When the news broke that the Monkey Island series was coming back to tell another tale, fans rejoiced. Not only is the series going back to its point-and-click roots with the upcoming Return to Monkey Island, series co-creators Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman are returning to helm the ship themselves. We were lucky enough to catch up with the two of them during PAX West 2022 to chat about the process of bringing back the beloved franchise and how they’ve been going about it.
Shacknews: So, Return to Monkey Island. We’re going back! First of all, what’s it like for you guys revisiting Monkey Island?
Ron Gilbert: In some ways, it’s very comfortable. I think it took just a little bit of time. I wasn’t sure when I first started this project, it’s like do Dave and I still have it? Do we still have a collaboration? And I think after the first half-hour of our first brainstorming meeting, I was like, ‘Yeah! We’re totally back there.”
Shacknews: So you guys got back in the groove pretty quickly then?
Ron Gilbert: Yeah.
Dave Grossman: We did have to do a little research, ‘cause it’s been awhile, we definitely played the games again.
Ron Gilbert: Yeah, we played the games again.
DG: It’s weird to research yourself, but it’s good to do actually, just to kinda remember what was charming and funny in Monkey Island. Which is why I wanted to go back there again.
Shacknews: Replaying the games, were there moments where something came back to you, like you had forgotten, that clicked with you again? And how did going back and revisiting those games affect what you wanted to do with Return to Monkey Island?
DG: I’d forgotten almost everything. I have a terrible memory. I think we sort of knew what we wanted to do before we went back into Monkey Island.
RG: Yeah, we knew the structure of the story we wanted to do. It was going back and for me it was looking at a lot of puzzles - how were the puzzles constructed, what was good about the puzzles we did back then, what was bad about the puzzles we did back then. Looking at the dialogue actually combing through the source code for Monkey Island 1 and 2, we’re looking at how the dialogue was done and how much of it or how little of it it was. So we spent a fair amount of time looking at that stuff.
DG: Our first conversation was about what themes were meaningful to us now, and where should Guybrush be in his life, wonder what was happening with different characters. It was a lot of agreement.
Shacknews: For Return to Monkey Island, has a lot of time passed then when we come into the story here?
RG: The game starts right at the moment that Monkey Island 2 ends, and then it just gets bizarre. That’s all I can really say at this point.
DG: No spoilers.
Shacknews: So this is still very much like the same style of game we were playing years ago, right?
DG: Right, this is still a point-and-click adventure.
RG: It would be weird to make it a shooter at this point. [laughs]
Shacknews: That wasn’t in the conversation? You never like, we should go full FPS with this?
RG: No, no, we’d never do that. [laughs]
DG: Guybrush Kart Racing. When it’s time to do that.
Shacknews: Saving that for after the sequel? Point-and-click adventures, they were huge, then they went away for a little bit, and now narrative-driven games, point-and-click adventures have come back in a big way. Do you think you would be making this game regardless of whether or not there was more of a demand for games like this now, or did that sort of help make you decide that now is the time to bring it back?
RG: I don’t think it was a major factor. I mean, if there was zero demand for point-and-click games, I mean maybe we would’ve thought about that a little bit. But I think the distribution that we have today, that you can build something and put it on Steam - you don’t have to put it on a shelf at a store and all these other things - just makes it a lot easier for indie developers to make point-and-click games. So I think that kind of helps spread that.
DG: I don’t know, though, that we would have gotten the opportunity at all if people still thought adventure games were dead.
RG: That’s true.
Shacknews: Well obviously, Monkey Island is a huge fan favorite from the genre. Do you feel that pressure?
RG: Yeah, I definitely feel that pressure. You are tapping into this weird legacy, and in some ways it’s a legacy that you didn’t create, right? It’s a legacy that came up over the years. And I’ve told this story a lot, and people find it a little bit fascinating, is when we finished Monkey Island 2, we didn’t think that it was anything but a good game. Hey, we made a good game.
And then Dave went on and did Day of the Tentacle. I went on and started my own company to do things, and a lot of people think that we walked away from this massive franchise. And it wasn’t, it was just a game, and I really in a lot of ways didn’t pay much attention to Monkey Island until probably like the early 2000s when I started my blog. And then I started blogging and then I realized that there was just tons of people coming to my blog and how much they loved Monkey Island. And that was when I realized that this is a weird phenomenon that grew up when I wasn’t paying attention. And so I hesitated.
Shacknews: Does that give you more reverence for the series now as you return to it?
RG: Yeah, maybe that is the right word for that. I think the series is very important to Dave and [me], it was very early in our careers that we did the first two and I know it is very important to fans. And so I think those two things, we try to balance those.
Shacknews: I imagine that that’s gotta be difficult to balance: expectations of fans versus what you’re capable of doing or what you wanna do.
DG: I’ve done a lot of work on other people’s IPs over the years, a lot of adaptations of stuff and in a way this feels similar because it didn’t belong to us entirely anymore. In some ways it’s the property of the community.
Shacknews: As you mention, the IP - what’s been different from you developing this time, independently. Like do you have to call shots you didn’t have to call before back in the day and things like that?
RG: Nah, I think it’s fairly similar. I mean, building this game [we’d] essentially licensed it from Disney, you know LucasFilm, so we had to worry about that. I had to worry about them as the IP holder of the thing, but we had to worry about that back in the day too. I mean, even though it was a character in a world we had created, we still had LucasFilm as a company and we still had to make sure they were happy with what we were doing. And so it’s not like humans ever developed completely independently to do stuff. So I don’t think that’s actually changed that much really.
DG: I never felt any of that pressure on the originals, though. That was all on you [looks at Ron], I was just having a good time.
RG: You didn’t have angry meetings with, you know, Steve.
Shacknews: We’ve seen some of the returning characters that are familiar. I’m wondering, how is the casting standing? Are we going to see any new characters?
RG: Definitely a lot of new characters. You are seeing recurring ones, and it really was like, what is the story we wanted to tell? We knew the story we wanted to tell. We didn’t just grab existing characters and slam them into the story for fan service. It was, this character is actually important to the story that we’re telling. So [if] it’s good, we want them to come back.
Shacknews: Did you have ideas from back in the day before this sequel that you’ve implemented here, or is this all made today?
DG: Tell them your great idea from back in the day.
RG: [laughs] When I finished Monkey Island 2 before I left to start Humongous Entertainment, my idea for the third Monkey Island game was Guybrush goes to hell and Stan is there. That was it. That’s all I had. A lot of people think that I had this massive design document for Monkey Island 3 sitting in my desk that I never got to make, and now we’re going to go make that. We’re going to pull that document out and start building, and that’s just not true.
I just had this one little germ of an idea and the other [Monkey Island] games, not because anyone was ripping me off because I never actually told anybody this, they had done similar things. You know, there’s hell and all this stuff. So had I actually gone back and made that game, people would have accused me of ripping off other Monkey Island games. So we just started over, literally a blank sheet of paper.
Shacknews: Is that refreshing?
RG: Yeah, it is. I mean, the one thing we wanted to do is that we wanted to start the game right when Monkey Island 2 ended. So that was our one thing we had to work around and work into everything. But that was actually fun, doing that.
Shacknews: Now that you mention going back and replaying all those games and stuff like that. How much did that help you when creating the narratives, the dialogue, and remembering who these characters are and how they would react to situations?
DG: Super helpful for the dialogue in particular. I did actually repeatedly before we started the design process, ran through the first two games with my son. But then whenever it came time to, like, “Oh, I’m gonna write a scene with Stan today,” I would go back and look at some old Stan dialogues.
Shacknews: What’s that like as a writer? I’m curious, like going back and revisiting old material and looking at where you are now as a creator versus what you were then.
DG: I mean, it depends. It’s something I’m used to doing all the time ‘cause I’m always trying to get into somebody’s head, get into somebody’s voice, so a little research helps with that. When it’s something that I myself wrote and I’m looking at it again for the first time in 20, 25 years, something like that, my usual reaction is, “Wow, I was so smart back then, and I wish I could write like that now.” I always feel like whatever I did five years ago is good; whatever I’m doing right now is always terrible. Until a few years have gone by. I just can’t look at it, I don’t know what that is.
Shacknews: So you get less critical in hindsight?
DG: No, I think I just, when I’m close to it and in the moment I see all the warts more clearly, all the little problems I couldn’t work out in the dialogue I just left there. And then with the passage of time, I’ve become more like, I expect the actual audience is like, well they didn’t know that these problems were there. And because they didn’t know they were there, they don’t see them. They were all just in my head as I was writing it, and actually everything was fine.
Shacknews: It sounds like you guys are having a good time going back to Monkey Island.
DG: Yeah, you can say that.
Shacknews: And it sounds like not too much has changed in the development process for you, either.
DG: Oh, that’s not true.
Shacknews: Oh, so it’s not just the same then.
DG: No, I mean in the originals there were a dozen people and an office together, and it normally would be [that] we went to lunch together all the time and [had] a constant back and forth. And now we’re all remote, which is completely different. It’s really hard to keep the contact going as necessary to lubricate the creative wheels. We actually schedule not just deliberate design meetings and stuff like that, but also personal time with each other. Do that with all members of the team, just draw lots randomly and, you know, go to “the imaginary water cooler” and talk for half an hour, just to get closer.
Shacknews: Yeah, you can’t just walk up to someone’s desk, but you’re still trying to grab that essence there.
DG: You know, people are in other time zones. I sleep late, and I barely can see them. And there’s voice recordings - we didn’t do that on the first couple of games, nobody actually had to talk out loud. So technological advances have changed a whole bunch of stuff we’re now responsible for that we weren’t responsible for 30 years ago.
Shacknews: Do you feel like, beyond the strains of the pandemic and like new work stuff, do you feel like there’s that same spirit, though, that same essence?
DG: Oh, yeah. It’s a new Frankenstein monster with an old heart, I think, at some point, the creative juice’s still the same. That hasn’t changed at all.
Shacknews: What has it been like for the two of you collaborating on this?
RG: Yeah, it’s been great.
DG: I like it. Ron’s fun. I forget how fun he is when I haven’t talked to him for a little while.
Shacknews: When you talk about licensing and working with Disney, they seemed to have really opened the door up to more licensing opportunities like this? What’s it been like working with them? How have they been about it?
RG: Yeah, it’s been good working with them. Like any team member, they have ideas and some of them are great and we implement them. And some we don’t like, we don’t implement them. And that’s with anybody. They’ve been really good at [letting Dave and me] do what we want with the game.
Shacknews: Is there anything in particular that you are really excited to share with people in this new game?
RG: We’re really excited about the game. We’re really excited about the story we’re telling. We’re excited about all that stuff. We’ve developed this for almost two years in complete secrecy, and so we haven’t been able to share anything about the game during most of its development. We do the Monkey Island Mondays, we share some clips of the game. That’s been really exciting.
Shacknews: Where can folks go to find out more about Monkey Island?
RG: Probably right now just the website, returntomonkeyisland.com. It’s got most of the information there.
Return to Monkey Island is set to launch September 19 for PC and Nintendo Switch. PC players can preorder the game now on Steam. Check out the Shacknews Return to Monkey Island page for more coverage of this upcoming title.
Blake Morse posted a new article, Return to Monkey Island's Ron Gilbert & Dave Grossman PAX 2022 Interview
Good shit. Really looking forward to this one.