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Critical Essay Series: The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition

What The Secret of Monkey Island can teach us about writing in videogames.

This was my second time that I have ever played through The Secret of Monkey Island.

The first was when I played the first re-release of the game on the mind blowing medium, the CD-ROM. It was 1993 and I was about eleven years old, we had purchased a new computer, a one with a CD-ROM and VGA graphics card. With it, also came a miscellaneous stack of software with every purchase of a machine. One of these pieces of software happened to be The Secret of Monkey Island.

Even though I had never played any of the LucasArts graphical adventures to that point, I had been very familiar with point-and-click adventure games through the likes of the King’s Quest series. However, that was a Sierra game. The Secret of Monkey Island was my first foray into the LucasArts graphical adventures. To say the least, it was conceptually very different.

For one, I was taught to play graphic adventure games from the “Sierra School of Hard Knocks”. So the interface in the LucasArts games of pushing, pulling, or combining items was a bit foreign to me and took a while to grasp completely. At the same time though, there was a simplistic beauty to those games, in which that you could never die. Instead of having trial and error sections which you would be constantly reloading after every botched encounter, the LucasArts games wanted you to just sit back and enjoy the ride. I appreciated that fact, even to this day.

For that reason alone I was not that concerned about revisiting The Secret of Monkey Island’s core gameplay mechanics. Adventure games for the most part have not changed in the last twenty years. So I figured that the game mechanics would hold up even today. However when it came to the game’s writing, I was not as confident. After all for better or worse, I remembered the game’s writing to be both funny and interesting.

As I said earlier, until The Secret of Monkey Island my only experience with adventure games was through the King’s Quest series. Back then it never occurred to me that these games could be legitimately funny. Moments like “the mansion gag” or being shot out of a canon were great moments to me as a kid. My biggest fear of revisiting the original Monkey Island was the fact that it was not going to be as funny as a remembered it.

To me, The Secret of Monkey Island is one of those seminal games of my later childhood. It was one of those games that changes the way you look at games. Up until then, I never figured games to actually be a medium for competent story telling. I mostly at the time grew up in an era where most of my gaming was done from a console. Back then, story was never a big part of the game’s experience. What The Secret of Monkey Island showcased was the potential that videogames had, in showing that the medium could convey an actual story in which you cared about what happened to the characters.   

With that said, my biggest fear was not the fact the writing would not be any good, but the fact that it would not be as good as I remembered it. From my experiences in the past when you revisit nostalgia (especially in humor), you get burned. By the end of the whole ordeal, I was worried that I would have just sullied a perfectly pleasant memory that was better off if you had never revisited it in the first place. So to me playing this game could just as easily, and unnecessarily, bury another piece of childhood nostalgia that I cherished. So as the game loaded, there was definite trepidation.

 As the title screen loaded you immediately saw the old 256 colored version and honestly it looked good. Even though the graphics where very pixilated, there was a certain charm to them. While I will admit part of that charm was nostalgia, though still the design even today looks solid. Dated, but solid. Though before I could admire the 256 colored version of Melee Island, a swipe effect takes place on screen as if a window washer has squeegeed my computer screen to fit graphical styles of this generation. What is left is what Melee Island looked in my memories.  

This was a pleasant surprise to say the least, though I could not shake this strange feeling. I guess the best way to describe it would be to have coffee with an old friend you haven’t seen in years, only to realize that he was the same old friend just drastically older. This analogy was basically my experience with the whole game.

For every puzzle that I had encountered, for every insult that I chose during the sword fighting mini-game, it felt like I was talking to an old friend swapping old war stories. Yet, like revisiting all past relationships, things are always bound to be a bit different. Just to be clear, when I say different I’m not talking about the voice work or even the new art assets. No. In fact, those new additions felt more like the game I had always remembered. So when I mean different, I am talking about the very core mechanics of the original game. I am talking about the same jokes, the same puzzles, the same everything, but just a little different.

So as I played through the game, the parts that I could recall were the funniest were oddly enough not that funny any more. The parts I used to think that were funny when I was eleven years old, now seemed a bit ridiculous or at worst a little bit forced. Now that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy any of my past favorite jokes. Gags like being shot out of a cannon with your dialogue options being presented upside down, was hilarious then and still is now. However the jokes that did work for me were the ones that most people would never think twice about or were clearly “throw away” dialogue put in there for the programmers’ own enjoyment.

For example here is a list of jokes that I thought that worked masterfully in the game that I had not even noticed the first time around:

-         The fact that the only piece of dialogue you could not skip was that massive sales pitch from the Loom guy.

-         The period button on the keyboard can skip dialogue.

-         You have the option of shouting “Elaine!” in the chapel (a obvious reference to The Graduate)

-         The way that you solve the underwater puzzle.

-         Every island in the game has a trademark next to it.

Now those were just some of the ones I could think of on the top of my head. There were many more moments like these littered throughout the game. Oddly enough these were the moments that had stuck with me the most. Then around the time I had reached Monkey Island, an epiphany had occurred. That thing about revisiting nostalgia that I said earlier, it had once again happened with this game. The difference was that over time I had learned to appreciate the subtle humor much more.

More then that incredibly long slapstick sequence in the governor’s mansion, more then the joke about the three headed monkey, it was those throw away jokes that got me. Instead of the slapstick comedy that was going for the far easier laughs, I started to appreciate it for those jokes that weren’t as obvious.

In The Secret of Monkey Island, the writers wrote a wide range of jokes for a wide range of audiences. The joke writing in that game is the main reason why I feel that it still holds up today. If the game was just purely slapstick humor, it clearly would not have aged as well as it did. Slapstick or referential humor only work when the generational context of that joke can be assessed. With The Secret of Monkey Island, most of these references can be understood. However, they can not necessarily be relatable in this day of age. Yet with the subtle jokes, those tend to stand the test of time or even in some cases get better with age.

Sadly however, games are still severely lacking that subtle touch that both movies and books have mastered in their respective mediums. While some games like the recently released Uncharted 2 have started incorporating those subtle techniques to flesh out their characters and story, many games would rather hit their players over the head with long winded exposition and heavy handed dialogue. The Secret of Monkey Island is proof positive that subtlety can not only stand the test of time, but can make a game still relevant even almost twenty years later.   

In the end, The Secret of Monkey Island stands the test of time, not through its slapstick humor, but for its subtlety. While writing in videogames still having a long way to go, The Secret of Monkey Island can teach us all that sometimes more can be said with just a clever subtle joke.

[The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition is developed by LucasArts and is available on PC, IPhone, and Xbox 360]

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