We don’t band the term “legend” about lightly (despite what some comments on twitter might say) and this man truly falls into that category. LucasArts games helped us fall in love with gaming and to think that The Secret of Monkey Island games wouldn’t have been the same without this guy gives me shudders. Adrian caught up with the legendary Dave Grossman for your entertainment…
Dave, thanks so much for dropping by to Arcade Attack! We all know of your importance to the industry but how did you get into it in the first place?
Back in 1989 things were quite different. You couldn’t just walk into a studio and ask the CEO for a design job the way you can these days. Every company had an elaborately constructed entrance for job seekers that was sort of like an escape-the-room in reverse. If you were clever you could break in. This, incidentally, is why today it’s called “breaking in to the games industry.” You weren’t allowed to bring your own tools, you had to go in naked and alone and solve the puzzles using only your wits and the seemingly random assortment of objects that were provided (beats a competency based interview any day of the week – Ed). LucasFilm had a “no death” policy about their games which I was hoping would extend to the job application procedure, so I tried that one first. Somehow, I managed to get in, and then, bafflingly, they hired me. I don’t know why. Looking back, I wouldn’t have hired me. But I don’t think the pool was very large. Game Designer would not become a Dream Job until years later when we’d managed to spread enough lies about what game designers actually do all day to sucker more people into it.
Monkey Island was such a fun game to play. I must have spent hours as a kid travelling around the great islands and meeting so many memorable characters. What was it like to work on such an iconic and ground-breaking game?
If you didn’t spend at least thirty hours, you didn’t get your money’s worth! That was the target length for adventure games at the time. That’s why they hired people like me to write lots of dialogue with long-winded characters who used big words, to make the game seem longer and more valuable than it actually was (consider us duped! – Ed). Fortunately, that is the kind of thing that I like doing. So, it was pretty great. I mean, there I was, doing things I enjoy, with interesting co-workers and we were making a comedy about pirates without any concrete mandate other than, “do something good.” Opportunities for unfettered creativity are rare in a salaried setting. It felt like when I used to make Super 8 movies with my friends during summers off from school. Everybody seemed to be having a good time, and we cracked each other up on a regular basis. Not only that, we were in an idyllic location in the hills, with a world-class chef making us food that was heavily subsidized by the company. It was awesome.
Who is your favourite character in the Monkey Island series?
Guybrush is my favourite all-round character. He just embodies so much of humanity – high hopes, innocent ignorance, a willingness to steal anything not nailed to the floor… How could you not see a little of yourself in him? Also, he’s probably had the most good lines since he gets so much screen time.
That said, I also thought Morgan LeFlay from the Telltale series came out really well. More of a multi-dimensional person than your average Monkey Island character. A character aimed at grown-ups, if you will, and on those points she may be the “best” character. And Murray the Invincible Demonic Skull made me laugh out loud a bunch of times. I feel good about praising those two in part because they speak to the talents of writers who are not me.
Day of the Tentacle has a great sense of humour and uses time travel really well to create an unforgettable adventure. What was it like to work on such a great game?
It was loads of fun, but the time travel research was brutal! Those machines take a lot out of you. Also I didn’t read all the small print on the safety card and I accidentally became my own great-uncle (which we’re assuming poses many ethical dilemmas – Ed). But once we had all the timelines straightened out again, it was pretty straightforward to design the game. It’s mostly a true story. Then we just had to round up a bunch of talented artists and musicians and so on and spend a year or so putting it together. No problem. We gave everybody a screen-printed yo-yo to keep their morale up. Things generally went pretty smoothly, for a computer game project. Production did run longer than we had originally planned, but that was because somewhere in the middle the number of people who owned CD-ROM drives became large enough that we decided to make it the studio’s first “talkie,” which added a bunch of interesting new challenges. Casting two dozen characters, for instance. Casting is fun, but in the days when actors sent their demos on cassette tapes, “let me hear that second one again” involved more labour than it does now!
If you could travel back in time (Day of the Tentacle Style) and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
Coincidentally, that’s how I came to work on Day of the Tentacle in the first place. You probably don’t remember asking me the question before, but I have to thank you, it was a good idea! Next time I go back, I think I’m going to Will Wright’s house to get him to let me horn in on The Sims. It’s a marvellous toy that I spent a lot of time fiddling with and ultimately had to remove from my computer so that I could get some work done. What I would do (would have done?) with it is make expansions to enable the characters to participate in semi-directed adventure stories within the simulation. In fact I pitched something sort of like that at one point, but I was also dead set on maintaining a freelance independence at the time, so nothing came of it (ahhhhhhh – Ed).
Day of the Tentacle: Remastered has recently been released. What was it like revisiting this old classic and is there room for other remastered LucasArts classics?
I went to Double Fine and played through the game with Tim Schafer, which is something we videotaped and posted online for people with a lot of patience to watch. It’s about three hours of the two of us not remembering how to solve our own puzzles. The game is quite tricky! We designed them that way on purpose, though we did always put a lot of thought into how we expected players to figure things out. Our general philosophy was that we were on the player’s side, and although we wanted them to have to think and be clever, our ultimate goal was not to stump them but to have them solve puzzles and feel good about it. It’s more entertaining that way and we are, after all, in the entertainment business.
Anyway, I was happy that the humour held up pretty well after all this time. The art style was still great too, but a little harder to look at on a modern monitor where you can see the individual pixels so clearly. Which is a big part of the point of doing a remaster. And then we got together with Larry and Clint and both Peters to do commentary for it and I don’t get to see any of those guys very often so that was a real pleasure.
As for other remasters, the first two Monkey Island games were done already at LucasArts and I certainly think there’s “room” to remaster the whole LEC adventure game catalogue.
Is there any truth that there will be a Full Throttle sequel?
Totally. It’s called “Empty Throttle,” and it’s actually a prequel, about Ben’s aimless days living in his parents’ basement after college. He works as a temp at a factory that prints labels, and there are all sorts of puzzles based on changing the spelling of things.
OK, actually I have to admit that although I helped out on the original, I am not the best person to answer that question (you had us excited for a minute there – Ed).
You have worked on some truly amazing games with amazing people. Which game did you have the most fun working on during your amazing career?
If only I had worked on something with the word “amazing” in the title, that would be the perfect snappy answer. Let’s see… great, grand, cool, attractive, big, total… nope! I’ve covered just about everything else, but as far as I can recall, not amazing. Well, I’m really not sure which was the most fun as they all have their good and bad points. It’s hard to do the calculus about it. But there is something about doing something for the first time that is really magical, so I’m going to take a guess and say that I had the most fun working on The Secret of Monkey Island. When everything and everyone was fresh and clean and new. Before I had any expectations, of myself or of others or of the things we were making. Before I became the jaded, cynical toadstool that I am today (sad face – Ed).
You were recently voted as one of the top 100 video game creators of all time in a poll by IGN – How does it make sure you feel that so many people regard you as a true gaming legend?
That article came out while I was still directing design at Telltale so it’s been several years. But it remains really fun to whip that fact out at parties. “Hey, good-looking, did you know that IGN named me among the top one hundred video game creators of all time?” Great conversation starter. But then some killjoy always shows up and talks about how he’s working with Habitat for Humanity building homes for people who need them, doing something genuinely relevant and important. Curse you, Jimmy Carter! That guy’s always following me around.
Kidding aside, it’s nice when anyone expresses appreciation for what you do, whether it’s IGN or a ten-year-old you meet in an elevator. It feels good.
What is your favourite retro video game?
I’m pretty sure it’s about to be Thimbleweed Park. Ron (Gilbert) makes the best stuff (mmm, tasty – Ed).
What projects are you currently working on?
Some friends and I have a startup called Earplay where we’re making stories you play with your voice. That is, it’s an audio piece sort of like a radio play or an audiobook, but it uses voice recognition so you can talk to it and play the role of one of the characters. It’s neat stuff, and you can do it while you’re walking your dog. Dave says check it out at ear-play.com.
I’ve also been head writer on, of all things, a free-to-play Futurama mobile casual game called “Game of Drones.” The actual game mechanics are about moving little drones around on a hex grid, but it also has lots of characters, an ongoing story, and its own parody version of Twitter. Good fun and an excellent value for your zero dollars (we’re on it! – Ed).
It feels sad to bring the interview to a close, but we must. If you could share a few pints with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Link. He’s got some interesting stories to tell, but doesn’t jaw your ear off telling them.
Thank you so much for your time Dave and we wish you all the best for your future endeavours!
You’re welcome! Keep up the good work.
Readers/listeners – stay tuned for our December podcast out on the 15th where we’ll be having more Monkey Island fun…