Let's Reboot... The Secret Of Monkey Island

Richard Cobbett


"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.

Sometimes you have to take a step back if you want to move forwards. When doing salsa, for instance.

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

A glint like that makes me worry that the genie from King's Quest VI is cross-dressing again.

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!

Goodness, Guybrush, this cupcake recipe is most interesting. I mean, ARRRH!

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

These gags are like chilli powder. A sprinkle adds spice. Too much just means pain. And shitting fire.

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.

A long time ago, in a mugging not so far, far away

Given the things on the "To Fix" list, you've probably guessed the first part - we're pulling a Star Trek and heading back in time a little. The weird ending of Monkey Island 2 offers an easy route to that, discounting the other games as all a dream. That's disrespectful though, so instead we're going to blatantly steal from Star Trek and have a voodoo created alternate timeline. If you disapprove of stealing from Star Trek, it's okay. We're also stealing from Shrek 4. The idea is to add a certain mystery if you've played the earlier games, while also providing a new baseline for newcomers to roll with.

That baseline is that rather than being the naive pirate from The Secret of Monkey Island, we now meet Guybrush in his more blowhard form from Monkey Island 2. Complete with the beard. He's a self-proclaimed pirate without a ship, which nobody fails to notice, mostly surviving by telling tall tales around the Caribbean until everyone gets bored and he moves on. A drifter rather than a pirate.

Nobody actually believes him though, and not without cause. He seems utterly convinced that he destroyed the Ghost Pirate LeChuck, saved Governor Elaine Marley and charted a ship to the mythical Monkey Island... all exactly as we know happened, but can't have. Elaine only vaguely remembers him as a bumbling pirate she once spared out of pity. Nobody's even heard of this "Monkey Island" he's so proud of having sailed to. Finally, his epic boasts of taking down the Caribbean's greatest monster using only his wits and a handy bottle of ghost busting rootbeer go down as well as you'd expect.

Not least because the Ghost Pirate LeChuck is still very much haunting the seven seas.

He can hit you. You can't hit him. Ghosts are cheaters like that.

The Reboot of Monkey Island, as it were, needs to master three trials of its own - to allow for wit, to enable comedy, and unlike previous games, to actually feel piratey. That means that while the original games were entirely cerebral games, there'll now be an action element that- No! Wait. Don't panic. Look, Full Throttle and Quest For Glory got away with adding extra elements, and even The Secret Of Monkey Island stretched itself out a little by making Monkey Island itself more RPG in style than Melee.

For our purposes, 'action' doesn't mean button mashing or reflex tests - at least not on the critical path, though there's some scope for harder challenges around the edges, as we'll get to. Think more Sid Meier's Pirates than Tomb Raider - an injection of new game mechanics to freshen things up and provide the piracy experience that the originals never really did, but for the benefit of comedy and story.

Time to let the flow of the conversation control its... well... flow.

Take conversations as an example. The old methodical dialogue tree system has had its day and is getting put out to pasture. Sorry, but it's time. It worked better in the days before spoken dialogue. Our Monkey Island reboot instead uses a system more like Alpha Protocol/The Walking Dead, where choices have to be made on the hop. Where those games use it to fill conversations with dilemmas and big decisions though, this is in service of another master - allowing for dialogue and banter that actually has proper comedy timing for once. Look at Portal 2 to see how important that is.

(CLARIFICATION EDIT: Think 'reflowing the conversation stream' here.)

Not every conversation would go like that, of course - that would be overkill. The important ones would though, with Guybrush automatically picking a funny option if the player doesn't. Others would simply be click/response jobs, with quick gags, reminders and push-offs, and Guybrush smart enough to hand over any necessary objects/information without the need for a lengthy wind-up chat every time.

The same system can also be used for combat, in an evolution of insult swordfighting. Instead of dueling barbs, the focus is now on wit mixed with choreographed awesomeness. Basically, this:

The main catch isn't so much challenge as the torture of repeated jokes, so fail states would be kept at an absolute minimum or shrugged off. In a sea battle for instance, maybe you'd lose half your gold, adding a gambling system that makes you cash in when you can afford the next tchotchke or plot coupon. In a sword-fight, an arrogant opponent might play things straight for two rounds, but then just start going "Blah blah blah" and throw the fight out of boredom. There are always ways to play things. After all, it's not like you couldn't die in Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 ...

It's hilarious how many people got stuck here. (Hint: Pick up the idol.)

This sense of pace and purpose runs through the whole reboot, doubling down on what makes Monkey Island a unique setting rather than simply a quirky world. In the original game for instance, Guybrush wanted to be a pirate for no particular reason, and that was fine. This time though, he has a more personal stake in earning respect and getting what he wants. His life depends on it.

Either enraged by stories of this pirate claiming to have defeated him, or having some lingering hate from the other timeline, our newly restored Ghost Pirate LeChuck begins the game wanting Guybrush dead. This isn't too much of a break from the original two games, where he was a threatening figure seen from afar. Now though, he takes more of a personal interest. Where Guybrush goes, destruction soon follows - and this isn't a LeChuck played for comic effect. Instead, this is LeChuck before the sting of defeat, at the height of his power. Think Brian Blessed, burning whole islands into ash on a whim, and really held back only by delusions of civility - especially in front of Elaine - and having an enslaved army that really isn't that bothered about evil, and only jumps to attention when he's on their backs.

Of course, things wouldn't be that serious. We're talking about a guy called "LeChuck" here. The gag is simply shifted from "LeChuck is an incompetent failure" to other comedy avenues - how characters react to his hammy bombast for instance, or situations where he's forced out of his comfort zone. A dinner party at Elaine's mansion, maybe, where he's unconvincingly faking being alive and charming for her with the help of someone else's ill-fitting skin around his ghostly blue form, with Guybrush completely oblivious to how close he is to being throttled until his head pops off like a champagne cork.

And WHAT were you plundering in my bathroom, exactly?

Speaking of Elaine, this rebooted version of her is also little different. She's still Governor, though of a new island rather than re-using Melee or Plunder or Booty - at this point, she's been in charge of half the Caribbean at some point, so one more island hardly matters. This is where Guybrush washes up after an initial attack by LeChuck, hoping to prove his stories true, only to find that she's not willing to help.

Like LeChuck though, something persists. She's not in love with Guybrush, but she does find herself oddly tolerant of him - even as his every act causes her trouble, embarrassment, or just plain gets in her way. Her new island is a Tortuga type port with a heavy pirate presence that she keeps order over by being extremely good at what she does. As Guybrush soon finds though when he agrees to defeat a mysterious ship that's been preying on the lily-livered locals, she's got her swashbuckling side too. If only because how else would you get an island full of pirates to pay their damn taxes?

I imagine her having a very nice ship, of course. Should, y'know, someone have to 'borrow' it for an odyssey around several quirky, conveniently flammable islands, with both a fleet of the damned and its original owner in hot pursuit. Hypothetically, of course. Purely hypothetically...

Governor Phatt, LIVING THE DREAM.

Going darker in tone doesn't mean a less comic game. As I've discussed elsewhere , one of the great benefits of a seemingly sinister world is that the lighter moments shine all the brighter - Largo's defeat in Monkey Island 2 for example, where the game spends a big chunk of time building him up as a viable threat to Guybrush, only to repeatedly humiliate him. That's the kind of baseline here we're dealing with here - a world where a pirate bar should look like a scary place, undercut by the residents, and villains have dignity to be stripped away by Guybrush's luck and cleverness.

Why is that important? If you chart comedy on a graph - because that's hilarious, amiright? - most games would look like three different types - a series of peaks and troughs, a jagged line that looks like Elmer Fudd having an orgasm into an oscilloscope, and the flat line of failure. The second is what most games have gone for - yuk, yuk, yurk. If a gag doesn't work, no matter. There'll be another along in a second. The catch is that a game doing that soon establishes a level that players can get accustomed to - a little like how horror games' jumpscares are more effective at the start.

Monkey Island 2 knew exactly how to fuse comedy and sinister for best effect.

Instead, our reboot will aim for peaks and accept troughs in the aim of getting the peaks as high as possible - boosted of course by gags, surreal objects, background detail and so on to keep a general level of good humour going throughout. This allows for drama and genuine menace, which can be defused in funny ways - a comedy technique called 'bathos' - as well as exciting set-pieces that don't necessarily need a punchline. Tales of Monkey Island for instance featured a long sequence of Guybrush very painfully getting the shit kicked out of him by LeChuck, while the extended gag about his torture machine in Monkey Island 2 didn't diminish the fact that Guybrush was in genuine danger. In context, anyway, even if in reality the worst that could happen was a fake-out.

One of the best things about Monkey Island as a setting - the series, not the island - is that it offers great scope for a journey, where every island can have its own unique theme. Like the first two games, our reboot starts on a murky one with lots of bullies and casual cruelty opportunities to set tone. The main characters' comedy moments would primarily be based around situational gags and wit and being the straight-men to and instigators of slapstick rather than explicit clowns.

That's why the design gods invented secondary characters...

Lucky this just got erased from the timeline, huh?

Well, obviously Stan has to return. Three words: Previously Owned Tattoos.

Coupled of course with some brand new mechanics...

Well, that or sit on his arse and wait for you to show up. He'll be more active this time.

Our Monkey Island reboot isn't an open world game by any stretch, though it does operate on a number of different scales - to both allow freedom to actually play pirate once you've acquired a ship from the first island, and tightly lock things down for the sake of plot and comedy and puzzles.

Essentially, it's a game with three scales - open water, islands exploration, and set-pieces - and not just for purposes of throwing in a couple more game modes, as we'll get to in a moment. If we're going to give the player a ship, it seems like a complete waste to only use it for a map screen. Instead, this is where we get to reinforce the piratey side of the game - three sheets to the wind, and some freedom to explore, find lost treasure, have battles and offer a kind of home base to play with. The reboot nature of the story even handily resets Guybrush's competence level - things are different now.

Exploration would be limited by a few things, including initially impassable environmental hazards and your sailing range. Each island or other point on the critical path unlocks the next, but you can also go out of your way to explore, find buried treasure, raid more challenging opponents than the ones on the critical path, and such. Guybrush would also have his Captain's Cabin, slowly filling up with tchotchkes and trophies and photos either bought with plundered gold or automatically unlocked by progress - think Alpha Protocol, but taken to the level of the Phatt Island Wanted Poster . Photos for instance could be clearly staged for effect rather than actually showing what happened, or a grateful pirate show his gratitude with a present - a clearly ticking time-bomb that blows up during the end credits.

Insult swordfighting was always cool... but damn, it took forever. We need to be faster.

Mostly, this would be to restore some of the freedom lost by a linear story. There is however at least one crossover point where Guybrush has to demonstrate his piracy skills by raising enough money to get into a location. Instead of the Three Trials system though, it would simply be going out to do things like raiding ships or finding buried treasure by decoding cryptic maps until you have enough. Later, these remain available as opportunistic things, but mostly for the benefit of completeness, Achievements, hunting for weird and wonderful Easter Eggs on the edges of the map, or just taking a break.

The two worlds can also meet in other ways, such as a 'random' encounter on the high seas that pays back later on, or the chance to bribe someone instead of solving a particularly difficult logic puzzle. In most cases though, money remains useless and puzzles still have to be solved via good old wit and moxie. These sequences exist to make the world feel larger and back up the atmosphere, not replace the adventuring bits. Even if the adventuring is itself quite a bit different to before...

The island maps stay. They help add a sense of scale. They'd just be joined by a more open sea.

As before, most of the real adventure takes place on land - and if you've played The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain, you probably have a rough idea where this is going. We're not talking QTEs though, at least not on anything like that scale. Instead, we're talking set-piece design. Mostly.

The second scale level in the reboot is island exploration, which uses a combination of classic maps and hub type areas for wandering and disposable gags. These play out much like adventuring of old. You can pick up items, being restricted to things that you could reasonably pick up, and temporarily carry any heavier ones. Pretty standard stuff, mostly there to talk to characters at will, collect sub-quests like treasure maps or pointers to things to go find on the open seas, or gain access to the next plot area or areas, depending on how many objectives are currently on the slate.

The best stuff though is in sealed off spaces (not necessarily interiors) that are self-contained, so you never have to worry about whether you have what you need, and built around scenes as much as puzzles. Comedy. Drama. Dramedy. Even Comedra, if it's not fighting Godzilla. These wouldn't be Assassin's Creed style mission markers or anything so crude, and there would be some things outside to help blur the lines more than, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic's GIANT GREEN QUEST WALLS!

At their simplest, these sequences would be very similar to classic puzzle solving adventuring, just with the benefit of knowing you definitely have access to what you need and thus won't need to spend hours pixel-bitching across multiple islands for something you missed. At other times, you'd strap in for a non-stop parade of silliness, humiliation congas or genuine drama - LeChuck and his army burning down a port for instance and Guybrush having to escape, or the two fighting and Guybrush having to buy time with a useless sword until he can manouver a way to jump out of a window and swim away.

(CLARIFICATION EDIT: As an example from the existing games, think Elaine's party in Monkey Island 2. You'd get in with the dress and invitation, have the run of the place, do a couple of puzzles and talk to people, and get the map piece or equivalent goal. You just wouldn't leave until you were done, and would know that you had everything you needed on hand, keeping the focus tighter.)

Ah, sweet bathos. A great technique, but one that takes prep to pull off.

On the surface, that sounds limited, and the result would likely be easier than the classic games - though given how fast people go for walkthroughs these days, adventures are honestly better off going for experiences rather than challenges. You could have a stealthy bit combined with an observation puzzle for instance, or a complex room escape in a jail cell; a scene devoted entirely to a conversation, or a fiendish puzzle that absolutely would not be a sliding block job. As long as things kept changing up and the story never ground to a halt if people didn't want to go smell the flowers, it'd work.

The main advantage of set-piece design though is that it allows for far, far more authorial control, and thus much funnier staging and writing. With a suitable gimmick to either rewind or negate death without forcing the player to sit through the same joke a million times, you open up so many more comedy techniques than pure cut-scenes or individual lines will ever allow. On its own, it would feel ultra-linear and distinctly lacking in agency. The ability to have a couple puzzle lines running at once would dilute that though, as would the ability to hit the water and feel some sense of direct player agency.

Still a hell of a challenge - writing, choreography and execution? Yep. But we have a big fictional budget, and as such, can hire the best fictional people for the job. And you can't put a price on that.

This would be a set-piece. It just wouldn't mean travelling to Scabb and back to solve.

And that's our imaginary Secret Of Monkey Island reboot - not a sequel, but one possible way forward. How would you reboot the series for modern audiences and current technology? Squirt your brain-thoughts below, and keep your eyes out for more armchair hypotheticals soon.

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