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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DAVE GROSSMAN

EDITING SCISSORS
By Santiago Mendez

Creative, original, brilliant and funny to no end, Dave Grossman, is possibly one of the few real writters in the game industry.
Going back to The Secrets of Monkey Island, he was involved in some of the best LucasArts adventure games of all time. Despite his common association with humour, he also played a part in the long history of The Dig.

For those who don't know you can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you get into the game industry?

Dave making some adjustments to what he calls the "3-Cylinder Haiku Poematic"OK: I'm the sort of person who enjoys throwing rocks into water. I like to cook and am learning how. I still have most of my own teeth. I often dress in cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirts and Vans canvas shoes. I collect tiki statues to go with the shirts. Married, no children, but we do keep a goldfish - his name is Gomez, and he is seven and a half years old (I think that's about a hundred and fifty in goldfish years).

I make my living as an author of computer games, which is a little like being a writer and a little like being an inventor and a little like hosting a dinner party for complete strangers - you want to anticipate the interests and desires of your guests as much as possible, but in the end you have to be ready for pretty much anything. My job is to take a heavy rectangle of silicon and electricity and make it fun to play with. I create stories that are told interactively, I invent silly puzzles, I write endless dialogs to make characters on a small screen seem as lively and robust as possible. What could be better than that?

I got into the games industry by accident in 1989, when, wandering around in a post-collegiate daze, I stumbled upon a group of gnomes calling themselves LucasFilm Games, who were looking for youthful enthusiasm to toil in the mines while learning the craft of game making. This was definitely for me. I signed up immediately. I stayed there for five years, during which time I worked as a writer, designer, programmer, and/or project leader on what I still think are some pretty cool games, most notably the humor titles: Monkey Island 1 and 2 and Day of the Tentacle.

These days I spend half of my time at Telltale Games and the other half fooling around in other media [here's where I plug my website: go to www.phrenopolis.com and buy a copy of Ode to the Stuff in the Sink]. Over the years I've done quite a few titles for a younger audience, like Pajama Sam, Moop & Dreadly, and so on - but this is a Dig fan site, so you'll probably be more interested to hear about the two different times I worked on The Dig in the early 1990s.

What can you tell us about your involvment in Falstein's version?

Between Monkey 1 and Monkey 2, I worked with Noah Falstein for a while on the first version of The Dig, helping with the design and heading up the scripting team. We had lofty goals, trying to build in elements of graphic adventure, RPG, and action games, and trying to create an atmosphere of greed and mistrust between two characters even though the player could control both of them (in fact, you HAD to play both of them in order to get past some of the puzzles). Tricky.

Alien creature from Falstein's versionIn that first version you were interstellar treasure hunters, shipwrecked on a distant planet without much in the way of supplies, so you had to scavenge things, hunt for food, and so on. Hopefully you didn't eat anything that was intelligent. Then you started to find these peculiar alien devices that you could poke around with until you figured out what they did, and hopefully they didn't zap you in the leg or turn all your food into green slime. Eventually you uncovered the remnants of a vast, highly advanced civilization and the characters started to get greedy and paranoid, which is where it becomes similar to the version that was eventually released.

We had artists drawing all sorts of interesting six-limbed wildlife, and meanwhile we rotoscoped the human characters, which is to say we videotaped people walking around and animated over the video frames to get more realistic movement - a new process for us in those dark days before motion capture. A bit of trivia: Sean Clark, who was on the scripting team by that point, was videotaped as one of the two lead characters.

Unfortunately, the games division was a little overextended at that time and there was some pressure on us to make a profit (imagine that). It was decided to focus more people on fewer projects, and The Dig was more of a question mark than some of the others - it was somewhat experimental, there were technical hurdles involved with getting the SCUMM system (our game engine) to handle the action elements, and the game was still trying to find its identity. So The Dig was put on the shelf for about a year, until Brian Moriarty started work on a completely new version.

You also were one of the four project leaders. But as far as we know you were more like a "bridge" or transition between Brian Moriarty and Sean Clark. What did you do in that short period?

Snapshot from an early version of The DigNot much. I was basically a hedge trimmer. Brian had left the company, and The Dig was still in a sort of larval stage - it was moving around and eating, but had a long way to go to get to its final form. There was a general feeling, which I shared, that the design needed more work, and I was asked to fix it up while retaining as much as possible of what had been been done so far - starting over yet again would have been prohibitively expensive. So I went in with my editing scissors, snip snip snip, and held a lot of brainstorming meetings with the team to try to iron out the kinks. Possibly some of the design changes we made on my watch are in the release version, I really have no idea.

Did you had the chance to meet or talk to Steven Spielberg?

OK, story time. Picture this. It's right at the beginning of the project and the Dig team is basically just Noah Falstein and me. Steven Spielberg is in town and he's coming to Skywalker Ranch to meet with some people about models for Jurassic Park, so we arrange to see him, just to brainstorm ideas without any real goals. Also present are Ron Gilbert and George Lucas.

The 'Main House' at Skywalker RanchThe Main House at Skywalker is a pretty swanky place, and the meeting is in a boardroom with a table the size of a railroad car, made of oak or mahogany or some other sort of expensive wood. I'm a fidgety young kid with clothes that come pre-wrinkled, and this room makes me feel about as out of place as a cigarette butt in a souffle. I'm a little on edge just being in here.

Then George and Steven show up and we all say hello. Now, I've been playing it cool like it's no big deal, and I know they're just people who sneeze and drop forks like everybody else, but... it's Lucas and Spielberg! These guys are famous and powerful and rich and, although they don't act like any of those things, I'm totally intimidated (I should mention that although I've been working for George for a year or so at this point, this is only the second time I've met him). I realize I'm really fairly nervous now.

George and Steven chit-chat with each other for a little bit. They've been friends a long time and it shows. George seems particularly excited to tell Steven about his new car, an Acura I think - they're not even available to the public yet, but he's managed to get the first one off the boat, and it's parked conspicuously right in front of the building.

View of the Skywalker RanchPretty soon they start talking about ideas for The Dig, and they are Rapid-Fire Machine Guns of Creativity. Clearly they do this a lot. It's all very high-concept and all over the map, and I have no idea how we're going to make any of it into a game, but that's kind of what brainstorming sessions are all about. Ron and Noah offer up a few thoughts. I have a few myself, but somehow I don't feel worthy enough to break in with them. So I sit and listen, and gradually my nervousness is joined by embarassment that I'm not saying anything.

A snack has been provided for the gathering, some sort of crumbly carbohydrate item, corn bread, if I remember correctly. So I take a piece - I'm kind of hungry, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I take a bite. Normally, the food at Skywalker Ranch is absolutely amazing, but this particular corn bread has been made extra dry. Chalk dry. My mouth is already parched from being nervous, so it takes me a while before I'm able to swallow the bite, and as I chomp and smack at it I'm sure I'm making more noise than a dozen weasels in a paper bag, even though everyone pretends not to notice. There are drinks in the room, but they have been placed out of the way, approximately a quarter-mile from where we're sitting, and I can't get up to get one without disrupting everything, and I'm sure by now George and Steven are wondering why I'm in the meeting in the first place.

I want to abandon the corn bread, but it's begun falling apart, and I can't put it down on my tiny napkin without making a huge mess. So I eat the whole piece. It takes about twenty minutes. I myself am covered with tiny crumbs, but at least there aren't any on the gorgeous table.Steven Spielberg, a guy who "drop forks" just like everybody else

By now the stakes are quite high. Because I've been quiet so long, the mere fact of my speaking up will be a noteworthy event, and anything I say has to measure up to that noteworthiness. You can't break a long silence with a throw-away comment, it has to be a weighty, breathtaking observation that causes each person in the room to re-examine himself in its light. While I'm waiting for a thought that good, more time goes by and raises the bar even higher. I spend the rest of the meeting in a state of near-total paralysis, trying to figure out how I can get out of the room without anyone noticing, or, better yet, how I can go back in time and arrange not to be there in the first place.

So, yes, I did technically get to meet Steven Spielberg face-to-face once while we were working on The Dig. I actually talked to him later on, when he called to get hints on one of our other games (I think it was Day of the Tentacle), which he was playing with his son. (One of the lesser-known perks of being a famous filmmaker is that you can talk directly to the game designers for hints instead of calling the hint line.) Nice guy.

Have you played the released game?

I think the last time I played through any of it was still quite a while before it was finished. And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I remember tiny people in space suits, and wishing they'd take their helmets off so I could tell them apart.

Would you like to see Steven Spielberg's The Dig movie?

Yes, I bet I'd enjoy it. I think he'd do a great job with the tension and suspicion and greed that are central to the concept as he initially voiced it (Forbidden Planet meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre was how it was always pitched). It may even be better suited to be a movie than a game.

I don't know if you are aware, but you (along a big bunch of other people*) are credited in The Dig as "Ghost of Dig past". What does it feel to be part of this club of ghosts?

I'm not sure I like the implications of my demise that go along with the term "ghost" (I want to reassure you that I am not currently deceased, despite any rumors to the contrary), but a scan through the club roster suggests that the meetings would be lively ones. I see the names of people I like and admire, people I'm still in touch with more than ten years later. A quick finger count tells me I've spoken to about a third of the members of the list within the past year, and I've collaborated with several of them recently. I could think of worse clubs to belong to. How much are the dues?

---------
*
For informative reasons, here is the full club of "ghosts of dig past":

Larry Ahern
Steve Arnold
Ron Baldwin
Lucy Bradshaw
Armand Cabrera
Mark Christiansen
Wayne Cline
Shelley Day
James Dollar
Noah Falstein
Kelly Flock
Ron Gilbert
Doug Glenn
Dave Grossman
Avril Harrison
Chris Hockabout
Joe Pinney
Ken Macklin
Ian McCaig
Jim McCloud
Brian Moriarty
James Pickerell
Stephen Shaw
Bill Stoneham
Terry Whitlatc

July, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Santiago Méndez.

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