InterviewSpecial Topics In Gameology

Ron Gilbert

Funny People: Ron Gilbert, Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island creator

The adventure-game pioneer talks about building a setup for a punchline that arrives on the player’s schedule.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 17, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Funny People—Anthony John Agnello interviews a few icons of video game comedy. The series debuted with Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe, followed by You Don’t Know Jack head writer Steve Heinrich and Portal 2 head writer Erik Wolpaw. This week, the series concludes with Ron Gilbert, creator of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island.

When Al Lowe and the rest of the Sierra crew were polishing their form in 1987 with games like Leisure Suit Larry, a young turk just out of college named Ron Gilbert turned adventure games upside down with his debut, Maniac Mansion. It was a different sort of comedy from what had come before. It had an ensemble cast and a goofy sense of humor that was more Douglas Adams than Monty Python. Maniac Mansion put LucasArts on the comedy map, and Gilbert continued to break ground in the adventure game genre, most notably with the Monkey Island series—his first collaboration with another comic writer, Tim Schafer.

These days, Gilbert is getting back to his roots with a new adventure game called The Cave that calls back to Maniac Mansion. He also has an untitled adventure cooking with Schafer’s studio, Double Fine. Gilbert spoke with The Gameological Society about comedic timing, writing for an ensemble, and the rights of your audience.

The Gameological Society: What is the first challenge in making a video game funny?

Ron Gilbert: The most challenging thing about doing humor in games is that you have no real control over timing. Timing is something that comedians or writers in movies or TV shows have complete control over. They can set up a joke and pay it off five seconds later at just the right time. With games, we have very little control over timing because we’ve given that control up to the players. They’re free to roam and do what they want. When people ask, “Wow, I’d really like to do some games stuff, etc.” timing humor for games is something that I talk about. You really need to tell jokes where the punchline can come much, much, much later than the setup. You can set up a joke, and some people might get the punchline 15 seconds later, but there might be people who don’t get the punchline for 30 minutes, and your jokes have to work with those really long setups. I think that’s the most challenging thing with humor in games. 

Gameological: In adventure games, especially old point-and-click adventure games, you have a lot more leeway to control that timing since they have such a lackadaisical pace. You wander into an environment, and you examine it, looking for items, trying to interact with things. But in something a little more active like The Cave, it seems much more difficult to control that timing. How do you balance comic timing when there’s the possibility that your player is just going to run and jump through a setting you want them to spend time in?

Gilbert: That’s where what I was saying about being able to pay jokes off much much later comes in. In Monkey Island, there is a great bit where Guybrush says this one very throwaway line about being able to hold his breath for 10 minutes. He’s just boasting, and that’s his big boast, and that’s kind of funny. But then the joke really pays off much later in the game, when you get dumped in water, and he’s trapped, and he can actually hold his breath for 10 minutes. Then he makes fun of that. That’s an example of how you can set something up and then pay it off a little bit later. 

The Cave isn’t an action game. It’s very much an adventure game, but we’ve always had this problem with adventure game where if people are running through the world very quickly, they’re going to miss things. So it’s kind of about being able to have visual gags that if you miss them the first time, the second time you run by them you might see them. You need a lot of visual repetition, so if people miss one thing they’re going to get it again a second time. 

Maniac Mansion

Maniac Mansion

Gameological: Take me through your writing process.

Ron Gilbert: It’s filled with lots of angst, that’s for sure. It depends. If I’m doing much longer things, then I’m also trying to explore, creatively, what they are. If I already know a character very well, I can jump in and write 10 lines of dialogue for them, but if I don’t really know what the character is yet, then it becomes more of an exploratory process than an actual writing process. It can sometimes be a very long process of figuring out what that character is. 

I do free-writing a lot when I’m trying to figure out characters. Just kind of writing as much as I can as fast as I can, trying to see if anything pops up in that free-writing process that helps define what he characters are a little bit. 

Gameological: Tell me about how you collaborate with other writers on a game. How was working with Sean Howard on DeathSpank compared to working with Tim Schafer?

With games, we have very little control over timing because we’ve given that control up to the players.

Gilbert: Working with Sean was a little different because he was never in the office. I actually never met him in person. The work that we did was all via email. It was me writing outlines of the things I wanted him to write. Then he would write and send them back. Then I would edit them or send them back and say, “Look let’s change this up a little bit.” 

Working with Tim and [designer] Dave [Grossman] on Monkey Island, we were all in the office together. We were constantly reading what each other were writing, and we were constantly talking about it. We were constantly hashing through ideas and looking at each other’s jokes and going, “Wow, that could be funnier.” It was more like a writers’ room that you might see in a sitcom TV where people were always throwing out ideas for stuff. 

Gameological: In discussing The Cave, you’ve said with this game and with others you’ve done in the past, you start by coming up with the environment, then creating the characters, then the puzzles. How would you say that process is different today then when you first got into the industry in 1983?

Gilbert: I don’t think it’s really different at all, especially when you’re dealing with adventure games because they are so much about the environment. I’ve always started that way. I’ve always picked a place I thought was interesting. For Monkey Island, it was the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride at Disneyland. I just loved that ride and I wanted to live there. Monkey Island really started with that as a place that Guybrush would go to. Guybrush came from that, and then the story came from that, and the puzzles came from that. That’s always been my process. The only exception to that was DeathSpank because DeathSpank started out as a character, and it was afterward that I created the world he lived in. I think that’s the one exception where I started with character instead of starting with world, but it’s mostly starting with world for me.  

Gameological: Monkey Island and DeathSpank are very much games about their lead characters. How is writing and designing a comedy game around a single character different than designing around an ensemble like in Maniac Mansion?

Gilbert: It’s a lot more work. In something like The Cave, you’ve got those seven different characters, but you’ve still got that main character, and that’s The Cave. He is sentient. He does talk. He is that main character that I can attach everything to, in a way. 

When you have that large ensemble cast, which there is in The Cave, or there certainly was in Maniac Mansion, it’s a lot more work because you have seven characters that you need to deal with. You have potentially seven different storylines. You have seven different reactions that have to happen when some event in the game or something funny happens. It’s a lot more work because you’re doing everything seven times instead of one time with someone like DeathSpank or Guybrush. I think that’s probably the biggest difference. It’s just a lot more work. 

The Secret Of Monkey Island

The Secret Of Monkey Island

Gameological: When you have to do that much more work, how does that change the process of coming up with a good joke?

Gilbert: I don’t know that it really affects the process of coming up with a joke. You’re probably not going to go as deep with characters. Guybrush we can go really deep with because he was the only character whereas something like The Cave you really can’t go as deep with the individual characters, but you’ve got a lot of breadth. You’ve got seven of them. People are still getting the same amount of jokes; they’re just spread across seven different characters. 

It’s always nice if you can play the characters off each other a little bit. If you’re playing with Bernard and Razor together in Maniac Mansion, there were little quips that they would go back and forth with. That stuff’s fun, and because it changes based on that characters that the player’s chosen, some people will see those things, and other people will not. People like that kind of stuff. 

Gameological: You’ve said many times that you want people playing your games to feel like they are taking part in a conversation when they interact with your character. That they’re not just working through dialogue trees. How do you effect that feeling of a real conversation? 

Gilbert: For things like DeathSpank and Monkey Island, it was having the lines that the character says actually in the dialogue choices. There were games before Monkey Island that had dialogue choices when you would interact with characters, but they were dealing with larger, more emotional issues. They would say, “Be nice to this person. Be mean to this person. Be funny to this person.” So you were choosing be mean to this person and then the character would say something mean to that person.

The humor is just something that’s there from the beginning and is slowly layered in.

In Monkey Island, I really wanted those choices that you made to be exactly what Guybrush was going to say. Yeah, one of them might be a mean thing and one of them might be a nice thing, but you were really seeing exactly what he was going to say and that helps bring out a lot of his character. The other thing that’s nice is when those dialogue choices come up on the screen—there were four choices—you only got to choose one of them, but you got to read all four. That was a great source of humor because I could tell four jokes at once. You would laugh at the other three. You might not choose it because it wasn’t the one you wanted, but you still got to laugh at the other three jokes. That’s a rapid way to build a character’s personality, through those dialogue choices. 

Gameological: How do your games change from when you first conceive them to when they’re actually out?

Gilbert: I think in some ways they become less ambitious. I’m the kind of designer that designs really big to start with, and then I go through and start paring the design down. Some of it is the design is just too big, and it needs to be pared down, and then there’s time constraints and budget constraints. So all of those things start to chip away at the design. I would say what people are actually playing is probably far less than I originally envisioned and originally designed it to be. 

Gameological: How do you think that affects the humor?

Gilbert: I don’t know if it affects the humor too much. The humor is just something that’s there from the beginning and is slowly layered in. Certainly funny things get cut, but also funny things get added. Sometimes I need to cut something out of the game and it creates a really awkward situation, so I can make fun of that situation a little bit and cover up the fact that something was cut. Mask it with humor, so to speak. 

DeathSpank

DeathSpank

Gameological: Given the public response to your Kickstarter project with Tim Schafer and Double Fine, there’s obviously a hunger for adventure games today, but you don’t really see any of them going whole hog into the old school and using a text parser. Why has the text parser disappeared from making adventure games?

Gilbert: I never liked text parsers. I played the Infocom adventures, and when I was in junior high school, I played Adventure on the mainframe computer at the local university, and I never really liked parsers. That’s one of the reasons why when I did Maniac Mansion, I just got rid of the parser. It felt like I just had to guess what the game designer called something. What is he calling that? Is it a bush or a shrub? Is it a plant? I just felt like I was playing this meta-game called “second guess the parser.” That was just never interesting to me. If I want to do something, I just want to do it. I know what I want to do and I want the game to respond to what I want to do. There is still a very vibrant market for text adventures—they call them interactive fiction today. There’s still a vibrant—well, not market, I don’t think they’re really selling them—but there’s still this community that does play those games. I’ve just never been very fond of them and I don’t think people like a lot of typing and writing and reading. They just like to visually absorb something. 

Gameological: It’s funny that you talk about that battle with the parsers. I talked with Steve Heinrich, the head writer of You Don’t Know Jack games, and he said one of the deepest wells of humor is when people are wrong. When somebody messes up, that’s a great set up for a joke. Being wrong in an adventure game, even something without a text parser like Maniac Mansion, can make you lose so much progress that it ultimately frustrates you. How do you balance penalties when you’re making a game? How do you make it so that there is a great opportunity for people to be wrong, but that they don’t get so discouraged they stop playing?

I think you just need to do what you think is the right thing to do, and hopefully people like it.

Gilbert: It is something you need to watch out for with humor. A lot of humor for thousands of years has been based on the misfortune of others. We can laugh at other people who are having miserable or horrible things happening to them, but we don’t like to laugh at ourselves when horrible things happen. We may laugh as a defense mechanism, but we really don’t like to laugh at ourselves when bad things happen. In a game, you have to tread that line a little bit. You really can’t make fun of the player for failing, because you’re going to turn off a lot of people when you do that. 

With games, you can divorce yourselves a little bit. I don’t think anybody, when they’re playing Monkey Island or The Cave, thinks they are those people on the screen, but they definitely empathize with them, and they do relate to them, and they do feel a big attachment to them. So you have to be careful that the humor is making fun of the character and not what the player did with the character, because then you’re insulting the player and not the character. 

Gameological: Something else you’ve talked about in the wake of the Kickstarter campaign is managing audience expectations. There’s all this pressure—from past work, from people who’ve already put money to play a game that hasn’t been made yet. What responsibilities do you feel you have to your audience when you’re making a game?

Gilbert: The answer that anybody creating anything will give is that you should have no responsibility to them. You have to do what you want to do, and you have to do what you think is the right thing to do and what you think is the best thing to do. People who like what you do and are fans of your work are just going to like what you do as long as you do something true to yourself. You can get into a lot of trouble when you start to worry too much about what people are going to think because then you start to get into this weird self-censorship cycle. You do something that might be interesting and different and unique, but you become too worried what people are going to think, and you censor it. 

Creative things, no matter what they are—books, video games, whatever—if they’re really good, they have lots of pointy little edges, and that’s what makes them interesting. It’s all these pointy little spikes and all these little things you can cut yourself and prick yourself on, that’s what makes creative work interesting. If you get into self-censorship mode, you start to pound all those pointy edges away because you’re very afraid of offending somebody or worried what somebody will think of it. And then what you’re left with is kind of blah, just not interesting. I think you just need to do what you think is the right thing to do, and hopefully people like it. 

Illustration by Richard Hofmeier.

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  • George_Liquor

    Maniac Mansion & Monkey Island both have as close to a text parser as you can get without actually having to type. After all, clicking “Push” and then “Button” isn’t all that different from typing “Push button.” I’d say at least 80% of adventure gaming in general is trying to figure out what works with what, when and how, regardless of whether the game has a text parser or is entirely point-&-click.

    • Matthew McGrath

      However, text parsers at that time were horrendously picky about what they accepted and did not accept as valid input. 

      Take this gem from my Colonel’s Bequest guide:

      You need to determine if someone is wearing perfume or not when you meet them.  Logically, you’d type “SMELL LILLIAN” or “SMELL PERFUME”, but the game wants you to type “LOOK [AT] LILLIAN.”

      If you type “SMELL [x]“, the game will “understand” what you said, but unbeknownst to you, your character won’t have smelled the perfume.  Therefore, later when you are in the passageway and you should be able to recognize the perfume…you won’t…and you’ll have to head on back to the beginning of the game.

      • George_Liquor

        Dumb text parsers are certainly frustrating but, at the other end of the spectrum, games that force you to click every pixel on the screen to find that one tiny hotspot can be just as bad.

    • caspiancomic

       True, but you can’t argue that it’s an improvement to the player’s experience. (Well obviously you could argue it, and this would be the place to do it, but you know what I mean) The idea of having a small pool of verbs that you access with the push of a button or click of a mouse, instead of having to navigate the entire Oxford English Dictionary every time you need to perform a new action certainly streamlines the experience. And even if you were playing a text-based adventure game where you knew you only really used four or five verbs throughout, not having to type the full word for every individual instance of performing that action probably added minutes to the end of your life.

      • Matthew McGrath

        I was such a dork back then that I wrote a TSR program in ASM/MASM for my Sierra games; JOY0 + L would type “LOOK “, for instance — but this required putting the stick on the floor and bending my toes so much to reach the tiny button that it was never worth the effort.

        The TSR would also stuff the keyboard buffer too much, which would cause the machine to produce an ugodly beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, and no one wanted that.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         I would say that streamlining the experience has its pluses and minuses, rather than being an unambiguous gameplay improvement.

        Not having the “Oxford English Dictionary” at your disposal also means you’ve reduced the possible actions afforded the player by orders of magnitude, as well as the possible scenarios/solutions/events usable by the designer.

        This isn’t always a bad thing, and streamlining the experience has certainly resulted in some of the greatest adventure games of all time. But the SCUMM interface isn’t an objective ‘improvement’ over an INFORM parser anymore than the ‘verb-coin’ (CMI, Full Throttle) or ‘one click does it all cursor’ (the DIG) is an objective improvement over the traditional SCUMM interface. I would say it’s more of a lateral move, as each UI solution has its own pros and cons, and its up to the designer to pick the one that best suits the game, rather than the one which is considered objectively ‘best’ for the player.

        Games, as an interactive medium, are largely defined by their verbs. Sometimes an extremely pared down verb list fits the bill (say, ‘run’ and ‘jump’ in Mario), sometimes having the entire Oxford English Dictionary at your disposal is extremely freeing (say, particularly well-done text adventures by Infocom, Legend, and indies), and sometimes a position on any of the infinite intermediary points on that continuum is precisely what is needed.

        • The_Misanthrope

           Yeah, that’s roughly my stance on the matter, too.  Only with more words.

          It seems the every graphic-adventure interface is on a continuum between too many options (early SCUMM games like MM or SoMI) to too few options (most modern graphic adventures). 

          Case in point:

          Maniac Mansion commands that would be lumped under a “Use”-type command with a modern-day GA:  Push, Pull, Give, Open, Close, Unlock, Use (duh), Turn on, Turn off, Fix

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

          I don’t know if you’re a Double Fine Adventure backer, but one of the episodes of the documentary has Tim going over the pros and cons of text parsers and having lots of verb options in your selection. Very interesting.

        • caspiancomic

           You’re right, it was hasty to suggest my preferred experience was an objective improvement. I just tend to prefer experiences with more streamlined approaches, and I’m a big believer in the idea that things get better as you take things away, not add them. (To a point, of course) I can see now how it would be advantageous- and more fun- to have verbs like “ollie”, “kickflip”, “grind”, “shuvit”, and what have you, rather than just “use skateboard”.

      • The_Misanthrope

         n.n.u.get egg.d.s.e.open window.w.take bottle.w.open case.take all.e.u.turn lantern on.  take rope. turn lantern off.d.w.move rug.  open trap door.d.turn lantern on.  Congratulations, you now are ready to go fight the troll (and you have the jeweled egg, to boot).  I’m not sure if Zork was sophisticated enough that you could have entered that on the same prompt, but later games would probably allow it.

        For what it’s worth, you rarely had to type a full word in any of the Infocom  games.  They even added in other shortcuts in later games, like “z” for “wait”, “g” for “again” (repeat last action), and “oops” (a special edit command if you mistyped something in the last command).

        I’m not sure which is worse:  graphic-adventure pixel hunts or text-adventure word/phrasing guessing games.

  • Matthew McGrath

    Trying not to have a heart attack here…I guess this is what people who are normal feel like when Big Name Hollywood Celebrity is interviewed by Magazine That Has No Reason To Exist.

    Also, type:

    “MANIAC S”

    you’ll get a nifty sound test.

    Here’s my notes about said sound test, circa spring 1990:

    MANIAC S

    01-05 error
    06-46 SFX
    50=piano!
    51-54 error
    55=title
    56=crickets
    57=thump
    58=title2
    59-70 SFX
    wheres gt somng?

    • caspiancomic

       I feel like that last block of text might be written in blood next to a keypad adjacent to a locked door in a Silent Hill game. Basically I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m pretty happy that you’re excited about it.

      (Explanations? I’d love to know… what.)

      • Matthew McGrath

        Oh, I was about 10 years old when I wrote that, haha.

        Anyway, there was an undocumented — still to this day, I think — sound test for Maniac Mansion.  You type “MANIAC S” at the command prompt, and up pops an area to type in numbers.  Some of the features were disabled; for instance, typing “252″ should show the sound’s usage, but it does not.

        “Where’s gt somng” was me asking myself “What number will produce the cool song that Green Tentacle plays you in his room?”.

        I still have yet to find it…

  • Matthew McGrath

    I just pulled out my bulletin board poster that came with the IBM version of Maniac Mansion, and I forgot about this tabloid story:

    [mom gets trapped underground in tornado through trailer park]

    “Yeah my kids were whining, so I just whacked them over the heads with a few loose bricks.  That shut ‘em up for awhile.”

    {This, by the way, was the ‘hint’ to look for the loose brick in the dungeon.}

    Also, while annoying to type in the codes, I loved the Nuke’m Alarms Security System Model 21-6 Diablo Series II (“Nukes Burglars In Their Tracks!”) disarmament quick reference guide.

    Its right next to me, lest you think I’m insane enough to remember that exact bit of text.

    Oh, and “Whenever I see a house with a Nuke’m System, why I just keep on walking.” — Eddie The Weasel

    That made me crack up so much as a kid; I think it was the nonchalant delivery.

    • The_Misanthrope

       Since I played a *pirated* copy of the C64 Maniac Mansion (sorry, Ron, I was young, poor, and didn’t have a driver’s license yet), I never actually knew that MM came with “feelies”.  I always appreciated them in Infocom games because it often gave the fictional world of the game a metatextual resonance–a closeness to that particular world and its characters.  It was also where I was inevitably turn for hints when I would get stumped.

      It shows a commitment to humor that even the game over scene that you get for failing the copy protection in Secret of Monkey Island is pretty funny.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        I used to play the Carmen San Diego games when I was little, and they came with a lot of extras, too, that fleshed out the game world. 

        And the real world, actually. One of those games came with this Foder’s 50 States travel guide that had interesting facts and places from all 50 states, and I read that thing cover to cover multiple times when I was a kid. Made me a real nerd about geography.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         You’re in good company. Tim Schafer admitted to Ron Gilbert in his LucasArts interview that he had played a pirated copy of Ballblazer. (I had remembered it as a pirated copy of MM, which would have been a better fit, but apparently was mistaken).

  • caspiancomic

    It’s all well and good having a medium in which the player determines (either by design or by accident) how long a setup has to wait before seeing its accompanying punchline. But do you think it’s possible for a player- in either one of Mr. Gilbert’s games or any other example someone cares to mention- to get the setup and miss the punchline? I don’t just mean to not notice when the punchline lands, but to navigate the game in such a way that a joke is set up, but the events triggering the punchline never occur? I think theoretically it’s possible, especially in a game in which dialogue options drive a lot of the plot (so, you could choose an option that sets up a certain joke, but not choose the dialogue option down the road that pays it off). It must be an interesting and difficult problem to design around.

    • Matthew McGrath

      Sure –Star Control 2, for instance, sets up the fact that a race of spider-like beings worship an evil set of gods that instructs them to kill other alien races.  If you do not explore this thread enough before the end of the game, you’ll miss out on that it was all due to another alien race that likes to play pranks. 

      Better yet, if you find the device that the prankstery race was using to trick the spider-like beings, you can trick them yourself.

      This is good because you can get them to stop killing off one of your allies, but it leads to yet another joke — when you trick the evil race, you can make them say silly things to you, such as ending every word with “-th”.

      • George_Liquor

        If I remember right, you also can sick them on another enemy race and start a mini-war. You could then explore both race’s territories without being attacked. What a great game!

        • Matthew McGrath

          Yes — you use the caster to convince the Thraddash to fight the Ilwrath, which not only grants you access to a needed item, it also reduces both of their spheres of influence.  My memory is failing me right now, but the Thraddash may actually completely kill off the Ilwrath in the process. 

      • Treymoney

         Man, is there a better game than Star Control 2?

        • Matthew McGrath

          While it can be daunting at first, SC2 loves you back like no other game I’ve played since then.

          There are at least 3 moments in the game where it was clear that Fred Ford (the main programmer) wanted to reward smart (and/or lazy) players.

          The biggest one for me was when I thought “Hey, these Druuge people are jerks, what with selling a useless item to a depressed race and laughing about it.  TI wish I could punish them.  Oh…they just offered to fill up my fuel tanks in trade for an unbeknownst-to-them useless item.  Oh…wait…I bet I could go back and outfit my starship with as many fuel tanks as possible.  I wonder if…”

          Fred Ford *wanted* you to do that, because (a) it works and (b) the Druuge respond with  “Ok, we’ll just fill up your tanks….wait…what…4096 units!?!?!?  ARRRGH!”

    • Brian Stewart

       This is a good point. I suppose it doesn’t matter if you miss the punchline because your brain isn’t waiting for it. That’s what makes long setups work: the joy of being surprised. Which creates an interesting question. Does a player being actively involved in the story’s direction change the rules of storytelling? If there’s a gun in act I, it should be used in act III, right? But what if, you choose paths that no longer make a gun part of the story? Would the player still expect to see the gun again, or would they be so invested in their own tale that they no longer need the safety provided by the rules?

  • Dikachu

    DeathSpank is a fucking addictive series of games.  The second one especially (Thongs of Virtue) is one of the most underrated adventure games of our times.

    Ron left Hothead Games, though, which means there probably won’t be any more.  I has a sad :(

    • Brian Stewart

      But Hothead made The Baconing without him entirely so what’s to stop them from continuing? I personally thought DeathSpank was a fun and funny spin on Diablo but it was too linear and finite an experience to stand toe-to-toe with Blizzard’s series.

      • Dikachu

        The Baconing was pretty good, but it didn’t have that spark of brilliance that the first two had… I don’t think they’d be able to carry it on any further even if they wanted to.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        I’m not especially into Diablo-style games, but being a fan of adventure games, I’m definitely more attracted to Deathspank’s deliberate, linear finiteness than Diablo’s “infinite” algorithmically-generated content.

  • The_Misanthrope

    Are those Amiga screenshots for MM?  They certainly look a lot less blocky than the C64 version (or at least my memory of it).  That’s not to say that I didn’t love the art direction of that particular version.  In fact, it was one of the things that really drew me into MM.  This is the important lesson for our bleeding-edge graphics age:  That none of those DirectX 11 graphics (running on a Quad-Core Intel) are worth a damn if art direction is bad or just there to show off the engine.   Sometimes, having limited graphics meant artists had to seek creative solutions in order to represent something in the game.

    • George_Liquor

      I’m pretty sure that’s a shot from the PC/EGA version of the game. The Amiga version was a little more colorful.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       That’s the “hi-res” PC release. The first DOS release (which I first encountered as the version nested within DoTT) had chunkier graphics. A later DOS release (which I encountered as part of the “LucasArts Classics” floppy collection) had 16-color, but higer-resolution graphics more reminiscent of Zak McKracken.

      • Matthew McGrath

        Yep, that’s the 2nd PC version that upped the resolution of the original PC release.  The initial versions of Maniac and Zak were in 160×200.

        Later, they re-drew the graphics to utilize the PC’s 320×200 resolution.  These are officially called the “Enhanced” versions, according to my LucasFilm Adventurer newspaper/order form.

        Incidentally, if anyone is interested, I have the original demos of Maniac Mansion — both the chunky 160×200 version and the 320×200 version. 

  • O Superman

    Now I’m going to have Dave’s theme from the NES version of MM in my head all day: 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-rnGQYFfD4

    • Mike Mariano

      The Boys Are Still Back by Fat Patty!

      • Matthew McGrath

        I have to hand it to The FatMan; the original title song (which was a pseudo-cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, right?) from the computer versions was great, but that Dave theme is killer.  I’d love love love to hear the original jam sessions that lead to the music in the NES version of MM.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      Thanks to you, I’m going to have O Superman in my head all day.

      • O Superman

        You’re welcome.

  • Brian Stewart

    You know I always wondered about DeathSpank… it starts as a medieval world of swords and sorcery and then there’s a sea change to modern warfare with little to no explanation. Reading that this is the only Ron Gilbert game to begin from a character and not the world, perhaps there’s a reason for this? Maybe by focusing his attentions on the character, he let the character shape the world with no concern to how that would play logically.

    • Mookalakai

       I thought it was just a means to change up the gameplay a little bit, and allow for something new to parody. The first one was a straight up medieval fantasy world, and at the end of the game you literally just walk into a new area that is full of World War 2 era combat. It doesn’t make any sense, but neither do teleporting outhouses so it seems to fit in just fine. And then The Baconing becomes sci-fi themed, with even less reason. You just start in the world, and accept that now instead of regular swords, you can call in laser targeted airstrikes.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    I am super-excited about the Kickstarter-funded game from Gilbert and Schaefer.  I donated to several games at once during that time period (Wasteland 2, Shadowrun, etc) with the hopes that the end result will be fun.

    I agree with Ron Gilbert on the accountability point though – just because I donated doesn’t mean I expect to suggest or veto any ideas during production.  I’m perfectly willing to sit back and see what the end result is, ignoring the “donater forums” some of the games offer.

    I’m also often guilty of the self-censoring thing.  I’ve made several attempts at creative projects that, when friends or acquaintances didn’t think were fantastic right from the start, I got discouraged and quit.  I really need to stop doing that…

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       In the special donor forums, there’s an awful lot of complaining, with some folks even rhetorically suggesting they should get their money back. It’s kind of pathetic. I kind of REALLY LIKE the Yuri Norstein textured cut-out art style they’re playing with, but some folks who were apparently hoping for some Disney-style Daedalic aesthetic were throwing a royal fit. I like to think that even if the visuals weren’t extremely in my wheelhouse, I wouldn’t sink to the kind of bratty entitlement some folks are exhibiting.

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        Ugh.  I’d be totally happy even if they went with classic pixelated Lucasarts-style artwork myself, as long as the story is entertaining.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           I would actually probably love that aesthetically, though I’d feel a bit like they’d chosen the easy, nostalgic way out. I had a similar ambivalence toward MegaMan 9′s visual style.

      • http://www.backloggery.com/colliewest Colliewest

        Totally agree about the backgrounds, kind of hated the design for the character I saw but I am not about to cry about it. I’m starting to think they made a mistake with setting a participatory tone, and should have gone for more of an “open house” one – just having access to this stuff is amazing.
        I’ve stopped reading the forums because some people seem to think $15 buys you your own personalized video game.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           Well, the character (and everything else, really) is just a placeholder, so depending on what aspect of the character’s design you found objectionable, it might not really be an issue in the final product.

        • http://www.backloggery.com/colliewest Colliewest

          I wouldn’t say I found it objectionable – more just didn’t warm to it, and I’m sure you’re right that things will look very different in the final game. My point was more that I’m not about to go kneejerk yelling because I saw something I didn’t like.
          For me being given access to the process is worth the admission fee and the finished game will be a bonus.

          P.S. Look-at-me I’m so virtuous!

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    Humor in games is also difficult to incorporate as a defining theme simply because a game is such a longer experience than almost any other medium.  With a twenty-two minute show you can cram in the hilarity and ability to surprise the viewer without excessive strain.  But when even Judd Apatow nudges up against an acceptable length for a comedy, pacing a six-to-twenty hour game and keep it funny is a significant challenge.
       Even Psychonauts, what I consider to be one of the funniest, smartest games written front-loads the humor.  The last humor-centric level is the Goggalor stage, and afterward the tone shifts more to surrealism with humor undertones.  Which is just fine, as the velvet painting stage is possibly the best video game level designed ever, by anyone.  In the entire universe.

    • caspiancomic

       (I’m excited! The Mac patch should be out this week or next, so I finally get to play Psychonauts)

      I think you hit on something good with the suggestion of “humour undertones”. A lot of my favourite “comedies” don’t really have jokes as much as they have a certain comedic tone. I’ve mentioned on the site before that I’m surprised more games don’t go for a style of humour besides madcap zaniness or amusing flavour texts, but there are a couple of killer games that, rather than having a joke-a-minute experience, instead set up a difficult to describe humorous atmosphere. Grim Fandango comes to mind, but even that has a few traditional “jokes”. It’d be nice to see games spread out and explore other humour types in the future.