The legendary man behind Maniac Mansion talks at length about what he's up to these days.
Ron Gilbert is a legend to adventure fans, the name behind Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle and the first two Monkey Island games. He's now at Double Fine with fellow LucasArts alumnus Tim Schafer. His new game, The Cave, will be released in the new year.
Q: With games, there's generally this perception that the writing isn't that great. At the time we last spoke, you felt that the appreciation for games writing would be something that grew over time. I'm just wondering how you feel about that now? Obviously we've had a huge response to Double Fine's Kickstarter and a lot of people are talking about Telltale's The Walking Dead as being one of the best games of the year. Do you feel generally a bit more optimistic about writing in games at the moment?
Ron Gilbert: I don't know if I feel optimistic necessarily. I do agree, things will just slowly get better. People will slowly have more of an appreciation. It's one of those things. Do people have an appreciation for the writing in a movie? I think not. I think most people don't understand the writing in a film, so they don't leave the theatres going, 'Wow, that was really good dialogue. That was some of the best dialogue I've ever heard.' They don't do that. They leave the movie going, 'Wow, that was a great movie'.
Certainly there will be some people that notice really good writing. I love Woody Allen. I think he does really, really good writing and I notice that. He's just a fabulous writer, so I notice all that dialogue in his movies and I'm just amazed by it. But I think most people just say, 'Wow, Pulp Fiction was an awesome movie'. So I don't think games are ever going to come out as something where the writing is a defining [career move] of a writer. With games, writing just supports [it]. It helps make a better game. Whereas art, for example, I think people do notice art in games. I think they do come out and go, 'Wow, that was really nice art and that was really cool CG'. So they do notice that.
But then I don't think they really should notice writing, necessarily. I think it should be something that's invisible. I feel the same way about music. Good music in a movie or game can make or break it, but I don't think people need to necessarily notice it. If they're noticing your music, you've probably failed in some regard, drawn too much attention to it. The music should just exist as this thing that just plays with your emotions at some core level, and if it's playing with them in the right places, then you're just feeling a lot more invested into the story. And I guess writing is similar.
Q: I see what you're saying, and I totally understand what you're saying about the idea that people don't buy games for the writing generally. But having said that, how many years has it been since Monkey Island?
RG: 15, 16?
Q: And you're known still as the guy that created Monkey Island. I'm sure there are lots of people who will buy your stuff because they know about your writing. You're a funny guy and a great writer.
RG: I think that there's a little bit of a difference between funny writing versus just writing. Funny writing maybe stands out a little bit more because they are seeing the game as funny. And unless you're gearing a game which is just slapstick, the writing is probably the main [inaudible] of how that gamer is engrossed in the game.
Q: So you don't see yourself as being a Tarantino or Woody Allen of gaming?
RG: No, no. Those guys are so much more talented. I watch a Tarantino movie and I'm just in awe of how two people sit and talk to each other for five minutes and the camera doesn't do anything but watch them and you just feel engrossed in what they're saying.
Q: This has been a huge year for Double Fine, and there appears to be some buzz around The Cave as well. There aren't many games that can do that. I know you're more of a known associate for Double Fine rather than being permanently there, is that right?
RG: I'm permanently there. I can never leave. [laughs]
Q: What's the feeling there? It just feels like it's been a really big year for you guys.
RG: Yeah, it has. Double Fine... They are some of the most talented people that I've ever worked with, and I think that comes across in the game, I think you really see that heart. Especially with the characters, because the characters don't talk. So pretty much all of their personality has to come out through the animation. And I think it really does. You watch the hillbilly walk and skeet and how he moves, and the idle animations where they're just standing there, just those subtle little things they do. The scientist, she crosses her arms and has this pissed off look on her face. Not really pissed off, but you really get the idea that she feels like she's better than everybody else. And that's just the animators, right? They were just able to do these amazing things with the animations. So being able to work for Double Fine and have them really make this game, do the majority of work on this game is just amazing.
Q: The company's not had the easiest time of it in recent years, but so much appears to be going the right way now. And then next year, obviously you've got The Cave coming out, and the Kickstarter project. Do you think next year might be a bit of a watershed moment for the studio?
RG: Yeah, it could be. It's so hard to predict. I often find that the more I think something's going to happen, the less likely it is that it happens. So I'm always very guarded about being optimistic, I'm a total pessimist. If you get to know me, it's like I'm a complete pessimist, and that's just because I've realised that the more I think something's going to happen, the more the universe says that's not going to happen. I just want to be a pessimist, so you know, Double Fine's going to be out of business this year and everything's going to be horrible.
Q: [laughs] I'm guessing the stakes must be pretty high right now?
RG: Yeah, Double Fine is in an odd place - in a good way. I've never worked anywhere where the people are just so happy and so excited about what they are doing. That enthusiasm really shows. I think everybody's really excited about the Kickstarter thing.
Q: Let's talk about The Cave. The fact that characters can't die, or at least not permanently... that reminds me of the original Monkey Island. You couldn't die in that. That was something of an anomaly for adventure games at the time. I go back and play all those old point and clickers and I always feel surprised about how easy it is to get killed off. But I guess with a game like The Cave, where it's half-adventure, half-platformer, do you think there's more willingness now to accept things like a complete lack of death. That death isn't as important to games as it used to be?
RG: Yeah, I hope so. There's certainly a whole lot of games where death is very important. But you look at something like World of Warcraft, which I played for way too many years... yeah, you die in World of Warcraft but you just resurrect at a cemetary and you run back and you find your corpse and then boom, you're back. It's sometimes five seconds, ten seconds. They had to add the death because there needed to be some danger there, but there really is no penalty for dying in World of Warcraft. The no death in Monkey Island really came from playing these Sierra games. I remember playing Police Quest once and I got off my little shift and went into the locker room, put my stuff in the locker, and then I walked out of the locker room and I got fired and the game was over because I didn't put my gun in the locker. It's just like, wait a minute... With Monkey Island, I just wanted to eliminate all of that. You know what? A game should just be something you experience, right? I just feel games are something that should wash over you and there shouldn't be this sense of failure. You may struggle with a puzzle, but you should never feel like you've failed.
Q: It's interesting because there are some people who will agree with you, and others who are more geared towards the hardcore end of the spectrum who embrace the idea that games should make you die as often as possible. Games like Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy. But those games are almost a different medium altogether.
RG: I look at the death in Super Meat Boy as really being part of the game. That's not something that just happens, it really is [tied into] the design, and I'm okay with that. So death in certain types of games - or there might even be an adventure game where death is a very important part of it - I think that's okay. So no, I don't believe you should never die in a game, but for me, games are really about the stories. I don't go into watching a movie, and suddenly the movie ends halfway in the middle because somebody got shot and we all have to leave the theatre. And then we all have to come back into the theatre and watch the last five minutes of the movie. You don't have to do that, and nobody wants that. Nobody wants to be taken out of the game; they want to be immersed in the game and feel like they're a part of that. There's games where I think death pulls you out of the game. It flips on the lights in the movie theatre and that whole suspension of disbelief that's washed over you is just gone.
Q: Death is something that was so intrinsic to all games, but I guess that's not the case any more.
RG: Well, you know, we started out with arcade games. We needed to die because we needed to put in another quarter, and we just borrowed so much from that type of game. Even when games were really no longer about quarter drop, we just held onto those things. When [Nintendo] put Mario into the living room, he still had three lives, he still had all of that stuff from the arcade machines even though none of it is really needed because we're not interested in quarter drop. But it just hangs on.
Q: Do you think today's market is getting a bit more open to adventure games and quirkier genres? Is this a better time for indie games?
RG: Yeah, I think this is a great time. And what you see happening now is you see the market for games just exploding. A lot more people play games, so it's not necessarily that the hardcore gamers are open to adventure games, it's just that there are all of these new people, and they're not interested in twitch games, or refining their murder skills, and I think they tend to like things that are fun and happier, with stories and characters. That's the kind of stuff that is starting to appeal to this much, much broader audience, and adventure games, whether they're classic point and click adventure games like the Double Fine adventure or whether they're games like The Cave. I think they're really going to appeal.
The Cave will be released in January, via download, for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U.