A brief interview with David Grossman at E3 2009

After being shown Tales of Monkey Island in Telltale Games’ humble little E3 space, where I was presented the game by David Grossman, the lead writer of this and the first two games in the series, I seized the chance to ask him a few questions about his thoughts on story in games, and the adventure genre. What I got out of it is that he is a lazy man. Lazy, but smart, and confident in his design ideas. He’s also someone who’s remarkably comfortable with the tried-and-true formula he helped create, and why wouldn’t he?

Can you tell us your thoughts on how to convey a story in games?

From a gameplay perspective, there are various levels of what you do in a game. There is a physical element that comprises most of what you do in most games. You’re thinking about where you’re standing. Are you hiding behind something? Are you shooting a gun at someone, and where are they? Are you jumping? There’s a lot of physical action, almost like games as sports. Then along with that, there’s stuff that you do with the frontal lobe of your brain. That’s kind of more like planning, and understanding the situation, and just playing out a scenario that’s going on around all this physical action. To me, what an adventure game is, is a game that takes care of all that physical stuff for you. So I don’t have to worry about “Am I standing close enough to this door to open it?” If I can see it, and I can click on it, then “I’ll just click on it!” and don’t bother me with that stuff. So you can focus a little more on the frontal lobe, understanding the story, and things like that. I like that, but not everybody thinks that. There are other ways that people are telling stories with games. Portal is a good example, where the physical stuff that you do is wrapped up in the story itself. There’s also a lot of environmental storytelling that’s not so much about what you specifically are doing at any given moment, but “What is the environment telling you about the situation we’re in?” Games are really good for doing that kind of exploratory… it’s like story archaeology. You’re unconvering the back story, mostly.

Which is an element that can show up in adventure games, too..

Sure, absolutely. It’s valid for any kind of game. And I think that the elements of adventure games that work can be placed in conjunction with some of those physical elements that work in other kinds of games very effectively. I always thought well gee, Doom came out in the same year as Day of the Tentacle. And what that made me think was that’s pretty neat how they can run around and it all looks so cool and fluid. I want to do an adventure game that works like that. Which you know… I never really did. But it’s certainly something I think would work. It’s all about how you plan the environment, and what are the things that happen in it. From that point it’s how you interact with these things to cause them to happen, or react to them happening.

Now you said you prefer mainly the frontal lobe…

Yeah, I like the adventure format because you only use the frontal lobe. It takes care of all the low level physical stuff which, you know… I’m kind of lazy. I just want to sit around and be thinking.

And you mentioned that these new Monkey Island games are more story driven than the previous ones. Does that mean there will be a little less of that frontal lobe work?

No. Basically, it’s still… there might be a few physical things in there about where you’re standing, but it’s basically the same stuff.  Where what you’re thinking about is what situation you’re in, what tools are here, how do you use them on things, as opposed to “How do I develop the physical skill to use this tool to gain the effect that I want?” So [for example] I’m giving you a little bomb, and some fire. You don’t have to practice throwing the bomb to get it in… if you just try to use the bomb in the fire, that’s it! You just go, and you do it. It takes out the physical skill.