There is an alternate gaming-driven reality where Jack Sparrow isn’t the most famous pop-culture pirate of the 21st century, but is instead Guybrush Threepwood.
They both have good character and stutter, and both had to fight supernatural enemies. Neither of them was a stereotypical pirate, both had good luck in the romance department, and the two shared an appreciation for comic timing. Both are also original creations influenced by Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
But only one was useful with a rubber chicken like a sword.
Today, Sparrow and Threepwood are properties of Walt Disney, but as Sparrow associated with Johnny Depp remains idle – apart from his robotic presence at Disney theme parks – in 2022, Threepwood unexpectedly rose from the intellectual property predicament. The “Monkey Island” franchise, with original creator Ron Gilbert at the helm, was revived this week with the release of “Return to Monkey Island” for PC and Nintendo Switch.
“Return to Monkey Island” redefines players with characters from one of the most beloved and most influential franchises of all time – the optimistic Threepwood, the would-be looter Threepwood, the vengeful ghost harasser LeChuck, and the quick-witted Eileen Marley, in general, the only reliable one. By cleverness.
Gilbert conceived the series for the then-playing LucasArts division of Lucasfilm and oversaw the first two editions of the franchise in 1990 and 1991 before returning for a sixth time. The initial games pushed interactive storytelling, focusing on characters and focusing on puzzles based on their character traits. The challenges are largely solved by having conversations and knowing what people are missing, except for some wordplay based thinking games.
The “Monkey Island” games were some of the most fully realized interactive scripts of their era, based on the dense puzzles of Sierra On-Line games like “King’s Quest” – as well as LucasArts titles like “Maniac Mansion”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” “that preceded them – by emphasizing more dedicatedly dialogue and quirky stories. There are talking skulls, mysterious sorcery, dangerous wine, and sword fights that focus on insults dangling over the action – think plenty of character attacks with puns – and it all leads to one of the most ridiculous and ridiculous pirate tales ever told in any medium.
“The start of the game came from the fact that games like ‘King’s Quest’ were selling really well,” Gilbert says. “Basically didn’t like fantasy. I really didn’t want to make a fantasy game. Pirates felt like a nice relationship between these two things. It seemed like I could make a fantasy game without it being a fantasy game, and I read a book called On Stranger Tides, and it was interesting because it was A hacking book but with a lot of voodoo magic. That’s when it got clicked.”
After ending the second ‘Monkey Island’ game with a cliffhanger – a game that ‘The Return of Monkey Island’ seeks to answer, essentially bypassing the narratives of all the ‘Monkey Island’ games not based on Gilbert – Gilbert sets out to start a kid – Humongous Entertainment , which he helped drive for nearly a decade. He says he forgot about the “Monkey Island” topic. But those who were weaned off games in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t.
“It wasn’t until I created my blog that I realized all these people were coming to my blog loving ‘Monkey Island’,” Gilbert says. “That was a moment for me.”
Any modern video game that focuses on the story, whether it’s the Netflix-owned supernatural “Oxenfree” franchise or blockbuster movies like Sony-owned titles like “The Last of Us” or “God of War,” owes a debt to the finely drawn characters of Monkey Island”, where every interactive head scratcher was dedicated to building a world. When one hunts for treasure early on in “The Secret of Monkey Island,” it’s not so much a solution to the game’s first major puzzle as a story-building exercise revealing that piracy has been partly incorporated into capitalist-enterprise tourism.
“We were working for the company that made ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones,'” Gilbert says of LucasArts. ‘It makes you think about the story and the characters maybe more than we normally would. I think “Monkey Island” is the story first, then the puzzles second. It is about the story and the characters. Puzzles are used to move the story forward.”
Released at the dawn of an era eventually dominated by first-person shooters, the first two “Monkey Island” games showed that gameplay is best when combined with a solid narrative. “The really meaningful characters who come back have back stories,” says Nigel Lowry, co-founder of Devolver Digital, publisher of Return to Monkey Island, when asked about the franchise’s significance. “The first two games influenced a lot of game designers.”
Including those from Devolver, the premium Austin, Texas-based company that has released games as diverse as “Gris,” a thoughtful platform-focused adventure dealing with grief and loss, and “Cult of Lamb,” a game that mixes hacking And cutting off community building, all in the name of criticizing religion. Lowrie says Devolver has long been eyeing the revival of “Monkey Island,” which has been inactive for more than a decade. While The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, Gilbert-run “Monkey Island” seemed unlikely, as the creator has often said he has no interest in revisiting the franchise unless he owns the intellectual property.
But in early 2020, just before the world was turned around by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilbert, to Devolver’s surprise, was open to the idea. Gilbert was coming out of the 2017 release of “Thimbleweed Park,” a comedy game inspired by “Twin Peaks” complete with vintage pixel art style. While “Thimbleweed Park” excels at crafting disparate characters and building narrative tension from each puzzle, it remained a critical and crowdfunding success. The game failed to break into the commercial mainstream.
“It obviously didn’t sell as much as my wildest dream – millions of copies – but I was very pleased with the critical encouragement and feedback from the players,” Gilbert says. Laurie felt he had a strong relationship with Disney – The Walt Disney Company declined to comment for this story – and Gilbert took the idea before obtaining the license. “I had some conditions,” Gilbert says. “I wanted it to start right after ‘Monkey Island 2’ ended, and I wanted the freedom to make the game I wanted to do. So we started talking to Disney. Those negotiations took six to nine months.”
“I mean, I wanted to do ‘Monkey Island’ like the back of my head, but it was never really something I thought was going to happen,” Gilbert adds. “I didn’t really want to do that unless I had an IP, because I mostly wanted to make the game I wanted to make, but Devolver called me a couple of years ago because they know someone on the Disney license and they wanted to see if you might be interested in pursuing the license. I thought about it. little and called Dave.”
The resulting game brings Gilbert together with one of the franchise’s original writers, Dave Grossman, and sees an older Threepwood solve a mystery as he wrestles with the passage of time. As a funky pirate like Threepwood, he’s framed here as something of a traditional old man, although he still has an inept charm. The latter, Grossman says, is part of the enduring appeal of “Monkey Island” games.
“There’s something about Guybrush where it’s kind of the best and worst of all of us,” Grossman says. “He’s an optimist and has things he wants to do. He’s always excited about them—he’ll go out and solve problems and get things done. We love that. But he’s also kind of oblivious to other people, and he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. He’s kind of a bad boy without being a bad boy” .
While “Return to Monkey Island” is a sequel to the 31-year-old game, don’t think of it as a throwback. It smudges the look of an adventure game, letting players see how and what things to interact with on the screen. She eschews retro art in favor of a style that looks made of paper, resulting in a world full of action. The look comes courtesy of art director Rex Crowle, best known for his work on the indie game “Knights and Bikes.” Crowle got his “Monkey Island” party thanks to a piece of fan art.
“Rex sent me a piece of fan art 10 or 15 years ago,” Gilbert says. “It was always one of my favorite renditions of Guybrush because it was different and provocative. So when this game came out, and we decided we weren’t going to do pixel art, I found that picture and Google found who did it.”
But apart from some modern flourishes and a fresh look, the overall tone – that of mystery and humor – is still there. And today, with the game in collaboration between Gilbert’s Terrible Toybox, Devolver Digital, and now Disney-owned Lucasfilm Games, Monkey Island is coming home.
“I used to go to Disneyland for a bit, because my grandparents lived in L.A. I loved Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Seattle-based Gilbert. “When we first started making Monkey Island, there was one thing I told Mark Ferrari, who The artist at the time, I wanted to feel like the ride, especially the beginning. It starts like Louisiana Bay and everything is blue and misty. I wanted the game to feel like this. I wanted a game that felt like you were in Pirates of the Caribbean, and you can stop And go down and play.”
In other words, Gilbert wanted a game that seemed timeless. And as “Monkey Island” enters its third decade, it’s proving that it is.
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