First posted on 02 December 2009. Last updated on 04 December 2009.
All images are courtesy of Adam Kahn, LucasArts © 2009.
It is a rare opportunity to speak in an interview about a game almost 20 years after its original release. The Secret of Monkey Island was originally released by Lucasfilm Games (now called LucasArts) in 1990, and it brought to life a world of swashbuckling and piracy to an adventure game market dominated by fantasy themes. The game helped to launch the careers of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schaefer, and Dave Grossman. It also spawned a number of full-length sequels from LucasArts and even an episodic game series currently being developed by Telltale Games.
In June 2009, amid much speculation, LucasArts announced the development of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition—a full-fledged remake of the original with new visuals, music, and voiceovers. The announcement took the adventure game community at large by surprise. It was also welcome news for legions of diehard Monkey Island fans longing for the return of Guybrush Threepwood.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Craig Derrick, a producer at LucasArts and the Project Lead of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, about the remake. In the interview, Derrick speaks about the inspiration behind the project and shares his thoughts on bringing new life to a classic.
- There have been a lot of remakes, both official and fan-made, of classic adventure games over the years—some are graphical makeovers, and some introduce new content or supplemental features. What approach to developing remakes and reintroducing the classics to a new generation of gamers is LucasArts taking in The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition?
- Our approach in developing and reintroducing a classic game like The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is to find a balance between what hardcore fans may want and what features will make the game more relevant to today's audiences. We know there are a lot of retro gamers out there nowadays and that original fans of these titles will likely play them with no updates again on a new platform, but the real opportunity is with new gamers and that means you need great visuals, great audio and compelling gameplay to complement the already terrific story and characters of Monkey Island.
- The new Guybrush in The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition shares a marked resemblance to his incarnation in The Curse of Monkey Island. To what extent have the artists deliberately drawn from the artistic style of previous games when deciding on how to re-imagine his character for this remake? What have been the challenges faced by the artists when adapting the pixelated graphics of the original game to the high resolution graphics of the remake?
- Luckily we didn't have to start with just the pixilated version of Guybrush since there have been other games since the first that evolved the character. When we first started we looked at all of the games within the Monkey Island series. The first two games have strong visual continuity, but Curse of Monkey Island purposely went in a different direction and Escape from Monkey Island attempted to replicate the style of Curse in 3D with mixed results. When it came time to develop the look of the characters for the Special Edition we put images of each character variation from all four games side-by-side including their representation on the box art and any marketing materials we could find. We also looked at various fan sites and fan created art and found that most representations of Guybrush were largely based on his lanky appearance in Curse, so that told us a bit about what fans liked. In the end we chose to merge the best of each while taking a new stylistic approach to come up with something familiar, but ultimately fresh.
- Ron Gilbert, creator of Monkey Island, had admitted publicly on his blog that even he could not remember how to solve all the puzzles in his own game when replaying it years later. What was the approach taken in the remake to keep players from getting stuck, without cheating them of the experience of solving the puzzles by themselves?
- Being challenged by a puzzle is part of the fun playing an adventure game. What we didn't want to see happen, though, was people becoming frustrated solving a puzzle because they were unfamiliar with classic adventure gameplay. Remember, this is nearly a 20 year old game and there are plenty of hints online that people could easily look up if they were frustrated, but we figured if people continually did this that they would eventually move on to another game. To prevent this we choose to include an in-game hint system that would give the player a bit of a nudge in the right direction without revealing the solution completely. If they were still stumped they could choose another more descriptive hint and then eventually a spoiler-filled solution. It's funny that you mention Ron Gilbert, because one of the ideas we had was to have it be Ron's voice telling you what to do to solve his puzzles. Hmm...maybe next time.
- What inspired the decision to include an option to seamlessly transition between the old and new versions of the game? To what extent was this feature aimed to please fans who would enjoy comparing both visual interpretations of each scene side by side?
- We had always intended to include the original game in some way with the special edition, but we didn't really know how until after we started production. The decision to keep the game design unaltered came early in pre-production, so once we started to consider building the special edition features on top of the classic version it became evident that we could have some type of switching between the two. The first time we got it working we knew we were on to something. First we would use it to compare the different art, then we started fading out the music and then the dialog. This was a huge hit to anyone that saw it and actually helped us quite a bit in showing off the game to the studio executives because they could actually see and hear the various changes we were making. I knew if we were having that much fun checking it out that the fans would as well. We even give out an achievement on the XBLA version for switching between the two versions! All retro remakes should have this feature.
- The original game used a verb system that included a large list of choices. Later games in the series simplified the full list down to only 3 choices. How would the new interface in the remake preserve the complexity of the original interface without cluttering up the screen with irrelevant options?
- We wanted a full screen game instead of having the verbs and inventory icons appearing in the black area under the art. We also knew we had to make the controls work well on a console and not appear too much like an emulated PC game. A verb coin similar to Curse of Monkey Island was considered, but since the game design wasn't being changed we couldn't easily reduce nine verb actions down to three. We choose instead to split the verb and inventory functions and essentially hide them making them accessible with individual buttons presses. We also ensured that shortcuts for the verbs were available and that primary and secondary actions were also visible onscreen. All of this worked out quite well and helped balance the new features with the old.
- The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that later inspired the eventual development of the iMUSE (interactive MUsic Streaming Engine) system used to synchronize music to events in a game. How has the interactivity of sound design in the remake changed when compared to the original? How extensively has the MIDI soundtrack of the original game been re-scored for the remake?
- iMuse wasn't used for the first game. The soundtrack has been completely re-mastered and re-recorded with a live band. Our music supervisor and composer, Jesse Harlin did an amazing job of staying faithful to the original composition while bringing something completely new to it.
- Ron Gilbert said that, at the time of Monkey Island's creation, the adventure game genre was dominated by fantasy motifs and Monkey Island took the genre into a different direction. How well has the series held up against more contemporary competitors over the years? What is the timeless appeal of Monkey Island? How does it compare to the games of today?
- Monkey Island has timeless appeal because it's a classic tale of boy meets girl, boy loses girl to dead pirate, boy (SPOILER ALERT!) barely defeats dead pirate and somewhere between Monkey 1 and 2 loses girl again.
The game does hold up quite well and the jokes are still funny today as they were 20 years ago, but from a visual, audio and pacing stand-point -- while still charming in its classic retro way -- the game does feel a bit dated compared to games of today. We feel that the new special edition features go a long way to addressing this and will make the game appeal to a new audience while also appealing to fans of the classic game by including the option to play the original game untouched. Hopefully we'll get to do more of these special editions or even brand new games that will go even further in modernizing the franchise.
- During the development of The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, what kind of bugs or unintended functionality did the design team discover about the original release that the team was able to correct? What interesting tidbits did the team learn about the game from working on the remake that were not known before?
- The great thing about a game as beloved as Monkey Island is that there are fan sites that have all of the bugs from the original game already documented and posted online. We had bugs to fix before we even wrote the pitch for the game! However, I thought there may be some charm in leaving the old bugs in as-is in the original title so for a long time in development we didn't bother to fix any of them. Then two original bugs reared their ugly head. The first was a strange graphical bug with Carla the Swordmaster. When you first follow the Shopkeeper into the woods to Carla's you'll see her standing outside her house spinning or flipping back and forth. This was even more noticeable with the new special edition art and felt pretty odd, so we fixed it so that she's standing still in both the classic and se versions. The other was a crash bug that occurs when you put a certain combination of items in the cooking pot on the Sea Monkey.
- With the release of The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, is LucasArts refocusing on the adventure game genre? What other plans does LucasArts have for sequels or remakes from the company's portfolio of classic adventure games?
- We're refocusing on our heritage -- classic LucasArts games with often humorous situations, unlikely heroes and story driven game mechanics. It was an easy choice to start with remaking a classic like Monkey Island, but we're also very interested in taking characters out of the adventure game genre and creating all new games and experiences with them. Nintendo has done a fantastic job of this with their characters over the years and I would hope that we'll get an opportunity to do the same.
- Together with LucasArts' announcement of The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, TellTale Games has also announced the creation of a new series, Tales of Monkey Island. Given the close ties between TellTale Games and LucasArts, to what extent is LucasArts involved in the development of Tales of Monkey Island, including script, art, and music? What does the future hold for Guybrush?
- LucasArts is completely involved in the development of Tales of Monkey Island from a licensing perspective – meaning we collaborate and approve all materials such as the game script, puzzle designs and character sketches. Key folks from LucasArts met with the team at Telltale early on to discuss the overall direction of the series, the big beats for each episode and which characters would be returning. Since the internal team working on the Special Edition was already in production prior to the start of Tales we were able to share the art style guide, show off the game and encourage them to retain as much of the original cast as possible including the use of Dominic Armato as the voice of Guybrush Threepwood. It's been a good, collaborative experience working with them on this project and I'm sure we'll see more of Guybrush in the future.
- After almost 20 years, is it finally time to let the fans know what, really, is the "secret" of Monkey Island?
- I feel part of the reason we're still talking about Monkey Island 20 years after its initial release is due to the "secret" not being revealed. Leaving it mysterious and ambiguous I feel is part of the charm. However, I also think we owe the fans a bit of closure around the "secret" and hope that we have the opportunity to reveal it in a perhaps unexpected way soon.