The Curse of Monkey Island Retro Interview Bonanza Muppet Talks to Jonathan Ackley

Muppet talks to Jonathan Ackley, designer of CMI.

Part 1 - In The Beginning

Okay, to begin with, can you give us a small introduction to the world of Jonathan Ackley?

Jonathan: It’s a green and expansive land filled with unusually large cats, a beautiful and talented wife, and a toupee-wearing shark singing barber-shop songs. I don’t know where he came from, but there have been noticeably fewer unusually large cats lately.

How'd you begin your career with computer games? And how did this beginning lead to being employed for LucasArts?

I majored in film-production at UC Santa Cruz and with that degree and some blatant nepotism, I got a job as a data wrangler at Industrial Light and Magic. When that project was over, I landed at job at an early incarnation of LucasArts Learning doing media acquisition for a multimedia prototype. They needed help on the technical side and one day my boss asked me, “Do you think you could learn how to program?” I did and moved from that project directly onto “Day of the Tentacle.”

Did you enjoy your time at LucasArts - or were there days when you didn't like turning in?

Yes to both questions.

Did you only ever work on one project at a time?

I don’t recall ever working on more than one project at a time.

What made you decide to leave LucasArts?

New worlds to conquer, I suppose. I’d made a lot of adventure games, and was looking for something new. So I left and my wife Casey and I set up our own company Stargazy Studios Inc. and began to do freelance design and programming. (In case anybody is wondering, Stargazy is a bizarre fish-pie. We thought it sounded cool.) As I was freelancing, I came across a job offer for the new Lego Mindstorms office in Novato, CA. Working with toy robots for a living was just too cool to pass up. So Casey is still doing interactive design and I play with robots.

Do you still check in on the LucasArts fansites? If so, what do you think of them?

Oh, sure. I think they’re great.

Part 2 - Corley Motors, Bigfoots & The Edisons

You worked as Programmer on both Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. What changes in the making of the original and its sequel did you notice?

Actually, I didn’t work on the original Maniac Mansion. That was well before my time. I worked on DOTT, did the sound effects for Sam and Max, worked on 2 and ½ versions of The Dig, Full Throttle and then finally, Monkey 3. (As to the differences between Maniac Mansion and DOTT…the art was a lot prettier on DOTT.)

Similarly you did programming on Sam and Max. What was working with Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark like? Is the Monkey Island franchise safe in their hands?

Well... Sean is less wielding with the whip, but Mike’s beard tickles. Those two have made some top-notch adventure games, (Indy Fate, S&M, The Dig) I don’t see why MI4 would be any different.

You and Larry Ahern both worked on Full Throttle, but in different roles. Is there a lot of interaction between various staff members - or does everyone just work in their own section?

There was certainly a lot in the early days, artists and programmers working together side-by- side for the good of the Proletariat. There was generally less of that as the games got bigger and you had the same amount of time to complete a much more asset intensive project. It also depended on with whom you worked. Many artists just like to draw pretty pictures. Larry has always been concerned with the entire game-making process. That’s what makes him so good.

Did The Dig feel different to be part of as it took a much more serious slant than its LucasArts predecessors?

The process was the same but it hurt more because Gary Brubaker and Livia Mackin were much more accurate at hurling foam balls at my head than were my previous co-workers. The difference between The Dig and the other adventures I worked on was that you couldn’t fill it up with jokes. So we had to think and work harder to make the world interactive.

Is there a chance for creative input when working as a programmer? Did you give any ideas to the Project Leaders for the games you worked on?

It depends on the project and it depends on the project leader. I was very fortunate to work with some very generous PL’s, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, Sean and Mike. (Although Tim and Dave took out the quasi-Shakesperean ending I wrote for DOTT…go figure.)

Was there any game at LucasArts you wish you'd worked on but didn't?

The Secret of Monkey Island. ‘Nuff said.

Did you ever have ideas for a sequel to a LucasArts game (or an original game) that for some reason never got the go-ahead?

Nope, can’t say that I have.

Part 3 - Deep In The Caribbean...

How did you get to be Project Leader on Curse Of Monkey Island?

The usual way, I killed another project-leader and took his job.

Was there a lot of pressure being the co-designer and project leader?


How worried were you about continuing the Monkey series without Ron Gilbert's influence?

First, I would say that it wasn’t made without Ron’s influence. Ron influenced not only the style and tenor of the game, but also the very structure of LucasArts at that time. Ron trained Tim and Dave. Tim and Dave trained me. I could insert a classic Star Wars reference here about the whole master/apprentice bit, but I’ll refrain.

Secondly, we weren’t worried because Larry and I had made a large number of these games before and we knew the territory. Mostly we worried fans wouldn’t like the game because they wouldn’t want to feel disloyal to Ron. So Larry and I knew we had to outdo all our previous efforts just to break even.

Did Larry Ahern handle programming, and you story (or vice versa), or was it an even split?

Larry and I designed the game together, wrote the story and produced the non-interactive script. Larry managed the art production. Chuck Jordan, Chris Purvis (geniuses, both) and I programmed the game and wrote the majority of the interactive dialog, with Larry coming in and writing key interactive segments.

CMI looked fantastic: the peak of cartoon 2D adventures. But did you consider going 3D?

Nope. Dan Colon did some exceptional 3D work with the water and the pirate ships. We used 2D filters and other techniques to make the 3D match the 2D.

In terms of programming and design, how did CMI differ from the previous adventure games you worked on at LucasArts?

There was a feeling at the time that with the art cost and complexity of adventure games it would be impossible to produce a game with the size and depth of our early games. Larry and I set out to disprove that theory. The only way it could be done was to have the design completely done, so there was a clear blueprint for the entire game with no holes.

With the design completed, Chris, Chuck and I had the puzzle logic completely programmed in one month. Some games aren’t playable weeks before their release date. After that, it’s like hanging muscle on a skeleton. Because the programmers had a head start on the artists, we had time to fill the game with jokes, make the environments more interactive and give the game an overall polish. That said, It always amazes me when I read a review of “Curse” and people complain about its length. I’ve only worked on one game that had as many puzzles and was as deep as “Curse.” That was “Day of the Tentacle.”

People seem to think the play duration has something to do game depth. For them I say this: fire up Monkey 2 and go into the library. Come out of the library onto the dock. Get a stopwatch ready. Click on the left rear exit to the room and start the stopwatch. When Guybrush successfully exits the room, stop the timer. From that little sample, determine how much time was actually spent solving puzzles and how much time was spent waiting for a character to walk somewhere. I added double-click doors back on “Full Throttle” and game duration hasn’t been the same since.

Can you give us some insight into the creative process on CMI; ie: how the plot, characters, script, etc. all came together?

Larry and I spent three months working on the design. That’s typical for one of these monster adventure games. We had the complete plot, non-interactive script, puzzle outline, character descriptions and room connectivity. While art is in pre-production the programmers wire up a walkthrough of the game. Background art starts coming in before animation, so before we’re bogged down with art we try to make the BG as interactive as possible. We also write the first- draft dialog.

Then the animation comes in and we have to change the dialog to match the character the animators have added. Sound effects are added ¾ through the project, making a project that you might be tired of fresh again. A little after that you get the voice recordings. All the way along test has been telling you what’s wrong with your game, so you make their changes… "No, Jonathan. I don’t think you understood me. This part SUCKS!” Then comes music and then you spend months polishing the game until it shines.

How big was the team working on CMI? Were these all permanent staff - or were some only needed for a couple of weeks?

At height of production we had 18 people working on it at the same time. Not counting testers, we had over 30 people working on it over the course of the project.

What was a typical day's work during the period of creating CMI? Or did it vary constantly?

9:00-10:00: arrive at office, read e-mail. 10:00-6:00: trouble-shoot and facilitate. 6:00-whenever: Do my own work.

Who was the inspiration for Murray? He's leapt to the top of many fan's favourite characters lists!

Murray was originally designed to be in only one room. He was the disembodied skull supposed to keep you company while you solved the first “locked-in-a-room” puzzle. When I originally wrote his dialog, I just made him sarcastic. I showed it to Larry and he gave me one of those “Gee, that’s not very good” expressions. So, I took another crack at it and this time decided to try the “Loveably Pathetic” tack. Larry approved, so the character of Murray was set.

Then Chuck and Chris came to me and asked if they could put Murray elsewhere in the game. I said sure, and soon I was finding him all over the place. I came into the programmer’s office one day and they said, “Come, look at this.” Guybrush walked into the crypt and Murray leapt down from the rafters screaming, “DIIIIIIEEEEEEE!” Then he smacked into the floor and moaned in pain. At that moment, I knew Murray was a star.

Although some characters from Monkey 1 and 2 returned, no old islands were revisited. Was this idea considered, or were you always going to have fresh, interesting locations?

Actually, you briefly re-visit Melee and Monkey Island, but mostly we wanted new locations so we could have new puzzles and new characters. It’s interesting doing a sequel because you have to walk a fine line between new and old. Too much new stuff and people complain it isn’t enough like the previous game, too much old stuff and people will say you just ripped off the first game. We decided to lean heavily toward the new because we would’ve been bored doing a re-make of the first two games. While many of the locations and characters were different, we decided to make the game fit the spirit, humor and atmosphere of the previous two.

The exception to that is the insult sword-fighting section, which is completely Ron Gilbert’s creation. We loved it so much from the first game we knew we wanted to bring it back. Even so I wanted to prove to everybody I was still working hard, so I increased the difficulty of writing the insult-response triplets by requiring that they rhyme.

How did you come up with the storyline for CMI? Did the ending to Monkey 2 prove a challenge to get around?

First we wrote an incredibly convoluted story about Elaine being turned into a ship’s mast-head. You had to change her back before the fiery demon LeChuck burned her down. A lot of great special-effects a la the “Gone With The Wind” burning of Atlanta scene. We also had a number of puzzles involving Guybrush attempting to return the wedding gifts given to LeChuck for the monster’s undead wedding to Elaine. It would’ve been spectacular, but when we looked at it again, we decided the story was somewhat hollow.

We reworked the story until all the puzzles revolved around Guybrush overcoming his own ineptitude and saving the one person who loves him despite his idiocy. The emotional stakes for Guybrush became even higher and the story fell into place. As to the end of Monkey 2 - that’s the real curse of Monkey Island.

As co-designer, you must have designed a lot of the puzzles in the game. Is there a typical method for creating puzzles (get object A to use B on C)?

We started by making a list of all the cool things about pirates that weren’t done in the first games: City sieges, ship battles, smuggler’s caves, volcanoes, “all-singing, all-dancing musical revues.” Then you see how they might fit into the story. You see if there’s a character from a previous game that fits with the new puzzle. If not, you create a new character. Then you add the inventory objects that give complexity to the original puzzles. Then at the very end, you go through and see if you have multiple inventory objects that can serve the same purpose. If so you throw one of them out.

Did you have any input on the voice casting for CMI? Were you satisfied with the results?

Our voice director, Darragh O’Farrell listened to hundreds, perhaps thousands of tapes for us. It’s a mind-numbing job, listening to the actors reading the same lines over and over. He spared us that and brought us the twenty or so takes he thought were best. Then Larry and I chose the voices we wanted with Darragh’s input (“You don’t want that guy…he spits all over when he talks").

I loved the voices, and Darragh’s direction was spot-on for every line. I loved how he got all the nuances out of lines like, “Pepper! You’re going undercover!”

Can you share any jokes or unused ideas that for some reason (deadlines, etc.) never made it into CMI?

It was so long ago…it seems like a dream. Our original idea for the beginning was Guybrush made an assault on LeChuck’s summer home. Wally was there and he was possessed. Guybrush acted as his exorcist by repeatedly smacking him in the head with a croquet mallet.

Was there anything that - after its release - you wished to change in CMI?

I would’ve extended the ending, but that’s it.

There are all sorts of rumours about this next one - why was the ending to CMI so short? If you had a longer ending planned, what did you intend to put in it?

You have to make choices when you’re making the game. Early on we decided the most important part of a game is the game, not the video. I’ve seen plenty of games with exceedingly expensive cut-scenes where the game was shallow and/or poorly made. On those games it’s obvious they focused on the cut-scenes first and game play second. When they ran out of time and money, they cut the game.

We did the game first and cut-scenes second. Let me assure you the final cut-scene was designed to be huge and spectacular with Elaine single-handedly defeating an army of skeletons. But, probably due to just HOW spectacular it was gonna be, there just wasn’t time to get it into the game. But if the worst complaint people have about the game is, “this one cut-scene was too short” I can live with that.

Were you eager to make another Monkey Island game after CMI?

Twenty-four months among pirates is plenty for any man.

Part 4 - Stargazy-ing

CMI often places very high in Top 10/20 lists and has collected many awards for excellence since its release. Did you expect this when making the game?

I did, because I knew we had an extraordinary team. During production I told the team they were working on a very special game, and at the time I honestly don’t think they believed me. I don’t think there was time for them to look past the animation they were currently working on, or the room they were wiring up to see how fine a product it was becoming. But after the 4th or 5th adventure game of the year award, I think they figured it out.

Are you going to play Escape from Monkey Island when it comes out? Any thought on it from what we've seen so far?

Sure I’m going to play it! I’m looking forward to it, just like every other Monkey fan.

If you had been able to make Monkey Island 4, have you had any ideas on the direction you would have taken it?


Do you still do any freelance work for LucasArts or keep in contact with them?

No freelance work. I’m 100% LEGO. But I still have friends back at LucasArts. They’re only two exits down the freeway, so we do lunch all the time.

What games are you playing at the moment?

I’m playing “Vampire: The Masquerade” and I love it.

I have to wheel this question out again. It's required, I think. What changes have you noticed in the adventure games market over the years?

There have always been very few quality adventure games. Now there are fewer companies making them. Therefore, there are exceedingly few quality adventure games.