Wireframe

Mêlée and mirth: the making of Monkey Island

By Jack Yarwood. Posted

“Somewhere deep in the Caribbean” – those were the words that spirited a generation of players away to a land of pirates, grog, and three-headed monkeys.

The brainchild of Ron Gilbert, an employee at Lucasfilm who’d previously worked on the ground-breaking adventure game Maniac Mansion and the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, The Secret of Monkey Island is heralded today as one of the most influential point-and-click adventures of all time.

It’s spawned a number of sequels, many of which were developed after Gilbert’s own departure from the company in 1992 to form Humongous Entertainment.

As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the original game, Wireframe reached out to the developers who helped create the series, and those who carried on its legend long after the original creators had left.

We contacted a number of ex-Lucasfilm and Telltale staff over a period of months, to talk to them about how the series came to be, the highs and lows, and their hopes for the future. But first, we have to head back to where it all began…

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

When people talk about the origins of The Secret of Monkey Island, they often point to Tim Powers’ 1987 novel On Stranger Tides and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. But though it may be true that Lucasfilm drew from both of these sources to derive elements for the game, Ron Gilbert claims that there was another more pressing concern that led him to the idea.

“It all started from being frustrated that Sierra sold way more games than we did,” Gilbert recalls. “It seemed to me that one of the reasons was, fantasy was hot (as it still is). I never liked fantasy, and didn’t want to make a game about dragons. Pirates seemed like a nice compromise…”

Putting together a top-notch team of artists, programmers, and designers at Lucasfilm, Gilbert began developing an idea for a pirate adventure game – the fifth project to take advantage of the SCUMM engine. Among those on the team at Skywalker Ranch were Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman who were helping with the programming, story, and design, as well as art director Gary Winnick and artists Steve Purcell, Martin ‘Bucky’ Cameron, and Mark Ferrari, to name a few.

“We developed a close-knit group, and we all had a great deal in common,” states Winnick. “We were pretty similar in age and sense of humour. We’d also worked together on a number of graphic adventures by that time, including Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, Loom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

“It was a very small team, and it was very collegiate,” says Ferrari, a background artist on The Secret of Monkey Island. “The whole team would often get together in Gary Winnick’s office in a barn on Skywalker Ranch and just sit around, talking about the game in kind of global fashion. Talking about the storyline of the characters and the visuals and storyboarding and plot and jokes and puzzles.”

Insult sword-fighting reportedly came from watching old Errol Flynn movies at Skywalker Ranch.

The Secret of Monkey Island begins with the young and excitable Guybrush Threepwood arriving on Mêlèe Island in the hopes of becoming a mighty pirate. Soon after completing the three tests set out by the local pirate leaders, however, he becomes privy to a sinister kidnapping plot and sets out to rescue local governess Elaine Marley from the evil ghost pirate LeChuck – whose hide-away is located within the fiery caverns beneath Monkey Island.

All this may sound like your typical pirate fare, but The Secret of Monkey Island is anything but. It incorporates a number of anachronistic elements into its world-building, including everything from meta-references to game development, to allusions to theme parks, to a unique spin on sword-fighting that prioritised the quality of your insults over how well you could wield a sword.

“We watched old pirate movies to get in the mood – Captain Blood and so on,” explains Dave Grossman. “But when it came to writing the dialogue, you may notice that many Monkey Island characters speak in an anachronistic and decidedly non-piratey manner… Stan the ship salesman, for instance, was modelled at least partly on Californian used car salesman and TV personality Cal Worthington.

“Being funny was more important than being authentic or piratey… and I think we were all influenced by 1970s popular media at least as much as by any of the reference material.”

CARNIVALS & CORPORATIONS

On release, The Secret of Monkey Island received positive reviews, but sold only modestly according to Gilbert. Nevertheless, it was enough to convince Lucasfilm to greenlight a sequel. And so, after a two-week break for the team, the developers started working on a follow-up, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

Around this time, there were some huge changes at Lucasfilm. The company ballooned in size, with the gaming division being rebranded to LucasArts and moved out of its creatively stimulating facilities on Skywalker Ranch into an Allstate office building in San Rafael. For some members of the studio, this symbolised a shift towards a more impersonal, corporate setting – a mentality that would lead to a number of LucasArts employees, including Ferrari, departing the company in protest.

The Monkey Island games borrowed a lot of ideas from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Perhaps the most obvious example is this puzzle from Monkey Island 2.

Despite these changes, work on the sequel continued, with the story taking place shortly after Guybrush defeats LeChuck at the end of The Secret of Monkey Island. Now on a quest for the famed Treasure of Big Whoop, Guybrush sets out on an adventure across the Tri-Island area, facing off against the nefarious Largo LaGrande and a resurrected zombie LeChuck.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was another success for LucasArts as a studio, in part due to its many improvements over the first game. Monkey Island 2, for instance, introduced the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds of artists Steve Purcell and Peter Chan, which gave the game a more stylised look.

The sequel also marked the arrival of iMUSE, an Interactive Music Streaming Engine created by composers Michael Land and Peter McConnell, which would seamlessly transition between different tracks as Guybrush moved from screen to screen.

The game wasn’t without controversy, however; its ambiguous ending – which made it a supposed second chapter in what Gilbert had planned as a trilogy – was particularly divisive. This ending sees Guybrush and the zombie pirate LeChuck duke it out in the tunnels under Dinky Island, before a theme park worker appears and the two characters transform into a pair of squabbling siblings at a carnival.

Debate about what this ending means still rages today, with some believing this meant the events of the first two games were simply in the imagination of the two warring siblings. Others argue it was simply another one of LeChuck’s voodoo tricks.

In Monkey Island 2, players can call the LucasArts phone line. The person on the other end is named Chester, a reference to the nickname given to Khris Brown by Tim Schafer.

A CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Gilbert left LucasArts between Monkey Island 2 and its sequel, 1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island, leading to a new creative team led by Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley taking over the reins.

Making a follow-up to Monkey Island 2 presented a challenge for the series’ new custodians: with Gilbert gone and the ending of Monkey Island 2 left ambiguous, there was some confusion over how they should continue. Should they create a direct sequel, following on from the events of the last game? Or ignore the ending and reboot the game for a new audience of players?

They landed somewhere in the middle, with Curse beginning almost as ambiguously as its predecessor ended. We open on Guybrush drifting alone at sea in a detached bumper car, after somehow managing to escape the carnival of the damned that featured in the ending of the last game.

It was a clever solution to the problem, and one that allowed them to continue the game free of any baggage left by the previous game’s ending. After all, a number of years had already passed between Curse and its predecessor, and to start a rollicking pirate adventure game inside a present-day carnival may have felt like a little bit of a bait and switch for new players.

One of the most obvious changes this time around was the art style. The decision was made early on to give the game a different look from its predecessors – one heavily inspired by cartoons. For eight to ten weeks, the art team worked together with the lead designers to pool together a range of influences, drawing from everything from MC Wyatt’s paintings to Peter De Sève’s covers for The New Yorker and the avant-garde cartoon, Duckman. Particularly, they wanted the characters, this time around, to have a stronger silhouette – something that wasn’t possible in previous series entries.

Bill Tiller has recently been repainting some of the game’s backgrounds in the hope of convincing Disney to release a new HD version of The Curse of Monkey Island for fans to explore.

“In the past, when you animated Guybrush you had to shade him in,” explains background artist Bill Tiller. “The pixels weren’t thin enough to do an outline. Whenever you do an animation, you do animation with an outline – you draw Mickey Mouse, and then you fill him in with colour. But with Guybrush, you never did that. The pixels were too small. You could never draw an outline of Guybrush and fill him in with colour. You had to paint in and shade in every single animation. So now with high-res, we can do an outline, just like we do in regular animation.”

Alongside this ambitious new art style, the characters were also given voices for the first time in the series. “We all loved Wally the cartographer and Murray the demonic skull the most,” says Khris Brown, who acted as the senior voice editor for Curse. “Of course, Dominic was great as Guybrush, and there were a lot of ‘usual suspects,’ such as Earl Boen as LeChuck, Denny Delk in multiple roles, and Tom Kane as Captain Rottingham, all of whom I’ve continued to work with since.”

When The Curse of Monkey Island was finally released in 1997, the reaction was largely positive. Critics praised the visuals and the voice cast, but the ending would again prove somewhat of a sticking point, with many feeling that it ended abruptly. This was something that wasn’t lost on the team, who’d been pulled into the studio during the final months in order to scale down the planned ending after running out of time and money.

MONKEY KOMBAT

In spite of this stumbling block, The Curse of Monkey Island proved to be another success for LucasArts, so the studio green-lit a sequel a year later. Ackley and Ahern wouldn’t return to design the game, however, passing the duties on to Sam & Max: Hit the Road designers Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark.

“I’d be hard-pressed to remember the exact circumstances of the genesis of Escape,” Stemmle says. “We probably started discussing it soon after my previous unreleased project [Justice Unlimited] collapsed in a fireball of ‘meh’, and I took six weeks off to drive around the country and get my head together.” This was sometime around 1998, as far as he can remember.

In Escape From Monkey Island, you had to memorise the right response in order to defeat monkeys in a Mortal Kombat parody that perhaps went on a little too long.

Escape from Monkey Island was the first 3D entry in the series, and the second and last game to use the GrimE engine previously used on Grim Fandango. According to Kim Lyons, a 3D background artist on Escape from Monkey Island, the studio had pushed the team to go down the 3D route.

As a result, art director Chris Miles wanted to take the series in a more Pixar-esque direction. To do this, a number of 3D artists and animators were recruited straight out of college, while several ex-isting employees were trained in the art of 3D modelling.

“Escape from Monkey Island was my first 3D job, and I would say probably the same for 90% of the team,” explains Lyons, “so there was a learning curve. There were probably about four or five environment artists at a given time on this project, and we worked incredibly closely with the environ-ment concept team and the art director.”

Escape From Monkey Island saw Guybrush and Elaine returning from their honeymoon depicted at the end of Curse to find that Elaine has been declared dead and that a charismatic character named Charles L. Charles is vying for her role as governor. While Elaine campaigns to reclaim her position, Guybrush sets off to find a secret Marley family heirloom called the Ultimate Insult to fend off an evil Australian property developer named Ozzie Mandrill, who’s turning the Caribbean into a tourist trap.

Escape received some strong reviews when it first released, but has since been held to a greater scrutiny from dedicated fans of the series. Their criticisms include the game’s story, which retcons key events from the previous games, controversially making Monkey Island’s bumbling castaway Herman Toothrot Elaine’s long-lost father; its awkward tank controls (the by-product of the game being the first Monkey Island to launch on consoles); and the infamous Monkey Kombat, the game’s convoluted spin on insult sword-fighting.

Today, Stemmle recognises many of these flaws, reckoning that they’d tried too hard to tie the entry to previous games, though he defends the concept behind the Monkey Kombat, suggesting there was a good idea in there somewhere.

This was one of the few puzzles in Tales that Chuck Jordan helped design, and came from a desire to sneak in a quick Peter Gabriel ‘Shock the Monkey’ gag.

TALL TALES

After Escape, the series would remain dormant for a number of years, before eventually being resurrected at Telltale Games with Tales of Monkey Island. Telltale was an ideal match for the property, since a number of former LucasArts developers, including Troy Molander, Dan Connors, and Kevin Bruner, had founded the company in 2004 after LucasArts had cancelled sequels to Full Throttle and Sam & Max: Freelance Police.

Tales of Monkey Island reunited a number of creatives who’d previously worked on the series, including Ron Gilbert, Chuck Jordan, Dave Grossman (who led the project), and Steve Purcell (who did some artwork for the cover).

Again, the art style would undergo a change, with the team moving away from pre-rendered backgrounds to fully 3D environments. It was also the first game in the series to be released episodically, which followed the pattern of other Telltale adventure games. For the young team at LucasArts, working on the series was a dream come true.

“Monkey Island was the game of my formative teenage years,” says Mark Darin, one of the key directors and designers on Tales. “It shaped the way my friends and I thought about humour and interactive media.”

In Tales, the story picks up with Guybrush battling against LeChuck on his ship, before unwittingly unleashing a pox on the seas. To put things right, he heads off to find El Esponja Grande, a legendary sea sponge that can rid the world of the illness. Along the way, he encounters bounty hunters, crazed doctors, and a suspiciously friendly version of his arch-rival LeChuck.

Here’s a sketche the Tales team saved, featuring Club 41 on Flotsam Island.

Tales was a breath of fresh air for series fans, but it would also be the last new entry, with Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm throwing its future into a state of limbo where it remains today.

“We had some vague ideas of what could happen next, but nothing that we really spent a lot of time thinking about,” says Darin.

“Mostly we had just had the idea that the Voodoo Lady still had some surprises up her sleeve. I think we were all just waiting for a time when we could try to get Ron Gilbert really drunk and then get him to reveal the secret behind his original idea for Monkey Island 3! Sadly, that still hasn’t happened.”

Even today, there remains a demand for a new Monkey Island game. But why do people care about Monkey Island all these years later? And why has it brought together such a passionate and long-lasting community of fans? Bill Tiller believes he has the answer.

“I think Monkey Island just kind of captures that desire to escape and go on an exciting adventure with some fun characters and beautiful locations,” he says. “The humour’s awesome. The puzzles are silly and challenging and fun to do. Pirate insult swordfighting – it’s hilarious. That’s why I think it has endured – and why there are so many fans dedicated to it.”

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