Apr 11, 2017, 09:42AM

Gaming Legend Recalls Making Day of the Tentacle

And other classic video games.

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Dave Grossman has had a storied career in game development, working on classic, point-and-click adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island. One of his best known titles is Day of the Tentacle, a quirky game released in 1993, in which the protagonists travel through time in porta potties to stop a mutant from taking over the world. In this interview, Grossman reminisces about creating the comic masterpiece.

SPLICE TODAY: How did you get into making games?

DAVE GROSSMAN: More or less by accident. It was not something I was trying to do in the way people do these days. The situation was different in 1989. The industry was small and more or less invisible. I was just a computer-science kid. I’d been in an AI masters program and decided it wasn't for me. I dropped out and was looking for something working with computers, because I loved computers. I wanted it to be something fun, which I told my mother. She rolled her eyes and was like, "Oh geez, my son—he's going to be a problem."

So I just went looking. I looked at some stuff in the music industry. People were doing some digitization stuff that was kind of cool. There were opportunities to do things like missile guidance systems. I just thought, that seems immoral to me. Then I was at the career center at my old college, at Berkeley. It was this temporary building that was built in the 1940s probably. But they still called it temporary, because it looked like it was going to fall down at any point. It was just full of binders of paper job offerings from various companies around the area.

This was slightly pre-Internet. I mean, there was an Internet, but you didn't advertise jobs on it. Nobody would see them. There was one in [a binder] there, from this little outfit Lucasfilm. They were looking for people to make games. I thought, I've got the background for that; that sounds really fun and cool, so I'm going to apply for that. I did and they hired me. I've been doing that ever since.

ST: You and Tim Schafer were co-directors and co-producers on Day of the Tentacle. What were your responsibilities in this respect and how did you divided them with Schafer?

DG: We were called project leaders, which was the official title. But it did translate into director/producer in modern terms. It was mostly a creative leadership role. So there was lots of going around everybody's desk every day, commenting on what they were doing, and keeping them in the zone of the game we were trying to make. But there was also assigning tasks. We had to create our own budget and make sure everybody was keeping up on things. On the art side, we had a lead animator who handled some of that, which was good. But we had to do everybody else. So there were some “producer” aspects to that.

There were originally some other people who were titled as producers on that game. But they were mostly doing physical media—the box, hint books, and ancillary stuff that would wind up there. At some point, they all got laid off. It was my first-ever round of layoffs as a professional gaming person. It was a trimming-the-fat-out thing. They were like, "We don't really need producers around here. We can just have one person who handles this for the whole studio." So they kicked them out the door, which was too bad.

You asked about how we split it up. The answer is we mostly didn't. We kind of went around together all day, and visited everybody together. It was just, "Let's have a conversation with so-and-so about this piece of animation they're working on." I’d say something; Tim would say something. He's a little less shy than me. We're both kind of shy, which you might be surprised to hear, given that we speak in public and do these things now. But we had to work up to it. He led more of the meetings than I did when there were a lot of people. I was more intimidated.

We’d been in lockstep the whole way and that was good. The company wanted that, because it was our first time out. We were there to check and balance each other. They didn't trust us yet. But after we'd been doing it for a year, they were like, "All right, you guys should actually start doing some things separately." I took the management of the music for the game. Somebody had to go talk to the composers who knew how to talk music a little bit. We were doing voice [acting]. Tim handled that a little bit more, although we created a separate department to manage that stuff as well.

We were still shipping on flopping disks. So we shipped that game, actually, on a CD—but then also on floppy disks, because not everybody had a CD player at that time. We had to squeeze it down onto six floppy disks. If you try and imagine doing that with a game today, it's ridiculous. So I was in there, taking individual sound effects and recompressing them at a slightly lower rate to save like 2K. I was just inching closer and closer. Finally, I got it onto the six disks. Then they were like, "Also, we have a German version and all the text is longer in German. So it won't fit." I think we gave up. I think we threw our hands in the air and said we're going to ship seven disks in Germany.

ST: Again, you and Schafer share writing and design credit on the game. Tell me about your contributions there.

DG: We split it kind of evenly. The design stuff was people in a room together, batting stuff around. That's the best way to do that. People come up with ideas. You workshop them together and make a thing out of it. There wasn't a lot of, "You go off and design a puzzle. I'll go off and design a puzzle." The writing stuff was more solitary. It would be Tim over on one side of the room and me over on the other side of the room. We mostly didn't do it until about 5 p.m., when everybody else was starting to go home or it was winding down. We had seen everybody and given all the direction we were going to [give] for the day. It would be, "All right, now it's writing time. It's quiet. We can actually think."

We’d divide stuff up mostly by scene or by character. I looked back at it recently, because we did the re-mastered version. In many cases, it's hard for me to tell who wrote what. Tim does have a slightly different style than me. If the number of witty one-liners is higher, then that's probably something Tim wrote. He's a little sharper. I make up for it by volume. I just write lots of lines and hope that something will hit.

Things like all the conversations that you have with Dead Cousin Ted, the mummy character, some of those go on and on and on. That's me doing those. Tim did Ben Franklin, although sometimes he denies it now. There're a lot of great Tim lines in Ben's dialogue. I did the other Founding Fathers, the guys who are drafting the Constitution. It was a big group scene. That was all me. It held together pretty well. Our senses of humor are pretty compatible. I would edit his stuff and he would edit my stuff.

ST: How involved were you in casting voice actors and overseeing their performances? It sounded like you were saying Schafer was mostly in charge of that.

DG: The casting we did together. We decided, in the middle of the project, to make it a talkie. That wasn't in the original plan at all. Kelly Flock, I think it was, who was running the division at the time, came and said, "Look, I'll give you some extra time. But you've got to make the thing a talkie. We'll ship it on a CD. This is the next big thing. People are going to do talkies." We were like, "All right, we're going to make the entire thing a talkie. We're going to record every line in the game." I think we were the first ones to do that.

We formed a sound department with two people. There was Tamlynn Barra and Khris Brown. They were the sound person and assistant sound person. They went out and got us material. We sat down with them and said, "This person should sound kind of like this and this person should sound kind do like that." They went out and found actors and agents. They got us a bunch of demos and auditions. They came on cassette tapes, because that's what people did in those days. It was archaic, but effective and fun. I've done lots of casting since then. I just love listening to people reading stuff into a microphone for some reason — especially for [Day of the Tentacle] with everybody's cartoon voices. It was pretty hilarious.

We’d listen to them and talk about it. We'd say, "We like this. We don't like that. Go see if you can get this guy." A couple of actors played a lot of roles in that. Danny Delk did about five parts and Nick Jameson did about five parts. Tamlynn and Khris went and handled all the voice direction. We kind of stayed out of it. Tim might have gone down one time for a session.

Casting Bernard was the hardest bit. We had lined everybody else up. We had so much trouble characterizing what he should sound like, because we really wanted him to sound like nothing. He was supposed to be this nebbish, everyman character. Finally, it was just a flash of inspiration. We were in the middle of a meeting and I was like, "You know what he should sound like? That guy from WKRP, Les Nessman." And Tamlynn said, "Oh, I know that guy's agent. Maybe we could get him." I was like, "Really? That guy's on TV. We could get him? OK, great!" She went out and got him and he was awesome.

ST: Do you have any particularly fond memories from making the game?

DG: That was a good project. Everyone we were working with was really sweet. They were all into it, so it was a good time. We made everybody yo-yos. T-shirts weren't really a thing the company did very much at that time. We wanted something for the [development] team while we were working on the game. Tim and I had gotten into yo-yos in a heavy way at that time. So we went out and bought a bunch of cheap, wooden yo-yos. I had a setup to do screen printing, so I screen-printed a logo on them for everybody that was on the team. It said Maniac 2, because we hadn't settled on the final title.

There were two project babies. Gwen Musengwa—one of the SCUMMlets [named after the SCUMM game engine], who were handling the scene-by-scene programming—had a kid. She brought Charlotte around the office all the time. There was an office in the corner. Somebody was on vacation. We would stick the kid in there. All day long, people would be in and out of there, like, "I'm going to go see the baby. I'm going to go pet the baby. I'm going to go coo at the baby." That kid is now out of college, super-well socialized, and loves people. Growing up in a computer-game office is a weird thing.

ST: What aspects of programming Day of the Tentacle you had your hands in.

DG: There are several levels to programming on one of those old LucasArts SCUMM titles. There's the actual SCUMM system itself, which is the engine that talks to the computer, reads the interpreted language and actually shows you stuff on screen. We didn't do anything with that. That was Aric Wilmunder and Brad Taylor. Originally, Ron Gilbert had written the thing, but Aric and Brad were maintaining it while we were doing this game.

At the top level, there was almost a screenwriting language that was handling scene-by-scene stuff, like, "Walk the actor over to this point. Have them do this gesture. Put this costume on them. Have them say this line." It was kind of cool to write language like that. It was like writing a screenplay—screenplay writing for programmers. Tim and I had done that on the two Monkey games that we did before that. But we handed that part off, mostly, on Tentacle, to two other people.

We did the part in the middle, which was more system-level, but on top of the SCUMM-system stuff. It was internal scripts that were handling stuff like what happens when you click on the screen and how does it build the sentence. There were special cases, like somebody's on a ladder. When you click on the ground, they should first get off the ladder and then do what they were supposed to go and do. We were handling a lot of that stuff, because we understood the SCUMM language well enough to pull it off. We didn't trust anyone else to do that.

But the programming was not our major focus. It was one of the few tasks we were willing to give up when we took on the director roles. It was like, "Okay, this used to be our job. But probably we shouldn't do as much of that anymore." To be honest, in the credits there's a long list of people who are credited with programming the game. Gwen and Judith [Lucero] did most of it.

ST: Why is Day of the Tentacle so beloved?

DG: One of the things that makes that game hold up is that it's cohesive, in terms of presenting a unified experienced. Everything is in service of this one goal of making you feel like a cartoon character. Like, "I am a Warner Bros. cartoon. I look like a Warner Bros. cartoon character. I squash and stretch when I walk around. So does everybody else. The lines are funny. Even the puzzles are designed so I have to think like a cartoon character in order to finish this game. I have to paint lines on the skunk and do all this classic, absurdist-logic, Road Runner cartoon kind of things." We got recordings of Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling. Those were the inspirations for the composition.

Nothing was in argument with the central aesthetic. It felt like all the parts were working together to create this thing. As a result, it's stronger and better than it would’ve been if, say, it looked like a cartoon but was written like an Umberto Eco novel. The cohesiveness is a big part of it. Also, I think we were being pretty funny. I find drama more difficult, but I'm told good humor is hard.

ST: What are you currently working on?

DG: What I'm working on now is Earplay. It's called that because we're making audio stories that you play with your voice. Imagine you're walking your dog or cooking dinner and you have your phone or your Amazon Alexa device nearby. It tells you a story and you have frequent points where you get to tell it what you want to happen next or what you want to do. You're usually a character in the story. It's giving you stuff like, "Do you want the slip the guy a Mickey? Do you want to hit the guy over the head? Or do you want to run away?" It's pretty cool. There's some demo content out for it now on iOS and Alexa. Just look for Earplay and you'll find it.


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