On Stranger Tides

Sep 20, 2004 twenty five to seven pm

I was sorting through some boxes today and I came across my copy of Tim Power's On Stranger Tides, which I read in the late 80's and was the inspiration for Monkey Island.  Some people believe the inspiration for Monkey Island came from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride - probably because I said it several times during interviews - but that was really just for the ambiance.  If you read this book you can really see where Guybrush and LeChuck were plagiarized derived from, plus the heavy influence of voodoo in the game.

When I am in the early stages of designing, I'll read a lot of books, listen to a lot of music and watch a lot of movies.  I'll pick up little ideas here and there.  We in the business call it stealing.

This book really got me interested in pirates as a theme.  Fantasy was all the rage back then and I wasn't keen on doing another D&Dish game, but pirates had a lot of what made fantasy interesting without being fantasy.

After some early failed starts I shelved the idea and began work on the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game.  When it was finished I went back to work on Monkey Island and re-thought much of the design and story.  Although re-thought is a strong word since I didn't have much to start with.

The bulk of the motivation for Guybrush's character being so naive stemmed from wanting him to know as little about the world as the player.  One huge problem adventure games had/have - Police Quest being the most frustrating example for me back then - was the character was supposed to know all this information that the player didn't.  I hated playing games like Police Quest where I get fired for not signing out my gun (or such such craziness), when I was supposed to be a cop.  I should know that stuff?  Shouldn't I?

I figured if Guybrush didn't know anything, then the player wouldn't be frustrated when they didn't know how to do basic pirate tasks.  Which was the whole genesis for the opening line:

"Hi, my name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate"

It told the player that Guybrush didn't know any more then they did, and they were going to learn together.

The recently played Hitman had this problem.  I am supposed to be this kick-ass hitman - Agent 47 - who is, as stated on the box: "brutally efficient".  But I wasn't.  I sucked.  And badly.

Not that I'm recommending that Hitman starts out with:

"Hi, my name is Agent 47 and I want to be a hitman"

It's trick that works a few times, but it can't become a whole genre of games.  Guybrush also took this to the extreme in that he was also kind of a fool.  It works well for comedies, but not for a game trying to be more serious.

I don't mean to pick on Hitman.  The box is just on my desk.  I recently bought an Xbox and have been wearing out my Blockbuster card and this problem is prevalent in a lot of games.

Rockstar's Red Dead Revolver got this part right.  You play the son of of famous gunslinger ( I might have this wrong, I skipped the long cut-scenes ) who is avenging his fathers death.  The main character starts out inexperienced and his skill grows with the players.

I am a very strong believer that games need to break out of the hard-core gamer only mold and attract a larger audience of soft-core gamers if we're truly going to grow the appeal.  To do this, we need games that are more accessible and friendly to someone who isn't willing to beat their head against the game for 5 hours just to figure out how to be competent (i.e 14 year-old boys, or people who still think like 14 year-old boys).

These games need to slowly bring people into the world, the story and the game-play mechanism.

People have to feel like they are succeeding every step of the way.

Other people's comments:

Posted by Sirus on Sep 20, 2004 twenty five past seven pm

So, we need to dumb down games?

Posted by Scummbuddy on Sep 20, 2004 half past seven pm

What a surprising post, and its quite nice to get a bit of background information on those fantastic games that just aren't made like they used to be.  I'll have to see about checking out that book and see if we can find a loophole in the system to make them the plagarizer. More money for Ron...

I also like your views on the gaming world with your 'guy that complains a lot'

Posted by Edmundo on Sep 20, 2004 twenty to eight pm

Amen, sister!

I think the games I enjoy the most are the games where you start out as a nobody and then you become something and maybe even fall in the end for being too cocky. I think it's a great formula since the player grows with the character, even if the character is not really the player (like... Monkey Island?), but the player becomes one with him...

Have you checked out Fable? it's a pretty interesting game.... though it has too many cutscenes that advance the story waaay too quickly... you grow up and learn everything you need to learn in like the first hour of the game. I sort of didn't like that. The dramatic timing is not that great either... Fine, so I think it's interesting because it has some things that are great and others that could have been better. You start from someone who knows nothing, but then you choose what you want to become, so maybe this is why my random typing fits in with your post...!

Posted by Hoon on Sep 21, 2004 half past midnight

wow  This is most interesting. Ron Gilbert has a blog. Great and this is an excellent post to introduce me to it. A game that was once very near and dear to me when I was younger. Would be nice if you could have the rights to the series some how. The recent titles just aren't the same quality. Not to polish knobs or to take anything away from the developers of the latter two titles but they just didnt have the soul. The nice sense of adventure was missing most of the time as well. Anyways that is all old news these days. I just couldn't post with out giving a little praise. I'm greatful.

Ever think about creating a new pirates tale? Maybe something like Sid Meier's "Pirates!" but with more character and a twist or something.  Could it yeild results or has it been done to death? Some people enjoy reading books over again. Maybe Reading On Stranger Tides will give you motivation once again. It has been a while since the 1980s.

Posted by Bobo Donkey? on Sep 21, 2004 two am

Cool.  Looks like I should get a copy of "On Stranger Tides" and read it when I can

Posted by Warfox on Sep 21, 2004 half past two am

Eh eh, you call it stealing, but you created the best game of the videogame history. Yes, it was fantastic that Guybrush and we don't know nothing, and you're right when you wrote that Guybrush is a sort of fool ;)
Anyway just yesterday i read the Monkey Island Comics (there's a link in your blog) and i want to play another time Monkey Island 1 and 2.

Guybrush is a fool, but for created guybrush need a fool ;) The industry actually don't know what is "originality" and "innovation". You know it. Congratulations and thank you for thousand and thousand hours of fun.

Posted by Simon on Sep 21, 2004 twenty five to four am

For those interested, 'On Stranger Tides' seems to be currently out of print, but I found a Tim Powers fansite that says he signed a contract in January to get that and another book of his, 'The Stress of Her Regard', reprinted by Babbage Press. Hopefully that is still happening. It sounds like it's a great read, apart from being especially interesting for having inspired those first two 'Monkey Island' games.

On the concept of the character knowing as little about the world as the player: learning curve is pretty important to any game, and that was Monkey Island's particular player-friendly approach, which worked wonderfully. It wasn't always a naive player character, but all the LucasArts classics seemed to ensure you were 'eased in' to the experience rather than expected to know everything straight away. I always thought that was great game design.

Posted by Haggis on Sep 21, 2004 five to five am

This is exactly why Super Mario is so popular. It's not unusual for a fat plumber to fall in a hole or two while playing, so it's not as frustrating.

Also, I need that book... it would be a nice addition to my The Buccaneers of America.

Posted by Alistair on Sep 21, 2004 five past six am

All I can say is I'm glad you read that book...guybrush is my hero and the MI series of games has kept entertained for hours and hours and hours and....etc

I hate games where you make a wrong move and it's all over. With MI you just wander around and think hard and you find the solution and can continue. and even the hunting around getting frustrated at not being able to hook that thing, or pull that lever, is hilarious.

Long Live Monkey Island!!

Posted by Jake on Sep 21, 2004 five to noon

"So, we need to dumb down games?"

Oh man, this is clearly the Internet we're reading right now.

Posted by Nik on Sep 21, 2004 twenty five to five pm

Amnesia is going to become more common in game characters as sequels keep being considered cashable.
"Hi, it's me again. Uhm, about that pirating thing ... how did that go?"

But being a soft-core gamer, I can only agree with the thesis. I'm trying new games from time to time, and more often than not I find myself frustrated enough that I go and get Master of Orion II, because, well, I already feel comfortable controlling the galaxy. Maybe I'm getting old ... or maybe failing just should be more fun. I think that's what kept me going in MI. You didn't have to be afraid of doing something stupid and having to start over. In fact, doing something stupid was encouraged. ;)
This, of course, doesn't go well with serious "you-can-die-here" games, either. With those, I think, the key is being allowed, but not required, to take things slow. (Requiring it is another grave source of frustration.) Let me take my baby steps. You may penalize me later, just give me time to see if/how/why things work out or not.

Now, is there a safe way to get amnesia myself? I'd like to enjoy my sword duels again.

Posted by bingo on Sep 21, 2004 five to five pm

Posted by Nerssi Nassirie Amini on Sep 21, 2004 quarter to eleven pm

I'd rather leave the book alone and pretend gybrush was a totally genuine character.
And I will keep it the same as it was(my best childhood memories).
I'd say you're the greatest designer in game industry.
Thank you for all the joy...

Posted by piyo on Sep 22, 2004 ten to two am

"People have to feel like they are succeeding every step of the way."

...when you're playing long adventure games, because you don't want to lose all that time and effort getting into the game. There are other kinds of people who like working in alternate rules. I'm talking about reflex games, puzzle games, fighting, shooting, etc. Those require risk and constant learning of the domain. The type of gaming you are talking about sounds like role playing without risk or learning. If that's the case why take risk at all? Why not just read a book or watch a movie? If you want interaction go read a "choose-your-own-adventure" book?

Now I was going to bold random parts of this comment, but...

Posted by K.J.Taylor on Sep 22, 2004 ten past four am

Hey, I write books! You're welcome to rip ideas out of one of mine if you want to! Wow, being plagurised by Ron Gilbert would be an honour.

Posted by John on Sep 22, 2004 six am

Lest we forget Halo, in which you're techincally "testing" your systems.

But take Sims 2, which is scoring incredibly high.  The interface is great.  But it's been a long time since I played the Sims - really, the first week it came out and before my wife usurped my PC for four months- that I have no idea what I'm doing.   Sims 2 assumes in so many places that I've played the first Sims every waking hour of my life.  Even the tutorials are designed more so, "This is new!" instead of "Here's how you select a chair!"  

Plus, for better or worse I think there's a certain vernicular language in games now.  A floating gold coin?  You're supposed to pick it up.  First Person Shooter? your target reticle is where your bullet will go, a health kit repairs your "health," etc. etc.

Posted by Haggis on Sep 22, 2004 ten past six am

a health kit repairs your "health,"

Which is of course a bit strange. You don't open the box and take out what you need to nurse your wounds, but just walk over it and get magically cured. If I were a bad guy in an FPS, I'd put bombs in all the health kits and go to Hawaii. Game over.

Posted by SiN on Sep 22, 2004 twenty past nine am

i totally agree. too many games dont have the smooth learning curve that they should, but there are also many games that start as a simple game & end at more-or-less the same difficulty.

ive been coding a neat puzzle game for the past couple of months, and for the past 2 weeks or so, ive been creating levels for the game. its pretty damn difficult to get the learning curve down right! the best thing to do ive found is to get people to test your game ... and get as many people as you can. it helped alot by just watching them play without giving them any hints and without saying anything to em at all ... using this method i found that a couple of levels were too hard, so i created simpler levels to go in between.

but ultimately, its a tough balancing act. taking about Ron's games in particular, i think MI2 did this quite well ... its been a while since ive played it, but i recall it started relatively easily, but ramping up the difficulty quite well as the game moved on. ultimately, u cant get stuck in the trap of making the game too difficult from the start, but u cant make the game consistently easy either, because that just makes the game un-fun. as ive learned over these weeks, its a very tough balancing act, but i think ive got it now ...


ps : oh yeah, first post! :)  ive been lurking around for a while but havent posted anything. just wanted to tell you (Ron) that its nice to see you back in the business of making adult games and its great to hear that it wont be an adventure game. (cue for gasps). yes, im quite the hardcore adventure gamer, but i think we all really wanna see you excel in other genre's too. good luck with your latest game, and do keep us updated!

Posted by ThunderPeel2001 on Sep 22, 2004 five to eleven am

Wow, nice to learn a little more about the origins of Guybrush! It was a nice idea that he was so naive, I think Monkey Island 1 is a great place for newb adventure gamers to start, and obvious the designs you mentioned are precisely why! :)

Posted by Sirus on Sep 22, 2004 twenty past eight pm

"Oh man, this is clearly the Internet we're reading right now."

What? I asked a legitimate question.

Posted by Bartholomeus on Sep 22, 2004 half past nine pm

Well, I agree that the games should be more friendly with new players. But some people do like the kind of games that require a hardcore heart, I don't. That's why I like Monkey Island, and that's exactly what mr. Gilbert now has stated, it's easier to get along with the game in the early parts, too, because the main person knows just as much as the player. Plus almost any player can out-think him.

Posted by Sirus on Sep 23, 2004 twenty past six am

To each his own. I've never had a time in a game where I went "Oh crap, how should I have known to do that."

Posted by mike d on Sep 23, 2004 twenty past seven am

Sirus, you miss the point. It has nothing to do with dumbing down, but rather it's about focusing on different areas for interest.

An analogy:
You're a comp sci guy, and love to play with your bits. And you have a physicist friend who wants to use a computer to do some number crunching, but she doesn't really give a shit about the inner workings of a computer.

Do you,
a) give her a compiler?
b) give her Matlab?

Do you tell her Matlab is too simple and dumbed down? Do you suggest that physics is pointless and boring, and hacking is more fun and challenging?

Posted by Risingson on Sep 23, 2004 five pm

Ok, mr Gilbert, now you finally have made that lots of Monkey groupies read good fantastic literature :)

Sure, when I read this book last december I realized of the coincidences - though I think that the narrative in Monkey Island is more solid -, and well, when I watched "Pirates of the Caribbean" I... I just don't know what I'm remembering from this film, as its story, the Guybrush story and the Shandy story are so similar. Anyway, what I find surprising in the first Monkey game is its fidelity to the buccaneer's way of life - apart from anachronisms. Well, it is a great game and everything has been already written about it; just that I like it for the touch in the characters. In two lines you have the shop keeper described, in just two lines. This is sheer greatness. Bye.

Posted by Sirus on Sep 24, 2004 twenty five past four pm

What different areas of intrest? Unless you are making a game for casual gamers, there's no need to dumb down things.

Posted by mike d on Sep 24, 2004 half past seven pm

Not all games have to be competitive. In gilbert's example, monkey island may be competitvely "dumbed down", but it's much more sophisticated in terms of interactive narrative then you're average game. Or how about facade, ico or the sims? Again they're quite deep in terms of emotion etc, while perhaps quite shallow in terms of strategic depth.

I suppose one could say that games ARE in fact all about competition, and those things aren't really games.. or at least really bad  dumb downed ones. Just like the comp sci guy could say that computers are all about logic and computation. Using computers for things like email, music, movies, or the internet, from that pov, would only be dumbing things down, no matter how intelligent and sophisticated the communication is.

Posted by Beef on Sep 26, 2004 twenty five to six am

Wouldn't be the first to ... 'acquire' ideas from books.  Look at halo, Ringworld and Ian Banks' Culture habitats never got a reference in the credits.  
Should developers credit their sources?  Maybe a smell list of main ideas in the credits, fans would love it.

Posted by internet soul on Sep 27, 2004 twenty to eight am

it's so boring and a bit sad to hear you talk one more time of monkey island. Do you always talk of your past glories? why don't you do something new?

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Sep 27, 2004 twenty past eight am

why don't you do something new?

I am.  It's why I've been spending so much time thinking about Monkey Island and the other games I've done or worked on.  It's important to deconstruct them as much as possible, and as I think of interesting things, I post them there.

Posted by internet soul on Sep 27, 2004 ten am

in a past discussion with a friend we have in common, he said that is not possible to
build up something really new. He say that there are no more new ideas.

I hope this is not true.

deconstructing a functioning idea... to get to the root idea? maybe.
It's like cut in two part an apple seed, plant down an half and hope that something will grow.

Posted by Arnd on Sep 27, 2004 quarter past ten am

Hi Ron, this are very good news. Now we can see light at the end of the tunnel.  
As a monkey island fan of the first hour I am especially excited about that ... something new.
Let me think ... maybe we can expect a game that combines "On stranger tides" with "Shaun of the dead"...  But no matter which theme, if it is the same humour, the motivating learning curve of Monkey island and puzzles that support a fantastic story , nothing can go wrong. Somehow its time for a new game.
Best greetings from Germany.

Posted by jp-30 on Sep 27, 2004 twenty past six pm

> It's like cut in two part an apple seed,  plant down an half and hope that something will grow.

I did that. I got an App tree.

Posted by arensb on Sep 28, 2004 five to eight am

Oh, man. My brain hurts. I mean, I love Monkey Island and On Stranger Tides is my favorite Tim Powers novel, but they just Don't Go Together.
That's like saying that Gibbons's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the inspiration for Asterix the Gaul.

Posted by internet etc. on Sep 29, 2004 quarter past seven am

> I did that. I got an App tree.

if this is true i must suck.

Posted by The Occupent on Oct 1, 2004 quarter to noon

Yo gilbert, I have a question, i read a pg wodehouse book and I came across a caractor with the last name of THREEPWOOD, is this a coinedence or is pg wodehouse yet ANOTHER of the authors you read at the time?
p.s. im told ther is a whole family of threepwoods in ol' p.g.'s books

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Oct 1, 2004 five to one pm

Yo gilbert, I have a question, i read a pg wodehouse book and I came across a caractor with the last name of THREEPWOOD, is this a coinedence or is pg wodehouse yet ANOTHER of the authors you read at the time?

The name Threepwood came from Dave Grossman, here is his response to your question:

I took it from Reginald Threepwood, which was the name of a role-playing game identity belonging to my cousin, Charles.  A few years later I discovered that he, in turn, had taken it from P.G. Wodehouse (strange he didn't mention it at the time).  It's the family name of one of Wodehouse's less frequent characters, better known as Lord Emsworth.  Wodehouse probably made the name up out of a hat, but you can never be sure about these things.

Posted by Fabrizio on Oct 3, 2004 twenty five to three pm

Wow, that's a revelation. Needless to say, I'll take the book in case I'd find it. :-)
(Gosh, and sorry for the english...)

Posted by The Occupent on Oct 4, 2004 twenty five past ten am

I think its funny that many of the questions of us gamers are being answered after, for me and my friends, many years, its like the joke about the white phone and how in isriel its a local call

Posted by Jay on Oct 19, 2004 twenty five past three pm

Wait -- I always assumed "Threepwood" was a joke variant of "Threepio."  

I mean, how many names start with "Threep"??  ("Meryl Threep" does not count, even if you find her abtholutely thooper.) You're saying that's just a coincidence??

(Crap, this is an old entry and Ron will perhaps never see this comment.)  Ummm.  *waves arms*

Posted by FungusBumBottle on May 1, 2005 five to midnight

I have to get something off my mind..... Now since a very young age I have grown up playing Lucasarts Adventure games. Many have been burnt in my mind like the series of Monkey Island. This game not only changes my pre-conception of what a GOOD adventure game should be. But it also won my heart over, with the beautiful rendered graphics, the story and charcters and of course the great humour throughout..........
So you would be surprised to know that my enthusiasm for the Fourth in the series (Escape from Monkey Island) was not carried on!
Now what i don't understand is that if a person, or company or whatever has a strong working formula like they had with Guybrush and the world of monkey Island, with it's colourful hand painted background, insane animation (more refering to the third game) and the funnist gags.... why on gods earth would you take that same solid working formula and rip the GUTS OUT and replace it with something that does not belong, does not work and looses the whole desired effect... yes I am reffering to Monkey Island 4. IN 3D............
What the F*��?#K Happened.........does anyone KNOW?
WHAT IS THIS 3D Shite....the graphics are so flat and empty, it's really boring...Oh but WOW we still get the Whooshing clouds thing happening....):  (cry)    ohhhhh come on. Fine if its any other type of Game genre fair enough go for 3D Its the way of the future they say......But this is sacrilege, to change a game of this calibre which relied basically on its beautifull painted background and detail to transform it into a completly different game. This is not the adventure game I grew up with. It's like someone in marketing or sales has turned around and said Hey with the Forth Monkey Game we should move with the times and make guybrush and the rest of the Monkey Island world 3D... yeah 3D really SELLS just look at all the other games, FPS, Simulators, Stratagy... Hell even a basic Shootem-up in 3D looks great. Yeah lets change everything that they've been working on for the last 12 years.... and replace it with a.......rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle....Thats basically what they have done...am I the only person on this planet that thinks they have been ripped off completly. They have lost it with the latest Monkey Island 4.?
The STEAMS out now....It's all off my chest

Posted by Kate Everson on May 8, 2006 ten to six pm


STFU.  Right now.  I enjoyed MI4.  Althogh the style had changed, (as it had with all the other games as well, I may add), the game was still extreamly fun to play.  I grew up on monkey island too, and I wasn't dissapointed.  

Stop complaining about crap like the fact that it was 3D.  It was. Get over it.  

Oh, and get a new screen name.

I liked the art, and the character designs always made me laugh.  That didn't change with MI4.

-Kate Everson

Posted by Bob on May 11, 2006 twenty five past seven am

Anybody who has ever played Grim Fandango knows that it is insane to suggest that 3D graphics ruin adventure games. Period. Anyone who has not played Grim Fandango shouldn't even be discussing this.

Not all 2D adventures are automatically great, and likewise, not all 3D adventures are automatically bad. It's what people do with the 2D or 3D world what counts. Anybody who knows anything about game design knows this.

Posted by Josh on Aug 3, 2006 quarter to nine am

Just read this book myself and the book is excellent and it is easy to spot where the similarities are.

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