With a new Monkey Island game coming next week, we decided to round up some Guybrush superfans to talk about this magical, evocative, and hilarious series.
Chris Donlan: Years ago when I was in school, a friend of mine had Monkey Island on the family PC. I remember the PC was stored in the hallway and we used to play for hours and hours in the evening. My memories of Melee Island at night somehow intertwine with my friend’s house night as we were playing this thing. I wonder: what are your earliest memories of Monkey Island? When did you realize this was what you needed?
Victoria Kennedy: He was also a friend to me, or at least a friend of my brother. My first memories of Monkey Island are not really playing it, but seeing other people playing it. I clearly remember being so mesmerized by the music (something that to this day still gives me a thrilling rush of Dopamine every time I hear it), and also the colors. To put it simply, it really made me happy.
I then played for myself and, being quite small at the time, it gave me the really awesome feeling of an epic adventure that I had never experienced before. Being older (and maybe wiser) now, I think another thing my little self appreciated was that while he certainly had that sense of adventure, there was never a sense of a real ‘threat’. I could wander the Isle of Melee at a fairly docile pace without feeling the slightest worry that something was going horribly, horribly wrong. Hope this makes sense! What do you think is there about this series that makes it so endearing and enduring?
Cris: I think you got it all – the colors and the atmosphere are a big part of why this game is so transporting. In the early 1990s, it seemed incredible that a game could be so rich and evocative and also so funny. I remember the times when gaming broke the fourth wall, and it was always a real shocker: could games do that? They might make jokes about being games?
But perhaps more than anything, it’s that sense of belonging. There’s something truly magical to me about being on Melee Island at night – it’s one of the best places in all of video games. I’ve always been a bit disappointed that you visit Monkey Island itself during the day. Do you have favorite places?
Victoria: I also loved, and still love, how the game breaks the fourth wall! Hmm, as far as locations go, there are some pretty good ones to choose from. From the first game, the Scumm Bar immediately comes to mind! To see such a playful debauchery (maybe a strong word, but at the time that’s how I remember) with the pirate dangling from an anchor/chandelier with a toddy in his hand. It was amazing to me.
In later games, Booty Island stands out – maybe it’s because that’s where I got to see Elaine Marley again. When I was younger, and a lot of my friends wanted to be popstars or something, I idolized Elaine, as well as Sophia from Indiana Jones: The Fate of Atlantis and April O’Neil from TMNT. I also loved the area at the start of LeChuck’s Revenge, where the city is basically a lot of ships. Do you have a particular riddle that you still remember, for better or for worse?
Cris: It’s the structure of the puzzles that I remember more than the puzzles themselves. I really, really like Three Trials, because it’s almost open world. It’s a series of challenges that send you through Melee Island and the whole island provides the solution. I also like how it always subverts your expectations – easy fixes are never right. I also loved gathering the ingredients to get to Monkey Island – how about you?
Victoria: Insulting sword fight! “I am rubber, you are glue!” It was comic gold, and – mirroring my previous comment – I loved that I could “fight” without my actions ever having disastrous consequences.
I also completely agree with your comment about how puzzles often subvert your expectations. I’ve only played the third installment, Curse of Monkey Island, more recently, but there was a puzzle in there where you “duel” a banjo to get a pirate to join the crew of Guybrush. I love this logic! Are there any puzzles or locations you hope we get to revisit in Return to Monkey Island?
Cris: I play it now, so I can’t answer that! One thing I will mention is that I thought Curse handled the nostalgia angle very well – the desire to relive the experience of the original. If I remember correctly, the entire final act takes place in a theme park based on the first two games, so you walk through these dioramas of the previous story. Seemed like such a clever, Monkey Islandish way to talk about nostalgia? I love this game, even though I know Ron Gilbert is very depressed. Did you really like the sequels?
Victoria: Curse, yes a lot. The last two, not so much to be honest. The big chunk spent inside (can I add spoilers here?) The manatee in Tales also felt… gosh, I can’t think of a word for this one. But I didn’t particularly like this part. I liked Morgan LeFlay’s introduction though. What did you think of them?
Cris: I played 4 and I liked it, but I don’t remember Telltale at all. I think LeChuck’s Revenge really holds up, as a weird and scary mid-act? When you recently spoke to the developers of Return, it seemed to you that it might not be the last. Would you be happy to see the series go on forever?
Victoria: As with everything, if there’s a good concept that can be executed well, then yes, keep doing it. However, as much as I like, to like this series, I would hate to see it go stale and remain welcome.
When I spoke to the developers, they mentioned that they had discussed a game with Elaine in the foreground and Guybrush as a sidekick. I think it could be a lot of fun if done with the right team behind it. As I mentioned before, I love Elaine.
Ok, Donlan, aside from the lack of night tours, which island do you think is better – Melee or Monkey?
Cris: Definitely Melee. It felt like it gave you an amazing amount of freedom to explore, and that’s just hacking to the max. It’s like a little theme park. It’s probably my favorite video game island, up there with Wind-Waker and The Silent Cartographer. And you?
Victoria: I totally agree with you, I love how you describe it as a little theme park. It’s exactly that !
I also posed this question to the developers of Return to Monkey Island earlier this week. Dave Grossman and Return art director Rex Crowle also said Melee, but for two different reasons.
For Grossman, Melee was easier to write, thanks to the fact that it was more densely populated than Monkey Island. In his words:
“I think the best island from a writing and storytelling perspective is Melee, because it’s full of people. I learned that on The Secret of Monkey Island when we were all working on Melee Island and kind of having fun putting together jokes and stuff. And then the time came, we had to start working on the parts of Monkey Island. I dragged myself to do this for a little while, [and] I was like, ‘Wait, this is hard, because there are all the environments, and I have to make them rich and fun to explore. And then, nobody inside.
“[So], you’ll notice that there are notes that are left all over Monkey Island in that first game, and they’re there, because you needed someone to talk to someone to get things moving. And so I kind of stuck them. So from that perspective, and from that perspective alone, I think Melee Island is better.
I love the thought process behind these notes, it’s something that never crossed my mind before chatting with the Monkey Island team. I’m going to look at Monkey Island differently now, and smile as I imagine Grossman trying to flesh out the world for his players without losing any of the fantasy of the game.
Meanwhile, Crowle likes the “dark and mysterious atmosphere” of Melee. “[What] I like this, [is] you just don’t know if, as you walk past an alley, if someone is going to, like, just jump up and grab you and take you back there,” he told me.
My favorite response for this one, however, came from Gilbert, who, in a completely deadpan way, told me he liked the idea of Monkey Island for a vacation, following Grossman’s statement on the lack of people there.
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