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Rex Crowle talks Return to Monkey Island Page One

Fresh off his star turn interviewing Ron and Dave alongside elTee earlier in the week, we forced Marius to seize upon the sudden opportunity to gab with Return to Monkey Island art director Rex Crowle. The following is a hypothetically accurate transcription of the results, literally hours ahead of the game's release.


Marius: And…Okay. Ha! Now things are set. All right. Rex, it has been ages. It’s great to see you, and I’m glad that we are both wearing red today.

Rex: Yes. Good choice, yeah. [laughs]

Marius: I think we both met for the first time at GDC. Tim [Schafer] took us out for lunch.

Rex: Right, yes.

Marius: And I think we both were wearing red pants. [laughter]

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When Rex met Marius at GDC, 2014.

Rex: I remember us walking back into the Double Fine studio, and I think they were doing a stream. And everyone else was wearing black, and sort of like, somber American colors, and we just walked into the stream, and people were just like, “Europeans!” [laughs]

Marius: “This is not GDC attire; what’s going on?” [laughter] Oh man, yeah, thank you for your time, for our last-minute, shortly-before-release interview. Welcome to my new setup: This is my living room. I’ve prepared things for playing Monkey Island because I will do a playthrough video.

Rex: Okay.

Marius: I don’t want to play it on a desk, basically.

Rex: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s good.

Marius: I’m sitting in front of a big screen, and I can’t wait, and the Mojo guys can’t wait. We all love everything about it already.

Rex: Awesome. Funnily enough, I’m back with my family at the moment, and I’m sitting in the room that I would have played Monkey Island in, as a kid. And I have—I know you like to show your Atari. [holds up device] I have my Commodore Amiga…

Marius: Ohh!

Rex: …Which still works!

Marius: They do work, right? It’s just good hardware that still works.

Rex: Exactly. And I have all my copies of the games [holds up Monkey Island 2, then Monkey Island 1 boxes] here as well.

Marius: [does likewise] Same.

Rex: There we go. Hey, cheers!

Marius: Oh, cheers! Aw man, this will read great in a text interview. [Rex laughs] But do I understand right—you are sitting in your child room right now?

Rex: Mm-hm.

Marius: Really? Aw, that’s amazing.

Rex: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Marius: You played Monkey Island in there.

Rex: Yeah, exactly. It’s the classic kind of child room where you left home many years ago and it’s sort of now the room that never gets redecorated. Well, it gets halfway redecorated, but never quite makes it.

Marius: Oh, wow. That is amazing. Do you get nostalgic and now want to replay the old games in there?

Rex: I am tempted, yeah. It was interesting with this project because, obviously the secrecy was like, so high. And also, it was COVID and lockdown, so you couldn’t go anywhere. And I would loved to have been able to come back here and played the games while we were making the new one so I could really absorb it. Because what was tricky is, just because of the secrecy…It was worrying just to like, even watch YouTube videos, you know? You had to put your browser in like, what do they call it, Incognito Mode, do things like that. And I really wanted to play the third game, but I was really worried that my Steam Friends would see. And I would try to shut all of that stuff down, but I was still like, “Have I done it right? Is someone gonna see?” and it was just…Probably, if I wasn’t working on the game, I would have just played Monkey Island 3 and no-one would have cared.

Marius: Yeah.

Rex: I was just super paranoid that someone would just like, make a link, somehow. [laughs]

Marius: I can imagine that well. [laughs] Like you see the popup like, “Rex is playing Curse,” and then people like, “Why are you playing Curse; what’s going on?! Are you the art director of a new Monkey Island game by Ron Gilbert?”

Rex: “No…”

Marius: “No…It’s leaked.” But yeah, that sounds very interesting. And I hope the whole two years weren’t like that for you. Or were they?

Rex: Ahh…

Marius: Where you feel like you were playing with fire, kind of?

Rex: The secrecy was super hard, you know, just keeping it secret. Obviously, the pandemic kind of helped as well. One good side was it was easier to keep it secret, because there weren’t people around. Like at one point I had a mutual friend, Spaff, James Spafford, come and stay with me, and I was like a serial killer cleaning up after a murder. [Marius laughs] I was just, like, removing everything from my apartment. Just ‘cause, I was like, “He’s going to find some tiny doodle of Guybrush somewhere.” But luckily, that was the only person who came during like, that whole time. So, that did make it a little easier.

Marius: He probably would have put the puzzle together when you were casually playing The Curse of Monkey Island.

Rex: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] So it was a huge relief when we got to April and the game was announced. Although, we’re still keeping fairly quiet because it’s a game that you don’t want to spoil the story or talk about too much. Because, I think what makes point ‘n’ click adventures amazing is also that they’re…There’s relatively limited content. It’s not like a game now where you just play it and grind it forever, and people watch streams of it, and what-have-you. Every single background, every single character, every single animation is done specifically for that moment, so you don’t want to reveal everything too quickly. It was strange with the April the 1st announcement, because that was Ron’s amazing gag that he wanted to do. But we were in a strange limbo where he’d announced it, but we couldn’t actually say anything until…I think after the weekend?

Marius: Three days?

Rex: Yeah, it was three days. And all of the artists in Europe had all come to London, and we were all hanging out together, partying and having a great time, but we still couldn’t say what we were working on, because we didn’t want to, like, confirm that his April the 1st gag was true.

Marius: I wish I would have met you then and just said like, “Did you see the post? Man, what do you think? Is it fake?” Just confronting you with that question.

Rex: [laughs] Yeah, that would have been a hard thing to keep secret then.

Marius: Rex, I wanted to ask you how—looking back at all projects you…You previously made Knights and Bikes with Foam Sword, and before that it was Tearaway and before that LittleBigPlanet. And it’s all original IPs, and they all explode with your, to me, with your character. Your colors, your world, your feel for characters. And now you work on an existing IP, and a very special one. Did you ever expect this to happen? Or, is it a coincidence that you only worked on original IPs before, and only now get to existing?

Rex: I mean, it’s not like anything is planned. I think you just go from one project to the next. And sometimes you get an idea, or you meet someone interesting to collaborate with, and that’s how these projects come to life. You know, it’s not like I’ve got some kind of…I don’t have a big, like, Year Planner on the wall where it’s like, “I’m going to meet this person, and then do this project with them, and then…” It all just happens. I’ve really enjoyed both experiences, of both creating my own IP, and then working with an existing one. It’s very different. So different. Because you just have a lot more to bear in mind. It’s not even like what you’re making now. You’re working with the memories of every fan of those previous games, and everyone has different memories. Every Monkey Island game had a different style, as well. Different people have different favorites. And then I think there’s also the nostalgia element, where it’s not even what the game actually is, it’s how you remember it where you were at the time. So yeah, there’s just a huge amount of stuff, and I think for the art, just like the rest of the game—like Ron and Dave both say, they wanted to push things forward. They didn’t want to make, like, a throwback game, and I think that was the right decision. In terms of art, interface, animation…Just the whole—the story, everything. There’s already been remakes, so we’re definitely not making another remake. It’s fun in this game that we have some of the existing beloved locations. Being able to walk back into the SCUMM Bar is really great. And I think that really helped the project, establishing how the style would look, because we could just compare how did it look then and how does it look now. But also being free to create whole new islands that have very different atmospheres from anything that’s been seen in Monkey Island previously.

Marius: So do I understand right—you kinda started with creating Mêlée Island first, and then got to new islands? Of your work, I mean.

Rex: Yes, so, Ron contacted me because of a piece of fan art that I’d done, probably back when I was doing, maybe Tearaway, I guess?

Marius: 2009, it was. When the Special Edition came out.

Rex: Okay, yeah. And it was a very different view of Guybrush. Very sort of reduced, almost Cubist kind of style. And Ron must have really liked that. He saved it away, and I think he had it as his desktop image for a while. [Marius exclaims] Stuff like that, so…And I didn’t think about it at all, for over a decade, and then he got back in touch. And he’d always been thinking, “What would a Monkey Island game look like in that style?” But, it might have looked awful, so it was a bit of an experiment, really. And I joined the project initially for a month, just to experiment with this. I worked very closely with Ron, as kind of like a side project, almost, to iterate on this style for—it was Guybrush, Elaine, and LeChuck—and see how the characters would look in a sort of progressed version of this style. One that would have a bit more nuance, be able to show emotional range in the characters, and not be quite as bold as that original image. And then also work on the backgrounds, and figure out a style that would get a good contrast between the characters and the backgrounds behind them. I think the initial locations I did were the lookout, the kitchen at the back of the SCUMM Bar, the Monkey Head on Monkey Island, and also another location I don’t think we’ve talked about yet.

Marius: Okay.

Rex: So, it was like a good range. Old and new. And being able to compare those two.

Marius: So you kind of had a workshop, or an art jam, to figure things out to discover the art design.

Rex: Yeah, exactly, and something I was really keen on was making sure that the backgrounds would be very clear and readable but also have that sort of texture to them, that they wouldn’t look like vector art or something. So if you’re looking at it on a Switch, it’s kind of bold and easy to read, but if you’re playing it on a big screen TV, then you see, “Oh, it’s all hand-painted.” You can see all the brush work. Because I think it’s sometimes hard to figure out what level of detail to put into scenes like this when you’ve come from a pixel art beginning where those games didn’t necessarily have that level of detail at the time.

Marius: Oh man, you are already getting into the details—I have a lot of questions about those. [Rex laughs] Going back to your Guybrush fan art. Someone on the forum noticed that Guybrush looks so close to your first fan art. Even the hair swoosh is almost the same shape.

Rex: It’s a bit like your hair. You have the swoosh as well.

Marius: This is all planned. Of course. Every day it's different, so, thank you. [laughter] I wonder how it feels for you…I imagine your art craft evolves all the time, right, and now you’re confronted with a ten year-old piece of art you made. But you are ten years in the future now, coming back to that. How was that for you?

Rex: Yeah, it was interesting, because I wouldn’t have done the character like that now. If Return to Monkey Island had come out and I hadn’t worked on it—if I had done my own piece of fan art now, it probably wouldn’t have been that one because like you say, you move on as an artist. I think the first thing that we did with Guybrush was to…I planned out the usual character sheets of a bunch of different expressions, and as soon as you start doing that, you’re, like, “Well, we don’t want him to just look like some kind of emoji on legs.” He’s got to have a lot more…You’ve got to really be able to read his face and his body language. And his body didn’t even exist in that original art, either.

Marius: Right.

Rex: So there was a bunch of iterations. We actually made a little tweak to him a bit later on as well, in his body shape. Yeah: Ongoing iterations.

Marius: This is what excites me so much about game making, how games evolve throughout production. And I only hope and wish for every production to have as many evolutions and changes as possible. Which is expensive and hard to predict for projects.

Rex: Exactly. And I think for adding new people to the team, it makes a huge difference. When we started, I was kind of the only artist and kind of animator. And as soon as we had professional animators on the project, it was really interesting to see what they were trying to do with Guybrush. And that suddenly throws up a bunch of new iterations that you wanna do. So I think it’s so important with game development to…You have schedules, and you’re sticking to those, but having a little bit of wiggle room and freedom to react to what other members of the team are doing—whether they’re from the same discipline or a different one. Like, when we finally—we didn’t hear Dominic’s voice on Guybrush 'til, like, years later, after doing it. And as soon as you hear it, you’re like, “Okay, right. I want to go back and make some changes to his mouth,” because this is the first time we’ve heard him talk. And I think it’s really important to have those little moments that you can squeeze into the schedule and manage to be informed and inspired by other people’s great work.

Marius: How big was your team? The art team.

Rex: The art team—I guess it was the largest part of the team, because there’s a lot of environments, lot of characters. How many would it be…Is it four artists, five animators? Would that be right? We weren’t all necessarily on the project all at the same time. There was a small window where everyone was sort of firing on all cylinders, but people left the project at different times.

Marius: At the time when your team was the biggest, how was your workflow, basically? How did you work together? How does a week look?

Rex: As you might expect, with this being a very story-based game, it was the most structured development that I’ve ever experienced. Coming from quite experimental, action-based indie games where you’re often…I wouldn’t say making up as you go along, but you're often responding to what the game is, and maybe the story comes out of that. This game had a version of the story right from the start. There was just a really good plan. Jenn [Sandercock], the producer on the project, she just knew when everything had to happen in order to make sure that we released the game—there’s just so much content in it. So the weeks were quite structured—we’d have a couple of days to do each background, or at least a pass on a background. And I would do some of them myself and some of the other artists would take a bunch. And the same for characters…I think I did the majority of the characters...But yeah, just a lot of communication, particularly as we were split across the world. We were so scattered, but we would have a morning chat, with the artists, and it was just nice to get inspired, and just have that feeling of, you’re all having your coffee, and you’re all looking at each other’s screens, and getting fired up. Because the rest of the team wouldn’t be awake until our afternoon. I think I needed that morning boost of inspiration as much as anyone else, so that was really good. And then in the afternoon, when other people came online, we would have a daily call, which Ron and Dave and Jenn would all be on, as well as programmers and QA.

Marius: Like a standup?

Rex: Kind of, yeah. And those were really good. Well, I guess they were less like a standup, and more focused on what other art had been created and was ready to show. And those were really great, because we could show off and get reactions from other people. You’re constantly trying to achieve a balance with, like, the right level of detail. I think any artist wants to just fill their backgrounds full of fascinating, cool details, and those can look great and be really fun but not give a great experience always in a point ‘n’ click adventure. Because suddenly everything looks interesting.

Marius: Yeah, yeah.

Rex: You walk into the screen and you don’t even know where to put your mouse first. So there’s always that little bit of back and forth, of working with Ron and Dave, of, “Does this look too interesting? Is this too eye-catching?” But it was really fun as well, because they were very open to new things appearing that weren’t necessarily in the plan initially. So those meetings were a real joy to do.

Marius: Did you make a rule book for your art team?

Rex: It wasn’t necessarily…I guess it was rules. I don’t like thinking about it as rules, but yeah I made a great big document, but not too huge. I think if you put too much detail in, no-one wants to read it, so you want to keep it punchy. A bunch of stuff about the influences that it was taking, whether that was from the original games…Bunch of things about painting techniques and brush sizes, and more kind of Photoshop setup information. And then some stuff on animation as well, and the animation style.

Marius: What are some of the inspirations and influences other than the old Monkey games?

Rex: [laughs] I thought you might ask me that, straight after me talking about that. Obviously, there’s the Monkey games—I think we’re probably the closest, of the Monkey games, to LeChuck’s Revenge and Curse. It’s a similar…Monkey 2 had those painted backgrounds that were scanned in, whereas we could just paint them directly into the computer, which was very helpful. Outside of the games, we took some inspiration from some animated series like [struggles with the name] Samurai Jack.

Marius: Ahh. Uh-huh.

Rex: I was mixing up Samurai Jack and Sam & Max, there. [laughs]

Marius: Yeah, yeah. The similar cartoon, Sam & Max.

Rex: Samurai and Max. And…What other stuff…Like poster art, some of those cool Mondo posters that you see, it has a little bit of those. There’s another big one, and I can’t think of it right now...Yeah, no, it’s gone.

Marius: Also, because we sometimes babysit my niece, and she’s three, we read children’s books, and I also get some of those vibes. Especially the lookout. I wonder if it’s because there’s so much wildlife? [Rex laughs] But…Oh yeah, this is another question. I just wanted to say how much I love seeing so many animals, in the pictures. And in the interactive website—the jail—there’s a spider, and if the mouse goes on top of it, the spider reacts to that. I was like, “Ahh, this so cool!” Did you push for that?

Rex: I think everyone did, really. And definitely the animators, because I think it was a fun area, because we basically did a pass on the whole game, where we just added more creatures and more life, because we could, you know? We didn’t have very long per room, but we would get together and brainstorm: “What could we add to this room?” And they’re really fun, seeing those lists, because some of the things are so outlandish, we probably wouldn’t ship the game ‘til, like, way into the future. But anything that just involved like small creatures and critters and environmental stuff that just brought it to life more. Because, although it has like a painterly, storybook style, we didn’t want it to feel like you were just walking in front of some scenery. It’s not like it’s a staged set or a painting.