The beloved Monkey Island game franchise returns with its original designers at the helm

Return to Monkey Island was released on Monday.

It’s the latest in a beloved adventure game franchise that originated in 1990. For the first time in over 30 years, its original designers are back in charge.

“I think I’ve always wanted to come back to the show, mostly because of how Monkey Island 2 ended,” says creator Ron Gilbert. “It was a weird cliffhanger, and we never really got a chance to fix it.”

Return to Monkey Island picks up where 1991’s Monkey Island 2 left off, with series hero Guybrush Threepwood’s son re-enacting his ending. But the game is a whole new journey, filled with witty repartee, goofy ghosts and absurd puzzles.

“Return to Monkey Island” is designed as a story that Guybrush tells his son. (Back to Monkey Island)

Framed as a story told by Guybrush to his son, Return to Monkey Island can be as intriguing as it is silly. It’s the product of designers Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, who have had plenty of time to reflect on the industry and their place within it.

Interview Highlights

On how the original game influenced storytelling in the medium

Ron Gilbert: “I think storytelling through games has always been very popular. What we’re trying to do is tell stories that are a bit deeper and involve a lot of characters and involve talking to characters and resolving confusing situations.

Dave Grossman: “I remember 30 years ago there seemed to be a lot of debate about whether you could tell stories in games, whether those two things were compatible. We and people like us demonstrated back then that you could and it never stopped.

On the experience of playing Monkey Island games

Gilbert: “We mainly try to entertain people. And I hope their brains are engaged, that they’re solving puzzles, that they’re moving on. And I hope they’re engaged, you know, by the fun dialogue and the different characters that they meet and work their way through the whole story. Because they’re not movies, are they? It’s not a ride that you get on and then experience it. You really have to control and direct things and make decisions. And I’ve always found that it engages the player a lot more than just watching a movie can engage because you’re actually manipulating things.

Grossman: “As for the style of humor, it’s hard to describe. But I will say that in the early days before we did the first one, I was reading, inspired by a lot of British absurdists – from ‘Monty Python’ to PG Wodehouse, maybe Douglas Adams in the middle somewhere. So there’s a kind of wordy humor and slapstick humor and thinking humor with something under the surface.

On how they fit the puzzles into the story

Grossman: “We mostly work top-down, end-to-start. So we kind of start in a room with nothing and talk about a theme for a while and come up with some sort of base story to support that theme and break it down into chapters.

“Then we start putting structure in there which is puzzles by adding player objectives at the end of each of these chapters and then moving from objectives to the kind of crazy, confusing things that you’re going to do in order to achieve those goals and then we start working on the characters which often start out as little mechanical people whose sole purpose is to support a puzzle and then evolve as we write the script which is sort of the last thing we do, as real fleshed out people.”

On some fans’ negative response to the new, more stylized look

Gilbert: “Each Monkey Island game has a different art style. Talking to the guy who ran Monkey Island 3, he reminded us how much people hated the art of Monkey Island 3 when it came out, which is now beloved. So I think once people have actually played the game, experienced the game, and seen the animation and the characters, I think that won’t be an issue in a few months.

Guybrush Threepwood talks to used boat salesman, Stan Stanman.  (Back to Monkey Island)
Guybrush Threepwood talks to used boat salesman, Stan Stanman. (Back to Monkey Island)

What advice would they give modern game designers

Grossman: “I see forgiving game design in general regarding mechanics and structure. People make decisions because they think something is cool. And maybe it is if you’re the developer who invented it.

“I think the worst offenders are probably the puzzle designers who haven’t thought about how people are going to solve the problem they’ve been asked to solve. And I think we were a bit to blame ourselves of this and have just learned over the years and years of doing this to try to do things that the audience actually has a prayer to solve so that when they go to the clue guide and find out what the solution is real, they go, ‘Oh, that’s right, that makes sense now.’ As opposed to ‘What was it and how do they expect me to solve it?’

On their favorite puzzles from the Monkey Island series

Gilbert: “I think my all-time favorite puzzle really happened in Monkey Island 1 when you had to break Otis out of jail and you could get the grog from the bar which was very corrosive. But if you put it in a cup, it will dissolve the cup before you get to the jail cell. But if you’re smart, you can pick up a bunch of cups and then transfer the grog from the cup to keep it from dissolving .

Grossman: “I was going to bring one up actually from a similar point and in the same game. This is where you try to find the sword master so you can challenge and defeat her. And only one person knows where she is. And they keep offering to act as a go-between for you and to take his messages. And they’re like, ‘I’ll be right back. You wait, wait here. And the leap you need to take is simply to follow it. And then you kind of use the usual navigation mechanics to follow him around the island and solve the puzzle that way.

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