INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Mike Stemmle (Game Designer, Writer and Director) LucasArts 1990-2004, Telltale 2008-Present

By Marty Mulrooney

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If you haven’t heard of Mike Stemmle, and still call yourself an adventure fan, then shame on you! As well as working at LucasArts during their glory years, Mr Stemmle is also a member of Telltale, and has recently been working on Tales Of Monkey Island  in the capacity of scriptwriter and designer.

Now as you all know, we have been getting the thoughts of the lead voice actors from Tales Of Monkey Island here at Alternative Magazine Online for several months.

So, we decided you may all enjoy a different perspective for once on the series some are heralding as the return of the adventure game genre. In other words, it is about time we heard what somebody from the tech/creative side of the process has to say! Therefore, it is my great pleasure to present to you a conversation between our little site and the ever brilliant Mr Mike Stemmle…

Monkey Island

Thank you for your time! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself,  your background and what you have worked on in the past? What is your role at Telltale now?

My name is Mike Stemmle, and I’m a game designer at Telltale.  Before working on Monkey Island, I was designer on Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People.  Before coming to Telltale I did a lot of work for LucasArts, on games like Sam & Max Hit the Road, Escape from Monkey Island, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

Cool! So how does it feel now that Monkey Island has not only come back, but has been largely accepted by fans?

To borrow a funny line that I didn’t write, it makes me feel as happy as a penguin sliding on its belly.

Manatee_Belly_Enironment_Concept_Art

How do you feel about LucasArts finally coming back to the world of adventure gaming? Do you think it could last this time?

Awash in heady brew of bemusement and vindication… let’s call it vimusemication.  And as far tomorrow goes, I can barely figure out what I’LL be doing next week, much less forecast the futures of massive entertainment conglomerates.

Did they approach Telltale with the idea for Tales of Monkey Island, or was it the other way round?

It was more of a mutual courtship, replete with all the eyelash-batting, outrageous flirting, and bad poetry

Escape_from_Monkey_Island_artwork Upon release, Escape From Monkey Island received positive reviews and fan reactions, but over the years seems to have sadly become an easy target for abuse. What were your thoughts on the game at the time and what do you think about it now in retrospect?

At the time I didn’t notice most of the reviews, because I was way too exhausted to react to them.  As the years wore on, I internalized a lot of the online slagging of EfMI as gospel, and began to get unnecessarily apologetic about it whenever it was brought up.  One of the (many) nice things about working on Tales is that it’s given me an opportunity to revisit Escape and rediscover that, y’know, there were a heckuva lot of good bits in that game. So there.  Nyah!

Tales Of Monkey Island comes nearly 20 years after the release of the original game. What do you think has been the secret to the franchise’s success?

Taking characters and their conflicts seriously, even when the individual details of the conflicts border on the absurd.

elaine_pox Do you think Monkey Island needed to disappear before it could make a comeback?

Oh, it probably needed a little air after Escape.  Of course, the whole adventure game genre needed a nice little nap until the episodic model spun in too, so the timing worked out pretty nicely for Monkey, eh wot? (Editors note: I Googled ‘eh wot’ and found out that it is a term commonly used by a character from Nintendo’s Animal Crossing!)

How has the engine used in Tales changed from the one used in your older games, such as Sam and Max for example?

The engine gets better with every game we make, usually in technical ways that would be boring as heck to describe.  But if you put, say, Season 1 of Sam & Max next to the opening sequence of the first episode of Tales, you’ll see that our engine has improved on just about every front, from the number of polys we’re pushing, to the way they’re lit, to the sound fidelity… it just keeps getting better and better.

talesofmi_guybrush_concept Why has direct movement been introduced instead of just sticking with the mouse 100%?

It’s just another tweak in our efforts to get the player more “involved” with the character they’re controlling.  Also, notably, direct control feels a LOT nicer on the consoles.

The story, especially in episode 4, plays fast and loose with Monkey Island history. Was it scary doing this with such a famous series?

Not as much as you’d think.  Between the in-house knowledge of Monkey Island and our invaluable consultation with Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island’s creator) we felt like we were on solid ground with the various revelations and surprises we’ve been springing on the players.

Surely that shows that Telltale is in control now, rather than making a side-adventure that wouldn’t have any repercussions on the universe?

Well, I wouldn’t say we’re “in control.”  Everything we’ve done story-wise has been approved by LucasArts.  Luckily, they’ve been fabulously supportive of the direction we’ve taken.

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Is it right to assume Guybrush is older now, hence the slighly more mature characterisation?

Yup.  He’s been around the pirate block a few dozen times, so he’s a lot more secure in his ability to get the job done… in his own unique way.

stan_color What has proven most difficult during the creation of the episodes?

The occasionally late nights when I missed putting my twins to sleep.  Hi guys!

How far ahead is everything planned? Did you all know what would be happening in the final episode when episode 1 began?

We had all the major beats (and most of the minor ones) mapped out before production started on Episode 1.  It’s the only way to make serialized episodic entertainment work.

Is a series 2 on the table at this point?

I’ll invoke the “Mongo mere pawn in game of life” defence to assert my ignorance.

How important was it getting Dom Armato and Alex Boyd to come back? Would you guys have still made the game without them?

It’d be darned difficult without them.  Thanks goodness we didn’t have to!

Do they record their lines first so the tech guys have something to work with, or is it the opposite way round?

We record pretty early, but there’s a lot of work that goes into laying out the episode’s sand box and getting all the logic functional.  At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

What is your favourite episode and why?

My favourite episode is always the next one.

Have any ideas had to be dropped due to budget or time constraints?

As always, my musical episode got dropped.  Someday…

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Is there anything that was played with to implement, but then dropped because it wouldn’t have worked?

Club 41 was originally going to be a “stumble around in a dark room” puzzle in episode 1.  We pounded on it for a while, then decided that it was sucking, so we cut it.

How hard has it been porting the games over to the Wii?

Easier than you would think.  Credit our engine, and the discipline of our animators, artists, and sound guys.

How successful has Tales been sales wise?

I’ll demur.

LeChuck_Human_Concept_ArtPc. XBox360. Wii. All consoles Telltale is releasing on. But do you think at any point in the foreseeable future that Ps3 gamers will be getting some of Telltale’s output on the PSN Store?

Telltale wants to be everywhere.  PS3, DS, iPhone, Kindle, refurbished TRS-80’s… you name it, we’ll get there eventually.

Is episode 5 going to blow us all away? What does the future hold for Monkey Island after that?

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll touch a very special part of you… with a cutlass.  And who knows what the future holds?  Heck, I’m not sure if anyone’ll SURVIVE episode 5… I mean, the body count’s getting pretty high.

What does it hold for Telltale? Any other classic franchises to be risen from the dead?

Who knows what tomorrow brings,

In a world few hearts survive

All I know is the way I feel

When it’s real I keep it alive…

I’m sorry, I was thinking about that musical episode again! *sniff*

Thank you for your time!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to also check out our latest Monkey Island Review and Guybrush Threepwood voice actor Dom Armato Interview! All feedback appreciated!

Special thanks to Telltale, Chris Schmidt and of course, Mike Stemmle.

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3 Comments

Filed under Alternative Musings, Games

3 responses to “INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Mike Stemmle (Game Designer, Writer and Director) LucasArts 1990-2004, Telltale 2008-Present

  1. Incredibly interview Marty! Scriptwriting for games sounds like as much fun and hard work as you could expect from a writing job!

  2. Keep it up Marty… these interviews get better with each one.

  3. Scrawffler

    Great interview, thanks for sharing! Here’s hoping Mike gets his musical episode someday soon!

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