For more information, visit Insecticide.
During the golden era of adventure games, LucasArts' penchant for finding and helping nurture talents was legendary. Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert, and Dave Grossman were among the list of most recognized LucasArts alumni whose work had helped to define the adventure game genre. Yet, there were many others at LucasArts whose contributions to the genre were equally undeniable.
Many times the lead artist and animator, Larry Ahern was such an individual. He imprinted his visual style, charm, and humor on many of the company's classic adventure games, before ultimately becoming a full-fledged designer himself for The Curse of Monkey Island. After leaving LucasArts, he cofounded Crackpot Entertainment with Mike Levine and began development of an ambitious adventure game project—Insecticide. The project was meant to establish a new IP of "sprawling insect cities" proportions for the company. Unfortunately, the release of Insecticide: Part 1 for the PC was met with only limited commercial success, which ultimately led to the cancellation of Insecticide: Part 2. Even so, the company succeeded in releasing the game in full for the Nintendo DS.
Recently, we have been privileged to be given an opportunity to interview Ahern about the troubled history of Insecticide. In the interview, Ahern speaks to us candidly about the less glamorous side of game development, such as the challenges of securing funding and publishing deals for Insecticide. Ahern also talks to us about his memories of working at LucasArts, revealing the secret history behind the original sequel to Full Throttle wrongly nicknamed Payback as well as the cancelled magic themed adventure game Vanishing Act.
Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept and production art from Insecticide: Part 1, Insecticide: Part 2, the cancelled Full Throttle 2, and the cancelled Vanishing Act.
- What is the story behind the cancelation of Part II of Insecticide, despite the fact that the game is at a very advanced stage of production already? What have you been up to since wrapping up work on Insecticide? What other game projects do you currently have in the plans?
- To clarify, the full DS version of the game shipped, as did Part I of the PC downloadable version. However, Part II of the PC version was cancelled, although we were well into production. I wish I could say it was because of some anti-adventure game conspiracy or the assets were stolen by a band of thieves looking to sell game inventory items on the black market, or something similarly dramatic. I also wish I had a million dollars.
Unfortunately, that's not the case, and I don't. If it was, it might be easier to understand the whole thing, or fund Part II myself. Instead, the game was cancelled due to a whole host of complicated financial, technical, and marketing issues that I don't quite follow, but suspect had something to do with nobody buying the game.
Essentially, our original publisher, Gamecock, had this crazy idea of funding indie titles based on crazy ideas like Insecticide. We were very much in favor of this plan, but I guess the sales figures for their first titles weren't as supportive of the idea, and by the time ours came along and did mediocre business, the writing was on the wall, and probably some of it hit the fan too, and basically things weren't looking as promising.
However, we were heads down working on Part 2, hoping to deliver the definitive conclusion to the adventure for all 52 of our screaming fans, so we were surprised to learn that South Peak had bought Gamecock. Then the new publisher pretty much ignored us for a month or two while they "evaluated" the prospects of our title, which also wasn't a good sign. They ultimately decided not to publish Part II, and we never got much of an explanation, but I'm guessing someone there with a calculator was predicting trouble with the whole venture. Either that or they were just creeped out by bugs.
Thankfully, since Insecticide, I've been working on projects for a much wider audience under the banner of my Flying Leap Studios. However, most of that work is behind the scenes as a writer and designer on interactive location-based attractions, much of it for a very large entertainment company known for their theme parks. It's been quite a lot of fun, although the whole covert ops aspect of it and not being legally allowed to mention them in interviews is a bit weird.
As for traditional games, Crackpot is kind of on the backburner right now, but we've always got some interesting ideas simmering. It's really just an issue of not having enough time to do it all, since both Mike Levine and I are busy with our respective companies. But, as soon as we finish work on that app that adds +7 hours to the day, I expect you'll be seeing a lot more games from us.
- Mike Levine had publicly stated that the final concept of Insecticide came out of years of phone conversations between you and him. What were your favorite memories of how both of you collaborated on the game's design, from conceptualization to actual production?
- Stories like that always sound so romantic, don't they (uh...in a platonic, creative way, I mean). Think of how J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer started out, and then imagine something nothing at all like that and that's pretty much how we created Insecticide. The truth is it probably wasn't all that exciting. We both wanted to do something more original, started brainstorming, spent way too long developing it, changed our minds way too many times, pitched it to a bunch of publishers and got turned down way too many times, then finally got someone to give us some money. Maybe there's a funny or poignant anecdote in there somewhere, but I might have missed it.
My fondest memory of the time was the creative satisfaction that came from developing the concept, since it saved me from the drudgery of my day job working at a large software/game company, That-corporation-who-shall-not-be-named, Inc. I'd been there several years in multiple mismanaged internal game studios and through several cancelled projects, and finally found myself beaten and spent, working on some kind of simulator, asking, "Why don't they recognize how good I am at creating a compelling, believable world of talking insects?!" Their loss, I guess.
When our ship finally came in and we got the chance to build the game, I just tried not to notice how unseaworthy it appeared or all the surrounding icebergs. Production was a whirlwind of creative activity with a talented group, but also involved a lot of bailing and throwing things overboard in order to keep the whole thing afloat. In the end, we made it through, shipped a finished game, and avoided that iceberg, but it wouldn't have made a good Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle.
- What new attractions would Part II of Insecticide offer compared to Part I? Where would Chrys' and Roachie's investigation lead to this time?
- Well, I'd hate to ruin the ending before you've seen the film (the one that hasn't been made because no one's signed us to a movie deal yet). Actually, the story's already out there in the DS version, but just in limited form, with some cinematics reduced to still frames and text. Part II of the PC version followed the same storyline and level progression, but it was just more fleshed out. Since it was never released, I think I can safely say that Part II would have been much better than Part I and the DS version, sending our sales numbers and critical scores through the roof. So, it's really a shame we didn't get to put it out.
- Mike Levine has hinted that there is a real depth of conceptual potential for releasing Insecticide in different media or platforms. What chances, if any, do you see this happening for the game now?
- Yes, I would have to agree with Mike on that (especially if it might result in more money). There's a ton of material that we came up with for the IP, and we envisioned it from the start as a game, a TV series, a film, an energy drink, and a line of athletic footwear. It's always important to start with a master plan, and I guess it was just the lack of love from the audience that stopped us short of our dream.
In fact, our now crushed dream started out as a TV series concept that we pitched to a few studios before the offer to publish it as a game came in. Once the game production started, we were so busy working on it and imagining the vast wealth coming our way that we just didn't have time to pitch the show anymore. However, we have shown it around a few times since, so there's always hope. Maybe the phoenix beetle will rise from the flaming ruins of our game after all. We just need to meet the right person with the right number of zeroes in their bank account, and everything could turn around.
- What were the most challenging aspects of designing a game like Insecticide that would combine together gameplay mechanics from several different game genres?
- Everything. The problem was that we went into the project thinking we didn't want to limit ourselves. Since we were both already employed, we had no interest in putting a bunch of work into pitching and building yet another space marine elf dragon race car driver game. We wanted to do something bigger (or, I guess since it was about bugs, smaller), and it was only worth it to us if it was going to be unique and different.
The only problem was our game design was probably a bit too epic for the kind of budget we could realistically expect to get. So, while the initial plan was for a true genre-blend incorporating adventure gameplay within the action-platform levels, the final version had to be simplified and the adventure portions segregated from the rest. We also planned the entire world of Troi to be a complex maze of buildings with doors and windows on walls and ceilings, with bugs able to walk on all the surfaces.
It would have been very cool, but was admittedly much more complicated. But, remember, we were dreaming big, and space marine elves were not an option. I think it was ambitious, but we still could have gotten closer to the mark than we did if we hadn't also built a DS version. Our biggest setback was that we signed on to build a PSP and PC downloadable game, planning them to be one and the same (building to the high end of the PSP specs). Then months into production we were told that distributors didn't want a PSP title and our funding was going to be cut in half.
The whole house of cards would have crumbled without funding for two versions, so we made a last ditch desperate pitch to build a DS version instead. Unfortunately, that meant we couldn't make the same game for both platforms anymore, which is why both ended up a shadow of the original game plan.
- Ron Gilbert had been frequently tapped by game fans for his afterthoughts about the actual secret of Monkey Island, the twisted ending in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, and the story he intended for his own version of a second Monkey Island sequel. Similarly, in what direction would you take the story from the finale of The Curse of Monkey Island if you were given the opportunity? How did you imagine Guybrush would change as a character after his marriage to Elaine?
- You know, I don't think I had any especially brilliant ideas mapped out for Guybrush. We sort of looked at the whole Monkey Island series as being on loan to us for one game, and we were moving on to pitch an original title, so I never thought much about what was next. We finished up and left the next team an ending that was significantly less obtuse than Monkey Island 2, so our work was done; it was someone else's problem. I know we had a few conversations about Guybrush being terrorized by his kids, or maybe unsuccessfully trying to teach Guybrush, Jr. how to be a pirate, but I don't think we had a full storyline mapped out.
- Because of time and budget constraints, the finale of The Curse of Monkey Island was said to have been heavily cut from the initial script—both in the playable confrontation with LeChuck and in the ending cut scene. What had been left out from the initial script? How far into production were these cut from the game?
- I think if you search the internet, you can find the storyboards from that cut sequence. I believe it's also included in the strategy guide (or maybe it was just included in my imagination...I don't remember). But, since I'm too lazy to search the internet myself right now, I'll have to say with very little authority that we planned some lengthier more climactic sequences on the roller coaster that included skeleton battles and a more dramatic cinematic ending. The final scene of Guybrush and Elaine kissing as they sailed off into the sunset was intended to be a capper for the end credits, not the entire ending scene. But with the clock ticking and our money tree withering, we got worried and cut the whole sequence. The rest never made it past the storyboard stage.
In hindsight, I think that was probably a mistake and we should have asked for a little extra time/cash. The project was otherwise very polished, ready, and on time/budget and we could have made a strong case for finishing it up properly with a minimal amount of pain and suffering. On the other hand, even with the truncated final sequence the game was still a critical and commercial success, so maybe it wasn't super important. Plus, I wouldn't have this fascinating anecdote. Okay, so I change my mind: cutting the ending sequence was a brilliant move!
- What had been your memories of working with Jonathan Ackley from when you were co-designing The Curse of Monkey Island? Why was it that almost all LucasArts adventure game projects were led by a pair of lead designers (rather than a single lead designer)? By what criteria did such duos get created to work together on these projects?
- I worked briefly with Jonathan at the end of Day of the Tentacle. I remember him being a really nice guy, a great programmer, and writing some really terrible Bernard dialogue that included a bunch of Shakespeare references. I kept thinking that someone needed to show him the rest of the game, since he wasn't getting it (the dialog was thankfully cut). So, when management said they wanted to team me up with Jonathan, I was happy to get the chance to make a game, but a little worried about his comedy stylings. Thankfully, after just one or two brainstorming sessions it was clear that I had nothing to worry about except busting a gut.
I think LucasArts typically liked to pair people up when leading their first project. Management thought it was easier for first-timers to work as a team, especially if one of them was a no-account artist type like me who didn't know how to program. Once teams finished a first game, some would lead a project alone, while others decided they preferred to continue working as part of a team.
- Sometime after finishing The Curse of Monkey Island, you and Jonathan Ackley collaborated to develop Vanishing Act, an original adventure game that was unfortunately canceled later. What was to be the premise of the game? What features would you consider to be most unique about this game? To what extent had you ever thought about reusing some of the ideas from it in a future project of your own or another project with Jonathan Ackley?
- The game was set in a steam punk world and was about a magician/thief confronting the menace of the evil industrialist, Frau Richter, and her robotic henchmen. Richter was a massive Germanic woman dressed like the fat lady/Valkyrie in the opera. She could bend steel with her bare hands, and liked to build mechanical admirers/henchmen, since no one in real life had anything kind to say about her.
It was going to be a 3D game in an interesting world with bizarre characters and some really fun interactive elements, including the ability to turn into a raven or a spider to solve puzzles. But it was very ambitious. That, and the fact that Jonathan decided to leave LucasArts to form a children's game company with his wife probably had something to do with the game stalling out.
Of course, while many of the ideas from this game were breathtaking and phenomenally well-conceived, all are wholly owned and copyrighted by LucasArts Entertainment Company (and any resemblance to persons living, dead or cartooned is purely coincidental), so I would never dream of reusing any of the material in any future projects without express prior written permission from the trademark holders or their assignees forthwith, thereby, in perpetuity, etc., and all that other legal stuff and so on, Amen.
- Bill Tiller had spoken publicly on the failed development of the first Full Throttle sequel (also known as Full Throttle 2 or Full Throttle: Payback). As the lead designer for that game, what was your original vision for the sequel? It was rumored that LucasArts had planned for the sequel to be much less of an adventure game than the original. How true was this rumor?
- Actually, it was never called Full Throttle: Payback. That was just a title that Bill Tiller suggested which I didn't plan to use, but didn't have a great alternative for, so I decided to shut up about it until I did. And since the real title on all my docs was the less remarkable and very temporary Full Throttle Sequel, I think the internet decided it liked Bill's version better. Plus, he's the only person who's really spoken publicly about the game, so that could have something to do with the title's adoption. I guess what I'm saying is—and I know this may come as a shock, but—the internet is not always right.
But, the internet also teaches us that history is written by those who speak up or are good at catching pivotal, interesting or embarrassing moments on video, especially ones involving nonviolent revolution, videogames or kittens. So, I guess I will say a few words about the game, although I'm sure due to the length of this interview that I've probably already lost most of your readers by now. However, for those remaining I'll say that you lucky few will now learn the secret. No, not the secret of Monkey Island; I never knew that, and I think it's probably one of those things you're not supposed to know or it will melt your face off like the Ark of the Covenant. I mean the secret of the Full Throttle Sequel.
Or did Bill already tell this story? I think he did. Man, it would be so much easier if I could just post my design doc for you instead of having to summarize, but I think there are lawyers that frown on that behavior too. So, here's the gist of the game:
Ben had just come off a high profile trial where he was found not guilty of Ripburger's murder. Hounded by the press, he just wants to disappear, but is drawn into a struggle to save the biker way of life. There's a big transportation project in the works to replace the old highways with new hover roads, roads that prohibit motorcycle traffic! And a ruthless and corrupt Senator, the very same man who handled Ben's prosecution, has his fingers all over the dirty deal.
Murder, mayhem, and motorcycles ensue. Father Torque plays a pivotal role, along with Ben's estranged brother (now working for the Senator), and a female reporter looking for an "exclusive." It was going to be a PS2 action-adventure title with all the motorcycle stunts and fighting we weren't able to do very well in the first Full Throttle, but all built around the story/puzzle structure of the original game.
- Notwithstanding The Curse of Monkey Island and Insecticide, what is your favorite adventure game to which you have contributed? Why?
- Day of the Tentacle. It was such a great time at the company, and it felt like we had the team and the resources to do whatever we wanted and make something really fun. The team was small, we were all friends, and it was the first time I felt I had a real creative influence on a game. Even better, it was possible to have that influence, but also get my hands dirty doing production work, because it didn't take my whole day managing the art team (there were only 4 of us). I definitely miss working on projects of that scale.
- What are the most interesting skills you have learned while working at LucasArts? What are your favorite memories of LucasArts from those times?
- Working at LucasArts back then was a lot like going to grad school. It was a lot of fun, very social; we all hung out together, took long lunches, worked late, went to dinner, played games, and worked on comics and other creative side projects after hours. I learned how to animate, how to design puzzles, and how to write stories. I learned how to make an expression of earnest apprehension on a face using only 24 pixels. And I learned that comedy is stronger when there are chickens involved (rubber, real or demonic...doesn't matter).
I also learned that if you want to do something creative and original you have to speak up and step up, and then you have to turn around and provide that opportunity for the next group of people coming in the door. I was there for 10 years, 8 of which were fantastic and 2 more of which were not so much (probably because of the chaotic mix of management, technology and market changes, swelling project sizes, and cancelled games).
- How do you think adventure games and story driven games of different genres stand against other storytelling media, especially those that focus on visual storytelling?
- Okay, here's my shocking take on the whole thing (hang onto your joystick, Roger Ebert): I don't think of the issue as one versus another. I don't really care if one is art and one isn't, if one is ever capable of it or not, or if one medium called the other a bad name or what. I just like stories, and I like them in films, comics, games...everywhere. Storytelling is interesting. I'm also an artist, so I like visual storytelling and I'm happy to get to work in any medium that lets me create that form. Of course, there are certain strengths and weaknesses to each medium, but the rest of the debate just doesn't interest me.
- You often emphasize the important role of humor in adventure games. What type of humor do you personally like to add to the games you design? What is your favorite or most memorable joke from a LucasArts adventure game and from Insecticide?
- Well, the reason I think humor is important in adventure games is because it's good for masking an inherent flaw in the design of interactive dialog trees. I think these were created in an attempt at some kind of dialog simulation, but they're just not very good. That usually becomes pretty obvious when you're playing a serious/dramatic game and you start clicking through the different choices and start feeling really bored and sleepy.
But with a comedy, nobody is pretending there is a real conversation going on. We all know it's bad, but we motivate you to click on all the responses because, for cripes' sake, there are four punch lines instead of one! That's value, and well worth the extra effort of trying to come up with a few more knock-knock jokes or off-color puns.
I love making comedy games, and the best humor is the kind that evolves over the course of an interactive sequence and is an integral part of the scenario. If you're asking about jokes I worked on that I think turned out well, there's the puzzle in Curse of Monkey Island where you meet the ghost bride and need to free her by finding her a husband. You find the skeleton of her old boyfriend in a Murphy bed in the hotel and the puzzle is this elaborate sequence where you open a hole in the wall then slam the bed closed to catapult him through the hole and across the lawn to the cemetery where they marry and live happily ever after. It has a bizarre logic to it, it's a little creepy, touching, and funny, plus when you solve the payoff animation is satisfying.
I'm also proud of the shipwreck cutscene from the same game; Guybrush, Van Helgen and Cutthroat Bill are frantically trying to save the ship and ask Haggis for help. He says he's barely hanging on himself. It then cuts to show Haggis desperately holding on to his kilt to stop it from flying up in the windstorm. And I did the Cone of Tragedy scene in Sam & Max Hit the Road, which featured a dangerous looking carnival thrill ride that at one point has various Swiss Army knife blades open up out of the top just to show how dangerous. The scene ends with Max giving Sam CPR.
Insecticide is tougher to single out any one bit. I really enjoyed writing Roachy's bad film noir detective narration, and I think there are a lot of really fun random lines from enemies and secondary characters that run around in the action levels. Buy a copy of the game (you could be lucky customer #53) and listen for yourself!
- As a veteran in the fields of animation and art design, how do you define beauty in animation? What titles do you see as examples of landmarks in animation in computer games (feel free to plug your own games!)? How do you feel about the evolution of animation in computer games since the 90's to where there is now a heavy reliance on 3D graphics and physics engines?
- I'm not the person to ask about the latest groundbreaking visual advances in games graphics. I've been around awhile and seen some really good stuff (all of which has rubbed off on me), but I don't know what's technically possible. I just like coming up with visual ideas that I think will be fun, and then finding a team that can help me figure out how to pull it off.
Also, most of the visual stuff that's influenced me has probably not come from games. That's changed a little in the last decade, but inspiration comes from everywhere. I'm sure there are probably some game titles that I should mention, but I'm also just not very good at rattling off a top 10 list, so we're just going to have to skip over that part. Heck, I don't even remember what I played last week (probably because I didn't play anything last week).
But whether we're talking games or other media, I like things with a visual style that's unique, expressive and interesting. It doesn't have to be funny, but it has to have its own personality that's right for the story it's trying to tell. I hate photorealism in animation. Animation can do so many things well that a camera can't, but photorealism isn't one of them. Even with live-action I still prefer seeing a stylized take on how reality is depicted. I don't have a problem with 3D, physics engines or other tools per se, just what people do with them. I want to see some creativity, a personal expressive vision, and not a simulation of reality.
- You have just released all previously unpublished videos that were meant to be cut scenes in Part II of Insecticide. This is a major piece of the original production finally revealed. What would you like to say about this release to the fans who were eagerly waiting for any new bit of info about Insecticide?
- Better late than never, I hope. Honestly, we had a few hurdles to get over before we could release this additional game material, not the least of which was that it had to be excavated from the production ruins and painstakingly reassembled by our crack team of archeologists, and those guys aren’t cheap. Then Mike and I have been busy with our respective companies, Happy Giant (http://www.happygiantmedia.com/) and Flying Leap Studios (http://www.flyingleapstudios.com/). But you can find the video sequences from the entire game, including never-before-seen videos from Insecticide: Part 2 on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8oWnnsJ_GWBQwZyzmFgVPA/videos?view=1).
It’s bittersweet, since it’s not the full second half of the game that we’d hoped to release. However, it’s still nice to finally see the full slate of video sequences all in one place. We hope the fans enjoy seeing the rest of Chrys and Roachy’s adventure in its fully-animated glory.