LucasArts' Secret History #14: Escape from Monkey Island Mike Stemmle, Co-project Lead

An interview with Co-Project Lead Mike Stemmle, conducted by Jason. (Note for context that this interview was conducted early during the run of Tales of Monkey Island.)

Tell us a little bit about what was going on with you in the period between Afterlife and Monkey4. Is it true that at some point you worked on some cancelled superhero game called Justice Unlimited?

Actually it's even weirder than that. After Afterlife, most of the (tiny) core team from that game started work on another sim game. The not-so-tentatively-titled TV Wasteland was going to be a charmingly off-beat attempt to simulate the life of a television programming executive, which seemed like fertile ground my for my frothing love of snark and math.

While we were struggling with some of the basics of the title, the team had the misfortune of playing Diablo, and got fatally distracted. Soon, we were convinced that WE should do a Diablo-like game... only with superheroes. LucasArts allowed us to talk them into building this new game we called Justice Unlimited, and off we went... for over a year. And then we killed it.

After the collapse of Justice Unlimited, I took a two-month drive around the country (I'd built up a LOT of vacation time). On the upside, I got an opportunity to see most of the locations we'd ripped off lovingly homaged in Sam and Max Hit the Road. On the downside, I spent a lonely night in Las Vegas with the Worst Food Poisoning Ever. I guess you could call it a low-rent spirit quest capped off by a bout of ritualistic purging. At the time, I only half-jokingly called it the "Mike Stemmle Nervous Breakdown Tour of America."

How did you end up becoming a project leader on Escape from Monkey Island? Was it a role you actively sought or was it given to you? How did the project come about? How much of a Monkey Island fan would you have considered yourself when the reigns of the series were put in your hands (partially, anyway)?

After I came back from my trip, I think LucasArts' management was frankly a little surprised that I didn't resign. I'm not sure how the muckety-mucks decided it was time to do another Monkey Island, but I remember Sean and I sitting down with Jack and being told that LEC would like another Monkey Island. Since we were both big fans (the first game was being finished when we were hired by Lucas), we jumped at the chance.

You and Sean Clark had already led a game together, the immortal classic Sam & Max Hit the Road. Was teaming up again a decision you guys made, or one that was made for you?

We were approached as a team. No doubt management figured that this would be a convenient way to get a decent game AND keep the two of us out of trouble.

Did you and Sean ever chat with former Monkey Island teamsters (like, say, whatever Curse guys who remained) for direction when conceiving the game?

I'm sure we talked with them, but they were off doing their own things for the most part.

What prompted you guys to take the series in a more satirical direction, complete with a commentary on the corporate tourist industry, as opposed to something more strictly "piratey?"

That's probably mostly my doing more than Sean's, since I was on a bit of a wild-eyed anti-commercialization bent during those days. In hindsight, making a ham-handed commentary about how commercialization ruins everything in the midst of an opportunistic third sequel of a video game series is probably a little TOO unintentionally ironic.

Did Sean Clark and yourself come up with the story, puzzles, and dialog all alone, or were there other contributors to the design?

I'm sure there were, not the least of which were the various lua and c programmers like Rich, Ryan, Randy, and Michelle, and the incomparable lead artist Chris Miles.

This was the first Monkey Island game to enter the 3D realm (or pre-rendered 3D, at least). What prompted this decision, and what sorts of opportunities/challenges came with it from the standpoint of a designer?

My recollection is that, with Grim Fandango out the door, the company was REALLY eager to push things into 3D. Also, they didn't really want to use SCUMM anymore. So we were kinda stuck re-inventing about two or three wheels at once. Design-wise, it didn't provide that much of a challenge (and truthfully opened up a number of design avenues that didn't exist before), but...

Escape from Monkey Island had a much more normal (read: shorter) development cycle than Grim Fandango, and it managed to come out on schedule. Was the production a smooth one?

...production-wise, things got bumpy from time to time. Lua turned out to be a good (if idiosyncratic) programming language to replace SCUMM, but we wrestled mightily with our choice of rendering/animating tool, which probably bled into the finished product from in the form of funky animations, glitchy lighting, and texture seam issues (none of which were the artists' fault).

I'm sure this is an issue with any project, but was there any particular struggle against budgetary and technical constraints for EMI? (For example, the game having to fit on two discs.) I ask because presumably, you guys were given a more "realistic" budget than the fully hand-painted Curse or the engine-introducing Grim.

I'm sure their probably were some budgetary and tech constraints, but I'll be danged if I can remember them now. Linda Grisanti did a great job of riding herd on the production stuff.

Escape from Monkey Island was the last graphic adventure game made at LEC (to come out, anyway), and by the time of its release the genre's output from the company had decidedly slowed down quite a bit. Was it difficult for developers to get assigned to an adventure project? Was a title like Monkey Island particularly attractive to developers amidst the enormous ocean of Star Wars tie-ins pushed out during the turn of the century?

By the time EFMI (note the preferred acronym) got started, the writing was already on the wall for adventure games in LEC. Most of the people interested in building them were already gone, it was just about impossible to get a non-sequel adventure game started, and the budgets for building them were getting downright unviable. In that environment, EFMI was considered a welcome oasis of "Not Star Wars" within the company for a while.

What sort of collaboration did you and Sean have with the game's artists?

I remember it through the loving gauze of nostalgia, although I'm sure that I'm probably forgetting several-dozen bouts of directorial tyranny.

What prompted the decision to return to Mêlée Island and its familiar characters for the first time since the first game?

Pure unadulterated fanboyishness. Plus, if we wanted to get across the point that insidious forces were mucking around with Guybrush's pirate-y world, what better place to start than the island that started it all?

The PS2 port of the game is one of LEC's earliest efforts on that console, and of course it proved to be a natural fit for the game's direct control scheme. Was the PC version designed knowing that a console port was on the horizon, or was that something that came later?

You know, I don't rightly remember. I DO remember being somewhat amused and surprised when we were TOLD that the game was being ported to the PS2, so I'm not sure how much we were planning for it, if at all. Sean may have had the notion in the back of his head, though... he's always been better about long-term planning.

I remember some interview with you and Sean where you guys lamented the lack of explanation for why the final puzzle (in which the player must cause a Draw three times in Monkey Kombat against the LeChuck statue) works. Any idea as to what this explanation would have entailed?

It wouldn't have taken much... just a few foreshadowing lines, a couple of critical sound queues, and some post-puzzle commentary would've driven the thing home much better. Of course, designing the entirety third act earlier might've helped, too.

Is it true that the giant monkey robot was based on a throwaway idea Dave Grossman had for the first game?

I do believe there might be some truth to that, but don't quote me.

EMI's climax is comprised of lengthy and rather epic cutscenes. Was this in part to address the issue of Curse's abrupt ending, no doubt the most popular criticism levied at that game?

I'm not sure we were intentionally reacting to Curse's ending. As opposed to the third act (which, as mentioned, was designed a little late), we knew what we wanted in the finale of EFMI from a pretty early date, and we knew we wanted it to be big.

The game's soundtrack is great, and the voice acting is utterly impeccable. Did you and Sean have any kind of input on those areas (for example, having a chat with Dom)?

The quality of the voice acting is almost entirely due to Darragh's voice direction (at least I think it is... I don't remember Sean going down for the recordings). Sean and I were given free range in the voice casting, which was great. I'm particularly happy that we got Edie McClurg for Miss Rivers.

Curious voice footnote: Due to the vagaries of scheduling, the timing of pregnancies and whatnot, I'd never been in a studio with Dom until last month!

The game met with critical success upon release. Do you know how well it fared commercially?

First of all, thanks for the generosity with the "critical success" description. Commercially, I know it did passably well, but, as I mentioned earlier, the writing was already on the wall for full-length adventure games. They were getting too darned expensive.

Fans are of course well aware of the aborted Full Throttle sequels and most famously Sam & Max 2, but what did the prospects of more adventure games look like immediately after EMI's release? Was there ever any serious discussion about Monkey Island 5 while you were still with the company?

After EFMI, the only way to get and adventure game started at LEC was to go all "hybrid-y" with it (as with Sean's Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels action-adventure) or attempt to come up with an entirely new financial paradigm (as we tried with Sam and Max: Freelance Police). Of course, even THOSE efforts eventually sputtered out for various well-picked-over reasons.

As for Monkey 5, I don't think it ever came up.

You're currently a designer on Tales of Monkey Island, the fifth Monkey Island game that people had almost given up on ever happening. As someone who served as project leader on a Monkey Island game, what is it like to revisit the series? What was taken away from the experience of Escape in making the new game(s)?

Working on Tales is a stone blast. It's kinda like going back to high school, but this time as a 40 year-old who really REALLY knows how to do things right. Admittedly, that sounds a lot sadder and creepier now that I've written it down, but trust me, it's cool.

The big takeaway from Escape that I've tried to apply to every game ever since is "Don't Start Building Your Fershlugginer Game Until You Have A Working Development Pipeline." Luckily, Telltale already has one of those.

Any notable cut content from the game or memorable production story you want to share? A decade's plenty long enough to start hearing some dirt!

A few tidbits:

-There was a two-line character in the game whose casting document described him as a "Geoffrey Jones type." Geoffrey Jones showed up for the audition, and then we didn't use him.

-I possess a Chris Miles-drawn caricature of a Three-Headed Monkey consisting of Randy, Ryan, and Rich. It's very weird.

-I spent most of the project listening to Jagged Little Pill over and over and over again... it's a wonder Sean didn't kill me.

-Sean [Clark] and I are not vocally in EFMI (as we were in Hit the Road), but the chess players are physically modeled after us.

-The icon for SCUMM Magazine originally was visually a direct Mad Magazine parody, but we had do neuter the gag because we were informed that parody and satire laws don't cover video games. Personally, I think this is a load of legal cow dumplings, and eagerly await the day when a game company finally has the orbs to send a proper test case to court.

The only necessary characteristic of a true Monkey Island game is, of course, the ability to press Ctrl+W to instantly win the game. Will you therefore ensure that Tales becomes a true Monkey Island game by the end of its run?

I'll see what we can do.

Thanks for your time, Mike.

My pleasure.

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