Ron Gilbert: Everyone's a Writer

Ron Gilbert: Everyone's a Writer
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

March 31st 2017 at 12:00PM

Ron Gilbert’s new adventure, Thimbleweed Park, aims to recapture the charm of old school point and click adventures using ‘improv game design’.

We are witnessing an adventure game renaissance. Recent years have seen the genre make a big return, after what felt like decades of point-and-clicks falling out of vogue. With games like Firewatch and Gone Home, adventure games are looking quite different to the late 20th century Lucasarts and Sierra classics, but with Thimbleweed Park Ron Gilbert is hoping to bring some of that original magic back to the modern era.

“Gary Winnick (he and I did Maniac Mansion together) and I were having lunch and talking about the charm of those old adventure games that we did at Lucasfilm,” Gilbert says. “There was a certain feeling that those old point- and-click games had. Gary and I were talking about what that was, and I don’t think either of us knew. It was just a weird feeling. So we decided to do another one and figure out what that charm is.

“Adventure games today, I think they’re more what you’d call ‘narrative games’ than they are puzzle solving games. There’s probably five puzzles to solve in Firewatch, but it is a narrative game and I think that’s one of the neat things about point and click adventures, at least for me as a designer. It was about telling really interesting stories, and I think that has had a resurgence with people who really enjoy good narrative in games.”

Every puzzle should tell me something about the story, the characters, or the world

Ron Gilbert

So what makes an adventure game an adventure game? What links games like Gone Home and Monkey Island? “It’s a big fat grey line, right? To me there’s got to be narrative,” Gilbert says. “There’s got to be exploring some kind of world. I think those things are important. There’s got to be some kind of activity that you need to be doing. Some little thing that you’re having to work out. It doesn’t have to be a puzzle in the classic sense of a puzzle. 

Gone Home is a great example of that. It’s an environment, it’s a narrative, but you’re kind of more puzzling your way through what’s going on in this house, so it’s a different kind of puzzle. But it’s something that gets those gears turning inside your head as you’re trying to figure your way through it.”

In order to recapture the feeling of those original point-and-click adventures, Gilbert and Winnick are using the same development process they used back in the late 80s and beyond. In many ways, Gilbert believes that it is how they made those games, not what they made, that gave them that special charm.

“I think what was really unique about our process back at Lucasfilm was it was very collaborative,” explains Gilbert. “It was almost improv game development. We didn’t write design documents. The major four or five beats of the story is all I wrote down. Everything else was just building it on the fly. You could do a lot of rapid development and prototyping.”

Unfortunately, this level of constant addition and iteration falls apart when your development team reaches a certain size. “If you’re working on Call of Duty or Mass Effect, or any of those big games with hundreds of people working on them... If you have a funny idea at lunch, there’s four associate producers it has to get past before the producer adds it to the schedule and the artists have to be notified of your funny idea. It’s just not possible to do that kind of stuff.

“I think after about five or seven people, you can’t do that. As soon as you start having to communicate that stuff in any kind of an official capacity, I think you’ve lost it. The team on Thimbleweed Park, we’re spread out all over the world. Our main animator is from Spain and our leader tester is here in London. The United States, Canada, the Czech Republic. But we’re all on Slack together. So if somebody has a fun idea, they just type it in on Slack. ‘Oooh, wouldn’t it be cool if we did this!’ and everybody gets to comment on it and, if it sounds like a good idea, we’ll put it in. But it’s a small enough team that we don’t need formal communication.”

Quick implementation of features can lead to fun ideas that can strike at any moment. Whether inspired by other team members, art assets, or even Twitter fans.

“The specks of dust idea wasn’t planned,” Gilbert says. “There was no ‘specks of dust’ design document. That was just an idea that somebody on Twitter had. Somebody asked ‘oh, can I get an object in the game? I missed the Kickstarter’ and I said ‘no, I’m sorry, it’s way too late’. He goes ‘how about a speck of dust? Can you just put a speck of dust in the game for me?’ and I thought ‘okay, I can do that!’. So I put a speck of dust in the game. It took me about a half hour. Then I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if you went around collecting these specks of dust?’. A few hours later I had this whole speck of dust system sitting in the game. That was just a weird idea that came from Twitter.” 

This collaborative design process essentially means that everyone on the development team is a writer on the game. This is a key part of delivering that original Lucasarts charm. “Myself and Lauren, we did the bulk of the writing for the game,” explains Gilbert. “But then people like Jen, who did the programming for the hotel, and David Fox, who did a whole lot of the game programming... It’s not like I would come and deliver them a script. If they’re creating an object in the hotel, they have to think ‘what are all the Look Ats’? Or what happens if you open it? We need some funny response. So there’s a lot of writing that they do as the programmers, and that’s all done on the fly. A lot of weird, funny stuff comes from that.”

Gilbert believes this is part of what gave those early adventure games that special charm, and it does the same for Thimbleweed Park. “It’s all of the stuff that you can do in the game that has nothing to do with the actual game,” he says. “It’s all the weird things. Decisions we can make as we are playing the game and we say ‘you know what, this really needs something here’ and then boom, we just go do it.”

This fits perfectly with Gilbert’s writing process for dialogue, where a foundation for the script is laid down and then built on as-and-when people think of good/funny additions. “I know that we’re going to go into dialogue with this information and we need to come out of this dialogue with this new information,” he explains. “But that’s a very small part of that dialogue. That’s maybe two dialogue choices. What I’ll do is a skeleton dialogue. We get in, this is the piece of information that you want to ask, and this is the response and then we’re out of it. Then you’ll have a lot of other choices where I’ll just put ‘temp, temp, temp’. So the first time you play the dialogue, you see the important dialogue and then you see a bunch of temp options.

“So as I’m playing it I’ll go ‘oh, it’d be really funny to ask her about this’ and then I’ll replace the temp with something else. I am a very iterative designer, I could never do a design document, it would drive me crazy.”

This means that anyone in the studio can then make dialogue suggestions as they playtest. A whole writing team adding their quips and flourishes as they go. Just like during Gilbert’s days at LucasFilm. For designers thinking about making your own point and click adventure game, Gilbert has some great advice: “When it comes to puzzles, every puzzle in an adventure game should tell me something about the story. It should tell me something about the characters, or it should tell me something about the world. If the puzzle does not tell me one of those things, then the puzzle needs to be redesigned or scrapped. To me, the narrative is what gives the puzzles purpose. And the puzzles are the things that push the narrative forward.

“I will give the same advice that I would give a writer. Just do it. If you want to learn to be a writer, just start writing. With the wonderful tools that we have available today with Unity and Adventure Game Studio, and there’s five or six other adventure game tools out there. Just start doing it. Grab a tool and wire up a room. Start with a single room and create three puzzles in it. Then create a puzzle to get out to the next room you create. Just do that, slowly stepping your way in. I do sometimes talk to people who say ‘I’m starting my first adventure game’ and they tell me all about it and I’m like ‘my god, it’s your first adventure game and you’ve got 37 different rooms and five different narratives going on’. No no no, start simple. Start simple and build up.”