[Game Theory] Commodified Piracy, and The True Secret of Monkey Island

When I was young, the Monkey Island games were a fantastic way to spend the summer. I played them over and over again. While there were often years between installments, I hoped eagerly for another one. My favorite is still The Curse of Monkey Island, which has a rich cartoons style and fantastic dialogue. These are games full of wonder and discovery. It is full of surprises and often has out-of-the-box endings. Even today, most of the games still hold up. They are delightful, whimsical point-and-click adventures full of eccentric characters, challenging puzzles and beautiful pixel landscapes.

The original The Secret of Monkey Island is a pirate game, but also a subversion of its known tropes and types. The main character Guybrush wants to be a mighty pirate, but is pretty inept. His love interest Governor Elaine Marley is independent and always saves herself. Piracy is constantly presented as a joke in the games, and we are all in on it. Monkey Island deconstructs not only what we know about piracy, but also about gaming. This video essay about the series by B-Max captures the attraction of the original game very well, as “the game plays back”. You continuously have to outthink the game. You have to participate in its own unique logic. That logic was also a commentary on digital games at the time.

The recent Return to Monkey Island got me thinking about the series again, and in particular, how it presents piracy as a theme park. Let’s theorize about the true secret of Monkey Island!

Spoiler alert: This blog contains spoilers for the Monkey Island series, including the latest installment Return to Monkey Island.

Commodification and Theme Parks

Monkey Island presents piracy as a kind of tourism and a spectacle throughout the series. In the first game, when you finally defeat the Sword Master, you get a shirt which states ‘I beat the Sword Master’. You dig up treasure, and get a lousy shirt as well. Piracy is not taken seriously, not even by the Pirate Leaders who gave up their swashbuckling years ago. Monkey Island is filled with hustlers, such as ship salesman Stan, desperate to make a quick buck from wannabe pirates such as Guybrush.

Monkey Island is famously based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney parks. The game has similar moods and pirate themes, but also purposely evokes theme parks and rides in the series. In the first two games, we meet different costumed characters, tourist shops and souvenirs. Like Pirates of the Carribean, players are invited on an interactive ride with different worlds, characters and islands. Usually, Monkey Island follows similar beats as the ride, as audiences gradually reach darker and scarier environments.

Theme parks are even present as a location. LeChuck’s revenge builds up to reveal of Big Whoop, described as: “The biggest treasure of them all. A treasure so valuable and so well hidden, that it haunts the dreams of every pirate on the seas”. This treasure turns out to be a amusement park which Guybrush and Chuckie exit as children. This original ending disappointed fans, who found it difficult to believe that the characters were not real, and that the games had all been a figment of Guybrush’ imagination.

The ending of LeChuck’s Revenge

The Curse of Monkey Island retcons this controversial ending by explaining the Big Whoop ending as a spell put on Guybrush. Big Whoop is the final location in Curse and we first see it when LeChuck gives Guybrush a long monologue while the latter is trapped in a ferris wheel. The game culminates in an amusement ride that takes Guybrush past scenes from the previous games. For instance, one scene features an animatronic Herman Tootroth on Monkey Island and another has a puppet of Wally kidnapped by LeChuck.

This finale explicitly to mind the Disney ride that inspired the series. While the puzzle itself is a bit frustrating (due to LeChuck’s continuous interruptions), it is an interesting moment in the series that allows us to really play in a theme park. This moment of Disneyfication in Monkey Island calls to mind Jean Baudrillard’s writing:

‘Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.’

Theme parks, in other words, are fake. We all know that. But their imagination and creativity draw attention to the rest of the world as well, and how manufactured our cities, towns and landscapes are. We see something similar in Monkey Island – the literal theme parks in the game draw attention to the virtual experience of the entire game. They reveal to us that this is entertainment, designed for us, and that we are consumers in this space. We are cast in the role of virtual tourists, who can enjoy this experience, but also realize that it is commodified.

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Guybrush in the ride in Curse of Monkey Island

The True Secret of Monkey Island

Even when it presents itself as a videogame and pirate narrative, Monkey Island is pure unbridled virtual tourism – full of branding, commodities and souvenirs. Whether you are stealing towels from a cabana boy at a luxury beach or getting lemonade from a budding young entrepreneur, it is always a comment on modern day consumerism. In the fourth game, this is most obvious when you get mugs from Starbuccanneers. The games are full of souvenirs as well, from fake maps and shirts to plunder bunny merchandise. Piracy is a joke, and we are all in on it.

The Return to Monkey Island continues these themes of commodification and Disneyfication seamlessly. It continues where LeChuck’s Revenge left off, with the reveal that the boys are the children of Guybrush and Elaine. Guybrush tells them a story about his past and how he found the secret to Monkey Island. This framing device reoccurs every now and then, when Guybrush is interrupted by questions of his son.  

The Return to Monkey Island is a comment on the franchise itself and nostalgia culture. Guybrush returns to Melee Island where no one remembers him. The new Pirate Leaders do not associate with old traditions and voodoo, but present themselves as young and modern gothics who work with dark magic. Guybrush is forgotten, a clear comment on the franchise itself, despite its loyal fanbase. A moment that especially exemplifies that is when he visits a museum filled with objects from the past games, but the curator (a self-proclaimed expert in piracy) has never heard of Guybrush at all. His legacy and cultural memory is gone.

Return to Monkey Island comments on game culture and interactivity by presenting the consequences of the silly actions of Guybrush, and the effect that they have on people around him. (He unintentionally destroys a rare tree, leaves many of his friends in hostile situations, and more). The game seemingly builds up to Guybrush being called out, but drops this plot line quietly by Elaine having a short conversation with him. Return takes many of the beats from earlier games then, and makes them about nostalgia and midlife crisis.

When you finally unlock the secret, you find yourself in Melee Island again but it’s not the town you know and love. It is an installation, full of puppets, lights and souvenir shops. There are no real humans, other than you, Stan and Elaine. The town is presented as a theme park once more, and Stan asks you to close the lights. There is a sign that presents this as the original ending to Monkey Island, one which the designers had supposedly dropped back then: ‘Historic landmark: The Original Secret, a pirate adventure park. Established 1989 by R. Gilbert’.

When you open the treasure chest that contains the secret, you get a shirt too: ‘I found the secret of Monkey Island and all it was was this stupid T-shirt’. It’s a clear reference to the original game.

You finally find the secret to Monkey Island, but admittedly, it’s rather disappointing. And not just because the secret is just a shirt. The ending celebrates the original vision of its male video game auteurs, and is almost too meta. It also feels like a repeat of what we have seen before in LeChuck’s Revenge. Like that ending, it is a twist, but one that is destructive rather than surprising. It makes the story world less immersive than it could be. Is there nothing original here?

After I finished the ending, I did wonder, is there perhaps more to this than meets the eye? After I was done with the game, I called to mind a moment in the Scum bar, in which Cobb (the character with the button Ask me about Loom) shared an interesting theory about the secret of Monkey Island:

‘I heard the secret is just some marketing gimmick Stan thought up’.

The first time I heard it, I found Cobb’s remark to be quite unusual. Suddenly the penny dropped.

Cobb’s Theory in Return to Monkey Island

The ending frames the secret of Monkey Island not just as a fourth-wall break, theme park or spectacle, but as a publicity stunt engineered by Stan. There is a reason he asks you to dim the lights. The secret is not fake. The town is not fake. Not really at least. You are not in the real Melee Island, but on a set. This whole experience is a promotion stunt by Stan. This is a marketing campaign, hence the sparkling souvenir shop and the shirt. It’s just promotion by the ultimate hustler and marketer in the games, Stan.

Return to Monkey Island is a tribute to the games that came before, and it continues their themes of branding, tourism and the commodification of piracy. While the ending does not tie up all loose ends completely, this installment is whimsical and has a lot to offer. It also puts the games in a different perspective. Was Stan the secret master mind behind these operations all along?

Stan in action

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