[We're delighted to welcome back veteran GameSetWatch writer Alistair Wallis, who's going to be writing about game culture for GSW again over the next few weeks/months. First up, via his LittleMathletics blog, a personal look at the classic LucasArts title The Secret Of Monkey Island, with sequel spoilers included - skip if you don't want to know.]

When I was younger (so much younger, as they say, than today), The Secret of Monkey Island was far and away my favourite game. I was always one of those kids who’d talk at length to my parents – and occasionally even to their friends – about what I was playing, and Monkey Island was definitely one game that I spent a lot of time nattering on about. I’m pretty sure both of my parents could still tell you the basic plot of the first game, as well as the names of all the major characters. And probably also quote the sign from the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle shoppe.

Probably just as well for them I didn’t get into Final Fantasy until a lot later. “So then Tidus and Yuna and Lulu and Rikku and…”

Still, not like I would have even had a chance to get into those games. I was a PC gamer exclusively around the time Monkey Island was released, and the only experience I had with consoles was an Atari 2600 we had that worked one time out of ten, and the odd NES and Master System session at friends’ houses.

Our plucky little Amstrad 1512 – that’s a punishingly fast 8Mhz 286, for those of you not up with mid to late ’80s PCs – only had EGA graphics, which limited the amount of games available to me pretty severely even at that time since it was more or less out of date even by the time my parents bought it, but it sure as hell ran Monkey Island okay.

micomparison.jpg(Interestingly, a little research shows that the 1512 came with CGA graphics. Not sure how we ended up with an EGA one, because I can’t seem to find any reference to such a model existing. There was the 1640, which came with EGA graphics, but I’m positive that we had a 1512 – I can’t really imagine just pulling that model number from nowhere. Weird.)

For those not familiar with the game, it’s still regarded as one of the high points of LucasFilm Games’ (now LucasArts) point and click adventure games from the ’80s and ’90s. It was – and I’m just going on release dates here, so I might be off a little – the fifth title to use the SCUMM engine, the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion created by Ron Gilbert and Aric Wilmunder which evolved pretty constantly over an almost ten year period. I could probably go on about SCUMM for a while, but I’ll save that for a post later on.

Ron was the project lead, lead designer, lead writer and probably a bunch more, but some really important contributions were made by co-writers and designers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. If those three names aren’t ringing any bells – and for some people, I can’t imagine they would – it’s worth examining for a second what they’ve gone on to do after Monkey Island, and its sequel, which they all worked on.

Ron Gilbert left LucasArts in 1992, supposedly under circumstances that could be described as being not entirely friendly. He went on to found Humongous Entertainment along with fellow ex-LucasArts employee Shelley Day, where he produced a vast number of SCUMM-utilising children’s games. Humongous’ non-kids game offshoot Cavedog came next, around which time Ron took on the role of producer for Gas Powered Games’ Total Annihilation.

Cavedog, sadly, shut its doors in ‘99. Recently, Ron announced that he’s working as a creative director for Hothead Games, did a bit of work on the Penny Arcade games, and is now working on DeathSpank, which he describes as being like Monkey Island crossed with Diablo. Which is a pretty exciting concept, no?

Tim Schafer stuck with the company a fair bit longer, co-creating, -directing, -writing and -producing Day of the Tentacle, then heading up development on Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After that, he founded Double Fine Productions, and developed the exquisite Psychonauts. The company’s still going, and is set to release Jack Black-starring apocalyptic metal game Brütal Legend in October. Probably goes without saying that I’m going to be picking that one up the second it’s released, if not earlier.

Dave Grossman is possibly the least recognised out of the three, though it’s not as if he hasn’t been involved with some pretty amazing games in his time. After Day of the Tentacle, he left LucasArts to join Ron at Humongous, where he worked on a number of different titles. After a brief stint with Disney’s game arm, he joined Telltale Games, where’s he’s been a guiding force on the Bone, Sam and Max and Strong Bad titles.

Also definitely worth noting: Michael Land’s awesome music, and the fact that Steve Purcell, creator of Sam and Max, worked on art for the game along with Mark Ferrari. I believe Monkey Island features the first appearance of Sam and Max in a video game, when they appear as one of many tribal idols on the titular island later in the game. Purcell also did the box art for the first and second games – both are still amongst the best covers for any game I’ve ever seen. The second one especially. Masterpiece. Check out massive versions of them here, then download them and produce huge and arguably illegal posters of them. Not that I’d do anything like that.

The game was, seemingly, developed pretty quickly. Originally, it was going to be the first thing Ron Gilbert worked on after Maniac Mansion in 1988, but he began work on the first of the Indiana Jones adventure games instead. That seems to only leave a period of about 18 months during which the game could have been developed – it might have even been less, since a prototype version was put together in roughly three months.

For a story driven game, it’s actually a relatively simple task to sum it up quickly: Somewhere in the Caribbean, Guybrush Threepwood wants to be a pirate. He works his way through a series of trials, falls in love with Governor Elaine Marley, only to have her kidnapped by the ghost pirate LeChuck, and then rescues her. It’s not so much the plot that really drives the game forward – it’s the scenarios, the characters, the little details, and most of all, the humour. Oh, the humour.

It’s hard to think of any game that’s had a more profound influence on me than Monkey Island. I really can’t imagine anything would come close. As I said, the first game came out in 1990, which I think is the year I was given it for my birthday, meaning I was eight when I first played it – it might have been the year after, though. Either way, media experienced around that age can tend to have a pretty huge effect on kids in terms of their ongoing development, I think.

Well, probably. I mean, I did study sociology for a little while – and could probably go far too deep into this and make myself look like a complete fool – but I’m no expert, by any means, and I’m certainly not going to go around making declarative statements about things I only have a very, very basic knowledge of. But, I do have the ability to pass on a little anecdotal evidence. Sure, most actual academics will tell you that anecdotal evidence is worth less than nothing, but oh man we really are getting off track now aren’t we?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: I think I can honestly say that Monkey Island has been a bigger influence on my sense of humour than anything before or after it. I found that game hilarious at the time, and I remember trying to explain the jokes to people on a very regular basis – you know, mostly people who hadn’t played the game and had no interest in ever playing the game, like my parents their friends and relatives and friends parents. “So there’s this rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle shop and, get this, the sign says…”

Yeah, it didn’t come across quite as well as I’d hoped, but it didn’t really deter me. The jokes were amazing. And they still are. They still make me laugh, and I’m positive that’s because Monkey Island is where most of my sense of humour is derived from. I’m sure some part of it came from my dad – which is unfortunate, because that means I’m really going to tell some awful jokes to my kids, should I have any – and some part of it probably comes from the fact that I saw “Weird” Al’s UHF roughly two million times.

But there’s something very subversive and clever about a lot of Monkey Island’s jokes, and that sets it apart from most of what I found funny before I played it. For example, the guy at the start who launches into a rather lengthy spiel about LOOM™, another LucasArts point and click from around that time which I’ve never actually gotten around to playing. I don’t know if I totally understood the whole joke as an eight or nine year old, but enough of the intent definitely filtered through in the character’s overuse of the trademark symbol. I knew from that – and the use of the symbol in other places in the game – that it was a kind of thumbing of the nose at authority.

I mean, nowadays I can recognise it as not only being subversive in regards to that, but also in the way that it’s a – check this business out – meta-textual, anachronistic, fourth wall breaking reference just five minutes into a game. That’s pretty bold, and still brilliantly funny. And sadly, it’s not the kind of thing you see in games very much any more.

Another great example of this is the famous tree stump joke, where Guybrush announces that he can see “a series of catacombs” under a stump in the forest, after which users were asked to insert disc #23, disc #47 and disc #114. I seem to remember hearing that Tim Schafer came up with that one. It surprises me that people didn’t get the gag – I believe it was left out of more recent versions, from memory, because people would actually ring the LucasArts help line and complain that they were unable to access that part of the game. Personally, I remember understanding the point behind it even at eight or nine. Quite honestly, I feel lucky to have been able to experience things like that at a formative age because, while it’s not exactly the most edgy humour you might be able to name, it’s a good deal more intelligent and amusing than a lot of things kids under ten are force-fed.

Hell, I could go on for hours just talking about my favourite jokes from the game. The rubber tree joke is an unbelievable classic, as is the aforementioned rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle and its associated shoppe. And it goes without saying that the insult swordfighting still makes me and everyone else laugh, and judging from the minigame on the Special Edition website, it’s imprinted into my brain so thoroughly that I still recall all of the responses off the top of my head. Which is mildly scary.

Incidentally, the insults were written by sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. Can’t say I think much of his politics, nor his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, but anyone who came up with “How appropriate, you fight like a cow” can’t be all bad.

Oh, and the fight with the Sherrif in the Governor’s mansion is hilarious too, and so is pretty much anything the cannibals say, and absolutely anything to do with the head of the navigator. Oh man. That guy. Absolutely kills me every time I play. Any time I even read his dialogue, even.

Also: “Look at tremendous yak”. Probably the best use of a parser ever. There’s a reason adventure game control changed and went parser-less a few years later – there’s no way anyone could ever come up with something funnier than that.

I think there’s something, if not exactly relatable, then definitely recognisable in the character of Guybrush. He’s really a bit of a jerk, he’s terrible at talking to women, he’s not even close to what you’d call competent, he’s naive, and he knows absolutely nothing. That last one’s especially key, because as a player, you learn with him – about the locations, the other characters, how to become a pirate. Things like that.

Obviously, he’s rather overblown and exaggerated, because otherwise it wouldn’t actually be funny. There is a certain humanity there, though – a real sense of character that’s rare in games even now.

It’s hard to explain exactly how much the game means to me. I don’t think I’d call it my favourite game of all time or anything hyperbolic like that. It’s up there, but I’d be hard pressed to name just one (actually, talking about the games that would be amongst my favourites is part of the point of the RetroPerspective series of posts that you’ll see coming up on GSW and littlemathletics). Anyway: it’s not my favoutite game. It is easily the most important game I’ve ever played, though.

I was looking at the screenshots posted by Ron Gilbert in his very awesome recent post on the game (I can only hope we see more of that sort of thing from him, because I’ve read it about twenty times already). It just makes me feel so nostalgic – not just for the game, but it reminds me of smells and pets and sounds and the room I played the game in. Which is a really cool feeling.

Ron sent me an email once, incidentally. He complimented a column I was writing at the time for Gamasutra called Desert Island Games and asked if he could take part. I almost fainted and died and genuflected all at the same time, then sent him questions, then sent about ten or so reminders. I’ve never heard back from him, hah. Can’t say it’s negatively coloured my opinions of him in the slightest. Reputedly, even Tim Schafer has trouble getting a reply out of Ron half the time, so I’m in pretty awesome company. Or something.

However, eagle eyed readers would note that since my computer had only EGA graphics, it put me in a position where I was unable to play the second, VGA only game for a long time after its 1991 release. I’d actually found out about its upcoming release and was more than prepared to be there day one for the chance to get a copy – the first time I can ever recall doing that for a game. It wasn’t until a holiday at, of all places, my grandparents’ house about five years later that I had the chance to borrow a copy from a friend and work through it. I’d moved on from the 286, but only onto something very slightly more powerful – a 16Mhz Macintosh LCII. Yes, in 1996. My grandparents, for some reason, had access to more up to date technology, and were packing a 486 (though I’m fairly sure I got more use out of it in those couple of weeks I spent there than they ever did).

Anyway, I’m far from familiar with The Secret of Monkey Island 2. I’ve probably only played through it maybe two and a half times at most. In fact, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve played through more than the first island, so I can’t say I’m all that familiar with the jokes even. I’ll probably give it another shot over the next few weeks, because what I do remember of the rest of the game is all good. The locations were fleshed out beautifully, the writing was probably even sharper than the first game, and while some of the puzzles were a little more obtuse than in its predecessor, they never felt unfair. Certainly not, say, Gabriel Knight cat hair and treacle mustache kind of unfair.

It’s a gorgeous looking game, though. Not just for something that’s almost 18 years old – it is genuinely stunning. I’m glad they never released it in EGA form, and really, it’s quite possible that they weren’t able to technically – the level of detail probably relies on things like, you know, more than 16 colours.

Probably the most notable thing about the game is its ending, which is one of the most bizarre pieces of writing ever to make it into a video game. Okay, actually, let me qualify that: it’s one of the most competently written, surrealistic moments ever in a game. There’s a lot of really bizarre writing in games, but you kind of get the feeling that most of it isn’t intentional. That’s a whole other article, though, and probably one more suited to a top ten list, so I can’t really see myself writing it any time soon. Feel free to steal the idea.

Monkey Island 2’s ending, basically, sees Guybrush falling into a series of what appear to be maintenance tunnels under Dinky Island – amongst other things, there’s a service elevator that leads to the first island Guybrush visits in the first game. There’s a voodoo battle between Guybrush and LeChuck, following which it’s revealed that LeChuck is actually Guybrush’s brother Chuckie, and then the two are shown walking out of an amusement park with their parents. But then, Chuckie’s eyes seem to sparkle, and Elaine is shown above the hole Guybrush fell into, commenting that she hopes LeChuck hasn’t put “some sort of SPELL” over Guybrush.

I recall one magazine at the time – the name of which escapes me, because it was a dull name like Computer and Video Gaming but probably not that – listed it as the most surprising ending of the year, or something along those lines. Having not played the game at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what they meant (to their credit, they didn’t spoil it), but it’s hard not to be a little thrown by it even now. It’s incredibly weird and very sudden.

It was also intended to be resolved in the third game. Ron Gilbert had always envisioned the series as a trilogy, and had the “secret” of Monkey Island planned and ready to reveal. And then he left the company.

The third game that eventually reached store shelves, 1997’s Curse of Monkey Island, is not a bad game. In fact, it’s rather a good game. A great one, even. It looks stunning, for one thing – the 2D animation might be a little lacking in the resolution department, but it’s a timeless kind of look, and utterly charming. Plus, the writing is really sharp, the puzzles are good, and the voice acting has come to define Guybrush as much as anything from the first game. Dominic Armato’s voice fits Guybrush so well that it’s not possible to replay the first two games without hearing it in your head. Also: unforgettable singing.

But, as most fans of the first two games will tell you, it’s not really the third game. Not as it was meant to be, anyway. Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley, the project leads who had just come from working on Full Throttle, did a pretty exceptional job of making it feel like a proper Monkey Island game – probably the most brilliant gag is the one where Guybrush can stick his head through a crack in a wall in an underground area, only to peek out of the infamous stump from the first game.

As much as they nailed the humour, and the characterisation – with the possible exception of Elaine, who’s more of a damsel in distress – following on from the ending of the second game without Ron Gilbert’s involvement was always going to prove problematic. Essentially, the solution was to emphasise the spell side of things and push the more troublesome elements under that banner. Guybrush only thought LeChuck was his brother, and so forth. There wasn’t really an elevator to a previously explored island. It works, in the context of the game, and it could definitely have been handled a lot worse.

Still, it’s not Ron Gilbert’s secret. The secret. For some fans, that’s just something that’s a little too much to look past – though of course, there are plenty of fans who started with Curse for whom it’s not an issue in the least. Some of us are just picky, I suppose. It feels like a dumb thing to hold on to, 12 years after the game was released.

Maybe it is a dumb thing to hold on to.

Or maybe it’s just an understandable need to grasp the original intention of the plot-line. I’m trying to think of a similar example in movies, but nothing comes to mind – I guess I’m a little more familiar with games minutia than I am with movies. I do know it’s definitely something you see a lot of in comics, though. The example that stands out for me most immediately would be when Chris Claremont left Fantastic Four in late 2000. There’s always going to be a few dangling plot points when a writer leaves a series – especially if that writer is Chris Claremont, he of the million dangling subplots at once. Claremont left an important one unresolved when he went back to X-Men after Fantastic Four volume 3 issue #32, though – about a year previous, a mysterious girl had shown up, claiming to be the daughter of Dr. Doom and Sue Storm (and bear with me here, because this is actually going somewhere other than an inane comics digression – eventually, anyway).

The next writers, Carlos Pacheco and Jeph Loeb, explained the girl as being the miscarried daughter Sue lost back in volume 1 issue #267-ish, who had been transported to some pocket dimension or something something and eurgh really, what a mess but let’s not get too sidetracked talking about the debatable writing skills of Mr. Loeb and Mr. Pacheco’s non-existent ones. Claremont even commented that he wasn’t particularly happy with the way they’d taken the story – it ignored a number of things, like the memories she’d talked about, and the people she knew, and the fact that she could bypass Doom’s security systems, and so on. If I could let Claremont jump back in and finish the story the way he’d intended it, would I? You bet. Absolutely. As a fan of the comic and the characters, the curiosity to know the original intentions of the writer is really strong.

In fact, he’s about to do more or less exactly that with Marvel’s just-released X-Men Forever, picking up on his X-Men series of the early ’90s and taking the plot the places he had intended it to go before he left the title. Pretty neat idea, and also arguably pretty well suited to Claremont, who’s still very much an ’80s and ’90s style writer and hey digression again oops.

Actually, maybe that’s not the very best example I could have used. Loeb and Pacheco’s run was abysmal – barely even comprehensible by the last few issues – whereas Curse is a truly great game.

Maybe the fate of the late Steve Gerber’s 1976 limited series Omega the Unknown is more appropriate. The book was groundbreaking: a superhero comic that didn’t really focus so much on the titular hero as a seemingly unconnected boy, then drew everything together, piece by piece. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after issue #10, before Gerber could finish his story-arc – planned, I believe, for 12 issues. The fate of the characters was eventually wrapped up a few years later in Defenders by killing pretty much the whole lot of them. For all intents and purposes, though, while Marvel has always considered that resolution canonical, fans of the original series choose to ignore it. For them, it’s Gerber’s great unfinished masterpiece.

In 2007, a revived 10 issue limited series was written by author Jonathan Lethem. He completed the story, and while he tied it up well, obviously it wasn’t done in the way that Gerber had originally intended. It helps, in a way, that the series was written out of Marvel’s regular continuity, because it’s a hard thing for fans to accept. One the one hand, both were great interpretations of the story. But Lethem’s version is brilliant. It’s easily one of my favourite comic books of the past decade, and I can’t recommend it enough. But it isn’t what Gerber intended.

Curse, like I’ve said, is great. But it’s not what Ron Gilbert intended.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a lot of room in game development for something like X-Men Forever. The hypothetical Monkey Island Forever would appeal to a particularly small niche. I mean, X-Men Forever probably only appeals to people who read Claremont’s X-Men back in the early ’90s, but given that the first issue was a record setting multi-million seller, it’s guaranteed a pretty reasonable number of sales at least. ‘Til the nostalgia wears off, anyway.

I suppose I’ll have to just take comfort in the fact that there is a new series of episodic Tales from Monkey Island games coming from Telltale Games in less than a month. Dave Grossman’s involved, Ron Gilbert is a consultant and Dominic Armato is doing the voice of Guybrush. It’s not quite my Monkey Island Forever dream come true, but it’s pretty damned close. About as close as you can get while still remaining commercially smart, anyway.

In fact, there’s really no way I can complain about it at all (well, maybe a little – Telltale’s lighting is just terrible, and it’s the same in all their games. Not good). Dave Grossman has admitted that this won’t be the game where Ron’s intended secret is finally revealed, but an acknowledgment is pretty welcome after 18 years of waiting. Well, 13 years of waiting, in my case, but that’s still a long time. But, you know what? Maybe it never even needs to be revealed. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s better and more interesting in the heads of Monkey Island fans. Really, it’s better just to be happy with the fact that there’s even a new game coming out, developed by a bunch of people who know what they’re doing.

Not to forget the soon to be released Special Edition of the first game. I know far too many people who have no experience with the franchise, and every single one of them is going to be sat down in front of the TV and made to watch all the funny bits, i.e. the whole game. To some degree, I still find it a bit hard to believe that the episodes and the Special Edition are even coming out. After all, up until a week ago, it was pretty much assumed that Escape From Monkey Island had killed the franchise.

Let’s not say too much about the game, other than to mention that it’s very much of its time, has dated badly and retains far too little of the original charisma and mood of the series to be worth playing these days. Unless, of course, the new series follows on from Escape. Not sure about that.

It’s a great time to be a Monkey Island fan right now, though. I think anyone who has experience with the series can agree on that. I’m not entirely sure why the sudden resurrection has come about, but it’s a damned good thing that it has. Hopefully the response from consumers will be strong enough to show LucasArts that they should have done it a long time ago.

Time to wrap this bad boy up, I think. Any suggestions for other games to take on in RetroPerspective? Comment below! Otherwise, come back in a week or so (no promises, I'm pretty lazy) for a chat about another secretive type game: a certain SNES action RPG that consumed a good deal of my life in 1995.