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.
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.