Ron Gilbert may forever be remembered for some of his early work during his days at LucasArts, where he directed and wrote Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. In recent years, though, he has brought us games like DeathSpank and The Cave, but most recently of all he reunited with Maniac Mansion co-designer Gary Winnick, the project they are working on being the Kickstarted throwback adventure Thimbleweed Park.
We recently caught up with Ron Gilbert in Berlin to learn more about the game, what it's like growing old as a game developer, and much more.
Gamereactor: You have a lot of very dedicated fans out there. How do you handle their expectations? Is it a concern?
Ron Gilbert: I haven't really come across a lot of negative expectations. The only thing is, probably because I am so well known for Monkey Island, a lot of people are constantly asking: "Well, are you going to make another Monkey Island?" And it's like I like to do new things and I like to do different games, and sometimes it does feel like people are just so focused on Monkey Island. It's kind of all they want me to do. They could lock me up in a room, chain me to the bed and "Make more Monkey Island for me!" But I like to do different things, I've done all sorts of different games during my career. And while [Thimbleweed Park] is a point and click adventure and has a lot of similarities to things like Monkey Island, it's a very different game, it's a very different story, very different characters. And I kind of enjoy that.
GR: So for you it's not like you're travelling back in time to 1987 to create the game now that you couldn't have made back then?
RG: Not from a creative standpoint. I mean certainly as you've seen technically we couldn't have done this game, because of all the real time lighting, parallaxing, the speech, and you know the music is all digital music. So stuff like that we obviously could not have done back then. But there is nothing creatively about the game that we couldn't have done back then.
I think over the years I kind of look at what I've done design-wise and I feel like I'm probably a slightly darker designer. It's like I'm interested in stories that have kind of a darker underbelly to them, a little more deep, little more rich, where something like Monkey Island is essentially a cartoon. It's a cartoon story. I'm more interested in things like Thimbleweed Park where there's weird stuff, or I did The Cave about these very damaged characters, and I think those type of things probably interest me more, just because I'm older.
GR: When you grow older, you get more serious, but then again, you tend to become more boring as well too.
RG: (laughs) Yeah, it's about being more sophisticated and all that without being boring. That's kind of the goal. If you look at people who make cartoons for a living, like Rick and Morty, which I really like a lot, but that's a cartoon. But there is so much sophistication to that, so much weird, creepy darkness to that. I think that's just the kind of thing you do when... it's not only getting older, it's probably getting more experienced.
GR: It's also a gift to be able to continue doing what you love for as long as possible and grow old with it.
RG: I think that is true. You look at people who make movies. One of the best movies I have seen in the last couple of years was the new Mad Max movie. Which was an amazing movie. George Miller, the director, he is like 86 years old! And that was one of the best action movies I have ever seen. I think some people they don't get old, they just get better at what they are doing.
GR: That's a perfect example. Probably 80 percent of the people who saw the movie wouldn't know he's that old. Maybe even more.
RG: It's an amazing movie and I think he did so much with that movie, that it was just completely innovative. If you look at just how he did the shots and how he did all the action. And you look at kind of more modern, younger action directors and in some ways I think he just totally schooled them: this is how you make an action movie!
GR: One wonders how many young people helped him make that movie? If there were people sitting next to him saying: More bang, please.
RG: (laughs) I don't think so...
GR: Is there young people advising you, pushing you in new directions, aside from Jenn (Sandercock, game designer)?
RG: There certainly are, we have a lot of people on the team. There are people like Gary and David or Mark Ferrari and staff who are around during the Lucas stuff. But there's Jenn, who's doing programming and Octavi, our animator, he's probably in his what late 20s, maybe? So there are definitely a lot of younger people that help out, and I think you kind of need that. With George Miller and Mad Max, I think that was his vision. There were definitely younger people working on it, but the action was just so different and the action in that one is very much like the action in the original Mad Max movie and the second Mad Max movie that I see this thread that extends all the way to the new movie. I just have to believe that was really part of his vision for how to do that kind of stunt.
GR: What do you think about new tech, 4K and such? Is that of any importance to your games at all?
RG: Sometimes. I love HD, but I don't know about 4K. I think 4K is maybe pushing a little too far into the "who cares?" category. HD, though, is amazing when compared to standard NTSC or PAL is what they have here. Technological things do really interest me. I mean, even with this game, it's all pixel art, but it's using all of the hardware, shaders, real-time lightning, and that stuff is very interesting to me. How to use very modern technology to take a game like this and really make Thimbleweed Park kind of how you remembered those games, not how they actually were. Using technology to kind of advance that.
GR: Are you interested VR games at all?
RG: VR makes me motion sick, so it's not something that I do. I can't remember the stat, but VR makes two thirds of the people motion sick that put it on. And it's definitely that way for me. I thought about Thimbleweed Park as a VR, but not a standard VR. In the game we have all these parallaxing layers, sometimes up to eleven different layers of all this parallax that moves left and right. I thought, that would be really fun, to be able to play the game in VR. And it's not like you're walking around this 3D world, it's just that you see all of these parallaxed layers in actual depth. That's something that we talked about maybe doing this kind of 2D VR.
GR: Are there any thoughts about working with Nintendo for Switch?
RG: We're going to be on the Xbox One at launch as Microsoft has a three-month console exclusive. As soon as that period is up, we'll port it to the PlayStation 4, and I would love it to be on the the new Nintendo. Nintendo is not particularly good at working with small developers and publishers initially - they like to go out to the big publishers and after a year or so, they let a lot of smaller things in. We are definitely talking to Nintendo and as soon as we can, we'll definitely port it.
GR: We know that your previous experience with Nintendo was difficult, as the NES version of Maniac Mansion had to be censored due to its brutality, bad language, and sexual innuendo. What was meeting those demands like?
RG: I didn't actually have to do the programming to cut out the content, but I witnessed everything. Doug Crockford was the producer, so he was the one really interfacing with Nintendo. He would always come back to us and go: "Oh, we have to get rid of that statue in the hallway, because it's nude." We were like: "It's a nude statue... really?!" But yeah, we were just shaking our heads at the time...
GR: Does Nintendo have the same attitude today?
RG: Not in the same way. We put The Cave on Nintendo - and they didn't care about anything at all, actually. They are a lot more open.
GR: If you play Thimbleweed Park now, like the demo we just played together, do you notice mistakes in the game?
RG: There is lots of mistakes in there. There is a point where you ignore them. With every game I have ever done, in every screen I could point out the mistakes.
GR: Did you make peace with that?
RG: You have to.
GR: But hasn't this fundamentally changed over the years. If you look back 20 years, you couldn't really fix the mistakes. Today you could change every little mistake, at least given time?
RG: Not if you want to ship the game. And does it really matter? I guess I can fix everything and spend months with it. But you will never fix all the mistakes, not even in a year. And nobody really notices, or they might so for a split second. You have to kind of move on from stuff like that. But was there some kind of mistake you just saw?
GR: No no, not at all...
RG: Should I go fix them right away? (laughs)
GR: One of your unreleased projects, Bobo and Fletcher, was apparently planned to be published in episodes - can you tell us a little more about it? Are you sad that Telltale used the same idea and became very successful in doing so?
RG: I designed that game in the late 90s. It was meant to be an episodic adventure game and we never really got into production on it, but I'd kinda mapped out the story and all the episodes. I think it was just too early for an episodic release because the Internet wasn't really a distribution mechanism. We had literally thought about mailing out the episodes as CDs to people. The idea was ten years ahead of its time, so it was not to be. Bobo and Fletcher, I am surprised someone remembers that.
GR: Let's talk ideas. We know you don't like to tell people your secret when it comes to designing riddles and puzzles, but can you give us an idea about the process behind it?
RG: With designing puzzles, there is three components that are very interwoven. There is the world, the locations, there is the story going on and then there is the puzzles. Those three things have to be all twisted together. Some adventure games that I don't really like too much, they have the story up here and the puzzles down there. They seem to be completely disconnected, whereas the puzzles really should advance the story. So when you are designing puzzles, they can come from pretty much any area.
It is a very, very iterative process as we're going through doing puzzles, and then it gets to the world, the story, and the puzzles are all interwoven.
GR: Do you have a back catalogue of puzzles or riddles in your brain? Because if you would ask us to come up with a puzzle, we couldn't give you a decent one straight away...
RG: I don't really have a catalogue. I think there are basically seven adventure game puzzles - only seven. But it's all about how you theme them. Everything is essentially a lock, a key and a door. It's just figuring out say, in this particular puzzle, the key is gonna be a map that you have to get and the door is the sheriff not letting you into the world. We think about puzzles at this rudimentary level and then it's just about theming them to make them feel different.
GR: When you're trying to sleep and come up with an idea, do you get back up from bed to write it down?
RG: No, I just sit in bed for two hours, toss and turn and think about the idea, then don't get enough sleep the next morning - that's the way it works for me. I kinda figure that if I have a really good idea - and I tend to not write things down - if I can't remember it the next morning, it probably wasn't a very good idea.
Thimbleweed Park is due for release soon and will arrive on PC and Xbox One first, with other versions of the game to follow thereafter.