The Curse of Monkey Island Retro Interview Bonanza PC Zone Issue #51: Ackley and Ahern

The fact that people still talk about Monkey Island some seven years after the first game was released and that it's currently doing massively well as a budget title on the Virgin White Label range is a testament itself that the Monkey games will indeed go down in history as gaming classics. People still remember the characters, such as Stan the second-hand ship salesman and fondly recall the incidents like the insult fight just as fondly as they might a scene from TV's Black Adder or from The Fast Show.

A while back LucasArts declared that they wouldn't be making another Monkey game. Ron Gilbert had left the company and few people (including at this point LucasArts) felt that they could ever expect to emulate or even better the humour, characterisation and storyline of Monkey's creator, let alone take on the responsibility and shoulder the massive expectation of the world's adventure gamers. In short, who would be mad enough to even attempt to try and top what had gone before?

We spoke to co-producers Jonathon Ackley and Larry Ahern, as we thought it only fair to give them the chance to explain themselves...

PC Zone: 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.

Jonathan: 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.

PC Zone: Where did you start?[/p]

Larry: As we began to work on the puzzles, we knew that we could get into a lot more piraty situations. We really wanted the player to do more swash-buckley 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.

Jonathan: When we looked back at Monkey, the thing that really stood out was the non-linearity - in particular the three-trial structure on Melee Island. In Monkey 3 there are actually 2 differant 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 to 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 challange. We want the puzzles to be hard, but at the same time we wanted the enviroment 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.

PC Zone: The game looks gorgeous. What's enabled you to make the graphics so much better than, say, The Dig?

Larry: The first noticeable differance 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 anti-aliased 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.

Jonathan: Allowing our artists to do their animating on paper rather than on the computer has allowed for some rally dynamic animations. But we know that art is just part of the equation. The Dig was successful because of its strong gameplay. 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 gameplay 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.

PC Zone: 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.

PC Zone: 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.

Jonathan: The arcade sequences are very simple and easy to learn. However, we know that many adventure gamers arn'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.

PC Zone: Please can you explain how the interactive icon thingummybob 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 Curse of Monkey Island, you can also use the 'pop-up' interface on items in your inventory. In Full Throttle you could 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.

Larry: Guybrush started out as a fairly naive pirate wannbe, 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 untill 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.

PC Zone: Are the Monkey Island characters based on anyone in particular?

Larry: We'd like to think that there's a little bit of Guybrush in us all and that... I mean, no, not really.

PC Zone: Who's your favourite character in the game?

Larry: Murrey, the demonic skull. He wants so desperately to scare someone. Maybe it'll be you.

Jonathan: I'm quite fond of Edward Van Helgen... the famous barber-duellist.

PC Zone: Tell me your favourite joke.

Jonathan: Okay, so these two trapeze artists walk into a bar... Oh, you mean from the game?

PC Zone: 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.

Jonathan: Good heavens, Larry!

PC Zone: 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.

Jonathan: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Kermit the Frog.

PC Zone: Thanks Jonathan, 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 gaming 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.

Jonathan: There are a lot of people here at LucasArts who want to make sure that 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.

PC Zone: People say there are differant types of international humour (British humour is considered very differant 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.

PC Zone: What makes Monkey 3 differant 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 gonna end up having more fast-food proprietors and hair stylists as well.

Jonathan: 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 hellspawn, and Guybrush and Elaine and that whole sexual tension thing, but otherwise it's business as usual deep in the Caribbean.

PC Zone: So why are you confident that it will be better?

Jonathan: 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 ino Curse. And, you know, it's the latest thing, and it's new and improved and all that. So, how can you lose?

PC Zone: So when can we expect Monkey 4?

Larry: We'll never make a Monkey 4... maybe.

PC Zone: Would you like to do a 3D adventure?

Larry: We'll never do a 3D adventure... unless...

PC Zone: 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.

Jonathan: Using my tax software was a real adventure. It had hours of gameplay value.

PC Zone: You've been working on Monkey 3 for nearly two years now, do you still find it funny and rewarding?

Jonathan: 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.

PC Zone: What question are you glad I haven't asked?

Larry: What's that weird thing hanging off your nose?

Jonathan: Do you think those earings really go with your dress?

PC Zone: And, what's the answer?

Larry: What thing on my nose?

Jonathan: It's the bustle, isn't it? C'mon, you can tell me - is the bustle too much?

This Interview was taken from issue 51 of PC Zone gaming magazine.