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Guybrush reunites with an old acquaintance at lookout point on Melee Island

The Creators & Team Behind Return to Monkey Island Talk Storytelling & Game Design

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A Preview of Lucasfilm Games’ Newest Pirate Adventure Coming September 19  

Deep in the Caribbean…or rather, in a series of home offices thousands of miles apart, the lead creatives behind Return to Monkey Island gathered for a virtual conversation (without the aid of point-and-click dialogue) about this long-awaited title set for release on September 19 from Lucasfilm Games, Terrible Toybox, and Devolver Digital.

Since the debut of The Secret of Monkey Island for the home computer in the Fall of 1990, these interactive stories of fantastical pirate adventures have spawned multiple sequels, including this newest entry, which is the first to involve original creator Ron Gilbert since Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was released in 1992.

Gilbert, alongside Monkey Island veteran designer and writer Dave Grossman, have now led the creation and development of Return to Monkey Island with a core team of some two-dozen working remotely over the past few years. This includes art director Rex Crowle, noted for his design work on titles like Knights and Bikes and Tearaway. The Terrible Toybox team also worked in collaboration with Lucasfilm Games executive producer Craig Derrick, who served as the project lead for 2009’s Monkey Island Special Editions and produced Tales of Monkey Island the same year.

Over the decades, the Monkey Island games have remained some of Lucasfilm Games’ most beloved original stories. The idea came in the 1980s when Ron Gilbert imagined a new take on the point-and-click adventure game that mixed fantasy elements with the golden age of piracy. “What if you could get off the boat in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and walk around, talk to people, and explore that world?” remembers Dave Grossman about Gilbert’s original pitch. “There’s darkness, mystery, and a bit of magic. But it’s also an inviting place where you want to go.”

Gilbert explains that one of the key ingredients to the Monkey Island games is humor. “It’s a kind of absurdist humor,” he says. “There are a lot of anachronisms in the game. Some of that comes from varying themes or historical reasons, but it’s often just because it’s fun. It’s funny to do weird little things. The hero Guybrush Threepwood is a bit of a hapless hero. He’s much more of a hero in his own brain than he actually is in the world. A lot of games with a hapless hero poke fun at them, but we try to poke fun at his view of the world instead.”

As a staple of the adventure game genre, the Monkey Island games utilize simple point-and-click interfaces which allow players to explore the world, interact with characters, collect items, and solve puzzles.

The word “adventure” can be misleading, according to Gilbert. Rather than feature the action-packed conflict of modern adventure movies, an adventure game is primarily concerned with storytelling. “Adventure games are about puzzles,” says Gilbert. “These are story-based puzzles, not necessarily like a Sudoku challenge, but more like what Indiana Jones does as he puzzles his way through a situation.” Grossman calls it “proactive rather than reactive play. Nothing is jumping out at you. You drive things along at your own pace. I think of them as movies where the player is in charge of the thoughts of the principal character. The challenge is to figure out what you have to do.”

Gilbert explains that “for me, there was a lot of trepidation about going back. I wondered if we could live up to the original game that’s now a cult classic. 30 years later, do we still have it? But in the very first brainstorm meeting that Dave and I had on the game, all that went away. I knew that we still had what we had back then. So that trepidation lasted about four hours.”

As a sequel, one of the creative challenges for Return was to strike the right balance between the fan-favorite elements of the original games and introduce fresh, new material. “I think both Dave and I wanted to do something new,” says Gilbert. “We didn’t want to do a retro game. We’re pushing everything forward, yet being very true to the original material. It’s like Frankenstein’s lab. We’re keeping the heart but building a new monster.”

For Crowle and Derrick, working in this franchise is an experience that harkens back to their earliest years when they each played The Secret of Monkey Island as children.

“My first impression wasn’t the game itself but going into the store and seeing the box with amazing art by Steve Purcell,” Derrick recalls. “It was imaginative, just wondering what the story of this game could possibly be. Kids love pirates, and there were few games with that theme. And, of course, it said Lucasfilm on the box with Ron Gilbert’s name. There was a pedigree associated with it. You knew this was going to be both lighthearted and challenging and tell a great story.”

Artist Rex Crowle recalls the game’s “evocative” visual style. “It was quite dark but kind of twinkly with a magical quality to it,” he says. “I was really taken with the starry skies and reflections on the water. It didn’t look like a cartoon game. There was a lot of humor, but it was very grounded. That was intriguing to explore. I was just a kid at the time, and I was very interested in what games could be, but I didn’t feel that many games were exciting for me as an artist. They were often just characters running left to right shooting at things. But an adventure game like Monkey Island had so much depth and it was really inspiring. As soon as I started playing the game, I was opening the paint package on my Amiga and drawing characters and scenes, trying to understand how they did things in Monkey Island.”

It was 2008 or ’09 when Crowle, by then an artist in the games industry, emailed Gilbert some digital fanart that he’d painted of Guybrush Threepwood. The Monkey Island creator liked the distinctive take on the character, and remembered Crowle years later when building the team for Return to Monkey Island. Gilbert quips that over time they discovered just how many “superfans” they’d hired on the core team. “They did a good job of squelching that in their interviews!” he says. “The fans on our team are also incredibly professional. They understand what it means to work on the game, and have done a great job of balancing the vision for this project with their love of the originals.”

The entries in the Monkey Island series span decades of evolution in game design and capability, with Return to Monkey Island sporting a modern feel set within the classic point-and-click style. Although current technical capabilities add new levels of audio and visual quality to the game design, “the puzzles and the story are not really dependent on technology,” says Grossman. “If anything, the box of creative limitations is smaller now, just because of the way we draw it around ourselves. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes or the successes of the past. In a sense, it gets harder every year to keep coming up with good stuff.”

Crowle also notes the advancements in technology and how that influences the artwork. “What today we call pixel art was just art back in the 1980s,” he says. “What’s made the characters last and capture people’s imaginations is how iconic and simple they are. Everyone can draw their own version of [the villainous ghost pirate] LeChuck, and they’re all drawing on the same 80 pixels that the character started with. They interpret little details and imagine what they could be. That’s been the process on Return to Monkey Island. It was interesting to determine how we could give the characters new emotional range. Guybrush goes on all kinds of adventures and misadventures in this game. We wanted to keep the boldness of the original design but also see how far we could take it.”

Return to Monkey Island’s visual appearance is an enticing blend of storybook illustration and expressive caricature with a contemporary flavor, and Gilbert points out that every new game in the Monkey Island series has introduced a new design style. Though the team considered doing traditional pixel art that harkened back to the original, they ultimately chose against the “throwback” approach. “Every game has been a modern Monkey Island when it was released,” Gilbert says. “I wanted the art to be something that would shock you a little bit. ‘Oh, that’s not what I expected.’ But hopefully you still find it interesting and fabulous. I think that’s why I went back to Rex and remembered his fanart because it caught my attention.”

Thinking back to his experiences adding to the Monkey Island franchise with the Special Editions and Tales of Monkey Island, Derrick adds that “I learned that the visual direction, no matter what form it takes, will always be unique to the creator, the story they want to tell, and how they’re inspired by what has come before. The world of Monkey Island is tremendously rich, open to interpretation, and, quite frankly, always feels fresh when new artists and creators approach the material with their unique points of view. The Return to Monkey Island team has done an outstanding job reinventing the world once more and has shown that this visual reimagining has become a hallmark of the franchise over four decades of different games.”

A favorite locale of this seafaring fantasy world is Mêlée Island, where Guybrush first began his adventures. Previews of Return to Monkey Island appear to show a few changes for the eclectic pirate haunt, including some wear and tear to well-known buildings and establishments. Just why this change has occurred remains a mystery. “We’re returning to Mêlée like you’re returning to your hometown,” says Derrick. “But after many years, things have changed.”

One iconic Mêlée Island hangout is the SCUMM Bar (named for the original game engine used to create The Secret of Monkey Island), which still seems to be full of cavorting pirates enjoying pints of grog. “My favorite parts of the game are when you get to run around and talk to people,” says Grossman. “The SCUMM Bar is a great place for that. Just go be a pirate and mingle with other pirates.” Crowle adds that “I grew up in a little English fishing town, and I was surrounded by lots of places like the SCUMM Bar. As a kid, it was great to actually explore inside rather than be thrown out of the real-world version! It was a joy to go back and revisit that location.”

Crowle also calls out a new Mêlée Island fixture, the locksmith’s shop, which he describes “as small and cramped” with “a lot of fun gags.” The room was an experiment for the team in how to create a distinct angle of view into the space. “We’ve brought back a bunch of the locations that we all remember,” he says, “but there are also new places. New businesses have opened up, and maybe some old ones are not there anymore. Those twists and turns are really interesting.”

As players look forward to discovering what changes Guybrush Threepwood and his pirate companions will encounter in Return to Monkey Island, Lucasfilm Games itself is reflecting on 40 years of evolution and change since its founding in 1982. “It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” Derrick explains. “To be here on the 40th anniversary of Lucasfilm Games, working with Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman on a new Monkey Island story, and for Ron to return to the franchise and genre he created over 30 years ago is truly remarkable and very, very special. I hope we get to do this again and again.”

[Paid for by the Mêlée Island™ Chamber of Commerce]

Return to Monkey Island Arrives on September 19. Watch the Official Trailer Below:

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