Rex Crowle talks Return to Monkey Island Page Two

Marius: All of this excites me, because when I talk about Monkey Island, I mostly talk about Mêlée Town—Mêlée Island as a whole, but especially Mêlée Town. It's my favorite place of the games because it feels so alive. There are pedestrians walking around. In the last Monkey Island Monday movie, I saw a silhouette in a window, and it makes me so happy. Thank you for doing all this. I talk about this so much when I talk about Monkey Island, because I missed pedestrians in the next games, like LeChuck's Revenge, and I'm so glad you had this time to be like, "OK, we have this time per room, let's give it more life." This is a non-question, I guess.

Rex: [laughs] Well, one of the artists on the team was Zoe, she did probably all of those window silhouette things. She does a really good job of frame-by-frame animation as well. Yeah, they're really fun. I think it's great when you feel a connection between the interior and the exterior of an environment. Sometimes there's funny things to try and figure out, because if you actually completely follow the original games, they don't always make sense. I'd sometimes go to Ron and Dave and I'm like, "How can this...? I don't know how to fit this here." And they were like, "No, it doesn't make any sense, let's just go with what works for the game and what looks good." But those little moments of just getting a glimpse of what's happening through a window before you go in a room, I think they're really powerful, to just give that continuity, because I think it's really great to give a flow and I think that's something that Mêlée has really nicely, in the original games, and we've been able to enhance with this, of not feeling like you're just moving between a bunch of different, very disconnected environments. You are flowing through the island. You start off in somewhere that's maybe more...The path is more trodden, and gradually as you go through Mêlée, you're going more into the darker corners and pushing into the uncovered areas.

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Rex started creating Monkey Island concept art already as a child.

Marius: Like last time, I'm getting to this point where I'm like, "Ah, I need to play this game!" Let me check my notes, one sec. Oh yeah, yeah! Mêlée, Mêlée! We're still on Mêlée Island! We're only talking about Mêlée Island. I asked this last time, and I'm glad you're here now for this, because I replayed The Secret of Monkey Island recently and spent lots of time in that town, and now I see the videos of Mêlée town in Return and the place feels older. Somehow. Even though objectively, it looks the same, but with a very pretty new art style. But it feels older. How did you approach this—Mêlée Island thirty years later?

Rex: I think a lot of this is making sure that when you screw up your eyes and squint, it looks the same, but it's when you open your eyes and look at the details that you realize that things have changed. Some of those things are just story things. Different people are in charge of the island, new pirate leaders, etc., and they've all left their mark on the environment, whether that's daubing it with graffiti or putting up new statues, or things like that. I think there's probably, like I was saying earlier, more opportunity to add more texture and more weathering, so things look a little bit more broken down. Ron and Dave for story reasons wanted it to feel more...I mean, it didn't feel prosperous in the past, but to enhance that more, so that was a note from them. I think it's a combination of all of those things.

Marius: I can't wait. I anticipate when I play, I will just walk around for a while. I don't plan on puzzle solving. I just want to walk around the places again.

Rex: I think the environments make quite nice screensavers, because of the extra background animation and stuff. I find sometimes on my second screen, I've just left a room open and there's just birds moving around or cats running around or windows turning on and off, and there's just a nice sense of place and somewhere that you want to hang out. I know there's plenty of other fans that will just run through those environments like, "Is that a puzzle? Right, solve, solve, solve, solve, solve! Onto the next one!" I think this genre's particularly good for just allowing people to play the game at their own pace. That's a real strength of point 'n' click adventures. I hope people will feel like spending some time in those environments.

Marius: I think they will. How can't they? [Rex laughs] So good! I've got one follow-up question to your design doc, your smaller one. I know you said you didn't see them as rules, but if you see them as rules, did you break them sometimes?

Rex: Erm...Probably. Yeah, yeah, probably. I had an experience once where I went and met one of my favorite artists, this guy called [Javier] Mariscal. He's in Barcelona, and I met him when I was still at art college, and I loved his work. I went to his studio and I was very, very excited to meet him. It was wonderful, but it kind of scared me slightly that he had fifty people that were all painting in his exact style, and perfectly matching it so that you could never tell it wasn't him, because he was doing enormous projects. He did the branding for the Barcelona Olympics back in...Whenever that was? The nineties, I guess? So I always like artists to be able to add something of themselves. I don't want them to just slavishly be trying to follow my way of doing it, because the chances are they'll do it better than me anyway. So I like to let people put their own expressions and their own touches on things. All of the artists brought something to the style that wasn't there initially, whether that was just the way of doing dents in the side of pieces of wood, or interesting ways to stylize lava—all kinds of stuff. There was plenty of flexibility there as well.

Marius: So basically, details that nobody actually will notice this exact detail, but they mean a lot to you, because you felt like this...

Rex: Yeah, exactly. Those examples are not really rule-breaking, they're just adding to the overall toolkit of how we built the world. With the example of the dents on the wood, as soon as I saw someone do that, I was like, "Yep, OK, brilliant. We're going to use that—I'm going to use that in my paintings now." It's that thing I was talking about earlier of just, you know, you need to leave yourself open enough to be inspired by other people on the team.

Marius: It sounds fantastic. It sounds like you also just had a lot of fun for two years.

Rex: Yeah, yeah. It was a very intense two years, I would say, particularly with it happening when it did. At least for the first year plus, there wasn't really anything else happening in life, so very focused on the game. But yeah, we were very fortunate to just have a really fantastic and lovely bunch of people that I think will all be lifetime friends now.

Marius: I forgot to ask you how much time do you actually have?

Rex: Oh, what, today? I thought...I was going to say two years, but that might surprise you. [Marius laughs] I dunno, I've probably got up to another half an hour.

Marius: OK, perfect! I have questions for a whole year. Two years...[Rex laughs] I will have a lot of follow-up questions in a week. Oh yeah, generally a lot of people already notice your color palette also has EGA, in our minds it's EGA, so I wondered, does the game look good on a CRT monitor?

Rex: Oh! I don't know!

Marius: It might look good, right?

Rex: Yeah! I don't have one, so...Actually, I still have my old Amiga monitor, maybe I could...I'd probably have to do some scary home electronics, get out a soldering iron, but maybe I could make that happen.

Marius: Oh yeah. We need to make one playthrough, I guess. I feel like it could look great on it. Something that I like on the character designs is that—me personally, and I wonder if it's an intention or it just happened like that—on some characters, I couldn't see what gender they are. I really like that because [in] Say No! More, the game that I previously made with Studio Fizbin, we also said we want characters for you to not see their gender if you were to see them, and also just show how diverse the world actually is. It thrilled me. In the forum, the ghost carrying a crate in the teaser, it was our first meme, kinda, where we were like, "We love that ghost!" And I just learned their name—it's Rose, and I love it! It makes me so happy, and I still say "they", because Rose—I don't know how they identify, but this is another thing I just want to tell you how I see this thing and it excites me, and I want to ask—was that intentional?

Rex: Yeah. It was, yeah. I mean, obviously, it depends a little bit on the roles people play in the game, but I don't feel...It kinda annoys me in games where it's like, you know, the female characters are pretty and in their dresses, and then all the men are completely distorted and, you know, giant noses and like...I enjoy exaggeration, and interesting shapes, and I just don't find it very interesting to do that princess kind of style. I think a character like the locksmith, which you've seen, I think—probably? I hope so? I think she's been...Yeah, she's definitely been shown. Because, yeah, she was one of the, erm...

Marius: In that tiny store, it's a yellow room?

Rex: That's right, yeah. And she was one of the cutouts as well, at Gamescom, I think. I've seen a lot of people online talking about "him", because she's got a shaved head, you know, probably. But if you look at her, I feel like it's obvious that she's not a guy. It's more interesting to design characters that don't just fit into stereotypes, and wherever possible, it's good to put characters in games and represent people that maybe haven't been represented so much in the past.

Marius: This is so wonderful to hear, and I think Monkey Island, also back then, accidentally, was very progressive, I feel like. Maybe not accidentally—like the first game, the damsel in distress trope was reversed, which was in 1990 a new thing. But I also like that in the second one, you wear a dress, and there is only one hidden mean comment about it. All the other comments of Guybrush wearing a dress—he says it's a nice dress, someone else compliments him that it looks good, and it's not like a joke. It's only fitting that the new game also goes more steps forward. And what you just said—it makes me happy.

Rex: Yeah, I think the art style is kind of angular as well, and something I wanted to do with that is make it obvious that people weren't just having, like, soft lives, you know? The environment that they're in and the times that they're in, they're literally having to deal with a lot of knocks and bumps along the way. People are getting thrown off ships and keelhauled and all of these...You know, they were hard lives. I think if Guybrush jumped on a ship and sailed to France, or somewhere else, he might have found very opulent people that are very curvy, but I feel like in this particular setting, it makes sense for people to be a bit kind of bashed by the times that they're living in.

Marius: I'm looking forward for Return for many reasons, but also what you just said reminds me that the game knows that it's in place in a pirate world, and it's not like...It's another whacky Monkey Island game, but it's another chapter in a rough pirate world.

Rex: Mmm. Yeah. I think that's a core of some of the humor and what's so beloved about the games is that they are...It is a relatively believable pirate world, it's not just like everything is whacky, you know? When you're walking around Mêlée Island, it's got real atmosphere, and it's dark and mysterious and you feel like someone might just jump out of an alleyway and beat you up at any point. You don't have those sorts of characters that really annoy me in video games, that are like, "Hey, welcome to my village!", you know, and they're just talking signposts. These are people that have got their own stuff going on. One of my favorite comedy movies ever is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because that movie is so dark and sinister in how it's filmed—it's filmed like a horror movie. I rewatched Witchfinder General recently, that horror movie from the sixties, and that's a much lighter tone than this comedy movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and I think that's something that's very, very...The jokes land really well, because it's really believable. When there's a terrifying rabbit, that's funny because it's filmed in such a way that it's like a horror movie. The setting is so grimy and so dirty and so medieval that anything that's like, sort of, modern elements are just much funnier because they're more surprising.

Marius: Yeah, yeah. I haven't seen it in a while, but I see the color palette in front of me and it's not like a cheerful, knight comedy color palette.

Rex: Yeah, exactly.

Marius: Speaking of scary: LeChuck. I tweeted that my iPhone screen is your LeChuck illustration, and I noticed after a while that it is unnerving, and I noticed that I haven't been scared of LeChuck since LeChuck's Revenge. So, how did your new LeChuck begin to form? What did you...?

Rex: Like all of the characters, I did a lot of different versions to show to Ron and Dave. We went with a slightly different version initially, that was actually one that I really liked, but it was very, very different from LeChuck, he was almost lizard-like. And then we steered it back towards more, kind of, classic style. Yeah, he's just a lot of fun to work with. I think the thing we wanted to make sure is just that he wasn't too, sort of...I seem to remember at some point saying to Ron, "I just don't want to him look like evil Father Christmas," you know, not like bad Santa Claus. He's just got to have a real presence, you know? If he's on screen, you're looking at him, you're not looking at him amongst a bunch of other people. He's just got so many fun features to work with—he's got the giant beard, he's got his overly, over-grand uniform that he's wearing that's a bit too fancy. He's got his giant hat, and the feathers, and the...

Marius: Crow.

Rex: And the crow, yeah.

Marius: The crow is still there? Is it still the same crow since LeChuck's Revenge, like he's never changed it? [Rex laughs] It amazes me that I only saw this much later, but the crow is actually here too [Marius holds up his LeChuck's Revenge box], or it started here, I guess.

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Marius with an OG ST MI2 box. (Was what I said before I was reminded there was no ST MI2 box, OG or otherwise. Let's go with Amiga instead.)

Rex: [Looking at his LeChuck's Revenge box off camera]. Right. Yeah. Oh yeah!

Marius: What a fun idea that is still there.

Rex: Mmm, yep! [laughs] Well, it's good, like, details like that...It was great to work with the team at Lucas as well, because they'd spot things like that. I think I had a version of LeChuck that didn't have the distinctive belt buckle on, and you know, immediately someone sketches that onto a picture and you're like, "Oh yeah, of course! That's a good shout." A lot of these things are just, it's great to have people that know the franchise inside and out, because either they've created it, or they've done remasters of it, or...You're not thinking, "Is this Monkey Island enough?", because you've got the team there that can tell you.

Marius: That's true. I just want to say that, I haven't played the game yet, but I'm already amazed by this LeChuck. You did amazing. Because I made the Monkey Island 2 Flash film, a couple of months ago, and I designed LeChuck last because I...I'm satisfied with what I finally did with him, but doing it justice is so weird. I studied all the pixels, basically, and I also noticed it's not just his look, but also his movements that add to the scariness of him. It's interesting to work with LeChuck, really.

Rex: Yeah. I wouldn't want to work with him—actually work with him.

Marius: Oh no!

Rex: That would be awful. I'd be dead in seconds.

Marius: Keelhauled at four!

Rex: Exactly.

Marius: Yeah. I think, like, moving towards release, the world will see the whole game and there's tons of things we haven't seen yet—how do you feel today? It's out tomorrow! How do you feel, Rex?

Rex: It's out tomorrow?!

Marius: [laughs] What?!

Rex: Erm, I don't know. It's a strange feeling before a game comes out, when you can't do anything else to it, and other people haven't played it yet. I'm always going to be my own harshest critic, so I can look at anything and just find all the faults in it, but I think the team did a great job and I'm excited for it to get out there. It was a long time before we could tell anyone it even existed, and now we can just put it into everyone else's hands and the legacy of the games can continue. It's the game that I've wanted to play for thirty years so, you know, I've always wondered what would Ron and Dave do if they went back to Monkey Island, sort of like, finish the unfinished business. So, yeah, I'm pretty excited, but yeah. There's a lot of different emotions.

Marius: Is there like, you probably can't spoil what it is, but is there something you look forward to most for people seeing it?

Rex: I think probably just experiencing it and just being in the game and like...I know that the art was a shock to a lot of people, and I think it's good to just play the game, you know? Just get into it, and experience it, experience it with the audio, with the amazing animation, and just see how it's all come together as an experience rather than necessarily judging just based on a screenshot or something. Because we gave it to a lot of different people to play—you know, play-testers, and no-one had any issues art-wise. They just got into it. It'll just be good that they get the whole experience.

Marius: Technically, the shock is great news because you want to make something new, right? Everything new and unexpected is uncomfortable because you don't know how to react to it. I already saw a lot of people online who already warmed up after seeing videos so I know that more and more people will like it and realize, like, "OK, a screenshot is just a screenshot, it's not the whole story." But also, is there a scene or a specific location or something that you were like, "Heh heh heh heh," I dunno?

Rex: Erm, it's hard to...I wouldn't be able to talk any that haven't been shown. I really enjoy, there's a sequence done that has been in trailers, where there's like a sea battle going on, with the cannons going off, and I just really enjoy watching that one any time. I think that's fun to see in the context of the game where you really get a little short animated movie with that sea battle kicking off. It's not a style that would have been in, say, the first two games, where it's like watching a Saturday morning cartoon for a little bit of just, how that plays out.

Marius: Interesting! Will you watch any Let's Plays?

Rex: No. [laughs] No, it's too painful!

Marius: Are you off the computer tomorrow?

Rex: I think so, yeah. I mean, I've come to see my family because they've been a little bit, erm...I've not seen a lot of them during the development of this, and I'd rather be distracted from the internet and let people do their thing and have fun. I've never made a game that I can play after it's come out, ever. Well, I guess LittleBigPlanet, I could, because that was like, infinite content. That was quite a nice experience, because you could see just how surprising everyone's creativity is and just how they would be inspired by what you made to then make their own stuff. There were elements of that with Tearaway when people were making their own customizations and things. But I find it very hard to just look at exactly the content that we made—it's not a negative thing, it's just, you know, to move onto the next thing.

Marius: I'm very careful about this. When we released Say No! More last year, I peeked into Twitch streams, and squinted and checked, "How is the vibe? Do they like the game or not?" And like, leave if they don't like it. And I don't read any reviews. My friends who read it, they tell me what I can read.

Rex: Right, yeah. You need to have a team of advisors.

Marius: It's the best when we found great streams of Say No! More and then, "Now they're getting to this moment." And you read the comments and because the game is very, like, "Yeah, whacky humor!", and then it has a very, very heartfelt moment later, and I loved seeing reactions to this. But I need to know before that this is a positive stream, because I can't handle, personally, any criticism. I take everything personally and it's hard to digest for me. But I will record myself too, and I will let you know when I have a "best of" of the craziest reactions, if they happen, but I'm sure they will.

Rex: Awesome.

Marius: I'm just looking forward to the game tomorrow. Do you know if we will see concept art, or any other scribbles or anything? I love seeing these things. Will you release something like that in the future?

Rex: I don't know. Yeah. I'm sure there will be more things shown. Because apart from anything, once you've released a game, you can't show anything fresh any more, whereas all of that concept art, that's still fresh, and no-one's seen that. So I would hope that we'll be able to put some out. There might be some bits hidden away in the game as well, somewhere.

Marius: Ah! OK...I'm just asking what else—can we expect something new from Foam Sword in future? Are you cooking something up?

Rex: Er, well, I've been very busy with this, so I've not got any other projects on the go at the moment. I know Moo, who is my co-creator and co-founder of Foam Sword, he's been working on something. He's been Tweeting about, sort of, relatively open development, so he'll hopefully be showing something about what he's been doing soon.

Marius: OK. Oh, how did he—so you lied to him too, right? For two years? [Rex laughs] You were busy with a project...

Rex: I wouldn't say I've lied to anyone for two years. I just haven't told anyone what I'm doing for two years. I didn't come up with a completely different game. I wasn't telling everyone that I was making Knights and Bikes 2.

Marius: Yeah. "Now with motorcycles!" Rex, do you have any questions for the Mixnmojo crew? I can answer for you, or...[laughter]

Rex: How do you feel today? The day before release?

Marius: I'm going insane. I'm preparing this situation here [Marius gestures to his gaming setup] and I have other things to do, luckily. Maybe I'll play Monkey Island 1 and 2. But I'm mostly scared being online because I don't want to read any reviews as well, and I already saw they have new screenshots, and someone Tweeted them at me, being excited, like, "Oh, there's this! There's this thing!" And I'm like, "Noooo!" It's the alley. The alley is so significant to me. Have you seen the thread, the forum thread, where we discussed in the Mojo forums, "Where do you think the alley is relative to the high street?"

Rex: Oh yes! I think someone maybe sent that round our work message group.

Marius: Oh, awesome!

Rex: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Marius: It's such a beautiful thing, and this is why I love Monkey Island. Everyone has a different thing in their head, and when you discuss it, they're like, "What? This can't be! The alley's obviously over there!" "No no no, it's there!" And it makes me so happy.

Rex: Well, I think the interesting thing about games that come from this sort of time and have this kind of legacy is that the information is more scarce and you have to fill in the blanks. You know, it's like when you were working on your LeChuck, and you were saying how you were staring at the pixels, and I was doing the same from my side—when I was working on him, I was staring at those pixels—and you're trying to fill in the blanks. That's what makes it really fascinating and interesting. And the same...There isn't like, a 3D model of Mêlée Island, so you can't just go, "Oh yeah, definitively, this thing is here" or, "That thing is there." Artists have, through all of the games, had to make interesting choices and decisions and maybe not every single thing perfectly makes sense throughout all of the games, but that's what makes it a fascinating franchise to work on.

Marius: Rex, thank you again for this last-minute Sunday interview. I'll send this to the Mojo crew now and they will furiously type this interview so it gets out before the game's release. I just wanted to tell you from all of them, they love the art style of the game. Everyone is looking forward to this. We're all happy. Thank you for this gift.

Rex: Ah, thank you!

Marius: It's the best.

Rex: It's what everyone needs right now.

Marius: That's true, yeah.

Rex: Cool. Awesome. Well, it's been really, really fun to chat, and catch up. Hopefully we'll get to hang out in the real world again.

Marius: Yes! Will do. I look forward to it, Rex.

Rex: Awesome. All right. Have a good rest of your weekend. OK, bye!