“Unfinished Business” – Why Gilbert & Grossman Returned To Monkey Island
Over the holidays we’re republishing some choice features from the last 12 months. A mix of talking points, interviews, opinion pieces and more from NL staff and contributors, you’ll find our usual blend of thoughtfulness, expertise, frivolity, retro nostalgia, and — of course — enthusiasm for all things Nintendo. Happy holidays!
Does Guybrush Threepwood still want to be a pirate?
This, after all, was the Monkey Island protagonist’s very first proclamation 32 years ago: “My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate!”
But given the fact that he’s only set sail in five previous Monkey Island adventures sprinkled across more than three decades, not to mention the 12-year gap in Threepwood’s resume (his most recent job being TellTale’s Tales of Monkey Island), you’d be forgiven if you decided to place Threepwood’s pirate resume on the rejection pile. But the once-LucasArts property still has one last story to tell.
Return to Monkey Island, in all its point-and-click glory, is releasing for both Nintendo Switch and PC on September 19th. The revival comes by way of series creator Ron Gilbert, long-time co-writer and Monkey Island veteran Dave Grossman, and with help from the taste-makers over at Devolver Digital acting as co-producers. This is the writing duo’s first time directly working on a Monkey Island game together in 30 years.
We caught up with Gilbert and Grossman at PAX West to discuss Monkey Island’s (very) long-awaited return, touching on why point-and-click games deserve a space in 2022, how they settled on the new game’s surprisingly divisive art style, and what other LucasArts games they’d maybe resurrect in the future.
Note. This interview contains spoilers for the ending of Monkey Island 2 — if you’re sensitive to this information and want to read on, we advise you to skip the two answers after Gilbert begins discussing the game.
Nintendo Life (Alan Lopez): I’d like to start off with kind of a broad statement, which will lead me to my first question. To prep for this interview, I went back and tinkered with the original first two games for the first time since I was a child. It was a really interesting experience with a couple of takeaways. I was amazed at how well the original games finessed the hardware to really make a true sense of place, and the animations were also ahead of their time. The point-and-clicking interface also forced me to become more invested in the dialogue.
Obviously, none of that stuff is necessary in 2022. You don’t necessarily need to finesse hardware, or point and click. Your cohort Tim Schafer [editor’s note: Schafer co-wrote the original two Monkey Island games] went on to work within other genres, while both of you have stayed relatively faithful to the point-and-click genre.
So to start off the interview, my first question to you is: Why? What does point-and-click as a genre bring to the medium of games in 2022?
Ron Gilbert: Yeah, I think point-and-click, I really like it as a vehicle for storytelling. I like the way you interact with the world, kind of very viscerally. Clicking on stuff, and moving the mouse on stuff – or with a controller, but it’s the same thing – it’s like, you really are kinda looking at the world. I’ve always enjoyed that. I like that these games are sort of like sandboxes in that way. I just really like point-and-click a lot… I really like 2D.
adventure games work best when the player and the main character are on an equal standing of knowledge
Dave Grossman: I like the writing part best, that’s sort of my favorite bit. Adventure games in general, and especially in point-and-click, is where you get to do a lot of that, and that makes me happy.
And also, I’m interested in structure and form, and the ways that you can sort of use puzzles to shape the experience for the player without specifically forcing the player to go A to B, you [instead] make it necessary for them to do that, and you can impose the hand of fate on the experience without meddling too much in the details. That has never gotten old for me.
Another thing that struck me when I went back and played the games…the genre forces you to [use] an interface that is very specific. But what really helped immerse me and [let me] buy into that interface was that in the Monkey Island games, and to some extent Maniac Mansion as well, the characters had no idea what was happening in their world just as much as I had no idea what was happening. Was that intentional?
Gilbert: Oh yeah, very much so. I think, a lot of that came from when I was doing Maniac Mansion. I played some of Sierra’s games to kind of see what they were like, and I remember very specifically playing Police Quest. And I remember starting the game off, and you come off your shift, you go into the police station… and I was almost immediately fired from the police force…because I didn’t put my gun in my locker.
And that moment, what it told me was that I’m a police officer on a police force, and I should already know that I have to put my gun in my locker. There was this intrinsic knowledge that the character should have that I as the player did not have. And I just felt that was a disconnect.
And it’s really why in Monkey Island, the first line out of Guybrush’s mouth is, “My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate.” So the player is learning to be a pirate at the same time Guybrush is learning to be a pirate. I think adventure games work best when the player and the main character are on an equal standing of knowledge.
So relating that to the new game, do you have any concern Guybrush is getting too savvy? [laughter]
Gilbert: I mean, he knows how to be a pirate now, but we’re asking him to do other things that Guybrush does not know how to do. So you’re still at that same level of, “I don’t have any more knowledge than Guybrush has.”
Grossman: Enthusiastic mild competence.
Enthusiastic mild competence… [laughter]
So the new game is sequential after the second Monkey Island, but it’s reportedly “not a sequel”. Before I ask you to explain what that means, Dave, you were involved with the newer Telltale games. So when you guys came together to make this one, how did you both decide where in the story it should both start?
Gilbert: I think one of the unmoveable stakes for me was that the game had to start right after Monkey Island 2, because the game sort of left on a weird, weird cliffhanger and I think the other games did their best – and did a good job – of trying to get out of that. But I really wanted to start there and kind of address the strange ending.
And then, I don’t wanna spoil what happens, but the game does start at the end, right at that point. And things kind of get bizarre.
So the game literally starts — can I say this? – at a theme park?
Gilbert: Y-….yes. I mean…without saying “yes”…yes. [laughter]
Grossman: I don’t know that we had much choice about that really, because the whole point of the project is about unfinished business, and there’s this thing left hanging in our own past. And our story begins about unfinished business, so it sort of wraps them together, and it was kind of the only thing that made sense, to start it there.
the whole point of the project is about unfinished business, and there’s this thing left hanging in our own past
I pretty much have to ask this question… when you launched the trailer, there was a lot of, uh, feedback on the artistic aesthetic.
I guess…my question to you, Ron: Is pixel art in point-and-click games trivial? Or does it somehow add something to the experience, which people almost feel [cheated out] of some specific kind of experience [when it’s missing]? And I’d add that the original Monkey Island games technically weren’t created with pixel art.
Gilbert: I think the originals are what people today call “pixel art”. We never called them pixel art. Those were words that never entered our vocabulary back then. Because we were just looking at this hardware that we had and trying to take every advantage of the hardware possible. And you know, there were some limitations…we had 320×200 resolution and only so many colors. But as hardware progressed, you look at the original Monkey 1, it was all EGA art, 16 colors, and then we moved it to VGA art when Monkey 2 came out, and we always kept pushing (the graphics) forward. We never said, “Oh, this is the definitive look.” I think we’ve always pushed things forward, always.
And so there was a reaction to [Return to Monkey Island] not being pixel art, but I think it’s nostalgia reasons that people have. A lot of people…they want to experience this Monkey Island exactly like they experienced Monkey Island 2. And that’s just… not possible. Even if we had done a pixel art game, there would be a huge number of people who loved Monkey Island 3 and would be upset that we didn’t do that art style.
I think it’s just kind of a thing with a (franchise) with such a history and fan base, you are going to offend a whole bunch of people no matter what you do. And the conversation that Dave and I had originally…we [asked] ourselves, should we do pixel art? Should we not do it? And what we landed on was, no matter what we do, we’re gonna offend a whole bunch of people with our choice. So let’s make the choice that is something we want to do. A choice that sorta pushes things forward.
Grossman: And pixel art is sort of for nostalgia. As soon as you look at something that is pixel art, you know that it’s trying to make you feel nostalgic. And this game will invoke feelings of nostalgia in some people, but that is not the point at all. We’re trying to make a new thing.
To that point, what do you think someone who’s never played Monkey Island will get out of this game, as opposed to a hardcore fan?
Gilbert: I hope that people who’ve never played [Monkey Island] have a super enjoyable experience, and they might go, “Oh, so this is what Monkey Island is about.”
we [asked] ourselves, should we do pixel art? Should we not do it? No matter what we do, we’re gonna offend a whole bunch of people
Grossman: We’ve tested it on a few people who have never heard of Monkey Island. And yes, there are people who have never heard of Monkey Island, they exist, and we found them. And we let them play the game and they enjoyed it.
Is it a standalone experience?
Gilbert: Yes, it’s a very standalone experience. That’s not to say we don’t leverage a whole bunch of things, and continue [old] stories and continue characters… but we’ve really tried to reintroduce characters and reintroduce scenarios. We don’t just assume [after] you walk into a room you’ll know who Otis is…we always try to do that.
Grossman: And I think every game in the series has done that. You can start with any of them.
When you were talking about the pixel art, I realized I must have had a similar reaction as a child between Maniac Mansion and [its sequel] Day of the Tentacle, where I thought to myself, “Why does this look different?” But there was no social media. [laughter]
Gilbert: You had nobody to be angry at!
Not super long ago, after Disney bought LucasArts Games, there was an online petition to sell the Monkey Island property to you, specifically, Ron…not that this is how it works, but…my question to you is, how did we get from that point to today?
Gilbert: Yeah I mean…the petitions are fun. I mean, I don’t think a petition is going to get Disney to sell us something…
Grossman: It’s a nice way for people to show how they feel.
Gilbert: Yes, and you know, I poked around initially, right after the sale of (LucasArts games) to Disney. I kind of knew some people, and basically I was told, “No. No, we’re not going to sell it. Don’t ask. It’s not for sale.” So I don’t think it’s an issue of money…I mean, if I came to them with a billion dollars they might sell it. But there’s no reasonable amount of money where they’d sell it.
there’s no reasonable amount of money where [Disney] would sell it
That’s kind of when I thought, “Okay, I’m probably not gonna do this.” And I went on to do other things, I made Thimbleweed Park and other things and stuff…but then Devolver contacted me. [Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of Devolver Digital] knew somebody at the Disney licensing department. And he said he might have an avenue to license, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in making that game.
And I actually had a lot of trepidation about it. So I called up Dave and told him about it, and we got together and we spent a weekend kind of brainstorming what the game could be. Because we wanted to make sure if we built another Monkey Island, we wanted it to be a meaningful game. We didn’t want to just slap out something with the IP. And we came up with something that we really liked a lot.
So that’s when I went back to Devolver and said, “Okay, if you can make this happen…”
And they made it happen!
Gilbert: They made it happen. And it was a very long (process). It took almost nine months before (we started development) between contract negotiations, Disney, and everything.
Grossman: There are lots of “I’s” and “T’s” in these things.
A quick anecdote…I was in the media room here at PAX and I saw somebody I knew in there, and while catching up I told him I was going to interview you two and asked if they had any questions I might add. And an older gentleman on the other end of the room overhead this and yelled out, “What took them so long?!”
Grossman: Well we kind of grabbed the first opportunity, didn’t we Ron?
So did you work directly with Disney?
Gilbert: Oh yeah, a lot. We worked a lot with Disney on this game. But one of the stipulations I had on Return to Monkey Island was that I wanted to make the game we wanted to make. I didn’t want interference from Devolver or Disney or whoever. I wanted to make this game.
And Disney said okay, and they were very true to their word.
Have you been working on Monkey Island for the last two years?
Gilbert: Oh yeah. We had to keep this so secret. I didn’t even want to drop hints that I was working on a new Monkey Island game.
Devolver told me earlier that there were plenty of people within their own company that didn’t even know about it.
Grossman: I told my wife, but not my son.
Gilbert: I got an angry email from one of my best friends, he was like, “How could you not tell me?!” [laughter]
[At this point Devolver PR tells us there’s only time for one more question]
Alright…my last question is, when will there be Maniac Mansion 3?
Gilbert: I think every game I’ve ever worked on, I get to [the end] of game development and I’m like, I never want to make another game again. I’m done. I’m quitting. And then three months later I’m like, yeah, okay, this is a lot of fun. This worked out well.
So…I can’t answer that question right now. Hit me up in three or four months. [laughter]
Our thanks to Ron and Dave for their time. Return to Monkey Island launches on Switch and PC on 19th September.