A pirate's life
I have never really been a gamer. I did acquire a Nintendo Switch during a phase of pandemic boredom, but the only game I’ve completed is Super Mario Odyssey. It was a charming diversion, and I’ll gladly play the next one when Miyamoto decides to make it—not anytime soon, it seems, with a movie on the way. But I lack both the particular dexterity and the intuitive grasp of the grammar of games to make gaming a habit.
When I was a kid, though, I had a floppy disk of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, the story of an aspiring pirate and his ghost rival, which could be played on my family’s primitive Apple computer. I played the sequel first, but then a friend of mine got the first installment, The Secret of Monkey Island, and I spent many afternoons sitting at his side waiting to be granted access to the mouse.
These games were a defining cultural experience of my youth. They are considered among the best and most canonical adventure games, a short-lived genre that emphasized the mental challenge of solving puzzles and understanding a narrative over the use of fine motor skills. (Indeed, the earliest adventure games consisted entirely of text, which may make Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels the first examples of the technology.) You had a dashboard of verbs—“Talk to,” “Pick up,” and, least artfully, “Use”—which you applied to objects in your environment. In the Monkey Island series, the gameplay is really wordplay, as epitomized by its swordfighting sequences: they are conducted not by mashing buttons but by selecting the appropriate rejoinder to your opponent’s taunts. The most counterintuitive puzzles, like the one that requires you to use an actual monkey as a monkey wrench, are said by aficionados to have relied on “moon logic.”
This week saw the arrival of Return to Monkey Island, an updated and upgraded successor to those first two games. (Continuity was mostly not maintained with The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island, which were produced by different teams.) I took the day off work for its release.
Video games are more beholden to advancements in technology than probably any other cultural product, and there is an inherent obstacle in returning to a now decades-old franchise. In my memory, the 16-bit pixel art and choppy MIDI steel drums of the original games were exquisite and perfect, and I never wanted a voice actor to replace the way the characters sounded in my imagination. (I can’t find this reference, but I remember reading somewhere that Hergé said of the television adaptations of his Tintin comics that Tintin didn’t sound like he did in the books.) The insoluble contradiction is that while I want the new game to adhere to the original aesthetic, I may no longer have the patience for it. Obsolescence is more a problem for tools than for art, but games are either both at once or somewhere in between.
To the designers’ credit, their modernization has hewed pretty close—the music has the same melodic elements, though now with recorded instruments and skanking dub reggae echoes, and the graphics are all more of less the same shape, even if the level of definition adds characteristics I never saw in my mind’s eye.
The gameplay is also the same at its core, albeit with what gamers call “quality-of-life” improvements. You no longer have to choose a verb, but when it comes down to it, you are still verbing nouns. As a review at Eurogamer points out, all of the action in an adventure game can be boiled down to “use A with B.” It’s remarkable to think what a world was conjured with a few pixels, some sine waves, and that single action in in the 1990s. Today, not only am I accustomed to a more complex facsimile of reality in both entertainment and in the technological mediation of social relations, I spend every day sitting at my computer using A with B to meet the logistical demands of adult life in the Information Age.
All this makes playing Return to Monkey Island very “meta,” as we say nowadays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When the title came across the screen, and the steel drums played, I felt an unmistakable sense of adventure. I’ve only completed the first level so far, but I intend to see this one through.