The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

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You’ll probably never hear me say this again, but I wish this game took itself more seriously.

Well, that’s only a half truth. I’m glad a game exists that’s as irreverent as The Secret of Monkey Island. I’m especially glad that for a brief period, the game industry had a gang of consummate court jesters in Lucasarts-employed weirdos Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, and Dave Grossman. (And with their recent successes — like Schafer’s upcoming adventure game that launched a thousand Kickstarters and Gilbert’s soon-to-be-released comeback opus The Cave — it seems like these guys have finally found their rightful place amongst video game legends.) In a world by and large content to rehash the same tired Tolkien-isms, to grant players the same handful of dungeon keys and magical spells until they’re about as exciting as finding loose change and Starbucks receipts in your jeans pocket, designers who are more comfortable finding esoteric uses for rubber chickens and ghost-dissolving root beer are not just welcome but necessary.

The Secret of Monkey Island exists in a state of almost pathological fear that players will mistake it for one of the stuffy, straightforward semi-graphic adventure games Sierra Entertainment cranked out throughout the 1980s; stuff like Mystery House and King’s Quest was surely well-meaning and innovative in its day, but it’s no wonder Monkey Island appeared as such a breath of fresh air to computer geeks in 1990. Its closest tonal cousin might actually be Jim Henson’s Muppets. Like those beloved childhood icons, the cast of Monkey Island constantly straddles the line between old-school, anything-for-a-laugh vaudeville hacks and gleefully meta, fourth-wall annihilating anarchists. Gilbert and company — pressed for time and hoping to finally complete their pet project after getting sidetracked on a Lucasarts-mandated Indiana Jones adventure game — improvised much of the dialogue after Gilbert did a pass on the puzzles, and, in ways both good and bad, it shows. This off-the-cuff style really makes the game feel like nothing else, willing to stretch toward the farthest reaches of common sense for a punchline. Is it legitimately laugh-out-loud funny? Not usually, if I’m being honest, but it’s charming and odd and you usually see what the writers were going for. And in any case, I’ll take a self-consciously tired, so-dumb-it’s-sort-of-brilliant gag like receiving an “I Fought the Sword Master and All I Got was This Stupid T-Shirt” prize at the end of an important duel over the sophomoric, bodily function focused comedy of other early “funny” games like Boogerman and Earthworm Jim any day.

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The problem with this brow-beating, anything-goes approach to humor is that these guys did the serious parts of their job too well. Monkey Island, its infinitely explorable world, and its memorably colorful cast are just too good to be taken entirely as a lark. There’s a sweeping, old-timey epic hinted at in Monkey Island‘s presentation, one that its dialogue and goofy puzzles never capitalize on. The music — incredibly sophisticated for a 1990 video game score — evokes not just playfulness but the rousing pirate lore the game plants whoopee cushions under at every turn. And the locales, from the creaky, rundown port town permanently bathed in a violet night sky to the spooky neon-blue lair of villainous ghost pirate LeChuck, are almost painterly in their own crude, pixelated way; for all of the team’s technical limitations, every background is sumptuously colored and perfectly detailed.

So it’s a shame you’re never asked to care. This wouldn’t be such a problem in a game with different mechanics, where story and conversation take a backseat to other concerns. But the point-and-click adventure genre strips down the player’s interactions with the world to a formulaic system of verbs. This allows more emphasis to be placed on exploration and storytelling, since the action is slowed down to suit the needs of the puzzles and plot. The traditional story beats are even in place. The naive and unfortunately named Guybrush Threepwood (named in part after his sprite’s file type; this is the first of the game’s many “sure, why not?” jokes) ventures to Melee Island in the hope of becoming a legendary pirate. These are pirates in the Disney theme park ride mold, of course, so Threepwood’s mentors are more about cups o’ grog and pieces o’ eight than raping and pillaging. Threepwood’s interests quickly turn to rescuing Melee’s beautiful and tough Governor Marley (a seventeenth-century, pirate-loving female governor is the least glaring of the game’s anachronisms) from the fearsome ghost pirate LeChuck, who took Marley’s invitation to “drop dead” a little too literally. Threepwood gathers a crew and sets sail to Monkey Island in order to save his lady love.

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It’s exactly the sort of story a humorous pirate adventure needs, one that should convey its boyish enthusiasm with ease. But the writers make the questionable decision of undercutting every accomplishment the player makes in an attempt to portray Threepwood as a hapless ninny. His crew immediately mutinies and goes on vacation, and in the end, the Governor barely needed any saving at all. (I would honestly love to play a game as Governor Marley, a rough and tumble type who is still way more self-sufficient than most female video game characters today. In fact, between her and the equally accomplished female Sword Master, The Secret of Monkey Island has an unprecedented amount of Girl Power.) It’s funny to see the protagonist be unexpectedly foiled time and time again, but frustrating when those turns of fate also bankrupt the player’s accomplishments. I came away from Monkey Island unsure what it was supposed to build toward. Threepwood and Marley’s romance? LeChuck’s sudden defeat? Even in the realm of Python-esque goofing, as a player, I wanted my six hours’ worth of puzzle-solving to leave me with more than underwhelming slapstick and sly meta winks.

There are times when the pay-off feels spot-on, though. My favorite puzzle in the game is an extended swordfighting sequence when Guybrush is attempting to become a pirate. Inspired by the witty comebacks in old Errol Flynn adventures, the game’s pirates fight more competently with words than with swords. Guybrush must challenge Melee Island’s inhabitants with insults he picks up from past fights (penned by Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card, taking a break from his rampant homophobia and general late-career awfulness, apparently), then remember the proper comebacks for future skirmishes. It all builds toward some incredibly intricate wordplay, fun and logical enough to never feel like simply memorizing a series of calls and responses. It’s also exactly the tone I wish the game attempted more often;  while still admirably silly, there is a feeling of real tension and stakes during these scenes.

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Monkey Island‘s puzzles are usually clever and frustrating in the right way, in that they encourage experimentation with the tools and actions at the player’s disposal. The game’s interface holds up to this day; while many of the puzzles are of the esoteric insanity that helped adventure games dig their own grave by the end of the 1990s, the simplicity and fluidity of Monkey Island’s design made me feel that the solution was always within reach. And honestly, it is weirdly refreshing to solve puzzles that didn’t always follow the iron-clad logic of Braid or Portal; these are riddles of the right-brained variety. As video games mature, it’s not surprising that the adventure game is making something of a comeback. It’s the genre where intricate puzzles and story can serve most directly as a portal to another person’s way of thinking. Perhaps for awhile we needed (and still need) the universality and immediacy of platformers and shooters, but with the rise of smaller, more personal games, it’s encouraging some developers are renewing this more direct, less traditionally game-ish means of communication.

Despite its oddities and rough edges, The Secret of Monkey Island made me incredibly excited to explore the rest of the Lucasarts team’s catalog. There is enough talent and wit on display here to make anyone with an interest in games, comedy, or writing in general reasonably jealous. And somewhere along the line, these guys — Schafer in particular, it would seem — managed to hook these skewed sensibilities to more fleshed out worlds and stories, as seen in Psychonauts and Grim Fandango. I’m sure watching that evolution will be fascinating, and I look forward to starting Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge sometime in the near future. “Revenge” implies character motivation, which alone sounds like a step in the right direction.

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5 thoughts on “The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

  1. rainmaker97 says:

    I’ve played LeChuck’s Revenge but not the original. I gotta say, I agree with you about the humour. It’s a game that I wanted to like quite badly, since I’m always up for a well-written “funny” game, but the humour is firmly stuck in the realm of groaners and “can’t-tell-if-this-is-trying-too-hard-or-just-plain-lame” jokes. I feel like the LucasArts crew got much better with their writing as time went on though, as Schafer’s Psychonauts was well written, and even Brutal Legend had a few parts in it that made me grin. Oh, and if you thought the humour was iffy in SoMI, don’t play Telltale’s Sam & Max or Monkey Island episodes. It’s like Ron Gilbert humour, except there are NO serious lines of dialogue whatsoever.

    • Ah, that’s definitely a bit discouraging. I still want to try it out — especially since it’s one of the more widely available beloved Lucasarts games, what with the Special Edition — but I was really hoping it would be more of a bridge between the original and the more nuanced work done in Psychonauts and Fandango. (I know very little about Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle, so no idea where they fit into the puzzle.) What I’m afraid of is that I’m less a fan of all these guys and more just a Schafer enthusiast. I know that Gilbert thought Schafer and Grossman were such different types of humor writers that he had them working on pretty different parts of Monkey Island, so it’s possible that’s why it doesn’t gel for me, too.

      And yeah, I’ve heard nothing but negative things about Telltale’s work before the supposedly fantastic Walking Dead series from last year. A shame, because I like the idea of doing adventure games with some of the properties they have. My girlfriend and I are going to play through The Walking Dead together soon, though, so at least I have that to look forward to.

      • rainmaker97 says:

        The only Telltale series that really threw me for a loop was Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse. It’s surprisingly dark and emotional compared to the first two Sam & Max seasons, and it has a much more coherent overarching storyline. It finally felt like a true adventure game with humourous dialogue as opposed to a point-and-click sitcom.

  2. dugular says:

    This is a fantastic point that I didn’t realise I felt about Monkey Island, but having someone put it into words brings it out. Sometimes I DO wish it was a more serious, or even realistic pirate tale)

    I think Monkey Island had it lucky at the time. People played Lucasarts games for Lucasarts, not for the theme (At least that is what my younger self thought).

    As a Lucasarts humour game, Monkey Island is right up there, and when looking at it from that angle, the piratey theme ends up being a very nice bonus.

    After watching the Pirates of the Caribbean films (Especially the first one), it makes you wonder how Monkey Island would be like if it kept it’s humour reigned in to the same degree, and therefore lost all of the slapstick. Who knows? (I would love to play a piratey adventure game like that)

    I personally don’t think it would have worked at the time. Making a more fast-paced or serious story wouldn’t have been as possible then as it would be now, due to technology really. As soon as you put your game into self-aware humour territory, you suddenly lose the boundaries imposed by realism, and can work more easily within the technological limits.

    That’s just a guess, and it may just be because this was Gilbert’s way and what he wanted. One thing you notice very quickly when you play the second Monkey Island (Which I hope you do soon!), is that it shows that the first game appears to be a ‘Let’s make this thing on the spot’ kind of thing. It is very unpolished, and the flow of the scenes is very erratic. It feels like a free indie game you can download nowadays. You know, the ones that are made by one person who doesn’t have the professional experience to know how to plan, design and pace their game. THAT is what Monkey Island 1 feels like to me. They dove straight in and made it up as they coded it. They obviously never expected it to be as popular as it was, and therefore didn’t put the effort for a blockbuster

    The second game has a more solid goal, plot, and puzzle design. Everything feels more consistent and planned, clearly because they knew what they had to do now. Make an award-winning game.

    There is one warning about the second game and actually, every single Monkey Island game (Though I haven’t finished Telltales episodes). You will always feel unfulfilled at the end. But in every game, especially the second one, it is about the moment-to-moment, and not the end.

    Can’t wait to hear what you think of the second one (It’s my personal fav)

    • Joel Newman says:

      The improvisational writing style definitely granted the game a feeling that I’m sure was incredibly unique and personable at the time; like you said, it was really hard with the graphical capabilities (and just the newness of graphic-based adventure games) to pull off a “serious” story through any means but the most generic of plot points. But I’m glad to hear that the other Monkey Island games fix some of the pacing and are slightly more thought out. As much as I enjoyed secret, the odd way the tasks strung together and some of the off-handedness of its tone held it back from being a personal favorite. But it certainly had a ton of personality and passion poured into it, and honestly, that’s ten times more important to me.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Your comment definitely has me excited to play LeChuck’s Revenge soon. Since I’m still fairly green in terms of the amount of games I’ve played, I’m always grateful for guidance and input when navigating through the vast backlog of great titles.

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