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Dave Grossman at Telltale

This interview took place when I was visiting the Telltale offices, during the GDC week in March 2007. Dave Grossman has writing credits on the first two Monkey Island games, the recent Sam & Max episodes, and Pajama Sam's SockWorks. His web-site is Phrenopolis.

Grossman and I Grossman and I

We were in a little area of the Telltale office, which had a comfy sofa, a television and a Wii, and next to the T.V. there was a DVD case with a CD that said "World of Bone" on it. I don’t really know what it was, but I made some joke about it being an MMO, and I think Dave gave a slight chuckle and said, "no no, I think that’s for a combined DVD of the first two episodes." Then some disembodied voice wafted in, saying something along the lines of: "an MMO would be great!" – and Dave said, "I would love to play the rat creatures!"

I probably remember that part wrong, but anyway, the rest of this should be accurate, as I started taking notes from this point on.

So we have ten minutes?

Take as long as you like!

Cool, thanks. I’ve never done this before, so...

Really? Never? Not with anyone?

Well... no, not really. [I fumble nervously with endless sheets of yellow paper]. So, uh, there aren’t many other genuinely amusing games out there… I mean, you have a bit of a monopoly at that.

Yeah, I mean, there’s also Double Fine, who bring out a game… every five years.

Heh, yes. Sorry, that wasn’t really a proper question. Hahaha. Do you get to play many games!?!?

No, I’m not much of a game-player, really. But I did enjoy Animal Crossing on the DS, and a few Wii games – Rayman Raving Rabbids, Wii Sports. I generally don’t have a lot of free time, though.

And you’ve just finished scripting episode six?

Right, yeah, it’s all written.

How did you do that? Was it a job for Microsoft Word?

No, we use a dialogue tool. It’s like simple programming... we have two other writers—

Do you ever write over each other’s work?

No, we allocate the work, dividing it out by stuff like location, or character… or just a section of the game. I’m usually the overseer, making sure it’s all the same stylistically.

Do you ever get other people involved?

Mm, sometimes. We might ask for suggestions, or sometimes people offer a few ideas.

And what’s the writing like? Finding funny things to say about doors?

Heh, yeah, though it’s not much about doors. But yeah, a lot of it can be fairly mundane.

Do you ever have to pull all-nighters to get scripts finished?

Well, we try to avoid that with the episodic system... sometimes, though, it can get to the point where we have twenty five lines to go, and it’s really late, and I’m stuck, and the coffee isn’t working. Our schedule does keep that manageable, though. On large projects, four weeks before end time, everyone goes insane. If that happened to us then we’d be insane all of the time.

Ah. And I heard there was a hypnotist downstairs—

Yeah, we notice her sometimes, coming up here. That’s interesting – poking our heads around the corner, wondering what’s going on [He does an impression of someone poking their head around a corner and looking surprised]

Was that an influence?

I think it was a coincidence.

But do you take influences from the general area?

Oh well, you know, influence comes from... it comes from everywhere. [He waves his hands above his head like a magician.]

And you’re a poet as well, right?

Yeah, I do a weekly poem. I began it as just a fun thing, and because it’s good to be writing all of the time. It helps me to create stuff under a tight deadline, and get over the “I can’t think of anything” fear. I’m also the sort of person who will keep changing something to make it perfect, and with the weekly poem you can’t do that, so it’s good for me to just finish something, even if it’s not perfect. Once I write a poem I usually can’t stand it, and I have to give it some time to sit, before I come back to it objectively. Then I can make changes to the next poem I do.

So it’s a bit like episodic gaming – having to finish something, and then improving what you create next time around. Do you like the episodic format, then?

Yeah, it’s a good way to do games. Between making the episodes you think about what you did, and you chat about it, and see what people have said online, and then you can make the changes for next time. So there are always new influences. There’s also none of the long waiting for the next game, as it’s so fast, this system. And when I’m writing, I can’t really get bored of what I’m doing, as it’s the next project before I know it.

What’s your favourite book?

Um...

Or movie? Or... poet? Poet! Who’s your favourite poet?

Oh, I have lots. I tend to like funny, rhyming lines with good meter. Piet Hein is a good one. He was from Denmark, and was also a mathematician...

Were you ever formally educated in writing?

Uh, I think I did a Creative Writing class in High School… but that’s it. I really just got into writing because it was in my family. My Grandmother wrote for the New Yorker, and published a book with my Grandfather.

Ah, because I’m doing writing classes as part of my degree, and I hate it. Do you think that you can teach someone to write?

I think you can... but you can’t push them; you have to nudge them instead – they have to find it in their own way.

And there are lots of game courses at Universities these days...

Yeah, and some of those are good, I think. We’ve got to a point now where the first generation of games developers has been established, and some of them are teaching at Universities, so there are definitely some good courses for that out there.

Right, the industry's – what? – twenty years old now?

Depends where you start counting, but yeah, twenty years or so… and I’ve been in it for twenty years.

So why are you in the games industry?

[He smiles] Why not?

Well... why not be a poet?

Not much money in that. Of course, there’s not much money in this either...

I suppose it combines lots of interests.

Yeah, that’s true – and that’s definitely an attraction. I mean, I was interested in computers at a young age. Then I studied computer science at school, and when I graduated, I thought that computers would be fun to work on. I answered an ad at LucasArts, as it looked like an interesting place to work.

What was it like at LucasArts back then?

Oh, very small – there were only about two dozen people—

So like Telltale now?

A bit like us, yeah, but some things were different. Here, we’re more experienced and older – but we have to be, because we don’t have a prop-up like LucasArts… we had lots of money support, and didn’t have to make a profit, or even a product – not like now.

Great, well thanks a lot for asking my questions. All the fans really love what Telltale is doing, so well done, keep it up.

Thanks – though I’m always a little worried when I hear that – in case I can’t meet the high expectations.

Oh no, I shouldn’t worry. I’m sure we’ll like whatever you do... just really looking forward to all the new stuff coming out. What’s next after Sam & Max, anyway?

Oh, probably something original… we haven’t decided yet, but it’s going to be some project to fill the gap between season one and two. We’ve got a few ideas, and we’ve been bouncing them around, but we really don’t know yet.

And what are you doing now?

Right now? Oh... I’m going to... do something top secret.

Cool. Have fun!

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