The sequel to Maniac Mansion is still considered to be one of the best LucasArts adventure games and it’s not hard to see why. Achingly funny and with incredibly clever puzzle design, it’s a superb sequel that takes everything that was great about the original and substantially improves upon it. Co-creator, Dave Grossman explains how the magic happened.
Maniac Mansion was the first adventure that LucasArts developed using the much-acclaimed SCUMM system, yet it would be some years before the emergence of a sequel. It was a natural decision that originated due to the team being at a loose end. “It was kind of just hanging in the air, like a UFO or the smell of doughnuts,” recalls Dave Grossman. “[Monkey Island 2] was winding down, and Tim and I were about as ready as we were going to be to run a project of our own. It had been in our minds as one of various things we might do, and I think the general perception among ‘The Powers’ was that keeping us together and having us do a sequel, however nominal, to something might help to minimise the damage that we might cause. I remember Kelly Flock bringing it up one day in a ‘we were thinking you guys might want to do this’ kind of way, and we said sure, absolutely. That sounded like just the ticket.”
Being a LucasArts adventure, there’s a suitable collection of
odd characters to meet.
Day Of The Tentacle may have been a sequel, but Chuck Jones’ cartoons proved inspirational for the style of the game, with classics such as The Rabbit Of Seville, What’s Opera, Doc? and Duck Dodgers In The 24½th Century quoted by Grossman as particular favourites. “Road Runner cartoons have a very adventure game feel to them, but the most obvious influence on Day Of The Tentacle would be Pepé Le Pew, with its running gag about painting a white line on a black cat and having it be mistaken for a skunk. We lifted that verbatim and used it as a puzzle.”
Having worked in various roles on LucasArts titles, most notably Monkey Island and its sequel, it was an ideal opportunity for Grossman to work on a project of his own alongside Tim Schafer, future creator of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. “Yes, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick were around for the initial story planning and brainstorms,” he recalls, “but Tim and I owned and wrote the project together. It was an excellent collaboration, pretty much an extension of how we worked together on the Monkey games, but with lots more areas of responsibility and accountability. There wasn’t a whole lot of conflict in the relationship, we had similar tastes in a lot of ways, and if we disagreed, a quick conversation was usually enough to iron it out.”
The cartoon-like visuals are a big improvement over those
found in Maniac Mansion.
Day Of The Tentacle revolves around three main characters: Bernard (the only returning character from Maniac Mansion), Laverne and Hoagie. Purple Tentacle consumes radioactive waste, which transforms him into an evil genius, whom Dr Fred manages to capture alongside Green Tentacle. However, Bernard unwittingly releases them both, which leaves it down to Dr Fred to send the trio back in time. Yet Dr Fred’s cheapskate ways soon catch up with him, when the imitation diamond powering the time machine cracks, leaving Bernard stranded in the present, Hoagie in the past and Laverne transported into the future. “A time machine is a really great design tool,” adds Grossman philosophically. “I wish I could remember where I left it. Some future me probably came back and took it so I would stop causing trouble.”
The time machine concept initially suggested by Ron Gilbert was fleshed out further by Tim Schafer, who came up with a unique concept of how the three characters would interact. “We tossed around ideas for what he’d use for the individual chambers,” explains Grossman. “Someone suggested portable toilets, and Tim said it would be called the ‘Chron-O-John’, and we all laughed our heads off and we knew we wouldn’t have to think about any other ideas. Once we’d arrived at the use of portable toilets, flushing things through time seemed sort of obvious.”
A Special Edition version is on the way courtesy of Tim Schafer’s Doublefine.
Unlike Maniac Mansion, which featured six characters, the time-travelling antics of the storyline of Day Of The Tentacle meant it had to be scaled back. This meant that two characters, Razor and Moonglow, were abandoned while a third, Chester, was re-imagined as Red Edison’s twin sons. Grossman explains these decisions: “In order to maintain our own sanity during production, we decided that we had better limit it to Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne, rather than allowing you to pick from a set. Lots more stuff was hand-animated than had been in Maniac, and the permutations of animating all those actions for all six characters would have killed us. Razor was the same hard-edged girl from Maniac Mansion, albeit with more pixels, colours and style, since we weren’t developing for the Commodore 64 any more. Chester looked like Ned and Jed Edison, except he was black, with beat poet facial hair and a cup of espresso permanently attached to his hand. Moonglow was shortish, with sandals, baggy clothes and a cascade of frizzy curly hair. I was looking forward to writing dialogue for these people…”
Designing the characters themselves was a combined effort between the creators and the artists involved with the project, as Grossman explains: “It seems to me that we first thought about what kinds of people they should be, and then Larry Ahern did concept drawings for them based on those thoughts, and then his drawings re-influenced our thinking about what kinds of people they should be. It’s organic! We had several artists working for a year or so to create all that animation, which seemed like a lot at the time but by modern standards it’s hardly notable. What was really amazing was watching Peter Chan crank out the backgrounds – he drew every last scene, and on each one he would go from concept sketch to finished art in about two days.”
The humour and the puzzle design is superb. If you don’t laught several times you’re most likely dead.
The introduction of CD-ROM meant that the biggest obstacle came from casting the voices for the characters. “We solicited and listened to a lot of demo tapes from voice actors – and yes, in 1992 they actually were cassette tapes – and made most of our selections that way,” remembers Grossman. “Tamlynn [Barra], our voice director, spent a lot of time badgering Tim and I to describe how various characters should sound so she could locate people for us to listen to. Bernard was the toughest one to cast. I remember us going back and forth quite a bit, and I could sort of hear a voice in my head but I couldn’t figure out how to describe it. Then there was a moment of epiphany and I realised that what I was imagining sounded like the character Les Nessman from WKRP In Cincinnati. Tamlynn surprised me by saying she thought we could get Richard Sanders himself to play the role, and that was that. And he was terrific!”
A floppy version of the game was also created to cater for those who had yet to upgrade to new technology, and this in itself posed its own challenges. “The main difference is that the floppy disk version of DOTT only talks during a couple of the major cut-scenes, instead of all the time,“ explains Grossman. “But even that is a lot of data, and I personally spent several weeks at the end of production, looking for ways to shrink or eliminate files so that the game would still fit on six disks with the voice in it.” The floppy version might not have had as much talking as its CD-ROM-based alternative, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a brilliant game. There were still several issues that needed to be ironed out before the game’s release though…