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Return to Monkey Island’s art director talks inspirations and expectations

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Rex Crowle solidified his striking art style with games like Tearaway and Knights and Bikes. Now he’s serving as art director for Return to Monkey Island, the revival of the classic, pirate-themed adventure game series.

I had a chance to talk with Crowle about his love for the Monkey Island franchise and his work on this new entry.

GamesBeat: What is your history with the Monkey Island series as a fan?

Crowle: It’s the game that made me want to make video games. I never expected to actually achieve that dream, let alone actually working on a Monkey Island game. As a kid, most games seemed to be about one rectangle shooting smaller rectangles at another rectangle. Monkey Island was the opposite of that. I cared about the characters, laughed at the jokes, pressed my nose against the screen to study the art and I actually felt super sad for weeks after finishing the game. A state I remained in until I opened up Deluxe Paint III on my Amiga and started creating my own little adventure game graphics. It’s all the fault of that game.

I remember that street!
I remember that street!

GamesBeat: Are you pulling inspiration from any specific past Monkey Island game?

Crowle: There’s the color palettes of The Secret of Monkey Island, the more painterly approach of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, as well as some of the shaper more stylized shapes of The Curse of Monkey Island. We’re a very small indie team so we didn’t go down the 3D route, but aside from that we’ve taken something from all of the games, while making something new and specifically tailored to the story that Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman wanted to tell. An art style has to connect with the core themes of the game you’re making, its not an interchangeable thing that you apply like a Photoshop filter, and for this adventure a picture-book style was the right fit.

GamesBeat: Are you taking inspiration from outside the series?

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Crowle: There’s wider inspiration from some of the other LucasArts classics like Day of the Tentacle. When making a game like this, it can be a challenge to figure out how to cram everything that’s required into each environment, as they are often just a single screen. But Day of the Tentacle has some fantastic design solutions for that, and they create a lot of variety and a sense of rhythm and flow as you move from one screen to another.

A locksmith shop.
A locksmith shop.

Mostly we’re just inspiring each other on the team. We’re a tight-knit little unit and we are constantly adding to each other’s paintings. So each time [a team member] adds something to the game it creates a little ripple of inspiration. Oh, and having a playlist of Tom Waits and sea shanties playing in the background helps as well.

GamesBeat: What is it like getting to reinterpret classic settings from past Monkey Island games?

Crowle: Terrifying. The Monkey Island games mean so many different things to different people it’s daunting having that range of hopes and desires pressing down on you. Some fans picture the earlier pixel art, some remember painterly clouds, some may have happy memories of giant mechanical monkey battles. But with Ron and Dave leading the project it couldn’t be a more genuine Monkey Island game, and we’re all enjoying doing what we can to make sure their vision becomes real. Because everyone on the team has wanted to play that game for a really long time!

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