It is very rare that people get the chance to talk about their favourite videogames in the same way as they discuss their favourite films: picking out classic scenes, reiterating the best jokes and debating the key charcters with genuine warmth and affection. The Monkey Island adventures from Lucasarts are among a very select group of titles where this kind of thing happens.
The first Monkey Island appeared back in the 386 days, when the PC was still in its infancy as a games platform. What impressed gamers about it was the intuitivness of its point-and-click interface and the sheer depth and great humour of the brilliantly designed storyline. Characters like Stan the second-hand ship salesman, and scenes such as the insult fights and the first encounter between the lead chracter, Guybrush Threepwood, and Elaine stick out in the mind long after end-of-level bosses and secret sections of other games have slipped away. Monkey Island 2 was, unlike most sequels, more of the same: non-linear, surreal and utterly enthralling.
The success of the titles is down to people like Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern - co-project leaders on the third instalment, The Curse of Monkey Island. Both have long histories at LucasArts. Jonathan worked as programmer on Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and The Dig ('For a short time I went to another company, but I don't like to talk about that'), while Larry began as an animator on Monkey Island 2 before progressing to lead animator on Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle.
On a recent jaunt to the States, Edge met the guys and tried to extract from them as much information about The Curse of Monkey Island as possible.
Edge: How do you think the LucasArts adventures have changed since you've been at the company?
Jonathan Ackley: Well, the graphics have got better! Actually, what we're doing with The Curse of Monkey Island is a reaction to how the LucasArts adventures have changed, because we wanted a game with really deep gameplay. Recently, the games have been slightly shorter. With Full Throttle, for example, thr real push and punch was the cool use of video cuts. Our goal with this game was to have all the punch of Full Throttle - y'know, that 'gee-whizz' factor - but also the gameplay and depth of, say, Monkey Island 2 or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. We wanted to step back, because this is a sequel and because we wanted to be true to the style of gameplay that made the other Monkeys so popular.
Edge: Are you worried that graphical improvements have taken away some of the charm inherent in LucasArts adventures?
JA: Well I'm not sure about the charm of the games - I thought Full Throttle was a pretty good game, but I felt what they were lacking was game length.
Larry Ahern: And a lot of the little details that get thrown in.
JA: You know, I think when people get frustrated with an adventure game, it's when they hit a brick wall and there's nothing funny or interesting or new to do. In any adventure, you're going to hit a brick wall sooner or later, it's just the nature of the genre. You want the puzzles to be hard. However, we wanted to make the enviroment full and interactive so when players hit those brick walls, at least they're being kept amused while they're trying to find their way through.
Edge: Where did the inspiration come from for Curse?
LA: As we started working on puzzles for this game we knew we wanted to try to get into a few more piratey situations. We were looking at getting the player to actually shoot another boat and do some more swash-buckling kinds of things - things we weren't able to include in Monkey Islands 1 and 2 because of technological limitations. So that's set us up for a few puzzles.
JA: We really liked the non-linearity of Monkey 1. Particularly the three-trial structure on Melee Island. So in Curse we actually have two complete islands and each one has a three- or five-trial structure. So if you get stuck in one direction, you can go and explore another, and if you're stuck on that one, there will be another one, so you can always go back and forth and solve puzzles in just about any order.
Edge: Over the last few years players have been turned on to games like Doom and Quake - are you worried that those gamers are going to find it hard to return to mentally challenging titles?
JA: I don't think so. I think the reason Quake and Doom are so popular is just because they are great games and I think if we come out with a great game ourselves, albeit a differant kind of game, I think people will really buy into it and enjoy it.
Edge: At the end of Monkey Island 2, it all became a bit abstract with Guybrush waking up at a funfair and seeming to find out the whole adventure was a dream. Is that going to be carried on in Curse, or will it go back to the world of the original Monkey Island?
LA: We do deal with all that, but it was definitely something we were kind of all sweating over as we were first working on the designs. It was like, okay, we don't want to ignore what happened at the end of Monkey 2, but it was kind of a complicated situation that they left us in. So not to give too much away, what basically happens is that, at the beginning of Curse we start with Guybrush not being fully aware of what happened himself. He starts off thinking it was all down to some kind of voodoo curse, and as you play the games it evolves and Guybrush slowly figures out what happened to him. So for people who maybe haven't played Monkeys 1 and 2 before, or haven't played them in a while, Curse kind of retraces some of the steps, and explains lots of little nitty-gritty things that somebody might want to know. But if they don't care, they can just skip right past that.
JA: We knew that the gamers who played Monkey Island 2 would hate us if we didn't explain it! We also realise that there are thousands and thousands of people who haven't played Monkey 2 who will potentially be playing Curse, and we want to suck them into the story. Consequently, the information is there if thay want it, but they don't have to pursue that line of questioning if they're not interested in it.
LA: Also, Monkey Island 2 leaves you at this carnival setting and we didn't want to start Curse with 'Hey, okay, you bought a pirate game, but here we are at a carnival!' That's also part of the reason Curse sort of jumps ahead in time and Guybrush is kind of hinting at these carnival-releated things, but he doesn't necessarily know exactly what happened to him. He has to retrace his steps and find out again how all the things relate. So the player dives right into the big piratey adventure kind of thing, then everything else kind of comes out as you play.
Edge: The Monkey Island titles have featured some great scenes and some brilliant characters. Which have been your favourites?
LA: I like the pirates at the Scumm Bar, myself - the guys that give you the three trials. I thought they were pretty cool. I like Meathook.
JA: I like the insult sword fighting, and I liked Stan quite a bit.
Edge: Will he be appearing in Curse?
JA: Oh, we just couldn't say. We just can't say. But rest assured, some of your old favourites will return.
Edge: Persumably there are lots of new characters. Where did the inspiration for them come from?
JA: We had some general ideas of chracter types that we wanted to see in an adventure game that we haden't seen before. And also, when we were inventing the puzzles, we were trying to come up with exotic and interesting locales and then we thought of chracters that might fit those locales.
LA: Like, for example, we have a pirate barber shop called The Barbary Coast - y'know, pirate barbers: hey, that's fun!
Edge: From playing Monkey Islands 1 and 2, Edge got the impression that the team thoroughly enjoyed creating the games. Is that still the case?
JA: Yes, it's definatly still the case. It's just a joy for me as a programmer when new art comes through and I see it in the game and it makes me laugh. Larry and I will have been working on this game for two years by the time it's all over, and I certainly expected to be tired of the gags. You think of the gags and you write them down on paper, and you think, well, I'm going to be ready for the punchline, but then when you see how these guys have animated it, or hear that certain sound effect the sound guys have given to a situation, it just comes alive and it cracks me up.
LA: Just yesterday we were putting in a bunch of facial gestures and started flowing in the lines of dialogue we've seen a thousand times before and all of a sudden Guybrush is acting and we're laughing our heads off...
The Curse of Monkey Island will be released in September/October.
This Interview is taken from Issue 44 of EDGE magazine by Future Publishing. It originally appeared at the site 23rd April 1997.