"People still talk about these games for the same reason we got excited making them: they’re fully realized interactive worlds."
At LucasArts they worked on games ranging from the original Sam & Max all the way to The Curse of Monkey Island. Now Mike Levine and Larry Ahern run their own company, Crackpot Entertainment, and they're putting the final touches on their debut title Insecticide, a film noir-inspired action-adventure set in a world populated by bugs.
We had a chance to ask Levine and Ahern some questions about their new project as well as their past work. We discuss the hybrid nature of Insecticide's gameplay, the role of humor in many successful adventure games, what went wrong with the ending in The Curse of Monkey Island, and much more. Also, find out which other LucasArts (and Sierra!) veterans worked on Insecticide...
First of all, not everyone might know all the games you worked on, so please tell us about your game industry backgrounds.
ML (Mike Levine): We invented Pong. Ok, that's a lie. We aren't that old.
LA (Larry Ahern): We did play Pong though.
ML: Actually, I preferred "Blip" over Pong.
The Curse of Monkey Island
LA: I worked at LucasArts from 1990-2000, where I played neither Blip nor Pong (although we had a Centipede and Asteroids machine that I was quite fond of). It was actually LucasFilm Games when Mike and I both started there. Then I spent another 6 years at Microsoft Games Studios until leaving to form Crackpot.
ML: And I worked at LucasArts from 1991 through 1997, and have done other interactive projects with my company, Pileated Pictures.
LA: But, I’m guessing our LucasArts tenure is probably of more interest to your readers than any of our other projects, like my work as a bounty hunter, or Mike’s stint in the circus. And, besides having a natural talent for bounty hunting, I’ve always been artistic, so that got my foot in the door at LucasArts. I started out doing background layouts on the first incarnation of The Dig, then stumbled into animation on Monkey Island II: LeChuck's Revenge where I collaborated a lot with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman.
We were on the same wavelength, I think, and I ended up as lead animator on Day of the Tentacle, also designing the characters and coming up with visual gags. After that, I did some animation and character designs on Sam & Max: Hit the Road, then helped Tim develop Full Throttle, serving again as lead animator. Until I was given the reins to… Monkey Island, which was a challenge, but also a thrill. I worked with Jonathan Ackley as co-designer/writer/project leader/art director/car detailer on The Curse of Monkey Island, managing an amazingly talented team of animators, artists, writers, musicians, and other people I’ve already offended even before the end of the sentence by not mentioning them.
After that, I spent a few years developing some epic games that never got published, and working on some smaller titles until moving on to a job with Microsoft. Microsoft was good to me in a lot of ways, but things just never really clicked creatively for me there. Which, of course, left me highly susceptible to... Crackpot ideas.
ML: My stay at LucasArts often found me working under the radar doing all kinds of art-techie, art path stuff in the art department. Mainly before we made the jump to full 3D there was all kinds of 2D stuff I brought in to LucasArts as I was into all these new digital video tools like After Effects and Premiere.
I was the art technician on Sam & Max: Hit The Road (the "acoustic" version, as I now call it), I created the art path and did a lot of 2DFX on The Dig, and I worked with Larry on those games, as well as working closely on Full Throttle and The Curse of Monkey Island editing the opening and other big cinematic sequences together.
I did a lot of the R&D work at Lucas for all things video -- from Rebel Assault to the Dark Forces series. Looking back on it I can at least say our team created the first digitally made light sabers, ever (woo-hoo!), and the stuff we did shooting entirely on the bluescreen was really years ahead of its time if you look at the state of filmmaking today.
Even though most LucasArts adventure games are now over ten years old, people still talk about them all the time. Why do you think that is? And does it ever seem strange to you?
ML: It was strange to me when I first realized it. I didn't think anyone remembered those games when I moved back to the east coast. I was speaking at a college and mentioned I worked on those games and students started cheering. I was like, what, you kids were 10 when those came out?! But those games had great, dare I say, classic characters and stories (something sorely missing from games today), and those are the things that stick with you. As much as the "gameplay zealots" and techies in this industry want you to believe it’s all about the gameplay, that’s usually not what lasts with people over time.
LA: I think people still talk about these games for the same reason we got excited making them: they’re fully realized interactive worlds. Yes, game mechanics and technology have changed and evolved over time, but if those storylines and interactivity were developed enough and logically interwoven, it works and should hold up. Plus, we were hitting some of the first generation of kids to grow up with games. I’d like to think we made some classic stuff, but some people are just really nostalgic for things from their childhood…even total crap. Why do we love He-Man and Scooby-Doo, and why do we need an old Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox, if we never pack a lunch? I don’t know… it’s just a fun snapshot of where we were back then, like that favorite 1980’s photo of you in the skinny tie and mullet.
ML: You're dissing Scooby Doo?!
You guys have been working on the ideas for Insecticide for quite a few years, haven't you? Can you give us a picture of how those ideas evolve, how you convince publishers they're the right ideas, and how you eventually end up with a concept that can enter production?
ML: To be honest, I don't know that I have all the answers to that. We just knew how to (and we had time to) flesh out the story and characters into what we think is a believable world. "Put some meat on the bone," as I often have said. That, plus drive and determination to show it to people who, if you have something good, will usually respond. But yes, we’ve been working on Insecticide for well over 4 years. I had this idea about a young bug girl and her sidekick which got things rolling. I was inspired by the dynamic relationship of the lead characters in the film The Professional while at the same time was watching shows like The Wire a lot, and being inspired by films like Sin City. Then Larry, Peter Chan, Dave Grossman (who worked with us in the beginning), and I started to really flesh it out from there. Dave really brought out a lot of the classic Film Noir aspects and schooled us all in that.
You've described Insecticide as half action, half adventure. Did you give each gameplay style their own segments in the game, or did you blend them together throughout?
LA: At first glance, it may not sound as cool to say we separated the two, but the realities of blending them together just doesn't make a lot of sense when you sit down to work out the details. In a well paced detective film or cop show there are manic sections and more subdued ones. If you want to have any control over flow and the feel of it, you kind of have to put certain "walls" up to keep the player in the basic situation you want. If you blend them, you lose focus. So, they’re separate, but the length of each and where they are placed in the structure of the entire story makes sense for what’s happening, the info we want to give the player, and the pacing we’re trying to establish.
Screenshots from the PC version of Insecticide
Can you describe the adventure elements in more detail? Specifically what types of puzzles or challenges can we expect, and what sort of elements of discovery and exploration did you incorporate into the design?
LA: First of all, the game’s detective mode is pure adventure gameplay. We’ve got inventory objects, items there and in the environment can be examined and combined, there are interactive dialog trees, and the whole thing is a series of puzzles created out of the goals presented by the storyline. So, I think it has all the richness of the good old games, with lots of hidden things to explore and funny stuff to uncover if you click on it all. We worked on these sections with a fantastic writer named Josh Mandel, who you may remember as a writer/designer at Sierra on classics like Space Quest 6: Roger Wilco in the Spinal Frontier and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist.
ML: But, these detective sections won’t have mind-numbingly complex puzzles. One reason for that is we wanted the game to be accessible and not require a hint book every 5 minutes. Another reason is we wanted better control over the pacing. We felt that combining the action and adventure genres wouldn’t work if the adventure sections were so massive and complex that the whole thing ground to a halt as you wandered the world collecting inventory for days at a time. So, the puzzle sections have twists and turns and will take some creative thinking, but they all exist within smaller, self-contained environments, meaning they’re solvable in a reasonable amount of time to keep things rolling along. This is an epic game, after all, and there’s a lot to see. The kiss of death in an adventure game is a puzzle no one can get past and get stuck on. Move along people!
Will a novice gamer be able to handle the action gameplay in Insecticide?
ML: We really think so. There is auto-targeting on the DS and it really helps. And, we certainly tested it out on plenty of young kids as well as older, non-action gamers. We are definitely aiming for a balanced experience with Insecticide. Plus, if our old thumbs can get through it, we think most will!
This is a somewhat obscure question, so please bear with me. I'm reminded of an old Curse of Monkey Island interview in which it was asked why Guybrush Threepwood lost his cutlass early in the game. It
was said that a cutlass would be a far too useful item to have in many of the puzzle situations. In Insecticide your character presumably carry weapons that could be used in powerful ways, so does that ever undermine certain puzzle ideas you come up with?
LA: Yeah, I think there were a lot of characters in those old games that we had to disarm so as not to mess up all the puzzles! And Guybrush is one of those lawless pirate types that would probably want to stab everyone he could, just for fun, so it was especially necessary with him. With Insecticide, we mostly designed our way around that issue. A lot of the detective mode scenarios put Chrys in situations where pulling out a gun and shooting something or someone is just wildly inappropriate and out of character. And then, without giving too much away, there are later sections where other circumstances prevent her from using her weapons at all.
Plus, the old adventure games were mostly frustrating if you were playing a heavily-armed commando type, but just ran around collecting inventory and unlocking doors, and never got to shoot anything. Since Chrys gets to use her weapons a lot in the action levels, we didn’t feel like having players holster them while investigating clues or interrogating suspects was asking too much.
When the adventure genre comes up in mainstream gaming forums or publications, it's often the funny ones that get mentioned first. How important is humor in adventure games?
LA: Well, I know there are a lot of beloved serious adventure games out there, but I think the comedy is pretty critical. And that’s mostly because it covers a major flaw in the interactive structure, namely, that branching dialog trees just aren’t very good conversation simulators. If the game plays it straight, I find the dialog trees can get tedious; I just want to race through them and get to the info. But, when it’s a comedy, the simulation isn’t any better, but it’s a lot more entertaining because each wrong dialog choice can still lead to a separate punch line.
I just think there’s a better payoff for the player if it’s a comedy. For example, right now I’m in the middle of writing response lines for miscellaneous objects you can examine in the levels. And I have two rules: the response either has to be funny, or it has to tell the player something important about the characters/world (and should also be funny). In a serious adventure title, the stuff you examine is either going to be dull, because you can’t have that much stuff with embedded meaning (“Oh, it’s my favorite pencil from when I was a child!”), or there just won’t be that much stuff to click on. So, in conclusion, comedy = more value for your gaming dollar.
Read on as we discuss the challenges of designing The Curse of Monkey Island...Continued on the next page...
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