Sun 13 Sep 2009
So here we are today talking this time to a truly accomplished adventure game designer who has gone from small, but great indie productions (Nick Bounty!!!) to become one of the lead creative forces at Telltale Games. Mark Darin after leading the design on the Strong Bad games is co-creating all the big titles currently in progress, including Tales of Monkey Island and the future Sam & Max episodes. As always we started the interview with the most difficult question. Next we started to differentiate between indie games and Telltale games which may be not entirely fair as Telltale is all independent as far as I know, just maybe a bit bigger than Mark’s own company Pinhead Games. Oh, and Pinhead‘s games are freeware.
Igor Hardy: Dave Grossman, Ron Gilbert, Mike Stemmle and yourself – how do such accomplished designers and writers co-operate to create a Monkey Island game and not strangle each other in the process – everyone wanting to keep the vision the closest to his own?
Mark Darin: Geez, aren’t you supposed to start the interview with the easy questions first? Well, I guess it helps that none of us are really prone to violence and I like to think that our egos are relatively tough to bruise. It was an important step to have everyone sit down together in the beginning and agree upon what elements of Monkey Island are the most important and how we were going to preserve those elements. Violence aside, we Telltale designers are pretty well skilled in incessant passive aggressiveness, so there was a fair share of “Really? You think an authentic pirate bar should have flashing neon lights? Well, let’s see what the play testers think…” being tossed about.
IH: The first episode teases the audience about Captain LeChuck becoming human again and clearly this transformation has a lot of potential in terms of his character development. Could you give a hint of what we expect of him in the following episodes?
MD: Well, I can’t say too much about that … LeChuck’s a complex guy, ya know? For those who haven’t played it already, I’ll just say that you discover a lot more about human LeChuck in Chapter 2 which is out now!
(Ed. Incidentally we reviewed Tales of Monkey Island episode 2: The Siege of Spinner Cay right here)
IH: How much stylistically different will be the five episodes of Tales from one another? Does every designer and writer on the team work in the same extent on each episode and in the same role, or do you take turns at who is responsible for what?
MD: Stylistically we hope to keep things relatively consistent. Settings and characters will change, but art styles, humor and gameplay will remain the same. Mike Stemmle and I are responsible for overseeing the season wide vision, but each episode gets its own designer/writer. This is necessary in order to overlap production so we can get these games out on time. Although each episode stays very much within the overall storyline, each designer will inevitably bring their own flavor to the writing and presentation. I find it incredibly interesting to see the subtleties in the variations attributed to the individual designers. Mike Stemmle designed Chapter 1 and Chapter 4. I will be handling Chapter 2 and 5, and Sean Vanaman and Joe Pinney are tackling Chapter 3!
IH: Will we get a new island to visit in each episode of Tales of Monkey Island, or maybe have access to several concurrently like in Monkey Island 2?
MD: In Chapter 2: The Siege of Spinner Cay, you will have the opportunity to visit several different island of various sizes. You’ll see it as you play throughout the course of the season, but I think that the number of locations you visit will really fill out the game in a satisfying way.
IH: Do you have any special memories from playing the original Monkey Island games that did inspire you in your work for Tales? The second Nick Bounty game suggests you were much impressed by the scene with Guybrush using the beaver repellent inside governor’s mansion in The Secret of Monkey Island.
MD: Oh yeah. I have played every Monkey Island game several times! I was playing these games when they were originally released and they very much influenced my career path. I don’t think I could pick out any specific moments in the early games that inspired me directly, but I do have very fond memories of gathering in my basement with friends, playing Monkey Island for hours on end!
The First Nick Bounty game I made (A Case of the Crabs) also has a reference to Monkey Island in the Kitchen scene!
(Ed. Incidentally we have reviewed Nick Bounty: A Case of Crabs right here)
IH: What went into the invention of one of the key characters of Tales of Monkey Island – Marquis de Singe? How did Jared Emerson-Johnson (composer for Sam & Max and Strong Bad) got involved into providing the character’s voice?
MD: We started dabbling with the idea of an aristocratic presence in the Monkey Island world, but didn’t want to go too “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the movies) with it, so we scaled it back to just this one person. It also appealed to us that science would be starting to establish its presence in the world as a counter force to Voodoo. DeSinge was born from these ideas.
Jared kind of tricked us. He was overseeing part of the audition process by sending us the best of the entries to evaluate, but he didn’t really think that anyone really captured the description of the character that we had sent, so he added in an audition of his own under a false name. When we got to that audition, we knew we had the right guy! Only then did Jared reveal that he was indeed that voice!
IH: Does Tales include any new twists on controversial story points from past games like the ending of Monkey Island 2, [SPOILERS]Elaine’s father reappearance, and giant monkey robots[/SPOILERS]?
MD: I don’t think we do anything intentional to shed new light on these topics, we generally tried to stay away from these for the sake of not confusing players new to the series. I’m sure we will be introducing a whole new set of story points to debate, so look forward to that!
IH: What is a game designer’s greatest pleasure in the processes of inventing and improving a puzzle? Or maybe you would consider them only a necessary evil when trying to tell a story in a game?
MD: My personal greatest pleasure in designing puzzles for adventure games is fully integrating them into the story. Nothing is worse that playing a story based game and coming across a chess board that somehow unlocks a door if you move the pieces in the correct sequence. All good stories have conflict and obstacles to overcome. It seems natural to me that these obstacles are the things that become puzzles in the game.
IH: Does the majority of todays gamers really have much shorter attention spans than it was the case in the times of the old Monkey Island games (a worry expressed by Ron Gilbert among other people)? Do you have to take that in account when preparing the games’ challenges?
MD: I think that to some degree that is true. Luckily, producing episodically means that we make relatively short game installments, easily digestible by the short attention span crowd!
IH: Are the strict release dates and complex scheduling for episodic games even more stressful than those of typical full-length game projects? For Tales you had to arrange Michael Land, Ron Gilbert and the original voice actors to be able to work within each episode’s schedule. Was it a major logistic struggle to do that, or was everyone luckily available at the needed periods in time?
MD: Scheduling is definitely a challenge! Things move so fast around here that it’s hard get your head around the big picture. Luckily as a designer, I don’t have to, that’s the producer’s job!
IH: What was your favorite episode of Strong Bad to work on and which of the scenes or puzzles you created for it are you the most proud of?
MD: I really liked working of “Dangeresque 3.” I’m most proud of the Car Chase scene/puzzle. My goal was to create what felt very much like a movie action sequence without actually incorporating any action-based gameplay elements! For this sequence I looked to Tim Schaeffer’s “Full Throttle” game designs for inspiration.
(Ed. Incidentally we have reviewed Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP) – Episode 4: Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective right here)
IH: How was the move to commercial adventure games from the indie ones for you in terms of changes in design approach?
MD: The biggest change was getting used to not handling everything myself! I designed, coordinated, funded, scheduled and distributed everything on my own with Pinheadgames.com. It was quite a learning experience and really prepared me well for the transition into professional design.
IH: About Nick Bounty…
The Nick Bounty character is known to most adventure game fans only from your games: A Case of The Crabs and The Goat in The Grey Fedora. But when one starts researching him, one finds out a body of work spanning many years of passionate creativity. What was Nick Bounty to you in the days when his finest escapades were in the works and how do you view those productions at this point in time?
MD: Nick Bounty was the first character I created that was meant to be enjoyed by a wide audience and not just silly short stories to share with my friends. Of course, this was when I was a teenager in pre-internet days, so those in my immediate circle of friends were still the only ones I could share the stories with. Even so, we began making movies with a “borrowed” camcorder and the character of Nick Bounty flourished. Those old movies are pretty bad, but they represent a start to something that I hope will continue to grow and reach even greater audiences!
IH: How did the process of casting and voice directing for Nick Bounty games look like? The results are match the quality of best commercial game productions.
MD: The first game was really created as just something for my friends to play, and as such it featured the voices of many of my friends (thankfully most have had some kind of acting experience in their lives). The game caught on like wildfire and by the time I was ready to make a second one, Pinheadgames.com had already earned a reputation of producing quality freeware games. This was enough to get some veteran videogame voice actors to lend their talent to the second Nick Bounty Game (The Goat in the Grey Fedora).
IH: What do you think about the indie adventure game scene? From your own experiences, is being and indie adventure game designer rewarding in any way (as it obviously isn’t financially)?
MD: I love the indie adventure scene. There are some fantastic adventures being made these days by people with a real passion for the genre! And while it may not be rewarding in a monetary sense, it is a fantastic feeling to know that your games have made people happy. I have had several emails thanking me for putting a smile on their face on a day that wasn’t going so well. I have received emails from sick people who appreciated being entertained while stuck in bed. I have had letters from professors who have used the game to teach English as a second language. It’s really surreal sometimes to discover that a silly game you made for fun has influenced people in much deeper ways!
IH: Can we expect a new Nick Bounty game, or perhaps a completely new IP from you in the future?
MD: I have a script ready for a new Bounty game… I have had it for a couple of years now. Perhaps one day I’ll get the time or resources to actually make it. I’m not quite ready for Nick Bounty to hang up the ol’ fedora yet!
IH: It’s great to hear that. Thanks for the interview Mark.