Dave Grossman

Telltale Games

Posted by Jonathan Yalon, Philip Jong.
First posted on 01 September 2009. Last updated on 18 October 2009.
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Dave Grossman
Dave Grossman is a game designer at Telltale Games.
Dave Grossman
This is how Grossman writes the scripts for his games (the secret is out)!

All images are courtesy of Joel Dreskin, Telltale Games © 2009.

This article is posted in collaboration with HebrewQuest.

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Dave Grossman is definitely amongst the busiest adventure game designers working today. His long career is symbolically connected to the rise, fall, and resurrection of the adventure game genre. A veteran of the industry, he started at LucasArts (which was called LucasFilm Games back then) in 1989 when he worked as a co-writer, alongside with Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, on The Secret of Monkey Island. He continued as the co-writer for Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge and Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle. Soon after Gilbert's departure from LucasArts, Grossman joined him at Homougenous Entertainment to develop adventure games for kids. In 2005, Grossman joined as the lead designer for Telltale Games, a game development studio also founded by LucasArts alumni Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Trov Molander. Grossman's latest project is Tales of Monkey Island, based on LucasArts' Monkey Island series which he has helped to create 20 years earlier.

We are very pleased to have an opportunity to interview Grossman about Tales of Monkey Island. In the interview, Grossman speaks about his memory of the original series, the series' surprising comeback after a long hiatus, and his own career retrospect about the resurgence of the adventure game genre.

Ever since the first announcement of Tales of Monkey Island, there has been a lot of fan activity and media coverage of the new series. To what extent will this news be the step needed to bring adventure gaming back to the mainstream?

Media coverage certainly does help. As does word of mouth - quick, tell two friends! But the thing that's really critical to bringing adventure games to the mainstream is designing them for the mainstream. Avoiding player frustration while continuing to provide an experience that lets you be and feel clever has been a particular cornerstone for me. I want Monkey Island fans from way back to enjoy our games, but I want my mother-in-law to be able to play as well. It's tricky to make a game that will be fun for veterans and neophytes alike, but I think we're doing a good job of it.

You are the co-writer of The Secret of Monkey Island. How does it feel to write a new Monkey Island game almost 20 years later? What is your take on LucasArts' announcement on The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, a remake of the original game?

Twenty years, as it turns out, is plenty of time for it to feel fresh again. Of course, the world at large is a bit different, the audience is older now, I'm older, and my role is different as well - I'm far more editorial this time around, with nearly all of the writing being done by Mike Stemmle, Mark Darin, and Sean Vanaman. Who are all awesome, by the way. But the characters are very much the same, and working with them again has been a bit like running into an old friend I'd lost touch with and catching up over coffee.

As for the Special Edition, I'm glad the first game has gotten this new attention. My favorite feature is the one that lets you switch back and forth between the old and new versions of the game, I find that interesting. It's cool to see what modern technology enables you to do visually, though at the same time I'm glad they didn't go for a more extensive remake where they would rewrite all of my brilliant dialog to adapt to the change from reading it on screen to hearing it spoken by actors.

Tales of Monkey Island presents many hilarious, wacky characters and gags that are in the best tradition of the original series. After so many years, how do you still get the ideas for writing ridiculous new tales about 17th century Caribbean pirates, voodoo, and zombies?

It's a rich world, I think we could go for a long time without running out of stories. Also, one of the things I think is compelling about the Monkey Island series is that, while the moment-by-moment details are funny and often quite silly, the underlying stories tend to be more serious. The Secret of Monkey Island, for example, is about a young man pursuing his life's dream, finding love on the way, and discovering that the second is more important than the first. Tales of Monkey Island is, at its heart, an epic saga of trust, conflict and betrayal. The counterpoint between the gags on the surface and the deeper story underneath is one of the things that makes these games stick with you, and also keeps the series from getting stale in the way that something that was pure humor might tend to do eventually.

It is common knowledge that the storylines in Monkey Island do not always make sense. An example is the shocking revelation in the relationship between Guybrush and LeChuck at the end of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, which is left unexplained in subsequent sequels. What is the original genesis of this gag? In hindsight, to what extent is the "deus ex machina" finale in the game appropriate or inappropriate for the series?

People do tend to either love or hate that finale, don't they? The bit where we claim that Guybrush and LeChuck are brothers ultimately fell out of our inexplicable desire to reference and spoof the Star Wars films. This was our Empire Strikes Back moment, something which also partially influenced the fact that the ending leaves things unresolved, the immediate plot over with but Han Solo still in the hands of the enemy. So to speak.

Many fans still prefer the 2D graphics of the earlier Monkey Island games (especially The Curse of Monkey Island's). Not surprisingly, the shift to 3D in Escape from Monkey Island has drawn heavy criticism. Why do you decide to keep Tales of Monkey Island in 3D?

Telltale is a 3D studio, with our engine, tools, production pipeline, and personnel organized specifically to take advantage of the benefits 3D offers for animation, cinematic camera placement, and the kind of rapid iteration we need to produce games episodically. Doing this series in 2D wouldn't have been a viable option for us. But ultimately, we don't think the audience cares specifically how many Ds there are, what they care about is whether the game looks good. Which ToMI does - we employ a lot of very talented people who know how to make 3D art look excellent.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive early response from critics, there have been some complaints among gamers about the new user interface and camera system in the first chapter of Tales of Monkey Island. Technically speaking, to what extent can these issues be addressed in later chapters of the season?

Yes, we introduced a new system for mouse-driven characters with the PC version of the first chapter of Tales, which is designed to give you the kind of physical connection to the world that you get when you drive the character directly, but still let you play the game using only the mouse. (There are also traditional WASD controls for players who are more used to that sort of thing.) Generally the new system works very well, but of course nothing is ever immune to improvement. Except coconut popsicles.

Since 2005, Telltale Games has proved itself to be successful in a game market that many critics are considered "dead". Without giving specific sale figures (which is understandable), how well has each of the episodic series from Telltale Games done commercially? Which series has proved to be most successful? How true is the rumor that it has been a marketing challenge to find a gaming audience outside of Britain for the Wallace & Gromit series?

Even vague information about sales is totally confidential. They'll send howler monkeys to my house.

If Tales of Monkey Island proves to be a commercial success, will Telltale Games consider developing a second series, or another adventure series based on another LucasArts license? Which series do you personally most like to see revived (ahem, the one with tentacles, maybe)?

I'm bemusedly sure you'll read more into me not answering this question than you would if I did. But: No comment.

Although original, all of Telltale Games' adventure games so far are based on licensed franchises (Bone, CSI, Sam & Max, Homestar Runner's Strong Bad, Wallace & Gromit, Monkey Island). What is Telltale Games' plan, if any, to develop a new series based on a brand new IP (Intellectual Property) in the near future?

Without getting into specifics, I'll say that original IP has been part of the plan, pretty much always. It's just that we've been having all these really positive experiences working with various genius creators and awesome licenses as we've been building our studio. Brewing your own beer is ultimately very rewarding, but when you live next to a good pub it might take you longer to get around to it.

In recent years, a number of legendary adventure game designers (such as Ron Gilbert, Jane Jensen, Ragnar Tørnquist, and Chris Jones) have chosen to return to the adventure game business after long years of absence. Even LucasArts has now begun redeveloping its own adventure game franchises. What are your thoughts on the current state of the adventure game genre? What has prompted the recent change in interest in adventure games?

For a while there, publishers were unwilling to invest in adventure games because it was much easier to make money building other things. But competition in other genres has escalated, the market in general is a lot bigger, older, and more casual, and downloadable distribution is making it easier to reach an audience without fighting blockbuster titles for shelf space. I think all of these factors probably have something to do with the recent resurgence. I'm sure the designers want to make them simply because they find them compelling, but they have opportunities to do so because it makes more business sense than it did a few years ago.

What advice can you give to anyone who is interested in developing an adventure game?

Remember: Your job is not to make yourself feel clever, it's to make the player feel clever. Are they really going to be able to figure out that puzzle you just designed? How? And what will be fun about the process of solving it? Don't forget, you're in the entertainment business.

What were your fondest memories of working at LucasArts? In hindsight, what regrets did you have about leaving LucasArts in 1994, at a time when adventure games were still popular? Why did you choose to pursue a new career as a freelance writer at Humongous Entertainment? In retrospect, how did you feel about the sale of Humongous Entertainment, a company cofounded by LucasArts alumni Ron Gilbert, to GT Interactive and later Infrogames that eventually led to the company's demise?

I remember the yoyos - literal yoyos, not figurative ones - the food at Skywalker, Tempest and Millipede contests with Ron, working on the secret, never-printed “tabloid” yearbook, having a fanboy moment with Steve Purcell on my first day... oh, I think we made a few games in there as well, and that was fun, too. But after five years it was definitely time for a change, and I've never for one minute regretted moving on. Working freelance suited me well, which is why I did it for eleven years before Telltale came along. And how convenient it was that Ron had gone and started Humongous! I had always liked working with him. They weren't my first client, but they were the most consistent, and I always felt comfortable leaving a script in their hands, knowing that when the game was built it would be at least as good as I had imagined it, and probably better. It's a shame that that studio dwindled and eventually vanished, there was a lot of talent and good heart there. And it's tempting to blame that on Ron's departure, but of course his next company, Hulabee, which involved many of the same people, also foundered - the business climate for children's games had changed dramatically in the interim, and it's impossible to say what would have happened had he stayed.

What are your favorite adventure games of all time, excluding your own games? Why?

My favorite answer to this question is “The Adventures of Sean II,” a game most people have never heard of. My fondness for it has nothing to do with actual quality - quite the opposite, I'd say. It was written (and drawn) in Hypercard on a Mac about a million years ago, and the fact that it looks like a series of child's crayon drawings merely serves to show that an adventure game does not need art or flashy special effects in order to be fun. It has some clever puzzles and a simple, entertaining story, and stands out for me as a bare-bones example that those are the core of an adventure game experience, and in the end they're all you really need.

Aside from being an adventure game developer, you are also an accomplished book author, poet, and even a pumpkin craftsman. What drives you to pursue these other interests?

I guess I've inherited a certain restless tinkerer's curiosity from my father (who mainly works in words, wood, photography and architecture, often in combination). I like experimenting with different media to see what kinds of opportunities they provide, and often learn things by comparing them to each other. Writing, drawing, sculpture, music - they're all closely related in my opinion. I also learned to cook in my thirties, once I recognized it as a creative pursuit rather than a chore.

Good luck with Tales of Monkey Island and your future projects!

Thanks much!

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