Sean Vanaman

Telltale Games

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 26 September 2009. Last updated on 05 June 2011.
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Sean Vanaman
Sean Vanaman, posing for a photo at the 2009 Comic-Con, is a writer and designer at Telltale Games.

The following interview was an edited transcript of an oral interview.
Telltale Games is perhaps best known for its adaptations of popular franchises from the mediums of comics, the web, and animation into adventure games. The company's most recent project has it breathing life into a beloved but almost forgotten adventure game franchise—Monkey Island. Almost a decade after Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™ is back—and in 3D—once more, with his piratey adventures now parceled out in an episodic schedule according to the developer's usual style.

Telltale Games was among the few game developers present at the 2009 Comic-Con, which was held at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California, US from 23-26 July 2009. While there, I had an opportunity to interview Sean Vanaman, writer and designer at Telltale Games. In the interview, we spoke in depth about the newly released Tales of Monkey Island series, the company's relationship with LucasArts, the challenges the developer faces on working within the whimsical conventions of the Monkey Island universe, and his own philosophy of designing adventure games.

So one obvious question, Monkey Island 2 ended with the revelation that everything's a fantasy of Guybrush's—that he was really going through the amusement park. That was foreshadowed in the earlier game, and that was as neat of an ending as you could ever have for the series, I felt. But obviously everyone wants more Monkey Island games, so you keep it going from there. How do you think the series should go in general? Are Guybrush and LeChuck like Batman and the Joker, going to fight for all eternity? Or would you prefer that the series be wrapped up someday and say, "This is the end, this is complete, it's done." Which is more attractive to you?

I don't know. It's interesting. I go every which way about it. I don't ever see Guybrush and LeChuck coming to some kind of clean end where we're like, "Ok." If LeChuck dies, he's just going to come back, so there's really no way to end it. If he goes away for a protracted period of time, that's a possibility. In this series, Tales, he's a main character. Have you played the first episode?

I played the first episode, yeah.

Spoiler alert! He becomes human after like five minutes. That is a new thread of the story. Even though sometimes we migrate away from that, he's very much present in this area too. But there are other villains too, there's always going to be. In different episodes you'll see new villains popping up all over the place. I don't know that we could end in such a fashion that you couldn't keep telling some other story. The question is, "Is the story compelling enough to want to tell?" I don't think we should just make Monkey Island games because people want Monkey Island games, I think we should make Monkey Island games because we can make interesting ones and because there's something interesting to do with the characters, and I think Tales does that. I don't think we would have done it any other way. If we're ever sitting there on Monkey Island season 5 and we're like, "Aaah, god, where are we going to go with these guys now?" then I don't want to do that. The people at TellTale won't do that.

You're not going to beat it to death.

We just tell stories. We'll tell good stories. It's a cool world. There are other stories to tell. There's always a story to tell, I think. I don't think beating it to death is the way to go. The ending of LeChuck's Revenge... it's so funny I go so back and forth, my reaction was, "What the WHAT THE WHAT!"

It feels like it was a giant waste of time almost.

I had a professor in college say, "If you ever write a story where at the end, you see the main character chewing something and find out he's actually been a cow chewing cud this entire time and the story's been in the mind of cows... if you ever write a 'that's all cows' story, I will fail you." And I was like, "Ah, ok." And I'm not saying it's like a 'that's all cows' story, because there's more to that end. Elaine says something about LeChuck putting a curse on Guybrush in that moment, there's a lot of weird ambiguity there, which is what I like—ambiguity for interpretation I really dig.

Have you seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of curiosity?

Bits and pieces.

There was a moment in one episode where it was revealed that everything that you had seen so far had been in her imagination in a mental hospital, and the ending of that episode was she finds out it was some kind of curse on her. She wakes up, but the ending leaves it ambiguous, like you could still think that she's really in there.

Yeah, and I like that. I like that because it's kind of reminding us that these are stories and that these are dreams, and that anything can happen, and that sometimes life is like that, and it's kind of cool. And I'm glad it didn't come out as like *buk ba daww*, "We're all in this theme park and that's the wrap!"

It's kind of like acknowledging that it's all fake for a second which is kind of why it's partially disturbing. You're being reminded that this actually is a game. This actually is make-believe.

Monkey Island's pretty good at that, period. Sam and Max is a little more in on the joke, but you get stuff like the Grog Machine and Stan in the first one, and you're like, "Ok, this is a weird interesting world." I wrote some jokes for episode 3 that are kind of existential, I guess—Guybrush, for one second, considers what it all means.

That's heavy stuff, breaking the fourth wall there?

I try not to break the fourth wall, but Guybrush does that, he'll turn to the camera and be like, "What the what?" He can play with that a little because the series allows you to. The CSI guys can't do that, the CSI team has to write hard-boiled stuff, and I like hard-boiled stuff too. The series allows for some playfulness, but it's a real delicate line. I talk with Dave about it, "I'm thinking about doing this. Does this make sense in the story? Can I reference this?" And you can always argue for stuff, but you have to have that preternatural sense of what fits and what doesn't. In Monkey Island 2, when you're getting the library card, you can give them 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as your address as Guybrush.

And you make Indiana Jones jokes all the time, fine leather jackets...

Right, right. "It belongs in a museum!" was my favorite moment in that game actually. But you can always be like, "Well, you guys did this!" But in your heart of hearts if you've played the games, and you're sensitive to what they're about, you can kind of tell what fits and what doesn't. You never want Guybrush turning to the camera and being like, "Wakka Wakka!" That doesn't jive.

Do you think you'll ever acknowledge the whole theme park thing out of curiosity? Because it seems like it's been largely glossed over.

If Ron Gilbert was in the office and he was part of the team, that's the only way I would ever feel comfortable, it's like going to a party and re-telling somebody else's crazy story from the night before as yours. It comes across and kind of smacks of insincerity. It's like, he planted that seed. He, if ever, would be the one to water it. I wouldn't feel comfortable.

That's a good point, it was his brainchild.

Yeah, I think Monkey Island's about a lot of stuff, and it's about really serious things at time too. It's about love, and betrayal, and coming of age, and that's what we really feel comfortable tackling at Tales—a real serious story actually. When you strip out all the nonsense, and just look at the story beads, there's some heavy stuff that's going to happen. There's some real decisions, and there's some real life relationships that are tested and explored. We doll that up with a lot of jokes about this, that, and the other. But the story is still very real at times. That's what we're focused on. It's hard to explore that stuff I feel like I'm just not the expert on it. I can tell a good story about characters and the stuff they're going through. But Ron Gilbert... I just feel like it would not be right. But at the same time I still feel like you can go through Tales, and it feels part of the canon.

Yeah, it does feel Monkey Island'ish. One general question about the gameplay and the episodic format. It's been a staple of the series that sometimes you'll have this giant voodoo recipe to fill out, and it's like an inventory cleaning out. After you get through the first part of Monkey Island, you're on this ship and you've got to make this spell, and you're basically cleaning out your entire inventory that you've built up in the game to use for ingredients to do stuff. In episodic gaming, you don't have quite as much time to build up your items, so you're not sitting around with fifty things that you can come up with ways to use at the end. You've referenced it in the intro, where you have this half-completed voodoo recipe. Do you think you're going to be able to do that kind of thing later on? Are items going to carry over from episode to episode?

Definitely. And it's sometimes a huge pain in the butt! Especially because I'm a co-designer and lead writer of episode 3 (Mark Darin is writing and designing episode 2. Mike Stemmle wrote and directed episode 1). We're all working together. Mike and Mark are kind of the series leads. Joe Pinney and I, who co-designed episode 3 together, went to Mark and were like, "What's in the inventory at the end of the episode?" And they were like, "All this stuff!" And you'll be using some of it for sure. I can think of two puzzles right now where it's like, "I need that from the previous episode." And we'll reference where you got it. We'll say, "Hey, that's fine Flotsam craftsmanship there!" if you try to give it to somebody who doesn't know where it's from. But for Telltale, at the same time, our inventories don't get near as big. And I'm ok with that.

It can leave you a smaller cross-product of "try this out on that".

Yeah, and as a designer writing "use blank on blank", it's like, "Brrrrrrbb!" It can get so daunting where you're just multiplying the things in the room versus what you have in your inventory. We don't have as much time to write this, it can get really daunting. At the same time though, having inventories full of crazy stuff is the game, that's what makes it fun. So to answer your question, there's going to be stuff carrying over. At the same time though, it's funny, there's an object, and I don't know how much I can remember, but there's an object that we kind of keep sticking each other with as designers, "I thought we got rid of this... Nope! It's back. It's in your inventory!"

It's almost like you have to find a puzzle for it, where the key demands a solution.

Yeah, and there's a moment, and you'll know it in episode 3 where I get rid of objects in inventory, and I'm kind of making a joke about the fact that I got stuck with it. I don't know if you'll be able to tell... I think you will. You have the freedom with a new episode to just say some things aren't in your inventory, and we do that a little bit. I actually did it on Wallace and Gromit where it's like, "Oh, you just got arrested, you're thrown in jail, and you only have a couple things in your inventory." Ideally if I could go back on that puzzle I probably would have nothing in your inventory, but such is the way it went. That's kind of the one design moment in that game where I'm like, "I think that could be better." But you have that freedom, or you can just keep the inventory as giant if you wanted it to.

I've noticed, for example, that you seem to be selling the Monkey Island game as one complete bundle rather than individually. It feels much more like a whole game so far, chapter by chapter, than like standalone episodes.

Yeah, we've found that a lot of people just buy the season. With Monkey Island, we want you to get the season.

And if you're picking up just one episode it would feel really incomplete.

Yeah, and I think the demo's a pretty sizable chunk that you get for free if you're not sold yet. So, as opposed to spending another eight dollars to get an episode, you can get the demo to figure out if you're going to like it. And hopefully you will.

It also raises the question though, if you're selling the game as a single piece, why do it episodically?

Well, I think that's because we want to develop the characters the way we develop them. I really feel that we do things with our characters and do things with our stories that we wouldn't get to do if we made one giant game. We get to see how things play, figure out what storylines to keep going with, figure out what storylines to wrap up, develop things over time, do stuff in between episodes which you're going to start seeing, where it's just little things on forums like speculations, to the treasure hunting which we just released, to other things like secrets that will kind of fritter themselves out between episodes. So, from a purely gameplay experience and a creation experience, I like that a lot. And I think for Wallace and Gromit we're starting to sell individual episodes and I could see us doing that with Monkey Island after one or two episodes are out. We could probably start giving out episodes individually. I don't know if that's in the plans or not, but I think the story, especially Monkey Island, is going to benefit a lot from being episodic. You're going to see things month to month. You're going to be able to talk with the fans about what happens next. The story's going to take wild turns. Bioshock is a good example—a game that had lots of twists and turns as to what's next, what's in the next area. If that game was episodic, I think that would have been really cool.

Like if you released one level pack at a time?

Yeah, I feel that the story could have been drawn out even more. Really, when I think of the beats of that game, I think of five major beats, where the story really turns. And I think that those can get really played with episodically, and you just can't do that in a full game. It's like the difference between the characters you come to love in a show like Buffy or that you love in a movie. I love movies and I love TV shows but they do things differently, and I think we can do that, and I think Monkey Island is a really good place to do that too. Like Guybrush and Elaine's relationship will get interesting, it's just not going to be, "Oh, Guybrush! You're such an idiot!" or "Oh you dumbass! You're doing that again!" It's going to get interesting, it's going to get real, you're going to see that there are levels to it. You're going to see why she loves him and why they're married, and also the challenges of that as well.

I just assumed it was always his ability to "put the right item in the right place".

And his ability to hold his breath for ten minutes, she loves that.

Well, you never know.

Hey, it seems applicable. But yeah, we're going to explore those relationships, all across the game. We're going to introduce characters that screw with those relationships. There's not just going to be LeChuck who's always like, "Give me Elaine!"

That's kind of the Bowser/Princess thing.

Yeah, it's very much kind of a classic tie-in to the girl at the train tracks or stealing the beautiful girl. That's a classic convention to this story. It gets interesting because LeChuck's human now. That's now his M.O., and his M.O. is that he's the good guy. What does that mean in this world where everybody else is becoming poxed and evil? And I think we play with that a lot, with this world gone awry, where your enemy isn't your enemy, begrudgingly so. Guybrush wants LeChuck to be bad. He's like, "I don't like that he's big and burly and talking to my wife on the deck of a ship. I liked him better when he was trying to kill me!" And that gets interesting, I think.

Interesting! One general question about gameplay... You've done the mini-game thing a lot. In the Strong Bad series, you had a mini-game for each one. You're doing the treasure hunting thing now. It seems like an attempt to mix up your puzzles, so it isn't just a puzzle-tree you go through, but you have some optional content in there as well. Some other adventure games have had combat systems, an economy with money you can earn that isn't an all-or-nothing solve the puzzle thing. What makes you go in that direction as opposed to the other ways you can mix things up?

It's basically a design decision at the beginning, I really like the mini-games. The mini-games make sense in Strong Bad. They're part of the world.

And they have them on the website.

But there's also a very classic thing. Each one of those mini-games were created by one person, which is kind of crazy—you had Mark Darin sitting at his chair doing programmer art and directing and designing and programming the game all by himself—which is kind of a very meta thing. In the old days that's what happened anyway, so it's kind of a throwback to that. Monkey Island doesn't have that as much. We're influenced by other games and the games that we play. We're influenced by the design of the moment. And I feel like those experiences made a lot of sense in Sam and Max and Strong Bad, maybe not so much in Tales. But I do like the idea of combining adventure games with more long-form gameplay mechanics, like currency and finding objects and upgrading things, and having to make choices about how your character's going to be different, and what you're going to be proficient at. I could see us doing that sort of thing, and it's on the table at TellTale. We are "THE" adventure game company right now.

All due respect to Hothead Games and whoever else...

Well, we are "AN" adventure game company I should say, not "THE". Those guys are awesome. But that's what we do because that's what we're good at. When we're in this mode, we want to get Monkey Island out on a monthly basis, and we know how to deliver on a promise up front with the games that we know how to make. But everything is on the table... We're not going to make a first-person shooter. But other things are on the table, like combining genres. What can our tool do? What can the idea of talking to a person do other than an adventure game? How can that be parlayed into a new type of game? We do R&D projects all the time, where it's like, "Using our tool and what we're good at, how can we make a different sort of game?" That stuff is coming, that stuff is going to find its way into our games for sure. But Monkey Island, from the very beginning it was deciding what it's about and delivering on the IP. Monkey Island is a classic adventure game. We knew we wanted it as classic as possible. We wanted inventory combination, finding lots of objects, using objects on things. We wanted Guybrush to say, "I can't use that with this!" We wanted it to be a throwback, whereas if we were not doing Monkey Island we would mess with the conventions. Like, Wallace and Gromit doesn't have dialog trees, it has contextual dialog. And that was an experiment. How can we make this more cinematic? And how can we make this more like a short? Because that's what our IP is, that's what our IP is about. If we were to do a tabletop RPG property, which we wouldn't do... Well, I don't know if we would do that. But if that was the convention of that world, and that felt right, or if something that had combat as a major element, we'd ask, "Ok, how do we do combat the Telltale way?" It's going to be about what we're working with and how the mechanics fit with that idea. Mini-games wouldn't feel right in Monkey Island. You can do little things, but doing the Punch-Out boxing the rat from Sam and Max wouldn't feel right in Monkey Island.

So, one other follow-up to that... Obviously, you've done all these licensed games so far. Do you ever want to do your own original intellectual property?

Me, personally? Well, yeah! I write a ton. I have stuff that I love, stuff I want to and plan to pitch to Telltale. And on new IP, it's like Kevin has talked about publicly, we want to do new IP. But it's so funny, I really do like working with the properties. I like taking the world, figuring it out, and telling a story in it. It's like working on a car, you can buy a rusted out Camero and say, "I'm going to make this may own." as opposed to "I'm going to design this from the ground up." They're both very fulfilling experiences, depending upon how you tackle them. But really, there's no reason we won't do new IP other than the right moment, the right time, and the right idea.

And I guess building up your reputation on things people already want to play helps you out.

Yeah, and people have to see a Telltale game like people see Wallace and Gromit and say, "Ooh, I love Wallace and Gromit." And as Telltale gets associated with that, hopefully the quality of that experience is associated with Telltale, because we try to put out a good game. And as it's no longer like, "Ooh, Wallace and Gromit!" but "Ooh, Telltale!" That opens up room for new IP. We could stake out a new IP tomorrow. But would it have the same audience? Maybe, maybe not. And we're an independent developer and publisher, so our marketing is all in-house as well. We want the Telltale name to do as much for us as possible up front when we're trying to launch a new IP. And I think we're getting there.

One general question about styles of adventure gaming... It seems like the Telltale games I've played so far have been in the LucasArts vein, where you're following around a really talkative protagonist...

Unless he's Gromit!

Unless he's Gromit! But he gets into various scrapes, and you have to get him out using inventory objects. But in contrast, with the Myst games, you have no visible protagonist, and it's all really abstract puzzles you solve by correlating information. Or you have games like Professor Layton on the DS or Zack and Wiki on the Wii, where the story's largely transparent and it's just an excuse to come up with the most interesting puzzles you can. And then you have the Sierra games which are kind of like narrated experiences of a story already told. Why do you do games the way you do out of all those options?

Partly it's habit. A good chunk of the company is from LucasArts—Dave Grossman (our design director) worked on Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle—so that's what makes sense for us. Again, it's kind of back to the same answer. It's what we've established we do, and what does the story require, and what fits with the story. Monkey Island as Myst wouldn't be any fun, because everyone likes Guybrush so much. I don't think there's anything necessarily stopping us from doing that, it's just that we're also a very writer-based company, so "Talkies" if you will... We have a bunch of writers/designers. Conversation-based gameplay makes a lot of sense for the company. It makes a lot of sense for what we do and also because something we like to do. I think that's probably why, and it's also that we're steeped in a lot of that tradition too. But there's no reason why if one of us has the greatest idea to do a new season of Sam and Max like Myst, and it made sense, it'd be like, "All right, let's do it!" We can have that level of freedom and open-mindedness at the company. The genres and the stories we've told thus far feel like they fit pretty nicely with the type of adventure games that we make. And it's also what people expect from us, if we change it up vastly, and say, "We're doing something totally different." then we've got to set people up for it. People are expecting something from a Telltale game.

And certainly, it makes sense for Strong Bad. Strong Bad always narrates his experience. And it makes sense for Guybrush. You've got an established world there.

Definitely. So it all kind of comes back to what makes sense for the IP and being able to figure what an IP is about, holistically, and what is the "thesis" of this, to sound really pretentious.

So, one question about the various platforms you work for... Strong Bad. It felt like a PC game, and obviously it was designed around the Wiimote cursor and the mouse. Tales of Monkey Island feels a bit more like a console game. You've got the movement, without absolute mouse positioning to move you around...

Direct control.

Right, you've got direct control of your avatar. Basically, how is that working out for you in terms of focusing on consoles versus PC? Adventure games seem like a really classic PC thing. How are you doing on changing your focus?

We're learning and exploring as we go. Direct control is something I really like. Grim Fandango is a PC game that has direct control, even though the controls... Some people had their issues with them at the time, and some people love them at the same time. Direct control, even if you decouple it from the hardware, I really like, because—and you'll see it more as we get used to it, you can do more direct control—like puzzles, like I need to walk through this area a certain way, etc.

That's almost like a throwback to the early Sierra games or even Maniac Mansion where you moved your avatar directly.

Yeah, yeah. So that, just as a convention and a mechanic, we really like, regardless of whether it's PC, Wii, 360, or whatever. Direct Control is really something we really like and need to continue to explore in the designs of the games. Getting onto the consoles, it's not so much like, "We have to give this a console based control scheme." Nobody ever says that. That's not the impetus for the decision. We want to do direct control because we like the sort of cinematic feel it gives the game. It allows us to not have to show the ground you have to click on. You don't have to solve those wonky point and click problems where you're like, "I clicked here not there." People are always like, "You could just, you could just..." That happens a lot. We want to have like cinematic NavCams, people want point and click. There's not a bullet-proof solution that we've cooked up yet, where it's like, "We can do point and click and have the same sort of cinematic world that we have right now." So it's a lot of things like that. There's not like, "Oh, we need to get away from point and click." It's not necessarily that. For me, personally, this is like an experience. And especially, wait 'til the second episode of Monkey Island. There are cameras in there that will just boggle your mind.

I like the one where he's just crossing the bridge and it follows on over his shoulder when he's doing that.

Yeah, yeah. I just love what that does to the world, and unfortunately we have the mouse control in Monkey Island right now.

I kind of prefer the keyboard to be honest. I've tried both, but I get tired using the mouse.

It's funny, everybody's different. Chuck Jordan, one of our writers/designers at Telltale, loves the mouse control. I shouldn't say "love". I shouldn't put words in his mouth. But I remember at the last design meeting, he's saying, "I really dig it. I really like using the mouse." whereas I'm a direct control guy. I like to move the guy around. I play a lot of console games, I like that. We're always evolving the control scheme as well, and on the PC it's like, "Ugh, you just want a joystick attached to it." You just want a thumbstick attached to this thing so badly, just because that's where we are as an industry too. There's a reason why that's standard for consoles, because it's a really intuitive way to control a character in a free space, especially when they're attached to the ground. When you get them up off the ground, it's like, "Well..."

At the same time though, even games like Bioshock, with direct control, find some way of highlighting the relevant objects in their world. You can't mouse-over as you can on a PC, you don't have the same ability to mouse-over all your hotspots to find what you're interacting with, if you don't have the light-up to help.

Some of this does come on the part of us as the artists and the designers as we're setting up NavCams, thinking about where things are. I don't think I did a great job of that in Wallace and Gromit episode 3. We're realizing as we're going to do direct control, we're heaping on extra responsibility like, "How do we visually communicate through shots?" And it becomes almost like cinematography, and we have some cinematic artists who are very good at that. But it's also on the part of the designer to think like, "Where is my eye going to lead through this world? Ok, it's going to rest on that barrel, and that barrel needs to be important, or if not, change the camera and move the barrel." That sort of thing... Especially with games that are so cinematic, you have to think not just as a designer but as a visual storyteller. It's one of those things I think I'm good at, but then it's like, "Oh, no! I really need to be good at this or it's not going to be fun to play."

One thing I noticed about how you handled dialog trees in the first episode... For example, your early conversations kind of had a bunch of "placebo" dialog options, where no matter what you pick it kind of jumps you to the same thing. And sometimes you'll pick an option and he'll say something in the general vein of it, but he takes that idea and improvises on it or something.

Yeah, that doesn't happen in episode 3. It was like, "How do we convey the things that are going on in Guybrush's head and rectify those with what he's actually going to say?" I have a line count that I can't go over, but I'm already way over. So you have to cut and pick and choose how much dialog we can have in an episode. I've done that all out of episode 3.

So you made a decision not to go for that basically?

All designers have their own perspective on it. I haven't talked with Mike and Mark that much about it. We send out a lot of design team emails around talking about, "What is the effect of this?" My personal opinion is that it's all about player intent. If you want Guybrush to show up and say, "Hey, you're a fart." then you want him to say something offensive. He should say it because that way you have power over the world.

Yeah, you feel like you're picking the funniest option like a screenwriter.

Right, and you're like a kid. It's like you're a kid who can walk into your parents' dinner party and say something and run away without consequence. And Guybrush kind of has that, where he can say stuff, and sometimes people respond to it, and sometimes they wash right over his smart-ass comments. I like that. But if you're walking up to a character and you're in information gathering mode, you're not in conversation smart-ass mode. You can walk up to him and be like, "Tell me about Flotsam island..." and then it's like you get in that place where you don't want to read the joke, go "Ha Ha!" and then hear the joke and not laugh.

Sure.

So it's a balance. You want Guybrush to be like, "You're a monkey!" or "You're a donkey's ass!" and have him say, "You're a donkey's ass!" and be like, "Oh, sweet! He said, 'You're a donkey's ass!'"

I have control of my game!

As opposed to like putting the punch line in that choice, and then when he delivers that punch line, you not laughing. So I balance that by saying, "Tell me about Flotsam Island..." and then Guybrush will be saying, "Tell me about Flotsam Island... I hear it's a really crappy place." and he'll make a joke. And by the way, for your readers, the jokes are going to be better than everything I've said right now. These are not funny. I'm tired!

No worries.

I think about them. I'm much better with the keyboard in front of me. So, it depends upon what mode you're in and what the player agency is. If the player is like, "I need to find out information." then I'm just going to let you find information. If the player is like, "I want to inflict my will on the world and say funny things and get rises out of people." then I'm going to let you do that. That's just my philosophy. Try to figure out what the player is doing right now, which isn't that hard, and then give them the best experience possible. There are moments in Monkey 1 that I highlight—him not saying some of the things when you first get there. "What's a deep gut?" is a good one, with the line, "Oh, Elaine's mom's here?" But it says something else about deep gut. There are some jokes about deep gut that you don't actually hear, and I think that's a detriment.

'Cause, yeah, as an experienced player, I got what you were doing, but I realize someone going in for the first time might be like, "Did I pick the right option there?" It was a little bit non-literal.

Right, totally agree with you. For Lair of the Leviathan, you have my word it won't happen unless somebody trumps me and locks me in a closet.

We'll blame them than if that ever happens. So some other Monkey Island conventions... Is insult swordfighting going to be back?

Not exactly. But there's stuff that is in the vein of insult swordfighting. There are references to insult swordfighting. It's also a challenge. Can it be good enough to be good by itself? Can it be good enough to where if you never played a Monkey Island game you'll think it's awesome? That's one side. And then if that's true, can it also be so good that lives up to the old stuff for the old fans? It's a real challenge. All the callbacks in general are like, "I'm Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™!" It worked in text, and as you start to hear it, I start to joke about it, "I'm Guybrush Threepwood!" And it's like even I'm getting sick of hearing it when Guybrush says to himself, "Oh, god!" Those callbacks are interesting on how to balance. There are mechanical things like insult swordfighting that are piratey, and you're in the world aggregating abilities like, "Ok, I can learn how to do this, learn how to do this from over here." You're kind of grinding for that agency the way you do in insult swordfighting, and there's references to it. But right now, as is planned, we're not going to be doing insult swordfighting exactly like you did in Monkey Island 1. But I think if you're a fan of insult swordfighting and you're waiting for it, you're going to be satisfied in both the experience and the references.

For me, my favorite part of it was not so much the grinding to collect all your insults and comebacks, but the part where you've learned all the comebacks, and then you get thrown a new set of insults and you've got to rematch them, like the sword master and the battles there. Do you have that same kind of creativity applied?

Just conventionally, that's what I like to do all the way through. It's like you've learned how to use this in a clever way, now you have used it in a totally opposite way. Wallace and Gromit episode 3 does that, where it's like, "This dog digs, this dog steals things. Get them to subvert their powers. And now, an act and a half later, use their powers in a totally different way with the things I've presented you." That's just good design, that's why insult swordfighting is not just something you remember as being funny but good design.

So, how do you feel about Escape from Monkey Island, in comparison to your current project (similar 3D style, direct control)? I feel like the play control is a lot neater on your version. You can actually use the mouse for absolute positioning for objects, and the characters are a lot sharper this time around. What made you decide to go with the 3D tradition on that as opposed to the fixed 2D animation?

Well, the 2D animation in Curse was flipping expensive. It was really expensive. And also our engine uses 3D. We have 3D modelers. We have 3D animators. It just makes the most sense. Strong Bad is 3D even though he doesn't look like it.

I believe you. He wiggles and rotates, kind of.

He does have some shimmy to him. So, a lot of it's what we do and what we do best, and it is the presentation of the day for a lot of games. Professor Layton is awesome, but at the same time we're not Professor Layton, it's a very different game. So if we did flat 2D animation there'd be a lot of people at the company who'd be, "Oh ok, greeeeat!" Practically, it just doesn't make sense for the company. I mean, Curse is a beautiful looking game. I love some of the art of that game. We try to deliver on that at times too, though. There's stuff in 3D where I look at it and I'm like, *whistles*... especially in the later episodes. Episode 1's got it, but I'm seeing stuff from episode 2 where I'm like, "Good... Wow!" The cinematic artists are just going nuts with some of the compositions and the way some of the stuff looks.

So, you probably know LucasArts is remaking the first Monkey Island game in a new engine. What's their involvement with your part of the series? And do you know where they're going with adventure games these days?

I don't know anything about LucasArts' plans, but it sounds like they're re-embracing a lot of that stuff, which is awesome for us. And they've been really good with working with us. For something like Monkey Island and especially for a company like TellTale, the best thing you can do with us is empower us and be like, "Do your thing!" And that's what they've done. It's never been like, "Oh, LucasArts doesn't like this." or anything like that. As license holders, they haven't put their foot down. They've been really free, and I think it's paying off. From license holders' perspective, it's like, "Help us. Don't hinder us, especially from the creative side." As a designer, I just like good input and to help us, and that's what they've done and that's been awesome. I think it's been a really good experience. I just haven't had to worry about anything IP related, like always make sure they're happy, et cetera.

Don't kill off anyone important?

They have little things like that where they're like, "Oh, is this going to come back around? Is this going to be..." And we're like, "Oh, yeah, sure." We're listening to all of the requests and like, "Oh, where are things going?" Instead of keeping them in the loop, it's more about getting them bought in, because we love the story, and the story is good. So, if they can think that too, then great. So long as we're all invested in it being good, then everything's fine. That's the way it's been.

One thing about the series as a whole that's always been kind of odd to me... You have this whole tri-island area, and you keep visiting different islands, but you very rarely return to old ground or kind of have a coherent sense of how the whole Caribbean and all the islands are laid out.

Yeah, I don't think we're ever going to map out the Caribbean. And I like it that way.

Yeah, but to even have a coherent sense of what's in the Monkey Island universe, it's kind of like every time you go somewhere a new island pops up to greet you and you're going afresh.

Totally. Well, part of me likes that because it's kind of like that wonder of being a kid and what's over the next rise. There's always going to be something over the next rise, and I like that. But you'll be returning a little bit. We're going to bring you back to areas, but it's going to be for good reason. A lot of times, there's no sort of central hub like there is in Sam and Max where it's like, "There is a street, you start in the office, you start in the street." That's also the convention of that genre. It's like, "You're a detective, you're in your office, and all of a sudden, trouble comes and finds you.

Right, or in Strong Bad, you're in his house or something.

Yeah, in Monkey Island, you're going out to find the trouble, and it's more of an odyssey. So other than getting maps of the islands you're in, it's kind of cockamamie about where exactly you are in the world. Even in the Monkey Island 2 maps, where you're going from Booty Island to Phatt Island to Scabb Island, you're on that one map, but you don't know where that is. Like Melee, you can't go to Melee Island. Same thing. And I like it. I like the fact that the Caribbean as we've cooked it up is this limitless buffet of islands that you can sample at your leisure. I was having trouble naming islands for a while, and then Dave was like, "They're always named after something piratey!" It was so simple, such a simple thing, but I was like, "How do you guys come up with these? 'Cause I'm having trouble naming these islands." "So just make them about something." "Oh, yeah." And they all are like that, Flotsam... There's a series of islands you're off to in the next episode. An archipelago, I guess? There's a group of islands you'll be heading to in episode 2.

One other general question out of curiosity... You kind of dealt with the map/overworld screen a bit in the first episode, where usually you cross between screens and you literally pass from one place to another, but when you come back from the jungle, it would open you up to travel wherever you wanted. But there wasn't an easy way to hit a map screen and teleport point to point in general. How do you deal with that, having a literal overworld and having point to point navigation where it all flows together?

Yeah, it's a happy medium that we try to strike. I'm really happy with the way the map is presented in Monkey Island in episode 1. It makes the world feel really big. But, it's kind of like what makes the most sense—traversing, or clicking around. We don't really have a hard and fast rule. Wallace and Gromit's a good example, sometimes it's like, "Oh, you're going to teleport back to the kitchen." because that's makes the most sense as a game designer. And that's kind of like more of a case by case thing. I think Flotsam works because it keeps the exploration factor up, having to go through these gates essentially. But, in later episodes, there are times when you don't have a map, and there are times when you do have a map, and why that makes sense. It's all kind of case by case. We always struggle with putting this map in inventory and having to get it out...

Or having a map key, I don't know.

Yeah, a convention of the world is moving from place to place to place. It's not really like Monkey Island 2, where there were big set pieces all over the island. There's kind of one major set piece and other set pieces that you're going to be travelling to. I think it just felt like it made the most sense to be navigating the way it does, but at the same time there's going to be a map on the deck of your boat that you're going to be using for navigation later. It just depends on what makes sense at the time. We don't have a whole lot of rules at Telltale, it's kind of like, "What feels good here... Let's do that!"

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