The True Secrets of Monkey Island’s Development

The Secret of Monkey Island is one of the seminal releases of its era; a comedic adventure game with heart, humour, and problem solving rubber chickens. Created by Ron Gilbert and with a team that included a fresh-faced Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer, this inventive take on both adventure games and the swashbuckling life of a pirate debuted in 1990 and was followed by a sequel the very next year.

So. Instant, genre-defining classics, right? “It was very much a surprise for me,” says Ron Gilbert, of the enduring popularity of those first Guybrush Threepwood adventures. “It's hard sometimes for people to look back and think that Monkey Island wasn’t this giant franchise, and it confuses them that I left the company right after Monkey Island 2 and that Dave went on to do Day of the Tentacle. It's like, why would you leave such a massive franchise at that point? The answer to that question is it wasn't a massive franchise. Both of the Monkey Island games sold well, but they sold nowhere close to the games that Sierra Online was doing at the time. They were good, but they were not major hits.”

"Both of the Monkey Island games sold well, but… they were not major hits.” – Ron Gilbert

At the time of Monkey Island’s debut, Sierra was the biggest name in computer games. The studio’s bread and butter were adventure games, having single-handedly created the genre as we know it with the very first King’s Quest in the mid-1980s. Sierra made many more adventures with Quest in the title, from King’s Quest sequels to Space Quest to the very weird Police Quest, which Ron Gilbert cites as a somewhat surprising influence for The Secret of Monkey Island, but more on that in a bit.

For Lucasfilm Games, it was Ron Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion and the SCUMM toolset he created that would serve as the foundation for a string of beloved adventure games. He helped pioneer verb selection as a means to step away from text parsers and was there as mouse input led to a more streamlined UI. For old-school adventure gamers, the golden age of LucasArts is right up there on the peak. But, it wasn’t until much later that Ron Gilbert was made aware of what The Secret of Monkey Island meant to so many people.

“I went on to do Humongous Entertainment,” Gilbert says, of his departure. “I just kind of moved on and it wasn't until about 2004 when I started my blog and I started doing posts – and they weren't even about Monkey Island in the beginning – that I saw this massive outpouring of people. That's when I realised this Monkey Island thing, there's something weird there. I think it just slowly became something of a cult hit, over time.”

A Long Time Ago In A… You Get The Idea

The Secret of Monkey Island was an original adventure game from Lucasfilm Games, a studio housed within Skywalker Ranch. Yet, surprisingly, the studio was not creating licensed tie-ins set in the Star Wars universe, as those deals were already in place with other companies. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the small team at Lucasfilm Games looked to make its mark in the computer game landscape with original titles. This eventually led to a string of point-and-click adventure games, starting with Ron Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion. The aforementioned SCUMM toolset (which is short for Scripting Utility for Maniac Mansion) would then serve as the foundation for everything from Monkey Island through to Day of the Tentacle and even the CD-ROM era classic Full Throttle.

“I'm not sure exactly what it was about that time, that allowed adventure games to grow and flourish,” Ron Gilbert reflects. “I think people were probably looking for something a little bit different in video games, something slower, more cerebral. Maybe people used to have more patience to puzzle things out and look at things [laughs]. I don't think I have a good answer to why it was then that adventure games saw their heyday.”

For whatever reason though, they did, and the culture within Lucasfilm Games at the time was led by creators. Ron Gilbert’s distaste for traditional fantasy, love of things like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, led to the genesis of Monkey Island. When asked about pitching the game and kickstarting development, and whether or not it was a case of being able to work on whatever you felt passionate about, Gilbert says, “It was close to that.”

“Back when Monkey Island came out, and things changed as time moved on, but back when Monkey Island came out it really was about gathering consensus,” he continues. “It was about getting all the other people in the games group to like your idea. If you could do that, it was a lot easier to get the go-ahead. I don't think we even had a marketing department when we started Monkey Island, so there weren’t focus tests to see if an idea was good. It just kind of happened and we started working on it.”

“It was an unusual way to run things,” Dave Grossman adds. As a relatively new employee at Lucasfilm Games, Dave Grossman would work alongside Ron Gilbert fleshing out the story, puzzles, and comedic dialogue. His first real development experience with the genre, then, would come at a time when Ron Gilbert was looking to change the form, shake things up, and lean into the reason players enjoyed these more cerebral games. Story.

No Death… Unless it Makes Sense or is Funny

Sierra’s Quest adventures popped up more than a couple of times when talking to Gilbert and Grossman about The Secret of Monkey Island; specifically their dead ends and abrupt deaths, that then brought up a prompt asking if you wanted to load an old save file or start from scratch. This even led to a joke that made it into the first Monkey Island.

“That was an idea that I had before Monkey Island,” Ron Gilbert explains. “I wrote an article for the journal Computer Game Design or whatever and it was about why adventure games suck. I listed 15 rules that I thought for really good adventure game design, you should follow. And one of the rules was, basically, no death. At no point should the player’s journey through the story in a game come to an abrupt end because they did something wrong.”

“If you sit there and watch Guybrush hold his breath for ten minutes and die, that's okay,” Gilbert adds, pointing to one of the game’s hallmark comedic callbacks that made Guybrush’s boast of being able to hold his breath for ten minutes a very real thing. “Death from just making mistakes, I didn't like that. I thought about adventure games as being these narratives, where I'm telling a story. When you're watching a movie, it doesn't just end 50 minutes in because the character does something dumb.”

“I was just learning,” Dave Grossman says of jumping into Monkey Island and adhering to this new set of parameters. “My experience before Monkey Island was playing Colossal Cave Adventure, which is sort of in between a Sierra game and a LucasArts game in terms of how much death there is. I played Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade [a rare licensed Lucasfilm Games release that Ron Gilbert helped design] and there were opportunities to die in it, but it felt earned. It wasn't pointless, you had to get in a fight and lose.”

“And it felt right to me to make sure that nothing bad happened,” Grossman continues. “I'm the one who put in that thing where you fall off the cliff and you bounce up off the rubber tree, which I felt was a self-referential nod to that philosophy… [it] was well ingrained with us by the time we were halfway through the project.”

The no-death or dead-end rule that The Secret of Monkey Island introduced to the genre quickly became the norm. So then, did it make the process of designing puzzles more challenging? Did the threat of a Game Over screen, a timeless video game staple, remove some of the stakes?

“When you're watching a movie, it doesn't just end 50 minutes in because the character does something dumb.” – Ron Gilbert

“When you're watching a movie you're never worried that the main character's going to die,” Ron Gilbert says, bringing things back to the story. “They're not going to die unless that's the whole point of the movie. Stakes like that are something that people are used to in their entertainment. It comes down to crafting the story so that the tension doesn't come just from ‘Am I going to die when I walk into this area’.”

“You buy into the stakes of the story,” Dave Grossman adds. “When Pauline is tied to the railroad tracks, you know she's going to get out of it somehow. You're interested in how, but even then you can't help but worry about it somewhere deep inside.”

“It's a lot harder to design games like that because you need to make sure that you’re allowing players an out of some things,” Ron Gilbert continues. “If they pick something up, and they're going to need that then there should also be no way of exhausting it before they need it. It does make adventure game design a lot harder, but I think it's well worth it to do.”

Comedy and Action Without Action

The Secret of Monkey Island is as funny today as it was back in 1990 – only a few jokes about floppy disks and hint hotlines have lost their relevance for a modern audience. “I think a lot of that self-referential stuff and the humour comes from who we are,” Ron Gilbert explains. “We like to poke fun at things, and that just made a lot of sense. And there are more things to poke fun at today, so we just keep poking fun at stuff. The timeless thing is important, you don't want humour or jokes to be super funny and then 15 years later, nobody even remembers the things you're poking fun at. You do have to be careful with that.”

“In some ways, what we're poking fun at the majority of the time is human nature,” Dave Grossman adds. “And that doesn't go away. There's always going to be somebody like Stan in your life. You will encounter those people. And everyone has a reference for that.” For Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, Monkey Island being inherently anachronistic plays into the comedy, and the idea of modern references – which are a part of the new game, Return to Monkey Island – is something always played for humour and never becomes the focus.

Outside of its creators being naturally funny and great comedy writers, one of the many secrets of Monkey Island is how comedy sits alongside the desire to tell a great story with memorable moments and characters. It’s a balance that no doubt became a key part of the game and world’s enduring popularity, and one of the best examples of this comes with Guybrush’s quest to become the best sword fighter on Melee Island… insult sword fighter, that is.

"What we're poking fun at the majority of the time is human nature.” – Dave Grossman 

“We spent a lot of time early on in the project watching old 1920s and 1930s pirate movies,” Ron Gilbert says. “The thing that occurred to me, watching Errol Flynn as he's jumping around the deck of a pirate ship, was that they're always trading barbs with each other. So there were these insults. That's really where insult sword fighting came from. Also, it solved a big problem for me because, you know, pirates are all about their little sword fights. So here was an action thing and I'd always hated the way that Sierra was putting action in their games. Actual action where I needed to have reflexes and my timing needed to be right or I wasn't going to get through it. And I thought, we're playing an adventure game, right? It's about thinking your way through things and insult sword fighting makes a lot of sense as a way to have action without it being action-y.”

“It also fits tonally with the rest of the world and story that's happening, in addition to being a good way to handle the action,” Dave Grossman adds. “For a while, we had a ship combat sequence in the game and we were trying to do that as two little ships on a top-down map. You were sort of strategically trying to outmanoeuvre the other guy and fire your guns, but it just wasn't that fun. Part of the reason it wasn't fun was that it was dry. We wanted something that would fit a little better into the world of Monkey Island and we couldn't come up with anything for the first game. So we just wound up cutting that entire sequence.”

“I Wanna Be a Pirate!”

For Guybrush Threepwood, his first moments on Melee Island are driven by a strong desire to become a pirate. It’s a great starting point for a pirate-themed adventure game for a number of reasons, one of which is the idea that as the player you too are jumping in to become a pirate. But it’s Guybrush’s naivety or earnest sense of not knowing what that means that presents an immediate bond between player and character. The concept of the inexperienced protagonist is not uncommon in games or films but strangely enough, with The Secret of Monkey Island, the inspiration and creation of Guybrush was actually driven by the weird, dry, and obtuse procedural nature of Sierra’s Police Quest.

At this point in our conversation, Ron Gilbert’s feelings towards Sierra have become pretty clear. “The idea for the main protagonist was, again, from playing Sierra games,” Gilbert says. “I got very frustrated with the Sierra games, and it was Police Quest where you start out and if you don't put your weapon in the right locker you get fired and the game's over. That always bugged me because it's like, I'm supposed to be a policeman, right? I've been on the force. I should know that I'm supposed to put my gun in the locker. I should know this!”

“I've always felt that adventure games should find parity… so that the character can discover the world at the same time… [as] the player…” – Ron Gilbert

“That really pushed me to do something with Guybrush where he doesn't know how to be a pirate,” Gilbert continues. “He shows up and he quite literally says, ‘I'm Guybrush Threepwood and I wanna be a pirate’. I've always felt that adventure games should find parity between the main character and the player, that they should in some ways be on a neutral kind of knowledge footing. So that the character can discover the world at the same time that the player is discovering the world.”

Of Puzzles and Pizza

In addition to the story, one of the other foundational elements of a traditional adventure game is its puzzles. This is the game side of the equation, and more often than not, puzzles are designed to be a test of the player’s wits and problem-solving abilities, challenging them to figure out what they can interact with, what items might come in handy to overcome an obstacle, or what bit of dialogue will finally break through a conversational wall.

“I think that's always hard, especially when you're dealing with the difficulty of a puzzle, because you created the puzzle, right?” Ron Gilbert says of the challenge that comes with designing Monkey Island puzzles. “It's not like we're building a platformer and we just need to figure out whether the jump mechanics and all this mechanical stuff work, puzzles are about knowledge. We have that knowledge so it becomes very instinctual, my instincts are this puzzle is too hard or this puzzle is too easy.”

It’s a part of the process that continues to this day, except that with Return to Monkey Island the concept of playtesting and gathering feedback from players during development has evolved. “We did do some play testing back in the Monkey Island days, but not as much as we do [these days],” Gilbert says. “Now we bring in a lot more people and for this game, they played over Zoom and we recorded the entire playtest session. And then we would have little debriefs at the end where we ask about problems. Back on the original Monkey Island, it was a little more casual.”

“People in the office would be looking over your shoulder and make comments about stuff, so there was that,” Dave Grossman recalls. “The real hardcore playtest came with that one night where we fed everybody pizza and walked around and watched them. We learned a lot, but we wouldn't do it again. We would just have one pizza gathering for each game and we had to kind of learn everything from that. This time we had more and staggered them apart so that we could learn from one group and then make some adjustments and then start another group on that same part of the game. Just to see if the adjustments were any good.”

Returning to Monkey Island

“I feel like what we lost was the couches and the room itself,” Dave Grossman says of returning to the franchise he helped shape with Ron Gilbert over thirty years ago. As development on Return to Monkey Island took place during the current climate, losing the room was very literal as design meetings took place online. “In the old days, there would've been a couple of other people in the room at the same time, but between the two of us, it was like going through a time portal,’ Grossman adds. “Right at the beginning of the project, we spent a weekend together just kind of talking about what it would be and what it would be about, just to make sure that we had something to say. It was at that point that we realised the back-and-forth dynamic was pretty much what it was back then. And still feels good. Ron disagrees though.”

“No, getting back into the groove didn't take long,” Ron Gilbert says after a quick chuckle. “It didn't take more than a half hour of our first design session for it to feel good. All of the same back and forth was there, and Dave and I often disagree with each other about things. But the disagreements were constructive, just like they were back then. I don't like this puzzle or I don't think this part of the story works, and then we just kind of go back and forth until we figure all that stuff out.”

“A healthy respect for each other's opinions is useful,” Grossman adds. “With stuff like the writing, I feel like the rule is you just put it in the game and wait for somebody to complain.”

“I’ll write stuff that Dave won't think is funny and then he writes stuff that I don't think is funny,” Gilbert confirms. “And you know, sometimes when I don't think something's funny, it's important to Dave so it's gonna stay. And vice versa. We're also listening to the team, if we create some dialogue or some piece and it's really funny, we'll hear about it on Slack. That's kind of that reinforcement. And other people are working on the game, artists are always drawing funny things, stuff where it’s like ‘oh, why didn't I think of that’. So let's put that in. Even the programmers are writing little snippets of funny dialogue for the mouseovers and stuff. I think the rule is if anybody thinks of something funny, it goes in the game.”

“With the writing, I feel like the rule is you just put it in the game and wait for somebody to complain.” – Dave Grossman.

The Secret of Monkey Island has that timeless quality, so it’s great to learn that the collaborative process between adventure game icons like Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman hasn’t changed after such a long stretch. Of course, Return to Monkey Island arrives at a time when game hardware is capable of so much more, so Return’s art direction and animation usher in a new look and feel for the franchise. But even this side of the development has parallels with what the small team at Lucasfilm Games accomplished back during the era of baggy pants and funky sitcom theme songs.

“There were technical compromises made, but we didn't know that it was this massive compromise compared to what we can do today,” Ron Gilbert concludes. “We were just doing what the hardware allowed us to do, and much like today, we were pushing the boundaries of that. And we're still doing that – Return to Monkey Island has a lot of art, it has a lot of textures. Vibrant visuals that all need to exist on these graphics cards, so we're still pushing those edges in the same way. It's about the feel of the world, right? You want the feeling of the world and the story to carry it all.”

Return to Monkey Island will be out on PC and Switch on September 19, and in the meantime, stay tuned to IGN, because we have a full week of Return to Monkey Island content coming!

Kosta Andreadis is an Australian musician and freelancer who once went on a yearlong bender playing classic adventure games for IGN. Check out his tunes and follow him on Twitter.

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