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Great moments in PC gaming: Pocketing the fabulous idol in The Secret of Monkey Island

Guybrush and Elaine
(Image credit: Lucasfilm Games)

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

The Secret of Monkey Island

Cover art for The Secret of Monkey Island

(Image credit: Lucasfilm Games)

Year: 1990
Developer: Lucasfilm Games

There's an article series I love on Vulture called The Great Bits, in which comedian John Roy breaks down what makes jokes from comedians like John Mulaney and Maria Bamford truly masterful. This is my take on a Great Bit, about a perfectly executed joke in the Lucasfilm Games point-and-click-adventure The Secret of Monkey Island. It's most beloved for its insult swordfighting, but my favorite moment comes shortly after that, when goofball hero Guybrush Threepwood has his first encounter with ghost baddie LeChuck.

LeChuck, in disguise, ties Guybrush to a "fabulous idol," which looks like it's made out of solid gold, and tosses him off a pier into the ocean. In this situation I would proceed to drown immediately. But The Secret of Monkey Island uses this scene to tell at least three extremely good jokes in a single screen.

Guybrush Threepwood, underwater

(Image credit: Lucasfilm Games)

Instead of panicking and drowning, Guybrush just walks around casually on the seafloor, tethered to the fabulous idol sunk into the sand. This is a callback. Great punchlines often start with a setup or bit of detail that seems throwaway at first, and then they layer on more and more elements until you've forgotten all about that setup. Here Monkey Island is delivering a punchline about a joke it made at the very beginning of the game. Guybrush really wants to be a pirate, and when the pirates in charge of who gets to be a pirate ask if he has any special skills, Guybrush says "I can hold my breath for 10 minutes!" Ha! Except, as we learn hours later, he literally can.

Guybrush isn't freaking out because he can survive in this underwater scene for 10 minutes, at which point he will actually drown. The developers actually made an alternate ending for letting Guybrush drown in this scene, and that's funny too, but most players will figure out how to escape by then. This moment recontextualizes Guybrush as way more capable, and less of a poser, than he initially seems.

The second joke is just classic visual humor. Scattered around Guybrush on the open floor are a knife, a 'deadly meat cleaver,' a sword, a hacksaw, and a pair of 'razor-sharp scissors,' all capable of severing the rope holding Guybrush down. But he can't reach any of them. When you click on each one you can just feel the writers toying with you. "Looks sharp," Guybrush says of the hacksaw. "VERY sharp," he says when you click on the scissors. But they're all useless.

You look through your inventory. Guybrush has a lot of items. Maybe one of them will finally be useful! But no. You can't cut the rope with the shovel. The staple remover doesn't help. The solution is somewhere on the screen.

There's only one thing you can do, but it's stupid. Ridiculous. But maybe you can pick up the idol? Just pick it up, like any other item? What the hell, right? So you try it, thinking maybe you can drag it to within reach of one of those sharp objects. But Guybrush just casually sticks it in his pocket like it's a nice seashell. 

The "mind blown" meme from Tim & Eric.

(Image credit: Adult Swim)

This might have been the peak of videogames as a medium. I mean, there have been a few more good games since the year 1990, but what a perfect moment. Monkey Island casually established that it was playing by the rules of its own reality. Being able to hold all sorts of items big and small in your pocket wasn't just an "inventory system." If those items seemed to be magically disappearing into a weightless, infinite void, then that's exactly what was happening. 

This puzzle solution is so elegant, so perfect, thinking about it still makes me mad with envy. But it's the kind of moment that lingers with you, because it makes you think about the whole rest of the game—and probably other games, too—in a different way. 

That's a good joke.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.