return to monkey island guybrush

Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman Talk Humor and Bringing Monkey Island Forward 30 Years

September 8, 2022

By: Andrew Otton

 
 

This September 19, Return to Monkey Island releases and will be the first time original director Ron Gilbert and designer Dave Grossman helm up a new project in the series since 1991. There have been other Monkey Island games in the meantime, but this is the first where either Gilbert or Grossman have a role finalizing all creative decisions. At PAX West, we had the chance to talk to them about what makes a great Monkey Island game and how they're bringing the franchise forward 30 years. 

Return to Monkey Island takes place immediately following the ending of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. When Gilbert and Grossman started talking about making a new Monkey Island, Gilbert said the only immovable idea was the starting point. Monkey Island 2 ends on a cliffhanger that requires some resolution, so that is where the game starts. Other than that, Return to Monkey Island started completely as a "blank sheet." 

 

Monkey Island's Humor is All Important

So, Gilbert and Grossman started with that blank sheet, crafting fresh ideas for another entry in the franchise. With around three decades of time since they've led the charge on the Monkey Island series, we were curious what they thought were absolutely vital components to making a great Monkey Island game since so many people have their own idea of why they love the cherished series. They both answered something that much of the audience will likely agree with: Monkey Island's humor.

While neither could quite detail all the moving parts of what goes into the humor in Monkey Island, both agreed that it's what people, themselves included, latch onto the most with the games. For both, the main character Guybrush Threepwood adds a lot to the style of humor, as he is the vehicle the players use to experience the world and story. 

 
 

"He has this can-do attitude and doesn't really ever think about what the consequences of his actions might be, so we wanted to preserve that," Grossman said about Guybrush. Gilbert added that Guybrush's wide-eyed naivete and the way he deals with problems leads to opportunities for humorous moments. 

"This game is, you know... sort of not quite slapsticky but there is a funny sheen on the surface and heart underneath it." --Dave Grossman

For many, humor and comedy are some of the hardest things to do, so how do you do it right? In particular, how do you do it right with the added difficulty of a controller or keyboard and mouse in the hands of a player? You can't guarantee what a player will do or focus on like you can for someone watching a TV show or film. For Grossman, it was simple:

 
 

"The key thing is to make [the player] part of the humor," he said. "So in a game like ours, the goal sort of has to be funny, and you the player are doing it to be funny. You can't just have serious actions with jokes around them, that doesn't kind of work. You have to involve the player in everything ...  You gotta kind of find a tone, and this game is, you know... sort of not quite slapsticky but there is a funny sheen on the surface and heart underneath it."

Having the player involved or in on the humor is not the only thing to making it work in a game. With what is likely some more general advice, Grossman also said that the characters have to be relatable with "realistic ambitions, nothing too crazy." 

Return to Monkey Island humor

Simple enough, right? Well, Grossman said it's not so easy and that a lot of games get humor wrong in a few key ways. Beyond what he mentioned above, he has noticed that some people just see comedy or humor as jokes that you can just sprinkle in here and there and call it good. It takes work to do well, and games can't get by without doing it, which is why we may not see as many comedic games as we could.

 
 

"Actually there is lots and lots of refining and revising and working the joke until the timing is right and you have to rewrite it until it is actually working," he said. Just as you would expect a lot of thought and care to be put into the timing and refinement of a story's biggest emotional moments or pivotal plot events, Grossman said good comedy requires that same level of effort. Adding in some joke or humor as an afterthought won't work most of the time. 

Return To Monkey Island is for Both Old and New Audiences

The world has changed a lot since LeChuck sought his revenge in 1991, which Gilbert and Grossman thought a lot about when writing and designing Return to Monkey Island. The technology of games is many orders of magnitudes greater than it was then; what people expect out of a game is higher than ever, and they themselves have changed as people as well.

That doesn't mean Return to Monkey Island is going to be incredibly different than other entries in the series, however. For example, Grossman noted that the process of designing a point-and-click adventure game is largely the same, starting at the big picture and getting more granular as you go, like knowing where a puzzle will end and then working backwards step by step to its beginning. He said that the biggest change for Return to Monkey Island is that they talked more about theme at the beginning of the design process and sticking to that theme. In contrast, he said they "might have been more random, a bit more charge ahead" in the past.

Gilbert said getting back to Monkey Island was "like putting on a glove you're familiar with, it fits well." They have a familiarity with the series, thinking of it often these past three decades. Combine that with their near 60 years of game development experience combined, most of which is in the adventure-game genre, and they're set up to tackle the challenge of making the familiar still feel familiar while adapting the series to meet the challenges of today. 

 
 

"This feels like Monkey Island to us, and we're hoping that it also feels like Monkey Island to a whole bunch of other people as well." --Ron Gilbert

The biggest challenge? People. They have grown and changed as people, but most importantly to Gilbert, the audience is different. People play games differently today and have more options than ever, with so many choices already available and many more releasing on a daily basis. Beyond that, there has likely been a big change in the audience already there for Monkey Island.

"A lot of people who played this game as kids quite frankly are adults now, " Gilbert said. "They have kids, they have lives, you know, all this stuff. So you do have to kind of take that into account." Those that love the series have changed and grown along with the duo and would struggle with a "completely authentic" new Monkey Island game because of their new attitudes towards gaming and quality-of-life improvements as game design has matured.

When approaching Return to Monkey Island, Gilbert and Grossman wanted to make sure they had a good balance for the old and new audiences, never catering to one more than the other.

Gilbert stressed that the game is going to "feel like a very familiar place, a very comfortable place" for returning Monkey Island fans, with the caveat that it won't be full of nostalgia and fan service. Neither he nor Grossman were interested in retelling a familiar story or playing up on nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. It's going to have the feel and vibe of Monkey Island in an all-new story fit for today. Conversely, they're not scrapping the things they recognize as important for Monkey Island with some decision meant to cater to new fans either.

Return to Monkey Island crew

They did give us a little glimpse of something old fans might be interested in, which Gilbert was excited to write and design. In the original games, LeChuck's crew is simply the crew, nameless and characterless. In Return to Monkey Island, we will get to meet fully fleshed-out characters and delve into the inner workings of LeChuck's ship. 

As for other content we might see, we couldn't help but wonder if a certain franchise might make an appearance in Return to Monkey Island. A big inspiration for the original game was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and Disney now owns the rights to Monkey Island since it bought Lucasfilm. We asked if players could expect to see something from Pirates of the Caribbean in Return to Monkey Island. Grossman said there is at least one subtle reference to look forward to.

In the end, Gilbert and Grossman were key figures in the creation of the series and its tentpole ideas and feelings that made people love it, pioneered the adventure drama that they still contribute to and continue to grow today, and are committed to making a Monkey Island game with no compromises. For those worried about what a new game might do to the legacy of such a cherished series, there is not likely any other person more qualified than either of them to take on that daunting task for Monkey Island.

Monkey Island's legacy goes far beyond the adventure genre and has influenced countless games, something Gilbert and Grossman  have been thinking about when making Return to Monkey Island. With that legacy and the various audiences the game is likely to attract in mind, Gilbert summed up their approach to making the game simply: he and Grossman are making the game they want to make, adhering strictly to their own vision.

"We are making a game that we feel good about. Monkey Island is very meaningful to the two of us, the same way it is meaningful to a lot of fans. You know, we are making a game that feels good to us. This feels like Monkey Island to us, and we're hoping that it also feels like Monkey Island to a whole bunch of other people as well."