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.
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.
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.
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.