Interview with Bret Mogilefsky #2

Published during 2001 by Ryan Williams; Bret Mogilefsky was the Grim Fandango Lead Programmer

Ryan Williams: What was it like being able to have full access to Lucasart’s resources?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Grim Fandango was made by a lot of dedicated, talented people, far more of them than get gaming press coverage. These *people* are the main resources for any good game. Corporate backing is good, but without the talent and dedication, the game’s bad before it starts. LucasArts had a great staff of artists and programmers while Grim was being made, and being able to draw from the programming being done on other games was especially helpful. (I still owe a large debt to the guys who did Jedi Knight (Ray, Rob, Yuen, Winston, and many more) for Renderdroid and Vince Lee for the Smush video player. Thanks guys!)

GregD: Would you like to help me on plunder3d? :)

I’m a programmer, not an artist! Plus I’m pretty busy lately…

Skyfox: Why the 3D interface in Grim worked so well, yet didn’t seem to fit in with EMI well at all?

I couldn’t tell you… I was only on EMI for a few months. I will say that just about every item placed in Grim was placed by hand, and the “noticeable” radius was set on each individually; this was a labor intensive process, and if the EMI team developed a way to automate that placement, it would explain if not every object is so well “tuned” as it might have been. However, I don’t think there was anything technically different between the two engines that would explain this.

Cheese-Kid: How did you get into video game programming?

When I was 16, my brother, a recent graduate from film school, called a job hotline at Lucasfilm looking for a job. He found none for himself, but noticed a game testing position and mentioned it to me, his game-freak little brother. I just about flipped (having just finished Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders), and applied immediately. I had that position for two summers and learned a lot about the whole game making process, as well as the industry and what kind of technical prowess was necessary up front. Later I went to UC Berkeley and frittered around for a bit before finally realizing that it was computer science that I wanted to specialize in. By the time I graduated, I had a very well-rounded CS education and was looking around Silicon Valley for jobs, but not thinking about games too much. Then I ran into Dave Grossman, who I knew from my testing days, and he suggested I try LucasArts. Sure enough, it turned out that games were about to go 3d in a big way and it was a good fit for me. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time… I was hired to work on Grim, and it was the first game I programmed.

I should emphasize again that I started as a tester. In fact, half the people I know in the game industry started as testers. It’s an excellent way to get into the industry and has a lot of upward potential. (Don’t think it’s too glamorous, though… You might like playing Grim once or twice, but think about playing it every day for a year while it’s half-complete or crashing.)

Jim Weatherby: Why is Grim Fandango based around Aztec/Spanish culture?

Because it’s more fun and original than the same tired science fiction and fantasy cliches that pervade the game industry, because it immediately leads the art style, because the mythology provides rich source material, because the characters got cool accents, and because a burning drunken leprechaun appeared to us in a dream and told us to make it that way. Oh wait, no, that was Tim, who made the decision for all of these reasons. Everyone steals from everyone else when they make something; we just stole from classier source material than most. =) I think any game company that starts a game by saying “it won’t be fantasy, and it won’t be sci-fi” will immediately be doing much more original and interesting work. Think of some other successful LucasArts games… Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Sam and Max… These are all games that point off in a different direction than anything that came before them. Grim happened to draw a line right through art deco, film noir, and spanish culture, all of which contributed to a classy mixture.

Tony Teulan: Do Lucasarts intend to make more adventure games as opposed to Star Wars-type games?

I couldn’t tell you; I don’t work there. You’ll have to ask them. =)

Sergon: Did you work on the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine project? If you did, was if the graphic engine of that game was the same of Escape From Monkey Island?

Both Grim and Infernal Machine borrowed the rendering engine from Jedi Knight and then futher hacked it up to suit their own needs. We pretty much redid the source data path and mainly used it for rendering our characters; we had no need of physics, and hence the actual 3d geometry we were sending down for the rooms was very simple. Infernal Machine was closer to Jedi Knight so they kept a lot more of it. Escape from Monkey Island, however, ditched Renderdroid entirely; it was a good library, but it was past it’s prime. At the time I left, it was sharing lots of graphics code with Obi-Wan, but I think there was again a divergence to suit specific game functionality. So the short answer is, no, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine does not have the same graphic engine as Escape from Monkey Island.

Benjadood: Exactly how long did it take to create Grim Fandango?

Close to three years, but remember that the time is further divided between pre-production (when there are maybe five people on the game) and production (where the number of people ramps up in the middle as artists and programmers are added, then decreases toward the end as art is done, artists are removed, and programmers remain to fix bugs, then ramps up again slightly as more testers and compatibility guys are added toward the ship date). Pre-production was a good six months, and the testing and tweaking went on for a very long time at the end, probably close to a year. I guess calculating man-hours would be a good way to measure it in a meaningul way, but I have no idea what the total was.

Chunkey-Monkey: We may not have found some really well hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ and am wondering if you have any lists or anything?

We were hacking so furiously to have Grim finished by its ship date that we really didn’t have much time for putting in REAL Easter Eggs, which usually get put in at the end. There are a few things that you won’t see unless you play every inch of the game, but I wouldn’t say they’re particularly hidden. Some things that come to mind are Glottis singing “The Rusty Anchor”, chanting with the bees until they start chanting about Manny, making up poems, etc. Nothing too hidden. Some Full Throttle art snuck into some backgrounds, and there may even be a Max or two around, but that’s pretty much it.

Chunkey-Monkey: What ideas never made it into the final game? Any ‘artifacts’?

Well, I think I said in another interview that about 25% of the original design was cut. Considering that what remains is still a huge game, you can see that this was a lot of stuff. A lot of it was cool or fun, but it didn’t all fit in with the game, and distractions are pretty detrimental. Most of the cuts happened before production in order to cut costs, so there’s not much “unused” or “half-placed” art in the game. There used to be a fairly splashy, sizeable chunk of action down the elevator shaft at the kitty racetrack, and a much longer chase with Hector on the rooftops at the end, but these were very art-intensive and linear, so they were removed to cut down art costs and keep the game as interactive as possible. There’s a drawer at LucasArts containing a bunch of unused concept art, and I’m sad that I didn’t swipe every bit of it when I left.

Ryan Williams: Are there any utilities in your possesion that would allow us to view the cut-scenes of GF? Or anything similar?

You mean outside of the game? Yes, but I can’t give it to you or LucasArts will probably be suing me and my heirs for generations to come. The video codec, called Smush, was written by Vince Lee for Rebel Assault, and was improved all the way up through the various Star Wars Behind the Magic titles. Smush is a pretty involved format after all that tweaking. Vince has also left LucasArts; I don’t think anyone would be able to write a decompressor for it but him. Maybe if you buy a gazillion dollars worth of his Palm software ( then follow him around begging and grovelling for forty days and forty nights straight he’d consent to writing a player for you, but somehow I doubt it. (Hey look, now he even wrote TealMovie!)

However, this may be helpful: If you enter development mode and go to the list of cutscenes that you’ve seen in the game menus, you can hit “A” (or was it CTRL-A?) and make them all accessible even without even loading a save.

Keep in mind also that Serge discovered the names of lots and lots of functions in the scripting language that use the engine to do various involved things. (See You could probably use the “-p” option and the StartMovie/StopMovie/PauseMovie functions in your own _system.lua to make the game engine start up, play a specified movie, then shut down again just the way a dedicated player would. However, don’t bother Serge/Jimmi about this… It sounds like he got tired of supporting Scummrev, so it’s best to respect his wishes and not expect much help. I also can’t help you much more than this for obvious reasons, but good luck!