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GDC 2011: Ron Gilbert's 'Odd Collection' Of  Maniac Mansion  Memories

GDC 2011: Ron Gilbert's 'Odd Collection' Of Maniac Mansion Memories

March 4, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

March 4, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, GDC

In a talk he described as less a postmortem and more "an odd collection of memories," Maniac Mansion programmer Ron Gilbert recounted the creation of the revolutionary 1987 classic at GDC 2011 on Friday.

As Gilbert said, the game "Popularized the point and click interface," and moreover, he believes he "coined the word 'cutscene'," showing vintage source code that backs him up.

During play, the game cut away to non-interactive story sequences.

Gilbert describes Maniac Mansion as "My favorite game, and it's very personal to me -- not because it's a great game, but because it's a very flawed game, and those flaws make it special to me."

The mansion in Maniac Mansion was inspired by George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, where then-LucasFilm Games was housed and the game was developed. Both the external house and internal details, such as the spiral staircase in the library, are taken from the ranch.

Once the team had settled on the characters and setting and come up with a general plot and some interesting gimmicks, they reached a creative block.

Says Gilbert, "We kinda figured the game would just kind of write itself after this. We didn't even know the genre -- it wasn't an adventure game at this point. It was an amorphous game where you just went around and did stuff... I tried to imagine the gameplay and it didn't make a lot of sense to me."

A Christmas trip home changed everything, however. "Watching my eight-year-old cousin playing King's Quest made Maniac Mansion fall into place."

Sierra's King's Quest, however, featured a text parser -- something Gilbert found extremely frustrating. The game forced players to identify items on screen to interact with them and then type text commands. "This was not gameplay; this was not fun. Why can't I just point at this thing? I can see it right there!"

Thus the inspiration for a point-and-click verb-based system arose. Players chose actions from an on-screen menu rather than fighting a text parser -- a key innovation for the genre.

The cast of seven characters allowed players to choose any three -- each of which had their own abilities and, consequently, puzzles, making the game open-ended and replayable. This was not a goal of the team, Gilbert admitted, but just a cool idea.

"Dave was loosely modeled after me," says Gilbert, especially the character's mode of dress. "Wendy was modeled after a real person, and she worked in LucasFilm and did the accounting. Razor was named after [artist] Gary [Winnick]'s girlfriend Ray."

However, he says, "This was a genius idea we would come to completely regret later on in the game." The complexity that arose from the character combinations hobbled development -- especially because there was no design document, just a paper map of the mansion with an acetate overlay to show items, and a list of the characters and their abilities.

"It was complicated, and it was an unintelligible mess," says Gilbert. "As the game was coming together, we realized we'd made a huge mistake." Seven characters with their own puzzles and endings "was a complete clusterfuck."

The team debated stripping the game down to three characters -- or even one. "There's this point where you're in so deep you just want to scream and there seems to be no way out," Gilbert says. But they persevered, and the game shipped with seven. "In retrospect I think it really was the right solution."

After trying to code the game in 6502 assembly on the Commodore 64, the team decided to create a scripting language, SCUMM -- or Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion.

SCUMM would go on to be used for the company's next game, Zak McKracken and many other titles into the 1990s.

"One of the innovation that Maniac Mansion had over the Sierra games were scrolling screens," says Gilbert. "This presented a big technical challenge for me. I spent months -- months! -- hand-tuning 6502 assembly to get that screen to scroll and now I could just do it in PowerPoint," he joked.

He also had to create a custom art tool which, over several iterations, crunched the hand-drawn backgrounds down to 256 characters "but still retained a lot of the charm of Gary's art."

SCUMM was truly multitasking system -- for example, the clock in the mansion's lobby was its own script and ran in its own process. Thinking about the game "as small independent chunks and objects became a mainstay of how you programmed in the SCUMM system," says Gilbert.

One famous line from the game's dialogue is "Bernard! Don't be a tuna head!" This peculiar quote is well known to fans -- but, says Gilbert, originally this was supposed to be "don't be a shit head!" Gilbert and Winnick got in a huge fight with management over the line, but were asked to only keep it in if they could think of a good reason.

They couldn't, and the line was changed. However, Gilbert says that he went with "tuna head" as a subtle form of protest -- something that would stand out. 

However, the team, over the two years of development, worked many seven day weeks, "late into the night for many months," with fundamental concerns. "Is this going to work? Is this a good game? Or are we just wasting our time?"

Gilbert talked about the famous "hamster in the microwave" sequence, in which some characters are willing to blow up the cute little critter. "We just completely laughed our asses off," says Gilbert. However, it also shows "the power of the SCUMM system -- it only took a few minutes to draw and script that game and it was fast and fun to put things into SCUMM games."

Later, he says, the team were able to crate Monkey Island "in an almost an improv fashion," thanks to SCUMM.

However, since "You could use any object with any other object and if it made sense we let [players] do it -- wire up and let them screw themselves." It's possible in many, many instances in the game to use unique items at the wrong spot and lose them, or never pick up items and lose access to them. In short, it's very simple to get into an unwinnable situation in Maniac Mansion.

Says Gilbert, "It's not that we were trying to be cruel or vindictive, it's just that we were being naive. It was so easy to wire this stuff up we didn't think through the implications."

Moreover, LucasFilm Games had one tester who "would play the game and jot down notes."

This was the first game LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) published itself, and the entire game fit into 320 kilobytes. Unfortunately, a few weeks after it went on sale, Toys R Us pulled it from shelves because the word "lust" was printed on the back of the box and a patron complained to the company -- necessitating a reworking of the copy.

The game was also ported to the NES, where the original credits included a line for the designers of the "NES SCUMM system." Nintendo misunderstood and objected to this phrase - "Why would we insult their console machine like that?" Gilbert recalled Nintendo asking. Lucas was unable to explain the true meaning to Nintendo and "in the end we just shook our heads and removed it," along with a number of suggestive images.

"It's really easy to look back at games like Maniac Mansion through this lens of nostalgia, and look at what they came and make assumptions about what they were before they became anything, but for us, Maniac Mansion was just a game," Gilbert concluded.

"We loved it, and we hated it, and our only dream for it was that it wouldn't run the company out of business.

"We had a bunch of fun ideas but we didn't have a vision for the future. We just wanted to make a game and not get fired.

"We had no idea what we were doing, none whatsoever, and I think that's an important lesson, because sometimes you just need to do things, and sometimes thinking too much and knowing too much can hurt more than it can help."

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