Interview: Monkey Island's Dominic Armato

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
It is well known that we at Somnambulant Gamer love the Monkey Island games, and the rebirth of the series by Telltale Games has delighted us beyond all reason. (There may have been dancing). Tales of Monkey Island is currently on chapter four of the five-part series, with the finale releasing on the 8th of December.

Back in the land of PAX, we caught up with Dominic Armato, voice of Guybrush Threepwood. We spoke to Dom about his history with Guybrush, his own life, and monkeys. Here's what he had to say.

Wesley: Is it true that Dave Grossman and Ron Gilbert's love child is a three-headed monkey?

Dominic Armato: This is a horrible, nasty, rumor that I would like to dispel right now: the monkey has only two heads.

W: What do you think of PAX?

DA: I'm loving it so far. I've never been before, although I used to do E3 three or four years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles. Everyone talks about how PAX is really the fun one. I was sort of expecting size-wise that it wouldn't be E3-like, but when I walked in, I thought: 'Oh my god, this place is huge! This is at least as big [as E3]'. Seems like it might even be bigger.

W: I think it's grown since 2004. It went from being in a 30,000 square foot space to 300,000.

DA: Unbelievable. It's a different vibe here, too. Walking around you have the beanbags and all the tabletop gaming. The business end of it has to happen, but this is the fun stuff. It's pretty cool.

W: Have you met a lot of Monkey Island fans here?

DA: People are swinging by and it's really weird. The first time, the first go-around about ten years ago, voice over was really starting to hit peoples consciousnesses. If you go back about 15 years, few people cared at all or even thought about it. That was one of the things that was nice about Curse [of Monkey Island], Escape [from Monkey Island], and the LucasArts business at the time.They were the exceptions. They really did pay attention at the time, doing careful voice casting and all that. Still, it wasn't so much people really following voice actors or having any idea what any of the names were.

Then there is this huge ten year lull. I moved back to Chicago and I stopped working then all of a sudden I get back into it and it is a whole different thing. People are following the names and seeing who is doing what. Now all of a sudden it is like there's all kinds of attention to who is doing voice acting. So it is a very different experience.

W: I know that you've said before that you hadn't met Ron Gilbert yet...

DA: I had not, I finally met him yesterday for the very first time; and very briefly at dinner, too. We were having dinner at the same place. It is nice to finally say I have met the man now, and he didn't punch me in the face.

W: Was there a ceremony? A blood letting at any point?

DA: There was nothing quite so dramatic. He didn't punch me in the face, so I hope that at least means he isn't highly irritated by what I did to his character. For the brief time that I got to meet and talk with him, he seemed like a very nice fellow. It was good to finally not be totally disconnected from the roots of this guy, [Guybrush], who I have been doing for so long now. And I met Tim Schafer for the first time yesterday too, so I got to meet them both finally.

W: It has of course been quite a while since 'Escape'. What have you been doing with yourself?

DA: The Monkey Island games were sort of the first half of my time in Los Angeles--about LA for six years. I hung around for two or three years after 'Escape', I think. Then, I went home to Chicago. I kept up with the voice work there. It is a very different thing [in Chicago]. All the character work, the animation, and the interactive work is almost exclusively done on the West Coast, which is what I moved out there to do in the first place. In Chicago I never got out of it, but there was a shift where you go back to the commercial work and the industrial work. It is a lot less recognizable, and a lot less fun, too, but I was living back at home which was a big thing for me.

Kinda have a life, I got married, had a couple of kids, and we moved out to Boston for my wife's work. And when we moved to the East Coast I pushed it even further to the back burner because I didn't have agents out there. Things were busy with the family and I thought, 'Well, it's OK'. Voice over is a lot easier than an on camera career in that regard. You don't always have to be thinking visibility, visibility, visibility. It's much easier to drift in or out as you want or need to. So I just talked to my agent in Chicago, and they said 'If you want to take a break for a few years just let us know when you want back in. We'll get you back in'. That was kinda the plan, just put it on the back burner and till we get back home. Then all of a sudden Monkey Island comes up, so now I am flying back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast once a month to do all the recording. When you think you're out they pull you back in.

W: What can you tell me about your blog, Skillet Doux?

DA: It's a goofy sort of personal hobby of mine that caught a little more readership than I expected. I was going to all of these great places eating all of this fantastic food. I hated the fact that I couldn't remember things. I was thinking of keeping a personal journal and I was talking to my wife, (although she wasn't my wife just yet), but she said 'You know my family is interested in what we are doing, why don't you put it online?' So I thought, Yeah, sure, why not?

From there I just casually started to post online and people actually started reading it. I won't say that I am stuck with it because I really do enjoy it. It is a little weird for me because I still think of it as a personal journal that is public. And when I am getting more than 5,000 page views a day, that's not just my family. It's enjoyable, it's a little side thing just for fun.

W: What do you like about Guybrush and what do you enjoy most about playing him?

DA: I am a little closer to Guybrush than I care to admit, although I think a lot of people feel that way about him. I'm sure that is not a feeling that's unique to me. The thing that I like about Guybrush is that he goes through life with a little bit of naivete, but he's got this energy and this zeal. He's is always very positive about things, and even though he sort of comes by them in goofy, roundabout, sometimes Homerish fashions by stumbling into success rather than outright achieving it at times.

He is not someone who is going to get jaded, but he still has some sarcasm and some wit--he's not totally a babe in the woods. It sounds goofy, but in many ways that's how I want to be. I want to be someone who always looks at the world with wonder and is always excited about it, without getting too bogged down by the machine. If that's how I can live out my life, then I am thrilled.

In some ways it is fun to be the character that reflects how you would like to be on a personal level. I try to, and that is how I arrived at how I wanted to do Guybrush in the first place. When I had that first audition I thought, 'I have to get this, I have to make sure I do this right' and I thought 'Well, I played the first few games a ton and I always heard myself when I was reading them. Maybe that will work, I'll take the aspects of my personality that mesh with his. Push those to the front and turn them up to eleven, distill little aspects of myself as Guybrush and sell that as the character.

W: Kind of a caricature of yourself?

DA: The aspects of myself that I feel do match up with the character. That's how I thought about it, and it worked out pretty well. For a lot of it, it is me that I am putting out there in the guise of Guybrush. That makes it easy to keep him genuine for a lot of it.

W: Were you ever nervous about playing a character that has a solid, almost rabid following?

DA: Absolutely terrified. I was absolutely terrified from day one. You get the part and it's like, 'I got it!' and it's the most exciting thing in the world. Then the fear sets in and it's 'I can't screw this up. If I screw this up it will be absolutely catastrophic.' I went into this and it's, 'I have to get this right, I have to get this right'.

All through Curse, especially, there was this intense focus of 'Everything has got to be perfect' . I don't know what everyone wants; I can only do it they way I think needs to be done. I got into a few, not unfriendly, but a few knock-down drag-outs with the director from time to time, saying 'No, no, no--he has to be this way'.

Eventually we got the recording done and then the waiting game started, since the recording is done a little ways before the [actual release of the] game...just going 'I hope everyone likes this thing, I hope everyone likes it.' Then the first reviews started to hit, which were pretty much totally positive. 'Thank god, now I can take a breath. I haven't destroyed the character or ruined the franchise.'

I just wanted to know that I didn't [mess up] Monkey Island. It was certainly a ton of pressure on the first pass; it's not quite as scary now, having spent some time doing [Guybrush] and having done so many games. Still every time there is that little bit of fear of 'I have got to do this right, I can't screw this up' and I don't know that I want to loose that, either. It keeps you sharp.

W: Do you have any hopes for Gubrush?

DA: I hope Guybrush's adventures continue for many years to come. I missed him. Everyone did. To have this character you like disappear for ten're hopeful at first, then you start to get a little despondent, then you get downright bitter about it and put it away. It is great to have him back.

W: Did anyone else's work influence how you play Guybrush?

DA: Not so much. Not for Guybrush. There are certainly other characters that I have done that were influenced by other people that I had heard, the people I respect in the terms of their work. Guybrush really was one that for me came out of myself, both because I thought it would work and it would help me to keep it really genuine. That is what makes him so special to me: I was putting myself out there. It is a little different with him. Very personal.

W: How do you like the look of him in Tales of Monkey Island?

DA: I love it. I love that we got the coat back, got the nice little beard going on there. He is a little older he's not quite so babe in the woods any more, but he has got a little style. It's still Guybrush, he still has the poofy hair, it's all good. I like the look of him quite a lot in Tales.

W: Do you have a favorite version of him?

DA: Looks-wise, Tales is probably my favorite so far. It's between Tales and [Monkey Island] 2: LeChuck's Revenge. It's the coat--the coat's cool, what can I say?

W: Are there any other games that you hope to do voice work in?

DA: There is tons of stuff that I would love to work on, but it is not something that I have a lot of an opportunity to do these days, it's taken a back seat. The nice thing is it seems like the focus is starting to come back to character and story. That was certainly the case back in the adventure gaming days. You feel like the industry had to go through it's whole 'pixel pushing' phase, and it is just starting to drift back.

For a lot of years there's been a lot of lip service, but now [storytelling] is really starting to get the attention it needs; to take a little more time and tell a good story with some great characters in there. I would love to work on anything where it's not just character with quickly represented archetypes, where the work has been done by twenty other movies that you have already seen, where people are actually developing new characters. It's hard.

That is one of the reasons you don't see [good storytelling] often. It's hard to do. From a writing stand point it's easy to reference old stuff and let the cultural zeitgeist fill in the blanks. To actually create characters out of whole cloth is very hard to do. That is the work that is the most exciting from a performer's standpoint. We are starting to see more of that, and I hope it continues.

W: You already covered it a little bit, but how do you feel about the adventure game renaissance?

DA: We'll see. You see that there is a little more focus on story and character. In some ways, the gaming community seems a little broader to me now. More people seem to fall under that umbrella. Maybe they were always there, but just weren't being given the attention they needed. People who fall under that umbrella are willing to sit back, take a little more time, and be less active and aggressive in their gaming--not that there is anything wrong with a good shooter.

From a nuts and bolts business standpoint, digital distribution has made [the adventure game renaissance] technically possible from business stand point. And Telltale is really leading the way with these adventure games--you can do them and put out a product that has that attention and character and story, yet make it happen on a lower budget, episodic way. It's really exciting what there are doing, and I am hoping that some other people catch on. The excitement of Monkey Island certainly over the short-term has shown there are people out there who want to play these games. Everyone wants to believe that this is it, that [adventure games] are back. And hopefully, fingers crossed, that is the case.

I hope this isn't just a blip, and is the start of a trend, the start of a new era of adventure gaming if you will. I think we are just going to have to see. Hopefully it's not just a quick bit of nostalgia and it is a real shift. I feel like the ground work is there and the timing is right. I wonder if it will ever return to that old model where adventure games were big blockbuster titles? I don't know if it will ever go back to that and I don't know necessarily if that's a bad thing. It is certainly taking a different form on this pass.

W: You're hoping for it to have a permanent home in the industry?

DA: Yes, exactly. Whatever form it takes, you just hope that they stay. Telltale has been doing it for a while now and hopefully they will continue to have that success. I don't see any reason why they shouldn't.

W: Are you hoping for any other old Lucasarts games to get picked up? I know I am holding out hope for Loom.

DA: That was the first Lucasarts adventure game I played. It was Christmas or my birthday, something like that.

W: So you had the audio drama cassette and everything?

DA: Yes, I think I did. I felt terribly embarrassed, because I got this present but there was some problem with my computer at the time and it sat in a desk drawer for years and finally...I think we got a new computer. I dug it out and I popped it in and I thought 'Hey, this is really fun!' . That was the first Lucasarts adventure game I had, and it brought me around to Monkey Island then--when I got the Sega CD, of all things, and Secret of Monkey Island was released for the Sega CD. I thought , "I liked Loom. It was a pretty cool game. I'll give this a shot.' Then it was all over from there.

I don't know if there are any that I want to see remade exactly. I am ashamed to admit that as much as I played the old Lucasarts games, I have the biggest freaking hole right there in the middle, I never played Maniac Manson or Day of the Tentacle. Which is just terrible.

W: I haven't either.

DA: If there are ones that you haven't played, those are the weird ones not to have played. If you have played most of the rest of them it is a little strange to have not played those. Those are the ones that I missed and I know that a lot of people have said that they would really like to see those up. When I think about Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, I don't think those really need to be remade. For me, they were voiced, they are not the really blocky pixels--they don't feel old enough to me, I guess. For the people that really want them, I hope that they do get made, and then maybe I will be able to play them again. I don't think I even have the originals anymore.

W: Obviously at many points the Monkey Island series seemed dead. 6 years between Revenge and Curse, 3 years between Curse and Escape, and finally 9 years from Escape to Tales. Now, looking back, do you think it will ever die?

DA: I hope not. I think a lot of it is going to depend. When I did those game ten years ago, there wasn't nearly so long a break between Curse and when curse came out, everyone was "Fantastic, it's back!"

Everyone knew everyone was familiar with the series. Now because there has been such a long gap, something is different this time around. As soon as the announcement was made, I was online checking out what everyone was saying and for the first time I am seeing people saying, "Well, what the heck is Monkey Island?" [and others responded with] "What, what do you mean?!" That's the reaction that you want them to have. Of course they don't know it had been ten years... were still in diapers when the last game was released. They were too young to know and I think a lot of it is going to depend on how it strikes the people who didn't grow up with the originals, and I don't really have a sense of that yet.

I am curious to know myself how the this go-around will it strikes the people who didn't grow up with it and aren't familiar with it. Are they going back and playing the old one? If not, are they really enjoying the new ones? I would love to think that Guybrush can live forever on the backs of the people that played the Secret of Monkey Island when it was first released. I know it crushed me to see him gone on this last pass and I hope that never happens again. The love for those characters is resilient, when you think that they are drifting away the love brings them back and I hope that continues.

W: Why do you think you enjoy adventure games?

DA: They are so character and story focused--at least the good ones are. There were obviously plenty of them back in the day that weren't just solving puzzles. I never had interest in those. The ones that were compelling to me, and I think compelling to everyone for the most part, were the ones had compelling stories and compelling characters. And they were stories and characters that you didn't mind sitting down and spending a lot of time with, even when you are stuck running around from place to place trying to figure things out. That is the stuff that has staying power. It is nice to have games like that that take a more relaxed pace. It is not so much active as it is you can sit back and take your time with it. And I am a little puzzled, I suppose I can understand it, with the new games you see postings about people doing speed runs. That's fine if that's the way you want to play it, but part of me is going, " Slow down. Take your time. This is a different type of game."

It was lost for a while and hopeful this will help bring it back and show that there is a little more value in a slower pace. Unfortunately pace is something that seems to have a negative connotation--people see it and think it shouldn't be that way. There are some stories, some books, and films that know how to take their time and that is not a bad thing for the ones who do it well. Something like Monkey Island is a series that does it well. Sit back and get to know the characters, listen to the dialogue. The dialogue is great.

W: I used to go back and forth to see what else could be said.

DA: Oh yeah. When Curse was first released, I wanted to hear every single line in every single dialogue tree. I think I had forty save game files, going back and forth, saving and loading.

W: Do you have a favorite moment from your work on the Monkey Island series?

DA: In terms of parts that I had a lot of fun doing, the Pirate song in Curse was a lot of fun to do. Standing in the studio singing with those guys was a total blast. They were the goofiest things, the little tunes that Guybrush sings in the Barbery Coast.

It was one of those rare occasions that I wasn't just reading off of the page. The studio director told me that hey had written the words, but the didn't have a tune, and I said "Well, it's almost lunch. Why don't we take a break and let me think about it?" I drove around a little bit thinking up tunes in my head. And we came back and recorded it. From a creative place that was really enjoyable because I was contributing more than I normally do.

It is a little tougher to say that about points in the story. There are points in the story that I love in that way when I am playing them but it is not always the same when you are actually working on them. There are all sorts of fantastic scenes with the other characters but I never worked with them. Since almost everything is recorded solo, with rare exception, there may be a scene that has great impact when you are actually playing the game but when you are sitting there in the studio you are trying to imagine in your head how the other half of the conversation is going. It doesn't have that same gravity for you as you are working on it; you are trying to create it in your head. So it doesn't actually come through until you play the game.

W: Have you played the Monkey Island games with your kids at all?

DA: Yes, I have. My oldest is two and a half and he is at that age where it is totally fun for him. He knows it and he identifies with it. I'll ask him, " Do you want to read a book today?" and he'll say "No, I want to play Monkey Island". We will sit down and play for a little while and it is a lot of fun to see him playing--and it is going t be a lot more fun when he gets just a little bit older, when I can hand him the mouse and he can start doing it himself. That is another aspect of these games that I think is lost too. These are fun games to play together, even though they are not co-op games in the technical sense. They end up being that, and as Dave [Grossman] was saying the other day "They are just as fun for who ever is not driving at the time". It has been a lot of fun for me to see how [my son] enjoys it, and to see the things that he finds funny. The goofiest little thing that you would never think that was in any way entertaining are the ones he wants to see over and over and over again. What really got him in Tales was when Guybrush was trying to board the Screaming Narwhal hand over hand on the clothes line, only to get wheeled back and say "Hey!" That kills my son every time. And he keeps asking me to do it again. I don't know what it is but something about it strikes him as absolutely hysterical.

W: What games do you play?

DA: I'm not so much a genre gamer. I know that there are people who have their niches, their favorites, and I am not totally without them. I want to play great games of whatever style, and obviously my time is a little more limited these days on how much I can devote to it. As a result I have to be a little selective, I don;t want to just play through everything in this genre and I want to play a great adventure and a great shooter, a great this and a great that . I want to spend my time with the ones that are really exceptional; a great game is a great game, as far as I'm concerned. That said I kinda have a tendency towards, adventure aside obviously, RPGs, although not so much the Japanese style. The more paper and dicey the more I tend to like them. I love the Bioware stuff, that is fantastic for me. It is a great fusion for me, a lot of it has those old paper and dice sensibilities, but at the same time it has got has got some great voice work. and they really try to work on some nice arching stories in over over the course of their games.

The other thing is that I have been hopelessly addicted to is rhythm games--ever since a visit to Japan a while back, where I played Guitar Freak. I am hopelessly addicted to rhythm games in general, and the guitar sims in particular. This is one of those rare ones when it was still Konami Guitar Freaks, and they were on maybe the second edition when I got in on it. On a trip to Japan I picked up a Japanese PlayStation 2 and I brought back the little Konami purple and white guitar, the teeny tiny ones hat look like little toys, and I would play this thing obsessively. Everyone was looking at me like I was absolutely insane...and now years later I'm saying "Who's the one who is insane? Who's laughing now?"

W: Just to mess with our readers, could you make up a rumor about yourself and dispel it in the same sentence?

DA: Contrary to what you may have heard floating around PAX this weekend, I am not going to be starring as Master Chief's pirate sidekick in Halo: ODST. Those rumors are completely untrue, even though it would be rather entertaining. Sadly that is just not the case.

W: If there ever were a Monkey Island movie, would you hope to play Guybrush?

DA: Of course I would! I don't know whether that would happen or not. That is one of those things that you dream about.

W: You just have to pray Uwe Bolle doesn't show up.

DA: People have asked me about that and said "Obviously, if there is a Monkey Island movie, you have to play Guybrush." Don't assume anything.

W: I'm surprised with how close Pirates of the Caribbean was that they didn't at least call you for a cameo.

DA: There is an interesting story behind that, and I don't even know the whole story about it. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean was a little hard. I was watching it and thinking, this should be Monkey Island, this should be an animated Monkey Island! And touching onto the Voice Over thing, like everything else now it is getting to be so much more celebrity driven. I think it would be the greatest thing in the world, but at the same time I would feel fortunate just to get an audition. I realize that here at PAX there are a certain amount of people who would recognise my name but in the grand scheme of things, no one knows who I am and gives a care. It would probably be recast as some celebrity of the moment. Dare to dream, we will see. Maybe some day.

W: Is there anything that you want say about your experience working in the video game industry that I haven't asked?

DA: Well, I don't want to get soap boxy about it. It is something that is frustrating and at the same time it is understandable. You can understand why a lot of the voice over is going more celebrity, you can understand why it is from a business standpoint. It is hard for a marketing person to look at it and say "This doesn't have value for you" of course it does! At the same time, on camera acting and voice acting are to very different things. And while there are a few actors who do a very good job at making that transition, some are frankly better voice actors. Not to denigrate his other work, but Mark Hamill is an example of someone who has made himself famous on camera but whose real talents like in voice work.

W: He is a delight to hear. World War Z, The Joker?

DA: He is fantastic! Sad thing is, he's one of the few. And I had the very good fortune to work with people during the years I spent in Los Angeles. It is just jaw dropping how good these people are. It is amazing. They can do just anything at (snaps his fingers) the drop of a hat. You can tell them: I want a 23 year old from the Basque region in France. He was training to be a chef but has kind of fallen into being an auto mechanic. He has a couple of missing teeth. He is kind of tall and lanky, 6' 3", we'll call him, and he went to school in Wisconsin. You can do that kind of thing and they will bang! do it right there. Those are the people where I am not worthy. I have got my own little niche and I have something that I can contribute. But that is something I am just never going to achieve, I need to be comfortable with that.

W: Did you want to mention the names of anyone you considered to be exceptional voice actors you've worked with?

DA: One guy who I got the chance to work with, at least a little bit to hang out with while we were working in the studio, was Tom Cane. He was one of those guys who walks in and sits down in the booth, and Darle Ferrel (who was the voice director at the time, now he is running the sound department at LucasArts,) would give a quick description. Then Tom would pause for a second and launch into it. And it was anything. It was like "Is there anything that you can't do?" This is what you aspire to be and then you get to a point where you say, "You know what? I am not going to get there. I have my talent and I have my limitations and I have to work within that." He is certainly one fellow who springs to mind right off the bat. It is interesting when you think about the classics like Mel Blanc, he is the perfect example for when you try to get across to people that it is not about your voice. Voiceover is about the character. When you listen to a whole bunch of the Mel Blanc characters, like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, they all have a very similar vocal quality. The all have different speech impediments, where the voice is placed sort of the timber of it. They are all very similar. You listen to them one by one after another, you understand that they are all coming out of the same throat. The reason they are so distinct is because each one is a completely different character. It is all about the character, not the sound of your voice, not what they sound like, but how they react, and their little mannerisms, their little inflections. That is where it is. And to circle back to the transition form on camera people that are used to doing that on camera are used to doing that visually. I certainly don't mean to bring it across that "In voice over we have to do sooo much. We don't have the ability to do it on camera." It is nothing like that they are very different disciplines. They are different animals. Just because you can do one doesn't mean that you can do the other. Unfortunately a lot of those who get cast to do voice over who have made their name in on camera work are not very good, or at least maybe they are ok. It is frustrating at a lot of times to listen to that and say I know 15 people who could have played that better. They could do such a better job with this thing. It is frustrating, but at the same time, it has been going on everywhere it is kind of hitting the interactive know. But it has been the case in film forever; you can take any film with a mega-star and of course there is some up and coming actor some where who could blow that role out of the water.

And just because he was a wonderful sport Mr. Armato answered the famous 'Lipton 10'

W: What is your favorite word?

DA: Compassion

W: What is your least favorite word?

DA: Hate

W: What turns you on?

DA: Enthusiasm

W: What turns you off?

DA: Cynicism

W: What sound or noise do you love?

DA: The sound of the city. The bustle, the noise I love the sound of a city.

W: What sound or noise do you hate?

DA: I hate to hear my kid crying, it just gets ya.

W: What is your favorite curse word?

DA: Fuck.

W: What profession other than your own would you like to try?

DA: I would love to be a chef. I will never do it, that ship has sailed.

W: What profession would you not like to do?

DA: Sales, of any kind.

W: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

DA: Have a seat, relax, it's all good.


Somnambulant Gamer would like to extend a huge thank-you to Dominic Armato for his time and his energy. If you haven't already, check out Tales of Monkey Island at Telltale

Rig the topsail!