The Complete History Of Monkey Island
Constantly compared to the movie and music industry in terms of profitability, but rarely in terms of creativity, the games industry is eager to prove itself as a valid artistic medium. Critics, theorists and practitioners endlessly debate the issue to the point of tedium. Games, they say, lack interesting stories and compelling characters; they struggle with humour and emotional context and focus too easily on violence and action in the absence of anything more fulfilling.
In an age that’s obsessed with online deathmatches and open-world ‘adult’ simulations, these arguments bear a lot of weight. But as anyone who’s been playing games for more than the last ten years will tell you, the medium is perfectly capable of telling great stories, realising memorable characters and making us laugh our socks off. Just look at the point-and-click adventure.
Now sadly struggling against extinction, it once shone so brightly. Specifically from 1987 to 2000, when the pioneering Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts) specialised in the most entertaining adventures money could buy. From Maniac Mansion to Grim Fandango, these titles offered gamers the chance to take part in a real story without having to worry about difficulty levels, extra lives or credits. The puzzles were a challenge, sure, but they were a breath of fresh air for those tired of button-bashing violence, and their relaxed nature allowed the player to take in the story, world and characters at their own pace.
Ask anyone who lived through this era what their favourite adventure game is and most will say The Secret Of Monkey Island. First released in 1990 on various home computer formats, it placed us deep in the heart of the Caribbean and put us in control of Guybrush Threepwood, a naive and inexperienced young man who appeared to be as new to the game’s world as us. Stepping onto the screen for the first time, he simply but memorably states: “My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate.”
And, with that, the wheels were set for one of the most loved stories in videogame history. Initially arriving at the dark and seedy Mêlée Island to learn how to become a pirate, Guybrush inadvertently becomes involved in something much bigger, gaining an undead arch-nemesis and an intimidatingly confident love interest along the way. And let’s not forget the puzzles, most of which were solved with some ridiculous combination of items. The Secret Of Monkey Island was, for the most part, the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, a veteran Lucasfilm Games programmer and co-creator of SCUMM, the engine that had made all Lucas adventures possible since the C64’s Maniac Mansion. SCUMM was a revolution in adventure design for the way it streamlined the typical adventure interface from a command line system to a point-and-click setup. This eliminated the need to second-guess the game’s vocabulary, leaving the player free to get on with the puzzles and enjoy the story.
This seamless marriage of gameplay and story was what made LucasArts adventures so much fun to play, so it shouldn’t come as much surprise to learn that Monkey Island’s roots can be found in both technology and fiction. Ron Gilbert had always had a passion for pirates, you see, and when it came time to create the world of Monkey Island he took inspiration from two very specific sources. The first was Disney’s Pirates Of The Caribbean theme park ride, which helped define the ambience of the game world, while the second was Tim Powers’ 1988 novel On Stranger Tides, which had a greater bearing on the plot and characters.
The Secret Of Monkey Island was no rip-off, however, and required a lot of work on the story and dialogue alone, from Gilbert and his two assistants, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. “My first memory is writing the first short story,” says Gilbert. “I had gone to a friend’s house to spend the weekend writing and I knew I wanted to do a game about pirates, but that was about it. I wrote a slew of opening paragraphs looking for something that caught. I didn’t have Guybrush at this point, but I knew there was going to be a LeChuck, though not in name yet. Elaine Marley started out as a villain, but slowly grew to become a one-sided love interest of Guybrush’s. She is a great example of how characters can grow during the course of making a game.”
“Tim and Dave were both great writers that I had a lot of trust in, but they had very different styles. I’d assign them dialogues to write based on who would be able to find the voice of that character best,” he adds.
“My sense of time is a little shaky after designing Day Of The Tentacle, so I have some difficulty placing events before or after one another,” says Dave Grossman. “I remember watching pirate movies for research – Errol Flynn mostly – and noticing that they used identical sea battle footage. I remember writing the dialogue for the Fettucini Brothers, which I think was probably the first conversation I worked on, and Noah Falstein looking over my shoulder and thinking it was funny, and that making me want to write more. I remember us trying to come up with a better name than Guybrush, and not being able to. ‘Reginald’ was a possibility, but if we’d used it then that ‘Mancomb Seepgood’ joke wouldn’t have made much sense.
“I made the characters’ dialogue appear over their heads instead of in a central location. Ron didn’t want to do it because he insisted that it would be complicated, but it was one of the few times he was wrong. It was outrageously simple. Okay, okay, maybe that wasn’t my most important contribution – I did bring a good ear for dialogue, a feel for how to write non-linearly, and a sense of humour. Tim had many of the same qualities, with an extra sharp wit to boot – he wrote many of the quotable zingy one-liners you tend to associate with the series, whereas I tended to work more in dry layers, word humour, and outlandish character.”
“Ron, of course, was the soul and brain of Monkey Island,” Grossman adds diplomatically. “He’s a genius designer who really understands how to make a game be a story, and vice versa; how to structure it, and how to make it fun. I learned a ton from him about all of that stuff while we were making those games. And he was and is a magnificent team leader, who enables you to do your best work, and also makes you want to do it.”
“My main focus in making Monkey Island was the design of the game,” Gilbert elaborates, “and I spent a lot of time working on puzzles and story flow. I had written the ‘Why Adventure Games Suck’ article and Monkey Island was a test case for that design philosophy.” Gilbert’s essay is far too long to reprint here, but the full version is currently available on the author’s blog at grumpygamer.com. Trust us, it is well worth your time to read the fascinating and historically important document. In fact, do it now if you can. This article will still be here when you get back.
It’s easy to see, in hindsight, just how brilliant Monkey Island was for its time. The game followed all of Gilbert’s rules, some better than others, and in turn provided an adventure that was much less frustrating and therefore more rewarding than practically any that had come before. Ensuring that the player should not die, and therefore preventing the tiresome replaying of old sections, was perhaps Gilbert’s greatest change; one that made it more accessible to exactly the sort of people that adventure games had the potential to reach and one that has, with few exceptions, continued to be a defining characteristic of the genre.
Of course, if you’re going to credit Monkey Island with accessibility then you can’t do so without mentioning the humour. Monkey Island’s humour was essential to the game in more than just a way to make the story interesting. It gave a true purpose to dialogue trees, making each line fun even if it doesn’t glean any useful information, and it could spark witty remarks from Guybrush himself, should you incorrectly try to solve a puzzle. Moreover, the items you used, and the way in which you used them, were often comical in and of themselves, incorporating humour into the interactivity, which is the heart of any game.
This point is perhaps best illustrated by our interviewees. When asked what their favourite puzzle and joke from the first game was, we expected them to give two answers each, but instead they both gave a single example that was a puzzle and a joke at the same time: “Rubber Chicken with a Pulley in the Middle,” says Gilbert in reference to an item that appears to be useless for much of the game before allowing Guybrush to cross islands by dangling from the rubber chicken, which is hooked over a wire line. “It was a stupid last-ditch solution to a problem that ended up being very funny and one of the most remembered things from Monkey Island.”
“I have a certain fondness for the elaborate scene that takes place behind the wall in the governor’s mansion,” answers Grossman. “We had been trying to design puzzles for that section of the game, and we were discussing something involving a guard and a line of ants from the kitchen, but it just wasn’t quite working, and at some point I suggested we chuck it all and make up a scene behind the wall that you couldn’t see. I meant it as a joke, but Ron immediately saw that it would be really funny and insisted that I do it, over my protestations that there should be real puzzles there. Well, he was right: it did turn out to be funny.”
If we had to pick one of our own, we’d go for Guybrush’s clever underwater escape. Thrown into the sea by Fester Shinetop, Guybrush finds himself tied to a stone idol and unable to move more than a few feet. Several items lie around that look as though they could help cut him free, but they ultimately prove useless, and the only solution, brilliantly, is to just pick up the stone idol and walk back to the shore. It’s humour like this that openly poked fun at adventure game conventions and made Monkey Island feel that little bit smarter than its contemporaries.
Cleverer, funnier and easier to like than any other adventure of its time, it’s little surprise that The Secret Of Monkey Island became such a smash for LucasArts. The original DOS version was quickly ported to the Amiga, Atari ST and Apple Mac in order to satisfy demand, while later conversions for the Mega-CD and FM Towns ensured that even the Japanese got a taste of the unique comedy adventure. And though sales weren’t quite as high as Lucas’s previous adventure, Loom, the publisher sensed franchise potential in Monkey Island and immediately allowed Gilbert, Schafer and Grossman to begin work on the first ever Lucas adventure sequel.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was released just a year after the first game but came complete with a number of technical improvements. Graphically it looked leaps and bounds ahead of the first game due to the fact that it swapped pixel art backgrounds for hand-painted backdrops that better captured the mood and menace of Gilbert’s voodoo-obsessed Caribbean. Sound, too, had been overhauled, thanks to a new program called iMUSE, which allowed the soundtrack to seamlessly segue between different signature tunes and dramatic scores in accordance with the player’s movements and decisions. This was also the Monkey Island game that most paid homage to its Pirates Of The Caribbean influence, with a prison escape sequence, involving a dog and a key, that is practically identical to an animatronic scene from the 42-year-old ride. More infamously, the game’s unforgettable finale reveals that the world of Guybrush Threepwood actually was just a theme park ride. While searching for the legendary treasure ‘Big Whoop’ on Dinky Island, Guybrush discovers an elevator to the first game’s Mêlée Island, which should be miles away and separated by ocean. It soon becomes apparent that the whole world is an artifice, created for a theme park called Big Whoop, and as the game ends both Guybrush and LeChuck emerge from the park as infant brothers and leave along with their parents. The shock ending is made somewhat ambiguous, however, by a demonic glint in the eyes of the human child LeChuck (Chuckie) as he leaves, and the final scene of the game, which shows Elaine, still in the world of Monkey Island, wondering where Guybrush has gone to.
Though it’s one of the most memorable videogame endings of all time, Monkey Island 2’s climax is a poisoned chalice for a number of reasons. The first is that it overshadows the game itself, which is undoubtedly the finest in the series and, some would argue, the closest LucasArts has come to a genuine masterpiece. The second reason is that the twist ending generated so much shock and confusion that fans felt they needed a full explanation as much as they needed air and water. Unfortunately for them, they never got that explanation as Ron Gilbert left LucasArts after the completion of LeChuck’s Revenge and took the real secret of Monkey Island with him.
As Gilbert left, Grossman and Schafer also moved away from the world of Guybrush, Elaine and LeChuck. Both moved on to design the time travel-based Maniac Mansion sequel, Day Of The Tentacle, before the former left to join Gilbert at Humongous Entertainment, while the latter went on to create legendary LucasArts adventures Full Throttle and Grim Fandango.
With the original team absent, the future of Monkey Island looked bleak, and it took another six years before the third instalment would arrive. Named The Curse Of Monkey Island, this third game was designed by Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley, a respective artist and programmer duo that had previously worked on Sam & Max Hit The Road and Day Of The Tentacle.
Ahern and Ackley had the impossible and thankless task of continuing Guybrush’s adventure despite Gilbert’s mythology-destroying ending to Monkey Island 2. The pair resolved to reveal that the Big Whoop theme park was actually built by LeChuck on Monkey Island and was more correctly called The Carnival Of The Damned, designed to transform visitors into LeChuck’s undead army. Curse Of Monkey Island’s plot explained that Guybrush was trapped in the carnival between games 2 and 3 and that the revelation of he and LeChuck being infant brothers was actually just an illusion. The explanation definitely holds water and created a typically dark but comedic premise for Curse, but it is also not the true secret that Ron Gilbert would have revealed, had he stayed at LucasArts to write the game himself. As such, many fans still consider the ending to LeChuck’s Revenge unresolved and see all subsequent sequels as semi-canon. To do so, however, really is unfair on the rest of the series, particularly Curse, which is a truly brilliant adventure.
Packed with ingenious puzzles and sharp humour, The Curse Of Monkey Island effortlessly earns its place alongside the first two games and, like its predecessors, made a number of technical improvements that once again raised the bar for the series and its genre. The most obvious of these were the visuals, which had been completely overhauled with high-resolution animated backdrops, painted by Bill Tiller, and larger, more cartoony characters that made the whole game look like an expensive interactive cartoon. It looked so good, in fact, that it was difficult to believe that it was still running on that very same SCUMM engine that was built for Maniac Mansion a full decade previously.
If your game is going to look like a cartoon then it might as well sound like one too. Thankfully, Curse was the first Monkey Island to come on a CD-ROM as standard, which meant that the audio could be far greater than ever before. Michael Land, the only person to have worked on every single Monkey Island game, returned to write the score and delivered what many fans regard as the very best soundtrack the series has ever enjoyed. In addition, Guybrush and company found themselves with actual voices for the first time. This was a risky move, since players had two full games with which to imagine a voice in their heads, so a real cast could have easily disrupted those preconceptions. But Curse Of Monkey Island’s voicework was, without exception, superb. Every character felt just right, especially Guybrush who was voiced by professional voice artist and long-time Monkey Island fan Dominic Armato, who perfectly captured Guybrush’s likeable naivety as though the part had been written for him from the start. Armato has since become an indispensable component of Monkey Island’s brilliance, returning to the audio booth to act in all of the games that followed Curse and even to voice the special editions of the earlier games.
Though its beginnings were shrouded in doubt and uncertainty, Curse quickly proved itself worthy of the Monkey Island name and, 12 years on, few fans regard it with anything other than fondness. Even the series’ original creators, who were never consulted on Curse’s development, have to admit that it deserves some respect. “Curse Of Monkey Island was a great opportunity for me to finally experience the franchise from the point of view of the audience,” says Grossman. “And I thought they did a great job with it. It felt like they got the humour right. I wish Elaine had had more of a part, and I thought it was too bad that the ending got scoped down to hardly anything because of budgetary pressures, but I enjoyed it very much.”
Gilbert similarly liked Curse, “except for Guybrush and Elaine getting together,” he adds, suggesting that Guybrush’s love should have gone mostly unrequited, as in the first two games.
If Curse was an unexpected but welcome success then its follow-up, Escape From Monkey Island, was the opposite – an inevitable sequel that meant well but got so much wrong. Released in 2000, Escape was developed under a certain amount of desperation at LucasArts. Sales of adventure games were falling as genres like the FPS and RPG became the dominant forms of computer entertainment. LucasArts abandoned the ancient SCUMM engine and replaced it with GrimE, a more sophisticated engine that allowed polygon characters to walk around in 3D space, albeit against pre-rendered backgrounds. It was hoped that this move to 3D would help the adventure survive in an increasingly graphics-obsessed business. Escape From Monkey Island was the second game to use GrimE, after 1998’s Grim Fandango, and was the first to be released on the PlayStation 2 in the hope of chasing an audience that was supposedly migrating to consoles.
Both of these decisions were perfectly sound in theory, but did little to aid the survival of the genre, or Monkey Island itself. PlayStation 2 owners, brought up on the likes of Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto, were largely uninterested in thoughtful puzzle games or story-heavy titles like Monkey Island, and the primitive 3D graphics, while adequate for Grim Fandango’s skeletal characters, felt like a backwards step compared to the broadcast-quality imagery of the cartoony Curse.
As well as failing to attract a wider audience, Escape From Monkey Island also managed to alienate a large number of existing fans. Though the plot returned Guybrush to the islands of Mêlée and Monkey, in homage to the first game, its story incorporated themes of consumerism that many thought were inappropriate to the series. New designers Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark – previously responsible for Sam & Max Hit The Road – came up with the neat idea of parodying the dark side of franchising by introducing a new island named Lucre that featured a coffee shop similar to Starbucks and a restaurant themed around the legend of Guybrush, while Mêlée Island’s pirate watering hole, the Scumm Bar, was re-envisioned as a pretentious sushi bar.
Stemmle and Clark’s premise was an ironic one given that LucasArts had, over the previous ten years, increasingly become over-reliant on its lucrative Star Wars videogames at the expense of original projects. Even smarter, the irony of criticising consumerism while working on the fourth part of a huge game series is not lost on the writers, as noted in the continued use of a trademark symbol whenever any character speaks the words “Monkey Island”. But this satirical humour flew over the heads of most Monkey Island fans that simply felt that coffee shops and themed restaurants were too contemporary to feature in pirate fiction, seemingly forgetting things like the rollercoaster in Curse Of Monkey Island or the grog vending machine in the very first game.
Also criticised was the way Escape rewrote some of the fiction of the first game, including the giant monkey head on Monkey Island, which now became the head of a giant monkey robot, and memorable castaway Herman Toothrot, who was revealed to be Elaine’s long-lost father. Escape also featured some of the most difficult puzzles in the series. Monkey Kombat, in particular, though designed to pay homage to the first game’s insult swordfighting, proved to be too difficult for many players because of the way it forced them to learn and memorise the rock-paper-scissors style priorities of certain martial arts stances and then use them against opponents with randomised moves. Objectively speaking, Escape From Monkey Island was a perfectly good adventure game but didn’t quite live up to the lofty standards set by the first three games. It’s a fact that isn’t lost on our interviewees.
“I wasn’t too fond of Escape From Monkey Island, mainly because it suffered from awkward controls, being a 3D/2D hybrid,” Gilbert explains. Grossman chimes in: “Escape I never finished, but, to be fair, I played it only recently, and my patience and attention span had shrivelled up by then. It’s been years since I finished any game that took more than a few hours. I can only focus on… hey, is that an ice cream truck?” And with that, the Monkey Island series seemingly died. Escape failed to sell in significant quantities and became LucasArts’ last ever adventure game as the developer cancelled all remaining projects and laid off many of its staff. For the best part of a decade, the series lay dormant, until E3 2009 when LucasArts and Telltale Games, where most of the old Lucas crew now work, announced not one but two new Guybrush-themed projects. The first was The Secret Of Monkey Island Special Edition, developed internally by LucasArts and now available on the Xbox 360, PC and iPhone, which added new graphics to the 1990 classic and furnished it with a full voice recording for the first time. And, even more excitingly, it was revealed that Telltale would bring us a brand new adventure in the five-part episodic series, Tales Of Monkey Island, the first four parts of which are already available on the PC and Wii and are proving that adventure games and Guybrush still have what it takes to entertain the world.
It’s no surprise that Tales Of Monkey Island has turned out so well, of course. As well as bringing Dominic Armato back, it reunites many of the behind-the-scenes faces. Mike Stemmle is the main writer, doing everything he can to win the fans’ affections; Ron Gilbert consulted on the design, specifically on the role of Elaine; and Dave Grossman is overseeing the whole project as design director. “The voices come fairly easily, and the humour, and I think everybody feels relatively good about that stuff,” he says when asked how easy it is to step back into such a familiar world. “It’s when we’re discussing the underlying stories that we start to feel the peril, because if you screw that up the whole thing falls apart. But the peril motivates us to do a better job, and I think Tales Of Monkey Island has wound up with an excellent story.”
As for the future, that will depend on how the current projects perform. But with The Secret Of Monkey Island topping the Steam and XBLA charts, and Tales proving to be Telltale’s most popular game in its history, we’re confident that the story hasn’t finished yet. Monkey Island 2 Special Edition is inevitable, and we’re told by our friends at LucasArts that next March might be a special month for fans. After that? Grossman says he’ll be happy if the series continues to age appropriately: “Art evolves as people and societies evolve, and who knows how that will go? I guess my hope is that the series will take itself seriously enough to [stay] relevant, and not so seriously as to prevent it being entertaining. And I hold the same hope for the writers and designers on it.”
And would those writers and designers include original creator Ron Gilbert, if he were invited?
“Maybe. Yes. Probably. Hmmm,” he answers with typical certainty. “That’s a hard question to answer. I’d love to do the real Monkey Island 3, or, as I called it, Monkey Island 3a: The Secret Revealed Or Your Money Back, but I wonder if I would be able to, given the span of years. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. It would be a different game than I had planned and the world of games is a very different place today.”