When I first ventured into the story of Trecision and found the name of Rick Gush mentioned by some of the developers, I did wonder. What was one of the writers of games like Dune II, Lands of Lore II and The Legend of Kyrandia doing in Italy, working for a relatively small and little known game developer? And, above all else, would he be available for a long chat about his many years spent writing for Westwood Studios? Surely enough, Rick was kind enough to find some time in his schedule and so, we have worked on this pretty exhaustive interview, which ends just before his years in Trecision (which can be further investigated here).
But, before we come to Italy, we must start in California…
Hello Rick, so how was your life before writing video games?
Many many years ago, I was an annoying 9 year old with a passion for gardening. Whenever I was in a car I’d always shout out the Latin names of all the trees and shrubs we’d pass. When I was young we lived in the Bay Area in San Francisco, where there were a lot of musical comedies produced, and my parents often took us to see them. At some point I thought, gee, I could write one of those myself!
The decision to actually write came years later after I had reluctantly given up my dreams of acting due to a reviewer who said “Good play, but Rick Gush is completely unbelievable as the janitor.” So, I switched to writing plays and cranked out a musical comedy about Tarzan and some jewel thieves. The critics gave me great reviews for that one and the play was held over several times. I was off and running as a writer. In the next couple of years I wrote several more musical comedies and had a great little career. Later I found out that writing for the theater is surprisingly similar to writing the narratives for games.
After I graduated from college, where I specialized in horticulture, I got only involved in a local commune, real “love generation” kind of stuff. It was the late sixties, and in California there were more cults and communes than you could shake a stick at. For a while I was actually a sensuality consultant at the Institute of Human Abilities, a role that I would define as “the climax of bullshit artisting”. I was actually teaching husbands how to pleasure their wives to the point of orgasm. Well, you know what they say; “Those who can’t do, teach.” These days my wife really cracks up when she hears that story.
A couple of decades later, while working as a horticultural consultant in Las Vegas, someone told me about an ad where a company was looking for someone to write some dialogue. I thought it was an ad agency and that it would be a great job to do on the weekends. But, when I went to the interview, it was a little computer games studio named Westwood Studios.
How was Westwood doing, at the time? What was your role in the company?
I came to Westwood around 1991, and the studio was doing pretty good. They had been making games for Disney, among other things and Eye of the Beholder was the first important property they had worked on. They had also just made a deal to join up with Virgin Games. I came on board with the task of writing dialogue. I was at that time completely ignorant, could not even manage to use DOS to get the computer they gave me running, and had never played a computer game.
But, I’m always fairly organised and prepared and was able to finally figure things out. I was 40 years old at that point in time, the oldest person in the studio, and sort of took on the role of wise older brother. One of the first games I contributed to was the first Lands of Lore title. The game was well along when I came in, and the first three levels were completed, so my contributions were limited to just adding some dialogue here and there, plus a little character development. It only took three months until I was given the title of producer for both Lands of Lore and Kyrandia. The guys actually making the games did all the real work, and I was just sort of a team cheerleader.
Another game that was half finished when you came to work on it was The Legend of Kyrandia, which you mentioned as being designed as a “comedic version of King’s Quest”.
Yes, I came on board when they had the scenes mapped out and the ideas and design were basically already there. But, to be fair, they had atrocious dialogue everywhere, so I fixed what I could. I did have fun with some situations, like they had quite a big problem with the walkpath of the character Brandon. When he turned, his shoes would remain pointing in the old direction for a few seconds. I “fixed” that by adding a line in which Brandon complained about his slippery sandals.
As a general rule, I think that writing humour in video games is dangerous. It’s too easy to do it badly. There’s so much bad comedy out there, especially those titles that go overboard, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Anyway, Virgin was very happy with the studio and the first Lands of Lore and Kyrandia, especially because at the same time we were doing Dune 2, and that ended up being a superstar.
Also, it is often forgotten, but you did some writing for Dune II as well. How was that experience? Were you a fan of the Dune series of books?
The whole Dune II project was really a Joseph Bostic deal. He said “I can make the programming work” and saw it through. While Aaron Powell is credited with design, I do not think he did contribute much, he may have done something with documentation, but it was Joe who did the heavy lifting on the code. Everyone else on the team just helped him in some way. Brett Sperry, one of the studio owners, was pushing him in the right direction as well. They were clever enough to discover how the “real time strategy” mechanic could be made fun.
My contribution was actually pretty minimal. They had some very bad writing when I was asked to look at it. I had already read Dune by Herbert which I thought was okay, but nothing special. I remember there was little interaction with the Herbert people, perhaps even none at all. There were still some discussions on the design, and in one of the dev meetings it was decided to add some characters who would guide the players. That was more or less my contribution to the design.
When we were developing Dune 2, there was this programmer working on the Amiga conversion who had a girlfriend. She was the company’s secretary and a real passionate gamer. She really wanted to work in some role in the dev process, but they just would not let her. So, while we were making the credits for Dune 2 I said “Donna, I want you to write a line of dialogue for me”. The idea was to find a little reason to stick her into the credits for the game. In the end, the writing credits showed: Donna J. Bundy and Rick Gush. I was proud of that.
When Dune II exploded, I was told that because of my good work, I could pretty much do what I wanted for the next Lands of Lore and Kyrandia games. Joe Bostic was already working on the idea for Command & Conquer, but the studio knew it was going to take him years to get it finished. So I was told: “Rick, take the Kyrandia and Lands of Lore franchises, run with them and make some product to put in the Virgin pipeline for the next couple of years”. I had a huge budget, all the money and people I could want. The unlimited creative freedom for our teams was a dream come true for all of us, and we had a great time.
The teams were full of superb people. Mike Legg was the lead programmer for Kyrandia, and Bill Petro became the lead coder for Lands of Lore, although Phil Gorrow continued to be the real heavy lifter on the code for those games. Mike was like the soul of the studio, and it was sort of like I was working for him. In any case he deserves all the credit. Also I cannot forget about Rick Parks! He was an art god, definitely the first to have great chops on Lightwave, he was equally gifted as a pixel artist. The man could do everything. For the next 4 years we got to produce two more comedy games and two more RPG games, pretty much doing whatever we wanted.
So that’s how you became the “Kyrandia” guy, thus starting development on Hand of Fate. How was the overall process for the sequel to the first Kyrandia title?
There are so many stories around the sequel to Kyrandia. I remember immediately leaving my creative trademark, of sorts, while designing the female character Zanthia. I decided to turn her from the boring character of the first game into a full-on smartmouthed bitch, a sort of medieval New York woman. I wanted to make her new attitude clear right from the very first scene, so when she walks out of her hut in the first scene a huge creepy slithering thing jumps out of the muck of the swamp and menaces her. She reacts by grabbing its tongue, tying it in a knot and muttering “Don’t screw with me today, pal!.
I was aiming for that sort of more in-your-face comedy for Hand of Fate, along with a delightfully ridiculous story. I loved the idea of having a disembodied hand as the villain. Another thing I was really happy about was being able to write a romance between Zanthia and Marko that followed all the classic stages of romance, from courtship, to separation, to final reunion. I got all that done with only 18 lines of dialogue, an accomplishment of which I am still proud.
Hand of Fate, although it was a great fan favorite, was a commercial disappointment. In a previous interview you mentioned, among the causes for the poor sales, a cryptic ad campaign and an arrogant new VP of marketing.
I definitely confirm that story, even though I would say sales continued longer than we thought. I believe over time it has recovered fairly well. What happened is that Virgin went in big time on Westwood, and hired new executives to manage our sales. Among them there was one woman who had previously worked on tennis shoes who became the new VP of marketing. It drove me nuts at the time but it was fun, in a way. She wouldn’t ever speak with me directly. When I first called her she said “I’m a VP, so I don’t have to talk with producers.” insisting that only the studio owners could actually talk to her. It was funny because with Dune 2 continuing to sell at a pretty good pace, we had the biggest hits in all of Virgin, but she was still arrogant towards us.
We had originally wanted the game to just be called Kyrandia II, but she nixed that, saying “It cannot be called K2 because there is already a mountain with that name”. Then we came up with The Hand of Fate, since that was the idea for the subtitle all along. Then there was a huge issue with the cover design. She rejected our design and had some artists at Virgin come up with this strange sort of collage of images of hands, with a nuclear explosion in the center. We were not sure what that image had to do with a fantasy comedy game. Somebody higher up in the company finally recognized it was a bad cover and asked us to quickly make a new cover. Rick Parks came to the rescue again, and drew a beautiful image of Zanthia. That idiot VP was let go soon thereafter.
What about Lands of Lore II? Did you take inspiration from the design of similar titles like Daggerfall or Realms of the Haunting?
Well, Brett (executive producer on Throne of Chaos -ed’s note) took a step back since his work on the first Lands of Lore, so it was just me and the guys on the design work. I loved the team, one of those wonderful moments where everything clicked. As I mentioned, being the oldest one around, it felt like being the big brother in a family enterprise. I had fun writing the lore, and the team did a great job of designing the gameplay.
As for inspiration from other games, I can’t really say since I did not follow what other studios were doing. I can definitely tell you we had the freedom to do what we wanted in regards to the plot. What I thought was best for the next story in the series was a sort of soap opera treatment in which we just kept the story rolling in the world built in the previous title. The story was not chained on the same focal points as Throne of Chaos and different characters were brought in. Everyone seemed to like the idea that the protagonist of Guardians of Destiny was the son of Scotia, the evil woman from the first one. I think it was a reasonably interesting situation. Children of infamous parents do not always turn out to be dickheads like their parents.
Then came Legend of Kyrandia III, where you had the idea of the bad guy from the first title acting as the main protagonist.
On Malcolm’s Revenge, I was pretty much alone on the story design process. I’ll admit the design wasn’t quite as good, as it was pretty rushed. Mike Legg was the one implementing all the gameplay, and he did a heroic job with what I gave him. In the end there were several parts of the overall gameplay that didn’t fit well, but we all loved the Mood Ring.
I’ve always hated when the player is given a printed list of dialogue choices. So to circumvent that, I thought up the Mood Ring, with which the player can adjust the dialogue with a meter. Malcolm had three moods: Lying, Angry, and Normal, and some of the puzzles required the player to do different things with the various moods. The most prominent example was where Malcolm goes down to Fishworld and is held hostage by the fish queen. She insists that he play Tic Tac Toe with her, but she was very bad at the game. The only way for Malcom to escape was to lose a game, but she was so bad that losing was almost impossible unless the player tried very hard to lose themselves. The easiest way was for Malcolm to lie, so that when the queen lost a game, he would comment effusively on how skilled she was at the game. She would be flattered and release Malcolm. All the humor in the third game was a bit more twisted compared to the other two games, and I liked that.
My favorite anecdote on Malcolm’s Revenge is about David Pokorny. He was a guy who did not really get along with the two main heads of Westwood, but I don’t think it was his fault or anything, he just rubbed people the wrong way sometimes. After a while, management gave me the assignment to go and fire him, even though he wasn’t working for me. I liked Dave and felt that was unfair. So instead, I told him “Dave, I’m going to make you my assistant producer!” and thus he stayed on. He was great at that job and ended up contributing what I believe is my favorite line from the game. Malcolm, at one point, walks into a dairy barn, finds something like 500 cows there and comments: “Smell that dairy air!” I love that pun.
How was the reception (and the marketing) for the third game?
Well, I can tell you it got bootlegged a lot in Russia! Someone made a lot of pirate copies of all the Kyrandia games and even translated the text into Russian. In the late 90’s I started getting a whole lot of fan mail from Russia that was like “Hi my name is Olga, Kyrandia is a very fun adventure”. I ended up meeting a number of those Russian fans and is was wonderful to hear them tell me how important the Kyrandia games were during their childhood. But again, marketing was problematic, for Kyrandia III. I don’t remember any magazine ads or any other kind of marketing from Virgin for Malcolm’s Revenge. It wasn’t the end of the world for me, as I was so happy with the game from a creative standpoint.
Then finally came the third chapter of the Lands of Lore series in 1999, released after being hit with several delays. What happened with its development?
In the third title, the protagonist was Copper LeGré, son of one of the generals of the previous game. We again employed the classic literary device of showing the experiences of several generations. As for what actually happened during development, I think I have blocked most of it from my mind. Honestly, I don’t think we did a great job on the final chapter, but that was more or less what we expected. It wasn’t our goal to make a great or unforgettable game, and we were aware of that from day one. It was just an opportunity to work on a game and keep product in the Virgin pipeline.
We did not have new programmers on board, nor a new combat system. After the second titles in both Kyrandia and Lands of Lore there was a big big push for us to start using 3D art and that was a tough time. Westwood had all these 2D artists and I had to go tell them to go learn 3D Studio. Some of them did a good job in trying to adapt to the changing times, while others didn’t. It was a time of flux.
Before leaving Westwood, you still got a credit on Command & Conquer, what was your involvement with that game?
On Command & Conquer, Bostick and Sperry were the main guys behind the project, which the studio felt was going to be the biggest blockbuster ever. Naturally, they needed a writer, but back then my plate was full so I could not promise that I was going to write it. They really wanted a good story and the studio heads decided to hire an outside writer from Hollywood for the game. So, it happened that I helped with that hiring process.
The guy who got the job was Ron Smith and he was adorable. He was a cynical old smartass who was completely irresponsible about his own life. I’ve lost track of Ron, but would love to find him, as I really liked him myself. Anyway, when he came on board, I got to explain to him the differences between gaming and cinema and how to shape a different narrative for the games medium. I also remember I was somewhat involved in the conversations about how to shape Kane, the arch-villain for the game.
After leaving Westwood, you started your own company with a partner and, as the story goes, you got an offer from an Italian software house, moved to Italy and never looked back!
Yes, indeed. After a promising start where we worked on several things besides video games, like slot machines for some Las Vegas companies and Flash websites for telecom companies. But, the company ran into some problems, so I decided to seriously start looking at some of the job offers that I was getting from all over the world. It was around 2000, and while I wasn’t particularly keen on working with Trecision, even though I was familiar with their games, I decided a trip to Italy would be quite interesting.
Still, my original plan was just to make a quick stop in Italy on the way to Bruxelles, where I had a much more interesting job offer in the tractor business. (I’m crazy about tractors, and Belgium has the highest number of tractors per capita of any country in the world.) Still, as soon as I set foot off the airplane in Milan I fell in love with the country. After a few hours on the train to Rapallo looking at the beautiful landscapes of Liguria, I knew I wanted to make it my home, and ended up getting down on my knees to beg for the job with Trecision. In the end, I never even went to the interview in Belgium.
I used to have a hundred or so copies of all the old Westwood games. I had copies of bootlegged Russian Kyrandias, Chinese copies of Lands of Lore, and a number of French, German, Swedish, and other versions of the games. But these days I no longer keep copies of any of the games I have worked on. Over the years I have given all my games to fans I particularly like or to games museums. In general I don’t like to keep stuff as mementos collecting dust on shelves. Anyway, I’m more excited about the future than the past.
Many thanks to Rick Gush for his time and patience for this long interview.
For an exhaustive article on the development of Dune II, check out the Digital Antiquarian.