Return to Monkey Island: musings on the ending

This post contains spoilers for Return to Monkey Island. And other completely unnecessary statements.

It’s hard to believe that the release of Return to Monkey Island has been and gone. Like anything that has such a big build-up, it’s over in a flash. In that sense this was the wedding day of all wedding days. It’s Monkey Island. It’s Guybrush. It’s the hallmark of classic adventure gaming back for an unexpected, globally-heralded, and utterly nostalgia-inducing completion to the story. Finally, after 30 years.

Generally, it irks me when old TV series and films get a reboot or even a sequel. So the unrelenting public campaign to restore the rights to Monkey Island did the same. I’ve always said that I’d rather Gilbert create something new than dredge up an old franchise. After all, I played the crap out of Thimbleweed Park (I might even prefer it over Return to Monkey Island, but that’s for another conversation). So while I was excited when Return to Monkey Island was announced, I was a bit wary.

And now? I’m so glad I played it. Not because it was a great game (which it was), but because it has such a meaningful departing message. It’s subtle, and it’s one of those that has to mature a bit in your conscious before it starts to really make sense.

Whatever Monkey Island means to you, this is history. It’s no secret that I didn’t play the original games properly until I hit responsibility-riddled adulthood, but the significance is not lost on me at all. It’s incredible that the final instalment has even had a chance to be made given that the opportunity has always seemed so far out of Ron Gilbert’s hands. But thank goodness that he grabbed it back, nurtured it, regurgitated in its mouth, and produced a finale so wholeheartedly worthy and meaningful.

Monkey Island might be done, but it’s been done good.

Returning where we left off

I wasn’t going to talk about the earlier parts of the game, but to discuss the ending I feel like I to address the beginning, too.

Return picks up at the end of LeChuck’s Revenge, where we last left Guybrush – or more specifically, where Ron Gilbert left him. That’s not to say the ‘non-canon’ games made by other people weren’t fun and didn’t contribute anything – and there are obvious references in Return – but it’s nice to see a series return to its original creator, and it absolutely makes sense that’s where the game begins.

What follows – the revelation that ‘Guybrush’ is in fact Guybrush’s son – surprised me. It turns out that the man and woman he and Chuckie catch up with are not their parents, but some random theme park visitors they have taken to haranguing. I found this a little hard to accept only because it seemed so clear at the end of MI2 that they are their parents. They scold him for running away. They refer to Chuckie as his brother. They say they were worried sick. But now they’re suddenly just two people who the boys were following. It made me think a lot about Gilbert’s original vision, and whether this part has simply changed over time, to accommodate Guybrush as the real father instead.

Either way, I suppose there’s a bit of creative licence at play here, and that’s okay. I like the idea otherwise – it’s a really neat way of bringing the whole story back round on itself, and I got that same uneasy, creeping feeling I got at the end of MI2. And with the kid being Guybrush’s son it adds an even richer layer to the storytelling; yes, it was still just kids playing a game in a theme park, but they weren’t playing just any game – Guybrush was acting out the stories his father had told. And this is the perfect way to hurl us back into those venturesome seas, because now – after a ‘false’ finish and a couple of non-canon continuations – we’re going to get the real ending.

Closing the doors and turning off the lights

In the final scenes of the game, it’s revealed once more that the ‘adventures’ had by Guybrush actually take place in a theme park. We then learn that this is where he works, and that most of the characters are in fact tableaux dotted around the park. At closing time, Guybrush is tasked with turning off all the lights – something the player must do, one by one, to complete the game. That extinguishing the lights on the final game – and the whole adventures of Guybrush – is so poignant. And it’s so fitting that the player is directly involved and in control of that.

In a recent and very enjoyable interview with @Cressup, Gilbert confirmed that this closing scene is the answer to the enigmatic secret of Monkey Island – the secret is that it’s a theme park. That’s what the secret was always intended to be, back when great minds were developing the first game. It’s no big shocker – it was already heavily implied at the end of MI2 – but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

What I think is interesting is that, had that idea been allowed to come to fruition in the 1990s, I don’t think it would’ve had as much impact. People were still enjoying the games, and this is a pretty harsh full stop. It was also a very different time – graphic adventures were hitting their stride as an exciting and escapist genre, and being told those adventure didn’t really happen might’ve been quite a bummer. After all, the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge divided opinions. The ‘secret’ seems more reflective of the team’s thoughts and feelings today than it did back then, when they still had so much more to explore and to give.

In terms of the secret itself, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that a fictional ‘reality’ may not be what it seems. When Buffy awoke in a mental institution and it was suggested that her life as a slayer was merely a crazed hallucination, I was both horrified and transfixed. The ‘it was all a dream’ concept is difficult to get right, but when it’s done properly it really strikes a chord.

In the case of Monkey Island, for me the twist was less of a shock and more of a sad, sobering realisation that we can’t stay here forever. It’s the Peter Pan effect – it was a fun ride, but eventually we all have to go back to reality. We can’t be kids forever, as freeing as that world is. So that’s it – now we have to move on. Sometimes that’s hard, and Elaine’s gentle coaxing for Guybrush to leave the theme park (and his adventures) behind really brought that home.

Around this point in the game I felt really quite uneasy, much like I did at the start. It played with my comfort of knowing the characters and their past. I even started wondering if Guybrush had imagined the whole thing, including the theme park – particularly given Elaine’s ‘mothering’ of him and his son’s confusion about his stories. What if Guybrush was in a mental institution like Buffy?! Deciding that was all too dismal, I went back to simply being sad that it was over, and that we, and Guybrush, would have to return not to Monkey Island but to our current lives.

Since I was left feeling so melancholic myself, on Cressup’s stream I asked Gilbert if that’s how he felt, too. He replied that, while he doesn’t feel sad about ‘finishing’ the game from a production point of view, in terms of looking back at the game as a whole it’s ‘probably a fair assessment’. He goes on to say that in some ways, Guybrush staring into the distance at the end of the game is him. It’s those comments that made me realise what a personal project this is – I mean, all video games are, but this conclusion to a series is as much for the team that worked on it as us players.

That sense really comes through in the letter that’s added to the scrapbook at the end of the game (posted in full here for your convenience). Written by Gilbert and Grossman before they started development, the note is a touching reflection of what Monkey Island means to its creators, and just how intertwined they are with their characters.

Every story has a storyteller

One of the things I love about Return to Monkey Island is the theme of storytelling. Guybrush sitting on a bench telling stories to his son is the perfect framing for his adventures. We felt like that little kid when we played these games.

While my earlier thought about Guybrush being insane might be a little overthinking it, it’s worth considering that he might not be a particularly reliable narrator. All storytellers put their own slant on things, and all their stories are framed by what they remember, and how they remember it. There’s a hint of that in the scene where Elaine and Guybrush walk through the forest together. Elaine almost seems perturbed by all the chaos Guybrush has caused (the destruction of the forest, for example) – to the extent that after that scene I was convinced the story would end with Elaine ditching him and deciding that maybe LeChuck isn’t such a bad catch after all.

That wasn’t the case, but what it has made me realise is that the way we see ourselves, and others, can change. At the time of The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush was a young, naive, wannabe pirate. Now he’s a husband and dad, and those adventures are distant memories. He’s moved on, whether he wanted to or not. And so have the team that created him.

Final thoughts

Escapism is important to me. The worlds of adventure games, films and books often seem more fun that the real ones – and that’s kind of the point, right? But that doesn’t mean the message at the end of the game is that everything sucks – just that times change, and we need to move with them. In the final scrapbook scene, the characters that we now know to be fictional are sketched, and only Elaine is a photograph. That makes me think that through all the imagining, Elaine was there. She was the real deal and his constant, throughout. I’m not big on love stories, but the point is that we all have constants, whether they are other people, or simply the things that are meaningful to us. Guybrush has grown and changed, and so have we. And that’s okay.

Related posts

Does ‘The Curse of Monkey Island’ let the franchise down?

Is nostalgia necessary to enjoy old games?

Return to Monkey Island: the letter

This is the letter, in full, that was added to the scrapbook at the end of Return to Monkey Island.

June 18, 2020

Development won't start for another month or so, but we've been thinking about this for a while.

It seems like a good time to jot down a few thoughts, and then stash them away as a sort of time-capsule message to our future selves, about what we're setting out to do with Return to Monkey Island.

Who knows, we might learn something.

Monkey Island has historically been a reflection of the lives of the people who made the games. The Secret of Monkey Island was about a young person setting out to pursue an exciting new career. As designers in our twenties, that is what we all were.

The sequel, LeChuck's Revenge, was in many ways about the difficulties of making a sequel, or at least about what one does immediately after something that felt like a great success but which went unnoticed by most of the world at large. Many years (twenty!) later, after Guybrush had gone on a couple of adventures with other teams who had their own hopes and challenges, we set out to make Tales of Monkey Island as a story about trust, and it is, but what jumps out most for us in that it feels like a story about grown-ups. Because that's what we were, many of us in our forties by then, with children and lives and a lumpy encrusted layer of experience.

We are well into our fifties now. We've had lengthy careers, we've made a lot of games. But Monkey Island still defines us to a certain degree, or, at least, in the minds of many we are Those Guys Who Made That Game A Long Time Ago. And it feels like there's some unfinished business there. When the opportunity arose to come back to Monkey Island, we were pretty much on the same page as to what we wanted to do.

Guybrush, like us, is older now, and he's had a long and reasonably successful career. But he is mostly associated with something that happened a long time ago, and that feels unfinished to him. The game is a goofy pirate adventure, the same as always, but also it's a story about trying to recapture the past, with all its alleged youthful strength and glory. Guybrush will both succeed and fail at this. He will sort of get what he wants, but it won't be what he expected.

I predict the same for us.

Ron Gilbert
Dave Grossman

Read my musings about the ending of Return to Monkey Island [****LINK****]

Would adventure games be more fun without the internet?

Ron Gilbert recently put this to a vote on Twitter. Like most situations when someone asks me a seemingly straightforward question – their expression slowly morphing from hopeful interest to pained dread and regret – it’s not something I can answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Back when I had knobbly knees

For a brief period of time, I did play adventure games without the internet. It wasn’t a big thing yet, at least not in our household. When I picked up Space Quest II (via a suspicious floppy from my uncle), that was my introduction to classic adventure games. For weeks I was happy to explore and solve puzzles myself, in my own little world up in the spare room – no interaction required except between me and the game. It felt very much like a solo experience, not something I should be sharing. Why would I need to do that?

As for help when I got stuck, it never occurred to me to look for it. I didn’t have any of the manuals that came with the game, so I didn’t know about the telephone helpline (lucky escape for my mum and our phone bill). If you’d said ‘walkthrough’, I would’ve pictured someone walking and talking me through the game. Or a fancy kind of wardrobe.

I was happy enough, challenging myself and taking a break when I inevitably got stuck. It was my game, and I was tasked with completing it on my own – anything else would be cheating, anyway. And knowing that about myself, even if the internet had arrived earlier, I couldn’t have looked up an answer without subsequently dousing my eyelids with Campari or whatever we had in the cupboard.

The friends I didn’t know I had

Conversely, had there been the online communities around gaming that there are now, I probably would’ve had a great time. Since growing up (or not) I’ve immersed myself in social media, forums and chat with like-minded people who love adventure games. I’ve been able not only to revisit old games, but to relive them with the added bonus of discussing it all along the way, comparing experiences and exchanging observations and bits of trivia, and even interacting with the developers. Imagine if Knobbly Kneed Kate could foresee that.

But even if those communities had existed, how rich would they be without the nostalgia? Back then we were making the nostalgia. It was all new. It’s impossible to know if social media would’ve enhanced my enjoyment or not. Maybe I just assume so because I remember those times so fondly. But they were different times.

I probably would’ve had just as much fun with face-to-face friends, but I didn’t have any who were interested in those games (if gaming at all) (violins). So it’s not really about the internet in that respect – just availability of like minds.

Read on for more not-answering-the-question

It’s an impossible question to answer, really. (DREAD! REGRET!) We don’t know what gaming would be like without the internet now any more than we know what gaming would’ve been like with it in the 80s and 90s.

Eventually I did get the internet, but my primary use was Yahoo chat rooms (The X-Files when I was being cool and hip, Ally McBeal when I was not), or maybe to read a little bit about the TV shows and video games I liked. I was still young, still forming memories, and I wasn’t looking for connections with the past just yet. Now that I’m older, I’m firmly in the camp that stubbornly avoids thinking about death by pretending to live in the past. And it’s nice to do that together, isn’t it? If I didn’t have that interaction, it would just be like I’m still stuck in the spare room being Knobbly Kneed No Mates Kate.

I’ve been talking mainly about old games that I’m replaying, but even with new adventure games there’s that link with the past because they haven’t really changed much in the last 30 years. Which makes me think we’d be having a different discussion if the question wasn’t specifically about adventure games.

As for Return to Monkey Island, an adventure game and one rooted in nostalgia, it’s hard to imagine its impending arrival without the growing fanfare on social media. A big part of its success will hinge on people remembering and talking about the original games in the run-up to its release. Expectations will be running high.

Maybe the question we should be asking Ron is: Would making adventure games be more fun without the internet? Ha.

Why am I such a completionist?

Since having the twins my life is crazy busy. I barely have a moment to pee, make a brew or cut my toenails (seriously, you don’t want to see me sans socks right now). Even when I’m not looking after two little scallywags I’m multitasking like a maniac, shoving clothes into the washing machine with one hand and hurriedly slapping a damp cloth onto fresh cat vomit with the other.

So with that in mind, why in the name of Mancomb Seepgood am I absolutely, relentlessly, doggedly, psychotically so intent on finishing everything I start? What’s that about?

I never used to be this way. If I didn’t have time, I’d give it up. If I wasn’t enjoying something, I’d find something else to enjoy instead.

But recently, to give a few examples, I’ve:

  • spent over 30 hours playing Grim Fandango
  • spent a year (and counting) writing a detailed game synopsis
  • renewed my library book 15 times.

FIFTEEN.

Flogging a boring horse

It would make sense to me if I was thoroughly enjoying those things, but I found Grim a bit of an arduous slog and ended up resorting to a walkthrough at worst, hints at best. So I wasn’t even really playing it, but just going through the motions to see it through to the end (now it sounds like I’m talking about a bowel movement). No one was forcing me to finish it, there was no big prize at the end, and there would’ve been no big consequence to face if I cut it off there and then (much unlike a bowel movement).

So what makes someone a completionist? Is it solely down to personality type?

In my case, I suppose one of the factors was that I was live tweeting my gameplay, which is fun, and I didn’t want that to stop. Plus it would be a bit embarrassing. Those tweets would be another thing I’d started and not finished, and very publicly. I was also enjoying the story and the artwork, even if the puzzles were frustrating, and there’s nothing worse than starting a story and never finding out how it ends.

As for my library book, I’ve not been hugely enjoying that either (sorry, Stephen King). It took some turns I wasn’t keen on, and I can kind of see how it might end, so why not jack it in? Beats me. I MUST finish it. I’ve renewed it fifteen times (FIFTEEN) but I must keep grabbing ten minutes here and there in exchange for a wee and then renew it again until I reach the maximum renewals allowed (20, apparently – they must get a lot of twin-mum readers).

I think I’m even more stubborn with books because it’s so visual where you’re at. I can see that bookmark, nestled somewhere near the back, and there’s no way I can pull it out. That’s not allowed. The bookmark cannot come out until I’ve reached the end.

The sweet spot

This is not to say that I finish absolutely everything. I don’t. Sometimes it depends how much I’ve invested in it. I’d say my sweet spot is 30-50% in. Once I’m that far through something, it’s past the point of no return. It would really pain me to abandon something at that point. Less than that would still make me gurn, but I’d live. And since it usually takes about half a game (or book, or film) to establish if it’s any good, once I’m in I’m stuck.

I suppose being into adventure games, specifically, means I’m destined to always feel that way. That genre is reliant on good stories and puzzle chains that span those stories. Quickfire genres like first person shooters are generally shorter anyway, and impulse-driven; you’re playing in the moment so it’s not really about an epic narrative journey or caring about what happens to your character. You can come back and play it again much later, and it won’t matter. So the genre is important, too.

Achievements

Thanks to Steam, I’ve become a bit obsessed with achievements. Not the kind where you finish a chapter of a game and receive a reward for doing absolutely nothing, but the ones that challenge you to do the most inane, OCD activities to be rewarded. And oh look, only 12% of people have achieved that one! This means with some games that I’ve finished I’ve gone back and played them again to do something silly but strangely rewarding, and tick that off the list. So what does that make me? An ultra completionist? Like completion laminated?

Small consolations

There’s also an element of having dedicated my scarce time to something and not wanting that to be wasted. Think of all the other things I could’ve been doing instead. Or the other books I could’ve read, games I could’ve played. So I should at least make it worthwhile by seeing it through, and being able to tell myself ‘I read that’ or ‘I played that’ instead of ‘I started it but then I gave up’. There’s just no satisfaction in that. So in some paradoxical way, I’m more of a completionist now than I ever was, despite that I have a lot less free time.

My life is so busy I can’t start and finish any really big projects, like writing a novel, for example. I can’t build something from scratch, or renovate our garage, or even bake a cake. So the small things like playing a game or reading a book – things I can progress when I have a spare moment, albeit fleeting – are where I get my satisfaction. It’s small wins or nothing, and I need that sense of fulfilment, even if it’s tiny, to keep going – and I can’t afford to restart.

So, are you a completionist, or are you sane?

More musings during a pandemic

I wrote this as a follow-up to my original piece, Musings During a Pandemic.


It’s 2020. Mum knocks on the door wearing a surgical mask she nabbed at the doctor’s. I instinctively clutch my spleen.

Every cough, sneeze and splutter sends people spinning around, fleeing for the nearest door – or as a last resort aboard Southeastern, holding their breath like they’re constipated. We could all be very good freedivers by now.

Sanitising stations sit at every shop door, as people try time and again to dispense the optimal amount somewhere between a nothing-drop that earns a disapproving sneer from the Morrisons security guard, and a panic-inducing tsunami of sticky goo that leaves you smelling like a freshly disinfected public toilet for the rest of the week.

After lockdown I go to my hairdresser’s for a much-needed cut. I gingerly pump the hand sanitiser and she springs up from behind the counter wearing the biggest visor I’ve ever seen. I wonder if she’s about to blast my hair into shape with a blow torch. She breathes a ‘hello’ and is instantly shrouded behind a mist of fog. I start to wonder if it would’ve been safer to leave my hair as it is.

There are now these do-it-yourself at-home tests for COVID. They’re called ‘lateral flow’, which sounds far too much like something that happens to men when they’re not positioned correctly at the urinal. The tests involve shoving a very thin cotton bud up your nostril to obtain a sample. You should do this ‘until you feel resistance’. That’s pretty far, right? How far is too far? I feel like I might poke an important piece of information right out of my brain. Maybe we’re all becoming dumber with every test we do. ‘On the upside, she’s finally free from COVID, but she’s forgotten every single one of her PIN numbers.’

It’s 2021. Mum knocks on the door sporting one of her M&S Floral Collection Special Edition face masks with matching silk scarf.

The coughs and splutters are barely registered now – it’s either a cold, COVID or both. Instead of wondering if someone’s infected, we’re wondering how effective the latest vaccine, booster or home test is, and whether mild to moderate crankiness is also a symptom.

Hand sanitisers are still there, but are invariably empty and forgotten about. We’re in a weird kind of limbo where this has gone on so long everyone is becoming apathetic. Masks are a mixture of on, off and slung around the neck. Alarmingly, the government’s posters showing how not to wear a mask suggests some individuals are wearing them across their eyes. Frankly, if that’s the case I think we’ve got bigger things to worry about than a pandemic.

Everyone is doing lateral flows now. It’s a regular activity, like making a cuppa or going to the loo. ‘Yep, okay, I’ve got you on speaker – just shoving another of these precariously thin cotton sticks up my hooter. Ooooooh! Carry on.’ I’ve done so many I’ve got it down to an art. Snap, squirt, poke, poke, mix, squeeze, drip, drop, wait. I could probably do it on a unicycle while riding down Oxford Street on Black Friday.

It makes me a bit sad how normal this has all become. Somehow we’ve gone from something very frightening and distressing to something still frightening and distressing but also incredibly tiresome and mundane. Mundane is better than lots of people seriously ill and dying, but still. I hope when our kids are grown they read this and there’s nothing in it that they recognise. No fancy masks. No gooey hands. No snap-squirt-poke.

Disclaimer: I know I’ve made light of a few things but I’m not trying to trivialise the situation we’re in – just provide some comic relief from it.

Happy 34th anniversary, Space Quest II

When Space Quest II made it into my hands through what I like to imagine as a shady exchange of floppy disks at my uncle’s workplace, I embarked on an adventure that sucked me deep into the world of exploration and puzzle-solving. In the summer of 1990 there was a big heatwave in the UK. I was the only kid on my street who turned paler.

Space Quest was nothing I’d ever seen before. This was different from moving a sprite around with keys or a joystick. Here was a big empty text box, inviting you to write whatever the hell you want. And I did. Left, right and jump were now ‘climb tree’, ‘talk to creature’ and ‘take a s**t’ (‘Would you want your mother to hear you say that?’) As a language nerd this was right up my street. Suddenly I could talk to my protagonist and suggest what he does next, instead of just blithely moving him around. We had a connection – it was me and Roger against the EGA world.

The text parser essentially meant I got to control Roger using my thoughts. It was kind of like telepathy. I was his thoughts. Kate thinks, and Roger does (except when he was being stubborn, but hey, I can identify with that). It was so much more immersive than other games I played – to the extent that I felt so, so guilty whenever Roger came to one of the many imaginatively unforgiving ends. I’m sorry Roger, who knew that was a hole? I’m sorry Roger, I thought the floor waxer was harmless. I’m sorry Roger, I couldn’t control myself with that alien.

Sometimes that guilt was shared – what with us being one entity, and all. Dammit Roger, swim faster. Dammit Roger, let GO of the rope. Dammit Roger, WATCH YOUR STEP! Needless to say, I never carried Roger to victory. Sierra’s unrelenting knack for ruthless deaths – together with an absence of the internet – meant I got stuck a lot. I was forever reaching for the nearest family trinket and lobbing it across the room.

But in the time we had, I understood Roger as an outsider. I felt like a bit of a nobody at school. I didn’t share many interests with any of the kids (PC gaming, anyone?) and when I won the triple jump on sports day because I was the only participant, it seemed fitting that Roger was similarly underwhelmed: ‘The promotion to head janitor was no consolation. (Especially since you are the ONLY member of the janitorial staff.)’ Hell, this dude got me.

And he got into my head even when I wasn’t playing Space Quest. If I had a difficult decision to make, I found myself asking, ‘What would Roger do?’ It certainly made me stop and think. Be careful before picking up that shard of metal. Roger was my guidance counsellor, my guardian angel. My life coach with a plunger. Just as puzzles and conundrums fed my investigative nature, so did Roger make me think outside the box. There’s more than one way to open a tin of tuna, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

A lot of this is in jest (no, really), but in all seriousness, when you’re a child (and an only one at that), escapism is important. Escapism with a ‘friend’ is even better, and Roger gave me that. He wasn’t real, but the game was so captivating that among the space station corridors, swampy woods with their intriguing creatures, and the ever-defiant foliage, he came to life and took me on an adventure. Not that I had an unhappy childhood to contend with – far from it – but it meant that for those few hours every night I didn’t need to worry about what was going on in the real world.

After I was done with Space Quest, it would be years before I returned to adventure games. But I carried Roger’s teachings with me (life is what you make of it; underdogs can make a difference; don’t enter a bathroom stall without knocking) and when I revisited Space Quest nearly 20 years later it felt like reuniting with an old friend. I was right back there in an instant, and this time, with the help of a walkthrough to avoid any more broken valuables, I finally saw the game through to the end.

Since that first foray into the Space Quest series I’ve played lots of adventure games – old ones and new. I can’t get enough of them, but it was that first encounter that will always remain special. I’ve had fun with the likes of Guybrush, Dave, Delores and McQueen, but no one will replace Roger Wilco and those halcyon days of exploring, puzzling and laughing.

Thank goodness for heatwaves.

This piece was originally written for The Characters That Define Us by Normal Happenings (no longer online).

Where did all the words go?

Uh oh, she’s off again.

I’ve been musing about the lost art of words. So much of our communication these days is through images – emojis, memes, gifs photos, film clips, you name it. Of course, I’m speaking mostly of casual exchanges – not professional or formal – but I wonder how long it will be before that’s acceptable, too. It makes me a bit sad that the art of words and conversation is getting lost among all the pretty pictures. When it comes to emojis I’m just as guilty as anyone – sometimes it just seems more appropriate, friendly, and easy to respond to someone’s comment with a smiley, especially if you’re at the end of a conversation or there isn’t much to say. A picture speaks a thousand words, so an emoji’s got to be, what, ten at least?

These days we’re struggling to express ourselves in a world that’s all about speedy, efficient interactions. Nobody wants to spend time in lengthy discussions anymore. Similarly, for anything to stand a chance against rapidly scrolling fingers it has to stand out, and images do that so much more powerfully than words. So it’s no surprise that we resort to visual flirting instead of going to the effort of composing a sentence. (Rein it in, Kate, rein it in.)

Nudge, nudge, winky face

Back when text messages really were just text, I remember the rise of emoticons – early ‘smileys’ made by combining punctuation. Even before that, you could find rudimentary versions in glyph libraries and font collections such as Symbol and Dingbats, but it never would have occurred to me to use them in a conversation with people. We should have seen it coming. Some smart people did – they got rich (some even tried to trademark emoticons – they didn’t). Pretty quickly, emoticons became smileys which in turn became emojis, and all of a sudden there’s this huge library of facial expressions to choose from, containing more squints and grimaces than we could ever hope to produce with our own faces. And now it’s not just faces – there are cartwheelers, zombies, mermaids, David Bowie and a multitude of suggestive fruit and vegetables. You could basically write a sentence using emojis alone – and I’m genuinely worried we’re headed that way.

Big on ambiguity

My issue with emojis is that while they’re fun and jaunty, there is such potential for ambiguity. The problem with images is that they are very much dependent on the interpretation of the recipient. For example, take the raised eyebrow face. Sandy says to Dave, ‘I tripped and fell on the subway.’ Dave replies with the raised eyebrow face. That could mean so many things. Dave might mean, ‘You did? That’s embarrassing!’ Or, he could be saying, ‘I doubt that’s true!’ Or, ‘You really are a clumsy shitbag!’ The possibilities are endless. Sometimes I have trouble with the sweating emoji because the sweat drop looks a bit like a tear drop, so I’m never quite sure if someone’s feeling (mock) uncomfortable or just very emotional. Even the most innocuous faces like the simple smile could be misconstrued as sarcasm or passive aggressiveness – which they often are (you’ve all seen Moon, right?)

Secondly, emojis still aren’t always rendered the same across different operating systems and devices. Even worse – sync your social media to post simultaneously across all apps, and you might end up posting emojis that look quite different on one to the other. While I don’t link any apps myself, I’ve noticed some marked differences – for example, the ‘surprise’ emoji on my WhatsApp looks more like embarrassment compared to Twitter’s version. These differences could be dangerous (and have been for some celebs) – though it makes a good case for not automating or syncing your apps!

What if ALL THE WORDS GO?

Some of that ambiguity has led to changes in emojis such as ‘geek’ (or ‘nerd’), which has been scaled back to a subtler (less ‘toothy’) image of a person with special interests. That’s less fun though, isn’t it? Does it really get the point across now? Isn’t the point of emojis that they exaggerate for emphasis? And then there was the controversy over skin tone, leading to a range of skin colours to choose from. And gender – so now there’s a male and female for everything. Again this strikes me as trying to make them more like actual people, instead of caricatures that reinforce your words. Is this paving the way for replacing words with emojis and whatever their successors end up being? (Don’t get me started on emotisounds.) After all, they’re increasingly used in place of text rather than alongside it. Will there come a point where we don’t need the words at all? Will we just liaise through a wall of cartoon faces? Is that the wind outside or am I hyperventilating?

Naturally, there will always be a level of ambiguity with words as well, but at least when we send text we know the recipient is seeing the same thing we are. But that doesn’t account for tone and meaning, which every brain will absorb differently. As a Brit with a typically sarcastic output, I run into this problem a fair bit.

The gif that keeps on giving

I’ve rambled on for ten paragraphs and I haven’t mentioned gifs or memes yet – and perhaps these are a better example of replacing words completely. Replying to people with an image is so common on social media now. My Twitter timeline is peppered with it, and I get it – an intriguing visual makes a user stop in their tracks – text involves reading, and we don’t have time for that. (Rein.) I’ll admit, though, that I enjoy the propensity for subtle humour and cult references that come along with it. If someone replies with a still from a TV show or film that you would only recognise if you were a fan, it’s fun. It’s like you’re in on it.

But another thing about memes is that they proliferate so quickly. The same meme will pop up countless times in a million different contexts, rendering it pretty meaningless and not attached to anyone in particular. Its original owner was lost about 100,000 users ago. No one has ownership of anything anymore, and I can’t help but think that would be less of a problem with words. Words don’t spread so easily, and people aren’t as inclined to reproduce big chunks of someone’s writing as they are to posting an image as their own. Images seem to carry more anonymity and less liability; a wordy sentence or paragraph is more unique and specific than a single visual frame. People can hide behind pictures, but words are more personal.

And you know, less lazy. (Reins snapped.)

In all seriousness, I know we need to move with the times. And we are mostly talking about social media here and, as I said before, not about formal communication. I think the turning point (and my descent into despair) will come when we see those lines beginning to blur. In the meantime I’ll continue using emojis and images in my conversations with people while trying to keep a balance with actual, meaningful sentences where it matters.

If you’ve read this far without slamming into a wall of fatigue, you might notice there aren’t any images in this piece. That’s intentional, to make my point. What it probably, actually, means is that this is my lowest ranking post, ever. *sweaty-faced emoji*

Nobodies: a zingy jalfrezi

(In case you weren’t aware, I rate my games on a Curry ScaleTM)

Like a lot of games, Nobodies (Blyts, 2019) sat patiently on my wishlist for a while. I’m glad I finally got round to it – it’s right up my street, if overnight someone dug up my street and re-routed it somewhere unexpected. Yes, another point-and-click. Yes, more dark comedy. Yes, another murder theme. Except, in this game, the objective is to cover up the murders. You’re Mr Cleanup Job, sent in to bury the evidence, sweep up the entrails and dispose of the body so that nothing remains of your peer’s grisly assassination.

Clean-up on aisle four!

Each assignment begins with the murder scene, prompting you to collect, use and combine objects in order to hide the body and cover tracks. Sometimes this is achieved through dialogue with other characters, but there’s not too much chatting. Make a careless move or reveal yourself, and it’s a restart – though a lot of the things you did will still be in place, so it’s not too frustrating.

TripAdvisor: 1/10

You can pass levels by doing the bare minimum, or be an absolute perfectionist and earn a full marks medal. No surprise which was me. According to the Belbin behavioural test I did at work once, I’m a completer-finisher. As such, the tidying nature of Nobodies really appealed to me. Even in games that don’t necessitate it, I cannot leave a room without closing cupboards, turning off taps and switching off lights. So I’ve spent a lot of time in this game making sure I put everything back in place.

If you don’t manage the medal, you’re given a list of your indiscretions and the chance to correct them. Again – I spent a lot of time on this game. Usually you can rectify your mistakes by picking up where you left off, but one particular level had me redoing the whole thing from start to finish because there was no other way. That’s dedication, but now I can sleep at night.

Sliding block puzzle FTW.

Story ain’t everything

The overarching narrative and individual cases aren’t that interesting, but that didn’t matter to me. I liked that it’s a fairly straightforward game. It’s a pick up/put down affair, as opposed to a big investment. The settings for each case are nice and varied (a hospital, science lab, museum, train, among others) and the puzzle chains inventive. Some ‘obvious’ solutions aren’t quite what they seem (vending machine!), which is a good thing, but there are no monkey wrenches either.

Nothing to see here.

If you do get stuck, there’s an in-game hint system, but I admit to consulting a walkthrough a couple of times as the hints weren’t always that helpful, and there’s no way to get a different hint until you solve that particular bit. Incrementally useful hints would work better. I also experienced one confusing moment where the game referred to a puzzle before I’d got there – but that happens in most adventure games I’ve played and isn’t a huge deal as a one-off.

While the gameplay is grounded on classic point-and-click mechanics, the overall style is quite modern. The scenery and subtle backdrops are really nicely illustrated and conjure an ominous (think Soviet) atmosphere. The music that accompanies your missions is perfectly suited, with a nice bit of sinister synth – it reminded me of the video game CounterSpy – and some of the sound effects are reminiscent of The X-Files.

It’s a fairly short game, and I remember being a bit surprised to suddenly arrive at the end – perhaps because there’s little narrative stringing it all together. But while I wasn’t gripped by the story, with everything that’s going on at the moment I found the closing scenes to be particularly, eerily, apt.

9/10

Nobodies is available on Steam, Android and iOS.

Four games to play when you don’t have much time (and one wildcard)

The Supper: sadistic speciality on a plate

Octavi Navarro | Steam

Love a top-down view.

I’ve long been a big fan of Octavi’s pixel art and, more recently, his adventure games. The eerie feels in his earlier games reeled me in (Midnight Scenes, The Librarian), and while The Supper is a different vibe, it doesn’t disappoint. This one swaps the chiaroscuro for rich colour and less subtle animation, but both those things complement the pixel style just as well.

Look at those gorgeous reds.

Described as ‘bite-size’ in the introduction and a little bit hand-holdy at first, I wasn’t sure I’d like it as much – but as the game progressed I loved the development into a gory, dark point-and-click. In fact it combines two of my favourite pastimes – cooking and the macabre.

I urge you to join Ms Appleton as she cooks up a feast for her customers, guided by a mysterious disembodied voice. That’s all I’m going to say in terms of the plot. Zzzzzp. It also worth noting that I was unexpectedly moved by the ending – something few pixel artists can achieve of me!

Delores: a blast from the park-a-boo

Terrible Toybox | Steam, GOG, Xbox One, PS4, Android/iOS, Switch

Cheese!

You don’t have to be a fan of Thimbleweed Park to enjoy this one, but it helps. I was pleasantly surprised to hear news of a spin-off from the 2017 game developed by LucasArts alumni. Then stoked to hear it was about Delores. And humbled it was being offered FREE to cheer up fans during shitty times.

It’s essentially a ‘complete the checklist’ minigame, initially conceived as a prototype for Ron Gilbert’s new engine; you play as Delores, now a journalist working for Nickel News, tasked with taking snaps of various objects and occurrences around Thimbleweed Park. It cleverly utilises ‘found art’ from Thimbleweed Park (so don’t expect a whole new game) and is broken up into six tidy segments – there’s no ability to save, but once you’ve completed a set of tasks you’re rewarded with a new set.

Tick! Tick! Tick! Ooh a speck of dust…

This was right up my street for a short game. I’m a slightly OCD completionist so I took great joy in looking for the solutions and ticking off those lists. It’s not too taxing but provides enough challenges to be satisfying (and highly addictive in my case!) The tasks are creative, and polished with the same dry humour we saw in Thimbleweed Park.

And that lovely soundtrack is back, mmm.

Kill Yourself: dark humour done right

Gugames | Steam

This dude’s unlucky.

Some might be put off by the main objective (right there, in its naked glory in the title) but hey, if we can’t look death in the face, let’s vicariously find the most inventive ways to achieve it. In all seriousness, I’ve faced some dark times and I still really like this game – the humour is very tongue-in-cheek, and the cartoon style provides enough detachment for me. The design is pretty no-frills but I like that – nice chunky pixels (noticing a pattern?) and a refreshingly straightforward point-and-click interface.

Damn.

The aim is to find all the different ways to top yourself, by combining and manipulating objects and features of the house, in classic adventure game style. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy game, though – there are some really great, challenging puzzles, some of which require very lateral thinking. After solving a handful, new rooms are revealed with more puzzles.

The mechanics are nothing new but it’s the concept that’s so original. A daring move from the developer but one that pays off. I’m fed up with all these ‘nice’ games – I’d like to see more dark and uncomfortable topics, provided they’re done right.

So if you fancy something a little different, I highly recommend this. There are 30 different endings – so you better get on it!

Among Us: trust no1

InnerSloth | Steam, Android/iOS, Switch (Xbox soon)

Best selection of hats in a game, ever.

This one has really done the rounds, so you’ve probably heard of it. I played it as a way to stay in touch with friends during the pand-ovid-ona and it did not disappoint. The game places you and 3-9 other players on board a spaceship, where one player is an intruder set on taking you out, one by one. Think virtual Murder in the Dark (not that it’s ever actual murder in the dark… oh you know what I mean).

Each crewmate has a list of tasks to complete around the ship (which themselves are quite fun!); the objective is to complete all of these, or expose the intruder before everyone is killed. If you’re the intruder, you get to stealthily murder each player (and sabotage things on the ship, which is less fun) while pretending to carry out your duties. Whenever a dead body is discovered, everyone can have a chat and vote on who they think is the culprit (with the imposter playing along, which can make for some amusing revelations at the end).

It’s brilliantly suited to mobile gaming, and the potential for cunning and flabbergastery is endless.

Green: I saw Blue kill Red in the engine room! It’s him!’
*everyone votes Blue*
GREEN WAS THE IMPOSTER.

I’ll certainly never trust my friends again.

WILDCARD: Rubik’s Cube

Okay, not a video game, but this is what happens when you watch The Speed Cubers on Netflix. (I’ve moved on to chess now, obviously.)

I haven’t touched one of these for five years or so, but it didn’t take long to remember how bloomin’ addictive those little coloured squares can be. It’s more than just a fidget spinner though – there are methods and mechanics to learn to get you to that final, tidy block. I don’t normally enjoy cheating (yes, that would be ‘cheating’ to me) but it’s actually fun understanding how the intricacies of the puzzle work.

My favourite thing about it is its portability. You can play anywhere – on the couch, in the bath, on the loo (what?) and it looks nice on the shelf. I’ve just remembered that a friend once dressed as a Rubik’s Cube for a hen do (slightly less practical).

Of course, it takes time and finger flexing to master the complete process, and none of us (that I’m aware) are about to star in The Speed Cubers 2. But it’s simple, classic fun from the good old days – and you don’t need a computer!

Musings on the word ‘geek’

A ‘geek’ used to describe someone unfashionably intelligent, or ‘un-cool’ – not far off the definition of ‘nerd’. Bullies used to say it at my school as a jibe – a kind of amalgamation of ‘teacher’s pet’ and ‘loner’. Whoever it was aimed at, it was always a negative and offensive way to describe them.

More recently, being a geek simply means being knowledgeable or very interested in a certain subject – be it a type of technology, film series, book franchise – usually at quite an in-depth level. Though still a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s shed its unfavourable connotations and even gone so far as becoming a term of endearment. Gone are the days when ‘computer enthusiast’ conjured an image of a mysterious underworld where only the nerdiest, weirdest spectacled beings sit in dark rooms and sniffle at the keyboard. It’s now cool to be into things like programming, for example – especially since the growth of digital media and video games. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with those?

So, great, the weirdos are now understood and have a respected place in society, and everyone can move on and be happy. But I can’t help feel this is one of those occasions where negative culture ricochets too far in the opposite direction. The word ‘geek’ is flung around so much that its become a bit meaningless. Far from the original definition, now everyone who has a slight interest in something slightly niche is one. And today it’s cool to be a geek. So many people are self-proclaimed geeks, proud of their niche interest and expertise.

I guess there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that – and for the record I don’t mind being referred to as one, in the right context. But I liked it when it was more of a rarity. It was a more subtle time. These days people like to label themselves, and let’s face it, sometimes it’s inaccurate. Suddenly playing mahjong or watching Game of Thrones makes you a geek. If you have a really in-depth knowledge of the history of mahjong, or say, the different types of wood used in GoT scenery, then sure, but just being a fan of something does not a geek make.

Not to quash the progress we’ve made in equality, but whenever I see someone declaring themselves as a ‘geeky girl’ it kind of makes me cringe. For a start, it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, matter that you’re female. You can be a geek regardless of your gender. You don’t need to specify, and by doing so it sounds like you’re making a point of the fact that you’re a girl, like that’s somehow unexpected, or a novelty. It’s not; it’s 2020.

Another phrase that had me involuntarily lifting my pelvic floor last year: ‘CALLING ALL NERDS AND NERDETTES!’ Why? Why quantify it with a gender? Why is there a distinction – can’t we all just be ‘nerds’? It’s all a bit cutesy and patronising. Women have spent a long time getting people to call them ‘actors’, ‘waiters’ and ‘tie fighters’ (sorry, ‘firefighters’).

I’ve slightly digressed from my original point which is that ‘geek’ is becoming a little overused. It’s like a lot of cultural changes – the fun part is the transition, when people begin taking ownership of a derogative word and it slowly transforms into a positive one. “He’s a bit of a geek.” “There’s nothing wrong with being a geek! He’s really smart.” It’s really great when that happens. It means people’s attitudes are changing for the better, and we’re moving forward.

So isn’t it a bit of a redundant term now? I’m hoping that in time it won’t be used at all, and people will happily refer to one another’s specific interests instead. But there are always new terms cropping up to single people out, and so the process repeats, and the whole thing will come full circle and someone else will be writing a blog post about how irritating it all is.