Dreams and narrative in Monkey Island
So Iíve been doing a lot of thinking about game design lately, and what makes game X or game Y work or fail. To be more specific, Iíve been going over story-driven games.
I donít think games, traditionally, are well-suited for narrative. Itíd be extremely ****ing hard to make a kitchen-sink drama into a game, make it worthwhile, and not splatter it with pretentiousness. If I had to answer the question, Iíd probably say games aimed for something new and different. Itís not a subconscious thing like music, but it haunts you the same way. What I mean is, Ico or Shadow of the Colossus would never work as movies. And if they did, theyíd work in a different way. They're not very narrative-based.
But everyone on these boards knows that games can and have done the story thing well, which I guess shows that thereís room there for implementing both. Iíve noticed a certain pattern: any games that mean anything, that are ďaboutĒ something, have been the ones that stuck. Because as much as I love Day of the Tentacle and as great as I think it is for a laugh (I get a headache when I laugh a lot, and that game made the aspirin guys a lot of money when I played it), the story as a story doesnít resonate particularly well Ė nor is it meant to resonate very well Ė because I donít think itís particularly about anything. I mean, letís look at The Secret of Monkey Island: taken as a standalone game, without its sequels, the game is about a young man chasing his dreams who stumbles across love; at the end of the day, he decides he prefers love.
Iím aware that this isnít the only reason Secret was such a great game, but goddamn it, it was about something. The designers must have realized this halfway through, because you donít randomly stumble into Elaine, and she isnít enforced on you as part of an overlong cutscene. You very specifically set out to her mansion with the intention of stealing something, youíre introduced to her and Shinetop (as an enemy; you can meet him earlier, but heís more amicable) and you leave garble-mouthed and bedazzled at this woman. Notice I said ďyouĒ, and not ďGuybrushĒ, as a cutscene makes things more objective (**** happens to Guybrush, not to ďmeĒ as a player), and it was something Secret overcame by giving you the option of what to (try and) say. Itís a great piece of game design, and exemplary of why the game is so good.
But the game Ė the first two games, really Ė have this wonderful tone about them that got lost in the sequels. It almost feels like youíre watching a silent movie, like youíre in a dream (I wonder if thatís where Monkey Islandís breaking of reality/dream comes from). Itís a surreal, off-worldly aura that CMI and TMI hinted at, and that EMI lost. Itís the kind of thing that games do that nothing else can, and Iíll be damned if I know what it is.
Yet Iím wrong about something.
Monkey Island 2 is of course a masterpiece, but what struck me about it was that I have absolutely no idea what itís about. Is it about Guybrush, having lost love, pursuing his career as a pirate? But then again it also involves LeChuckís undying (ho ho!) wrath, and I canít figure out how it all connects together.
So I must be wrong about something, because I canít for the life of me figure out what the hell the game is about.
See, CMI was obviously about Guybrush and Elaine taking it to the next level, and all puzzles revolved around that. (Any good adventure game makes its puzzles the actual story.) I have no freaking clue what EMI is about, since I havenít touched it in 10 years. And TMI was about trust, something they ran with in ďLair of the LeviathanĒ, they wrapped the puzzles around and generally explored in various different ways (the use of Morganís sword as a symbol of trust between Guybrush and Morgan, the use of the locket as trust between Guybrush and DeCava, etc). It was made the design of that episode so good, and why the manatee love puzzle work so well (Iím guessing the manatees are parallel to Guybrush and Morgan, by the way).
What about MI2, though? I mean, if EMI is about nothing but the worst of the series and MI2 is about nothing but (controversially) the best of the series, then what makes MI2 work? Why are the puzzles so well wrapped around the story? The game is surreal as hell, and the designers clearly understood something about it approaching a dream, which is why thereís the dancing skeletons sequence and why the final battle with LeChuck seems so other-worldly. I mean, **** it, how much of MI2 actually happens?
So thereís definitely a point where you hit plot and narrative and you hit that surreal dream mode that music and I guess good silent movies invoke, where you design your game to marry them and make your audience cheer.
Unless Monkey 2 is about something I canít quite put my finger on (and I get the feeling it is, something actually related to LeChuck and dreams). And if it is, it would explain its appeal even further. Tri-island areas are incidental; theyíre not what makes the game work so well. (Well, promising something you canít deliver on breaks suspension of disbelief and maybe induces frustration, like how they basically delivered a bunch of empty islands in ďThe Siege of Spinner CayĒ.)
Iím interested in knowing what you guys think.
TL;DR: What the hell is Monkey 2 about and how does it manage to so impeccably balance ďdreamĒ mode with narrative?
Monkey Island 2 often feels like it's about the past. Almost as though Big Whoop allows you to return to your own past, although clearly in a dangerous way. These games have never tried to hide the fourth wall - even when it's just Guybrush quipping "Never pay more than $20 for a computer game." So, to me, it's often as though Guybrush knows that he's being controlled by someone who is simply playing a game.
Then you have a mind-bending ending. One interesting thing is that the Big Whoop elevator can take you to the alley on Melee Island - Guybrush's past, and for the majority of first time players, the place where you first encounter LeChuck. It's intriguing, then, that LeChuck can't follow you here - which of course makes it the easiest (and safest) place to construct the voodoo doll. After that, things get weirder, and you're catapulted further into the past - childhood. And maybe it's implied that LeChuck - somehow - has come back with you. Elaine has the final, tantalising word.
So if it's related to the world of dreams (and I do agree that the dancing skeleton scene is fascinating) then maybe it's all just about interpretation. You can take the game, the themes, the story in as literal or abstract a manner as you like, but the truth is never really tangible.
Very interesting posts guys. More please!
Just one thing... look at Eltee's post and then tell me monkey island is a cartoon ;)
*runs away rather quickly
Haha, well if you wasted seventeen years thinking about Spongebob Squarepants you would see things of Lynchian proportions as well :(
The kind of surreal attitude Monkey Island 2 (and the first game to some extent) has with the, "Is this real? Is this not? Who cares?" is very appealing to me and something I usually only see in animation, if ever at all. The awesome movie Mind Game does this to a major extent, but it all keeps within the themes to help explain the movie. Monkey Island 2 doesn't really use this stuff to explain anything but really only sidetracks the narrative, which is fine. If anything the surreality and overly mundane anachronisms only seemed to say Guybrush's reality was changing over and over, not necessarily to a kid pretending in a carnival, but like something really bad was happening to his state of being.
That alone makes me still really curious about what would have happened in Ron Gilbert's Monkey Island three, not some silly answer to the "secret" or to have Guybrush pretend to be a little boy some more.
What strikes me as even more odd is that this was attempted in a game that appeared to be a regular pirate genre adventure game when it's peers at the time had no desire to do anything even similar, playing out the standard space farce or fantasy type game.
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