Saturday, October 1, 2022

On Return to Monkey Island

In spite of all the admonitions of my reason (and though I've got something else I really ought to be finishing), I'm compelled to offer my paltry observations of Return to Monkey Island and its reception. I know I will be saying nothing that hasn't already been promulgated throughout the message boards and social networks of people who play games, or been the subject of a thousand YouTube monologues. Yet I apparently can't help myself. Like Ron Gilbert's previous game, 2017's Thimbleweed Park, Return to Monkey Island reminded me why I don't play video games much anymore—and maybe that's a good thing [question mark].

There will be spoilers. Also, most of the screenshots were captured by other people.

In case you happen to be reading this and aren't familiar with the Monkey Island games, we should probably start from the beginning. To understand why there are grown-ass adults filled with despair and angst after completing Return to Monkey Island, you need to know the timeline and the background of these games. If you are familiar with the series, well, enjoy the walk down memory lane.

I should state for the record that I'm a relative newcomer to Monkey Island. I was dimly aware of it around the time I was playing Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road (1994ish) but didn't actually play any of the games until Shirley and I blazed through the whole series between July and October of 2020. So bear in mind that I hadn't been waiting thirty years for another Monkey Island game masterminded by Ron Gilbert, though I was still excited enough to make Return to Monkey Island the first game I've preordered in several years.

Concerning Ron Gilbert—well, let's look at his Wikipedia page. Born 1964. Got a job with Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts) a couple years after graduating from college. Was given the greenlight to develop his own game in 1985. That game was the seminal point n' click adventure Maniac Mansion, which was released on the PC in 1987. Its NES port came out in the United States in 1990, where it was my introduction to the point n' click genre and became entangled with my destiny in some truly bizarre ways.

Gilbert worked on a few more point n' click games in the late eighties before directing and designing The Secret of Monkey Island, released on the PC in 1990.

So: The Secret of Monkey Island is a comic adventure set in Caribbean during Pirate Times. Who knows when that is, really; the world of Monkey Island is one defined by anachronism and wanton ahistoricity.

Enter Guybrush Threepwood: a bright-eyed lad who wants more than anything to be a pirate. One of the greatest heroes in the annals of video games. Hapless and na├»ve, yet resourceful. As often as circumstances make him the butt of a running cosmic joke, things mysteriously tend to work out in his favor. Since the release of the Ultimate Talkie Edition in 1993, he's been voiced by the indispensable Dominic Armato. 

[Very late postscript: I goofed this one up but good. One Lisa H comments below: "Ultimate Talkie" isn't an official release; it's the fan name for patching the voice packs from the Special Editions of Secret (2009) and LeChuck's Revenge (2010) into the original graphics to make versions that can be run in ScummVM or DOS, and fixes a few bugs. The CD version of Secret that was released in 1992 (not 1993) had some enhanced music but did not have any voices. Dominic was first cast as Guybrush for Curse of Monkey Island (1997). He would only have been 16/17 in 1993! 

It's been several months, but I definitely remember having a hard time finding a release date for "Ultimate Talkie," since I didn't realize it was a patch. Apparently I came across the release date for the European CD-ROM version, assumed that was the talkie version, and neglected to doublecheck. As for Armato's age—I was aware he would have been a teenager, but didn't see it for the red flag that it was. I just figured he started young. Either way, how embarrassing. I wrote this thing in a hurry and wasn't as thorough in my research as I ought to have been.]

On the pirate stronghold of Melee Island, Guybrush attempts to prove his mettle and impress the pirate leaders. In the process, he wins the heart of Elaine Marley, Melee Island's beloved young governor, an adventurer in her own right.

But then—! Elaine is abuducted by the evil ghost pirate LeChuck, who whisks her off to his lair on the mysterious Monkey Island! Guybrush must acquire a ship, gather a crew, and sail to Monkey Island to rescue Elaine before LeChuck forces her to marry him! Thrilling!

The Secret of Monkey Island is a bit clunky by modern standards, but so densely laden with charm to hold up exceptionally well for its age—especially if you're playing the "talkie" version with voiced dialogue and are a fan of pixel art. Gilbert has said that his main inspiration for Monkey Island was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. (Or maybe Disneyland. I get them mixed up.) He wanted to make a game that would simulate the experience of getting off the ride and being able to move about in and interact with its world. He and his collaborators did an excellent job of it.

Still with me?

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge came out in 1991. It was a much more ambitious game than its predecessor. This time you can travel freely between three different islands, and solving a puzzle on one usually requires prep work on at least one of the other two. If you're a connoisseur of pixel art, you can't but be astonished by its graphics. ("Scanned VGA art is expensive," LeChuck can be made to quip at one point.) And its story...well, let's just say it has an avant garde finale. Truly.

The plot: all the other pirates are sick of listening to Guybrush boast about the time he defeated the ghost pirate LeChuck, so our hero sets out to immortalize his name in the annals of pirate lore by finding the legendary treasure known only as Big Whoop. To this end, he must track down the four pieces of a lost treasure map that were once in the keeping of Governor Marley's grandfather and his crew.

Speaking of Governor Marley, Elaine and Guybrush are on the outs. Actually, she regards him as something of a self-centered, immature jerk. And it's not hard to understand why, given the undercurrent of of self-serving amorality running through Monkey Island 2. Virtually every point n' click game forces you to lie, cheat, and steal to progress through its puzzles, but the immersed gamer can usually soothe his or her conscience with the observation that nobody who doesn't deserve it comes out much the worse for wear. But Guybrush's sophomore adventure has him getting totally innocent people fired, locked up, tortured, blown up, and buried alive—all to get his greedy mitts on Big Whoop (and the everlasting bragging rights it will earn him).  

Ah, yes: and LeChuck is back, resurrected as a zombie. While Guybrush searches for the four pieces of the treasure map, LeChuck searches for Guybrush—and finds him just after Guybrush gets his hands on the final map piece.

Guybrush's explosive escape from LeChuck's fortress lands him on Dinky Island—which, as luck would have it, is precisely where the complete treasure map designates the location of Big Whoop.

Discovering a conspicuous X on the forest floor, Guybrush dynamites his way into the caverns beneath Dinky Island. His surroundings look very suspiciously like the maintenance tunnels of a theme park, but he doesn't have time to give them much thought. He's trapped down there with LeChuck.

Here's where it gets weird.

First, Guybrush and LeChuck reenact the famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back: LeChuck reveals that he's Guybrush's brother. "Search your feelings! You know it to be true!" (Hey, this is a LucasArts game.)

Second—and this is incidental, but important—as Guybrush wends through the tunnels, trying to escape LeChuck, he comes across an elevator leading up to the back alley in the town center of Melee Island. From the first game. The screen is identical. Traffic cones and a stanchion rope prevent Guybrush from advancing any farther. For the time being, this is completely inexplicable. 

Third: After Guybrush dismembers LeChuck with a voodoo doll, they reenact another Luke and Vader scene. This time it's from Return of the Jedi: LeChuck begs Guybrush to take his mask off.

Beneath LeChuck's mask is the face of a young boy, whom Guybrush recognizes: "you're my creepy brother Chuckie!"

Why has Chuckie been chasing Guybrush? Their mother sent him.

Why does Chuckie hate Guybrush so much? Guybrush broke his favorite toy.

A man in a worker's uniform appears and yells at the pair: "Hey, you kids! You're not supposed to be in here!"

Little Guybrush and his brother Chuckie step outside into an amusement park where their parents are waiting for them. Their father scolds them for running off, and then all they walk off to take a ride on the Wildly Rotating Buccaneer. Diminutive fairground versions of a few locations Guybrush visited during his adventure populate the background; an arched sign over a ticket booth reads "BIG WHOOP AMUSEMENT PARK."

The end.

It's an unexpected ending, that's for sure. And a pretty good ending too, one in the vein of Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It takes the piss out of the whole proceeding, which is just fine for a comedy—even a comedy tinged with drama, mystery, and adventure, like Monkey Island 2. But it's probably for this reason that it ticked a lot of people off. They'd spent hours gabbing with the game's characters, exploring its world, and getting invested in its narrative, only for it to culminate with a non-sequitur. Surprise! It was all just pretend!

Or was it?

As Chuckie follows his family offscreen, he looks toward the player. His countenance briefly becomes monstrous, and lightning flickers from his eyes. Then, midway through the end credits, we see a final scene with Elaine, still standing at the giant hole Guybrush made out of the X that supposedly marked Big Whoop's location. "I wonder what's keeping Guybrush?" she asks. "I hope LeChuck hasn't cast some horrible SPELL over him or anything."

I've read on some message board or other that Gilbert had to have his arm twisted into including these moments. There wouldn't have been much room for a sequel if Monkey Island 2 had ended with the unequivocal revelation that it was all just kids playing make-believe in an amusement park, and no studio wants to retire a brand while it's still recognized and popular. But if Gilbert or anyone else was ever quoted saying this, I can't track down any sources.

Gilbert left LucasArts in 1992 to found his own video game studios, which produced maybe only one game you've ever heard of (Total Annihilation). LucasArts continued making Monkey Island games without him.

1997's The Curse of Monkey Island earned the plaudits of fans but didn't make a whole lot of money. The point n' click wave had already crested.

For everything Curse does well (in addition to looking gorgeous), it might be most impressive as an exercise in creative retconning. At its climax, when LeChuck has Guybrush at his mercy (again), there's a potentially long—very long—dialogue tree whose sole purpose is to drag Monkey Island 2's ending back to "reality" and fill in the plot holes opened by the transition.

The story now runs like this: LeChuck did indeed put a horrible SPELL on Guybrush, clouding his mind, reverting him to a child, and imprisoning him in his Carnival of the Damned on Monkey Island. (Dinky Island was actually an atoll of Monkey Island! When Guybrush wandered through its tunnels, he went beneath Monkey Island! How convenient!) Guybrush managed to escape, but doesn't recall much of anything that happened there. And no, LeChuck really isn't Guybrush's brother. The old pirate was just screwing with the kid's mind.

And Big Whoop? It was actually the portal to hell that turned LeChuck into an undying monster, and he built an amusement park over it while Guybrush was off searching for the map pieces! And he needed the amusement park to lure entertainment-starved sea dogs into his clutches so he could murder them en masse and recruit them into his army of the undead!

It's convoluted, sure, but the developers who inherited Monkey Island had to work from the ending Gilbert gave them. They did the best they could, and they sell it pretty convincingly.

The Curse of Monkey Island
also dials back the changes Monkey Island 2 made to Guybrush and Elaine. Our hero is considerably less of a self-centered jerk this time around (though he still has to get in a few devious licks in order to advance in his quest), while Elaine concedes that Guybrush is and always will be her true love. The final scene has them together in matrimonial garb, sailing off into the sunset on a ship trailing a "JUST MARRIED" banner. If you listen closely, perhaps you can hear the sound of Ron Gilbert grinding his teeth in the distance.

Escape From Monkey Island was released in 2000. Fans generally regard it as the weakest entry in the series, and I'll admit to having skipped it on that basis. After watching a few clips, Shirley was happy to move on to Tales of Monkey Island.

I have a general idea of how it goes from having used YouTube longplays as background noise while typing or pairing socks or working on resumes, and skipping around to watch the FMVs. Whatever else it does, it follows Curse of Monkey Island in committing to its synthetic world of pirates, anachronism, and buccaneering goofiness. The plot twist involving the identity of recurring character Herman Toothrot was so unwelcome that nobody complained when Tales of Monkey Island altogether omitted mention of it (and haven't made a peep about Return to Monkey Island officially reversing it), but it's proof that the writers were at least attentive to the mythos and internal logic of Guybrush's world.

Incidentally: Escape From Monkey Island's main villain is a crooked real estate developer intent on buying up all the land in the Caribbean, driving out its pirates, and converting it into a tourist trap of gift shops and tacky theme restaurants, all pirate-themed. Demolishing the authentic and replacing it with a sanitized, profitable simulacrum—and we see the hypnotic power of the medium by the player's disposition to accept the message as it is delivered, without stopping to ponder that we're talking about "authenticity" in the context of an ahistorical pastiche of a bygone era based on a Disney theme park ride.

In 2009, Telltale Games (under license from LucasArts) released Tales of Monkey Island. Ron Gilbert and Secret of Monkey Island/Monkey Island 2 co-designer Dave Grossman were involved in its production, but apparently in a very limited capacity—probably they acted more as consultants than anything else. Tales does justice enough to the Monkey Island legacy, though probably only a handful of fans count it as their favorite. Given Telltale's penchant for melodrama, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Tales takes itself more seriously than any other game in the series, despite the on-brand abundance of quips and gags.

Even if the "flavor" of Tales has little in common with the Gilbert-era games (except by way of imitation), and its puzzles are substantially less involved and tricky than in the LucasArts games, I'd say it all works well enough. And as obvious as the solution to its final "puzzle" is, there's something lovely about how it conclusively grounds Guybrush and his then-probably final adventure in terms of his partnership with Elaine.

For the third consecutive game since Gilbert's "it's all just pretend!" ending, Monkey Island reaffirms that it isn't the story of a kid letting his imagination run amok in an amusement park. Even though Tales goes father in dramatizing its narrative than Curse or Escape, all three of the post-Gilbert titles tacitly give the player permission to make an emotional investment and allot brain space to their world on the basis of their fidelity to its conceit. In this regard they're like the Disney theme park actors who stay consistently in character to sustain the fantasy experience. The actress playing Snow White never winks and answers "as long as they're paying me for it" when a little girl asks her if she's really Snow White.

In the early 2010s, Gilbert began making noises about wanting Disney (which purchased Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries in 2012) to give or sell Monkey Island back to him. "I would love to get the rights back to Monkey Island and be able to really make the game I want to make," he told Eurogamer. In 2013, he posted an entry on his blog titled "If I Made Another Monkey Island." One item stands out from the rest:

All the games after Monkey Island 2 don't exist in my Monkey Island universe. My apologies to the all talented people who worked on them and the people who loved them, but I'd want to pick up where I left off. Free of baggage. In a carnival. That doesn't mean I won't steal some good ideas or characters from other games. I'm not above that.

As you might imagine, this paragraph had Monkey Island fans chattering and wringing their hands after Return to Monkey Island's surprise announcement earlier this year. Sure, the series' creator bumping Escape From Monkey Island from the canon wouldn't be that much of a loss—but Curse of Monkey Island was great! And Tales of Monkey Island had its moments, and you had to admit there was a lot of potential to build on its ending. Was everything that had come after the "Guybrush & Chuckie chase each other through the amusement park" ending of Monkey Island 2 about to be stricken from the record?

Let's back up a sec and talk about 2017's Thimbleweed Park, Gilbert's Kickstarter-funded point n' click game. (I was about to say it was the first he'd worked on since contributing to Day of the Tentacle in 1993, but it seems he worked on a few during his time as co-founder and boss of "Fun for the Whole Family" Hulabee Entertainment. It would be more accurate to say that Thimbleweed Park was the first non-kiddie point n' click game Gilbert had worked on since Day of the Tentacle.) [Postscript: Taras T brings to my attention Gilbert's 2013 game The Cave. God I'm out of the loop.]

We don't need to say much about it. Long story short, it's a retro adventure styled after Twin Peaks. A couple of federal agents show up to investigate a murder in an eccentric small town lousy with secrets. Despite having a sense of humor, it's a much more straight-faced affair than Monkey Island. As the game progresses, the mysteries deepen, the tension heightens, the drama approaches a pitch of intensity—and then Gilbert does the Monkey Island 2 ending again.

Thimbleweed Park's grand revelation is that it is, in fact, just a video game. "We're all living in a simulated reality!" shouts the character built up as the primary antagonist. (I'm not sure if this is the actual dialogue; I'm not looking it up.) And so the only thing to do is manipulate the system from the inside so that the game-world is deleted and nobody has to proceed through the endless purgatorial loop of enacting their programming again and again, blah blah blah and blah.

If we agree that Monkey Island 2's amusement park ending was a satisfying conclusion, it's because Monkey Island 2 was primarily a comedy that deflated its own dramatic tension at reliable intervals. Thimbleweed Park is a bit off-kilter, but on the whole it presents itself more of an earnest but weird detective story than an adventure comedy. It takes the player in, impressing on her the seriousness of its narrative's stakes, and asks her to let herself become immersed in its world, invested in the story's outcome, and interested in the resolution of its mysteries. And then in the final act, it shouts "BABA BOOEY BABA BOOEY" and hangs up the phone.

"What did you expect?" Thimbleweed Park asks us. "This is just a video game. What truths were you hoping to discover here?"

I mean—it isn't wrong, but after spending something like twenty hours banging my head against unforgiving old-school point n' click puzzles to arrive at that point, I was rather hoping for a more satisfying payoff. It would be a stretch to say that I felt insulted, but I certainly was annoyed when the ending punked me in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't engaged with Thimbleweed Park on its own terms. 

Like I said: it reminded me why I made the decision some years back to seriously curtail the amount of time I spend playing video games. Perhaps my memory needed refreshing on that point.

So: Return to Monkey Island.

I wasn't expecting anything groundbreaking from a point n' click adventure released three decades after the genre's peak, but I had two fairly modest hopes for Gilbert's unexpected return to the series:

One: I hoped it would be a decent point n' click adventure with reasonably challenging puzzles and a good sense of humor.

Two: I hoped Gilbert had gotten the impulse to sucker-punch players with a last-minute ontological twist out of his system with Thimbleweed Park.

We'll have to do another plot summary here. Bear with me; I'll try to cover only the important stuff and make it quick. Remember that this is the Monkey Island sequel the series' long-absent creator craved to make, and which longtime fans had been curious about for the better part of three decades.

As Gilbert promised, Return to Monkey Island begins with two kids in a carnival. They look like little Guybrush and Chuckie picking up right where Monkey Island 2 left off—but no, that's wrong. We're not watching little Guybrush and his weird brother Chuckie. They were just playing pretend, reenacting the ending of Monkey Island 2 together. Chuckie isn't Guybrush's brother, but just one of his friends. And little Guybrush isn't Guybrush Threepwood at all—he's his son, Boybrush.

After parting ways with Chuckie, Boybrush sits beside his middle-aged father on a bench and listens eagerly to the story of the time he finally discovered the actual Secret of Monkey Island.

This has been a running joke ever since Monkey Island 2: nobody's sure exactly what the titular secret of the first game was supposed to be. (It's funny: long before I played Monkey Island, I asked the same question about The Secret of Mana.) Gilbert knows that advertising Return of Monkey Island as the game where the secret will finally be divulged would leave fans thunderstruck.

Keep in mind that Monkey Island has been a cult series for years now, and most of the people who preordered it sight unseen are probably in their thirties and forties. This isn't a general audience title. Gilbert made Return to Monkey Island for dedicated fans who've already played all the other games—or at least the ones he made.

First: the nostalgia bomb. A noticeably older Guybrush (but not yet quite as old as the version of him sitting on the park bench) returns to Melee Island, and reminisces about his first adventure there at every turn. But it's true that you never can go home again. The filthy, grog-swilling pirate leaders Guybrush tried to impress in his first adventure have been ousted by a trio of super-hip, super-serious, super-accomplished upstarts (almost certainly a disguised comment on how video games have become a big and serious business presided over by a very different breed of developer). The Voodoo Lady is about to go out of business because the younger generation of pirates finds "dark magic" more efficient and effective than old-school voodoo (very probably a veiled reference to the technological paradigm shift between 1990–91 and 2022). Elaine no longer sits in the governor's mansion; now she heads a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading scurvy awareness. Everyone breaths a sigh of relief when Gilbert chooses not to annul their post-Monkey Island 2 marriage.

Guybrush is preoccupied with finding the Secret of Monkey Island because, well, he just really wants to. LeChuck, who's docked at Melee and preparing to set sail when Guybrush lands, is also determined to find the Secret—but only out of spite. He just wants to deny Guybrush the victory of finding it himself.

Some stuff happens. Guybrush can't muster a vessel and crew of his own, so he disguises himself as a zombie and gets himself enlisted as a deck swab on LeChuck's ship. LeChuck throws him overboard after he blows his own cover. He washes up on Monkey Island, and forms an uneasy alliance with the hip pirate leaders, who are also after the Secret. After outmaneuvering both LeChuck the new pirate leaders, Guybrush comes into possession of the map that shows the location of the Secret—it's back on Melee Island!

With Elaine's help, Guybrush repairs the dashed remains of his ship from the first game (more nostalgia), reaches Melee Island while LeChuck and the pirate leaders are engaged in a pitched sea battle, and finds the Secret in the Voodoo Lady's shop. Or, rather, he finds the safe containing the secret, which requires five keys to unlock.

So now it's Monkey Island 2 redux: Guybrush sales around the Caribbean, solving puzzles, gathering the keys, and carelessly leaving a swath of destruction in his wake as his obsession with the Secret propels him inexorably forward. He collects all five keys! He opens the safe!

It contains another locked box that he can't get open!

LeChuck and the pirate leaders, having arrived at a truce (but planning to betray each other at the first opportunity), ambush Guybrush and take the box back to Monkey Island! You see, there's a "power spot" in a cavern beneath the island, and the box can only be opened there!

Guybrush and Elaine race to Monkey Island! Once there, Elaine confronts Guybrush about his obsession with finding the Secret—and is surprisingly gentle about it, given that she's personally witnessed and been affected by the damage he's wrought throughout his quest. She's mostly concerned that the Secret, whatever it turns out to be, can't possibly live up to Guybrush's expectations. (I feel that metatextual foreshadowing works best when it isn't so blatant, but what do I know?)

"Be careful what you wish for," she says. (More foreshadowing with a wink-wink to the player.)

Guybrush chases LeChuck and the pirate leaders deep beneath the island's surface! LeChuck and the pirate leaders come to blows! The tension mounts as Guybrush draws nearer and nearer to a final confrontation with his nemesis! LeChuck opens the final gate and disappears inside! The underground tunnels begin to collapse! Guybrush solves the last puzzle (which I'm told is a recreation of the anti-piracy doohickey included with Monkey Island 2) and follows LeChuck and the Secret...!

...And steps into the back alley on Melee Island, the very same place to which the elevator in the Dinky Island tunnels took him back in Monkey Island 2. An animatronic rat slides back and forth on a track. The figure of a bird dangles from a string above, mechanically flapping its wings.

"Oh no," says Guybrush. "Not yet."

Guybrush steps onto the village main street, where series mainstay Stan the salesman waits for him. "It's closing time and everyone wants to go home," says Stan, while animatronic versions of the game's characters go through their motions and warble recorded dialogue in the vicinity. A dotted line designating a visitor's path leads from one part of the attraction to the next.

Stan gives Guybrush his keys and walks off, asking him to shut off the lights and lock up when he's done. Elaine stands at the portal to low street, and asks Guybrush if he's ready to go.

The world of Monkey Island is apparently a theme park attraction after all—apparently not so much a ride as an elaborate pirate-themed escape room, or an interactive performance/art installation like Omega Mart or Sleep No More—one that Guybrush has apparently been visiting for years. Apparently he's a career flooring inspector who still enjoys taking the ride and losing himself in its world from time to time. Maybe he works there, since Stan hands him the keys to the park. Maybe Elaine works there, too. Or maybe not.

There's a lot of ambiguity here. We won't peel back all the layers here, but it will suffice to say that they're impressively dense and evince much more aforethought than Monkey Island 2's conclusion. We find Exhibit A right at the beginning: when Boybrush and Chuckie are acting out the end of Monkey Island 2, they're in the Big Whoop carnival.

"Okay," the Monkey Island veteran thinks, "it's picking up at the precise moment where Monkey Island 2 left off."

Only it doesn't. Chuckie and little Guybrush only pretend that Chuckie has lightning coming out of his eyes. They also pretend that the middle-aged couple they're following are their parents. Once they're asked to knock it off, the kids quit their game, and their surroundings change to something a lot more like Monkey Island's usual setting.

Which means—okay. Boybrush and Chuckie were pretending to be little Guybrush and Chuckie emerging from the Dinky Island tunnels into a twentieth-century carnival where all was perhaps not what it seemed, when in reality maybe they're in the pre-industrial Caribbean in which the story was set before the twist ending. But also Guybrush is maybe a flooring inspector who reminisces about past visits to a modern pirate-themed amusement park, one of which was maybe seen in Monkey Island 2, which Boybrush and Chuckie are reenacting in what's either the Caribbean of Pirate Times or a kind of low-tech renaissance faire-style theme park. Maybe.

All of this amounts to the status of Monkey Island's world becoming a multiple-choice affair. Is it a straightforward, single-layer fiction, a fiction embedded in a fiction, or some combination of the two? The game openly gives the player its blessing to pick whichever one he most prefers.

Return to Monkey Island's ending sequence is interactive, so several different things can be done. Most choices affect dialogue trees and the determination of which of several brief tableaux gets displayed at the every end. One possible action is grabbing a key from one of the animatronic figures and opening the box containing the Secret of Monkey Island.

Here it is:

Boybrush complains that the ending to his old man's story is stupid and doesn't make any sense. "You're terrible at endings!"

"I thought you liked silly endings," Guybrush answers.

"Every time you tell the story, the ending gets stranger and stranger," Elaine says, approaching the bench where her husband and son are seated. She suggests they go down to the dock to watch the galleon head out. Boybrush runs off. Elaine whispers to Guybrush that she found the map to the lost treasure of Mire Island! What an adventure that's going to be!

(So maybe they are pirates after all!—which would mean Guybrush is a pirate who pretends he's a flooring inspector pretending to be a pirate. Or maybe she's talking about another fun theme park attraction they can explore together! Tick whichever box feels right to you.) 

She follows Boybrush offscreen. Guybrush remains on the bench, alone with his memories. Speaking personally, I find the mood...odd. Guybrush seems a little touched. In the head, I mean.

I enjoyed playing Return to Monkey Island—enough that I burned through it in ten hours across two nights. Though I'm not interested in writing a general review, I'll list three things that left me feeling cold, just to get them off my chest.

1.) The game was rushed. Clearly. All three of the new islands seem half-developed, and Terror Island is glaringly unfinished. There was supposed to be a fourth new island, the rudiments of which are accessible during a second playthrough. A sign reads: "This island was cut due to time issues. Please get a glimpse of what might have been." Tellingly, Gilbert & co. only took pains to flesh out the two locations from the original Secret of Monkey Island. Melee Island was recreated almost screen for screen.

2.) Elaine acts...strangely. It's my understanding that Gilbert liked her best when she thought of Guybrush as an immature idiot with whom she'd never, ever get back together. He doesn't altogether reverse their evolution into a swashbuckling power couple, but he gets his licks in by flattening them out. Elaine in particular gets the rolling pin. The post Gilbert-games depict her more or less as a Strong Female Character who wears the pants in the relationship and takes control of the Big Picture, implicitly trusting her husband to keep up by virtue of his proven resourcefulness and inexplicable dumb luck. Here she's a blandly supportive side character who treats Guybrush rather more like a little brother or invalid who needs to be indulged and babysat. (Of course, that's just my feeling.)

3.) Here's the big one: Return to Monkey Island lacks a climax. Four out of five of the previous Monkey Island games conclude with final puzzle that must be solved while LeChuck chases you around, throwing off your concentration and bumping you into another screen. (Escape From Monkey Island also ended with a Guybrush vs. LeChuck event, but it was a lot stupider.) But here, Guybrush never gets the chance. LeChuck disappears with the MacGuffin through a sort of mystical gate well ahead of Guybrush. You solve the puzzle to open the gate and follow LeChuck, and the game ends. The secondary antagonists all disappear in the meantime.

Curse of Monkey Island's rather sparse final act was the result of time and/or budget constraints. I think that this time, the anticlimax was by design: defying expectations by substituting the sixth iteration of "Guybrush kicks butt" with "Guybrush solves a dial-a-pirate puzzle in an empty room and then the ride's over." It's like the ending of The Sopranos all over again! Maybe. Kind of. I really can't decide.

I'd have probably saved myself the trouble of writing all of this (and copying so many screenshots) if I weren't so fascinated by some fans' reaction to Return to Monkey Island's ending. You can read this collection of comments from Reddit to see what I mean. When I said earlier the game's ending inspired despair and angst, I wasn't joking.

• At the age that I'm at now, viewing life through the distorted lens of nostalgia, I feel like everything has become either about disappointment or letting go. I had been holding on to the Secret of Monkey Island™ for so long that I forgot to live. Meanwhile, everyone else involved with these games did. Life passed me by. Now I feel broken and empty.

• In the end it felt like Ron doesnt wanted the players to enjoy not only the game but the whole series, blaming them for being "too much" into MI, telling how they should've been grown in 30 years and that its time to move on...but thats not the point of games...I mean, I can play a game to enjoy some free time as a Mighty Pirate once every 10 years (30 for this filler) and I have to feel a guilty dumbass about that? Like it was my fault for being too curious about YOUR game

• Idk, I have a monkey island shaped hole in my heart right now. Dunno if it's the expectations I had, or just generally feeling like the game is missing, well, a lot. Just expected more I guess, not necessarily better, but definitely more. [...] Gutted atm tbh.

• i was already on the fence about the weird explanation at the start for the ending of Revenge but I pushed on. As previously stated, I enjoyed Return until the ending where it made me feel like all of my efforts was a waste, left me unfulfilled, and scratching my head saying "WTF?!"
This game didn't offer us anything new, other than growing up and becoming accustomed to disappointment.
• The fucking ending is just Thimbleweed Park all over again. Fuck Ron Gilbert, he just can't help himself, can he? Couldn't accept that nobody but him liked the ending he wanted for Monkey Island 2, so now he's shoehorned exactly the kind of lame Meta cop-out ending nobody liked in TP into this game. Glad I didn't buy it. Christ, what a let down. Curse stands vindicated, they were right to ignore his intentions. 
• I was kind of afraid of this after playing Thimbleweed Park. My unfortunate conclusion is that Ron Gilbert just doesn't know how to write a decent ending. I think they wink towards that with Jr. saying you suck at endings, which is like, yeah okay, cute, but saying you suck doesn't mitigate the suck. Man I'm bummed out now about an experience I was enjoying. I guess that's supposed to be the point though maybe? 
• The ending just feels masturbatory [...] Like a middle finger, 30 years in the making, for everyone who didn't like how 2 ended. Like yay, you trolled me, you got my $25 and you pulled the rug out from under me again. Congrats? 
• I think gilbert wants to clown on fans who care about stuff like lore in monkey island. By spelling it out that it doesn't really matter to him and it's all made up, in the most direct possible way. It's very meta, but for what it's worth gilbert's idea of meta seems to tear down everything in the end as inconsequential and pointless [...] It's up for debate if he has any business being a storyteller if his punchline is always the audience being idiots for spending their time on his stories.

Of course, there are just as many fans posting to say they loved Return to Monkey Island, thought the ending was beautiful and perfect, they cried and/or are crying rn, etc. Gamers are a people of emotions and of extremes.

You can go elsewhere to read glowing reviews of Return to Monkey Island and the comments of fans who are deeply grateful for the experience. I'm more interested in the people who feel betrayed and angry about the ten hours they spent with a point n' click adventure about funny cartoon pirates. Not because I share their hurt, but because it's curious that they should feel that away at all.

Their criticisms can be sorted under three heads. First: Ron Gilbert is an egotistical jerk. Second: the "message" of the ending degrades whole series. Third: Return to Monkey Island is a cruel joke whose severity is proportional to the player's investment in the Monkey Island series. All three intersect with each other to the point where none can be considered completely in isolation, but we'll try to examine them separately.

1. Ron Gilbert is a jerk. The player who thoroughly enjoyed her time with Return to Monkey Island received the game as a love letter from the series' creator to his fans. The player who felt burned by the experience reads it as Gilbert territorially pissing on a creation that he chose to walk away from over thirty years ago.

For the sake of argument, let's give the situation the most uncharitable interpretation we can. LucasArts subsidized the production of Secret of Monkey Island, published it in 1990, and retained the rights. When Gilbert felt he could do better as a boss than an employee, he monkey wrenched (heh) the ending to Monkey Island 2 to deter his employers from attempting to make more games in the series without his involvement. He founded the studios Humongous and CaveDog. Humongous put out a bunch of kids' games that probably few people have ever heard of. CaveDog published the influential real-time strategy game Total Annihilation in 1997, popular in its time, but whose legacy has since been eclipsed by Starcraft, Warcraft, Age of Empires, Total War, etc. In a letter to fans unlocked by completing Return to Monkey Island, Gilbert admits he's probably most widely known at this point in his career as the Monkey Island Guy.

[Postscript: Taras T says: i have to say there's some humongous games erasure going on tho, almost everybody i know who is around my age has played putt-putt or pajama sam even if they've never played any other adventure games in their life. Oof. I feel like Homer Simpson in the record store, circa 1996, calling Nine Inch Nails and Sonic Youth "no-name bands" after singing the praises of Styx and Bread.] 

In this cynical reading of events, Gilbert was not only compelled to revisit his glory days, but to seize back something he was once happy enough to leave behind. Even though he accepts that Monkey Island fans accepted Curse, Escape, and Tales as legitimate sequels despite their being made without him at the controls, existing only because they negated the ending he wrote for Monkey Island 2, he acknowledges them in such a way in Return that his controversial ending to Monkey Island 2 remains the last word, now and forever. The whole thing is once again a story of playing make-believe at a carnival, and that was the entire point of the project: Gilbert taking back control of his creation just long enough to negate the negation and re-canonize his fakeout ending from 1991.

Ignore it? How can you? This comes from the brain and mouth of Monkey Island's very creator. Besides, you saw and heard it all yourself. You spontaneously integrated it into your understanding of the Monkey Island universe and recontextualized the previous five games in light of Return's events. Like it or not, you can't un-process any of it.

Huh. I wonder: were there people in seventeenth-century Spain who'd read and really enjoyed Avellaneda's sequel to Don Quixote, and got upset when Cervantes emphatically discounted its events in Don Quixote, Part Two?

2. The ending cheapens the entire series. The fan who cried for joy at the end of Return to Monkey Island is most likely to say what a lovely and fitting thing it is that Gilbert should let them decide whether Guybrush is a pirate or an imaginative flooring inspector. The fan who cried foul would say that it trivializes the whole affair. 

Again, I don't feel strongly enough about the vagaries of Return to Monkey Island's ending to pick them apart or decide on any one interpretation, but I do believe that to explicitly announce that X, Y, or Z elements of a narrative are totally up to the reader/viewer to decide is equivalent to saying that X, Y, and Z are unimportant.

The film Inception comes up several times in Return to Monkey Island debates on r/MonkeyIsland. I don't remember that one so well, so let's use as an example another film whose ending is the subject of a lot of internet debate: John Carpenter's The Thing.

While I don't think there's any grounds for controversy, some viewers are firmly convinced that Childs is a Thing during the final scene. Childs' status is integral to the reading of the "text" as a whole, and that's why people argue about it. Someone who believes Childs is a Thing watches a different movie than someone who doesn't.

I think most of us have a hard time not feeling rankled when somebody says something egregiously wrong about a cut-and-dry objective matter. When I ask somebody to pass me a flathead screwdriver and he hands me a Phillips, insisting it's a flathead, a heated disagreement is bound to ensue. When somebody tells me that Childs is a Thing, I'm going to ask him how the hell he drew that conclusion and interrupt his explanation to tell him why he's wrong.

But if we do believe the final scene to be ambiguous, our interpretations and the evidence we cite for it matters insofar as we understand that there is one correct reading, and the meaning of the whole proceeding hinges on it. If the film were to indicate, or if John Carpenter were to state, that Childs' status is just a matter of personal preference, all debate must cease because the issue has been made inconsequential.

That's why the anti-Return crowd doesn't feel particularly liberated having been given Gilbert's permission to choose what they think the whole story consists of. It turns Monkey Island's world from something concrete in their understanding into something shapeless and ephemeral.

3.) Return to Monkey Island mocks the player for caring about Monkey Island. On this point I'm wholly on the side of the pro-Return crowd. If you feel hurt and insulted by Return to Monkey Island, that says more about you than the game. 

This isn't to say that there's no reason to feel annoyed or disappointed by the resolution. I sure was. But if Return to Monkey Island truly left you feeling "broken and empty," as one commentator stated, that ought to be examined.

Guybrush Threepwood isn't real. Monkey Island isn't real. When you played any of these games, you booted up your PC, took a ride, used your imagination, and went back to your real life afterwards. When Return to Monkey Island brought this to your attention, nothing about the situation materially changed. Guybrush isn't any more fictional than he was before, and he wouldn't be any less if the game hadn't gone meta in the final act. Whether he's a pirate or a flooring inspector, he's still a pseudo-person. LeChuck might be a ghost/zombie/demon pirate, he might be or an animatronic theme park figure, or he could be both—but whatever the case, he doesn't exist.

Thimbleweed Park wasn't lying when it revealed that everyone in its eponymous town are just characters in a video game. Nor does Return to Monkey Island fib when it gets to the end and tells you that everything you've just witnessed has all been fake—just a lot of virtual pirate-world backdrops, programmed automata, and rigged events designed to involve you in a spectacular fantasy.

(For that matter, sure: Childs isn't Childs or a Thing, because neither is real, and the events of The Thing never happened. If I get worked up about your theory that Childs is a Thing, the correct response is to tell me to chill the fuck out.)

Self-aware video games that contemplate the experiential dimensions of the medium or riff on its conventions are nothing new. Some are brilliant. Some are trite.

The Stanley Parable lets you in on the joke. Agency in video games is illusory; there is no spontaneity, just a manifold of meticulously programmed switches that activate predetermined effects—let's all have a laugh about it together. Shigesato Itoi's Mother games periodically break the fourth wall, and do so most memorably when the aim is to punch through all the layers of mediation and distance between the man who composed its story and the person receiving it through a television or Game Boy screen. 

Maybe that's what Gilbert imagined he was doing with Return to Monkey Island. I don't know.

All three point n' click adventure games he masterminded since the original Secret of Monkey Island end by punking the player. Return to Monkey Island ostensibly does it in a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful way. But it's hard not to feel less than flattered when the narrative depicts an aged Guybrush obsessively pursuing some he-knows-not-what at the expense of his own health and the wellbeing of everyone around him (he destabilizes a government, leaves an old man to rot at the bottom of a pitch-dark cave, gets Wally kidnapped and tortured again, screws over his own wife, etc.), who, in consummating his quest, "discovers" that it was all trivial.

There was nothing to find after all. What mattered was the journey, but the journey itself was the enraptured fancy of a full-grown adult playing pretend, mostly by himself, in an artificial environment peopled by automata. (Should we call it ironic that Return to Monkey Island insinuates that Guybrush's beloved Caribbean is, and always has been, precisely the kind of gimmicky tourist attraction that he strove to prevent it from becoming in Escape from Monkey Island?)

Unrelated Far Side comic

Again, some of this is up to interpretation. Return to Monkey Island provides a couple of conceptual escape hatches for the player who wants a reason to keep thinking of Guybrush's Caribbean adventures as "real," and consolations for the player disposed to remain convinced of the meaningfulness of the experience, artificial though it was. I suspect the sunnier outlook on Return to Monkey Island's denouement will be more easily taken up by the player who plays video games more as an occasional diversion than a habitual escape.

Perhaps it isn't fair to think of it in these terms, but here we go anyway:

I'll bet that the forty-year-old who played The Secret of Monkey Island on his dad's PC when he was ten, eventually got married and had a child, who volunteers as a Cub Scouts den leader, is a fixture of a local karate dojo, goes out on Sunday mornings with a watercolor kit, etc., and still sometimes sits down with his kid to play the latest iteration of a video game series he grew up with on the Nintendo Switch—I'll bet he's the audience member primed to experience an affirming yet bittersweet moment of nostalgia and reflect on the cyclicality of life and the impermanence of things upon completing Return to Monkey Island.

On the other hand, the childless single man in his thirties or forties with a job he's not crazy about, few IRL friends, meaningful affiliations, or personal pursuits beyond the time he spends in a cubicle or behind a counter, and who occupies most of his leisure hours at home by himself, absorbed in a screen—do we really need to wrack our brains trying to figure out why he feels pantsed when the game in which he's immersed, the one he's wanted to play for years, suddenly holds a mirror up to him? Look at you having a make-believe pirate adventure in a virtual playground! Got a little carried away in the fantasy, did we? Back to reality, mister!

The latter player intuits with total clarity the outlines of The Spectacle and perceives himself in relation to it during the shock of Return to Monkey Island's big reveal. The vehicle of his long-awaited return to a childhood fantasy world seems to accuse him of being a delusional weirdo who can't let go of his old toys. The palliative for his alienation increases his alienation, and yet there's nothing else he knows that works, that allows him the experience of purposiveness and something like belonging. This time it spat him back out, leaving a dark message about the arithmetic of a life given spurious coherence through the solitary consumption of entertainments ringing in his ears.

Is it any wonder that some Return to Monkey Island players should feel personally attacked by its ending?

If I felt attacked by Return of Monkey Island, it was my own damn fault.

I said before that Shirley and I binged through four Monkey Island games a couple of years ago, around the same time our relationship was getting serious. What I remember most about Monkey Island 2 isn't the epilogue, but Shirley beside me, freaking out during the chase sequence in the Dinky Island tunnels. My favorite parts of the series are the sword fights and manatee pickup lines, on the basis that we sat around scratching our heads and arguing over the right responses. We played the first three games when Shirley was still living in Francisville, and she moved in with me in Brewerytown midway through Tales; wrapping up the last episode helped us to get settled in together.

And so on. For me, the Monkey Island series can't be separated from my memories of places and of a person.

Something funny happened with Return, though. Shirley's PC couldn't run it, so I installed it on my laptop. Shirley has to get up earlier for work than I do, so she usually turns in before me. We played through the first half hour, and then she went to bed. "I'll just see what's around the corner and then call it a night," I told her.

I played for another four hours.

The next night, I apologized for playing without her, filled her in on what she'd missed, and we got back to it.

An hour later, she could barely keep her eyes open. Once again, I told her I'd wrap it up for the evening after trying out a solution to the seagull puzzle on Scurvy Island. Once again, I kept playing, and finished the game without her. Like Guybrush, I was hellbent on reaching the Secret that supposedly lay at the end of the journey, and willing to risk Shirley's ire to get to it as soon as possible. I am incapable of self-control where video games are concerned.

So, yeah, Shirley was really bummed to find out I finished the game without her, and the ending wasn't worth it. Art imitates life, and vice versa, but damn. Ron Gilbert got me.

Worth the $25. Will not play again.


  1. Well, while I never particularly cared about Monkey Island, there's something relatable in being frustrated at a game just rehashing an old twist again. When MGSV hit the player over the head with its big, predictable ending-reveal being about something the fans had known for years and a worse copy of a twist from an older, infinitely better game, I've probably felt just like those people from reddit you've quoted.

    Good point on video games being good if you experience them through and with other people, though. If there's any way to preserve and feel that magic again, it's probably exactly through that. Discussing the plot of Pathologic 2 or marathoning the Syberia series with my gf and just explaining adventure games to her is the best I've felt with gaming for years.

    And for someone who no longer seems to appreciate games quite like before (as someone who now transitioned into the less fun and more serious parts of adulthood at the end of their 20s I can certainly get that), you sure are good at writing about them. I'd kill for your thoughts on FF7 Remake.

    1. I have fun writing about video games. If I played them more often lately, I'd write about them more. But, yeah, there's more to life. Some of it's stuff I'd rather not do. Some of it's stuff that just seems more important. Etc.

      You're not the first person to mention FF7R. At this point I think I would do a writeup on it if I had any way of playing it. I finally have a TV again (or, rather, I'm living with people who have one), but don't have a PS5. Getting one would be asking for trouble.

  2. Seems to me like this game was a great exercise in leaving the past in the past. I’ve said before and will always say that nostalgia is best remembered not relived, because once you relive it it’s no longer nostalgia. I was never a huge fan of the monkey island games but I’m always a huge fan of sequels that commit to a massive reframing of the original work. Chrono Cross is good example of that in videogames but my favourite is, and always will be, what David Lynch did to the character of Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks with the movie Fire Walk With Me. In that movie a single line from Leland completely reframes everything we were presented with in the series, essentially destroying original perceptions. I could go on and on about that moment…

    As the other fellow said in the post it’d be great to hear your thoughts on FF7R. I want this for all the same reasons he does. I’m older, have stopped playing games a long time ago, have read all your FF (and other) articles and think your opinion on this is representative of a larger truth.

    1. I came around to really appreciating Chrono Cross, and like you say—I'm probably never going to play it again because I'd like to KEEP appreciating it. It was an audacious mess, and when I think about it I remember the good stuff instead of everything that was rushed, tedious, or just sloppy.

      I haven't even watched videos of FF7R in action. I'm pretty sure I know what to expect: a game ABOUT Final Fantasy VII. A multimillion-dollar investment in justifying its legacy. I'm open to being proven wrong if I ever get the chance to play it.

    2. yeah I hear you on that about not getting the PS5. I haven't owned a console since PS 1 (well, I did have a PS2 for about a week years after it had been released, but got rid of it real fast so I don't count that. Pulled it out of a dumpster for free so no loss there.) and intend to keep it that way. Videogames are the biggest time sink in existence. Maybe you could borrow one from somebody?

  3. "Ultimate Talkie" isn't an official release; it's the fan name for patching the voice packs from the Special Editions of Secret (2009) and LeChuck's Revenge (2010) into the original graphics to make versions that can be run in ScummVM or DOS, and fixes a few bugs.

    The CD version of Secret that was released in 1992 (not 1993) had some enhanced music but did not have any voices. Dominic was first cast as Guybrush for Curse of Monkey Island (1997). He would only have been 16/17 in 1993!

    1. Holy crap. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. I'll make a note of this.

  4. You are overthinking it. It's perfectly fine to be disappointed by the ending, but those responses were excessive even if they are dissatisfied with their life. Regardless, they are a tiny minority who doesn't "represent" the average long-time fans.

  5. It isn't that out of the ordinary. While the reaction of some of the fans is excessive, people tend to be emotionally invested in fiction and the "it was all a dream" trope is one of the most controversial one.

    Fan outrage isn't unique to video games or even electronic media. A somewhat related earlier example is the time when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 in one of his stories and a large portion of fans were outraged, immediately cancelling subscription to the magazine, some even sending angry letters.