À la recherche de LeChuck perdu

You can’t go to Mêlée Island again. Apparently.

monkey3skullisland.jpgProust had a sponge cake, I’ve got a post from Richard Cobbett about how the comedy of Monkey Island 2 encompasses everything from the dialogue to the animation to the puzzle design. There’s been a good bit of Monkey Island retrospection since the special editions were released and Deathspank promised a return to form, combined with Diablo. Most of it with the same overall theme of “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

I’ve actually been surrounded by it for more than a year, since I was working at a studio continuing the series. And after sitting in on a couple of early design meetings, and reading posts on message boards, and reading reviews and retrospectives, and playing the special editions, I was forced to come to an unsettling conclusion: I don’t like the Monkey Island games anymore.

Inevitably, that’s going to be perceived as embittered grousing on my part, or at best an attempt at “I’ve outgrown adventure games” posturing. But I assure you that that’s not the case. There’s no shortage of people complaining and criticizing on the internet, because it takes absolutely no skill or intelligence to say something sucks. I don’t see the point in just knocking something, because there’s nothing to be gained from it.

No, for me it’s more like being the one person in the crowd who stares at the Magic Eye picture and squints and crosses his eyes until they water but just can’t see the dolphin that everyone else is raving about. Actually, it’s more tragic than that, since it’s coming from someone who used to be able to see it.

The Tales of Monkey Island series was in good hands, because the team was full of people who loved the Monkey Island games (at least, the first two). They could give details on even the most fleeting moments and briefly-seen locations in the games, where the names of the islands, governors, and various pirates weren’t just places and characters in a story but part of a collective consciousness. They had several favorite scenes — several of which I’d forgotten — and could explain not only what happened but how and why they worked so well. It was the best kind of egoless enthusiasm for the games, driven to make a worthy successor no matter what the constraints.

And for a while, I thought it was simply the case that I’d shared that enthusiasm, and then gotten it all out of my system while working on an earlier continuation of the series. But after hearing some people talk about the games, I’m not so sure. During the brainstorming for the Telltale series, and then again in Richard’s essay, people would talk about the “darkness” of the games. That the magic of the first two games was tied to the combination of anachronistic slapstick humor and a darker, more sinister story of ghosts, voodoo, graves, ominous fortresses, and menacing villains. Chris Remo, master of the concise encapsulation, said “I never really associated the Monkey Island games with comedy (I rarely actually laughed) so they aged well for me.”

Which implies that it’s not just that I can no longer see the dolphin, but it wasn’t even a dolphin that everybody else was seeing. It was a great white shark with rail guns on its fins. And powered by a Nazi brain. It’s bad enough not to be able to join in on nostalgia; it’s worse to hear that your nostalgia isn’t even as cool as everybody else’s.

I bought the special edition of the first game when it came out, and I played through it, and it was kind of painful. I could still vividly remember playing the original on my Amiga in college, and I could remember thinking that it was unlike anything I’d seen before. So it was frustrating trying to revisit it and being, well, frustrated. And annoyed. And simply not enjoying the early-90s comedy stylings as much as I had in the early 90s.

But the second one was always my favorite, so I bought the special edition for that as well, twice even. (They really should’ve labeled the iPad and iPhone versions better). And I played through the first fifteen minutes or so, and stopped, and I’m reluctant to dive back in. Partly because adventure games don’t appeal to me as much as they used to. Partly because I still remember some of the puzzle solutions, and I’d miss getting the “a-ha” moment of discovery. Partly because I used to be able to appreciate it as a series of corny jokes and goofy animations, but those don’t entertain me anymore. And mostly because I’m pretty sure my memory of the game is better than anything that could possibly be delivered.

(For the record, it’s not just nostalgia. Sam & Max Hit the Road has gotten better with age, and the animations of the Cone of Tragedy and Sam reading the robot instruction manual still crack me up).

So the comedy no longer works for me like it used to. The drama that other people seem to see has never worked for me. And I’m definitely not crazy about the puzzles; at one point I had the patience to spend minutes or hours working out some obscure adventure game puzzle solution, apparently, but those days are long gone. I’d almost think that my opinions were lining up with one of the writers on Rock Paper Shotgun, something I never thought possible.

But that’s not it, either. Paradoxically, playing through the special editions and not particularly enjoying them has given me a new appreciation for them. Nothing can survive that long on pure nostalgia; there’s got to be something that made those games (especially the second one) stand out in so many people’s memories.

That something, I think, is the sense of experimentation that comes from figuring out how to do something genuinely new: using a videogame to tell a story. Not to mimic a movie or a cartoon, not to use story as context for gameplay, and not as a backdrop for puzzles. Plenty of people (including, I believe, the guys who made the game) have tried to single out one aspect or another as the element that defines a Monkey Island game, but it doesn’t work without that overriding sense of purpose. The meanwhile cut-scenes, the insult sword-fighting, the dialogue trees, none of that’s as interesting or as novel as the environment that made them seem like good ideas.

Maybe there’s a lesson there: developers need to get out of their comfort zones and put themselves in situations that require more novelty. The Monkey Island games weren’t the first to use cut-scenes, dialogue trees, or adventure game puzzles, but I believe they were the first to recognize them as tools to tell a story instead of just elements of a videogame. Instead of putting so much thought into what a character says in this interactive dialogue, maybe we should take a step back and ask whether an interactive dialogue belongs here at all.

So I’m not anxious to jump back into Monkey Island 2, but I’m not going to dismiss the continued appeal as nothing more than nostalgia for a genre long since made obsolete, either. It’s more of a mindset than anything else, and that’s something that doesn’t require any particular group of people, isn’t tied to any particular genre, and isn’t something that could only happen in the 90s before budgets got big and games got complicated. I suspect it just requires a willingness to throw out formula and experiment.

9 thoughts on “À la recherche de LeChuck perdu”

  1. That is, I think, the big factor in the new wave of independent/mobile/Flash development – that you move out of your comfort zone. The stuff we’re doing today, not only is it something different for me, it simply *wasn’t possible* six months ago. I love working on something I feel is genuinely new – it doesn’t have the refinement of the AAA console games of the last few years, for sure, and we have our fair share of missteps along the way. But we’re trying to do something that’s never been done before, and that’s a far cry from most game studios these days, which are just trying to grab part of the Call of Duty or World of Warcraft pies by aping them mercilessly.

    Whee-ha.

  2. My main annoyance with the adventure game market is that it’s largely forgotten how dynamic it used to be. When I got into it, it was one of the most progressive genres around, with lots of generic games that wanted to be Monkey Island or whatever, but just as many that pushed the boat out in both design and technology – things like Three Trials design, the semi-realtime world of Laura Bow, techs like iMuse and being the first genre that made it genuinely worth getting a CD drive back in the day. The fact that many of them revolved around puzzles and dialogue chains didn’t really matter – when I bought a new adventure, I was buying into a new experience, not a glorified crossword book.

    Then, I didn’t use walkthroughs because it was likely the only game I’d have to play for a month. Dammit, I finished Discworld. These days, I typically resent the game for stopping me to the point where I felt like picking up a walkthrough, just like I have no shame using cheat codes if an FPS gets stupid-hard. I craved new experiences then. That’s what I want today. It saddens me to see the appalling shit that self-proclaimed fans will accept instead. Lest we forget, even Limbo of the Lost was pulling high scores before the plagiarism got caught.

  3. Well, I’m with ya on that. I never saw the MI games as much more than a bunch of hilarity frosted onto a cake of fun pirate adventure. When it was done well, there was something more than just frosting, and it could be tasty, but at the end of the day it was still just cake. I never saw the deeper stuff, or ominous ghosts and voodoo tone mentioned (okay, maybe I lack imagination). And I have no idea where my baking analogies are coming from, so I’ll stop with that.

    But, I don’t think MI1 and 2 hold up so well compared to current games either (and I have to admit I haven’t played ToMI yet). They were great for their time, and I’d love to see some current games take the kinds of creative risks they did back then, but game design and production has evolved, and those games–even the special editions–don’t really reflect that. I think MI1 has a better story structure than MI2, which was always too long and convoluted for me (plus the weird ending), but some of the humor feels pretty silly now.

    Of course, we made a MI game also, but since I’m too close to that, it’s hard to evaluate. I know that in terms of production values, it holds up better, simply because we had 640×480 resolution and full animation. But, in terms of game/story, we were following a bit of a template anyway. It was supposed to be “like the first 2” in a lot of respects, and then we bent and twisted that description where we could.

    But, hey…even if none of the MI games hold up over time, I guess I have one career highpoint to hang my hat on: I did the cone of tragedy concept/animation. I can die a happy man.

  4. Richard: I think I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t ever really liked any non-LucasArts adventure games other than Zork Grand Inquisitor. (And, I guess, Myst and Riven). All the ones I’ve tried have seemed like adventure game puzzles tied together with a relatively cliched story; the LucasArts games in their “golden age” felt more like stories that happened to be told in the adventure game format.

    Still, I think the first two Monkey Islands are the only ones that really had that sense of Storytelling Uber Alles. The others tip over into an attempt to replicate something else: a movie, a Warner Brothers cartoon, an underground comic, etc.

    Larry: Yeah, even though y’all had Monkey 3 completely designed by the time I showed up, I still got attached and I can’t tell how objective I’m being about that game. But it’s completely baffling to me whenever I read somebody claiming that the game suddenly went from sinister to silly with the third one. The closest I’d come to agreeing with that is acknowledging that all the dark stuff was gathered together on the second disc, which most people don’t remember as strongly as the Plunder Island stuff.

    I think part of it is that people are good at identifying when there’s something they don’t like about a game, but are terrible at identifying exactly what it is. And with the third one, it’s like you say: there was a template to work from, because by the time it came out, the first two had already built up this cult following of people who would (and did) complain endlessly if anything were changed or left out. So it was kind of a no-win situation: you’re not free to go nuts and completely innovate, but that sense of experimentation is the most appealing thing about the first two games. It’s telling that the most memorable stuff about the third game is what was new: different art style for the background and character design, and the new talking skull character.

  5. Funny, I have no problem explaining why I don’t like a film/book/TV show, to the point that friends and family have told me I’m not allowed to watch with them (I like “Heroes” anyway, okay?!).

    Sadly, I’ve never played MI2, so I can’t spout any opinions on that game, but I did play the first part of MI, twice, and all of Curse, so here we go! The first time I played MI, it was with my brother when we were both in our 20’s, and I was surprised at how fun and funny I found it, considering it was more than 15 years old at that point. Playing it again by myself, it wasn’t so enjoyable. Most of the jokes in the game are of the “That was no lady, that was my wife!” sort; funny the first time you hear it because it’s unexpected, not so hilarious when you already know the punchline. I also already knew the answers to all the puzzles, and puzzles are generally not that fun when you know how to solve them. The swordmaster fight being the exception, since the randomness means you get a slightly different experience when you play it again. That’s probably why there isn’t that much replay value to the game; you get pretty much the exact same experience every time.

    That doesn’t make it a bad game, and die hard fans probably do love playing it over again every few years, just the way some mystery fans can read whodunits over and over. I can’t, except for a few of Agatha Christie’s stories, but those tend to be more about examining the different characters than finding the murderer anyway. As for saying the game was dark … yeah, I don’t get that. MI2 might be a little darker, since Guybrush acts like more of a dick, nailing people into coffins and stuff, but still, I would consider these games comedies more than dramas.

    That being said, people have different views of what is “dark” or not. Curse didn’t have implied drinking and whoring the way MI did, but it did have a child weapon’s dealer which I consider pretty dark. A funny gag, but still dark. Curse was also more “consistent” than the first two MI games. Everything kind of flowed together and made sense, while the first two games had quite a few “Wtf?!” moments, like the 1880’s big top in the middle of the forest in Melee Island. It wasn’t dark, but it was pretty surreal.

  6. I’d definitely recommend Monkey Island 2 to anyone who hasn’t played it, because it’s one of the best games ever made. It’s LucasArts at the top of their game, and there’s a sense of creativity and discovery throughout that hasn’t been replicated in any other adventure game.

    I just believe that because it holds together so well, a lot of people have read more depth into it than was there, or was needed for that matter. A long, fun comic pirate adventure story has enough merit on its own without needing to be over-analyzed.

  7. I definitely will play it; I just don’t have the time right now. I also think the open end of MI2 lends itself to over-analyzing. People can really come up with whatever theory they want to explain the story, so it gives them a chance to invest a lot of themselves into the series. Kind of like Revolutionary Girl Utena, only without all the sex and people turning into cars.

  8. I get the people liking the dark part. I liked the dark parts best. I never got the curse wasn’t dark enough. My favorite island was Blood Island.

    We had a grave digger, a woman who died of a broken heart and remains a ghost, a man crushed by his flip-up bed, Guybrush gets buried alive several times(along with Stan), a fortune teller whose cards only come up death, a creepy Charon-like ferryman, a fall from a high cliff and the king of the smuggler’s who tries to kill you.

    I loved Monkey 1.
    But…no art or product based on technology is immune to progressing technology. The design decisions that informed the design of adventure games were based on the limitations of the platform.
    In short, adventure game structure is based around the fact that we couldn’t simulate a more “realistic” world. The adventure game interface is really a ‘work around.’
    So, let’s not blame the art or the artist. Soapstone sculptures don’t compare to La Pieta, either.
    But I don’t like to play the classic adventure games either. I feel their time has come and gone.

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