Let's Reboot... The Secret Of Monkey Island
"Let's Reboot" takes a look back at a classic in need of a new outing or a beloved series gone stale and asks how it might be best redesigned or given a much needed kick up the backside. The Rules: Assume a free hand, and a decent budget, but realistic technology and expectations. This week's sacred cow - the series that made us all want to be a mighty pirate of the Caribbean.
Ah, The Secret Of Monkey Island. One of the most beloved games of all time, a king amongst adventures, and home of some of PC gaming's favourite characters. Even thinking about laying hands on and poking around in such a classic is likely the height of heresy and arrogance. So let's! Just for fun, here's how we'd take Guybrush Threepwood back to his roots, without rooting him in the 90s.
The obvious path with Monkey Island is "Just make a really funny point and click adventure!", and ignoring the fact that there's no place for the word 'just' in that sentence, that could work. Telltale's Tales of Monkey Island was a good revival a few years ago, and I'd happily play a second season of it. Since we're playing the thought experiment game though, and thus don't need to worry about tedious trivialities like budgets and marketing and death threats, let's try for something a little more ambitious.
Unlike most of its peers, Monkey Island offers many other possibilities - in particular, the chance to put the word 'adventure' back into 'adventure game' by ditching most of the 90s design tropes entirely. Yes, I'm saying that our Monkey Island reboot will not be a classic point and click adventure.
At this point, you're probably making this face.
Don't worry. We're not talking about pulling a Syndicate - god forbid - but coming at the series from a different angle. It's not puzzles that made Monkey Island special, but comedy, character, setting and premise. That's the starting point here. How do we make a modern comedy game? How do the characters best support that goal? How do we make both Guybrush and the player want to be a not-so-mighty pirate once again, while still respecting the series' heritage?
Well, for starters, we're going to get rid of most of it.
With the exception of Escape From Monkey Island, obviously, this has nothing to do with the games themselves. The Curse of Monkey Island is an excellent adventure, and Tales was a great continuation of the series. I mean no disrespect to the series' actual handlers when I say that the first thing we need to do is hit reset. It's simply that over the years, Monkey Island has become weighed down by a couple of problematic plot tumours and general problems, and the best way to fix them at this point is to just grit our teeth, grab a scalpel, and slice them off while we have a chance. The big ones:
Problem A: The Marriage of Elaine and Guybrush
Without wanting to get One More Day about this, having these two get married was a dreadful idea for both their sakes, and it's been a pox on the series ever since Elaine declared her love at the start of Curse. They hooked up at the end of the first game, yes. By the second, they'd not only broken up, Elaine had written a book about the relationship called "Next To Nothing", and Guybrush absolutely torpedoed an attempted reconciliation when he crashed her costume party on Booty Island.
Their relationship needs that edge to work - they're a mismatched couple, not soulmates, and while there is obviously romance involved, their general relationship works better as big sister and little brother than husband and wife. Not to mention Elaine knowing that she should know better.
Having them together is also disastrous on a narrative/puzzle level, since part of what makes Elaine a good character is that she's far more competent than Guybrush. Not for nothing have the three games where the two were in a relationship had to start by benching her - in Curse, turning her into a gold statue for the entire game, in Escape, leaving her to do 'serious' stuff while Guybrush plays pirate, and in Tales, splitting the duo up and leaving her a pawn to be feuded over for much of the story.
All this is bad in many ways, but Elaine herself suffers the worst from it - a character who should be really good and a foil for Guybrush, instead of being forced into a "Now, don't be silly, dear," role. Elaine may not need saving from the Ghost Pirate LeChuck, but she could do with a helping hand here.
Problem B: Guybrush And LeChuck - Mighty (?) Pirates!
Both of these characters suffer from the same problem, from different angles - too many games. Guybrush has accomplished far too much to still be a loveable underdog (Monkey Island 2 made him a braggart for a reason), and LeChuck had too many defeats to be scary. Tales of Monkey Island was a great attempt at bringing him back as an actual threat, but more is needed.
Worse, the spiritual gimmicks are played out now. He's been a ghost, a zombie, a demon, a human (twice) and a voodoo god. We can't just throw a dart at the board and say "Oh, but he'll be REALLY scary as MechaLeChuck!" and expect it to work. So, we won't. Instead, we need to go back to basics.
Problem C: The Times They Have A Change-Ed
Since Monkey Island 2, everyone who worked on the series has broadened the nature of the world - and while that's led to some really fun stuff, it's also taken it from an endearingly anachronistic world into a pretty silly one. The early games' theme park elements exploded with the end of Curse actually having LeChuck's evil plan involve a demonic rollercoaster. Escape then took things to eleven by adding gags like a restaurant called Planet Threepwood and... and far worse. Shudder. All the shudders.
Tales of Monkey Island was much better about this, but cranked up the folklore aspect of the world with merpeople and learning to talk fish and so on. That in itself isn't a problem, especially in the series as it is at the moment, but making it casual enough to feel banal to the characters did rob the attempted magic. Think the original Pirates of the Caribbean, where a single ghost ship was a big deal, versus On Stranger Tides where every ship has a gimmick. Nothing kills magic like too much magic.
So, how might our reboot's story go? Time to put down the scalpel and reach for the broadsword.