Interview with Larry Ahern - Part 1 of 2 - From The Dig to The Curse of Monkey Island
In December of 2020 I had the opportunity to talk with Larry Ahern via Skype, we made time for a lengthy conversation on his overall career, from his first interview at Skywalker Ranch all the way to his later working experience with Microsoft and Insecticide.
In this first part, we will retrace Larry’s first steps into Lucasarts and his contributions to several classic adventures such as the sequel to The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, along with his first designed title, The Curse of Monkey Island.
An Introduction to Lucasarts
Hello, Larry! So, let’s start by talking a bit about your background.
I studied art in college, at the University of California Davis. I got a degree in fine art, but I was always more interested in cartoons and illustration. I was actually a political cartoonist for the school newspaper and also started a campus humour magazine. After college, I worked in restaurants and a screen-printing shop and illustrating t-shirt designs. I started a business with some college friends creating a line of shirts called Couch Surfing Inactivewear. It was a spoof on the popular surf wear craze at the time and featured a big lazy guy on a couch riding a wave and watching TV. The designs were pretty popular, and we even sold them into a few department store chains, but we didn’t know the first thing about business. During the 3 months between when we had to come up with the money to print the orders and when we got paid for them, we went out of business.
I lived in Sacramento then and joined an Illustrators Guild where I met Anson Jew and Martin Cameron, who was working at LucasArts down in Marin County. Anson and I were impressed and said, “Wow, you work with George Lucas? How cool!” Then a year or so later I was roommates with Anson and Martin called asking for him. He wasn’t home, so Martin asked if I could have him call back because he wanted him to come in for a job interview. I hesitated a bit, trying to decide how appropriate it was for me to say something, then finally inquired if there was more than one job opening. Luckily, Martin hadn’t recognized my voice and said they needed a few artists and that we should both come in.
So, how did it go? Do you remember who was the person at Lucasarts in charge of the interview interviewed you guys?
I remember we went to the games division offices at Skywalker Ranch. The art director, Gary Winnick, interviewed us both at the same time, oddly enough. For most of the interview he told us what LucasArts did, and he almost seemed to have an “apologetic” tone. Then he asked to see my portfolio, looked at one or two things, then flipped through the rest. I thought I was in trouble, but he saw the look of horror on my face and said, “Don’t worry, I just needed to make sure you can draw. You can draw.” Then he showed us the new VGA version of The Secret of Monkey Island, the game where they discovered how much longer it took to do art in 256 instead of 16 colors (and their motivation for hiring more staff).
We met some of the other artists there, people like Steve Purcell, Ken Macklin, and Mark Ferrari – phenomenal illustrators, painters, and comic book artists – and suddenly realized why Gary sounded a bit apologetic. He was used to having to talk more established artists into making art out of 16-colored bricks.
Ron Gilbert and Monkey Island
That definitely sounds like a peculiar introduction to the world of LucasArts, but, in a way, perhaps it makes sense. What were the first games you worked on?
After a month of training on how to use DPaint and their primitive animation tools and playing a lot of games (I wasn’t really a gamer at the time), Gary said “two games are starting up that need artists: The Dig and the sequel to Monkey Island. Let me know which one you’re interested in.” I had been blown away when he showed us Monkey Island. I was really into cartoons and animation and that game felt like a subversive cartoon that you could control. My only experience with games before that was Pac Man and a really bad D&D game my college friend had where the monsters were all represented by ASCII characters (“Watch out for the dragon! You know, the ampersand guy!”) So, I told Gary I wanted to work on Monkey Island… and, of course, I ended up on The Dig. I worked on that for about 6 months, but it eventually ran into development problems and was shelved, finally freeing me up to work in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
How was it working on the sequel to a game that was already being much celebrated?
They already had amazing artists like Peter Chan and Steve Purcell doing the backgrounds, so they told me: “We’ll have you try some animation.” Since the technical limitations of games back then prevented doing much animation at all, it made sense that the veteran artists were kept busy with background art and painting the box covers, while newbies like me started out doing minimal animation tasks (mostly walk cycles, ladder climbing, reaches, and that kind of exciting thing).
I had made some stop-motion films as a kid, and a few bad shorts in college, but didn’t really have any experience otherwise. But things were rapidly changing with the technology and tools, so as soon as I learned the basics, our game engines were already able to run bigger and better animations and I moved on to another challenge. So, what seemed at first like having to sit at the kids table very quickly turned into a great gig. I got to study animation, get mentored by other amazing artists, and make fun cartoons. It felt like all the benefits of going to grad school, but I was getting paid to do it.
And working with the notorious “Grumpy Gamer”, Ron Gilbert, how was that?
Well, Ron was the project leader on Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge and would give the artists a list of animations he wanted (we didn’t have any team hierarchy back then, so there were no animation leads, directors, etc. It was all just ‘the guy in charge of the project’ and everyone else). When I became available, he asked me to try out by doing an animation of Walt the Dog. I grabbed the Edward Muybridge reference book that had frame by frame photos showing animals walking and running and set to work. I did a walk cycle and an idle animation of Walt holding the keys in his mouth. Once Ron saw that I was figuring things out, he set me loose on a bunch of the Guybrush and LeChuck animations for the game.
After getting a few of Ron’s animation lists, though, I started wanting more context. The lists were mostly just actions that Guybrush needed to do, but I never understood what was happening in the scenes. I think I probably asked once or twice but didn’t get too far, or maybe Ron’s grumpiness just intimidated me. Eventually, I decided to go ask Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who were writer/programmers on the game. They would explain the scene to me, then sometimes I would say, “Wouldn’t it be funnier if Guybrush did it this way?” and they would go, “Yeah, that’s good. Do it that way!” “But what about Ron?” I’d ask. “We’ll talk him into it.” And that’s how I figured out how to work on Monkey Island and, more importantly, how I established a long-term working relationship with Tim and Dave.
Do you remember working under tight deadlines? How was the overall atmosphere in the team?
I don’t really remember crazy deadlines or any unreasonable death marches to get things done the first few years there. But then again, there were technical limitations to how much art we could do in the first place. Plus, I was already staying late to learn more about art and animation and hang out with the other artists. The atmosphere on the team was mostly fun and relaxed, and I was learning things that I would otherwise have had to go to an expensive art school to learn, so my perspective was probably a bit different than it would have been later when I was married with kids.
Zombies and Wookies: the other games
After Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, you actually got to work on some of the first Star Wars console games developed by LucasArts.
Super Star Wars! They had a small team, led by Kalani Streicher, making this series of Nintendo games. After Monkey Island, I was in between projects and they asked me to help them out with some art. Jon Knoles filled me in on the requirements for their innovative pseudo-3D effects that basically put images in perspective and moved them across the screen. I got to paint a giant pixelated Millennium Falcon and a bunch of surface tiles of the Death Star used in the trench run sequence. It was a lot of fun for a short gig.
But that’s not the only LucasArts console game you worked on. There was also Zombies Ate My Neighbours…
Yeah, that was a great game, and a lot of fun to work on! Do you remember the secret bonus easter egg level with the LucasArts’ office? [I nod]
The art team had been struggling with it because they wanted to make sprite caricatures of all the employees, but… the dimensions of the heads were so small that there wasn’t much you could do with them. Mike Ebert came over and asked, “Don’t you do caricatures, Larry? Wanna take a stab at it?”
I spent an hour or so in the morning trying to figure it out; you only had so many pixels to work with, really. Eventually, I realized there were just a handful of face, nose, hair, chin, and eye shapes and sizes that you could even create with those limitations. The key was to pick the right one for each person, then try to find one feature to exaggerate that might be recognizable. So, for example, there was one artist who had a mole on his cheek, so I used a pixel to make a mole on his caricature. Technically, that probably would have translated to a mole about the size of a silver dollar, but it still was that one key feature that made it look like him. Once I got the hang of it, I raced through all the other caricatures.
The secret Lucasarts office level
But there was another Star Wars game down the line for you, right?
I helped out on Rebel Assault for a week or two between projects also. They were running late, and everyone was crunching. Basically, they used a lot of video capture for the character shots in the game, but the color palettes had to be heavily reduced in order to fit the game’s technical limitations. So, they had a bunch of us smoothing out the dithered colors and simplifying things to make it look better. Not the most interesting story, I’m afraid! Was there other behind-the-scenes intrigue? Betrayals, affairs, missing animation frames? I suppose it’s possible, but I was only on the project a short while, so I’m the wrong guy to ask. I think it was the first original Star Wars footage shot for anything since Return of the Jedi, though, so that’s something (it hasn’t aged well, though).
Back to the Point and Clicks
Heh, at least it wasn’t the Star Wars Holiday Special! What did you do after that?
I’m not sure if this came after Rebel Assault or where it fit into the sequence, but after finishing Day of the Tentacle and waiting for Full Throttle to ramp up, I worked on Sam & Max Hit the Road. It was a few months’ work, and a lot of fun. Steve Purcell asked me to design a bunch of the supporting characters – the proprietors of the roadside attractions. So, like, the guy who runs Gator Golf, the lady at the Mystery Vortex, the Ball of Twine guy. Then I did a few of the big animation scenes with Sam & Max, like them bouncing off the ball of twine, and the Cone of Tragedy (my favorite).
In hindsight, I think that animation was more successful for the gags and the bizarre idea of the amusement park ride than the quality of the animation (I had to rush to finish it). But it was a blast to work on. Back in those days, the best part of the job was roughing out an animation just enough to convey the idea, then calling over the person you needed to convince (in this case, Steve Purcell) and showing it to them and watching them laugh. That was usually 20% of the effort, and then you had to do the other 80% to finish it and it started to feel like work. But Tim (Schafer) was still pulling together his Full Throttle pitch, so I got to have fun on Steve’s game while I was waiting.
Larry Ahern talks about Full Throttle (1994)
And then of course, you worked on Day of the Tentacle, which would have been perfect for you since it was a fully cartoonish adventure game.
Yeah, that was a great project. Back in the early days, when there were enough technical limitations to prevent us from overcommitting ourselves, but just enough opportunity to try something new. Plus, I enjoyed working with Tim & Dave on Monkey Island 2, so I was looking forward to another project with them. There were quite a few times on LeChuck’s Revenge when I wanted to push the animation into slapstick territory, but Ron just wouldn’t let me. I kept playing around and making the first pass animations really extreme, but he always had me tone them down. There was one animation where Guybrush steps on a rake and of course I had it knock out all his teeth. Ron said no. Admittedly, he was right, but I was clearly struggling to break free and drop and anvil on someone’s head. Day of the Tentacle was my chance to do that.
Tim and Dave were onboard with pushing things in more of a Looney Toons direction too, so I was excited. Peter Chan was also really exaggerating the angles and warping things in all his environment art, so it felt like a classic cartoon. We all wanted to make Day of the Tentacle look different than the typical computer game at the time.
Because animations were limited, having more expressive character designs also meant you could get a lot of personality out of them. A lot of adventure game characters at the time were more traditionally proportioned, which meant their faces were so small that it was hard to do much. Since we had a character height limit, I pushed the designs more cartoony and gave them bigger heads so I could show more with their faces.
The other thing I enjoyed on Day of the Tentacle was that Tim & Dave just gave me the puzzle design scenario and trusted me to come up with something good. So, I knew the functionality of the animation or what the character needed to accomplish in the scene, but they let me decide how it would happen and come up with gags. That’s the most fun you can have as an animator!
Having the keys to Dad's Ferrari: making a third Monkey Island game
Finally, we come to The Curse of Monkey Island. How did it happen that you started working on a sequel to Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge?
Jack Sorensen, LucasArts’ president at the time, suggested it to Jonathan Ackley and me. I’m not sure if there was a demand for it or if he just thought it was a good idea. However, Ron and Dave had left the company by that point, and Tim had already done Full Throttle and was working on another original idea (Grim Fandango), so he wasn’t especially interested. They needed someone new to carry the torch. And I think Tim must have suggested that Jonathan and I were ready to make our own game (or at least he didn’t say it was a terrible idea).
It felt like a big deal to be working on the next Monkey Island game, but at the same time I think we were too stupid to worry too much about it. Jonathan said it best (paraphrasing and probably mangling the quote horribly), “It’s like getting the keys to Dad’s Ferrari. On the one hand, it’s valuable so you’re worried about wrecking it, but on the other hand it’s a Ferrari so of course you want to drive it.”
Part of the reason we felt emboldened too was that we had an amazing team, including a whole new crop of Canadian trained feature animators from Sheridan College, which made it hard to screw up (unless you think we did, in which case it was all their fault). The combination of talent working at LucasArts at the time, along with the staff being fans of the properties we worked on made it easy to be confident that we could do justice to whatever we were working on. It was a great working experience.
How did you guys tackle the infamous Big Whoop amusement park ending from Monkey Island 2?
That was a challenge. We weren’t sure what the whole idea was behind that twist ending, and Tim and Dave didn’t offer any explanations. I’m not sure if they didn’t want to tell us (since it was Ron’s version of what happens next), or they didn’t know, or they were just too busy with their own stuff to worry about it. Someone may have tried to reach out to Ron, but if so, we didn’t push it very hard. I think we just figured it was our job to come up with something that we thought would work.
And honestly, I think we were a little worried that the explanation might not work with what we had in mind for the third game. The thing was, we felt that the ending of Monkey Island 2 had a very different tone than the previous game, and we didn’t want to suddenly be trying to market a pirate game that wasn’t delivering on the pirate world that people expected. As it was, The Curse of Monkey Island already spent a lot more time in a theme park setting than most pirate stories.
Along with the “new” plot, there were something new in CMI: arcade and action sequence.
I don’t think any of that was originally planned (unless Jonathan was plotting something behind my back). After our struggle with the action sections in Full Throttle, I was honestly scared to go down that road again. But Chris Purvis and Jonathan wired up the ship combat section pretty quickly and it came out well. Plus, the key thing was they made it skippable.
Now that I think about it, we did have an earlier version of the game with a ship section. It had combat, but the main goal was to sail around returning wedding gifts (mostly toasters) to pirate guests after interrupting another of LeChuck’s attempts to marry Elaine. That was a completely different story that we ended up scrapping.
I assume you’re referring to the alternate “wedding plot” that you mentioned in other interviews?
Yes, I think maybe the wedding had already happened but there was some kind of ritual to reverse it – basically the Voodoo Lady’s version of an annulment. So Guybrush had to do various tasks to invalidate the ceremony, including battling other villainous pirates and forcing them to take back their cursed wedding gifts. Something like that – who knows, I could be completely wrong after 25 years. But I know returning cursed wedding gifts was a thing.
There was also another sequence, the original opening scene, with Wally. In this version, he’s still trapped in the dungeon in LeChuck’s castle (the castle from Monkey Island 2 – it probably has a name that all you fans know, but unfortunately I can’t remember). Meanwhile, the Voodoo Priest is on the lawn playing croquet with human skulls. So, the puzzle has Guybrush trick Wally into popping his head up through a hole in the ground and then the priest whacks him with a mallet and he comes to his senses. There’s always lots of crazy stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor!
Working on The Curse of Monkey Island
There were also a ton of new characters and voice actors to deal with.
Yes, the voice recording process for a game like Curse was a massive undertaking. Luckily, LucasArts had a whole internal voice department and recording studio to handle that. Darragh O’Farrell directed the whole thing and was fantastic. He asked us for character descriptions and got audition tapes from a bunch of actors, then narrowed it down to the top ones and had us pick our favorites.
Then we went to Hollywood for the demo recording sessions. The demo featured the main characters and gave us a chance to give feedback and make sure we were getting what we wanted for the most important characters in the game. But given the number of supporting characters and all the other work, we mostly handed it off to Darragh and his amazing team. They did a fantastic job with all the voices. We were not really involved in localisations either, but I remember wondering how certain American dialects or colloquialisms were even translated. I talked to someone about it near the end of the project, and some of the solutions were pretty creative.
But the big thing in CMI was the change in art style…
Yes. And I’m not sure I would have had the same courage to make those changes if I were designing the game today. But the internet didn’t really exist back then (well, it did, but nobody was on it), so we had no real sense of all the opinions about the right and wrong way to make a Monkey Island game.
Naturally, after changing the art style on Maniac Mansion for Day of the Tentacle, I set about doing the same on Monkey Island. I had always felt that there was a bit of a disconnect between the more traditional art style and how comical the storylines and dialog were (admittedly, that may have been a contrast they sought on purpose). Given that we were going to a higher resolution with the animation, I thought it was a good opportunity to push the character designs and exaggerate them a little more.
But given the change in technology and higher resolution art, even the same team that developed Monkey Island 1 and 2 would have made a very different Monkey Island 3. Things can’t help but evolve. And a lot of what fans say about changes to the art is as much in their minds as on the screen. I think people looked at the box art and the pixelated game characters and sort of projected a hybrid of the two in their imaginations. So, who knows what the characters look like to some of the fans!
Well, famously, the “A Pirate I was Meant to Be” was cut from all the international versions of the game.
I didn’t realize that. Frankly, I wasn’t involved in that decision. It might have been for financial reasons, or just lack of time. The localization was handled by a different team, and they did amazing work. But in hindsight, I’m not sure why they didn’t decide to just keep it in English and use translated subtitles.
A Pirate I Was Meant to be
DoubleFine has released several classic LucasArts remasters. Do you see the potential for a remaster of The Curse of Monkey Island?
Yeah, it would be great to do, but I know Tim was just committed to remastering the LucasArts games he worked on. It was fun reuniting with the team on those projects, though, and I got to do the developer commentary for Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. (Here is a full interview with the team ndr) I also did some high-res character design updates on Throttle, since a bunch of the original game versions were so pixelated it was hard to tell what was going on (or maybe those bikers’ faces were supposed to be that way from all the bar fights?).
With Curse, almost all the animation was drawn on paper then scanned in in high-res and converted to vector art to be colored in a digital ink & paint system. So, vector files for the entire game that can be rendered at any resolution existed – I’m just not sure if we saved an archived all of that (and if so, where it would be), or if those files were just working versions that got tossed at the end. Admittedly, that would have been a lot of data to backup for 1996-7.