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Head 2 Head With Josh Mandel

(interview conducted by Rumplestiltskin)


H2H: Tell us about yourself and your career history for people that might not know who you are.

Josh Mandel: Well, my name is Josh Mandel, and I'm a theatre-type person who also happens to design computer games. I used to act and do comedy full-time - in fact, for about 3 seconds, I'm the only person visible onscreen in one of Goldie Hawn's more forgettable movies (I'm not telling you which one). I was also the Dungeonmaster in the very first series of TV commercials for "Dungeons & Dragons," and my comedy partner and I headlined at just about every minor and major comedy club in the country back in the mid- and late '80s. We were the house comics at the Playboy Club and various Chicago comedy clubs, until Karen decided that life on the road wasn't conducive to the building-a-family plan. I then spent four years pulling a Darren Stephens thing at Chicago ad agencies, beta-testing games on the side and moonlighting as a games journalist for The Electronic Gamer, VideoGames & Computer Entertainment Magazine (now defunct), and other magazines. I landed my first full-time job in the industry in early 1990 (at Sierra On-Line). I still perform occasionally.

H2H: Is there any special moment from your stay at Sierra that you'd like to share with us?

JM: Back when Sierra was located in Oakhurst, California, every single facet of game production was done right there in-house: from the design and execution to the disk duplication, packaging, and shrink-wrapping. I don't think there's ever been a moment in my life comparable to seeing the first copies my first game (FREDDY PHARKAS, FRONTIER PHARMACIST) come rolling down the assembly line. We were exhausted from working 'round the clock for several weeks straight, exhilarated that it was finally finished, incredibly proud of the game, and horrified that it might contain some obscure unfound bug. So the combination of exhaustion, pride, delight, and absolute terror was a once-in-a-lifetime flavor of excitement.

H2H: Out of the games you've designed or worked on, which would you consider your favourite and why?

JM: This is like asking which of your children is your favourite, but I think it would have to be CALLAHAN'S CROSSTIME SALOON. I had such love for the short stories and novels upon which the game was based, and I considered it the greatest challenge to produce a game that would precisely mirror the uplifting spirit and humor of the books while covering new ground. The fact that I was able to satisfy both the fans of the book series and its author demonstrated that I had succeeded in my primary goal. I was also glad to have a chance to use the kind of humor that's nearest and dearest to my heart. In previous games (such as FREDDY and SQ 6), I was largely trying to write in a way that people might believe that Al Lowe or Scott Murphy had written the material; with CALLAHAN'S, I was writing much more as myself, with my own sense of humor.

H2H: And what would you say is your favourite quote out of those games?

JM: That is way tough. I like to write a lot of responses to actions (however obscure) that players may try; I wrote over 5,000 responses for FREDDY and, by the time CALLAHAN'S came around, I was writing over 20,000 per game. I can certainly name ONE of my favorite lines: in CALLAHAN'S, there's a moving-and-storage company called York-Easter Van Lines. When you call the company to complain, the person you speak to, who's always promoting the company, says, "You'll discover deep, deep savings when you look up York-Easter!" It's silly, but when I heard it recently (after not hearing it for years), I giggled for 5 minutes and had completely forgotten writing it. It helped that the voiceover talent for that line, Kathleen Bober, did it so beautifully deadpan.

H2H: We know that this is a tired question, but it hasn't been brought up in awhile. What do you think the possibility of another Space Quest is to ever be made?

JM: I think there's a reasonable chance we'll see more of Roger Wilco in one form or another. As I've suggested throughout the whole "adventure games are dead!" panic of the late '90s, it's just a phase. All game genres go in and out of popularity. Once adventure games get hot again, I don't see why Sierra wouldn't try to take advantage of the trend, or at least license the characters to somebody who's willing to take the chance.

H2H: We've surely seen a lot of negative bashing for the adventure genre in the last year, but lately adventures seem to be gaining more respect again. What's your view on the adventure game industry of today?

JM: It looks like it's picking up. Support for the genre is cropping up in unlikely places. The New York Times, for instance, gave "The Longest Journey" a rave review. Meanwhile, formerly best-selling genres like first-person shooters are declining in popularity and reputation (look at "Daikatana"), people are getting their fill of RTS titles, the hardcore gaming audience is increasingly focused on multiplayer, and the mass audience - who don't want to pay $50 to buy a game and another $5-$20 every month thereafter for the privilege of PLAYING it - is looking for something new, involving, and less time-demanding than 60-hour RPGs. Adventure games are filling some of that void.

H2H: Is there a different game genre you enjoy playing when taking time out with your projects? And if so, which one?

JM: I actually like to play RPGs and action-RPGs in my spare time, mostly on consoles because I spend all day in front of the computer while I find the TV more conducive to relaxing and playing. So games like Zelda and Evolution (currently) are how I spend most of my gaming time. I even play Final Fantasy occasionally, although I find the crummy translations really distracting and annoying.

H2H: Speaking of translations of sorts, what about the potentiality of making transitions from fiction to games? Lots of books these days have the potential to make great adventure games. If you could choose one, which book would you choose to base an adventure game on and why?

JM: I just want to point out that I tend not to like conversions of other media (books, movies, TV shows) to games. Conversions do serve a purpose - for instance, I like to think that the game version of CALLAHAN'S brought some attention to the books - but I think when a game is derivative of a book or movie, it reinforces the unfair and widespread perception of games as incapable of being art in and of themselves. But if I had to take a piece of fiction and work it into a book, I think I'd use CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl. For one thing, I think Dahl's sense of humor is twisted and perverse enough that I'd have great fun making it interactive. For another, I thought the Gene Wilder movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" really didn't retain the Dahl flavor; everything had a small, cheesy look, the Oompa Loompas were much more Politically Correct than in the book, and Wonka himself was, spiritually and emotionally (and physically, for that matter), nothing like the Wonka in the book. My second choice would be Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," but on reflection, I think that there are so many aspects of that book that benefit from the reader's imagination rather than an artist's interpretation that it would be almost impossible to do the book justice.

H2H: It's hard to imagine that it's already been a year since Chainsaw Monday, and we know it's been very tough and everyone has gone their own ways since then. What we've been wondering is if you've found a new company as your home.

JM: When Chainsaw Monday went down, I was at Sega working on the first round of Dreamcast software. At this point, I'm freelancing and loving it; I'm as busy as I want to be and working on some very unusual projects.

H2H: Is there a little secret project that you're working on that you'd like to let us in on, and if so, what is it? :)

JM: I can't tell either of the main projects I'm working on, but I can tell you that a certain other ex-Sierra designer and I have been brainstorming on a very exciting project. It's a real long shot, but between the two of us, I'd like to think it has a good chance, and nearly every fan of the old Sierra adventures would probably find it irresistible.

H2H: Thanks for your time, Josh. Many of us appreciate the laughter and great times you've brought us. We wish you much success and well being in the road ahead.

JM: I thank you kindly for the nice thoughts. Making people laugh has always been my greatest joy in life.