When Telltale Games promised to unveil a brand new episodic series at E3, few guessed it would be Tales of Monkey Island - a five-part adventure based on the classic LucasArts series. Few also guessed we'd see the first episode so soon: 7th July on PC, with a WiiWare lift-off date has yet to be confirmed. Given Telltale's track-record - Sam & Max, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Wallace & Gromit - we shouldn't be too surprised, and we should have something to look forward to.
But, Tales of Monkey Island design director Dave Grossman admits, this IP comes with special pressure: few licenses are so cherished. So what is the team planning for Guybrush, Elaine and LeChuck? How will they keep the original magic intact? We cornered Grossman to find out.
Eurogamer: Why Monkey Island, Dave? Did you, as an original member of the LucasArts team, have something to do it?
Dave Grossman: Strangely no, I didn't really push for that. I sort of felt like I had my opportunity to chip my teeth on Monkey Island long ago, but that wasn't true for everybody at the company. Some people felt like they weren't finished and we could do more with it.
It's actually something we've been talking to LucasArts about as long as the company has been in existence. Just now is the start of the line properly; the right people were interested at the right time on both sides.
Eurogamer: Were LucasArts being sneaky and sitting back, waiting for you to prove yourselves before offering the golden goose?
Dave Grossman: I suppose that could be true, but I also have to give Darrell Rodriguez - the new president [at LucasArts] - some credit; I think he's been a personal champion of these little adventure game licenses. It's not just Monkey that they're doing: they're actually doing something with the old Indiana Jones game, too. They released that as an unlockable bonus in [Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings].
Eurogamer: Years on, there are plenty of people who haven't played Monkey Island. Can you, Dave Grossman, explain the magic?
Dave Grossman: Well, Monkey Island is a charming and very funny series of games about being a pirate. In a nutshell, that's it. What more do you really need?
The inspiration was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Ron Gilbert had wondered, "What would it be like to step off that ride and meet the characters who were there in the little dioramas?" It came out of that to begin with.
Moment by moment the series is quite funny, but the overarching stories are generally pretty serious. The Secret of Monkey Island is about a young man trying to achieve his life's dream and find love on the way. There's nothing inherently funny about that. And I think those two things - serious broad-stories and moment-by-moment humour - combined to make something really quite special.
Eurogamer: You mentioned Ron Gilbert there who, along with Tim Schafer, played a key role in the Monkey Island series. What have they had to say about Tales of Monkey Island? Are they helping?
Dave Grossman: Ron did. As soon as I was allowed to tell anyone I called Ron on the phone, because I know the series does mean a lot to him, and he was the original guiding force behind the first games. He looked around and said, "Could I come down there and brainstorm with you?" And I was like, "Great! That is absolutely the best thing you could do."
So he came down and spent the better part of a week with us, just tossing around ideas. We bounced the broad-story stuff off of him; he had some comments about how we were handling Elaine in our first draft that got us to make some changes; and probably a few of his bubbles are in there as well. He had to go back to his regular job as the creative director at Hothead where he's doing his own game Deathspank, which also looks pretty cool. But he did get his chance to put his two-cents in.
I didn't wind up calling Tim because getting Ron involved turned out to be so much trouble - there's a lot of legal wrangling around that. I figured if I'm just going to be able to pick one of them, then it's going to be Ron.
Eurogamer: Legal wrangling?
Dave Grossman: Well, he's a full-time employee of another studio, so there are lots of bits and pieces around us borrowing his brains. And all the while we were trying to keep a lid on the whole thing so that we could really come out with a surprise announcement when the game was ready to go.
Eurogamer: Ron's had a bit of influence, then, but how do you go about replacing such key talent?
Dave Grossman: Well, we have a pretty talented staff of designers and writers here at Telltale and mimicry is an important skill for a professional writer. We did go back and play the old games again and think, "What are the important things here?" And get the characters back in our heads, so that we would be able to write in the proper voice. It's the same kind of process that we would do with any other licence. But in this case we had a head start, since lots of us have worked on different incarnations of Monkey Island before.
Eurogamer: Is there more pressure because people cherish the Monkey Island IP so?
Dave Grossman: I suppose so. I'm feeling it a little bit.
Eurogamer: What are the cornerstones of Monkey Island that need recreating in order to maintain the magic of the series?
Dave Grossman: There's that thing that I mentioned already: how the overarching story is a more serious pirate story and the underlying bits are more humorous. There's lots of deft wordplay and snappy one-liners.
The essential nature of the characters: when I watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movie I got to thinking that the two principal characters - Will [Turner] and Jack Sparrow - were the two sides of Guybrush's personality. On the one hand he's the young, fresh-faced guy that is enthusiastic and out to get stuff done, but on the other side he's incredibly selfish, and willing to sell out just about anybody to achieve the most trivial of goals. That comes out of the whole adventure gaming aspect of it - he'll steal a guy's precious monocle and leave him there blind just because he needs it for some puzzle he needs to solve.
Also, the relationship between Guybrush and Elaine is important. She's a very empowered, intelligent woman, and always seems to know more about what's going on than everyone else.
Eurogamer: Does Guybrush really die and come back as a pirate god? Tell us about the story, Dave!
Dave Grossman: Sure. It's set a couple of years after Escape from Monkey Island. Guybrush is oming in to save the day, thwart Le Chuck's plans and rescue Elaine. In the course of doing that - and this is your introduction and tutorial mode for the game - you solve some puzzles and Guybrush showboats at exactly the wrong moment, messing something up.
He's trying to enchant this cutlass on the instructions of the Voodoo Lady and because he makes the substitution, things go a little bit wrong. LeChuck is just supposed to explode when [Guybrush] hits him with it, but instead, the voodoo part of him explodes and spreads all-over, and infects Guybrush's left hand with this weird LeChucky Pox. People around the Caribbean start catching this. You can see it in the air; it's like this green, swirly stuff. And they all start behaving a bit like LeChuck, including some of the people you've met before.
Each episode cliff-hangs into the next one, and we always leave you with some burning questions. There are lots of developments of trust: you have to work with people you don't like sometimes across the series. Everybody's got a take on this Pox and the cure. The line between good-side and evil-side is not so strikingly sharp.
Eurogamer: A curse. A dead hero who rises again. That sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean. Did you pinch the idea from there?
Dave Grossman: No, not really. You may recall Guybrush died before. It's interesting to watch Pirates of the Caribbean and Monkey Island go back and forth. I heard rumours at one point - I can't confirm them - that there was a Monkey Island movie being worked on with a script by the same guys that, a few years later, went on to write the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And those had some notable similarities.
So I felt like, "OK, now I've seen the Monkey Island movie! It's pretty good. I like it." Everybody on the team probably has seen those movies, so more stuff has leaked into our consciousness and dribbled into our game. There's probably some back-and-forth inspiration there.
Eurogamer: What's your favourite part of the Tales of Monkey Island series so far? I imagine not all episodes have been made.
Dave Grossman: Hmm. My favourite bit; wow - so many good ones. I hate it when I have to think of something! I'm going to pick a whole episode. We've been working on the middle one - the third one: "Lair of the Leviathan" - and I think just the way the puzzles and scenes are arranged in that episode is really cool.
Eurogamer: Classic Monkey Island?
Dave Grossman: Um, no, it isn't! And that's sort of what I like about it. In classic Monkey Island usually given a great big goal to work with and a lot of territory to cover. And in [Lair of the Leviathan] you feel like you're in a scene all the time, and that the gameplay is based around whatever is going on in that scene.
Eurogamer: Is Episode 3 where you're up to, development-wise?
Dave Grossman: Correct. We're working on the design of Episode Four. Three is being written. One is about done and Two is into production.
Eurogamer: How long does it take to make an episode and how often are they going to come out?
Dave Grossman: Oh they're going to come out every month. The productions overlap. Each one probably takes us about four or five months to finish, plus a little bit of upfront time.
Eurogamer: The first episode, "Launch of the Screaming Narwhal", launches for PC on 7th July. When are they going to appear on WiiWare?
Dave Grossman: We don't actually have a WiiWare date yet. We're shooting to make them as close to simultaneous as possible. There are many factors involved with that as there's a third party involved, so I'm not exactly sure how that will turn out.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide not to put Tales of Monkey Island on Xbox Live Arcade?
Dave Grossman: We didn't so much decide not to put it on Xbox Live Arcade as we decided not to put it on XBLA now. Normally what we do is PC and one of the other platforms, and we've been bouncing back and forth between them. We've got the first season of Sam & Max coming out on XBLA, so we feel like we've got that covered for the moment. And we want to give the Wii a little love as well.
Eurogamer: So there's a possibility of Tales of Monkey Island heading to Xbox Live Arcade?
Dave Grossman: Yeah, I mean I wouldn't rule it out. We might do that one later on.
Eurogamer: And what about PlayStation Network? Why have you left that platform out?
Dave Grossman: We just haven't gotten there yet. Ultimately, we would like to be on every downloadable channel there is. We wound up doing Xbox, but maybe later we'll do PlayStation - we'll see.
Eurogamer: What about Mac or Linux ports?
Dave Grossman: Oh, wow, I don't know about that. I will say that our CFO is a Mac guy, so we'll get there, but it's a matter of how and when and can we actually afford to do it. But I'd like to see that, too.
Eurogamer: Telltale is doing very well out of episodic gaming. You must be making a lot of money. Are you just reusing technology but changing the content?
Dave Grossman: Well no, we're always making some improvements to the engine. We have the same engine that runs all our games, but it's always in development and we're always adding new rendering features for each series, because they all have to look a bit different. For Tales of Monkey Island we added a new thing where there's greater facility for facial expressions and lip-syncs to work together.
Eurogamer: Now you are successful and have attracted big IP like Wallace & Gromit, like Sam & Max, like Strong Bad, and now Monkey Island there must be no stopping you. What's next?
Dave Grossman: Ha ha! More! More, more, more. I've always wanted to do the works of Kurt Vonnegut but I think it'll take us a while!
Eurogamer: Is there a particular LucasArts IP or any game you would love a bash at in the future?
Dave Grossman: Um, I try not to be too picky. If I was going to do one of those little Lucas properties I might even do Loom. Not sure how popular that would be. I always thought it was good.
Eurogamer: You mentioned Indiana Jones earlier. Is that what you want to do next?
Dave Grossman: Uh, jeez. No comment. Actually, I love Indie - I would certainly do that one. Raiders of the Lost Ark was my favourite movie for many years until Pirates of the Caribbean came along.
Eurogamer: Do you like the new Indiana Jones film?
Dave Grossman: I would put it at number three in the set of four.
Tales of Monkey Island launches for PC on 7th July. There's a special pre-order deal available from the Telltale Games website.