This is Backlog Roulette, a series in which I randomly pick an unplayed game from my backlog and play it. This particular entry is also part of the History Lessons series. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
About a year ago, I picked an unplayed game at random from my terrifyingly organized spreadsheet containing all the games I own. The random number generators selected Wild Metal Country, an oddity from 1999 that I found surprisingly calming for a game about tank battles. Now, I decided to roll the digital dice again, officially making Backlog Roulette a series of sorts. But this time the dice popped up a far more recognizable game: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. I acquired this some time ago, intending to write a History Lessons post about it eventually, so… here it is.
I missed a lot of the classic adventure games as a kid. I wrote a bit about the history of the genre in my first post about Broken Age, so I won’t repeat all that here. In that post, I discussed the two biggest developers of adventure games in the 1980s and 1990s: Sierra and LucasArts. But I didn’t say much about the different styles of games they made. I mostly encountered Sierra games as a kid, so I was familiar with their eagerness to spring traps on the player. Making the wrong move in a Sierra game typically resulted in a swift death, followed by reloading a saved game. There was actually a kind of perverse pleasure in these moments, however, since deaths often came with unique animations, and players tended to want to see them all. Sure, I would try to solve the puzzles and move the game forward. But I’d also poke around at dangerous things on purpose just to see what would happen.
Detractors, however, bemoaned the capricious nature of Sierra games, and they had a point. It was often possible to create unwinnable situations by losing important items or missing key clues along the way, so it’s not a surprise that I never managed to finish any of the Sierra games I played. Rivals LucasArts took a different approach with their games, and their style is more fondly remembered and most often seen in adventure games released today. LucasArts games never put players into situations they could not recover from, letting them fail puzzle solutions as many times as needed as they worked out what to do. This does not mean their games were easier, necessarily, but they certainly felt more fair. They also tended to be quite funny, in contrast to Sierra games which usually played things straight.
The Secret of Monkey Island, released by LucasArts in 1990, was designed by Ron Gilbert, along with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, and is a perfect example of the LucasArts school. It’s a beloved title that spawned an enduring series, and in fact Ron Gilbert recently announced he is developing a new Monkey Island game, spurring much excitement among fans (and also some horrible backlash, because people are awful). The games are all set in the Caribbean during the Age of Sail, and put players in the shoes of Guybrush Threepwood, a hapless young man who is really very excited about becoming a pirate. The series offers a silly and irreverent version of this era, poking fun at tropes and never taking things too seriously. Which goes a long way towards avoiding thorny issues of colonialism.
I should stress that I actually played the Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, which appeared in 2009. This is an interesting beast, featuring completely redone high resolution artwork, musical score, voice acting (there were no voices in the 1990 original), and a new user interface. Yet, with the press of a key, players can switch to the classic version of the game, with its original art, MIDI music, and classic interface. Before playing, I was skeptical as to how faithful this classic version could be, given it can seamlessly transition to the new version at any time. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it really did seem to be the original game, in all its glory, running perfectly. Excellent.
If you want to know how the new art and voice acting is, I can’t tell you, because I didn’t use them. I was interested in the history of the game, so I stuck to the original version throughout. The Secret of Monkey Island runs on LucasArts’ now legendary SCUMM engine, originally developed for Maniac Mansion (that’s what the “MM” stands for at the end) but used for many of their games, including Loom and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. The early SCUMM games, including The Secret of Monkey Island, tended to feature a set of clickable verbs on the screen that could then be used to interact with the world. For example, if players want to open a door, they can click on the “open” verb, then click on the door in question. Things work similarly for pushing or pulling things, or talking to people. There are nine verbs in total, making for more options than I was used to. Later adventure games tended to remove the on-screen verbs so the scene could fill the entire screen, and use context-sensitive actions or a summonable interaction wheel or similar system to let players choose whether they wanted to look at something versus kick it, or whatever. These never had nine interaction options, though. Maybe four or five, tops.
To be honest, for most of The Secret of Monkey Island, I was using just a subset of the verbs too. “Walk”, “Look at” and “Pick up” saw the most use, but “Talk to” and “Give” got some love as well. “Push”, “Pull”, “Open” and “Close” felt much more specialized, but ended up being key for certain puzzles just when I least suspected it. Adventure games are known for their “adventure game logic” which requires weird lateral thinking and often leads to bizarre solutions. This could really hamper some games; see for example the infamous cat hair mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3. That’s a Sierra game, though, aiming to be more of a supernatural thriller but shooting itself in the foot with absurd puzzles. In LucasArts games, adventure game logic is far more fitting, because the games are already silly. Of course a puzzle solution is actually just a pun, that’s the joke. Perhaps I need a certain item, but can’t find it anywhere. Then I realize I have something else I could use instead, not because it actually makes sense, but because it’s vaguely similar in some meaningless way. It’s just stupid enough to work.
To be fair, a lot of puzzles in The Secret of Monkey Island make actual sense. But those that don’t… still kind of make sense, given the weird world of the game. Guybrush doesn’t start his adventure on Monkey Island, but rather on Mêlée Island; both, however, are always written with a trademark symbol. His wide eyed enthusiasm for the trappings of piracy is particularly amusing given that Mêlée Island is very focused on tourism, with cheap trinkets for sale everywhere, and most inhabitants quite jaded about the whole piracy thing. It’s the kind of place where you have to make reservations to get into a looting, or obtain a pirate ship by making a deal at Stan’s Previously Owned Vessels. One key item Guybrush finds is a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, and when I tried to give it to people I discovered that everyone already had one. Mass produced garbage, apparently.
Generally, it’s this satirical tone that permeates everything about The Secret of Monkey Island. The game is rarely laugh out loud funny, but it did make me smile a lot. Stan’s exaggerated gesticulating as tries his best to sell Guybrush a ship he can’t afford is a highlight, but nearly every conversation is clever and well written. When Guybrush falls hard for Elaine Marley, the governor of Mêlée Island, I feared a sexist depiction of her character, as was so common for games at the time (and, sadly, still today). But I was pleasantly surprised in this regard. The depiction of an aboriginal tribe on Monkey Island is more problematic, but the fact that they, too, are mostly worried about how to sell junk to tourists is amusing. I suspect that fans nostalgic for the classic adventure game days miss this humor and silliness as much as anything else.
I played The Secret of Monkey Island once before, but didn’t get very far. Or so I thought at the time. Recognizing the place where I got stuck back then, I realized I’d made it about halfway through the game. Up to that point, I’d been able to work out solutions myself and felt great doing it (then and now). On Mêlée Island, Guybrush has several clear objectives that can be pursued independently, so there are other things to do if players are stumped at a specific point. I found myself making progress across all three, with several “aha!” moments strewn in there. My only real complaint about this section is that it takes a while to travel around the island, so I’d sometimes waste a bit of time testing an idea that didn’t work, before having to trudge back to town again.
On Monkey Island, however, things get more confusing. Both islands feature zoomed out birds eye view maps that let Guybrush travel between various points of interest, but only on Monkey Island did I actually miss a few of these locations completely. This despite the fact that they are highlighted when moving the mouse cursor over them, and my scouring each map screen for hot spots. In addition, goals are less clear, and I eventually got stuck in the worst possible way: not only unsure of how to solve certain puzzles, but not knowing what I was even supposed to be doing in general. Getting stuck like this is something that doesn’t really happen in games anymore. With so many games available now, it’s far too easy to just start playing something else and abandon a game when stuck, so developers strive to ensure players always know what to do next. That can lead to some obnoxious hand-holding, up to and including on-screen arrows literally pointing out where to go, and has been a source of annoyance for players who prefer to figure out some things themselves.
But the truth is that both games and players have changed. My massive backlog of unplayed games, which inspired this series, is testament to the fact that I have more games to play than I have time to play them, but the opposite was true in 1990. With far fewer games available, every one was precious, and I would have spent a lot of time just wandering around Monkey Island and poking at things, slowly working out how to proceed. These classic adventures were, in some sense, designed around getting stuck. It was expected. It sets the desired slow pacing. Today, of course, it’s all too easy to just look up the solutions online, so that experience of semi-aimless experimentation is lost. When I finally looked up a walkthrough, I intended to just get the first hint I needed, and then go back to solving things myself. But I found it was a slippery slope that had me looking up solutions again every time I hit a snag. I managed to go back to my own devices for the finale of the game, but for much of the third act I was using the walkthrough too often.
Sometimes I felt I was justified, like when I’d actually thought of the correct solution but didn’t realize some unnecessarily specific way it must be executed. Other times, however, I found the game to be surprisingly adaptable. There are several puzzles with multiple solutions, something I didn’t even realize until I looked at earlier sections of the walkthrough and noticed that the solutions it gave were not the same as the ones I’d come up with myself. I wish that was true of more of the puzzles, because there are a few that are a bit too obtuse or fiddly. But overall, I really enjoyed The Secret of Monkey Island. I’m not sure I’ve ever played another game with quite the same tone. It’s silly but not wacky, with enough grounding to make players care about the characters even as they navigate ridiculous situations. It’s easy to see why it’s so beloved.
I should probably try the rest of the series at some point, too. The sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, was also made by Ron Gilbert and the same core team (and received Special Edition treatment along with this one), but later entries saw new development teams take the helm. While fans seem to like those games too, there’s a lot of excitement over Ron Gilbert’s upcoming entry, which will be a direct sequel to Monkey Island 2. I’d like to say that I’ll play the rest in time for the new one, but honestly I don’t know when I’ll get to these. But they’re in my (very big) list of games to play now, at least.
If you want to try The Secret of Monkey Island yourself, the Special Edition is definitely the way to go. It’s sold from most digital storefronts, including GOG which is where I got it. I feel like I should have some nautical phrase about hoisting sails or something here to end this post, but I can’t think of one. Some pirate speak, maybe? Avast, ye scurvy dogs? Yarrr? Eh, close enough kid, you’ll be fine.