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Returning to Monkey Island with its legendary creators

Ron Gilbert reveals its secret development, hint system, and ideas for an Elaine spin-off.

A chimp off the old block.
Image credit: A chimp off the old block.

Ahead of Return to Monkey Island's release next week, I sat down with series creator Ron Gilbert, co-writer Dave Grossman and art director Rex Crowle to discuss the series' surprise revival. It's a project many thought would never happen, but which had actually been in secret development for two years (two years!) before its April Fool's Day announcement a few months ago.

Speaking via video call, it was clear the trio had a great passion for what they do - and also an oversized Stan S. Stanman cutout, which loomed over Gilbert's shoulder. (This turned out to be a prop from a recent PAX trip liberated by Gilbert, thanks to the series' iconic distraction of "Look! A three-headed monkey". Apparently, this move works "every time".)

In addition to sharing more about Return to Monkey Island, including details of its under-wraps hint system, we spoke about the future of the series, scrapped plans to break up Guybrush and Elaine, and even ideas for Elaine Marley to lead her own game - as well as some Monty Python influences thrown in for good measure.

Cover image for YouTube videoReturn to Monkey Island - Release Date Trailer - Nintendo Switch
Stan has all the details on Return to Monkey Island's release date.

But before I get to all that, let's begin at the beginning - when Devolver Digital's plucky co-founder Nigel Lowrie approached Gilbert about potentially making a new Monkey Island game.

"He came to me and said, 'Hey, I know someone from Disney. If you're interested in doing another game, we might be able to get the licence'," Gilbert recalled, admitting it was something he had been wanting to do for a while.

Not only was Gilbert interested in returning to the world of Guybrush Threepwood, but Dave Grossman was as well - and as soon as Devolver found this out, the company made a big push to Disney to get the licence. And get the licence it did - you could say everything clicked into place.

What ensued was a clandestine affair of virtual meetings and development.

"I kept it a secret from my own son," Grossman told me, joking that his son would not be able to keep news about the game to himself. "That door behind me has been locked for the last couple of years," he laughed.

Crowle said that lockdowns in 2020 and beyond had actually helped keep Return to Monkey Island's development off the radar.

"There wasn't anyone coming back to our houses, looking at [the] screen and going 'hang on a minute, what are all these doodles?'," he joked.

Return to Monkey Island marks Crowle's first time as an art director for the series, but he has been a fan of Monkey Island from the start. In fact, it was thanks to some earlier fan art catching the attention of Gilbert that he got the job.

"Probably about 15 years ago, when I was working on games with Media Molecule, I had just done this piece of fan art and thrown it out onto the internet and hadn't thought about it since. But Ron had saved that away and kept it," Crowle recalled when asked about joining the project. "That was kind of the jumping off point really."

"Ron and I shut ourselves away for a month and just really honed in on three characters and three backgrounds and did a lot of iterations on those. Then we slowly started showing what we've been coming up with together to the rest of the team," Crowle told me, discussing his art direction for Return to Monkey Island.

But, for those returning to the franchise, how did it feel going back to the Monkey Island series after all these years?

"I don't think it was important in terms of my career... It was just a fun thing to do," Gilbert laughed. "Having Dave on board with me, this just seemed like a lot of fun. I'm at the point in my career where I [can] do fun things... I've been making games professionally for almost 40 years. So, I kind of don't care about my career in a lot of ways."

This playful attitude was echoed by Grossman. "I don't think it was something we needed to do, it was just something we wanted to do," he told me.

But even with the return of the two of the original gang, and a huge wave of nostalgia emanating from the duo's obvious joy for the series, there was of course still plenty of room for new things - including the upcoming game's hint system.

In Return to Monkey Island, this will be a book that Guybrush has tucked away in his inventory for times when those head scratchers become just a little too baffling.

"You can go and ask it questions," Gilbert explains to me. "It kind of gives you a small hint and then a bigger hint and then a much larger hint as you kind of go down the list."

Gilbert said he felt that built-in hint systems, such as this, were much more appropriate for the series, and a better solution for players than heading to Google. "[With this system] we actually know where you are in the game. We know what puzzles you've solved. We know what things you've seen, we know what inventory you have at the moment. So we can really tailor those questions to be a lot more specific than just kind of generally throwing something out there," he explained.

While no specifics were given, the Return to Monkey Island team told me there was a nod to Pirates of the Caribbean to look out for in the game.

Another new addition to Return to Monkey Island is the character Judge Plank, someone we have seen previously doing some pretty frenzied gavel bashing in his courthouse.

"Plank is extra fun," Grossman chuckled. "Ron and I independently wrote scenes with him without talking to each other first, and then we just sort of read them like, 'Well, these don't really match up'."

As Grossman told me this, Gilbert could be seen laughing to himself about the predicament the duo found their character in. Their final solution was simply to decide that Judge Plank happened to be "a little bit wild" and off-kilter.

"I wrote all the stuff that happens in the courthouse, Dave did all the stuff that happens outside of the courthouse," Gilbert added. "So you can kind of almost imagine this slight shift in personality. In the courthouse, the system is run by lunatics. Whereas outside it's sort of more responsible and you know, 'sober as a judge', so to speak."

This is where Monty Python comes in. Gilbert told me he took inspiration from the surreal British comedy troupe when coming up with his parts for Judge Plank. That "strange wackiness" seeped into Plank's design from the get-go. (For my sins, dear reader, at this point in the conversation I decided to do some sort of John Cleese impression. Needless to say, I am not sure I will be giving up my career for one in acting any time soon, but I did get a polite, even if somewhat bemused, collective smile from my audience.)

"Depending on where you encounter him, [Judge Plank] acts a little different," Grossman said, clearly amused.

Other new faces in Return to Monkey Island include a new and "modern" trio of pirate leaders headed up by Captain Madison, but there will still be a large contingent of familiar faces making their return as well - including, interestingly, Murray the demonic talking skull.

Despite not being a creation of Gilbert and Grossman (Murray made his debut in the series' third game, Curse of Monkey Island, after the pair had parted ways), the skull seemed like an obvious inclusion here. "Everybody loves Murray," Gilbert says. "He was fun to incorporate into this game."

There are other elements from previous instalments that, while not being an idea of Gilbert and Grossman, the team felt needed to be kept in the game. Many of these Gilbert wants to keep as a surprise, but one big one is Guybrush Threepwood's relationship with Elaine Marley.

While it may be hard to imagine now, when the series was originally conceived all those years ago, Gilbert never pictured Guybrush and Elaine as each other's 'one true love'.

"I personally disagree with Elaine and Guybrush ever getting married for a lot of reasons," Gilbert told me. However, he noted that if this romantic dynamic between the two was to be undone, there would be "a lot of issues" with fans. As such, Guybrush and Elaine are still married in Return to Monkey Island (the couple tied the knot at Curse's conclusion).

This is not to say, however, that Gilbert and co did not flirt with the idea of creating a rift in their union. On coming back to the series, Gilbert had a play around with the couple drifting apart, but this decision was poorly received by early testers.

"We actually had a very, very early incarnation of the game [where] their relationship was a little bit on rocky ground... they weren't divorced, but they were definitely not getting along," he shared. "[But] when we did our first play test, man, people hated that! [They] absolutely hated that."

To compromise, Gilbert and Grossman instead kept "some elements" of this idea in Return, but told me it was "much different now" compared to that early version.

Even though Guybrush and Elaine are married, LeChuck still has his eyes set on Melee Island's former governor. "That guy just never gives up, does he," joked Grossman. "He's not smart enough to give up," added Gilbert.

And what of Elaine? She is a strong character in her own right, so could we ever see a bigger role for her in a future Monkey Island game? Well, actually yes. Giving Elaine a starring role is, in fact, an idea Gilbert and Grossman have both discussed in the past.

"[Something] I've always kind of wanted to explore was a Monkey Island game helmed by Elaine, where Guybrush is the sidekick in it all," Gilbert revealed. "It's something that interests me quite a bit... [but] I don't know how to make that game."

Grossman said he felt the team would ultimately need to change how they approach the series with Elaine in the main role.

"It's tricky, because it's difficult to imagine Elaine solving problems in the same way that Guybrush does," he stated. "She's got to kind of have her own 'mode', [and] we have to figure out what that is before we can make that game."

Grossman believes the insult swordfighting puzzle from The Secret of Monkey Island was so popular because it "takes the standard game interface and does something novel with it".

The idea of any future Monkey Island game recently seemed uncertain, as the Return to Monkey Island website briefly classed the upcoming release as a "conclusion" to the series. (This wording has now been changed to describe Return simply as a "new chapter").

Is Return the ending of the series? In Gilbert's words, he "can't imagine" there not being more Monkey Island adventures to come - though whether or not Gilbert, Grossman and Crowle will themselves return remains to be seen.

Return to Monkey Island releases for the Nintendo Switch and PC (via Steam) on Monday, 19th September. If you pre-order, you will get yourself some shiny and useless horse armour to add to your inventory. How useless is this armour? Well, Grossman assures me "totally", and I wouldn't want it any other way.