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How Ron Gilbert returned to Monkey Island 30 years later

Devcom panel also discusses the humour and art style of last year's critical hit, plus thoughts on a movie adaptation

At Devcom today, the team behind Return to Monkey Island shed light on the project's origins and development.

The panel discussion was called 'Beneath The Return of Monkey Island: Q&A with LeCrew', and featured game designer veterans Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and David Fox – who have all worked on the original Monkey Island titles, as well as the latest one – alongside Return to Monkey Island art director Zoe Nguyen Thanh and creative director Rex Crowle.

With 13 years between the last entry in the franchise and the release of Devolver-published Return to Monkey Island, and over 30 years since Gilbert was last involved in the series, one of the questions that came up during the panel is how exactly the team got together.

"The thing is I didn't want to just make another Monkey Island. That's not interesting to me. I wanted to make sure that we had something to say"Ron Gilbert

"I was at PAX 2019, I got together with somebody who runs Devolver, [co-founder Nigel Lowrie], and we were just having coffee and he mentioned that he had a good friend that was the head of something at Disney, and he thought they could maybe get the Monkey Island licence, and was I interested in doing another Monkey Island if they could get the licence to do that?" Gilbert recalled.

"I thought about that for a good two or three months, about whether it was something I really wanted to do. And I called up Dave [Grossman] and we talked about it and Dave flew up to Seattle for a weekend, and we just kind of hashed everything through [because] if we were to make this game, what would it be?

"Cause the thing is I didn't want to just make another Monkey Island. That's not interesting to me. I wanted to make sure that we had something to say. And so after Dave and I spent that weekend together and mapped everything at a very high level, I thought 'Okay, we have something, this is an interesting story.'

"So then I went back to Devolver and said, 'Okay, let's do this.' And then it was another like almost nine months of just contract negotiations with Disney to try to get this thing. In the meantime, Dave and I built a whole other game which was Delores, you know, just while that was going on! And once I knew it was a real project, then you know, I talked to Rex [and so on]."

Return to Monkey Island wasn't revealed until 2022 but, despite an overwhelmingly positive response to its existence, a fringe of the community criticised its art style, which constituted quite a departure from the original games. At Devcom, the team was asked about how they handled that initial reaction.

"I was totally confident," Gilbert said. "I knew that the stuff that Rex had done, that was exactly what I wanted to do. So hearing all of that negative feedback... It definitely hurt. I'm not going to say it didn't. But I never once doubted [what] Rex and Zoe and everyone else had done. That was the right way to do it."

Crowle, previously creative director and co-founder of Knights And Bikes studio Foam Sword, added: "I think all art reacts to other art and I think it's good to make things that are provocative and get a reaction from people."

"Hearing all of that negative feedback... It definitely hurt. I'm not going to say it didn't. But I never once doubted [what the team] had done"Ron Gilbert

He added that he was very happy with what the team achieved and that it would maybe have been a different story if they didn't have the original Monkey Island creators as part of the team – but that wasn't the case.

"I think if we hadn't have the original creators of the game, it would have been awkward, but having [them] backing us up, we had full confidence that of course this is a Monkey Island game."

Zoe Nguyen Thanh concurred, saying that the art style was "appropriate for what [they] were making."

"I remember the first days when I started working with [Rex], [he] talked about how the priority was really making sure the player knows what to do and where to look. And is the story being told over being realistic? And that's really the kind of style that I find really fun to work with. And I think that everyone within our team really responded to that. For me, making a game visually successful is when you can really feel everyone's personality put together in a game, and I really think that we achieved that."

Upon release at the end of 2022, Return to Monkey Island ended up a critical success. It also made around $3 million within its first month, and sold around 100,000 units within that time frame, according to GameSensor.

Between its unique tone and recognisable characters, Monkey Island would seem a good candidate for a TV or film adaptation. We know of at least one cancelled project, but an attendee asked the panel about whether there'd been any serious efforts to adapt Monkey Island into a movie either live action or animated.

David Fox immediately joked about it being Pirates of the Caribbean, a reference to the persistent rumour that Monkey Island was used as an inspiration for the hit Disney movie. But beyond that, Gilbert said he's actually not that keen to see the franchise turned into a film.

"I know there was a movie [project] after I left that they started to do but I don't know what happened and why it was cancelled," he started. "But I wouldn't really worry about a movie or a cartoon or anything on Monkey Island, mostly because of Guybrush's character. I think he works well in an interactive medium where the player can identify through him, but I would worry if there was a Monkey Island cartoon or TV show that Guybrush would turn into too much of a buffoon. And he's not a buffoon at all.

"He's caused a lot of damage but he always has really good intentions. And I'm not convinced that would translate into a film well. That would kind of worry me."

"I think of comedy, at least for our brand [of humour], as a form of caricature"Dave Grossman

Another topic that came up during the Devcom panel is what went into the writing of Monkey Island's unique brand of humour.

"I think of comedy, at least for our brand [of humour], as a form of caricature," Grossman replied. "So just like a character artist would take some features… like if there's a big nose, you make it bigger, if they have small ears, you make them smaller... You do the same thing with social characteristics of the characters and sort of the parts of the society that we're referencing and these kinds of things.

"And we're always essentially writing about ourselves. The first Monkey Island game, there's a young guy and he's got a new career he's really excited about and he's sort of going out and trying to make his mark and meets a woman and decides she's maybe more important.

"And the second game is sort of all about trying to make a sequel, which is what we were doing then. And when we got together and we were talking about what this game was going to be about, there was a lot of like, well, we're older guys now and the industry is changing."

He continued: "And so, you know, a lot just comes out of that, it just starts falling [into place] as you start writing the characters and the scenes, coming sort of layer by layer and it hopefully gets funnier and funnier."

Gilbert added that, for him, it was a lot about writing something and see whether the rest of the team, Grossman in particular, would laugh about it.

"This was an important metric," he smiled. "[There's] some things that I would put in the game and then I wouldn't really tell the testers about it and I'd kind of wait and see what their reaction was. So there's some of that – kind of trying to impress the other team members, it helps a lot with the comedy." is a media partner for Devcom 2023.

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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