The Secret of Monkey Island: Playing Between Cultures
by Clara Fernández-Vara
The Secret of Monkey Island is one of the clearest examples of what adventure games can do best: providing a world fun to explore, a compelling story and good puzzle design. These positive qualities are usually overlooked by both academia and a large sector of game makers, who tend to ignore the genre, or discount it because of its “linearity”, preferring to qualify it more as a story form than a game form (see Aarseth, 51). Dismissing adventure games for these reasons, however, is not only unfair but it is also partial to a restricted concept what games should be. The ensuing analysis is a vindication of this game and of the adventure games genre, by focusing on my personal experience as a young player and on the game design qualities of the game. The Secret of Monkey Island showed me the wonderful potential of videogames, it made me laugh and scream, and gave me yet another reason to become a games scholar.
This analysis is initially an exercise in nostalgia, which allows me to remember the excitement of playing the game for the first time, to then become a critical analysis. I first played The Secret of Monkey Island with my brother back in Spain as a teenager, which is the experience I am relating here. In recalling that first play-through in the early 90s, I am aware that I run the risk of romanticizing (or downright misremembering) those events. Thus, I would like to give a humble apology for the sections of this analysis that are closer to a self-indulging trip — I hope that at least you enjoy them as much as I was delighted to write them after I played the game again.
This analysis contrasts the experience of first playing the game translated into Castilian Spanish, in Spain in the early 1990s, with replaying the game recently in English as an academic, and after having been living in the United States for the last 6 years. The key is articulating what I felt was fun and enjoyable when I was a kid, and comparing it to how it may still be engaging (or not) from the more informed perspective of a videogames scholar. The dichotomy is therefore between my younger self and who I am now, as well as between cultures of different countries. It also contrasts the game experience of a young player with that of someone who studies videogames. Having replayed the game recently, I must say that my opinion about the game remains the same, although now I am better informed to articulate why. The Secret of Monkey Island is a wonderful videogame, fun and pleasurable, with some of the best writing and puzzle design I have ever seen in adventure games.
What I Mean by Adventure Game
Before continuing, I must define what I mean by “adventure games”. The non-academic, intuitive definition is that adventure games encompass:
- text adventure games (a.k.a. Interactive Fiction), such as Zork
- graphic adventure games (think King’s Quest series, Space Quest series,
or Day of the Tentacle, or Grim Fandango)
- some people also refer to them as “point-and-click” games because they base all their interactions on mouse clicking, as was the case of Myst.
If you have played any of these games, you probably get the idea. My definition of the genre is based on its distinctive features, i.e. the characteristics that distinguish adventure games from other genres when they appear together.1 Adventure games are story-driven, meaning that the gameplay is practically inextricable from the story. The gameplay is based on puzzle-solving, which means that solving puzzles makes the story unfold. Another defining feature is that there is always a player character, who acts as a surrogate of the player in the gameworld. The player commands the player character using commands to navigate the space or affect the gameworld, usually following (explicitly or implicitly) a verb + object interaction pattern (e.g. “open door” of “walk to archway”).
One of the great things about adventure games is that they can be played by more than one person, with (almost) no struggle about who has the controls, or having to design a multiplayer feature, special user interfaces or including additional controllers. The frequent absence of time-dependent actions and events makes it easier for two, or even three players to sit down and play together in front of the computer. The person who types or moves and clicks the mouse normally takes the lead, with the other players giving suggestions and instructions, as well as making observations. The positions can also rotate, so that each time a different person takes the lead. This is how I played the Monkey Island games with my brother.
The analysis below is full of spoilers, in case you have not played the game. The account of my own experience and analysis, however, are in no way a substitute for playing the game. I hope that after reading this article, players will be encouraged to play (or replay) it, since there will be enough puzzles unspoiled, and the writing is still a joy to read.
Early Adventure Gaming
The Secret of Monkey Island was not the first adventure game I played. Years before, I played text adventure games on our MSX-2 computer. As is typical of text adventures, most of the gameplay consists on finding the right word, even when you know more or less what the next action should be. The parsers in Spanish were also weaker than in English — the commands are not written in natural language (“abrir puerta” translates as “to open door”), and the dictionary parser was very limited and did not recognize many commands that should have been valid.
Years later we got our first PC, and the first game that we bought for it was King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, a gorgeous graphic adventure. At first we were happy we did not have to do word-hunting again. We did not even have to type — we could use the mouse! However, soon my brother and I were pretty stumped and baffled by constantly getting killed, or getting stuck. After that, I played Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade adventure game, whose challenges I took eagerly, because I love Indiana Jones. Much to my chagrin, I did not get far in it, although I did try hard.
Both King’s Quest V and the Indiana Jones game were afflicted by some of the recurrent problems of adventure games — they were very well written, had good stories and interesting puzzles. But some of the puzzles consisted of trying to guess what twisted and quasi-sadistic sequence of events the designer had envisioned as their solution. On top of that, in Spain there were no “hot lines” to call for hints, and game guides were extremely rare. Our best chance was hoping for our favorite computer games magazine to publish a walkthrough soon, or asking friends who had already figured out the puzzles after many hours of hair-pulling.
My brother and I were captivated by the adventure game genre, although we had not quite found a game that did not frustrate us at some point. We were two players in search of a game.
“El Secreto de Monkey Island”
One day, my dad showed up with this game that some friends ours had recommended, “El Secreto de Monkey Island”. It had been around for a while, and the copy that we had was the first version of the game in 16 colors. We installed it with curiosity, floppy disk by floppy disk, and ran the game. The graphics were not as pretty as the VGA graphics of King’s Quest V, because we got the EGA, 16-color version of the game, but they were still pretty good. We were transported to “Deep in the Caribbean, The Island of Mêlée”. The music, on the other hand, played wonderfully in our brand-new sound card, catchy and enticing.The first two lines in the game were spoken by the player character:
- Hi! My name’s Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate!
This succinct but to the point introduction sustained the promise of good fun — we had to become pirates! Although the spelling of our character’s name was complicated, very soon we figured out how to pronounce it (“Gaybrus Zrepuud”); the name was also perfectly memorable, although it’s also easier to remember weird names when you’re a kid. We could understand the recurring jokes about the name, although for us many names in English sounded just as silly. Thus we happily joined Guybrush in his adventure to become a pirate.
The hook of the game was definitely the writing. The game started with Guybrush talking to the blind lookout, who told us that we should go talk to the pirate leaders if we wanted to be a pirate. We entered the Scumm Bar,2 full of pirates either drinking grog or passed out. We spoke to a few of the pirates, who told us that they were all very scared of a certain pirate LeChuck, a ghost pirate who was pillaging the seas, keeping all the other pirates at home because they dared not meet him at sea. Thus, bit by bit, we were introduced to the inhabitants of Mêlée Island and its story as we spoke with all the characters. After talking to all the pirates (and the dog), we finally found three “important-looking pirates” sitting at a table on the next screen — they must be the pirate leaders the lookout told us about. The important-looking pirates told us that we needed to master the sword, the art of thievery and find treasure in order to become a pirate (or rather, help Guybrush become one). These were the three goals that we needed to achieve, and seemed challenging enough.
I remember vividly the moment when the game completely got us: the game offered us the opportunity to ask “What’s in that grog stuff anyway?” which was exactly what we were thinking. All the pirates were drinking it and we had no idea of what it was. The response of the important-looking pirates was as follows:
- Grog is a secret mixture, which contains one or more of the following:
- propylene glycol
- artificial sweeteners
- sulphuric acid
- red dye no. 23
- axle grease
- battery acid
- and/or pepperoni
- As you can imagine, it’s one of the most caustic, volatile substances known to man.
- The stuff eats right through these mugs and the cook is losing a fortune replacing them.
The grog recipe had us howling with laughter, and right then and there, my brother and I decided that The Secret of Monkey Island was sheer genius. The list encapsulated the far-out humor of the game, it was also an introduction to a world that had nothing to do with ours and had its own weird logic. It was a world with a blind lookout, and pirates so tough they can drink the above beverage without ending with a hole in their stomach. The recipe was also an important introduction to grog as a game element — it corrodes any material it touched, which turns into a powerful alternative to lock-picking. It was also a sleep-inducing drink, as the passed-out pirates in the bar evidenced.
The game was full of lovely findings, such as a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle — in Spanish, “un pollo de goma con una polea en el centro”, whose alliteration made it sound almost poetic. The description was exactly what it was, although at first it looked like a useless object, we put it in our inventory. It was the basic object-hoarding that we had learned in other games, you take whatever is available for pick up because that means it will be useful later on. Sure enough, we got to use it not only once (as is usual in adventure games) but twice. The first time it was in an unexpected place: Guybrush can use the chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle to slide up and down a cable bridging the main of Mêlée Island with an islet close by. The surprising usefulness of this weird trinket was another off-the-wall example of what we could do. Realizing that a key opens a lock is rather mundane, but making the connection between the pulley and the cable made us feel very smart. The animation of Guybrush sliding and the “shwoooosh” of sliding down the cable made the “eureka!” moment the more rewarding.
The North American Re-invention of the Pirate
The Secret of Monkey Island also introduced us to a concept of what pirates were like that seems to be rooted in U.S. culture, which was rather new to us. As I have found out while living in the U.S., there is this “pirate world” as imagined by Disney, embodied by things like the Pirates of the Caribbean rides, or the film Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). Although my brother and I had seen this last film, we were not as familiar or fascinated by this Disneyfied world before arriving in Mêlée Island.
This pirate world is populated by fearsome pirates, who in spite of their looks are quite harmless. Their innocuousness may have to do with their colorful clothes, which also tend to be rather clean for pirate standards. The language of the world is “pirate speak”, which did not translate into Castilian Spanish because normally dialects and accents are omitted translation. This omission is traditional, since accents may sound rather phony. The game did not really use any of the few pirate expressions in Spanish, such as “¡Al abordaje!”, to make up for what was lost in translation. Monkey Island and its sanitized pirate world was attractive because, for us, it was a novelty.
Battle of Wits
One of the most memorable parts of the game is sword fighting, or rather, insult-fighting. In order to master the sword, we had to defeat the Sword Master of Mêlée Island. For that to happen, like in all good adventure games, we had to fulfill a set of other conditions, namely, getting a sword and finding someone to train Guybrush. We found Captain Smirk, who thought that we did not stand a chance against Carla (the Sword Master), but needed the money anyway, so he taught us with the help of his “Machine”. After hours of training (roughly a minute-long cut-scene), Smirk revealed to us that the secret of sword fighting was saying the right insult to your opponents, to catch them off guard. Of course, every good insult could be countered by a good comeback, thus foiling the enemy. It turned out that we had just started to learn, so we had to get out to the roads of the island, and learn impressive insults.
Sword fighting thus became a battle of wits — we had to learn the insults to attack our enemies, and their witty retorts to block attacks. Captain Smirk provided us with two insults and their corresponding attacks:
Insult: You fight like a dairy farmer.
Comeback: How appropriate. You fight like a cow.
Insult: Soon you’ll be wearing my sword like a shish kebab!
Comeback: First you better stop waving it like a feather-duster.
In order to learn more insults and comebacks, we had to fight other pirates on the island, and lose against them many times. They would insult us, and we would not have the proper comeback, but we learned that insult to use it against someone else. If the next pirate knew the response, we would learn it to use it later, but that also meant that we would lose that particular bout.
The final twist was that, once you finally encountered the Sword Master, the key to win was not the insults you had learned, but the comebacks. Carla used new insults, and we had to find a retort in our repertoire to counter them. For examples, the comebacks we first learned could be used against the following insults:
Sword Master’s Insult: I will milk every drop of blood from your body!
Comeback: How appropriate. You fight like a cow.
Sword Master’s Insult: My tongue is sharper than any sword.
Comeback: First you better stop waving it like a feather-duster.
Even when we had learned enough insults to fight the Sword Master (the pirates we defeated started telling us so), we went on until we learned all the insults — we wanted to learn them all, because they were so funny and witty. The insult-fighting was nothing like anything we had seen in a game before, since it was a battle of wits rather than skill. I have never been too good at fighting games, so swear-fighting was a type of combat I felt much more comfortable with.
LeChuck and Other Pirates of the Caribbean
The memorable characters also contributed to our engagement with the game. The world was populated by characters who were fun to talk to, such as the angry cook of the Scumm Bar, the grumpy shopkeeper, and the men of low moral fiber (and their rat). They felt alive because of the great dialogue that at times we delighted to read aloud as we played. The timing of the display of the dialogue was wonderful, creating a rhythm of speech that we could hear in our heads, since there was no voice track.
One of the funniest characters was Stan, who sells second-hand ships in Mêlée Island. He was a typical fast-talking salesman, very annoying, and would not let us go without buying a boat. His most memorable moment occurred as we were trying to leave the dock. After saying goodbye, we walked to the left, thinking that we were leaving him behind. But there he appeared again, out of nowhere, to give us his business card. It crept us out — this was the salesman from hell!
The governor of Mêlée Island, Elaine Marley, was the love interest of the game. When she showed up, she chased away the sheriff of the island, Fester Shinetop, who was out for us. She was immediately fascinated by Guybrush’s name, and was also impressed because he had been the only one who managed to steal the Idol of Many Hands from her own mansion, the mission that proved that we mastered the art of thievery. Elaine was self-sufficient, and probably the cleverest person on Mêlée Island (having a reasonable, non-silly name probably helps). It was easy to understand why the pirate LeChuck fell in love with her at first sight, and when she told her to drop dead, he actually did, turning into the fearsome Ghost Pirate LeChuck.
LeChuck really scared us, from the beginning of the game. The first time we left the Scumm Bar, a cut-scene appeared that showed us who the Pirate LeChuck was. His hideout was underneath Monkey Island, where his ship floated on a river of lava. One of the members of his ghost crew came to tell him that “there’s a new pirate in town”, or rather, an inexperienced wannabe (that must be our Guybrush). LeChuck decided to take care of Guybrush in person, since apparently he did not want amateurs to interfere with his big plans. He was coming for us!
Knowing a bloodthirsty ghost pirate was after us, we were pretty scared. He captured a ship and made the whole crew into ghost pirates like him, which seems to be a fate worse than death. LeChuck truly haunted the island — everybody talked about him, all these thugs were afraid of him. But knowing that we were his objective made us very uneasy to say the least; so that whenever he appeared, we were really spooked. The game did a wonderful job of reminding us of LeChuck periodically. After he kidnapped Elaine to marry her, we find out that the sheriff, who had some weird fixation on us and had tried to drown us, was actually LeChuck himself in disguise! The knowledge that the ghost pirate had been so close to finishing us off made us feel rather vulnerable, and be even more afraid of him.
The Underworld of Monkey Island
LeChuck’s threatening presence made the end of the game even more frightening. In the last part of the game, we had to venture into the depths of Monkey Island, whose labyrinthine passages we could only navigate with the aid of a magical object, the mummified head of a navigator. We had to hang the head by its hair, and it would turn to the proper path. The eyeball necklace made us invisible to the eyes of the ghosts, so we could board the ship to find Elaine, and pick up the voodoo root that would help us defeat LeChuck. We had to talk to the head of the navigator to persuade it to let us “borrow” its magic necklace. It smiled at us too.
This mummified head is still creepy, and the close up while we talked to it added up to the stress of going to LeChuck’s ship. We were scared and thrilled of going into the depths of Monkey Island with the aid of the navigator. The game hit a sweet spot in the fright scale, scaring us just about right to keep playing.
While we went to get the magic seltzer bottle, made with the voodoo root we stole from the ship, LeChuck was already sailing back to Mêlée Island to marry Elaine. So we went back where we started for the final face-off with the ghost pirate. My brother and I were quite spooked by now, but we were also determined to save Elaine, armed with our magic root potion. By the time we got to the church, it turned out Elaine had already escaped — she had dressed three monkeys in her wedding gown to act as her double. But LeChuck was still very angry at us for persevering, having escaped his ploys, and spoiling his master plan. So to start the final battle, he punched us so hard that we flew over the map of the island, and we lost our precious magic seltzer bottle.
The final battle took us a while, since we did not know how to fight LeChuck. Our bottle was gone, so was our sword; the list of verbs on the screen did not include any type of fighting. To make things worse, we only had a few seconds at a time, because wherever we landed, LeChuck would show up, wind up his arms and punch us sky-high. The time limit meant that we could only try one thing before getting hurt; our inventory was empty except for a pile of pieces of eight, and we could not insult LeChuck. We saw Guybrush getting hit again, and again, and yet again, making us feel quite helpless. My brother and I had been shrieking in fear since we faced LeChuck in the church, and we were so excited we did not know what to do. We would reach out to the mouse to try something, and he would smack us again. Only after a few punches we realized that after the first punch, we had landed on a Grog machine, and that a bottle had come out of it. That bottle was root beer — we tried it on LeChuck because we realized it was also made of a root, and because drinks seemed to have a corrosive effect on things in this game. We sprayed the beer on LeChuck as he was getting ready to hit us again, and it worked! The ghost pirate exploded, his ghostly skin rocketing to the skies and leaving his skeleton to collapse behind. We even got a bird’s-eye view, so we could see how high the head of LeChuck flew over the island.
We won, and we got to see the fireworks against the night sky with Elaine at our side, while cheesy romantic music soared in synthetic notes. LeChuck had only been the opening explosion. The sense of relief and accomplishment was great, especially because we had not completed any other adventure games before that.
One puzzle early in the game had stumped us, though. We solved it by trial-and-error, and we did not quite understand why. In the first part of the game, there was a bridge that gave access to the east of Mêlée Island, where a troll keeps guard and said “NONE SHALL PASS!!” when we tried to get across. The payment he demands was “something that will attract attention, but have no real importance”. My brother and I did not know what he wanted: the troll was unfazed by our pieces of eight, our shovel, or our rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. However, he finally accepted a fish that we had picked up in the Scumm bar kitchen. As we crossed the bridge, the troll took off his mask, revealing it was only a guy in disguise, and gulped the fish in one bite. After previous abuses in other adventure games, this puzzle was a minor inconvenience, especially in a game where most other puzzles were accessible.
One of our favorite things about the game was that it made us feel smart. We got stuck a couple of times, as with the troll and the fish, but through persistence, exploration and some trial-and-error we managed to complete the game without a walkthrough. After all our previous endeavors, we finally got to a game that we finished without help. Perhaps we had more patience with it than with other games, perhaps the drive of the attractive world made us try harder. In any case, being able to finish on our own made us feel great, and think that the game was even better because we could get to the end. We completed The Secret of Monkey Island in a week, playing for a couple of hours after school. And we were ready to play it again — we had found our game.
Drop the Pirate Hat and Put On the Scholar’s
Fast-forward to 2009. Now I study videogames, and I am older and wiser. On top of that, I have also been living in the United States for the last six years. These circumstances provide me with a different and more informed view of The Secret Monkey Island. What follows is based on what I have learned so far based on that experience.
From now on, the textual analysis will continue, but from the standpoint of game design as cultural practice. I will focus on the game-like qualities of the game, which have to do with puzzle-solving. The discussion will be supported by theories from diverse fields: semiotics (Danesi), psychology (Sternberg) and game design (Bates, Rollings & Adams). This theoretical approach helps me argue in favor of the good qualities of the game, and understand the experience my brother and I had while playing the game.
Monkey Island Revisited
I replayed The Secret Monkey Island several times after that first play-through; the last time I played it was in the mid-90s. Studying adventure games became a good excuse to play the game once more. I was surprised at how much I remembered of the game, and how much I enjoyed visiting Mêlée Island again. Eighteen years after its release, the game is still a lot of fun, thanks to its wonderful writing and its good puzzles. Comparing both versions, I also noted that the translation was very literal, and at times downright clumsy. The game had been translated but not localized, making some parts of the game rather baffling. Thus I have discovered that the translation had left many references that had escaped us originally, which have become evident after living in the US.
There is this myth that adventure games have no replay value, because once the player solves the puzzles she knows what is going to happen. Some compare the replay value of an adventure game with re-reading a book, which is partially true. However, games like Monkey Island have an interesting depth, which allows the player to explore the world again and find new things and events. There are many things that the player does not need to do to finish the game; most of them are talking to different characters, such as the Voodoo lady, the men of low moral fiber (pirates), or any of the pirates in the Scumm Bar. Nevertheless, those characters are still integral to the game, because they are the ones who inform the player of what has happened in Mêlée Island, what is going to happen to Guybrush, and give you hints about what to do. They make the world come alive and the game is not half as enjoyable without them. Exhaustive exploration is rewarded by meeting all these quaint characters, who give the player all the pieces of information necessary to understand and live in the world of the game. Exploration also creates the illusion of freedom to move around and interact with the world, a much sought-after quality in narrative games to this day.
The first part of the game, when Guybrush must pass the three trials to become a pirate, is still as non-linear as I remembered, enhancing the illusion of freedom. The tasks do not have to be completed in any particular order, even though they are somewhat interwoven. Having a good stack of pieces of eight is the first requirement to complete all the trials: in order to master the sword, the player needs to buy one and pay for the classes; to find treasure, the player needs to purchase a shovel. In the case of becoming a master of thievery, it is a bit more complex — the player must buy mints in order to be able to talk to a prisoner, Otis, whose breath is unbearable. He will provide you with the file that will open the lock to get the Idol of Many Hands. Thus there are certain puzzles that act as key for others, but the way in which they are interconnected is rather subtle.
On the other hand, the part that takes place in Monkey Island actually more linear than I remembered. Probably the time spent going around the island made it seem more open-ended, but playing the game carefully again I realized that there is a more or less set order to solve the puzzles. Having a single sequence of actions means that if the player cannot solve one puzzle, she is stuck in the game, because there are no other puzzles for her to solve and come back later to the one troublesome puzzle. This is the “linearity” that is often cited as a handicap of adventure games. Monkey Island palliated its linearity by giving the player lots of little things to examine and try, as well as several lines of action open at any one time in the first part of the game.
Monkey Island does not reuse many objects, although the memorable rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle gets to be used twice. It is both a pulley, which allows Guybrush to slide up and down a cable, and a chicken, which is one of the ingredients for a voodoo potion. The tacit one-use-per-object rule seems to be a way of making sure that the player uses the object the way the designer intends to. It also prevents potential inconsistencies, in case something is used in a puzzle and cannot be retrieved to be used in another one.
Sword fighting also remains one of the best and most memorable puzzles in the history of games. The verbal-fight mechanics modeled learning in a really engaging way — the player must fail many times, letting herself be defeated in many occasions in order to learn all the insults. These mechanics were revisited in the third and fourth installment of the Monkey Island series, but their influence has not spread outside of adventure games.4 It may have to do with how memorable and well-written they are — the author or the insults and comebacks is sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card.5 The cultural penetration of insult-fighting is quite evident amongst Spanish players of my generation. I have seen online forum threads start reminiscing about the great old adventure games; as soon as someone mentions The Secret of Monkey Island, the thread invariable turns into insult-fighting, with people responding to one another in the forums. Quotes from the game also plague any post referring to the game or
The Tangled Web of Puzzle Design
The puzzles in The Secret of Monkey Island remain fun, even when I remembered how to solve most of them straight away, and I just had to make a bit of an effort to recall the rest. Part of the ease in which I found the solutions may have to do with having played it several times years ago, though it also has to do with good design. A sign of good game design is that the puzzles are integrated in the story (Bates, 119), so that solving a puzzle is both enacting a segment of the story and learning more about the characters, the world, and the events that are taking place in it.
The three trials that Guybrush has to pass in order to become a pirate are three sets of puzzles, for example. More interestingly, the naivety of the player character also shows through several puzzles: Guybrush has to buy an expensive map to the treasure of Mêlée Island, which looks a diagram for dancing steps. He confesses to the player he’s been swindled, so it is up to the player to figure out the puzzle. Those dance steps are actually a set of instructions to navigate the forest, and finally get the treasure. Guybrush is gullible and new, it is the player who has to help him overcome the obstacles, become a pirate, and defeat LeChuck.
The puzzles in the game thrive on a basic design principle of puzzles, even outside the realm of videogames: they require insight thinking to be solved (Danesi, 14). Puzzles help us discover things about our own world, and make us see things that we already know in a new way. They also deal with information in a playful way — they point to a missing piece of information, and invite the player to fill it up. Marcel Danesi talks about the “puzzle instinct” as the drive to fill that gap in the information, the irresistible nature of solving a mystery. In short, puzzles are a device to reveal new information about the world.
Thus puzzles in videogames should help us know more about the gameworld, the fictional world where the game is taking place. The world of The Secret of Monkey Island is rich and interesting enough to draw the player into solving more puzzles to know more about it. For instance, puzzle-solving reveals that Mêlée Island is becoming a tourist attraction of sorts — since the pirates cannot make a profit from their usual trade, they make a living out of aspiring pirates, who will pay for lessons in swordfighting. The “treasure” Guybrush digs up is a t-shirt, and he gets another t-shirt when he defeats the Sword Master as proof of his accomplishment. These are not good times to be a real fearsome pirate.
Puzzles in general are also paradoxical in nature: they both hide the solution and lure the player into finding it, and both the constructor and solver should derive pleasure from it (Hovanec, 10). As Bob Bates puts it, the designer is as much the player’s partner as her adversary (Bates, 128). A designer who wants to demonstrate how clever he is may get personal satisfaction from showing off in his puzzles, but not much admiration from the people who try to solve them. The designers of The Secret of Monkey Island seem to have been having fun in coming up with the challenges, building the world and writing the story. They certainly tease the player, but in the end they also share their enjoyment with her. As the players solve the puzzles, they can discover the little wonders of the gameworld.
Going back to insight thinking, the cornerstone of solving a puzzle is finding a piece of missing information, based on previous knowledge of the player. The nature of that knowledge and how the relationship is established is tricky. Information about how everyday things work, such as locks or commercial transactions, is the basis for most puzzles. If the knowledge needed is more specific, the fictional world can resort to certain domain knowledge, i.e. knowledge about a specific topic, such as cooking, topography or shoe-mending. A specific environment can invoke concrete domain knowledge; for example, a crime scene appeals to detective work, such as finding evidence or cross-questioning. If the knowledge is only relevant to the gameworld, and the player cannot be expected to know it beforehand, then it must be provided by the game. The player must have all the information necessary to solve the puzzle, either from their own knowledge of the world, or from what she learned about the gameworld. When the connection between pieces of information only happens in the designer’s mind, and does not have any evident connections with the domain knowledge, the player will not be able to solve the puzzle other than by trial and error. This is what is popularly called a “designer’s puzzle” (Bates, 128). The designer may not be aware that the player does not have all the information needed, or that the connection is only evident to him, making the player frustrated.
The Secret of Monkey Island does an excellent job of setting up its world and the knowledge needed to solve the puzzles. Caribbean pirates point to a certain domain knowledge, which would include things like sailing, swashbuckling, and finding treasure. The voodoo lady and the ghost pirates bring magical powers to the gameworld, which are a component of some puzzles, such as brewing a voodoo potion to defeat LeChuck or using the head of the navigator to get to LeChuck’s vessel. Setting up the magic contributes to learning how the world works, and helps achieve the insight that leads to the solution to the puzzles.
There are different types of insight, depending on how information is connected in order to solve a puzzle (based on Sternberg, 80-81, originally quoted by Danesi, 28):
- making apparently irrelevant information relevant.
- using analogies and metaphors, in order to draw a non-obvious relationship between two pieces of information.
- combining two items in order to form a novel one.
The Secret of Monkey Island is full of good examples of these three types. The dance-steps turned into a map is a clear example of how to disguise information; the dialogue with the different characters not only contributes to make the world lively, but is also full of hints and cues for puzzles. This was the case of introducing grog above: the important-looking pirates mention how it eats through the mugs, which indicates how corrosive it is. Guybrush has to use grog to dissolve a lock in the jailhouse later (a variation of the lock-and-key type of puzzle), but in order to do so, he must bring a good number of mugs to carry it, because it keeps dissolving them.
There are several lock-and-key puzzles in the game, but they use analogies or metaphors in order to surprise the player. An example of an analogy used in a lock and key puzzle happens late in the game, once Guybrush gets to Monkey Island. In order to enter the underworld, we need the key to the Monkey Temple, which is a giant monkey head. The key looks like a giant cotton swab, which goes into the monkey’s giant ear and cleans it before unlocking the door. The mouth of the monkey opens, clearing the way to enter the underworld of Monkey Island. Since the temple is a giant monkey’s head, the analogy of opening a lock with cleaning your ears makes for a hilarious, and yet somewhat logic analogy.
Another example of how puzzles resort to analogies is how Guybrush earns his pieces of eight: the Fettucini brothers have settled their circus tent in Mêlée Island, and they need someone to test their cannon. Guybrush wants the job, but he needs a helmet in order to become a human bullet. There are no helmets on the island, but a cooking pot is close enough, especially one where, as the description notes, “someone has cooked a headcheese”.7 Guybrush puts on the pot on his head, climbs into the cannon, gets shot out of it, hits one of the circus’ beams, and lands on his head and on his well-earned 478 pieces of eight. The pot-as-helmet puzzle repeats later in the game, where in order to get to Monkey Island, Guybrush must use the cannon on his ship to get shot to the island. This repetition helps making the world consistent — people get shot out of cannons repeatedly, and they need a pot to not get hurt.
As for the third type of connection, there are several examples where the combination of two (or more) objects obtains a new one. Two puzzles require Guybrush to cook several things together. In the first case, the “piranha poodles” guarding the Governor’s house have to be put to sleep by sprinkling cooked meat with some yellow flowers. Later, Guybrush finds a recipe but he does not have all proper ingredients for the potion, so he has to find substitutions (another example of using analogies in puzzles). For example, breath mints can work as leaves of mint, or the rubber chicken with the pulley in the middle as an actual chicken. The concoction puts the crew to sleep and magically transports them to the vicinity of Monkey Island.
These last puzzles also demonstrate the importance of patterns throughout a game. Making a potion to get transported to a location does not make much sense, but the game does a great job of setting it up and giving all the information. Guybrush finds a piece of paper that says “Directions to Monkey Island”, which is a recipe. The player has already seen that maps in this game never tell how to get to places directly, as in the case of the dancing steps diagram. The Captain’s Log also recounts that the ship arrived on Monkey Island after preparing a dinner that made them sleepy. Moreover, Guybrush already had to prepare another sleep-inducing meal before, creating a precedent for this puzzle. Recurring patterns also help getting the player into the right mindset to work out the puzzles, in this case as well as using pots as helmets. The analogies are not limited to knowledge of the world, they apply within the game itself. The puzzles are thus interconnected, creating rich and engaging gameplay.
Tricky Cultural References
The game is also full of references, which when identified help draw the player into the game. My brother and I reveled in the references to Indiana Jones, for example; there are also references to The Princess Bride — whenever Guybrush initiates every sword fight with “My name is Guybrush Threepwood. Prepare to die!”8 However, cultural references are two-sided, since they require a recognizing specific domain knowledge. It is fun if the reference is a wink to players “in the know” of that specific culture. The problem is when that reference is necessary to solve the puzzle. Rollings and Adams warn against this kind of puzzle: for example, a puzzle that requires knowing the dialogue of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will only be solved by very few players (Rollings and Adams, 473). This specificity certainly can affect gameplay, unless the game designer intends to make the game exclusively for Monty Python fans. As we saw, the player must share the domain knowledge of the puzzle in order to solve it. However, this can be a fine line to tread — Pythonesque references are geeky and niche, but also what is common knowledge in one country may often not be part of the culture of another.
Cultural differences surface very quickly in linguistic translation; in this case, it explains why my brother and I had problems with the troll and fish puzzle. In the Spanish version, when we looked at the fish, the description said “Parece un arenque” (“It looks like a herring”). Later we saw that the fish was also red. As you read this, you have probably realized of the joke, another example of how puzzles can be based on metaphors. The troll wanted something that will attract attention, but have no real importance: a red herring, literally in this case. But “arenque rojo” does not have the figurative sense it has in English, so the puzzle remained cryptic. The puzzle with the troll and the fish makes perfect sense to me now, but only after playing the game in English.
Language references are obvious examples of potential cultural issues, but they can also be evident through references to everyday things as well. When Guybrush gets the magic seltzer bottle prepared by the cannibals in Monkey Island, they make it from the magic voodoo root stolen from LeChuck’s ship. The ghost pirate kept it because that root was the only thing that can kill him. As the cannibals give Guybrush the magic potion, they say:
- One squirt of that stuff, and the ectoplasm really hits the fan!
- And, if you have any left over, it’s delicious with a little vanilla ice cream.
For North American players, this joke refers to a root beer float. In Spain, where there is no root beer, and where we tend to believe that putting ice cream in soda cannot be good for you, jokes about root beer floats fall flat. The problem is not only that the joke is not funny when translated literally, as was the case — the comment is a hint for the final battle which we completely missed. Since what the cannibals get you is basically root beer, any root beer would do. The vending machine where Guybrush crashes after the first punch in the face-off with LeChuck says “Grog” on the outside, so the bottle that came out of it we believed was also grog at first. Knowing what a root beer float was would have helped us solve the final puzzle faster.
In the worst cases, trial-and-error is still a possible strategy; the game, however, is not designed like that, since it gives all the information the player needs. The missed clues and information demonstrate that the game was made with the U.S. market in mind, and not taking translation issues into consideration. Good translators can work wonders for a game, but game designers should also be aware of how the cultural background can affect game design, even in the case of games as good as this. In any case, cultural differences are tricky to deal with. The opposite of the excessively specific domain knowledge would be appealing to extremely basic knowledge. Appealing to the most common denominator ends up with a game almost exclusively made up of “lock-and-key” puzzle variations (which are nonetheless the most common type of puzzle in adventure games). Where to draw the line of cultural specificity depends on what the intended audience of the game would be.
To the credit of the game, most the puzzles are still solvable for players from other cultures and speaking other languages. Transcending cultural barriers and clumsy translations and still being engaging is one of the most important triumphs of the game. It may have to do with the cross-cultural appeal of pirates and the setting (the Caribbean, around the 17th century), which are familiar in Western culture through movies as well as colonial history.
The Secret of Monkey Island is one of the finest examples of what adventure games do best: an interesting world which is a delight to explore, full of engaging characters, and with witty and well-designed puzzles. The game was fun for my brother and I in the early 90s, and it is still fun now, even when the task is writing an academic analysis. Very often reviews mention good or bad puzzle design, not quite explaining what that may be. The goal of this analysis has been to explain what good puzzle design means in terms of player experience, and to highlight the importance of world-building and cultural specificity when it comes to designing successful puzzles, all through an in-depth analysis of The Secret of Monkey Island. The main achievements of the game are the interweaving of the story with the puzzles, as well as the creation of puzzle-solving patterns that help the player understand the logic of every puzzle, creating overall a coherent and captivating gameworld.
Although I have spoiled quite a few puzzles in the game, including the end, I would encourage readers who have not played the game to find a copy and play it. The game is crammed with good writing and fun puzzles, and I have only managed to include a few here. Everybody should feel the thrill of telling an ugly stinky pirate for the first time:
“How appropriate. You fight like a cow.”
1 See Fernández-Vara for a more detailed discussion of this definition.
2 SCUMM is also the name of the engine / story system used in the Lucasarts games, Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion.
3 This is still my favorite ingredient.
4 The only game to my knowledge that has picked up on the mechanics, has been Dave Gilbert’s The Shivah, which pays a homage to the style these early graphical adventures. In it, two rabbis fight each other verbally, asking questions to each other; the key is knowing that a rabbi’s question is always answered with another question.
5 According to the credits of the game.
6 See example http://meneame.net/story/mas-monkey-island-por-favor
7 In Spanish, the translation said: “Alguien ha cocinado un trozo de queso aquí dentro”, translating “head cheese” for “cheese” instead of “cabeza de jabalí”, which is the correct translation (literally, “boar’s head”). Because of the incorrect translation, this hint was lost to Spanish players.
8 More references at http://www.worldofmi.com/features/trivia/injokes.php?game=MI1&s=1