AVC at GDC ’10: An interview with former LucasArts artist Steve Purcell
Adventure games aren’t dead, they’re just adapting. Sure, the golden era of the point-and-click quest has given way to a solid decade of the genre accumulating more than its share of rust and tarnish, but if anyone’s making inroads towards a revival, it’s Telltale Games. In 2006, the company—which includes many employees from the undisputed masters of the form, LucasArts—released a follow-up to 1993’s Sam & Max Hit The Road with a five-part, episodic series drawing inspiration from cartoonist and former LucasArts game designer/animator Steve Purcell’s comics about a freelance police duo: an anthropomorphic dog and rabbit with badges, guns, and an even more lethal command of sarcasm. Purcell also had a hand in developing the beloved first two installments of the Monkey Island series in the early ‘90s. (Telltale also brought Monkey Island back from its hibernation last year with its own episodic series.) Although Purcell has long since left game development for a job in Pixar’s story department, he was on hand at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum Wednesday night on the eve of Telltale unveiling the trailer for Sam & Max’s third episodic installment, The Devil’s Playhouse, due out April 15. Afterwards, The A.V. Club talked to Purcell about the new episodes, adventure games being too long, and the upcoming remake of Monkey Island 2.
The A.V. Club: Is that the first time you saw the trailer?
Steve Purcell: It is. I was really impressed. I love the character designs, and they're able to do some cool stuff with the textures now, [making] more rich texturing in the world. [Telltale co-founder] Kevin [Bruner] was telling me they’re able to make it more like the source material, like the comics.
AVC: Has there ever been a moment when you watched a Sam & Max trailer or something in the game and felt, “Well, they’d never do that.”?
SP: If there are broad issues. Sometimes they'll ask me certain character questions, like there's something that will trouble them and they'll feel the need to check with me about it. "You know, is this something you can imagine would be part of Max's character?" And I like it that they think about that, but I think their instincts are usually pretty on-target. If I had to worry about this stuff too much then it wouldn't be worth it. If there was someone you had to look over their shoulder a lot more, it would be so challenging.
AVC: So they're more like adopted parents than babysitters?
SP: Yeah, they really understand. They get the style of the humor and I've worked with a lot of these guys before, I worked with Dave Grossman back at LucasArts 20 years ago and Dan Connors I know from LucasArts as well. It's all in the family; they've known these characters for a long time.
AVC: Speaking of LucasArts, they announced an hour or two ago via Twitter they’ll be remaking Monkey Island 2.
SP: Is it a remake or is it a reissue?
AVC: It’s a special edition like the first one. Have you heard about this? Are you at all involved?
SP: I haven't. I mean, the coolest thing about that is it's nice to see them embracing their history, because for a while that wasn't the case, so it's nice that they're going back.
AVC: Why do you think they turned their back on adventure gaming?
SP: I don't know. I think there was a change in the leadership of the company and maybe they are understanding that there's still an audience for the classic stuff that they did. The fact that they're doing the special editions means I'm sure they're testing the waters, that'd be my guess. They're wondering if there's a market enough.
AVC: Maybe they'll redo Grim Fandango?
SP: I don't know if that one needs a special edition. I mean, I don't know that it needs improvement.
AVC: Why do you think adventure games are getting such a revival in episodic form? Do people just not have the attention span or patience for a full-on 40-hour game anymore?
SP: It is quite an investment of time to expect that you're going to buy something that you're going to spend 40 hours playing. That's what we kind of imagined in the old days when we were making those things. Sometimes we would actually joke, "Why are we doing the climactic scene in the game? No one's going to get that far. They'll bail out before they get to it."
Maybe it was true that sometimes we left people behind because they didn't have that kind of investment that you would need to do that. I think these new games are more in the style of what people are used to, how they're used to getting their media—in more digestible chunks. So they can finish one thing and go onto the next. For me, [the episodic format] feels like a perfect fit for [Sam & Max], because a lot of my favorite comic stories that I did for them were two to three pages. Just a little snippet, not as much an epic as a little short story.
AVC: You’ve said on your blog you're not much of a gamer a year or two ago.
SP: I haven’t gotten to be any more of one since then. [Laughs.]
AVC: Still, though, you did a post about submitting to the I Am 8-Bit art show. If you aren’t a gamer, what is it about that art style that appeals to you to interpret?
SP: There were a few games I was into at art school. We had a little, tiny arcade across the street and there was a handful of video games that I would go and put quarters into. My favorite was Sinistar, so whenever those guys would ask me to paint something, the first game I thought of was Sinistar.
I got one of the panels from one of the Sinistar games hanging over my door at my office at work because I remember loving the idea of that game so much. It actually created real fear while playing, like you'd let go of the controller and recoil whenever the face would appear of the guy: [Adopts gruff voice.] "I hunger! Run, run, run coward!" It was just so fundamentally suspenseful and there wasn't a lot to do except collect those things and drop them off in his face, but for some reason I was obsessed with that.
And then there were a few like Joust and things like that. That was the perfect time in games for me to remember in ways to create an image out of it.
AVC: What kind of games do you play?
SP: I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, and we end up playing stuff like Mario Kart, or we'll be on the Wii playing sports games and things like that. Pretty simple stuff. I have friends that play a lot of the battle games and stuff, but I've never gotten into those. They look cool and I look over people's shoulders when they're playing, but I feel like it's almost another job to get that invested in one of those. It's like, "Okay, this is going to take me some ramp-up time to learn it, so I can stand to be in the room playing it with those guys without being killed every two seconds." So I just never get around to spending the effort that it takes to get there.
AVC: Why do you think Sam & Max has resonated so much? It started years ago in your childhood as a comic and here it is still getting more life.
SP: Yeah, it's great. A lot of that is the fans that have kept it alive. When people discovered it, they would be such rabid fans of it they would feel like they were the ones that got it. It was a little too obscure for their friends, maybe, but they were the ones that were getting it.
AVC: It was made just for them.
SP: Yeah, and it's still not [so] mainstream that it’s alienated any of those original fans. A thing about the old comics I always heard was that people would lend them to their friends and never get them back. It was always this process where you'd be trying to turn someone onto it, which I thought was great. So there was a long stretch where I didn't do anything with Sam & Max and there were fan sites that were keeping them active, so I attribute that [to the fact] they're still around.
AVC: Has the reprint of your comics bred any new interest?
SP: I have no idea. I haven't checked with the sales figures for that, but I'd imagine there must be a saturation point for the same set of comics that that reprint has been. I'm not sure I can milk any more readers out of that one. I always tell people I have this story at home that's half-finished, and a quarter of it is inked and it's the story I feel I should sit down and finish and get it off my plate once and for all. It's a story where Max is shot in the ear and has to go to the hospital, and Sam recruits a new partner: a white-handed gibbon.
AVC: Oh, that’s teased in one of the old comics. I just assumed it was a joke.
SP: In the back of the paperback there's a cover for it that I actually painted while I was working on the story. So I know how it turns out, and I've got the thumbnails for the whole book pretty much, so it's just a matter of sitting and making the time to see it through. It'll plague me as long as I don't do it. I know I need to get it done someday.
AVC: There’s still a lot of fans clamoring for an honest-to-God new Monkey Island game with Ron Gilbert at the helm. Should they still be holding their breath?
SP: Ah, I don't know. I think what's great about the Telltale stuff is they run so lean and they're able to try some stuff out and respond to feedback. I don't know if they change their storyline or anything like that, but I think it makes it manageable to create it in these small chunks.
There's a young guy I work with at Pixar. He had his iPhone in his hand, and was so excited to be playing the original Monkey Island on his iPhone because he was a fan of it when he was a kid and he was playing it originally. It's funny because I have a cover for the second game that is like an oil painting hanging in my office there and when I found out he was a fan I called him over, "Hey, come and take a look at this." It's fun to know there are still fans for that stuff. I think it's great that they're giving the stuff back to those fans and new fans that don't know about that stuff. It helps all of us if people are interested in adventure games again.