Proust 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.