[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]
“My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I’m a mighty pirate.” Those words still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, were the first games I remember playing where I became completely absorbed by the story, the characters and the look and feel of a video game. For me, Monkey Island epitomises why video games can and should be considered as an art form.
I first played The Secret of Monkey Island on my dad’s Atari ST in the early nineties at the age of about eight years old.* I was no stranger to video games at this point, having used my dad’s Acorn Electron to play games (such as Blockbusters) with my brother, and we had already received a second-hand Sega Master System for Christmas one year (Best. Christmas. Ever.) and played such classics as Safari Hunt and Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
What I found different about Monkey Island, compared to other games that I had played, was that it has a proper narrative storyline. As a kid who enjoyed reading and writing stories, this definitely appealed to me. The point and click adventure style of the game also gives the illusion that you are partly in control of events and that helped me to feel even more absorbed by the story. It is a game of exploration as well as adventure, which caused me to constantly consider, what happens when I click this? What happens when I use this with this? What happens when I say this? The possibilities feel endless, while at the same time keeping you within a strict narrative structure.
I should mention at this point, that I wouldn’t have got very far with the game back then without my dad’s help. We had no internet which we could use to look up walkthroughs, hints or tips. If you were lucky a gaming magazine might print a guide, but otherwise you were on your own, doomed to using each item in your inventory on every single object in the game in the hope that you might hit upon the answer to the puzzle; unless you had a helpful relative or friend on hand.
I enjoyed the fact that I felt like I was part of the story, and what a fantastic story it is! It begins with a young man, Guybrush Threepwood, arriving on Mêlée Island™ to seek his fortune as a pirate. He discovers from the pirate leaders that in order to become a pirate he must undergo three trials. During this time he falls in love with the Governor of the island, Elaine, who is then kidnapped by the ghost pirate LeChuck. Guybrush must then gather a crew and a ship in order to embark on a voyage to Monkey Island™, while LeChuck attempts to thwart him at every turn. It’s a thrilling tale of romance, adventure and grog-drinking. Monkey Island 2 sees Guybrush setting off on yet another grog-swilling adventure, this time to find the legendary treasure of Big Whoop.
I have to admit that I may have developed a small crush on Guybrush. I liked his can-do attitude, his determination to succeed and his naïve optimism. Besides which, fictional pirates are cool.
Guybrush was not the only character to capture my imagination – strong, independent Governor Elaine Marley was obviously a favourite, and who could fail to be enchanted by the delightful swindling Stan with his wild, flailing arm gestures? In Monkey Island 2 I was taken with sweet little Wally (and have always felt guilty for stealing his monocle), and very much enjoyed Captain Kate Capsize’s witty put-downs when Guybrush attempts to flirt with her.
Even at a young age I was able to appreciate the humour as well as the great characters and storyline. I may not have fully understood the ‘red herring’ joke until I was older, but the scene where Guybrush and Elaine first declare their love for each other has always been funny and I loved both the concept and the jokes in the insult sword-fighting sequences: a perfect combination of puzzle-solving and humour.
Another thing that I’ve always loved about Monkey Island is the visual artwork. To modern eyes it may not look that great, but I remember finding it so colourful and attractive when I was a child. It may just be nostalgia, but even now as an adult I find the animation very appealing. I really appreciate the new artwork in the Special Edition – it looks fantastic and somehow manages to capture the essence of the original. But the original artwork still holds a special place in my heart. The 16-bit graphics may look dated by today’s standards, but I think the designers did a really good job at creating something innovative, atmospheric and really quite beautiful. Combine this with the lilting sway of the music, the clever dialogue and compelling narrative, and you have something very special.
The Secret of Monkey Island is a genre-defining game and I feel privileged that I first got to play it at such a young age. I’ve re-played it many times since on both PC and Xbox 360 and it still stands up as an extremely playable, absorbing and artistic game today. It is a testament to its legacy that more recent point and click adventure games still hark back to the glory days of Monkey Island. For example, the excellent Blackwell series of games use 32-bit graphics, which is slightly less blocky than the 16-bit graphics of Monkey Island, but is certainly reminiscent of the golden era of adventure games. And more overtly, The Book of Unwritten Tales series makes a number of references to Monkey Island including a direct, “Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!” quote.
Playing Monkey Island not only inspired a lifelong interest in gaming (particularly point and click adventure games), but also helped me to understand that video games can be a fantastic medium for art and storytelling. It is surprising, and vexing, that there is still debate over whether games can be considered art – it was obvious to me even at the tender age of eight. But video games are still considered a relatively ‘new’ art form (which seems ridiculous when you’ve spent a lifetime playing them), and new technologies and art forms are often treated with suspicion and/or moral outrage. Maybe the sceptics just haven’t played Monkey Island yet.
*I cannot vouch for how accurate my memory is. I thought I’d first played Monkey Island when I was five years old, until I recently looked up the release date and realised that this was impossible…