There is an alternate, game-driven reality where the most famous pirate in 21st century pop culture is not Jack Sparrow but Guybrush Threepwood.
Both are good-natured and clumsy, and both have had to fight against supernatural enemies. Neither is a stereotypical pirate, each has had decent luck in the romance department, and the two share an appreciation for comic timing. And both are also original creations influenced by Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
But only one was as handy with a rubber chicken as he was with a sword.
Today, Sparrow and Threepwood are owned by The Walt Disney Co., but with the Johnny Depp-connected Sparrow lying dormant — aside from his robotic presence at Disney’s theme parks — in 2022, Threepwood has unexpectedly risen from the intellectual property limbo. The Monkey Island franchise, spearheaded by original creator Ron Gilbert, is being revived this week with the release of Return to Monkey Island for PC and Nintendo Switch.
Return to Monkey Island reintroduces players to the characters of one of the most popular and influential franchises of all time – the optimistic wannabe marauder Threepwood, the vengeful ghost pirate molester LeChuck, and the quick-witted swordswoman Elaine Marley. generally the only reliably intelligent of them all.
Gilbert designed the series for Lucasfilm’s then-game division, LucasArts, and oversaw the first two installments of the franchise in 1990 and 1991 before returning for the sixth. The first games encouraged interactive storytelling because they emphasized characters and focused on puzzles based on their personality traits. Challenges were mostly solved by having conversations and finding out what people were missing, apart from some brain teasers that relied on puns.
The Monkey Island games were among the most fully realized interactive texts of their time, building on the dense puzzles of Sierra Online games like King’s Quest — as well as LucasArts titles like Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” that preceded them – by emphasizing dialogue and twisting stories. There’s talking skulls, mysterious voodoo, dangerous liquor, and sword fights that place the emphasis on insults slung over action – think plenty of personal attacks with puns – and all of it makes for one of the more colourful, absurdist pirate stories to be found in any medium to be told.
“The early genesis of the game came from the fact that games like ‘King’s Quest’ were selling really well,” says Gilbert. “I didn’t like fantasy in general. I really didn’t want to make a fantasy game. Pirates felt like a nice marriage between those two things. It seemed like I could make a fantasy game without it being a fantasy game, and I read a book, On Stranger Tides, and it was interesting because it was a pirate book but with a lot of voodoo magic . That’s when it clicked for me.”
After ending the second Monkey Island game with a cliffhanger – one that The Return of Monkey Island attempts to answer, essentially bypassing the narratives of all non-Gilbert directed Monkey Island games – began Gilbert with the child-focused Humongous Entertainment, which he ran for about a decade. He says he essentially forgot about Monkey Island. However, those who were weaned from gaming in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t.
“‘It wasn’t until I started my blog,’ Gilbert says, ‘that all of these people came to my blog because they loved Monkey Island.’ That was a small moment for me.”
Any modern video game that places an emphasis on story, whether it’s the now Netflix-owned supernatural Oxenfree franchise or blockbusters like Sony-owned titles like The Last of Us or God of War, owes it to them finely drawn characters from “Monkey Island” where each interactive head scratcher was dedicated to building a world. Unearthing treasure early on in The Secret of Monkey Island is less of a solution to the game’s first major mystery and more of a story-building exercise that reveals that the Buccaneers have become partially involved in a capitalist tourism-focused enterprise .
“We worked at the company that made Star Wars and Indiana Jones,” says Gilbert of LucasArts. “That might make you think about the story and characters more than we normally would. I think of Monkey Island first as a story, then as a mystery. It’s about the story and the characters. The puzzles are used to advance the story.”
Released at the dawn of an era eventually dominated by first-person shooters, the first two Monkey Island games showed that gaming is at its best when accompanied by a robust narrative. “Truly meaningful characters that you return to have backstories,” said Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of Devolver Digital, the publisher of Return to Monkey Island, when asked about the importance of the franchise. “The first two games influenced a lot of game designers.”
These include those from Devolver, the idiosyncratic Austin, Texas-based company that makes games as diverse as Gris, a thoughtful, platform-focused adventure that explores grief and loss, and Cult of Lamb, a game , which combines hacking and slashing with community building, all in the name of critique of religion. According to Lowrie, Devolver had long had his eye on reviving Monkey Island, which had been dormant for more than a decade. While the Walt Disney Co. completed its acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, a Gilbert-directed “Monkey Island” seemed unlikely, as the creator had often said he had no interest in revisiting the franchise unless he did own the intellectual property.
But in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic would turn the world upside down, Gilbert was open to the idea, much to Devolver’s surprise. Coming from the 2017 release of Thimbleweed Park, a comedy game inspired by Twin Peaks and finished in a vintage pixel art style, Gilbert remained only one critical and crowdfunding success, the commercial one The game failed to go mainstream.
“It obviously didn’t sell as much as I could have dreamed of – millions of copies – but I was very pleased with the reviews and feedback from the players,” says Gilbert. Lowrie felt he had a strong relationship with Disney — the Walt Disney Co. declined to comment on the story — and he pitched the idea to Gilbert before securing the license. “I had a couple of restrictions,” says Gilbert. “I wanted it to start right after Monkey Island 2 ended, and I wanted the freedom to make the game I wanted to make. So we started talking to Disney. These negotiations lasted six to nine months.”
“I mean, I kind of wanted to do ‘Monkey Island’ in the back of my mind, but I never thought that would happen,” adds Gilbert. “I really didn’t want to do it unless I owned the intellectual property, mostly because I wanted to make the game I wanted to make, but Devolver approached me a few years ago because they wanted someone in Disney licensing knew and wanted to know if I would be interested in acquiring the license. I thought about it for a moment and called Dave.”
The resulting game reunites Gilbert with one of the franchise’s original writers, Dave Grossman, and sees an elderly Threepwood set on solving a mystery while grappling with the passage of time. As unconventional as a pirate like Threepwood might be, he’s portrayed here as something of an aging traditionalist, albeit one who still has an inept charm. The latter, says Grossman, is part of the enduring appeal of the Monkey Island games.
“There’s something about Guybrush where he’s both the best and the worst of all of us,” says Grossman. “He’s optimistic and has things he wants to do. He is always enthusiastic about them – he will go out and solve problems and get things done. We like that. But he also doesn’t care about other people and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. He’s sort of the bad boy without being the bad boy.”
Although Return to Monkey Island is a sequel to a 31-year-old game, don’t see it as a throwback. It refines the adventure game format and lets players instantly know how to interact with what objects on screen. And it eschews retro art in favor of a style that looks like it’s built out of paper, resulting in a world that feels full of movement. The look was created by art director Rex Crowle, best known for his work on the indie game Knights and Bikes. Crowle got the “Monkey Island” gig thanks to fan art.
“Rex sent me a piece of fan art 10 or 15 years ago,” says Gilbert. “This has always been one of my favorite versions of Guybrush because it was different and provocative. When this game came up and we decided not to do pixel art, I found this picture and googled who made it.”
But barring some modern flourishes and an overhauled look, the overall tone — one based on mystery and humor — is still there. And today, with the game, which is a collaboration between Gilbert’s Terrible Toybox, Devolver Digital and now Disney-owned Lucasfilm Games, Monkey Island sort of comes home.
“I used to go to Disneyland quite a bit,” says Seattle resident Gilbert, “because my grandparents lived down in LA, I just loved Pirates of the Caribbean. When we first started making Monkey Island I said to Mark Ferrari, the artist at the time, that I wanted it to feel like the ride, especially the beginning. It starts out as Louisiana Bayou and everything is blue and foggy. I wanted the game to feel like this. I wanted a game that felt like you were playing Pirates of the Caribbean and you could stop and hop off and play around.”
In other words, Gilbert wanted a game that felt timeless. And as Monkey Island enters its third decade, it’s proving to be just that.
“Return to Monkey Island”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-19/monkey-island-is-back ‘Return to Monkey Island’ revives one of the most timeless of pirate franchises