Interview with Bret Mogilefsky

Published during 2000 by xGrimx; Bret Mogilefsky was the Grim Fandango Lead Programmer

First off, tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a game programmer. I used to work at LucasArts as a game tester. Then I went away to college and came back as a programmer. Among other things, I was the lead programmer on Grim Fandango and the initial lead programmer on Escape From Monkey Island. Now I work at Sony Computer Entertainment America doing Playstation2 stuff.

Were there any features that you wanted to incorporate into Grim Fandango, but were not able to?

Depends on what you mean by features. In terms of game content, we designed about 25% more game than we actually made, but that much was cut very early on. It was hard to see little bits that we’d thought were brilliant when we came up with them suddenly not fit, and have to get discarded. This turned out to be a good thing, not simply because of budget constraints but because the parts that were cut were extraneous to the game. The game’s huge enough as it is…

In terms of engine features, there were some puzzles that we wanted to be a little bit more physically-based… For example, the grappling-hook coral puzzle in Year One was originally supposed to be a mini-game, where you could actually swing the rope around over your head and aim to wrap it around targets. The Bone Wagon shocks puzzle and the flaming beaver puzzles were supposed to be the same way. This turned out to be much harder than you might think, and the thing about adventure games of this sort is that a lot of the animation is a one-shot only… Getting physics to work reasonably would be an awful lot of work if it was just going to be used in tiny parts of the game. Overall the game was designed with the more traditional SCUMM style in mind, so we ended up making special animations for those parts. I don’t think anyone missed it. There are probably other things that I’m forgetting now… (If anyone’s interested in some of the interior engine design decisions, I suggest you check out a post I made to the Lua mailing list: http://www.egroups.com/message/lua-l/905.)

I do wish we’d though more about console development from the outset. I think Grim would have been awesome on the Playstation. The game engine as it stood pretty much assumed a PC architecture, though, so I doubt we’ll ever see that.

What is your favourite adventure game(s)?

My favorite ever would probably be Infocom’s Enchanter, if not for the fact that I had to spend a couple weeks wrestling with the parser, trying everything except “REACH IN HOLE” to try to grab the final scroll I needed to finish the game. Hitchhiker’s Guide was also great. In terms of graphic adventures? I don’t know, that’s very hard to say since I worked on lots of them as a tester (Secret of Monkey Island, Fate of Atlantis, LeChuck’s Revenge, ports of Zak McKraken, and others). When you work on them it’s harder to step back and see them as games. I do still love the Secret of Monkey Island. In terms of stuff from other companies than LucasArts? I liked an obscure Sierra game based on The Black Cauldron, but that’s probably just because I enjoyed the books so much.

What are the games you’re playing at the moment?

SSX for the Playstation2 rocks the block!! I simply cannot get enough of that game. A snowboarding game (or any sports game) is not the kind of thing I normally play, but that game is just a ton of addictive fun. I’ve opened up all of the main tracks in the game, but I’m still going back to the earliest courses and finding shortcuts and secrets I missed. The double-donut shortcut on Merqury City is currently giving me trouble but I’m working on it… I play Mr. Driller on the Playstation whenever I need to blow off steam or kill five minutes while I’m waiting for something. It’s easily the best puzzle game I’ve ever played. Curiously enough, I don’t play games on the PC very much anymore… I’m finding out how much nicer it is to play a game while kicking back on the couch than while sitting at a desk. The last PC game I bought was probably Battlezone II, and it was quite disappointing since I loved the first one so much. I’m looking forward to the same biggies that everyone else is: Black and White, Halo, Metal Gear Solid 2, etc.

How did you end up at LucasArts?

I was a junior in high school. My brother was a film major graduating from USC. He wanted to work at a film company, but not in Hollywood, so he tried calling Lucasfilm. They transferred him to a job recording where he heard nothing that interested him. The last job listed was the game testing position at Lucasfilm Games. He mentioned it to me and I flipped out, having just finished Zak McKraken and Maniac Mansion. I made up my “resume” such as it was and sent it in. Three weeks later I was sweating in slacks and a tie under the hot afternoon sun, being interviewed by people in shorts and sunglasses on Skywalker Ranch, which is where Games was at the time. I actually started work the day Games got big enough that it moved off of the Ranch. I worked that summer, driving over an hour to and from San Rafael, CA for what seemed like great pay (for a high school kid) but which barely covered the gas. Monkey Island was the first game I tested. I went back and finished high school, then tested again over the summer before I started college. I went for a computer science degree, but didn’t think much about programming games until right before I was about to graduate. Right then 3D was taking off and it looked like a lot of fun, so I called up friends who were still there and asked them to submit my resume. I started in November 1995, but it turned out I was never taken off the payroll from my testing days… My employee number was 17. =)

Grim Fandango was quite different from all of the previous LucasArts adventure games, not as bright and cheerful etc. and using a 3D based design, was there a lot of scepticism/caution about its release?

…about the design? Not much. People were pretty much sold on the story/setting from the first five page design doc, even before there were puzzles or more than a few characters. The other people working on Grim are largely responsible for its success. People tend to think of games as having only one or two guys working on them, but it’s just not true. At peak Grim had almost 30 people working on it full-time, mostly artists. The artists produced such fantastic stuff that people wanted to play the game from day one. The script programmers worked their asses off to make the game shine; a new language in a new engine does not make this an easy task, and they handled it. Tim followed up his great design with 8000 lines of terrific dialog. The testers pulled incredible shifts getting the game ready for the deadline. The work all of these people did stood up for itself in times of crisis. Game-making is often about compromises, but I think people who would normally be calling for such things did their best to give us room to make the game we started out to make.

…about the engine? Plenty. SCUMM was a workhorse for many years, and the original plan was to put the Jedi Knight software renderer into the character costume system for SCUMM. It turned out that most of the tools that made SCUMM great were made with 2D costumes in mind, and retrofitting those tools would be about as much work as making entirely new ones. It was much easier to show static 3D scenes than is was to try to fit 3D inside of 2D. Aside from the tools, the main thing that SCUMM offered was the language itself: a high-level, fast, forgiving, expressive syntax well-suited to adventure games. Eventually Lua crossed my path and I thought I had enough pieces together to justify not using SCUMM. This was a very tough decision to make and sell, especially since this was my first game and I was fresh out of school; people had tried to replace SCUMM before and were not successful. Luckily I got a lot of support from Tim and we went for it. There were some rough spots, but I never regretted the decision. I’d like to make it clear that the Grim engine was modeled very much as a logical successor to SCUMM… SCUMM did many things very well, and were it not for SCUMM as a model, the engine would have been much harder to write, and Grim might not have been as successful.

Any interesting stories about the creation of Grim Fandango?

The best ones are private. Here’s a minor public one, though.

We desperately needed lip-sync in the game, and time was running out. With Glottis’ big orange head, for example, it was pretty obvious when he was and wasn’t lip-syncing his lines. I’d been researching some phoneme-recognition papers, but it was all way over my head and I didn’t have enough time to learn it all before our ship date. Then one day I stumbled on something called the Linguistic Information Sound Editing Tool, from Microsoft. It was a free tool that Microsoft had made available in its Agent SDK. The Agent SDK was a tookit that Microsoft apparently poured some money into so that it would be easy for developers to make their own in-product agents like the paper clip in Microsoft Word. Apparently they really thought this was going to take off. They also had researchers working on voice recognition, and this tool was the result of their work. If you wanted your agent to talk, you could give this tool a .wav file and the text transcript of it, and the tool would fit phoneme markers to the waveform, then spit out a .wav with the phoneme markers and their timing attached to the end.

It worked surprisingly well, and managed to do about 90% of our 8000 voice lines without intervention. The remaining 800 or so were either redone by hand (which the tool also allowed) or were just let through. Some of these were things like Glottis going, “WWOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRRRRRAAAAUUGH!” so it’s no surprise the tool had trouble. It only handled English voices, so we did the usual yammer-mouth in other languages. Microsoft said in the docs they were going to ship other language packs, but it never happened. I wish non-English fans got to see the same good syncing the Engligh version has…

I’m sad that we didn’t do Glottis’ first few lines by hand… That always jumps out at me as a terrible bug though no one else seems to notice it. His sync for the rest of the game was pretty good, though one of the last things I did on the game before it shipped was to write a special tool that stuck together the lip-sync markers for all of his lines when he sings the Rusty Anchor song. That was a bitch, but it looks great. There’s this one laugh that Manny does in his exchange with Maximino that looks just perfect.

The tough thing about a game is, the little touches you work hardest on are the things nobody notices directly. Reviewers don’t rave about what great lip-syncing Grim had, but it’s something that you would notice immediately if it weren’t there. People don’t realize what an incredible pain in the ass it was for Kevin Bruner to figure out how to keep Manny from sticking things through the walls when he’s carrying stuff in his hands, but it’s pretty hard to get him to do it. Ray Gresko calls this attention to detail “chrome”, as in chrome-plating, and you can see it in your favorite games… Ray was referring to Duke Nukem 3D when he said it. Half-Life springs to mind as a game absolutely stuffed full of chrome.

We have to ask this one, do you think there should be a Grim Fandango 2, and do you think it’ll ever happen?

Grim Fandango is a complete story. I’m frustrated by people who are dying to know what happened before or after. I don’t think there should be a Grim Fandango 2; though the game world might be rich enough to hold another story. I don’t think there should be a game involving any characters we’ve seen. Will it ever happen? I have no idea… That’s entirely up to LucasArts. If it does happen, I hope it’s done well.

What was your favourite thing about Grim Fandango?

The whole pre-production design period was a blast. It was great to be able to take part in fleshing out just a sketch of a world with puzzles and characters, then watch amazingly talented artists bring it to life. (I especially loved the huge wall of concept art that kept everyone going from start to finish, and I wish I managed to take some of it with me.) The rest was just not sleeping and working really hard and trying to fix the bug du jour… I still like watching people play it, and I like hearing that people finished it and liked it the whole way through. Oh yeah, and Sanspoof.

Any final comments you’d like to say?

Making a good game is not an easy thing. GF took over three years of actual work and around five years off the end of my life. The last few weeks before we got it out the door were the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced. After months and months of crunch mode and threats from CompUSA legbreakers and the lack of any feedback from anyone outside the company, we really had no idea what the game was like. I knew we’d started with a terrific concept, but we didn’t know the answers to some crucial questions: Did it look outdated already? Did the story work? Would anyone care about this game at all? Had I just wasted three years of my life? When we finished the game I never wanted to hear about it again; I only wanted to sleep for a month.

Now two years later, I have my answers. Grim didn’t exactly tear the roof off the game industry, but stands as a work of craftsmanship and passion, the sweat and tears of many talented people working their asses off for a common vision. I’m far enough from it now that I’m proud to have worked on it, and I’m happy at the reception it’s gotten. I don’t know yet if I’ve got another game as challenging as Grim Fandango in me. I’m glad it made people happy and gave them something to share.

Oh yeah, and grim-handango.mp3 is hysterical! Some of you have waaaaaaaay too much time on your hands.

Thanks a lot, Bret. We really appreciate you taking your time to answer these questions. As part of the GF community we’d like to say thanks.

You’re welcome. Sorry to be so long-winded; Grim meant a lot to me.

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