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LucasArts' Secret History: The Secret of Monkey Island: Twice the Hero's Journey

30 Jun, 2008

My name is Corey, and I'm a Monkey Island fan. I suppose you are too or else you wouldn't be reading this. I consider the Monkey Island series to be the single best series of video games ever created. My first exposure to the series was in 1997 when The Curse of Monkey Island was given to me by my dad. We had been living in Turkey at the time and he had found an illegal copy of the game, along with many others, in a store somewhere in Ankara. I distinctly remember how excited I was by the game for no other reason than that it had, for its time, a fairly large install. Little did I know that mere months later I would have to install a full 250MBs(!) to play Broken Sword 2.

Playing through the third game in the series led me to discover that there had in fact been two previous titles. I quickly tracked those down and played through them. What a glorious year 1997 was.

What has really struck me as incredible over the last 10 or so years has been the immense replayability of the titles (yes, even the fourth.) I've probably played through each of the first three games in the series at least ten or fifteen times each. That's a lot! By now I don't even have to think about most of the puzzles anymore. I come back each time to laugh and to relive all kinds of great moments with all my favourite characters. I simply play through the games like a good movie.

That's the phenomenon I want to focus on. The Monkey Island games, starting with The Secret of Monkey Island, are like a series of great movies, and are probably more entertaining than most movies out there. This is due in part to the humour and in part to the characters that populate the world of the games, but what really does it is the story, or more importantly, the storytelling and story structure at work. The storytelling is so good in fact that I can say it was Monkey Island that first got me interested in the art of the story.

So that was my introduction. Now let's get into this thing!

Games get a bad rap for not being able to achieve the level of art. I beg to differ. The Secret of Monkey Island is a perfect example of video games as an artistic form. This stretches into all facets of the game's design. The art design is beautiful even though it's not rendered at a high resolution. The dialogue is snappy and witty, satirical and self-referential, and the storyline is not only entertaining, but expertly told. I suppose we have Grand Master Gilbert to thank for this.

The story begins simply enough. A young man, Guybrush Threepwood, arrives in a new land with dreams of greatness. He is going to be a pirate! He seeks counsel from a wise old man who gives him his initial direction and focus. Talk to the Pirate Leaders is the mission. They are in effect the elders of the community. They are the ones that send our hero on his quest.

Every great hero's journey has a quest. It could be said that The Secret of Monkey Island is twice the hero's journey because there are actually two quests over the course of the story. The first is a kind of personal quest in which Guybrush must complete The Three Trials in order to live his dream of becoming a pirate. The second quest is the classic 'save the girl' scenario. Guybrush is motivated into action by external circumstances (the return of LeChuck, and his subsequent kidnapping of Elaine) to complete the quest of rescuing his new-found love and proving himself as a pirate. What makes The Secret of Monkey Island unique in the gaming world is how it is able to combine such simple yet powerful story structure with an extremely rewarding game experience.

In The Secret of Monkey Island, it is the story that holds everything together. Take out the plotline and characters and all that would be left is a collection of mildly amusing puzzles that would hold little to no appeal.

The reason the story works as well as it does is because of Guybrush. Guybrush Threewood is instantly relatable. The way he looks and his general attitude and mannerisms suggest a fun and non-threatening personality. But at the same time Guybrush harbours deep intrinsic motivation. He wants to be a pirate, and by golly, he is going to be a pirate! But Guybrush's motivation only goes as far as that of the player. If the player isn't interested in the story, or more importantly, in the quest of its central character, then the game would never get played and the quest never fulfilled. Guybrush would die, waiting on that beach, only wishing that a player would come and control him so that he may achieve all that he desires.

The Secret of Monkey Island is played and loved by so many because Guybrush as a character is so relatable that the game is able to transfer his own motivations to the player. Guybrush Threewood wants to be a pirate and as a result I, the player, want to be a pirate too.

The game is able to keep this motivation going throughout the length of the game using its unique two-quest structure. It starts us off simple. You become Guybrush Threepwood and are led on a very simple adventure, trying to pass the three trials to become a pirate. 'Simple' doesn't even begin to cover this initial structure. It's practically as simple as any classic side-scrolling game of the era. Pass a level, move on to the next; rinse and repeat. But what the game does expertly is to slowly inject a more sinister and involving plot over the course of this first section.

We learn, through hilarious dialogue with myriad colourful characters, of the story of LeChuck. We learn of the fear he casts upon the inhabitants of Melee Island. We view incredibly funny cut-scenes featuring the Ghost LeChuck. It creeps in to the player's mind that this isn't going to be a simple 'complete the set mission' game that they are used to. A story is unfolding that leads right into the second quest.

Elaine is kidnapped and Guybrush must save her. But to get to her we need to lead our loveable hero to the mysterious Monkey Island. By now we are so enthralled in the mystery surrounding the island and the need to rescue the new love interest that it is easy to forget that the game started with as simple a statement as 'I want to be a pirate!'

What's interesting about this second quest is that the motivation is also much more complex. Not only are we asked to be motivated to help Guybrush achieve his goal, but we are now asked to place our motivation on the love between Guybrush and Elaine. This is risky in a game. If I, as a player, don't connect with that love story I won't be motivated to save Elaine and complete the second quest. Luckily the character of Elaine is quickly drawn with complexity and a great personality that is immediately recognized as compatible with Guybrush. It's a testament to Ron Gilbert's storytelling abilities that he was able to make this crucial point work so well.

What Gilbert is clearly an expert at is melding the story with the gaming. At no point do the puzzles distract from the story, and the puzzles are often whimsical enough to add to the tone of the story. And the story certainly doesn't distract from the gameplay. Rather, the story adds a level of depth to the experience of playing the game. It becomes more than just a game. It ascends to the level of artistic entertainment.

Compare this to Hideo Kojima's recent Metal Gear Solid 4. MGS4 clearly has the advantage when it comes to graphics and features. But the story, which it could be said the game has in excess, actually hinders the game. At no point is the story bonded with the gameplay. Instead we are 'treated' to 30+minute cut-scenes, most of which seem superfluous and overwrought. MGS4 tries to be both a movie and a game. This is impossible for any game to achieve. Instead it becomes a somewhat fun game run to the ground by a glut of really bad cut-scenes that form a tedious movie. It fails everywhere that The Secret of Monkey Island succeeds. It fails to have compelling characters that have any sort of strong, relatable motivations throughout the course of the ridiculously complex plot.

Complex plot is not a replacement for complex motivations. The motivations of each character are as simple as 'kill the bad guy.' Remember: Monkey Island has a very simple, direct plot. It is strong, and it works extraordinarily well.

If The Secret of Monkey Island teaches any lessons it is that games can reach the level of an artform by striving to tell compelling stories that are meshed within the fabric of the gameplay. The game should have motivated characters that in turn motivate the player to complete each task not only because of the challenge, but because of a vested interest in the success of the characters and the completion of a story arc. There have been a number of games that have come close to matching the Monkey Island series in storytelling prowess, but, with the hundreds of games produced every year, there certainly aren't enough games that can reach the Monkey Island standard.

Thanks for taking your time to read this horribly lengthy essay of sorts. If you guys like it I think I'll write up a similar treatise on Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's revenge. Until then, be seeing you.

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