yes, unless some catastrophe happens.

Do you have anything else you want to make sure our readers know about this game?

Ron: I really hope people like it. There’s been a little bit of backlash because it’s not pixel art, and at some level that makes me sad, because we’ve spent two years with an incredible team making an incredible game that looks incredible, and it is a little bit sad to hear that. But I don’t think we’re going to let people down.

I don’t think you are either. Thanks for sharing these early details with us, and for the best April Fool’s joke ever.


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