By the time I found myself in the tense finale of Guybrush Theepwood’s second adventure back in 1991, I was completely immersed in the world of Monkey Island. The mysteries and beautiful locations, the spooky ghost/zombie pirate LeChuck, and the rich and colorful characters I met on the various islands had me on a hook. To this day, my conception of the Caribbean is shaped by these expressive games. And after all I had experienced, I was there for the final confrontation with my nemesis LeChuck. Not having noticed all the delibarate inconsistencies and clues to the end of the game in my childish cluelessness, I rushed panickily through the strangely un-Caribbean underground corridors while attempting to assemble a voodoo doll to defeat LeChuck once and for all.
When I was finally ready, the game pulled the rug out from under my feet: it wasn’t real. None of it. LeChuck is Chuckie, Guybrush’s mean older brother. Guybrush had imagined and acted out the whole story while the two of them were at a fair with their parents, so he could turn the tables on his brother and scare the hell out of him, at least in his imagination. Monkey Island 1 and 2 are the revenge fantasy of a little boy who got bullied. It was a gigantic disappointment at the time. But just before the end, Chuckie’s eyes sparkled red. Now I really didn’t know what to think about it and suppressed this scene from then on. That everything had not happened, had not happened for me. The world of Monkey Island existed. When Monkey Island 3 came out, I was happy that the game apparently proved me right, because Guybrush and LeChuck continued to fight each other on several islands, but the way the story was continued left some questions marks in my somewhat matured brain. When I learned that creator Ron Gilbert was not involved in the third installment and had other ideas for the conclusion of the series, my doubts only grew stronger.
If you want to stand your ground in critical discourses about narrative works like movies, series, or video games, you can resort to commonplaces: “The villain wasn’t three-dimensional enough, he had no motive for his actions.” “I didn’t care whether the protagonist dies, which always indicates a lack of immersion.” “If it turns out that it was all a dream, I’m done with this!”
The deus ex machina plot device has fallen into disrepute, and not merely because of Lost. Twists pulled out of a hat are frowned upon. Such simple opinions are based on sensible views: Good storytelling discreetly announces twists with foreshadowing and roots plot development in character traits. It’s just that some people simply parrot plausible theses without understanding them. And then they arrive at the point I was at in 1991: that the ending of Monkey Island is an outrage because it’s a hollow twist that skirts around a real ending.
But is that really the case? When I played the Special Editions of both games 25 years later, I was not only amazed at the quality of the games, which I could now recognize and appreciate on a completely different level, I especially saw the ending of the game in a different light. Monkey Island gets away with all the outlandishness because of its tone. Monkey Island 1 and 2 are stories that could have sprung from a child’s mind. They go beyond the bounds of logic, but are all the more imaginative and vivid. What you’d tear apart as implausible when a team of writers came up with it, triggers enthusiasm when it emerges from a child’s world of ideas.
This explains Guybrush’s awkward appearance, the many clichés and anachronisms like incongruous technology. The longer I thought about it, the more I noticed. There is a strange tunnel that connects two islands and doesn’t fit into the world at all – because to a kid, a tunnel can easily be a mysterious connecting path between two islands. More fundamentally, the first game begins with Guybrush inexplicibly arriving on an unfamiliar island with a strange desire to become a pirate. He has to pass tests of courage, (successfully) falls in love with the only woman and defeats the evil tyrant. The fourth wall is broken continuously and Guybrush gives clear hints that his adventure is a game. Guybrush can hold his breath for ten minutes, and when even that isn’t enough, because he’s at the bottom of the sea with a block attached to his leg, he simply pockets the rock and surfaces. It’s children’s logic. And it’s that logic that makes up so much of the series’ appeal.
Of course it also works as splendid nonsense without this narrative level, but that level gives the game a certain depth, much like the ending of the LEGO movie, which enhances many aspects of the story in retrospect. In this sense, the ending is by no means pulled out of a hat. It wasn’t just a dream with no further explanation. It is about something. Something more substantial than some guy trying to be a pirate and suceeding in hilarious ways. Hints towards the ending can be found everywhere in the game. Guybrush searches for a big treasure, but what he finds is a ticket to “another world” where Guybrush is “safe from LeChuck’s wrath” This is the real Guybrush’s desire to escape to another world where he won’t be pushed around by his brother. The finale actually takes place in the basement of the fair.
But just like the fair robbed me of my illusion in 1991 and Chuckie’s red eyes gave me hope, now it’s those same red eyes that bother me. I don’t assume that this ending was already planned when Monkey Island 1 was written. The first part is far too serious and consistent in its Caribbean world for that. And yet Ron Gilbert has managed to create a coherent overall work that enhances both games. But then, why does Gilbert make Chuckie’s eyes red? That’s the really cheap, hollow twist, the backdoor for an “You know what? Maybe it was in fact that creepy pirate that tricked you into thinking you were just brothers with voodoo magic”. And basically, that’s the track that Monkey Island 3 follows a little shameful.
I think that’s just wrong. If you’re going to go for it, go for it. And just as I decided as a kid that the world of Monkey Island was real and the ghost pirate was still up to his antics, I now choose to mistake Chuckie’s red eyes for a reflection of light. Monkey Island 1 and 2 are a completed story and everything that comes after are spin-offs with little narrative value.
After publishing my list of 30 games spanning 30 years, I thought it might be a good idea to publish a text about an aspect of each of those games here on Wall Jump. Let’s see how long I can keep this up.
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