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Larry Ahern Interview
An article by Muppet, posted on July 21. 2003.

Mr. Muppet talks to Larry Ahern about CMI.

Part 1 - The Beginning

Okay, to begin with, can you tell us a little about the world of Larry Ahern?

It's a parallel universe; everything functions pretty much the same except, for some reason, there's lots of lock-and-key puzzles.

What led to you getting your job at LucasArts? Was it your first computer-based job?

I happened to answer the phone when LucasArts called to ask my roommate if he wanted to come for a job interview. Since my roommate wasn't home, I had to take a message and when I found out who it was, I pressured them into giving me an interview also. I had a degree in fine art and was scraping out a living designing cartoon t-shirts (which perfectly qualified me for work in the computer games industry!). The art director hired us both.

What are the best - and worst - things about working at LucasArts?

The monkeys.

Do you only ever work on one project at a time?

Pretty much.

Do you visit LucasArts fansites? If so, what do you think of them? Got a favourite?

Yes, I occasionally do and I think they're pretty good. My favorite one is NudeGuybrush.com.

What non-computer-related work (art, writing, etc.) do you do?

I have a one-man show that I've put together involving sock puppets and animal noises that's getting rave reviews from my two-year-old son. But most of my time beyond the 40-hour work week is spent putting in overtime on a project, or being with my family (with an occasional bit of "lounging in front of the tv when I should be mowing the lawn" thrown in for good measure).

Have you had any input on Escape From Monkey Island? If so, to what extent?

Nope. They pretty much turned down all my dumb ideas and bad jokes in favor of their own dumb ideas and bad jokes. It should be a hoot (actually, I've been working on a new game instead).

 

Part 2 - Zombie Pirates, Tentacles & Motorcycle Gangs

You did secondary character designs on Monkey Island 2. Is this re-drawing other people's art, or did you still create some original work?

I tried redrawing other people's art for a while, until they noticed all my drawings of the characters had handlebar moustaches. After that, they gave me Secondary characters to design. Secondary characters are just those other than the main characters (Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck). Before animating a handful of these minor characters, I got to design them (Walt the Dog, the deaf guy with the cannon-did he have a name?, etc.). Otherwise, I spent most of my time on the project animating Guybrush and trying to convince Ron Gilbert to use my animation of an anvil dropping on Guybrush's head.

Are the art department on games responsible for how characters look, or is it all done under the instruction of the project leader?

Ultimately, the Project Leader is responsible for everything on the project, but will usually give the task of character design to the lead artist, lead animator, or a conceptual artist on the team. Since I used to be a lead animator, though, I still often try to design characters when I have the time.

Similarly you did animation on Sam and Max. What was working with Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark like? Is Monkey Island safe in their hands?

I rarely saw them, and worked mostly with their assistants, lawyers, handlers and press agents-pretty much the standard stuff for LucasArts Project Leaders. I heard that they've got pirates and monkeys in the new game, so I think it's safe to say that they know their stuff.

You and Jonathan Ackley both worked on Full Throttle, but in different roles. Is there a lot of interaction between various staff members - or does everyone just work in their own section?

We tried not to restrict anybody too much. In fact, we sometimes rotated desks and I'd program awhile while Jonathan drew. This usually lasted about ten minutes, after which we'd draw handlebar moustaches on Jonathan's bad art, have a good laugh, then get back to work. There was a lot of collaboration on everything on Full Throttle, because we had such a small core development team. Nowadays that can be more difficult with bigger teams and specialisation, but it's still our goal.

How does the role of lead character design (as you did on DOTT) differ to secondary character design?

I designed all the characters in DOTT, but only some minor characters in Monkey 2.

How much creative input does an artist have on the games he/she works on?

It used to vary greatly, depending on the talent of the individual, their interest, the needs of the project, the stage of development it's in, and the number of other people working on it (and vying for input). Sometimes artists were only involved in issues that relate specifically to the visuals, other times they helped with story, gameplay, the whole experience. However, now their input is unnecessary, since computers pretty much do all the work.

What other games did you work on at LucasArts?

The main ones are Monkey Island 2, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, and The Curse of Monkey Island.

Was there any game at LucasArts you wish you'd worked on but didn't?

Grim Fandango looked like a cool project, but of course it was being developed simultaneous to Monkey 3.

Did you ever have ideas for a sequel to a LucasArts game (or an original game) that for some reason never got the go-ahead?

I struggled with a design for a Star Wars drinking game for a few years but never got it approved by licensing...not sure why.

Who's your favourite LucasArts-game character? Why?

Playable character: Ben-he's cool.

NPC: Murray-he is loveably obnoxious, pathetically evil, and a last-minute throwaway character idea that was so fun, we had to put him in everywhere.

 

Part 3 - Deep In The Caribbean....

How did you get to be Project Leader on Curse Of Monkey Island?

It certainly helped that I lead the animation teams on Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, and helped with story and design on Throttle also, but ultimately it came down to a spitting contest.

How long did it take from getting the idea to beginning programming?

I'm not sure I remember correctly, but I want to say it was about 6 months of brainstorming, concept art, writing, and creating puzzles and the complete design document before we started wiring up a rough version of the game.

Did not having Ron Gilbert's input make you worried in any way for making CMI?

It was definitely a little intimidating, but we figured that he left us a pretty good blueprint in the previous two installments. How were we to know that he intended Monkey 3 to be a flight sim?!

Did Jonathan have much to do with the art side of CMI, or was that more your department?

Jonathan lead the technical team and I lead the art team, but as co-Project Leads, there was definitely some cross-over. Most of the time, though, we trusted the other to know his job and handle things. This attitude is primarily the result of the "Bear-pig incident," wherein Jonathan attempted to draw a monkey in an early version of the game, but most folks thought it looked like the love-child of a grizzly and a pig.

What does the job of art and animation director entail? (I think entail's a real word!)

I'm not sure what it has to do with 'entrails,' but I was the art director-in charge of the overall visual direction of the game. On this project, that essentially meant that I worked with Bill Tiller, the lead artist, in an attempt to coax the best work out of him as I could. We talked about the look we wanted to achieve for the game, he did all the legwork, and I hopefully helped a little by critiquing, suggesting things, and offering an objective perspective to the paintings he did.

I was also the animation director, which is similar to a film director. I met with the talented team of animators and tried to communicate to them what we wanted to accomplish in each shot, offered feedback on work-in-progress, and hopefully listened to them when they had good ideas.

CMI looked fantastic: the peak of cartoon 2D adventures. But did you consider 3D?

No. The change to larger characters and higher resolution graphics allowed us to show the characters in a way not possible in the previous games, but in the same vein. To change them to 3D would have been too big a step in one game. Besides, we wouldn't have had enough polygons to do justice to the cartoony style.

How long did the process of creating CMI's artwork take?

The whole thing after pre-production was about 18 months. It would have been a full two years, but I decided to cut the El Pollo Diablo macarena sequence.

Are backdrops, cut-scenes, animations all done at once or one after the other?

If we do things properly (which is not always the case), we create a black & white version of the backdrop which can then be animated to for in-game or cutscene shots. Usually we focus on all the in-game animation first, since that's critical to gameplay.

In terms of programming and design, how did CMI differ from the previous adventure games you worked on at LucasArts?

Being an art guy, I don't know much about programming, but the game was essentially made with our standard SCUMM engine, to which we added a few new twists for shooting cannons, playing the banjo, and engaging in ship combat. Things went very smoothly thanks to the experience and organization of Jonathan, Chris Purvis and Chuck Jordan.

Can you give us some insight into the creative process on CMI; ie: how the plot, characters, script, etc. all came together?

We got heavily into voodoo and ordering buckets of chicken, and the whole thing kind of gelled from there (the game, not the chicken). Basically, we were thinking that Elaine and Guybrush needed to take their relationship to the next level, which meant some big screwup by Guybrush involving the proposal of marriage.

Once we had that, we just started brainstorming situations that seemed appropriate and piratey, then tried to figure out how to relate them to the story and puzzle ideas. Often, most of the characters evolved from puzzle ideas (since most of the secondary characters weren't involved in the main storyline) and a gag. Murray was the only character that just "appeared." There was nobody to talk to in one of the cannon scenes, and we had a floating skull among the debris anyway, so we figured Guybrush could talk to him-he was undead, so a body was probably no more necessary than skin, organs, etc.

Once he arrived in that scene, we started finding all kinds of other locations in the game where there was a skull already in the art (hence, Murray, waiting for the game).

How big was the team working on CMI? Were these all permanent staff - or were some only needed for a couple of weeks?

The credits must list 100 people that contributed in some way, but the core staff that worked on it for most of production was about 20.

Which parts of the team worked the longest and shortest amounts of time on CMI?

Jonathan and I were on it start to finish, and there was probably an artist that we stole from another project for a few days that would be the shortest.

What was a typical day's work during the period of creating CMI? Or did it vary constantly?

It varied constantly, which is one of the enjoyable things about the job. Although it was difficult to give myself any large tasks to focus on, I had the pleasure of overseeing the entire process and working with a lot of talented team members in a lot of areas of specialization. A typical day did usually involve yelling "Aaaargh!" like a pirate at some point, however.

Which of the new characters were you responsible for creating - or does joint credit go to you and Jonathan?

We came up with the new characters together in our brainstorming sessions, mostly bouncing ideas back and forth. As I said before, lots of voodoo and fried chicken inspired us with ideas for characters like Murray, Blondebeard, Slappy Cromwell, Haggis McMutton, Kenny Falmouth, LeChimp, Griswold Goodsoup, King Andre and Dinghy Dog. However, a lot of the credit has to go to Chuck Jordan and Chris Purvis as well for writing quite a bit of funny dialogue to bring these new Monkey Island residents to life.

Although some characters from Monkey 1 and 2 returned, no old islands were revisited. Was this idea considered, or were you always going to have fresh, interesting locations?

We did briefly revisit the carnival on Monkey Island, but otherwise we wanted to take the player to new locations.

How did you come up with the storyline for CMI? Did the ending to Monkey 2 prove difficult to get around?

The backbone of it was built around the marriage proposal and the cursed ring idea-that Guybrush would screw up his proposal and have to lift a curse to fix it. The rest of the detail was just a lot of bizarre Monkey Island wackiness thrown on top. And it all would have been so easy, if not for that darned Monkey 2 ending! Yes, that was the most problematic part of the whole story, and we scratched our heads for a long time trying to explain that one.

As co-designer, you must have designed a lot of the puzzles in the game. Is there a typical method for creating puzzles (get object A to use B on C)?

Usually, it's good to start with a thematic element appropriate to the setting or story (such as the skeleton groom on Blood Island who left his bride waiting at the altar to eventually die of a broken heart). Then, add a comedic twist (the reason he left her at the altar was he got crushed in his fold-up bed), introduce the quest or goal (in order to get the ring from the dead bride, you need to reunite her with the groom). Then, create an unexpected way to make it happen (catapult him to the crypt with the fold-up bed), and, finally, disguise and block this way from the player (by covering the hole in the wall, nailing it shut, etc.).

Did you have any input on the voice casting for CMI? Were you satisfied with the results?

Yes, both Jonathan and I had the pleasure of working with Darragh O'Farrell in casting the game's actors. It was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game, and I think we got the right talent for the characters. It was a blast sifting through all the audition tapes and listening to the different interpretations. The only disappointment was some of the actors that we weren't able to cast (we received audition tapes from Frank Gorshin [the Riddler], Jon DeLancie [Q] and quite a few other notables).

When creating characters, did you draw them after hearing the voices or before?

Casting the actors came after creating the characters. Sometimes we drew the character, then created a description of character and voice-type, other times the description came first, followed by the drawing.

Can you share any jokes or unused ideas that for some reason (deadlines, etc.) never made it into CMI?

In an early version we wrote, Guybrush had to lift the ring's curse and destroy all vestiges of LeChuck's earlier wedding plans before he could marry Elaine. So, we had Guybrush discovering undead guests at a wedding reception intended for Elaine and LeChuck, and the ship combat section was going to include an elaborate effort to return wedding gifts to the appropriate guest (most of them gave toasters). Also, Wally was going to be demonically possessed, instead of simply brainwashed, and you performed an exorcism by coaxing the nearsighted voodoo witchdoctor into whacking him on the head with a croquet mallet. Then, there were probably some good ideas that we didn't use also, but I can't remember them now.

Was there anything that - after its release - you wished to change in CMI?

If I were making the Special Edition, I'd add a bit lengthier concluding cutscene (the current one is a little abrupt).

Jonathan Ackley said the short ending was due to cutting back on video to save cutting back on gameplay. What was going to be in the original ending?

A less abrupt version of the same scene.

Were you eager to make Monkey Island 4 after CMI?

I wanted to make Monkey Island 5, which is probably why they didn't let me make another Monkey Island game (being an artist, I've never been very good with numbers). However, I'm eager to see what Sean and Mike come up with for the fourth installment.

 

Part 4 - The Future

CMI often places very high in Top 10/20 lists and has collected many awards for excellence since its release. Did you expect this when making the game?

I knew we had the potential to do this, given the strong property and the talented, experienced team. I also knew that the devoted fans might eat us alive if we botched any one important element too badly. So, my expectations varied day-to-day from success to crash-and-burn!

Did you and Jonathan Ackley once plan another adventure game after CMI?

We were in early development on another adventure game after CMI, but it presented a few too many problems and had to be shelved.

Are you going to play Escape from Monkey Island when it comes out? Any thought on it from what's been released so far?

Of course I'm going to play it! I laughed at the test version that I played a few months back, which is a very good sign.

If you had been able to make Monkey Island 4, have you had any ideas on the direction you would have taken it?

That's classified.

What effect will the apparent move towards 3D graphics have on game art?

3D is just another tool. In the hands of good artists we'll continue to see some exciting artwork. In general, though, it seems that the move toward 3D allows for more character animation in the game than we were able to do with 2D.

Can you tell us something about the projects you're working on at the moment?

More classified stuff.

What are the most recent games you're playing in your spare time?

I just played Half-Life: Opposing Force, and now I'm going back to finish the last few levels of Zelda after setting the game aside when my son was born.

You spoke once at the Game Developer's Conference: is this something you enjoyed, and would you do it again?

Yes, I enjoyed it very much and will probably speak again when another topic presents itself.

Is there any non-LucasArts game you really liked the art for?

Off the top of my head, I liked Rayman 2, the Neverhood, Of Light and Darkness, Koala Lumpur (or something like that. It was a kid's game with an animated Koala bear detective, but the art was very funky), Muppet Treasure Island (they did some very distorted, wacky pirate stuff that was a great approach to this genre). I'm sure I've omitted some obvious choices, but this is what's occurred to me.

Finally; any ambitions left unfulfilled?

I'd like to make a video game that would end poverty in the Third World (Sim Mother Theresa?).

Lewis16 January 26. 2004

I thought mi4 was horrible my fave was mi2, so i hope mi5 is as good as mi2 was!

Patches January 04. 2004

No no no Monkey Island 4 was great! And I can't wait till #5 (if there is one). I think #3 was the best of them all though and I think Ron Gilbert should come back and have some input on the next MI game.

oho October 11. 2003

MI5 must be 2d. it's way better than 3d

Wren October 01. 2003

Escape from Monkey Island (EMI/MI4) is an appaling disgrace to the series.

Please bring back Ron Gilbert; let him have some degree of direct influence on MI5.

oh yeah make an animated Monkey Island TV series too!

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