LucasArts' Secret History: Full Throttle: Developer Reflections

25 Jan, 2009

Developer Reflections

Peter McConnell

Obviously Full Throttle has a very different tone from a game like Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. Was a bit of a darker and more serious game a welcome change from your perspective?

Sure, absolutely. I've always been a bit of a "man in black" -- with apologies to Johnny Cash. Besides, when it comes to style it's always good to mix things up.

What were you influences in coming up with the game's musical style?

I honestly don't know. I looked at that opening scene, and the idea of low, dark echoes and slide guitar just immediately popped into my head. There may have been some Ry Cooder influence there, as well as influence from the open sound of certain Westerns of the 70's. Now that I think of it, John Hammond's score to Little Big Man is probably a major influence -- just guitar, harmonica and vocals -- I'm thinking specifically of a scene where Dustin Hoffman hits rock bottom. One thing I knew for sure is that the score had to be spare, because the environment was spare.

I've always found the music in Full Throttle to be really ambient and unobtrusive (with the hilarious wind-up bunnies march being an obvious exception). Considering how appropriate the game's audio always sounds to the scene it complements, I'm curious as to how much access to the game were you given before and over the course of being tasked with writing the music?

It takes a long time to develop a game, and I saw game play and cut scenes as they were unfolding over the course of many months. So there was plenty of time to make sure things fit just right -- not that it was a leisurely schedule by any means, with all that had to be done. This also relates partly to my previous point about being spare. You had to pick just the right musical nugget for each little bit of the game.

How much input did Tim give you, if any, in designing the score? Was he specific or did he pretty much give you complete freedom?

Tim was pretty hands-off, with a couple of exceptions - the main one being using Wagner for the bunny music. He is very musically aware, and has a great musical sense of humor.

Although Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle, and Sam & Max received eventual CD-ROM releases to accommodate the voice acting, Full Throttle was the first LEC adventure to be disc-based from day one. Did this change the process in any way on your end?

Sure, we knew we had a little more space to work with, so we could consider options like licensing music from The Gone Jackals. But you still had to squeeze everything down resolution-wise, partly for reasons of performance. In those days audio actually made a dent in the processor overhead.

Full Throttle features selected works by the band The Gone Jackals in addition to your instrumental compositions. Did the game having this sort of dual soundtrack somehow affect the way you approached your work, for example to give the background music and the recorded stuff more of a kinship?

Somehow they just naturally went together. Again, it's a long process, and we got the Gone Jackals involved early on, so I'm sure on some unconscious level I related the aesthetic of what I was doing to their sound.

What is the origin of Chitlins, Whiskey, and Skirt?

That's my friend from high school and college days -- and Michael Land's college roommate -- Jon Spiegel, and his brother, plus a third musician, I believe. I suggested the name based on the lyric from their song, and they had a discussion thereafter as to which one of them should be designated "Skirt." Jon is a phenomenal slide guitarist in Chicago who tours with alternative country bands. You can hear his work on releases by a great band called Freakwater.

The story goes that Full Throttle had something of a grueling schedule. How much time did you have to put the game's score together?

All the schedules are grueling. I had plenty of time, but there was even more work, between my music, the band and technical issues. It's a blur now.

You worked on Hell on Wheels, the cancelled sequel, and I understand you had even recorded some tracks for it. Where were you planning to take the music of the Full Throttle universe, Hell on Wheels being both a sequel, and a game where you could actually do live recordings as opposed to entirely synth?

I did a good portion of the score before the game was canceled. We did some great tracks with a famous slide guitarist. I hope they see the light of day someday.

Any chance we'll hear those tracks someday, or is that something more in the hands of LEC lawyers than your own?

That's up to LEC, which owns the music.

I understand you're the composer for Tim's latest game, Brutal Legend. Although not a whole lot about the game is publicly known, I can see some similarities between it and Full Throttle. For one, it will feature music from metal bands in addition to your score. What sorts of similarities and differences did you experience between the two projects? What stage of completion is your contribution to Brutal Legend in at the moment?

Yes it is similar in that respect, as well is in the spare approach to the underscore, although it's a completely different musical style. I'm somewhere in the middle of my part of it -- but don't try to project a release date from that.

This is utterly unrelated to Full Throttle, but a MIDI enthusiast on our staff for whom this is apparently a big deal wanted to know: was the music for X-Wing and Day of the Tentacle composed on a single sound card, or did you guys use both the MT-32 and SC-55?

That was a long time ago, and I'm not sure which one we composed on first (The answer may differ for the two games). But the music was then heavily tweaked for the other sound cards, including Adlib FM cards, and we would bounce back between the different cards almost as we were writing. Ultimately separate versions of the music were done for the three groups: SC-55, MT-32 and Adlib/Soundblaster and it had to sound good on all, especially Adlib/SoundBlaster, since that was what the bulk of the audience heard it through.

We always ask this one because it's proven to yield good results: Any wacky Full Throttle production story you'd care to share?

I would say it was when I was looking for demos and Keith Karloff of the Gone Jackals showed up on a bike with his. I had a pretty good idea his band would be the one.

Thanks for your time, Peter.

Keith Karloff

And here's a reprint of an interview held with Keith Karloff of "The Gone Jackals," recovered from the dead (but never forgotten!) Full Throttle fansite The Kickstand:

I would once again thank Mr. Karloff for his acceptance of the interview, and Mr. Carillo, Blueblack's Label Manager for arranging coordinating the whole thing. The interview has been edited to a Q&A format, but the questions and responses appear letter-for-letter as they were originally written, including typos, punctuation, and language.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? What I mean is, did "Bone to Pick" exist as an album before Full Throttle, or were many of the songs written specifically for Full Throttle and then compiled into "Bone to Pick"?

The chicken - "Bone to Pick" was a fully recorded CD in it's mastering stage, gearing up for manufacture, when it was brought to LucasArts' attention by studio owner Michael Molenda @ his old "Sound & Vision" studios in S.F. "Full Throttle" was close to production ready too.

Every artist seems to have his or her favorite creation out of all of their works. Individually, which song from "Bone to Pick" is your favorite, and why?

I like "You Don't Know a Thing About Me" best because it's a real natural tune. I think this tune stands up with guitar and voice (only) pretty well. Most of my writing is based around the lyrics and the general idea I'm trying to get across - not the music itself. I'm more or less an "automatic writer" i.e. I don't write on instruments (I refine on instruments) or jam on riffs and float a melody on top - I nearly always have a clear idea as to what the song will sound like and what it will be about in one big bang. It's always a good thing when a track hangs together well as a "stand alone". I like the riff stuff too (the riff songs are generally just my way of blowing off steam without actually hurting anyone), but, again, the words/thoughts are what these songs are really why I write.

How did the group come to be? Could you each give a brief (1 million words or less...hehehehe) history of how you got started in the music industry and moved up to where you are today? (Feel free to advertise past/current/future projects in here - I love giving out free publicity.)

I'll attach an old bio and a current press release at the bottom of this questionnaire That'll get it.

Looking back on "Bone to Pick", is there anything you would like to have done differently?

I'd like to have had the $ to put a rhythm gtr. track on "Not Buried Deep Enough" in the verses. I'd like to have had the $ to get it re-mastered (louder). I deeply regret that I hadn't been qualified to negotiate, for the band's sake and my family's, with an extremely hardcore corporate entity.

There's an old adage about some actors never watching movies that they star in, and some musicians never listening to their own music because "the artist is his own biggest critic". Does this ring true for any of you in the case of "Bone to Pick" and/or Full Throttle? I mean, have you played the game to see how your music fit the scenes, or just for the sheer hell of playing it?

I personally selected every piece of GJ's music for every scene in the game, both from advance video and/or storyboards. Lucas was behind on their music production scheduling when we hooked up and were not familiar with the nuances of "Bone to Pick". However, they recognized that it was a great fit and knew that I could make it work, and quickly. I personally re-produced and re-engineered (in mono) each piece of music through PC speakers for max effect.

I don't have much time for video games. I'm a full time musician.

Almost all Mixnmojo (and hosted sites thereof) interviews feature this question, so I am obliged to ask: What color are your toothbrushes?

I don't own one - I don't have a mouth. The other guys don't even have heads.

There are rumors of a sequel to Full Throttle. Now, I know the strict rules of non-disclosure as far as LucasArts is concerned, so I won't ask loaded questions like "Are you guys doing the music for the sequel", but rather a more open variant of "If they made a sequel and approached you for the soundtrack, would you do it?"

LucasArts would never approach us for a sequel which is too bad for them - I could slam "Blue Pyramid" (or anything else I've got up my sleeve) into a sequel tomorrow for them and guarantee that it would do more damage than "Bone To Pick" did with 'F.T.".

Have a look at their movies and see how frequently they use actors more than once, even if they deliver big time a la Harrison Ford. This policy does not stem from their desire to discover and promote new talent - of this, I can assure you.

You guys are hailed as a biker band, by all rights. What kind of bike do you ride, what kind of bike would you love to own and, if it was actually able to be built and made street legal, would you ride Ben's Corley from the game?

I ride a1980 KZ (Kawasaki) 750E which I feel is one of the best all around bikes ever made. Ideally, three bikes would be the minimum correct number - one SR500 (single cylinder 500cc) Yamaha for snaking through traffic, my bike as an all around beater that does everything well and an old HD Duo Glide, preferably in metallic purple, for showboating purposes. I'd settle for a black Road King (like Rudy's) or a nice, clean Sturgis if push came to shove.

If it could be made with the smell from his butt removed from the seat, I'd give it a whirl.

I bought Full Throttle many, many years ago and never (at that time) dreamed that I would be conducting an interview with the heavy metal stars behind the soundtrack. Is there any way (digital or physical) of getting some quotes, autographs, pictures, or even autographed pictures for my scrapbook and The Kickstand? (I have a photo-quality printer and a 1200dpi scanner, so I can go from one form to the other pretty easily.)

Send me your mailing address and I can autograph a B&W logo poster for you - I play in a new combo with Rudy, so I can get him to hit it too.

If you want real quotes, feel free to grab some from my lyrics. Otherwise, I'm not all that fast on my feet. Usually when I'm getting laughs, I have no idea what's going on.

Speaking of going from one form to another, what are your opinions on MP3s and the music industry? Do you think it will help or hurt?

Napster pretty much buried the Gone Jackals. No matter what people say, the majority of them will generally not pay for things that they can get for free.

Eventually MP3s will bring better music to listeners than record companies have offered since the 60's (when A&R people actually had backgrounds in music rather than accounting/marketing/law).

Fill in the blank question. I know that as soon as I send this e-mail, a million more questions will pop into my head, but I'd like to just go ahead and leave this open for you guys... Are there any questions you think other fans might ask that you'd like to answer? Or questions that nobody has ever asked that you already have an answer for? Feel free to be free.

People always ask me what it takes to get into and/or stay with music. I always say that it is a calling, like being a Priest or a Cop. If you're in it for Porsches and broads you might make it on MTV, but I'll still know you suck. If you've got the goods and end up with Porsches and broads, more power to you, you're a fuckin' American.

Larry Ahern

What was your role on Full Throttle?

I was the wild one, the rule-breaker, the one with too many tattoos and never enough whisky. A long-haired hippie biker-freak animator blazing down interactivity's open highway on a suicide mission of speed trying to harness a bit of that chrome-plated power and pack it onto some oil-stained floppy disks for the masses. Yeah, except for the fact that I'd never actually been on a motorcycle, that was me. That was what I did.

They called me the Lead Animator, but I was a rebel. Lead Artist Peter Chan and I basically shared responsibility for the art in the game. He designed the vehicles, the visual style of the world, and painted most of the backgrounds; I designed the characters, directed the animation, and supervised putting it all together. Tim Schafer provided the roadmap and George Lucas offered his pad to crash at. It was all good.

We knew it had to be epic. Tim dreamed up the initial pitch and sold the company on his motorcycle gang concept, then he and I holed up in a conference room for weeks watching biker movies and filling up 3x5 note cards with crazy ideas that we never had the budget to build in the first place. It was gonzo game design, but we came out the other end with some inspired stuff, including an action-packed finale that's still hard to top. Crazy times.

How had the SCUMM engine evolved by this point? Was it different to work with? Were you seeing its shortcomings?

The engine you've got is never the issue... its how you ride it. OK... sorry. I'm in way over my head with technical questions anyway, since I was the art guy. But, I think games place too much emphasis on building technology that often isn't even necessary. A lot of the games we made back at LucasArts in the 1990s used the same SCUMM engine with a few new features added, and we just tried to find creative ways to get around its limitations. And it mostly worked.

Well, except on Full Throttle. Unfortunately, this was probably the game where we discovered where the line was by crossing over it. We pushed SCUMM way out of its comfort zone, grafting on the INSANE streaming video engine to add action elements. It seemed like a really cool idea, and it worked well enough at the time. But a decade and a half later, those action sections look kinda weak. I think the tech was just too primitive, and we were probably trying to do too many things at once.

Can I say that now? I guess I can say that... heck, it's not like I'm getting royalties off it.

Full Throttle has very dirty, gritty art direction that is very different from earlier LucasArts games. Did you prefer that or the cartoony, humorous style?

I loved both. We were probably just making things more difficult on ourselves—plenty of people are happy to create a style and refine it to the point of mastery—but we got bored by the end of each game production and wanted to try something new.

The inspiration for Day of the Tentacle was the old Warner Bros. cartoons. All during the production of Monkey Island 2, I kept adding anvils dropping on Guybrush's head to the end of the sequences I worked on, hoping each time this would be the one to convince Ron Gilbert to let me push things that far. It never was. When we finally started production on DOTT, we were giddy with our newfound freedom. But, like any joke you've heard a million times, it eventually got old. And by the end, things didn't squash-and-stretch so well, and the exploding cigars had lost their bang. We wanted something new.

Diving into Full Throttle was exciting. We knew it was going to be funny, but in a play-it-straight, over-the-top, tough-as-nails, so-bad-it's-good kind of way. The humor was more subtle, and it came in contrasting the grittiness of the world and the characters with the preposterous situations. It was caricature, instead of complete farce.

How were things at LucasArts at this time from your perspective?

This was a great time. The company was growing with new talent and ideas, but we were all still young enough not to have any other adult responsibilities to interfere with the important work of making trivial computer games. It felt like college, except we got paid for it. We took long lunches, worked late, or at least stayed late and worked/socialized/played games/did research or just generally talked about creative stuff. Sure, we had some bad ideas and bad hairstyles, but that was okay. This was the kind of environment that supported free expression.

The games business was growing and audiences were eager for new ideas, but budgets were still low enough that management didn't freak out and second-guess every move we made. Our teams were still small enough to be nimble and collaborative. Plus, games were new enough that we could get by on trial-and-error. I learned to animate on the job, and that was okay, because for awhile my limits paralleled the limits of the technology. It was a blast!

The LucasArts adventures are usually seen as funny, and yet between Sam & Max and COMI, LucasArts made two serious and very grown-up adventures (FT and The Dig). Why do you think this happened?

Well, I'm not sure I would agree with that. Although it was less overtly comedic, I always saw Full Throttle as a pretty funny game. And I think most of the titles we made had to have an element of humor, if not to add another level to the entertainment, then at least as a way to mask the limitations of the medium back then.

Production values now are high enough that you can pull off a serious game without too much snickering, but the little pixilated paper dolls we had jumping around the screen in the mid-90's were innately funny. And the best way to deal with that was to face it head on. I think Full Throttle succeeded by playing the serious elements a bit tongue-in-cheek, whereas The Dig failed by playing it too straight, and ended up coming across as a bit silly. That's no slight to the team or their work... I just think it was so much harder to do a serious game well at that time.

Why this happened I have no idea. Throttle happened, I suppose because we needed an anti-nerd character in response to dopey Guybrush and Bernard. The Dig happened because Steven Spielberg liked games and suggested a concept, and management and marketing latched onto the image of a box that said, "From the minds of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas" and wouldn't let go no matter how many iterations it took to get it on the shelves.

How soon after finishing FT did you start working on COMI?

I totally burned out finishing the game, then took my girlfriend to Hawaii after promising forever to spend more time with her instead of working, then came back and broke up with her. Then got offered a ton of money to go work at Shiny on whatever they were going to do after EarthWorm Jim, but was also asked to stay and co-design the next Monkey Island game. I feebly attempted to leverage the Shiny offer for more money at LucasArts, was promptly smacked down, stayed anyway because I really didn't want to move to LA and thought working on Monkey Island would be a lot of fun, then worked on the Mortimer game for a week or two while packing my stuff up for the move from "B" Building to the "Death Star" on the edge of San Rafael. Then I probably spent some time setting up my office, surfing the fascinating shiny new internet connection my promotion entitled me to, then got a conference room and finally buckled down to start designing.

So... I'd guess maybe about 2-3 months?

Which part was the toughest to animate, and which was your favourite part to do?

It's all a blur of blood-stained ashphalt now, but if I had to pick something off the top of my head to pin all the pain and suffering on, I'd say it was the final shot of both the bridge explosion cutscene and the finale (the slow-mo mid-air Ben shot). Both of these were hell for similar reasons, in that they were the last shot of an important scene, and we wanted them to have impact.

With most of the scenes we simplified things through tricky editing. But, with the bridge shot, we needed to keep the camera on the thing and show it explode in all its glory. Even tougher was the fact that none of us had done much fx animation before. It was a lot of trial-and-error. The final slow-mo shot was the same torture—flames licking at Ben's heels, slow-motion fx, etc. We had no idea how to do any of this stuff.

I was so busy directing that I personally did very little animation myself outside of the basic character walks and talks, but I loved the finale and gave myself a shot or two of Ben and Mo hanging off the truck bumper. I also like how the plane on the edge of the cliff scene came together. Other than that, there's a shot where Ben rides off from Mo's shop after getting his bike back and lights the lawn and part of her shop on fire with his tailpipes. I added that as an afterthought, but it cracked me up (mostly in the way he does it and neither of them much notice or care).

Did you work on the bunny massacre? If so, did you enjoy it? Does Tim hate bunnies? He's got a bit of a thing going between this and Psychonauts...

I seem to remember being involved in figuring out the logistics of how bunnies could clear a path through the minefield, but I don't recall the inspiration for the idea, or if it involved a traumatic lagomorph encounter from Tim's childhood.

Yes, I did enjoy working on it, and what I liked most about the bunny massacre was its random quality. The bunnies had their simple behavior, and you could literally wind them up and send them out to make their noble sacrifice, knowing it would eventually work. You just never knew exactly where or when they would go "boom!"

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