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Monkey Island creator gets arty in PAX keynote

PAX 2009: Ron Gilbert address at open-to-the-public expo lauds the indie gaming scene and its power to take risks.


Who Was There: Hothead Games creative director Ron Gilbert delivered the keynote address at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo. Gilbert is perhaps best known as the creator of such seminal adventure games as Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island franchise as a designer and programmer at LucasArts in the 1990s.

Ron Gilbert.
Ron Gilbert.

What He Talked About: A staggering crowd of PAX attendees lined up early to hear Gilbert deliver the opening remarks at this year's PAX, filling a turnstile that spanned the breadth of an entire cavernous exhibition hall. As keynote speakers are wont to do, Gilbert began his address by relating the early experiences that shaped his future, as well as impacted his views as a game designer.

"I have the job that our parents say does not exist," he began, before recounting his memories of the many gaming platforms that he has seen come and go. Accompanied by a series of slides full of these devices, he says that they illustrate how far the industry has come, as well as how it will continue to change. "People here understand what games are, but more importantly, what they can be," he noted.

For him, coming to this realization involved a TI-59, a then-high-tech calculator that his father, who was an astrophysicist, occasionally let him use when he was a child. While the true purpose of the Texas Instrument-made device was to complete complex equations, it also gave Gilbert his first taste of gaming, thanks to a small hi-low guessing game that was also installed on it.

The calculator, along with LucasArts' Star Wars dramatically impacted the future course of his life, he said. The film, which he initially derided before seeing, was the inspiration for the first game he attempted to make and led him to creating his own versions of other games he saw people playing at arcades. Using a North Star Horizon, his first computer, Gilbert recounted his experiences with these games, musing, "What if Pac-Man could eat through walls, or the ghosts exploded."

In high school, he said his interest for storytelling began to grow, thanks to access to HBO. This experience led him away from the reflex-based shooters that he had thus far experimented with and into role-playing and adventure games. "It became more about challenging your brain with more than just where to jump or who to shirt first," he said. "games were becoming artistic."

Gilbert's first taste in the gaming industry came while he was in college. A computer science major, Gilbert dropped out to work for a company that made Commodore 64 games, though he was laid off six months later. Still, this experience led to LucasArts offering him a job; one that he did not hesitate to accept. While small, the team consisted of what Gilbert called the "smartest people I'd ever met."

Here, Gilbert offered his first token of wisdom. "Never own the most expensive house on the block; rather, let that house increase the value of your own," he noted, before emphasizing the importance of surrounding oneself with those who are better and learning from them. "If you ever become content, then you aren't pushing hard enough," he said.

Gilbert then went into the origins of the venerated Maniac Mansion adventure game. The rub about working at LucasArts, he said, was that the company had licensed out the rights to make Star Wars games to a toy company. As such, his initial work was to port Kornois Rift and Ballblazer to the Commodore 64. Once completed, the team moved on to Maniac Mansion, which arose in part because of his hatred for typing.

"You're my kind of SCUMM."

As a point-and-click adventure, his team developed the SCUMM programming language (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), which paved the way for all of LucasArts' early adventure games, including the original Sam & Max.

Gilbert then recounted memories of working with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who were initially hired as programmers, on the Monkey Island franchise. He said that the team in total consisted of seven people and had a budget of $135,000. This point is important, he noted, because it highlights the difference between the early days of game design and the industry as it is now.

"The games industry today is very different--it is an industry," he said. "One of the shining lights is the indie game movement." Gilbert noted that only with small, light teams can games be innovative and original. This is opposed to big companies, which need to be safe and are afraid to fail. Indie developers, on the other hand, have the freedom to fail, or as he said, "Indie games have the freedom to be better."

This point brought Gilbert to the ongoing debate over whether games can be considered an art form. For him, debating the question is absurd because it is a forgone conclusion. "It is silly to debate because of course they are art," he said. In fact, Gilbert believes that the gaming medium is the most important since the film industry first planted its roots about 100 years ago.

He also noted that for thousands of years, those in a position of power have attempted to marginalize, subvert, and smother art because it challenges people to think and has the power to inspire and move the masses. "Art is what gives us purpose and makes sense of the world," he said.

Alluding to J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Gilbert said that games are like the art form to rule them all, as they take the audience beyond just being passive viewers and into the realm of personal experience. "Games are art that is meant to be lived, not just viewed," he said.

Further, games, such as World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and other massively multiplayer online role-playing games present a glimpse at the future of games as an art form. The genre, he said, allows art to be experienced not by a single person, but by millions in a single instance, and it is an art that can be lived and manipulated.

Quote: "Artists will create worlds and unleash them to be absorbed and changed and personalized. Games are important personally, as a people, and as a society."--Ron Gilbert, on the future of games as art.

Takeaway: Ron Gilbert's inspiring keynote address emphasized the importance of being creative and innovative within the gaming industry. He noted that the future lies in the passion and energy of indie developers, who have the ability to take risks and fail, but to also push the medium to a higher level of significance and accomplishment. He also emphasized that games are the most powerful form of art, as they offer audiences the chance to participate in and live out the experience.

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