INTERVIEW WITH JONATHON ACKLEY AND LARRY AHERN (1998)
How do you think the LucasArts adventures have changed since you've been at the company?
Jonathon: Well, the graphics have got better! Actually, what we're doing with The Curse of Monkey Island is a reaction to how the LucasArts adventures have changed, because we wanted a game with really deep game play. Recently, the games have been slightly shorter. With Full Throttle, for example, the real push and punch was the cool use of video cuts. Our goal with this game was to have all the punch of Full Throttle - you know, that 'gee-whiz' factor - but also the game play and depth of, say, Monkey Island 2 or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. We wanted to step back, because this is a sequel and because we wanted to be true to the style of game play that made the other Monkeys so popular.
Are you worried that graphical improvements have taken away some of the charm inherent in LucasArts adventures?
Jonathon: Well, I'm not sure about the charm of the games - I thought Full Throttle was a pretty good game, but I felt what they were lacking was game length.
Larry: And a lot of the little details that get thrown in.
Jonathon: You know, I think when people get frustrated with an adventure game, it's when they hit a brick wall and there's nothing funny or interesting or new to do. In any adventure, you're going to hit a brick wall sooner or later; it's just the nature of the genre. You want the puzzles to be hard. However, we wanted to make the environment full and interactive so that when players hit those brick walls, at least they're being kept amused while they're trying to find their way through.
Where did the inspiration come from for Curse?
Larry: As we started working on puzzles for this game, we knew we wanted to get into a few more 'piratey' situations. We were looking at getting the player to actually shoot another boat and do some more swashbuckling kinds of things - things we weren't able to include in Monkey Island 1 and 2 because of technological limitations. So that's set us up for a few puzzles.
Jonathon: We really liked the non-linearity of Monkey 1. Particularly the three-trial structure on Mêlée Island. So, in Curse we actually have two complete islands and each one has a three or five-trial structure. So if you get stuck in one direction, you can go and explore another, and if you're stuck on that one, there will be another one, so you can always go back and forth and solve puzzles in just about any order.
Over the last few years players have been turned on to games like Doom and Quake - are you worried that those gamers are going to find it hard to return to mentally challenging titles?
Jonathon: I don't think so. I think the reason Quake and Doom are so popular is just because they are great games and I think if we come out with a great game ourselves, albeit a different kind of game, people will really buy into it and enjoy it.
At the end of Monkey Island 2, it all became a bit abstract with Guybrush waking up at a funfair and seeming to find out the whole adventure was a dream. Is that going to be carried on in Curse, or will it go back to the world of the original Monkey Island?
Larry: We do deal with all that, but it was definitely something we were kind of all sweating over as we were first working on the designs. It was like, "okay, we don't want to ignore what happened at the end of Monkey 2", but it was kind of a complicated situation that they left us in. So not to give too much away, what basically happens is that at the beginning of Curse we start with Guybrush not being fully aware of what happened himself. He starts off thinking it was all down to some kind of voodoo curse, and as you play the games it evolves and Guybrush slowly figures out what happened to him.
So for people who maybe haven't played Monkeys 1 and 2 before, or haven't played them in a while, Curse kind of retraces some of the steps, and explains lots of little nitty-gritty things that somebody might want to know. But if they don't care, they can just skip right past that.
Jonathon: We knew that the gamers who played Monkey Island 2 would hate us if we didn't explain it! We also realise that there are thousands of people who haven't played Monkey 2 who will potentially be playing Curse, and we want to suck them into the story. Consequently, the information is there if they want it, but they don't have to pursue that line of questioning if they're not interested in it.
Larry: Also, Monkey Island 2 leaves you at this carnival setting and we didn't want to start Curse with "Hey, okay, you bought a pirate game, but here we are at a carnival!" That's also part of the reason Curse sort of jumps ahead in time and Guybrush is kind of hinting at these carnival related things, but he doesn't necessarily know exactly what happened to him. He has to retrace his steps and find out again how all the things relate. So the player dives right into the big 'piratey' adventure kind of thing, then everything else kind of comes out as you play.
The Monkey Island titles have featured some great scenes and some brilliant characters. Which have been your favourites?
Larry: I like the pirates at the Scumm Bar, myself - the guys that give you the three trials. I thought they were pretty cool. I like Meathook.
Jonathon: I like the insult sword fighting, and I liked Stan quite a bit.
Will he be appearing in Curse?
Jonathon: Oh, we just couldnt say, we just cant say. But rest assured, some of your old favorites will return.
Presumably there are lots of new characters. Where did the inspiration for them come from?
Jonathon: We had some general ideas of character types that we wanted to see in an adventure game that we hadn't seen before. Also, when we were inventing the puzzles, we were trying to come up with exotic and interesting locales and then we thought of characters that might fit those locales.
Larry: Like, for example, we have a pirate barber shop called The Barbary Coast - you know, pirate barbers; hey, that's fun!
From playing Monkey Island 1 and 2, Edge got the impression that the team thoroughly enjoyed creating the games. Is that still the case?
Jonathon: Yes, it's definitely still the case. It's just a joy for me, as a programmer, when new art comes through and I see it in the game and it makes me laugh. Larry and I will have been working on this game for two years by the time it's all over, and I certainly expected to be tired of the gags. You think of the gags and you write them down on paper, and you think "well, I'm going to be ready for the punch line", but then when you see how these guys have animated it, or hear that certain sound effect the sound guys have given to a situation, it just comes alive and it cracks me up.
Larry: Just yesterday we were putting in a bunch of facial gestures and started flowing in the lines of dialogue weve seen a thousand times before, and all of a sudden Guybrush is acting and were laughing our heads off.
LucasArts said that after Monkey 2 they'd never do another Monkey Island game. What changed your minds?
Larry: We have no idea. I guess nobody bothered to tell us that we weren't supposed to do one.
Jonathon: We wanted to do this game because we're Monkey Island fans. Guybrush is fun character and we just knew that we'd have a great time thinking up scenarios for him.
Where did you start?
Larry: As we began to work on the puzzles, we knew that we could get into a lot more 'piratey' situations. We really wanted the player to do more swashbuckling things, like firing a cannon at another ship and other cool pirate things. We couldn't do these things before because we were limited by the technology we were using.
Jonathon: When we looked back at Monkey, the thing that really stood out was the non-linearity - in particular the three-trial structure on Mêlée Island. In Monkey 3 there are actually two different islands and each has a three or five-trial structure, so if you get stuck you'll be able to go and explore another, and if you get stuck there move on to another. We didn't want people to just get stuck and frustrated, so we designed it so you can go back and forth and solve the puzzles in just about any order.
We didn't want people to hit a brick wall and just get bored because there wasn't anything too interesting or funny to do. You'll always hit a brick wall eventually, it happens with every adventure game; otherwise it wouldn't be a challenge. We want the puzzles to be hard, but at the same time we wanted the environment to be full of characters and interactive, so when you hit a brick wall, at least there's something to keep you amused until you find your way again.
The game looks gorgeous. What's enabled you to make the graphics so much better than, say, The Dig?
Larry: The first noticeable difference is that we have the SCUMM system running in 640x480 resolution. In addition to that, we have a system that allows us to use hand-drawn, fully animated characters, both in the cut-scenes and interactively, so it's really hard to even notice pixels (but there are a few). Plus, we tried to make really, really neat art, and I guess it paid off.
Jonathon: Allowing our artists to do their animating on paper rather than on the computer has allowed for some really dynamic animations. But we know that art is just part of the equation. The Dig was successful because of its strong game play. We know Monkey fans expect a great game as well as a great looking game. Full Throttle, for example, had such a punch because of the way the video cuts were implemented. What we want to do with Monkey 3 is give it all the punch of Full Throttle, but still retain the depth of play of games like Monkey Island 2 and Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis. We were very conscious of wanting to go back to the true style of game play that made the Monkey games so popular. Having said that, I thought that Full Throttle was a good game; it just wasn't long enough.
The way the last game ended must have made it difficult for you. How will Curse take up the story?
Larry: It wasn't really a problem for us, but at the same time we didn't want to ignore what had happened at the end of Monkey 2. So without giving too much away, Curse starts with Guybrush not being fully aware of what's happened himself, although he thinks it's got something to do with some kind of voodoo curse. Hopefully, as you play the game you'll slowly start to figure out what happened, but in a very subtle way. The idea is that for people who haven't played Monkey 1 and 2, or haven't played them in a while, things will still become clear, but at the same time you'll be able to skip past them if you want to.
Just like Full Throttle, Monkey 3 has some 'arcadey' bits in it. Some people criticised Full Throttle for this reason, so why have you decided to include them?
Larry: Because the 'arcadey' bits in The Curse of Monkey Island are just so darn fun.
Jonathon: The arcade sequences are very simple and easy to learn. However, we know that many adventure gamers aren't thrilled by the idea of "pulse-pounding action" or "split-second timing." So, at the appropriate time during the game, the player can select the extremely unchallenging mode. It's still good fun, but we guarantee that no one will be stuck in the arcade sequences unless they feel that they're up for a challenge.
Please can you explain how the interactive icon thingamabob works?
Larry: It's similar to the pop-up interface from Full Throttle, but we've made some additions to increase the level of interactivity. As in Full Throttle, the pop-up interface allows objects in a room to be examined, talked to and manipulated. In The Curse of Monkey Island, you can also use the pop-up interface on items in your inventory. In Full Throttle you could only use your inventory objects with room objects. You can still do this in Monkey 3, but the new interface also allows inventory objects to be used and combined with other inventory objects. It really opens up a lot of puzzle possibilities.
How do you feel the characters, especially Guybrush, have developed since the first game?
Larry: Guybrush started out as a fairly naive pirate wannabe, and through his many heroic adventures, has pretty much evolved into a naive pirate. He's quicker with his wits than in his younger days, but when it comes to women he still retains that wonderfully worthless quality that melted Elaine's heart so long ago. And he's shaved his beard.
LeChuck is still pathetically obsessed with destroying Guybrush and winning Elaine, and is as rotten (literally) as ever. That is, until he gets killed (this is the third time now) in a horrible voodoo fireball, and transformed into a demon pirate with a flaming beard (great for scaring other sailors senseless, bad for chapped lips).
And Elaine still kicks butt - at least until Guybrush bungles things for her. Other than that, there are a few of your other favourite characters returning from the first two games, but we'll keep them a surprise for now.
Are the Monkey Island characters based on anyone in particular?
Larry: Wed like to think that theres a little bit of Guybrush in us all and that I mean, no, not really.
Who's your favourite character in the game?
Larry: Murray, the demonic skull. He wants so desperately to scare someone. Maybe it'll be you.
Jonathon: I'm quite fond of Edward Van Helgen... the famous barber-duellist.
Tell me your favourite joke.
Jonathon: Okay, so these two trapeze artists walk into a bar oh, you mean from the game?
Okay, so what's your favourite comic incident from TV/film?
Larry: I recently saw the film Arizona Dream, and this girl is suicidal and mad at her mom, so during a dinner party she takes off her pantyhose, goes upstairs to the balcony and tries to hang herself from the chandelier, but it doesn't work because it stretches to the ground. So it becomes this comical bungee-hanging. And Mom ignores the daughter because apparently she does it all the time.
Jonathon: Good heavens, Larry!
If only we had that kind of cable over here (in the UK). So you've just had a hard day at the office, being funny and writing gags, and all you want to do is go home, crack open a beer and smile. Who do you turn to? Who makes you laugh?
Larry: The Kids In The Hall, Dilbert and Jim Nabors.
Jonathon: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Kermit the Frog.
Thanks Jonathon, at least our readers will know who you're going on about. So Larry, what does it feel like having the expectation of the world's adventure gamers creaming themselves over what will surely be one of the games of the year?
Larry: We feel really lucky to have such a large audience anticipating the release of the product.
Jonathon: There are a lot of people here at LucasArts who want to make sure that The Curse Of Monkey Island is done right. So it's meant a great deal to me when I've been stopped in the halls and co-workers have told me that they have seen the game and that they're really excited by how it's turning out.
People say there are different types of international humour (British humour is considered very different from American, say). How have you tackled this in Monkey 3?
Larry: The first two Monkey Island games seem to have translated wonderfully in foreign markets. We just tried to stay true to the style of those games. That, and we added a few more gross jokes for good measure.
What makes Monkey 3 different from the previous two games?
Larry: I would have to say it's the monkeys. In fact, we made a nice bar graph for our design document, showing the relative amount of monkeys in each of the three games. And, in fact, we can guarantee that The Curse Of Monkey Island will contain more monkeys than Monkey 1 & 2 combined. Although it looks like it's going to end up having more fast-food proprietors and hair stylists as well.
Jonathon: Besides that, and the obvious huge leap forward in production values, we wanted to give players much of the same kind of gaming experience that they got from Monkey 1 & 2, in both the feel and the length of the game. Then, of course, there's LeChuck's transformation into an undead demonic hell spawn, and Guybrush and Elaine and that whole sexual tension thing, but otherwise it's business as usual deep in the Caribbean.
So why are you confident that it will be better?
Jonathon: Because when you have a fun set of characters like these, and two great products that came before, there's quite a good blueprint to build from. And we like to try and one-up ourselves each time. We think we were able to identify a lot of the elements that worked best from our previous graphic adventures and combine those in Curse. And, you know, it's the latest thing, and it's new and improved and all that. So, how can you lose?
So when can we expect Monkey 4?
Larry: We'll never make a Monkey 4... maybe.
Would you like to do a 3D adventure?
Larry: Well never do a 3D adventure unless.
Okay, we get the picture. So what other adventure games have impressed you? In other words, when you have the time, what do you play?
Larry: In terms of visuals, I liked The Neverhood and 9.
Jonathon: Using my tax software was a real adventure. It had hours of game play value.
You've been working on Monkey 3 for nearly two years now; do you still find it funny and rewarding?
Jonathon: It's hard sometimes because we're so close to it, but when something new comes together you finally get to see how the guys have animated a scene, or how they've implemented a certain sound effect, and I still can't help smiling to myself. It's a very funny game, we're sure of that.
Larry: It's great seeing all the characters come to life, and see the gag that you've written finally come together on-screen. It's like, you know the punch-line, but it just comes alive and cracks me up. The characters are just so strong; they make things humorous because we know them so well. It's like we put them into situations and then wait for them to react. The humour sort of comes from within itself. We're really happy with the way it's going.
What question are you glad I haven't asked?
Larry: What's that weird thing hanging off your nose?
Jonathon: Do you think those earrings really go with your dress?
And what's the answer?
Larry: What thing on my nose?
Jonathon: It's the bustle, isn't it? Come on, you can tell me - is the bustle too much?