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Interview with Bill Tiller
on Duke Grabowski,
Mighty Swachbuckler
Developer:Venture Moon Games
Article Posted:October 2016

It is hard to talk about classic adventure games without bringing up the Monkey Island series. The mere mention of Guybrush Threepwood, Le Chuck, and the rest of the Monkey Island gang brings back pleasant memories to many. The first Monkey Island game happened to be the first adventure game I ever played, many years ago at a friends house, starting my love of the genre. Intimately associated with the series is Mr. Bill Tiller, who worked as the lead background artist on The Curse of Monkey Island. His artwork is also featured on other classics such as The Dig and Full Throttle.

Mr. Tiller's involvement with comedy adventures and pirates certainly did not stop when he left Lucas Arts. Under the banner Autumn Moon Entertainment, Mr. Tiller was the project leader for A Vampyre Story and Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island. Later with IF Games he worked on Perils of Man. Now in 2016, he has returned to the land of pirates. Along with his team at Venture Moon Games, Mr. Tiller now brings us Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swachbuckler.

The adventure takes place at San Pedrejo island, where Duke must prove to his crew that he is worthy of being their captain. Oafish and unrefined, Duke certainly does not appear to be the charismatic leader that will inspire the crew. However, under his rough exterior, he is quite resourceful, surprisingly kind-hearted, and most certainly very brave. Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler marks only the beginning of his tale. As the first chapter of this new adventure series has been released, Mr. Tiller has kindly agreed to an interview with Adventure Lantern to tell us a little more about the project.

[Adventure Lantern]: Tell us a little bit about how Duke Grabowski came about. When did you have the initial idea for the game?

[Bill Tiller]:It’s a throwback to the style of adventure games made at Lucas Arts in the late 1990’s. It is inspired by the Monkey Island series that I was a part of when I worked there and is a spinoff of the 2010 game I made called Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island.

My co-founder Jeremiah Grant wanted to make an adventure game tool for the Unity store, and as part of that plan he wanted to make a playable demo. I volunteered to do the art and that became the basis for the idea of the game. I painted a pirate bar made from a pirate ship sitting on top an Inn. Like bars these days, they had a ladies night where “All Wenches Drink Free.” I thought the goal of the puzzle would be to sneak past the pirate bouncer out front because the hero's name wasn’t on the list. I thought it would be funny if the main character was a big, strong clumsy dude; sort of the character Mongo from the movie Blazing Saddles, or the Incredible Hulk.

Later we found out there was already a very good adventure game too for Unity called Adventure Creator. So we scrapped those plans, but then thought we could raise enough money to do a short game by using Kickstarter. We decided to be as efficient as possible by repurposing some of the assets from Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, and we set the game in the same world as Ghost Pirates. That allowed us to make the most of the budget and is how we were able to put so many characters in the game.

[AL]: You used Kickstarter to help fund the game's development. How was the campaign experience?

[BT]: We heard about an opportunity to get matching funds if we did an Ouya version of the game, so we rushed to get our campaign ready, but gave ourselves 60 days instead of 30 so we had time to do PR for the campaign. It worked out well because I learned from a campaign I had done before, and made sure we did everything correctly this time. But all Kickstarter campaigns are tough and a bit nerve wracking.

[AL]: Tell us about the development process. What was it like to work on the game? Who were the people involved?

[BT]: At first it was Jeremiah Grant and myself, but I felt we needed to bring Gene Mocsy on board because he knew how to deisgn, script, write and do 3d models. He was a jack of all trades. Jeremiah was a technical master, and I was in charge of the art and story aspects of the game. Gene and I did the game design, I wrote and directed the cut scenes, and Gene was in charge of the in-game dialogue. It all worked out pretty well. The only down side is that most of us couldn’t work on the game full time because it didn’t pay the bills, so production was very slow. But when we signed with Alliance, the deal allowed us to work on the game full time and get it done more quickly and with better quality.

[AL]: How does the experience of working on a game like Duke Grabowski compare to your other projects?

[BT]: Well this one is a lot smaller, about one fifth the size of my other games, so the scope was a lot more manageable. I also had two partners, so that help spread the chores and the responsibility around a lot, too. We just concentrated on what we each had to do. Also, the engine was already made, so we could script the game together very quickly and easily. It still took a lot of work to get it near where we wanted, but it is so much easier to make a game with an engine already set up for you.

[AL]: What can you tell us about the story of Duke Grabowski?

[BT]: Duke is the enforcer on the ship the Brazen Blade which is captained by his good friend and mentor, Captain Amerigo. Slewface, a seasoned pirate and rogue is the captain’s first mate. Slewface got his name from a large slash that ruined the left side of his face. The day before the game starts, the Brazen Blade was attacked by three military ships, which was too many for the crew to fend off. So to lose the pursuing ships, Captain Amerigo orders the ship to head into the stormy seas around the treacherous Siren Rocks, an accursed place known for sending many a pirate ship down to Davey Jones. Amerigo’s plan is to have the extremely strong Duke hang over the side of the prow of the ship and push the ship with his legs away from any jutting rocks that might sink the Blade.

All is well until Duke is surprised by a mermaid who jumps up on to the rock Duke is about to push. Because of this, Duke mistimes the push and a rock hits the side of the ship, causing the ship to heave over on its side and sending Captain Amerigo in to the violent maelstrom never to be seen again.

The ship is terribly damaged and has to limp in to the nearest port on San Pendejo Island. Once the ship is docked, Slewface reminds the crew that they must now vote on a new captain. All the pirates vying for captain throw their sabers and cutlasses on the deck in front of Slewface. Duke throws his huge cutlass on top of all them. Duke is not well liked nor respected by the crew because he’s a bit clumsy and slow in the head, so they burst out laughing when they see he too is vying for captain. They unwisely start to make fun of him and laugh in his face. This leads to Duke being enraged and he starts to beat the entire crew senseless. Slewface, who is conniving and clever, talks Duke into calming down and convinces him that he will have to earn the crew’s respect by being a true swashbuckler. To do that, one must be a suave ladies’ man like Captain Amerigo was. So he tells Duke that he must prove that he too is a suave ladies’ man by going ashore and wooing three ladies. None of the crew (nor Slewface) thinks Duke is sophisticated enough to do anything of the sort. They just want him off the ship so they can repair it and ditch him on San Pendejo as quickly as possible. That is where the game starts.

[AL]: Duke is a bit of an unusual protagonist. How would you describe him?

[BT]: A huge muscular Huckleberry Finn with IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder). He is a very nice, good-hearted man who is way too sensitive and insecure, due to being made fun of all his life for how clumsy and slow he is. He just wants the approval of his peers and to be thought of as valuable and respected. He got that from Captain Amerigo, but now that he is gone, Duke thinks the only way to get what he wants is to impress this crew of cutthroats, boors and malcontents.

[AL]: What was it like to design the puzzles and character interactions around a lead character like Duke?

[BT]: The problem of course is that he is so strong that traditional obstacles and barriers can easily be overcome by pure strength, like a locked door. Duke could easily just kick it in or pull it off its frame. We have a few puzzles like that, and we let the player use Duke’s strength to solve it just because it’s fun.

[AL]: What can you tell us about the islands he gets to explore?

[BT]: San Pendejo Island is one of three isles that Governor Derrick from the game Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island controls. It used to be a sad backwater port that has seen its fair share of hard times, but a recent slew of investment has helped make the island a vacation destination for adults and families. What helped turn the place around was the arrival of Sheriff Nancy Steele to the island. She is a tough as nails, no fooling around pirate-hating law enforcer. Her father was a no-good scallywag whom she despises for leaving her and her mom when Nancy was young. She now channels that hatred toward any pirate she finds on the island, making sure none of them so much as litters, or they are either sent packing or get to spend a fortnight in jail. Sherriff Steele prides herself on making the island a safe place for families, tourist and businessmen. and looks with suspicion on any pirate who wades ashore. She and her men keep a close eye on all potential troublemakers and pounce on them lightning fast if there is even a hint of law breaking.

The island is pretty big and has a few other spots on it that the player will get to see in this game and in future episodes, such as Stone Maw Mountain, a peak riddled with shadowy caves and mysterious cave dwellers, a Vooju Retreat, a wrestling ring where one can throw down with a 500-pound gorilla, a pirate-themed tourist diner, a fire house that doubles as a barbeque joint, and a familiar-looking jail house.

Duke will also travel to the Leviathan Graveyard, a place that is crawling with dangerous Vooju Zombies and undead who work for the Ogu Raiders, a band of pirates and Vooju priests that worship Baron Ogu, the Vooju god of destruction.

[AL]: It seems people who played the Monkey Island series and Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island would feel right at home visiting the island. Can you hint at some familiar things the careful observer might notice?

[BT]: Well this game is a bit of spoof and homage of Monkey Island, in that we have a young naive character who wants to become a pirate of some sort and they have to pass three trials. That was intentional, as well as the title of the game: Guybrush often says “I am Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate.” The title Mighty Swashbuckler is a reference to that famous greeting. And I make references to jokes, location and situations from some of the Monkey Island games, which I thought MI fans would find funny. Dave Grossman and Larry Ahern, both Monkey Island vets, are actually in the game as characters. Even Max from Sam and Max makes a brief appearance if one looks closely. There are a few other things hidden or not so hidden around that make reference to Monkey Island. I wanted to pay tribute to those great games and to nod and wink at fans of the game I worked on; Curse of Monkey Island.

[AL]: What can you tell us about the island's other inhabitants?

[BT]: In the first episode, you will meet the hard ass sheriff Nancy Steele, a woman who hates pirates and will not tolerate any law braking or boorish behavior. She runs a “tight ship.” One of her prisoners is Sweet Tea - a smooth-talking scoundrel who got a little too friendly with the governors fiancée. A group of Australian sailors shipwrecked on the island ended up starting their very own barbeque business, but were so distracted by the island ‘beauties’ that they let the fire pits get out of control. This happened so often that they got a great reputation for being able to put out fires. So logically, the governor made them the official firemen of the island. You will meet Sal, the woman who runs the fruit stand. He fruit feeds a gorilla, but Sal has a serious monkey problem. The gorilla is a wrestling star named Queenie who has never been bested. The final characters the player will encounter are the Ogu Raiders, a group of vicious Vooju-worshipping priests and pirates that use the undead to capture and sack innocent merchant vessels. They make an island of bones and monster corpses as their secret lair.

[AL]: At certain points Duke uses other characters' skills as inventory items. Can you tell us a little more about that?

[BT]: One of the major themes in the game is team building. Duke wants to be a leader of his crew, but in the meantime, until he can prove himself, he must work with the people he meets or he isn’t going to get very far. He may not be very smart, but he is wise enough to know when he needs help. If they player learns about a skill or ability a character has, it will appear in the inventory as a blue cloudy idea icon, and the player can then use that idea icon on an obstacle that they think that character’s skill can solve.

[AL]: Who is the intended audience for the game?

[BT]: I like to make games that fall into what I call The Simpsons category. If a subject matter or joke could appear on the TV show The Simpsons then its ok for our game. If I had to put an age range I’d say from 10-12 years old to adult. I think older kids and adults will enjoy the game and get the humor. It has some innuendo, some cartoon violence, and satirical elements but it has positive messages about peer pressure, prejudice, sexism and the power of team work.

[AL]: In many ways, Duke Grabowski feels like the opening chapter for a much bigger adventure. What is next in store for Duke and the rest of the gang?

[BT]: It was designed to be either a short little adventure, or the first in a series of games. When we signed with Alliance, they wanted to make the latter and do a series of five games. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, so the player doesn’t have to wait till episode 2 to find out what happens next, but there’s plenty of story arc left to explore and expand upon.

[AL]: When do you think we might get to go on another adventure with Duke?

[BT]: Spring of 2017 is the rough estimate for Episode 2.

[AL]: Is there any chance we can get back to Vooju Island some day?

[BT]: If this series is successful I don’t see why not. I have a plot and story already set up for Papa Doc, Jane Starling and Blue Belly. It would be cool if they met up with Duke too someday. They would all make for a very interesting team.

[AL]: Thank you very much for agreeing to an interview with us. It is a pleasure to have you on our site.

[BT]: Sure. It was fun for me, too. I love talking about my game and I really hope people will enjoy it and look forward to more Duke episodes, because we all enjoy making them. This game was a true labor of love and I hope people will sense that when they play it. We plan to get better and better with each episode. Thanks for the interview question and for featuring our game.

Once again, Adventure Lantern thanks Mr. Tiller for answering our questions. It was great to hear about his latest work.

If you enjoyed Mr. Tiller's previous work, you will likely appreciate Duke Grabowski as well. It is clear that this is a work of love, crafted by people that care about classic adventure games. The first chapter may be short, but it does a good job of introducing the main cast while giving Duke plenty of challenges to overcome. Duke ends up being a surprisingly likeable protagonist. Without giving too much away, his challenge of 'romancing' three women is actually handled in a tasteful way that fits the overall relaxed tone of the adventure well.

If you are in the mood for a lighthearted comedy adventure that doesn't take itself too seriously, consider giving Duke Grabowski a try. It will be interesting to see where Mr. Tiller and his team take the project next. I for one will be tagging along for the ride.